I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.
All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.
3. Tacitus and Josephus
The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”
Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).
Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.
However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?
Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.
The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it. Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”
Continuing from Part 1. . .
I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. The original German review is linked at the end of the post. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too. All additional notes in those boxes are mine as are the quotation boxes within the main text.
2. Pliny the Younger
Ehrman goes to great lengths to introduce us to the sources which, in his opinion, reliably attest to the existence of a historical Jesus. To quote Horace, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” Before the curtain finally opens and reveals a considerable number of Jesus witnesses to the curious gaze of the reader, a series of preliminaries and fundamental methodological considerations must be made. What we learn in the relevant chapters about the value and worthlessness of historical sources is indeed informative, but will have little new to offer to all those who have attended a historical proseminar once in their lives. Be that as it may, Ehrman advocates good and healthy principles, such as that multiple testimonies please the heart of the historian, or that “disinterested” and independent sources deserve preference over others, etc. (p. 41) – one only wished that he himself would also give them due consideration in the later sections. In a section on sources that we do not have, he also admits that we do not have authentic illustrations of Jesus, nor scriptures written by himself, nor eyewitness accounts (p. 49).
 Hurtado 2007, pp. 2-3: “If correctly dated to about 200, the Aberkio inscription (found in Hierapolis) remains perhaps our oldest identifiable Christian inscription. Although in some older publications one finds certain references to the catacombs and catacomb art of the second century, it is now generally accepted among experts that these too should probably be dated to sometime in the third century”.
 Theißen, Merz 1997, p. 160f. All that can be said about it is that it is possibly the site visited by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria sometime between 381-384 AD, which has been given as the house of Peter since Constantinian times. Everything else is conjecture and belongs at best in a travel guide, but not in a serious scientific work.
This is all well and good but could be further elaborated when applied to specific cases, which Ehrman certainly does not feel is necessary. Ehrman could have taken the trouble to make clear to the reader the full extent of the difficulties in which the defenders of Jesus’ historicity find themselves when they refer to external witnesses. For example, it is correct that no authentic images of Jesus have been handed down. But far more interesting is that the type of Jesus in the portraits we possess almost completely resembles the portraits of other late antique healers, so that archaeologists even today find it difficult to distinguish Jesus from, for example, Attis or Orpheus. With regard to the question of possible models for the Christian Saviour, this should not be an unimportant observation. As I already mentioned in my book Falsche Zeugen: Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (only in German; False Witnesses. Non-Christian Testimonies Tested, 2011 (Alibri)”, I have already shown that from the 1st to the middle of the 2nd century no archaeological evidence for the existence of Christianity can be found at all. For Graydon F. Snyder, the Christian faith as a cultural-historical phenomenon only dates from around 180 AD according to the archaeologists. Even that reference to Roman catacombs and catacomb art, with which one used to love to argue in former times, is no longer possible. The archaeologists, Larry W. Hurtado points out, who formerly dated the whole of Christian catacomb art with confidence to the 2nd century, now suspect it probably only originated in the third century . Speculations about a supposed “House of Peter” are based on dubious speculations and are only significant in so far as they contribute, not significantly, to the revival and promotion of the tourism industry in the “Holy Land”. 
Moreover, it’s a pity that Ehrman goes far too little into detail when asked about the “sources we don’t have”. For example, there is no reference to the so-called Remsburg List, which can impressively demonstrate to anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the position of the mythicists how ignorance about the man from Nazareth and the Christian community reaches deep into the second century. Even if it can be objected that the ancient sources also keep silent about many other people, it makes a difference about whom they keep silent. After all, according to the Gospels, the effect that Jesus had during his brief activity in Galilee and Jerusalem was so overwhelming that even non-Christian contemporaries who were religiously open-minded, such as Philo or Plutarch, could hardly overlook it. There is constant talk of the “great crowd” that accompanies Jesus in his ministry and witnesses his miracles and healings, whose fame spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:28) and beyond (Matthew 4:24). The New Testament scholar Gert Theißen reckons with “miracle stories … outside the followers of Jesus” and with “popular shifting and enrichment” of the miracle stories, thus assuming that a special Jesus tradition had formed in the population. Should nothing at all – apart from the Christian tradition itself – have survived?
But Ehrman now thinks that this is not the right way to approach the question. Before one can ask whether Jesus did miracles, one must “decide” whether he existed at all (p. 43).
But how can this question be “decided”? Based on which criteria? The problem is that Jesus is portrayed in all the ancient testimonies as a divine miracle worker or as a (semi-) divine being. That applies – with one exception (Tacitus) – also to the few non-Christian testimonies.
For the rest, it all depends on what is meant by “miracles”. Those “miracles” to which Jesus owes his fame according to Christian sources, and which are said to have led whole nations to seek him out, are first and foremost healing miracles or healings. Even if we do not know how they came about, we need not question the existence of such a phenomenon any more than we do the existence of other ancient miracle healers. But Ehrman does not even do this much; for example, he states on p. 269 that Jesus “developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.” Shouldn’t we ask then, why the person responsible for such sensational healings was not given any attention by pagan authors? The question is valid but obviously doesn’t give Ehrman any comfort. That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
Finally, Ehrman also refers to Justus of Tiberias, although he calls him “Justin of Tiberius” (p. 50), a Jewish historian living and working in the second half of the first century, who, like Josephus, wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century after Christ. Ehrman mentions that his books “did not survive”. Whether this refers to the work of later Christian censors and book burners, he leaves open. However, he fails to address the crucial point. Although the writings of the historian from the immediate neighbourhood of Jesus’ supposed residence have indeed been lost, we know at least from a paper of the Christian Patriarch Photius from Constantinople (9th century) what was not in it: “He does not mention the coming of Christ, nor his deeds, nor the miracles he performed. This information does seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman withholds it from his readers does come across as a little manipulative. Indeed, it would not seem easy for advocates of the existence of a historical Jesus to explain why a first-century Jewish historian from Galilee forgot the famous man from the neighboring city in his writings.
