Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The Queen of the Sciences?

My attention was captured by theologian/biblical scholar Jim West’s post reminding readers that

theology used to be called the ‘Queen of the Sciences’. 

I’m not sure if that was meant to be a nostalgic recollection of something he wished were still true or if it was an expression of sardonic humour.

In the days when theology was crowned with such honour the word for “sciences” meant something quite different from what it means today.

Scientia is also the historical source of our modern term ‘science’. But the medieval and the modern terms do not mean the same thing(s): there is some overlap in their meanings, but the differences in their meanings must be recognized as being as important as the areas of similarity. . . . .

Seven liberal arts:

3 of language

  • grammar, rhetoric, dialectic/logic

4 of number

  • arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music

The kind of knowledge which was taught in cathedral schools, using the seven liberal arts, was known as scientia, that is human knowledge, knowledge about the world (at the theoretical level), and knowledge which can be shown to derive from firm principles.

For theology . . . was a matter of dialectical argumentation, not of insight gained by meditation, nor the decisions of episcopal or other authoritative sources. . . . For in this ‘theology’ mystery and revealed truth were to be investigated by the test of reason. This ‘theology’ was a new, God-centred subject, for which the seven liberal arts – and especially logic – were to be essential bases. Theology was the application of scientia to the understanding of the nature of God and of the Christian religion. 

In the thirteenth century there was a faculty of theology only in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. But whether or not there was a theology faculty at a given studium, everyone regarded theology as the highest faculty. Indeed they regarded theology as the Queen of the Sciences, and theology continued to be seen like this for the next 600 years. It was Queen because it dealt with the highest study available to man, and it was a Science (scientia) because of course, like the other scientiae, it dealt in theory and it was built on sure and certain principles.

French, Roger, and Andrew Cunningham. 1996. Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy. Aldershot, Hants ; Brookfield, Vt: Routledge. pp. 4, 55, 57-58, 64

Hebrew Bible of Hellenistic Origin – Gmirkin responds to Anthonioz’s review

A letter from the Elephantine Papyri, requesting the rebuilding of a Jewish temple at Elephantine. (Wikipedia)

A week ago we saw Stéphanie Anthonioz‘s review of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Hebrew Bible on The Bible and Interpretation. See Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – review. Today we can read Russell’s response:

I need to refresh my memory with what I read some time ago about the different arguments for the development of “biblical Judaism”, whether it is best understood as a product of the Persian or Hellenistic eras. Anthonioz referred to recent European scholarship, in particular the work of Eckart Otto, which language and costs unfortunately appear hold beyond my reach. Gmirkin does address some obvious problems with the simple trade model (the unlikelihood that ideas discussed among literate elites would necessarily follow trade contacts) but I’d still like to know more about both sides of the discussion.

Anyway, Russell Gmirkin in his response does remind us of one piece of evidence that deserves not to slip from memory or oversight, and that is certainly a strong support for his own view that the Hebrew Bible was the product of the Hellenistic era, that is after the conquests of Alexander around 300 BCE. The emphasis in the following is my own:

In my view, it is methodologically improper to attempt to gain a picture of Judaism in the monarchic (Iron II), Babylonian or Persian eras on the basis of the Pentateuch, since there is no objective external evidence for Pentateuchal writings in pre-Hellenistic times. Quite the contrary, the Elephantine papyri of ca. 450-400 bce give provide strong contemporary evidence for the character of Judaism as practiced late into the Persian Era. These archives of letters (and ostraca) from the Jewish military colony of Elephantine, an Egyptian southern border fortress located just below the First Cataract of the Nile, attest to a thriving Judaism in Egypt with their own temple but no Aaronic priesthood, a Judaism without scriptures, a Judaism which accommodated polytheism, a Judaism with no knowledge of Abraham, Moses, or any other figure known from the Pentateuch or Hebrew Bible (as shown by the absence of these famous figures from the many Jewish names found in the archives). The Jews of Elephantine celebrated a purely agricultural Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (TAD A4.1) with no associated traditions regarding Moses or Exodus. They possessed a seven day week, but no sabbath of rest, as shown by one ostraca that enjoined an employee to offload a boat full of vegetables on the sabbath on pain of death (TAD D7.16.1-5). These Jews deferred to the authority of Jewish priests from Jerusalem, with whom they consulted on religious matters, but biblical writings never come into play: only what Wellhausen called Oral Torah, authoritative priestly rulings that did not involve written legal codes. The Samarian papyri of Wadi Daliyeh, dating from ca. 375 to 335 bce, at the dawn of the Hellenistic Era, give a similar, though more limited picture: famous names from the Pentateuch are similarly absent. Contrast with the heavy representation of Pentateuchal names in the second century inscriptions from Mount Gerizim or the book of 1 Maccabees, during later times when the biblical text was mined for children’s names. It seems apparent that Judaism prior to the Hellenistic Era, what I would describe as pre-biblical Judaism, was unacquainted with authoritative Mosaic writings or written laws.