The number of non-Christian witnesses who, according to Ehrman, should prove the existence of Jesus is very small. Usually New Testament scholars cite a canon of six texts at this point:
- the twofold testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Ant 20,200 and Ant 18,63-64, so-called Testimonium Flavianum),
- the testimony of the Roman historian Tacitus on the burning of Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians (Ann 15:44;),
- the report of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger in a letter to the Emperor Trajan and his reply (ep 10,96-97;)
- two passages from the work of the Roman historian Sueton (Suet. Claud. 25,4; Suet. Nero 16,2)
- a letter of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion to his son Serapion, which was only recently brought into play, and which is said to have been written sometime after 72 AD,
- and an ominous passage from the lost historical work of Thallus (after 50 AD), which has only been preserved in excerpts in Julius Africanus and Georgius Synkellos.
In Ehrman’s case, the already very small number is reduced even further to the four witnesses Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, although only Josephus and Tacitus, and possibly Pliny, are of significance. This decision, which Ehrman does not discuss further, is very wise, since not many can be impressed by the excluded two guarantors anyway because of their questionable dating.
Anyone who thought that Ehrman would enter into a conversation with the radical deniers of a historical Jesus and discuss in detail the handwritten tradition, origin and earliest testimony of his four sources or even shine with new points of view will be disappointed. His statements merely repeat what has been known for decades anyway, and contain nothing that has not long since been considered or refuted by the radical deniers of Jesus since Arthur Drews. The authenticity of the sources is loudly claimed but not proven. What remains is, at least as the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus shows, that Jesus lived and was executed by the Roman governor of Judea. “That, at least, is a start.” (p. 56) Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter”
The following translation of Hermann Detering’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been sent to me and I am thrilled to be able to make it available on this blog. It is over 7000 words, too long, I think, for a blog post, so I am posting here just the first part of the review. The rest to follow. I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. I have also replaced the English translation of Detering’s German language quotes of Ehrman’s words with the original English versions. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too.
Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources
The introduction to the book ushers us into the following scene: Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, actually wanted to write a completely different, more important work, namely about how a Jewish end-time prophet named Jesus became a divine being or God. But then he was startled by some emails. He suddenly found himself taken up by a scene that was apparently unknown to him until then: Mythicists who appealed to his authority for their claim that there had been no Jesus! Reason enough for a conscientious “New Testament scholar” to take a closer look at the matter.
Although Ehrman had by then read “thousands of books about Jesus in English and other European languages, the New Testament and early Christianity,” he was “like most colleagues completely unaware of the extent of sceptical literature [on the subject]” (p. 2). For a professor of theology and biblical scholar who should be up to date and in daily conversation with his students, this long phase of ignorance is astonishing enough, especially since the question of the historical existence of the man from Nazareth must have occurred again and again in the mass of Jesus literature he read. For example, in The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, often quoted by Ehrman, in which this very subject is dealt with on many hundreds of book pages. This book and others should at least have curbed Ehrman’s boundless surprise and shown him that the question “Did Jesus exist?” is not an entirely fanciful one, and that New Testament research has been periodically occupied with it. Moreover, it is not just since yesterday that the question has been on the agenda of those American “humanists” who read his books and with whom, according to his own statement, he has been in contact for a long time.
However, not everything Ehrman writes should be taken quite so literally. The reader of his book, which is written in a casual conversational tone, has to get used to this and other contradictions. The “casual conversational tone” is not meant as hidden criticism: one should be grateful for the good readability, especially since it saves German readers with “mediocre” English skills a lot of reference work in the dictionary. The fact that the casual presentation and simple language always turns into pure superficiality is, of course, the other side of the coin that we still have to get to grips with.
Instead of immediately shining with new perspectives and objective examination of the mythicists’ theses, Ehrman deals with the mythicists and – again and again with pleasure – with himself. Ehrman about Ehrman – a broad field… The professor strives for clear demarcation:
* see also:
these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion — a breed of human now very much in vogue. Ehrman, Bart D. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” HuffPost (blog). March 20, 2012. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.
Richard Carrier is one of the new breed of mythicists. Ehrman, Bart. 2012. “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier.” The Bart Ehrman Blog (blog). April 25, 2012. https://ehrmanblog.org/fuller-reply-to-richard-carrier/.
this rare breed . . . comprises a growing cadre . . . Ehrman, Bart. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist? The Birth of a Divine Man.” The Bart Ehrman Blog (blog). May 11, 2012. https://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-exist-the-birth-of-a-divine-man-for-members/.
There — the “breed” (Ehrman in an interview*) of mythicists, a shadowy group that shies away from the light, concocting dark conspiracy theories in the worldwide channels of the network. With a few exceptions, neither academic degrees nor titles legitimize them to make a meaningful contribution to the difficult historical and religious-historical problems with which Professor Ehrman and his peers have struggled for decades at the forefront of science. In addition, loud, brash and aggressive in appearance, enemies of religion, atheists, and thrown from cliff to cliff by half-knowledge, stupidity and error. Avanti Dilettanti!
Here — the “New Testament scholar”, in the full splendour of his academic titles, honours and prizes, among his numerous students, whose questions he answers conscientiously and competently, proven author of numerous non-fiction books, who as such receives tons of e-mails (“Like most authors, I receive tons of e-mail”, p. 94) (apropos, how do you actually weigh e-mails?). A textbook example of biblical scholarship and theology as he is – imbued with his subject matter, which includes reading the Bible by him daily in the original Greek or Hebrew; who has been studying and teaching for over 35 years and “I don’t plan to stop any time soon” (p. 36). Yes, why should he? Does anyone want to stop him? The mythicists for instance?!
And yet no apologist! Ehrman wants to be understood as a pure historian, who is only interested in historical evidence. “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting any Christian cause or agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings and my life and views would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed… The answer to the question about the historical existence of Jesus will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal” (p. 5f). Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 1 of Hermann Detering’s review”
I have written often about history, the nature of history, the history of historical writings, and historical methods. Very often the context of those posts has been biblical scholarship that falls short of meeting the basic standards of scholarly historical inquiry as it is typically found in history and classics departments. Occasionally one comes across a biblical scholar (e.g. Scot McKnight) who does bring up the names of historians in “nonbiblical fields” (e.g. Geoffrey Elton, E.H. Carr) but too quickly the main point of difference is bypassed even in those discussions. To find biblical historians who have taken up the methods of other historians — beginning with primary evidence and moving cautiously from there to secondary evidence — one turns to those unfortunately labelled “minimalists” in the studies of ancient Israel.