Judaism underwent a bold transformation ca. 270 bce, when the Jewish nation reinvented itself with a new theocratic government modeled on the one described in Plato’s Laws; new divine laws ascribed to Moses; new foundation traditions; an approved national literature (Plato, Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-d); and a new cosmic monotheism patterned on that of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato. Judaism as we are accustomed to thinking of it was a product of the Hellenistic Era and Greek learning. The Books of Moses were not so much a product of Judaism as Hellenistic Judaism was a product of the Books of Moses.

That is not to say that there are no traces of pre-biblical Judaism in the biblical Judaism established by the Jewish senate of ca. 270 bce. Plato’s Laws advocated promoting local temples (Plato, Laws 5.738c-d), priesthoods (Plato, Laws 6.759a-b) and traditional religious customs (Plato, Laws 6.759c-d; 8.828a-c) in order to promote the illusion of an ancient and divine authority for their laws (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b), and it was especially in the cultic sphere that we see continuity with older traditions and institutions in the Pentateuch. Although there is no evidence for the body of cultic regulations having existed in written form prior to ca. 270 bce, it probably reflects practices at the temples at Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim in earlier times.

Personally I can’t help feeling that the terms “Judaism” and “Jews” are anachronistic when applied to this time period. I prefer Steve Mason’s preference for the term “Judeans” and wonder if it might be more appropriate to refer to the religion of the Judeans as Yahweh worship or simply the Judean religious practices.

 

Towards Understanding Religious Fundamentalism and Extremism (and atheist in-fighting, too?)

I began this series about religion and religious extremism with the post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion

As I was thinking through the sequel to that post I came up with another application of the principles (essentialism, coalitional behaviour): Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

Let’s recap with the point with which I began:

As one researcher put it:

The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.

Does that sound about right?

The same researcher added

Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.

I will conclude this series with this post. To do so I will refer to both the essentialist perspectives and coalitional behaviours characterized by religious groups and those who see themselves as some sort of atheist community.

I will quote sections of Boyer’s Religion Explained and add comments attempting to explain how I think they can be applied to each group.

People describe themselves as “members” of this or that religious group, with important and often tragic consequences for their interaction with other groups. (p. 285)

Agreed. People do.

These groups are explicitly construed as based on natural qualities—the people in question are thought to be essentially different from the rest, by virtue of some inherited, internal quality. (p. 287)

The internal quality we had when I was part of one group in particular was the holy spirit. We were called by God and given his spirit. That was not a personally inherited quality, but the group was defined as being a kind of “biological”, certainly “spiritual body” that had been in existence since the original day of Pentecost.

One of the most solid and famous findings of social psychology is that it is trivially easy to create strong feelings of group membership and solidarity between arbitrarily chosen group members. All it takes is to divide a set of participants and assign them to, say, the Blue group and the Red group. Once membership is clearly established, get them to perform some trivial task (any task will do) with members of their team. In a very short time, people are better disposed toward members of their group than toward the others. They also begin to perceive a difference, naturally in their group’s favor, in terms of attractiveness, honesty or intelligence. They are far more willing to cheat or indeed inflict violence on members of the other group. Even when all participants are fully aware that the division is arbitrary, even when that is demonstrated to them, it seems difficult for them not to develop such feelings, together with the notion that there is some essential feature underlying group membership.13 (pp. 287f)

We all know that to be true.