This post is a response to some specific claims about historical methods by Justin Meggitt, another scholar of religion, in his 2019 article, “More Ingenious than Learned’? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus”. Meggitt, I hope to demonstrate, has also misinterpreted the way nonbiblical historians work and misapplied some of their methods to the question of historical Jesus studies — even while attempting to better inform his biblical scholar peers. In so doing I trust a more valid way forward will become clearer.
- V. Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2012);
- S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2013);
- A. I. Port, ‘History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory’, ed. J. Wright, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015) 108–13.
Indeed, the lack of conventional historical training on the part of biblical scholars may well be evident in the failure of any scholar involved in discussing the Christ-myth debate to mention any long-established historiographical approaches associated with the study of the poor in the past, such as History from Below, Microhistory or Subaltern Studies,105 approaches that might help us determine what kind of questions can be asked and what kind of answers can reasonably be expected to given, when we scrutinise someone who is depicted as coming from such a non-elite context.
(Meggitt, 22. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)
History from Below is taken from the title of an encyclopedia article, “History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory”, by A. I. Port. (The link is to the same article on academia.edu.) According to Port historians who work at this level
. . . dramatically reduce the scale of their historical investigation, confining it to a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event which is then subject to painstaking microscopic analysis involving an intensive study of the available documentary material.
Port cites some examples:
Such histories usually fall into one of two categories: the ‘episodic’ and the ‘systematic’ (Gregory, 1999: 102). The first type, which tends to take a narrative approach and rely heavily on ‘thick description,’ focuses on a single, spectacular episode or event usually involving one person or a small group of individuals – such as
- the investigation of a heretical sixteenth century Italian miller by Inquisition officials (Ginzburg, 1980),
- the elaborately staged murder of dozens of cats by disgruntled apprentice printers in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton, 1984),
- or an antisemitic riot incited by accusations of blood libel in a small Prussian town in the early twentieth century (Smith, 2002).
The other type assiduously reconstructs the complex web of familial and extrafamilial social relations in a small community. Prominent examples include
- Giovanni Levi’s study of social interaction in a village in the Piedmont in the 1690s – “a banal place and an undistinguished story,” in the words of the author (Levi, 1988) –
- and David Sabean’s dense studies of property, production, and kinship in the southern German village Neckarhausen from 1700 to 1870 (Sabean, 1990, 1998).
(Port, 108, formatting is my own in all quotations)
Surely, you are probably thinking, the historian must have primary and secondary sources on which to base any research into subjects like those. Indeed, they do. History from Below is not about subjects for whom we lack sources; it is a history that works with sources for “commoners”, everyday people, as opposed to the “great names” and institutions and parties that we normally turn to to “do history”. Another reference cited by Meggitt is What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice by S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, which contains a chapter on “Refashioning a Famous French Peasant”. It addresses method and sources for a historical inquiry into the sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols. (Martin Guerre went missing and an imposter subsequently appeared to take his place. You know the story if you have seen the film Sommersby.) The sources available to historians on this person and his community are
- court documents and correspondence penned by Judge Jean de Coras;
- Histoire Admirable by Guillaume Le Sueur who based his story on notes by another judge involved in the case.
The poor villagers did not usually leave behind written records themselves but historians do have access to
reports by police and church officials, teachers, physicians, and factory inspectors; personal correspondence and travelogues; parish registers, wills, notarial records, and protocols.
We have nothing comparable for the study of Jesus or any of his presumed disciples.
Meggitt advises biblical scholars that they should be aware of the problems with this sort of “microhistory”. In principle, that is true. The nature of the evidence will always dictate what questions can be asked in the expectation of useful answers. But one does have to note that there is simply no primary source material of the kinds addressed in the three sources Meggitt cites for “microhistory” or “history from below” that is comparable to sources available for Christian origins and Jesus or any of his disciples. So the advice to be “aware of problems” of using primary sources for a person from the lower classes is misplaced in the context of historical Jesus studies.
- Knapp, Robert. 2011. Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women… The Romans That History Forgot. London: Profile Books.
- Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.
For example, given that most human beings in antiquity left no sign of their existence, and the poor as individuals are virtually invisible,106 all we can hope to do is try to establish, in a general sense, the lives that they lived. Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all? To deny his existence based on the absence of such evidence, even if that were the case, has problematic implications; you may as well deny the existence of pretty much everyone in the ancient world. Indeed, the attempt by mythicists to dismiss the Christian sources could be construed, however unintentionally, as exemplifying what E. P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’107 in action, functionally seeking to erase a collection of data, extremely rare in the Roman empire, that depicts the lives and interactions of non-elite actors and seems to have originated from them too.
“For example” — that introduction is misplaced as a follow on from a discussion of “microhistory” or “history from below” by Chaturvedi, Magnússon and Port. Those three authors are addressing not “virtually invisible” persons, but persons of whom we have enough primary sources to write serious history even though they were not elites. The preceding paragraph was referring to a type of history includes the bringing to light those “poor as individuals” for whom we do have “signs of their [individual, personal] existence.” Knapp, whom Meggitt now cites at #106, is writing a quite different kind of history. Knapp is not an example of a historian doing the sort of history just described as “microhistory”. Knapp is doing something very different. He is doing another form of “macrohistory”:
I seek to uncover and understand what life was like for the great mass of people who lived in Rome and its empire. . . .
Ancient evidence comes in two types: the one intentionally provided and the other incidentally. The first is generally irrelevant to our purpose, but the second can be crucial. An elite author setting out, for example, to write on the Roman wars of expansion, will sometimes include contextual details and bits of information which, when combined with other evidence, begin to create a picture of ordinary people. The experience of ordinary people has no direct voice in the histories the Romans have left us. Yet sometimes it is possible to garner insights into the lives of the invisible people even where none was intended and to amplify these by deploying perspectives and evidence from a variety of other sources.
That’s very different from a “people’s history” in the sense discussed in the preceding paragraph. Knapp’s history of “ordinary people” (as he calls his demographic target of study) leaves no room whatever for a study of “a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event” (Port). As the article stands it appears that Meggitt has confused two quite distinct types of history. This is not a promising start for advancing historical Jesus studies.