Our naive view of social interaction around us is that we are often dealing with people with whom we share some essential features — lineage, tribe, religious practices and so on. But I think we can get a better sense of how such interaction is actually built if we realize that many of these groups are in fact coalitional arrangements in which a calculation of cost and benefit makes membership more desirable than defection, and which are therefore stable. (p. 288 — my emphasis in all quotations)

Ah yes. When about to join a fringe religion we are certainly required to first “count the cost”. There is less of a cost with other more mainstream religions and groups, very often. read more »

Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – review

Stéphanie Anthonioz

There is a review by Stéphanie Anthonioz of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible on The Bible and Interpretation site.

Review of Russell E. Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

I have been discussing this book — see  Archives: Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible — and hope to complete those posts soon.

Some quotes from Stéphanie Anthonioz’s review:

The thesis:

The argument is simple and comparative: the greater number of Pentateuchal laws, even if they had some Semitic precursors, seem copied from Athenian law or, more precisely, the Platonic laws (chapters 2-5).

Beyond this argument, the author proposes that the Laws of Plato constitute a new hermeneutical key for the ideology not only of the Pentateuch but the whole of the Bible: the Bible is the official national literature mandated according to the same instructions of the Platonic laws (chapter 6).

–o–

For the author, the hypothesis which has never been advanced is that which he defends, that knowledge of the Pentateuch did not exist before the era of Hellenistic interaction and, furthermore, that it is massively based not on Semitic traditions but Greek. In the brief section, “The current volume” (pp. 4-5), the author restates the new historical framework of his hypothesis: it is in the Great Library of Alexandria that the Jewish authors, assembled under royal sponsorship, drew from their sources and drafted the Pentateuch. A historical consequence directly follows: the theocracy which is established in Judea at the beginning of the Hellenistic era is modeled on Plato’s model government.

The creation of the biblical collection:

The biblical collection was ultimately composed in two phases: the first, the work of the Seventy under royal sponsorship in Alexandria; the second in later stages in Palestine in order to constitute not only a national literature, but also to be an educational program to train obedient citizens. In this discourse, for example, Job becomes the paragon of Greek tragedy! Thus, “The Hebrew Bible as a whole can best be understood as a literature intended for the education of the soul, utilizing all the tools in the Platonic psychogogic arsenal: poetry, myth and song, theology and prayers, pageant and spectacle, theater, drink and dance and persuasive rhetoric that appealed to the patriotic, praised the noble and exalted and condemned the wicked and disobedient, who were threatened with punishments in this life and terrors in the next” (p. 267). Knowledge of this intention and invention would have been erased from the literature such that no link with Alexandria could be denounced.

–o–

A difficulty: read more »

Atheists Do Not Understand Religion

Not all atheists. But many. Especially those who, as I myself have done in the past, loathe any form of religion, even in its mild liberal form, as a gateway to extremism, life-destroying fundamentalism, even violence. How many have declared that among Muslims, for example, the truly devout, those who take their religion seriously, are the terrorists. If every religious believer woke up to what their religion really believed and acted on it they would all resort to oppression and cruelty. As one researcher put it:

The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.

Does that sound about right?

The same researcher added

Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.

The researcher I quoted is Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. The beauty of Boyer’s book is that he gets behind our narrow conceptions of the nature of religion that are limited to our own particular history, technologies and culture finds out what is really going on under the hood, what is it about religion as a generic human experience across all cultures that makes it tick.

Boyer informs us about the ways researchers into religion (other anthropologists and sociologists in particular) have come to explain religion in terms of universals of human nature. What separates the organized religions we are most familiar with (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism) from more primitive types of religion (animism, ancestor worship, shamanism) is technology, especially the technology of literacy that first emerged in highly complex societies.

The earliest preoccupations of the scribal class were recording financial and trade transactions, but as the technology became more sophisticated so that it no longer simply represented objects and numbers but even the sounds of speech itself, that scribal class expanded to become “the literati”, authors and keepers of literature, and even religious beliefs. read more »

Fake History for Atheists

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 »

A scholarly hankering….

Michael Goulder

Scholars who have assumed a position over many years do not quickly recant it and publicly admit their error; nor can a novel hypothesis expect to carry the day at once in a conservative profession. It may be particularly difficult to shift opinion over texts which are fundamental to the faith of the critic. With time scholars came to treat sympathetically my arguments for the evangelists’ creativity: their freedom to create Nativity stories out of Old Testament types, and their ability to create or develop parables in line with their own stylistic and doctrinal concerns. They have been less willing to accept Matthew and Luke as embroiderers of earlier Gospel traditions, because there is a hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions which would take us back to the historical Jesus.

And then there’s the suspicion that a challenge to fundamentals implies a questioning of scholarly integrity:

The Q hypothesis has been part of the ‘assured results of scholarship’ for more than a century, and despite my aggressive campaigning against it, it is still the standard teaching in most universities. I have over the years proposed two potent arguments in favour of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew, neither of which has been adequately criticized by defenders of Q . . . . . The puzzle to me has been why such arguments, which seem so conclusive, have failed to convince my leading opponents. I once had an uncomfortable conversation with Christopher Tuckett, with whom I have had a slightly uneasy friendship over twenty-five years. He asked me two disturbing questions: first, ‘Do you really not believe in Q, Michael?’ and second, ‘Do you think I am honest?’ as though he thought that one or other of us must be playing games, rather than seriously pursuing the truth.

Once committed….

I do think that Christopher is honest, but I am unable to understand how, after years of discussion orally and in print, he still finds the evidence I have produced so unconvincing. It was reassuring to be told by Francis Watson, when he was Professor at Aberdeen, that I had persuaded him about Q; but I think it is probably asking too much to expect those like Neirynck and Tuckett, who have nailed their colours to another mast, to be able to consider with the necessary open-mindedness a view which so undercuts their own position.

Goulder, M. D. 2009. Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 134

Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)

Why for that matter do people gather in a special building, listen to accounts of a long-past torture-session and pretend to eat the flesh of a god? (Boyer, p. 262)

As we noted recently, our historian friend Eddie Marcus made the following comment — I paraphrase:

Christians obsessed over the eucharist.

The reason we think it MUST have been Jesus was their obsession over it. ALL faith communities have this in common. . .  — this bread and wine ritual obsession. Something triggered that. Easiest explanation for that ritual is that one person did it.

I don’t think so. I think the explanation that “one person did it” is the most difficult explanation.

Luke 22:14-20
And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I shall not eat it, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.

The reason I think it is difficult to imagine one person starting the ritual as per the gospel narratives is that such an explanation fails to take into account the nature of ritual itself. What is the eucharist, or Mass, or Lord’s Supper? Before taking up the question of origins it is surely necessary to first understand what it is that we are seeking to explain.

We know of stories where comrades in arms, after experiencing a traumatic bonding time together, solemnly vow to meet every year to commemorate those who did not survive and renew their friendship. I don’t think we’ve ever heard of any of those gatherings expand to include their children and subsequent generations, certainly not other friends, continuing the anniversary long after the original parties have died.

But you will be quick to say that that is not a fair comparison because there is no divinity involved. I would say that the comparison rather draws our attention to what it is we are seeking to explain. What is a ritual?

Scholars of religion, including anthropologists and psychologists, have identified special characteristics about rituals that are unlike other sorts of behaviour and emotional responses.

One such theme in rituals is

purity, purification, of making sure that participants and various objects are clean, etc.

(Boyer, p. 237)

Paul stressed as much when he wrote:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged.

1 Cor 11:27-31

Yes, as Eddie said, the early Christians “obsessed” over the eucharist. But what he failed to appreciate is that most people who observe the ritual today also “obsess” over it. That they did so in Paul’s day is not necessarily a pointer to the historicity of its etiological myth any more than today’s “obsessives” are evidence of the historical truth behind Luke 22:14-20.

But Eddie did come very close to what is actually the defining trait of the ritual when he spoke of obsessive interest. read more »

Review of R. G. Price’s book on the Christ Myth theory — and a review of Richard Carrier’s to come

I have posted a review of R. G. Price’s book , Deciphering the Gospels — proves Jesus never existed, arguing for the Jesus of the gospels being an entirely literary invention on Amazon. At the time of this post it has not yet appeared but I expect it will be processed and published soon. I have posted a copy of what I wrote below.