So when Meggitt goes on to rhetorically ask
Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all?
he has already given us the answer but has turned his back on it because he has confused history of masses with micro or people’s history. To do “history from below” on Jesus a “micro-historian” will expect to find, as he or she does for other low-class persons, contemporary evidence preserved by literate classes about a person who was attracting a lot of attention among “the masses”. Literate classes have servants and contact with markets and will learn of any person making a name for themselves. Josephus notes quite a few of them, often with disgust. So do other Roman elites. We know, for example, interesting details about Cicero’s slave, Tiro.
Meggitt’s misguided citations of other historians continue when he suggests mythicists are guilty of the renowned historian E. P. Thompson’s charge of “enormous condescension of posterity”. This is an unfortunate reference because it misreads Thompson’s context and full scope of his work. Here is Thompson’s phrase in the context of the complete sentence: Continue reading “The Great Method Gap between “Biblical Historians” and Historians in History Departments”
Excerpts from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert (related to an earlier post, Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth) where he draws upon the study of structures of myths by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss:
. . . to give an interpretation of a myth is to create a new variant of it. (p. 21)
As we have seen from Lévi-Strauss … any interpretation of a myth is a new variant of it. (p. 28)
We have seen that many myths come to us with all sorts of variations. Each variant of a myth is another retelling of the same myth. This includes scholarly recreations of myths:
Most faculties dealing with biblical scholarship are theology faculties; therefore they seek a rational version of the divine inspiration of the Bible. (p. 28)
To quote from Lévi-Strauss directly:
[A] myth is made up of all its variants, [therefore] structural analysis should take all of them into account. (p. 435)
On the other hand, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that all available variants [of a myth] should be taken into account. . . . There is no one true version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth. (p. 436)
That is, Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic Jesus, Morton Smith’s magician Jesus, Stevan Davies’ shaman healing Jesus, Crossan’s cynic philosopher Jesus, Sara Parks’ feminist Jesus, are all variants of the biblical Jesus myth and stand alongside the Gospel fo John’s divine Jesus, Matthew’s new Moses Jesus, Mark’s mysterious unfathomable Jesus, Thomas’s gnostic Jesus, and so on. There is a Jesus for every ideology, for every whim, for every value: violent warrior, pacifist victim, defender of the oppressed, merciless judge of all who defy him, a presence always with us, a distant being who will be present in the future, etc etc etc.
How is it that the Jesus stories have captured imaginations all through these past two millennia?
Wajdenbaum proposes that the reason for their durability is that “they help maintain the Bible’s sacred character”
Most scholars still view the Bible from a theological perspective. We could even say that as long as modem society, which claims to be secular, has not recognised the Hellenic character of the Bible, that secularisation is not complete. Behind a so-called liberty, the biblical monument remains untouchable. Anything said about it must contribute to its mystique. ‘To uncover its nakedness’ would be the most terrible assault on Judeo-Christian decency. (p. 29)
From the point of view of scientific epistemology we can try to understand why a systematic and we profound comparison of the Bible with classical Greek literature has not been published until today. Again, the answer is simple: the Bible could not resist such an analysis as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevanl to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. In his polemical book he calls for an end to modem biblical studies. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate. But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; It comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu (in their respective works) have put it, the media industry—the press, movies and television—plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence. The biblical field created theories that have allowed the Bible to survive only because masses of believers wanted it to.
So is it possible to do historical studies without creating another variant of biblical myth? I’ll address that question in a future post.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68 (270): 428–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/536768.
Wajdenbaum, Philippe. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox Pub.
I have recently caught up with Sara Park’s PhD contribution to New Testament studies, Spiritual Equals: Women in the Q Gender Pairs. I understand that Parks has rewritten much of the thesis to make it more palatable for a general readership: Gender in the Rhetoric of Jesus: Women in Q.
James McGrath interviewed Sara Parks about her book:
Parks is a new scholar in the field and I found some of her discussion interesting insofar as it might shed some light on “the making” of a biblical scholar. (I have engaged with Sara Parks going by the blog name of Dr Sarah in comments on this blog but had not known at that time that she was a scholar of religion.)
A question that struck me as I began to read the thesis was how one could justify using a hypothetical document as a primary source for reconstructing slithers of a historical Jesus and his earliest followers. James McGrath raised the question that Q sceptics are going to ask: Does her book fall to pieces if there is no Q? Parks answers that question in her thesis and its published book version:
The gendered pairs form part of what Jesus scholars deem to be authentic material that dates back to his Galilean career. With or without Q the parallel parable pairs are sayings that text critics, redaction critics and historical Jesus scholars connect with Jesus. Their importance as deliberately gender-aware and in their way a gender levelling evidence remains.
[My transcript of Sara Parks podcast reading from her book]
Or more technically, from her thesis:
. . . [T]his project is significant whether one goes so far as to stratify Q in the footsteps of Kloppenborg, or doubts its very existence in the footsteps of Goodacre. As Schottroff writes of her work on women in the Q pairs, “the results should be equally useful for those who presume a distinction between Q1 and Q2 and for those who doubt the very existence of Q. They all may read the following discussion as a description of some central elements of the Jesus movement or of the message of Jesus.” 383 The present project is the first book-length work in English to treat the parallel parable pairs of Q with a view to the ways in which these pairs not only uncover some realities of women in the earliest Jesus movements, but also something of Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude toward them. Its findings concur with those of the French monograph to examine the pairs for this purpose, wherein Denis Fricker concludes that a pairing of female figures with male figures is a process undertaken by Jesus himself384 and that the pairs “seem to have been an original and remarkable mode of expression in the discourse of the historical Jesus.” 385 However, my findings diverge from Fricker’s where he finds the pairs “firmly rooted in Semitic poetry” and “their argumentation … in Hellenistic rhetoric. 386 I assert instead that the pairs achieve clear rhetorical uniqueness.
383. L. Schrottoff, “The Sayings Source Q” ; 384, 385, 386. Fricker, Quand Jésus Parle au Masculin-Féminin, pp. 377, 380, 79
(Parks’ thesis, 158f)
To my way of thinking it seems, then, that Q is not necessary for Parks’ exploration of Jesus’ thoughts on women as spiritual and intellectual equals with men. The addition of Q surely is an unnecessary hypothesis if scholars are convinced that the same sayings are authentic to Jesus even without Q. Yet note that even without Q there is said to be a consensus of some certainty about what Jesus actually said. It is what lies at the foundation of that confidence that strikes me as setting biblical studies apart from other historical studies.