Meanwhile, I have been persuaded I should also do my own review of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus. It’s a big book and the review will be lots of work so it won’t be completed by tomorrow but it is in the “to do” basket.

Here is what I wrote for amazon on Price’s book:

read more »

Gullotta on Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: One Final Irony (or Misunderstanding? or…?)

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

I will make this the final post in my series examining Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. There is considerably more in the review that I could address. For instance, I originally intended to post detailed discussions of the nature of the publications Gullotta has cited as addressing the history and arguments of mythicism to demonstrate how these sources are often cited but apparently far less often actually read with the critical sense that scholars are usually trained to exercise, and certainly the works they are themselves discussing are read even less. But other interests beckon at the moment. I will, however, single out just one particular detail in Gullotta’s review that I think epitomizes one core irony.

In the concluding paragraphs of his article Gullotta appears to confuse the question of the historical existence of Jesus with the question of what sort of person he was like. Part of the irony in this confusion lies in Gullotta’s having cited near the beginning of his review an article by Samuel Byrskog, ‘The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?’, in Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 3 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 2181–2211, that clarifies that distinction. Byrskog writes in his opening statement:

Samuel Byrskog

The quest for the historical Jesus is not a quest for his existence as such, but for the more precise contours of his person and career. But how do we know that he in fact existed?

(Byrskog, p. 2183)

Yet Gullotta appears to confuse the two different questions at the end of his essay when he complains that Carrier has criticized the methods of historical Jesus scholars that those scholars themselves have been critical of, as we discussed in the previous post. Gullotta directs readers to the “new” world of historical Jesus scholarship in which “new methods” are accordingly applied:

In the post-Jesus Seminar world of historical Jesus studies, newer scholarship is far less invested in determining whether Jesus did or did not say any particular saying or perform any deed attributed to him. Many now argue that historians can only construct ‘the gist’ of what the historical Jesus may have said and done, and this is to ‘heed before all else the general impressions that our primary sources provide’. The confidence that historians once displayed within historical Jesus studies has been eroded due to previous excesses and flaws in older methodologies. New scholarship has been advocating for quite some time that the ‘historical Jesus … is ultimately unattainable, but can be hypothesized on the basis of the interpretations of the early Christians, and as part of a larger process of accounting for how and why early Christians came to view Jesus in the ways that they did’. In other words, Carrier’s imagined historical Jesus of the academy has ceased to exist, as contemporary scholarship has advanced beyond such idealistic pursuits.

(Gullotta, pp. 345f.)

Here Gullotta appears to be unaware that he has fallen into the wrong side of the question that Byrskog (whom Gullotta cited earlier) points out: investigating what Jesus was like, what he did and what he said is not the same thing as asking the more fundamental question, did he exist?

But Gullotta has fallen into an even more serious error when he writes that the Jesus whose existence Carrier is questioning “has ceased to exist” in the minds of the biblical scholars. Gullotta has forgotten that Carrier began his argument by raising the problems of many interpretations of the historical Jesus and making it clear that he would discuss the bare “minimal Jesus” that any and all historical Jesus figures, or even just “the gists” of them, had to meet: read more »

Gullotta’s Concluding Comments on Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

After setting aside a discussion of Richard Carrier’s Bayesian method as “unnecessarily complicated and uninviting” (p. 325) and opting instead to focus on six points in Carrier’s argument, Daniel Gullotta concludes:

After examining numerous fundamental problems with Carrier’s overall thesis for Jesus’ non-historicity, Carrier’s final Bayesian conclusion that ‘the odds Jesus existed are less than 1 in 12,000’ is untenable and disingenuous.

Gullotta, p. 344

That statement is misleading insofar as Gullotta has not addressed Carrier’s “Bayesian conclusion” at any point in his review. (Gullotta has not even addressed the Bayesian method except to compare it, misguidedly, with Richard Swinburne’s “use” of Bayes to prove Jesus’ resurrection.) One might infer, then, that the six points of Gullotta’s focus were “fundamental” to “Carrier’s overall thesis for Jesus’ non-historicity”, yet we have seen in the previous posts that such a suggestion seriously misunderstands (ignores) both Carrier’s Bayesian argument and the weight that Carrier himself assigned to those six points. Far from being “fundamental problems” we have seen that Gullotta’s

* Had a review addressed Carrier’s Bayesian method it would have acknowledged that this claim was but one of nearly 50 data points of background information and not a point of primary evidence to be assessed in the light of competing hypotheses;

** Had the discussion addressed the Bayesian analysis it would have informed readers that yes, Paul’s claims can be used to argue strongly for Jesus’ historicity, but that the competing hypothesis also needed to be addressed along with all other related evidence and the two hypotheses then weighed against each other.

1. focus on Carrier’s claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed erroneously shifts one of nearly 50 background data points, a point that is quite dispensable without any significant loss to Carrier’s argument, into a “fundamental” plank of Carrier’s argument;*

2. focus on his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus inexplicably failed to acknowledge that Carrier conceded the argument that Paul’s claim that Jesus was born of a woman was 100% expected in the argument for historicity, that Carrier argued a fortiori giving here the highest score in favour of Jesus being historical;**

3. focus on his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces demonstrated that he, Gullotta, lacked awareness of the range of scholarly views on this question, and in particular on the competing interpretations of the critical passage in 1 Corinthians;

4. focus on his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community inexplicably failed to acknowledge that Carrier conceded the argument that Paul’s claim to have met the brother of the Lord was 100% expected in the argument for historicity, that Carrier argued a fortiori giving here the highest score in favour of Jesus being historical;**

5. focus on his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths, inexplicably failed to acknowledge that Carrier made far more detailed and comprehensive arguments that the gospels were, as Gullotta himself seemed to acknowledge, primarily based on a “midrashic-like” retelling of stories from the Jewish Scriptures and emulation of Jewish heroes from those scriptures;

6. focus on his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison demonstrated Gullotta’s (a) contradictory arguments, (b) ignorance of what folklorists themselves have said and demonstrated about the function of, and ways to use, the RR archetypes, and (c) inexplicable failure to acknowledge Carrier’s points about the use and significance of the RR scale.

Surely, then, Gullotta has not “examined numerous fundamental problems” with Carrier’s thesis nor has he addressed (in fact he has consciously avoided) Carrier’s “Bayesian conclusion”.

Gullotta has failed to address what he began by acknowledging was the fundamental point of Carrier’s argument:

Simply put, the main objective of Carrier’s work is to test the ‘historicity hypothesis’ against the ‘myth hypothesis’, and after calculating the background knowledge, prior probability, as well as the evidence from the primary and secondary sources related to Jesus’ historicity, see which one seems more probable.

(Gullotta, p. 321)

  • With respect to points #2 and #4 above Gullotta had two excellent opportunities to address that “main objective” but failed to do so.
  • With respect to #1 Gullotta failed to take into account Carrier’s “main objective” and the place of nearly fifty points of “background knowledge” in that objective.
  • With respect to #3 and #6 our reviewer’s discussion lacked awareness of the wider scholarly views, firstly within biblical studies and secondly in an external field.
  • With respect to #5, Gullotta simply failed to notice about forty pages of argument belying his criticism and confused Carrier’s primary thesis with that of Dennis MacDonald, criticizing Carrier for points he nowhere makes.

A final irony

Daniel Gullotta damns Richard Carrier with faint praise when he implies at the end that Carrier’s criticisms of the methods of historical Jesus scholars are well-known in the field and that Carrier’s “contribution” was therefore superfluous. read more »

Just what do you mean… HISTORICAL JESUS?

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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Gullotta, Carrier and the point of the Rank-Raglan classification (Or, Can Carrier’s RR reference class be justified?)

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

We finally arrive at the double-back-flip as Daniel Gullotta’s concluding word on his discussion of how wrong he believes it is to place Jesus in a Rank-Raglan scale.