As Parks’ thesis entered into a survey of Q sceptics, in particular Mark Goodacre, I began to anticipate a presentation of her reasons Goodacre and any revival of the Farrer thesis was mistaken. But the work has already been done according to Parks and there was no need for her to repeat it. She writes:
Goodacre has been refuted point by point by a number of scholars, including J. Kloppenborg (e.g. “On Dispensing with Q: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew” NTS 49 : 210–236.
“Refute” is an ambiguous word. It can mean either to prove a statement is wrong or it can mean to argue against a statement. Does Parks mean the former? The “point by point” phrase seems to indicate Goodacre’s case has been demolished brick by brick. If so, one might reasonably respond that Kloppenborg’s refutation has been equally “refuted point by point” by Stephen Carlson in a series of posts on his blog Hypotyposeis beginning in September 2004. Ongoing publications challenging Q in recent years additionally indicates that Kloppenborg has not “refuted” Goodacre in the sense of “disproving” the Farrer thesis.
What interests me here is a scholar’s confidence in academic consensus as if consensus itself is a secure enough foundation for one’s work. No doubt consensus on certain foundations is important when it comes to expecting one’s work to find peer acceptance. Yet many lay outsiders, at least, want the scholars to explain how we know certain things, or what is the logic and evidence that underlies a consensus. Too often too many biblical scholars at this point resort to telling the unwashed of the necessity to learn several ancient languages and undertake years of training in specialist qualifications. But I submit that we don’t get those sorts of answers when it comes to questions about history in nonbiblical areas. We have, for instance, very good reasons (certain kinds of independent and contemporary writings) for believing Socrates existed and taught as some kind of “sophist”. The evidence is not bedrock solid (the surviving manuscripts are late, for example) and a few have at times raised the question of his existence but on balance (especially when we factor in the explanatory power of subsequent literary references on top of the earlier sources) we can say that multiple independent and contemporary sources testify to his historicity. That sort of evidence is strong enough to allow us to overcome scepticism for the moment and accept Socrates’ historicity. Scepticism demands good, clear answers. Scepticism has served us well since the Enlightenment, I think. (I’ll address certain appeals to postmodernist challenges below.)
Where scepticism is really hip right now
So my ears pricked when I heard Sara Parks and James McGrath appearing to belittle the role of scepticism. Continue reading “Q: Where scepticism is really hip right now; and other thoughts on historical Jesus studies methods”
The Greek Mythicists website has posted a (Greek language) interview with Thomas L. Thompson. The interview page is Συνέντευξη με τον Thomas L. Thompson: Ο Βιβλικός Μινιμαλισμός και ο ιστορικός Ιησούς. The person responsible for the site, Minas Papageorgiou, has kindly sent me an English translation. It is very lengthy so I will only post one part of it for now. More to follow. Thanks to Minas Papageorgiou/Μηνάς Παπαγεωργίου.
(For background: The Vridar blog is not a “Jesus mythicist” blog even though it is open to a critical discussion of the question of Jesus’ historicity. I do not see secure grounds for believing in the historicity of Jesus but it does not follow that I reject Jesus’ historicity. Clearly, the Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s letters is a literary and theological construct but it does not follow that there was no “historical Jesus”. Nor do I endorse all views that I have seen associated with Greek Mythicists, though I have been included in one of their publications: see Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou and To the Greeks, Vridar in a Greek publication)
Who is Thomas L. Thompson? If you only have the vaguest idea or none at all see my notes at the end of this post. His works have certainly influenced me greatly.
The English language version of the interview, part 1 . . . .
1) Υοu spent a big part of your life in Tübingen, Germany. Would you agree that you were touched by Bruno Bauer‘s aura?
Bauer was much more influential in Berlin and Bonn than Tübingen, where in New Testament studies, Ernst Käsemann drew far more in the direction of establishing and defending an historical Jesus, much in the spirit of the “Jesus Seminar” in the States. In Old Testament studies and Palestinian archaeology, which were my primary interests, the tradition rather lay in comparative literature and comparative religions. Kurt Galling, editor of the great 5 volume, German encyclopedia of religion (Religion in History and the Present 1935) was my professor. He was a student of Hugo Gressmann and Hermann Gunkel and held history and archaeology separate from literature and theology and the study of the Bible was, first of all, a literary work rather than history!
2) In Greece, it is rather impossible to see an academic theologian holding a critical stance towards the Bible. Are things different in the rest of the world?
Greek orthodoxy sees the role of theology as explanatory and Greek theology—much like Roman Catholicism is often very defensive of traditional teaching, except that Greek theology tries to idealize the theology of the early church fathers, while Catholicism looks to the theology of Aquinas and the European Middle Ages as the ideal. But they are both rapidly changing today and one finds a few sound, critical scholars in Greece today and an even greater number of them among Roman Catholic scholars. I think the most influential of conservative scholars are the fundamentalists in the US, where the Bible seems to be read as a description of actual events in which God was the primary active figure. Critical scholarship, which starts from the observation that biblical narrative is first of all literature and needs to be treated as such. It is strongest in Europe, where a strong commitment to critical humanism is the norm for most universities: especially in Germany and Denmark. Perhaps it is best to think of individual scholars and universities rather than countries. The university of Rome, Göttingen, Tübingen, Sheffield and Copenhagen insist that biblical studies be critical rather than traditional.
3) Explain to us in a few words what biblical minimalism is, who the scholars that comprised the core of its existence were and what was your part in this.
Biblical minimalism grows out of the failure of biblical archaeology’s efforts to provide a critical history of Israel. It is important to point out that “minimalism” is a term which was used by opponents of critical biblical scholarship. It was not a self-description. The development in critical biblical studies, which came to reject the use of the Biblical narrative as a historical description of past events was called “minimalism” because these scholars did not share the assumption of, for example, biblical archaeologists, that history could be written by bringing together evidence from biblical narrative and our knowledge of ancient history. Minimalists saw the Bible as allegorical literature and consequently separated their use of archaeology from the Bible to write their history of Palestine. Indeed, understanding history of the South Levant as a regional history of Palestine, rather than as an ethnocentric history of the people of Israel allowed us to understand the Bible’s literary narrative of Israel as a fictional and theological product: what I came to refer to as a “mythic past.” In contrast, our history (of Palestine) is evidence-based in archaeology and contemporary inscriptions rather than biblical narrative, as in biblical archaeology. Continue reading “Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1”
Recently James McGrath has addressed a point I have regularly made about a key difference between the canonical gospels and historical and biographical narratives by ancient authors: the latter generally attempt to assure readers of the validity of their accounts by mentioning their sources; the former generally do not. McGrath has put an anachronistic slant on the question by making comparisons with the modern practice of formal citations and bypassed the reasons and techniques that belonged to ancient literary culture. Perhaps it is a good thing that he has done so because he does provide a warning to us today to be careful not to confuse modern academic practice with ancient literary interests. Before I respond specifically to some of his points I will focus on what seems to be the key question he poses in his “challenge” to “those who give credence to mythicists”:
The mythicist claim that the Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical – are really problematic. Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask those who give credence to mythicists this:
- Why trust modern-day mythicists and their claims about what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable, or anything else, while giving no credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written?
- Is it anti-religious bias?
- Chronological snobbery?
- A preference for their conclusions?
I ask these questions because there is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy. And so the same questions that apply to ancient sources, apply to modern ones as well. If it is the fact that they (well, some of them at any rate) mention scholars and sources regularly, then that is also true of mainstream scholars who conclude there was a historical Jesus, and it is true of conservative Christian apologists who are demonstrably untrustworthy even when they provide ample citations. And so my appeal to Jesus-mythicists is the appeal I’d make to any and all conspiracy theorists. By all means be skeptical – but be even-handedly skeptical, including of those you’re inclined to be persuaded by, and most importantly, of yourself.
(my formatting and highlighting)
“Trust” is a faith word. So my answer to McGrath’s first and primary question is this: No-one should “trust modern-day mythicists and their claims” about anything.
“Credence” is also a faith word. “Anti-religious bias” and “snobbery” and self-serving (implied) “preferences” for certain conclusions are all well-poisoning terms.
McGrath also speaks of mythicist writings that contain “nothing . . . that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy”, dismissing any citations by mythicists to mainstream scholarly works as unimpressive for some reason — because some apologists also cite mainstream scholars and produce arguments that are, well, apologetic. The analogy is fatuous, of course. Citations are used by good and bad scholars, good and bad amateurs, in good and bad ways. Therefore, in McGrath’s view, mythicists must for some reason he does not explain and for which he provides no examples be making pointless citations. Yet we know McGrath has excoriated mythicists for not engaging with mainstream scholarship yet when they clearly do engage with mainstream scholarship he allows their conclusions to inform him that their arguments are unreliable. Is it religious bias? Intellectual snobbery? A preference for other conclusions?
Here’s how scholarly inquiry, any serious rational inquiry, works.
We look for evidence that helps us understand the nature of the claims made by ancient (or any) authors. That generally means we begin by analysing the form and context in which the statements are made. We often do this subconsciously. We let the tone of voice or writing help us decide if someone is being serious or joking. We allow the medium on which a message is written (a royal inscription, an officially stamped letter) to tell us if it is an official statement or not. (Official statement indicates that its primary audience is expected to believe what is written; we need other grounds for deciding if we should believe what is written.) The source of what is said is another important factor. A source can mean the person responsible for the words we read; it can further mean the sources available to that author. Provenance can refer either the original source of the document or it can refer to where the physical manuscript or tablet was found and by whom and what we know about how it reached us. All of those factors are important to understand when it comes to reading and interpreting any ancient work.
Where we have prose narratives about events and persons it is necessary for us to know something about how they were understood by their authors and original audiences. I have sometimes half-joked in frustration that no-one should be allowed to undertake studies in the biblical literature until they have first done a major course in classics: biblical studies should be offered only as part of a larger course in early Jewish/Judean literature studies and only as a post-grad course for those who are well-grounded in the wider literature of the ancient world.
In other words, we ought to interpret and evaluate biblical literature in the context of the wider literary world of that day. Biblical scholars will no doubt say that they certainly do that, but my experience with studies in biblical literature tells me that many only do so patchily and over-selectively at best.
If anyone (mythicist or mainstream biblical scholar) makes any claim one should always look for the evidence that supports the claim. No claim should be “trusted”, either. The most positive approach we can have with any claim is to accept it pending further discussion, analysis and evidence. That means continual reading and discussion, learning new perspectives, becoming familiar with more data. It means engagement especially with those who have the most experience with the data, usually the professional scholars, and we find that the most insightful authors of mythicist ideas are the ones who do engage seriously and thoroughly with that scholarship. Leaving the mainstream scholarly field behind and restricting one’s reading to unorthodox views that only sporadically touch on mainstream scholarship is not a healthy pursuit.
Mainstream scholars also have a responsibility to address questions raised about their work without sneering dismissals, elaborate appeals to authority, or misrepresenting the questions and arguments posed to them.
A mythicist claim should not be trusted but should be carefully assessed against the evidence offered and serious discussion about alternative interpretations and other evidence in the mainstream scholarly literature. The most positive response to any claim by a mythicist ought to be tentative acceptance pending further information.
Mainstream scholars need to keep in mind that some mythicist authors have had no axe to grind against Christianity (some have even remained very positive towards it) and that some (one might say many) mythicist authors were for some years believers in a historical Jesus even as atheists and that believing in the historicity of Jesus would make no difference to them ideologically, personally, in any way. Indeed, a number of us have said that mythicism is the worst way to try to undermine or attack Christianity. There are other more effective ways of going about that enterprise.
Back to the specifics of referencing sources. Continue reading “Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists”
I am catching up on too my long-neglected RSS feeds and came across this post from James McGrath: Jesus, James and Peter Mythicism.
It is worth noting precisely what it is that mythicists do with Paul’s references to Jesus in his letters, and just how easily the same could be done with James, the brother of Jesus, whom most mythicists accept was an actual person, while denying that he was actually Jesus’ brother.
Now there is a sweeping confidence about what “mythicists” — a whole block of persons — believe and “precisely” do, or at least “most of them”. Maybe most do. I don’t know. But there are a lot of crackpot mythicists just as there are even more crackpot “Jesus historicists” (usually called fundamentalists, creationists, biblical literalists). Lumping them all together with blanket assertions about what “they” do does not seem like a useful way to open up a discussion.