Even if Jesus’ life merited a 20 out of 22 on the Rank-Raglan hero-type list (which it does not, as I have shown), this does not confirm his place amongst other mythological figures of antiquity. As the late folklorist Alan Dundes* pointed out, mythicists’ employment of this analysis does not have much to do with whether Jesus existed; it is merely an exercise in literary and psychoanalytic comparisons.124 The traditions of Jesus conforming to these legendary patterns does not negate his historicity any more than the legends connected with Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Apollonius of Tyana denies theirs.

(Gullotta, p. 344 — * Dundes, as we saw in the previous post, argues that Jesus certainly fits 17 of Raglan’s 22 points)

And here we will address what I offered two posts ago: a discussion of the rationale or place of the archetypes in any discussion of the historicity of Jesus.

After having gone to such lengths to persuade readers that the use of the Rank-Raglan archetypes was an intellectually dishonest ploy by Carrier, that the archetypes did not fit Jesus anyway, Gullotta concludes all of that by agreeing with what Carrier said in the very first place when pointing out that they do not prove the historicity or nonhistoricity of Jesus! The problem with Gullotta’s conclusion, however, is that he in fact repeats what Carrier himself said without realizing he could have quoted Carrier to make his point (supposedly) against Carrier! Carrier writes at length about how historical persons do indeed fit elements in the Raglan list and accordingly argues a fortiori.

[I]f a real person can have the same elements associated with him, and in particular so many elements (and for this purpose it doesn’t matter whether they actually occurred), then there should be many real persons on the list—as surely there are far more real persons than mythical ones.

Therefore, whether fitting more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria was always a product of chance coincidence or the product of causal influence, either way we can still conclude that it would be very unusual for any historical person to fit more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria—because if it were not unusual, then many historical persons would have done so.

(Carrier, pp. 231f)

Appeal is sometimes made to a satirical essay by Francis Lee Utley, Lincoln Wasn’t There, Or, Lord Raglan’s Hero, as evidence that Raglan’s archetypes have no value at all in assessing historicity. What is not always realized by those who point to Utley, however, is that he was writing satire and to make his case work he had to bend the rationalizations beyond breaking point as can be seen by an apologist making use of Utley’s assertions. Alan Dundes comments on Utley’s essay (p. 190):

The significance of Utley’s essay is that it underscores the distinction between the individual and his biography with respect to historicity. The fact that a hero’s biography conforms to the Indo-European hero pattern does not necessarily mean that the hero never existed. It suggests rather that the folk repeatedly insist upon making their versions of the lives of heroes follow the lines of a specific series of incidents. Accordingly, if the life of Jesus conforms in any way with the standard hero pattern, this proves nothing one way or the other with respect to the historicity of Jesus.

Carrier might add, of and by itself it allows Jesus a one in three chance of being historical.

Carrier’s point is that it is very unusual (he says it has never happened) that a historical person scores as high as many obviously mythical persons, including Jesus, on the list. (Is it kosher at this point to turn the tables and ask if the reason Gullotta was so keen to limit the number of Raglan’s points against Jesus to as few as four was to use the list to argue for Jesus’ historicity?)

And that means we can put that specific data (the Rank-Raglan-assigning data) in our background knowledge and see what it gets as an expected frequency: how often are people in that class historical vs. ahistorical? Because, given the fact that Jesus belongs to that class, the prior probability that Jesus is historical has to be the same as the prior probability that anyone we draw at random from that class is historical.

(Carrier, p. 239)

What is Carrier’s final argument, then? It may surprise Gullotta to learn that Carrier, in arguing a fortiori, was prepared to accept that chances of Jesus being historical even though a high scorer on the Raglan list was one in three.

Again, even if we started from a neutral prior of 50% and walked our way through ‘all persons claimed to be historical’ to ‘all persons who became Rank-Raglan heroes’, we’d end up again with that same probability of 1 in 3. For example, if again there were 5,000 historical persons and 1,000 mythical persons, the prior probability of being historical would be 5/6; and of not being historical, 1/6. But if there are 10 mythical men in the Rank-Raglan class and 5 historical men (the four we are granting, plus one more, who may or may not be Jesus), then the probability of being in that class given that someone was historical would be 5/5000, which is 1/1000; and the probability given that they were mythical would be 10/1000, which is 1/100. This gives us a final probability of 1/3, hence 33%. No matter how you chew on it, no matter what numbers you put in, with these ratios you always end up with the same prior probability that Jesus was an actual historical man: just 33% at best.