They emphasize that he is not called “the brother of Jesus” but “the brother of the Lord” as though the Lord, for Paul, were not clearly Jesus. Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh, showing that mythicists are clutching at straws and have no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed. (My emphasis)
Again, notice how we begin with the universal “they” and how that elides to “some” but then returns to that same starting point, “the whole bang lot of them”. No need for citations, of course, because the message is that “they all” think and argue the same way. Would McGrath be content if a “mythicist” lumped together all authors of books about the life of Jesus by believers, apologists and others?
“Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh”, writes McGrath. Regretfully he provides no citation. The ones I can recollect who do argue for this do not merely “claim” it; they present a reasoned argument referencing the sources. But let’s move on. The message is that because “some claim” this point it follows that we can see that “mythicists clutch at straws with no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed.” “Some” is evidence of what the entire collective is like. (Two points: is McGrath seriously suggesting that “ancient Jews” did not equate Lord with Yahweh, but with Jesus, and that “mythicists” are showing their ignorance on this point? Second point: never mind that the evidence used by that “some” sometimes includes a comparable letter by Paul, the one to the Romans, in which very often, not always, uses “Lord” alone to refer to God, Yahweh, and as a rule makes it explicitly clear whenever he wants us to think that “Lord” applies to Jesus instead. One might be tempted to turn the tables and ask who is showing their lack of “real understanding” of the evidence of what Jews and early Christians believed”.)
And so why don’t they go further still? Paul went up to Jerusalem. Surely this could refer to a heavenly journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, during which he met Jacob, Yahweh’s brother. Simple! After all, Paul himself says that he was taken up to the third heaven.
Perhaps the answer is that mythicists, like McGrath, take the context as a primary pointer to meanings of particular words. Perhaps also because the word for “went up” ἀνῆλθον (anēlthon) is the normal word used for someone traveling up to a town, or a mountain (as in John 6:3) while a “real understanding of what ancient Jews and Christians believed” would inform us that when visionaries “went up” to the heavens they never “walked up” or “went up” as if on a journey of their own: they were seized, grabbed, swept up by an outside force — a different concept and a different word (ἁρπάζω (harpazó) ) is used by Paul to describe his being taken up to the third heaven.
I like reading the works of biblical scholars because I generally have lots to learn from them. I get disillusioned when I find some of them write as if they can get away with spouting misinformation to the generally less informed public.
My objection to this (in case you are starting to think maybe I’m onto something) is that it is the same approach religious fundamentalists take to the text, deciding what it is allowed to mean in advance, and then accepting any interpretation that provides that desired meaning, without discussion or consideration of whether the text more likely means what they think it should. Mythicists prooftext rather than exegete.
Again, where is a citation to support this statement? My own experience has been that I always began with the assumption that James was a real person and that he was believed to have been the brother of Jesus. It never occurred to me — even as an atheist — that Jesus never existed or that there was any reason to question the face-value of this passage in Galatians. It is only on closer examination that some — not all — some mythicists have raised the alternative question. McGrath claims to have read (presumably completely read) Richard Carrier’s book on mythicism, so he knows that Carrier even concludes that this passage in Galatians does indeed add significant weight to the argument for the historicity of Jesus. (The difference between Carrier and McGrath, though, is that Carrier does not turn to this or any other passage as a proof-text and use that one text, like a fundamentalist, to prove a much larger point. Context, and understanding the totality of the writings and manuscript histories are important in any scholarly — genuinely scholarly — analysis.)
I happen to think that the passage does mean exactly what McGrath says it means. I also happen to agree with another author who, in the process of arguing against — against — Jesus mythicism, had the honesty to admit that the patristic history of that passage really does raise serious questions about its authenticity. But that’s a discussion for serious scholarship. I trust McGrath won’t just pooh-pooh those arguments but seriously engage with the evidence as honestly as possible.
No, I am not saying that Howell Smith’s arguments are a slam dunk. There is room for honest doubt and question. What I am saying is that arguments from “proof-texting” — as it seems McGrath is accusing mythicists and of which I believe he himself is guilty — is not the way to go in any serious and informed exploration of the question.
I titled this post “Trumpian response”. I define a “Trumpian” as an attempt to persuade followers through disinformation not to read critical views of his position on things; to persuade followers that all “other views” are by definition “fake news”, and to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand. Certainly, one should never waste time actually reading both sides of a question for oneself and seriously raising the sorts of questions I have raised here among die-hard supporters.
Note: I wrote this post a few years back and left it lying in the draft pile, unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion until earlier this year. Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow (something those of us who live in RVs would rather not see), so a post about precipitation and weather prediction might be apt. –TAW
[This post begins our hard look at Chapter 6, “The Hard Stuff” in Carrier’s Proving History. — specifically, the section entitled “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism.”]
In the 1980s, the history department building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus had famous quotations painted on its hallway walls. Perhaps they still do.
The only quote I can actually still remember is this one:
“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” — Alfred E. Smith
I used to enjoy lying to myself and say, “That’s me!” But the real reason I never carry an umbrella is not that I’m a naive Yankee optimist, but rather because I know if I do, I will leave it somewhere. In this universe, there are umbrella receivers and umbrella donors. I am a donor.
So to be honest, the reason I check the weather report is to see if I should take a jacket. I’ve donated far fewer jackets to the universe than umbrellas. But then the question becomes, what does it actually mean when a weather forecaster says we have a 20% chance of rain in our area this afternoon? And what are we supposed to think or do when we hear that?
Ideally, when an expert shares his or her evaluation of the evidence, we ought to be able to apply it to the situation at hand without much effort. But what about here? What is our risk of getting rained on? In Proving History, Richard Carrier writes:
When weathermen tell us there is a 20% chance of rain during the coming daylight hours, they mean either that it will rain over one-fifth of the region for which the prediction was made (i.e., if that region contains a thousand acres, rain will fall on a total of two hundred of those acres before nightfall) or that when comparing all past days for which the same meteorological indicators were present as are present for this current day we would find that rain occurred on one out of five of those days (i.e., if we find one hundred such days in the record books, twenty of them were days on which it rained). (Carrier 2012, p. 197)
These sound like two plausible explanations. The first sounds pretty “sciency,” while the second reminds us of the frequentist definition of probability, namely “the number of desired outcomes over the total number of events.” They’re certainly plausible, but do they have anything to do with what real weather forecasters do?