(Carrier, pp. 243f)

That is, Carrier is willing to concede for the sake of argument that a high number of the Raglan archetypes can be found to apply to many historical persons as well as many more mythical ones, one in three.

Given Gullotta’s insistence that Jesus fell short of even half the Raglan elements I suspect he would not be willing to argue that a third of all those we could find in the high end of the Raglan types would be historical. (One wonders if Gullotta’s criticism might have taken better turn if there was no prior animus against mythicism or presumption that any mythicist argument is by nature flawed in both motives and methods.)

So what is the point?

Is there any validity to using a twenty-two point Raglan scale or anything comparable in the first place? Should Carrier not have placed Jesus in a Rank-Raglan reference class to begin with? read more »

Continuing Gullotta’s Criticism of Carrier’s Use of the Rank-Raglan Archetypes

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

Criticized for being Euro-centric and male-centric, these holistic-comparative theories have been almost universally rejected by scholars of folklore and mythology, who instead opt for theories of myth that center on the myths’ immediate cultural, political, and social settings.

(Gullotta, p. 342)

Here Gullotta is introducing a criticism of the theories that may be applicable to values of comparative literature studies but has no relevance to Carrier’s use of one of those theories. At least Gullotta does not explain how the Euro- or male-centric bias of the theories undermines the questions that are raised when seeking to explain the significance of the stories of Jesus in relation to mythical motifs.

Nevertheless, if a general point of reference for Jesus is required, why does Carrier not use Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces as his reference class? Is it because Campbell’s system is so general and universal it would fit almost any figure or story (hence the term monomyth)?

(Gullotta, p. 342)

Here again we find an odd criticism. Does Gullotta seriously suggest that Jesus should be compared with a model that attempts to describe the common human attributes found in all figures of myth, history and everyday life of us all? What would be the point of showing that Jesus undergoes at some level experiences that every figure, real or imagined, fantastical or real-life, undergoes?

Why does Carrier preference a hybrid Rank-Raglan’s scale of 22 patterns, over Rank’s original 12? Could it be because Rank’s original list includes the hero’s parents having ‘difficulty in conception’, the hero as an infant being ‘suckled by a female animal or humble woman’, to eventually grow up and take ‘revenge against his father’?

(Gullotta, p. 342)

We addressed this rhetorical question in the previous post.

Why not Jan de Vries’ heroic biographical sequence or Dean A. Miller’s characteristics of a Quest Hero?

Jan de Vries (Wikipedia photo)

Let’s look at Jan de Vries’ heroic biographical sequence and the pages Gullotta cites:

PATTERN OF AN HEROIC LIFE

I. The begetting of the hero

A. The mother is a virgin, who is in some cases overpowered by a god  . . . .

B. The father is a God. . . . .

C. The father is an animal, often the disguise of a god. . . . .

D. The child is conceived in incest . . . .

II. The birth of a hero

A. It takes place in an unnatural way. Zeus brings forth Dionysus out of his thigh, Athene out of his head. . . .

B. The ’unborn’ hero, i.e. the child that is born by means of a caesarean section

III. The youth of the hero is threatened

A. The child is exposed, either by the father who has been warned  in a dream that the child will he a danger to him, or by the mother who thus tries to hide her shame.

B. The exposed child is fed by animals.  . . . .

C. After that the child is found by shepherds, etc. In some cases it is found by shepherds or it is taken to them.

D. In Greek legend various heroes are brought up by a mythical figure;

IV. The wαγ in which the hero is brought up

A. The hero reveals has strength, courage, or other particular features at a very early age.

V. The hero often acquires invulnerability

VI. One of the most common heroic deeds is the fight with a dragon or another monster

VII. The hero wins a maiden, usually after overcoming great dangers

VIII. The hero makes an expedition to the underworld

IX. When the hero is banished in his youth he returns later and is victorious over his enemies. In some cases he has to leave the realm again which he has won with such difficulty.

X. The death of the hero

Heroes often die young. . . . .

Certainly not all of the above apply to Jesus. But not all of them apply to all heroes, either. Vries notes read more »