Recently, I came across an article on this subject by a meteorologist in Jacksonville, Florida, written back in 2013. He even happened to use the same percentage. In “What does 20% chance of rain really mean?” Blake Matthews writes: Continue reading “What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)”
After reviewing the efforts of Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey to present their respective cases for the historicity of Jesus we now come to chapter 4, Inadequate Methods. By way of summing up the previous discussion Raphael Lataster writes
The recent defences of Jesus’ historicity by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey lack lucid and competent methodologies, rely on highly questionable documents, and further make use of sources that no longer exist, if they ever did. They are polemical, occasionally vulgar, and often resorted to cavilling, focussing on tangential arguments of the more amateurish mythicists. They unquestionably failed, and this may have something to do with my introductory thoughts on just what sort of scholar should be investigating the issue; analytical philosophers seem much more suited to the task. (p. 129)
In response to the objection that “ahistoricists” or “mythicists” do not have an alternative explanation for Christian origins Lataster is blunt:
This is similar to the agnosticism over God’s existence. Those agnostics do not need to have evidence that God does not exist. They just need to be unconvinced by the lack of good evidence for God’s existence. In other words, my case for Historical Jesus agnosticism does not need to rely on good alternative hypotheses, though it certainly can be strengthened by them. (p. 129)
History is done differently when it comes to Jesus. And those doing the history on Jesus are, in the main, theologians or “biblical scholars” of some stripe who cannot deny that
. . . most people know of Jesus because of the historical reality of religious faith. (p. 131)
It’s like saying “Most people know about the massacres of Aboriginals in the Frontier Wars because of what they’d been told.” So how do we go about finding the fact of the matter?
I bypass here Lataster’s discussion of the respective appeals to “insider” and “outsider” sources (those of believers and those of outsiders), or the little controversy over the Jesus Project initiated by R. Joseph Hoffmann that he also addresses.
Lataster begins the core argument of this chapter with the theoretically correct point, “History Concerns What Probably Happened.” I find such arguments too theoretical. Indeed, one of the historians Lataster cites in this section expresses my view exactly:
That history as record is “relative,” may be admitted, in the sense that deriving as it does from the perception and testimony of men [sic – published 1946], it often borrows shape and color from the subjective medium through which it passes. Furthermore, the objective facts are perhaps never reproduced in their full range of authentic detail. But it is folly to leap thence to the conclusion that nothing can be absolutely known about the historical past. That Napoleon Bonaparte existed, that he fought Europe, was worsted at Waterloo, and died at St. Helena, are facts which we can be said to know absolutely. On the other hand, that his personality was such or such, that he was dominated by this passion or that, may very well be matters about which we have not, and probably cannot have knowledge that is final and irreversible. . . .
But “probability beyond reasonable doubt,” if we overlook the contradiction involved in this statement, is equivalent to certainty. What we hold “beyond reasonable doubt,” we hold with certainty. . . .
Although the historian can never attain the same certainty which is attained by the mathematician, the physicist, or the chemist, nevertheless, especially in the case of converging lines of evidence, he is able to reach such moral certainty as is the basis of nearly all our actions. (Freeman, Methods of History)
(Garraghan, pp. 78, 79)
If we cannot see evidence that persuades us “beyond reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed then we are compelled to maintain reasonable doubts and not deny them. Juries are required to find a defendant guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” and not be content with a “probably guilty” verdict.
As for the sources historians study, they fall into two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources are generally understood to be contemporary with the events being studied, secondary from a later time. Both types of source must be subject to the same scrutiny and Lataster cites Garraghan three times in the book on this point: Continue reading “Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)”
Part One of Questioning the Historicity of Jesus addresses the case for the historical existence of Jesus. The first difficulty here is finding the best and strongest scholarly arguments for Jesus’ historicity:
I have long searched for good cases for the Historical Jesus. I sought fairly recent, peer-reviewed academic books or articles, solely/primarily focussed on arguing for Jesus’ historicity, written by secular scholars in relevant fields. Not one source met these criteria. I would have loved the opportunity to critique books focused on this topic written by a James Crossley or an Aaron W. Hughes, and published with Oxford University Press, but such books – perhaps like Jesus – do not exist; so I have settled for two popular books written by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Lataster, p. 29)
Vridar Posts on Ehrman’s and Casey’s books:
Those books are Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (2012) and Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? (2014). Long time readers of Vridar will be aware of many posts covering in detail both of those works. Lataster’s criticisms overlap with much that has been posted here and by others, such as Richard Carrier. Even some of the scholarly quotations I posted here alerting readers to professional disagreements with the methods of Ehrman and Casey are also found in Lataster’s book. The arguments are so flawed that it hardly seems worth the trouble addressing them again, but I’ll try to outline the main points Lataster focuses on.
The sad part is that Ehrman has such a high reputation for critical acumen.
I respect the man, and I respect the rest of his work. On this topic, however, his work fails to impress . . . (p. 31)
Most of us know the failings: well-poisoning, false dichotomies, speculations on the motives of unknown authors, inconsistency in relying upon hypothetical sources for his own arguments but condemning appeals to hypothetical sources for opposing arguments, insisting that hypothetical sources included information upon which his argument depends, reliance upon speculation, circular reasoning, fundamental errors of logic, selective naive readings of the sources, the possible to probable fallacy, misrepresentations of the Judaism of the Second Temple era and unjustified generalizations about religious groups. Lataster dissects each of the above failings in Did Jesus Exist? but interestingly goes further and contrasts Ehrman’s failings there with his books written before and after that one:
Before and after writing that book, Ehrman was and is capable of proper critical research on the biblical texts. But for some reason, during the writing of Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman’s standards dropped remarkably, only for the ‘old Ehrman’ to return soon after, as if he suffered from a fugue state. I suspect that Ehrman consciously or unconsciously realised that the case for Jesus would be very poor indeed if he consistently applied his critical approach and all of his vast knowledge to this question, leading to this strange Jekyll and Hyde situation. (p. 71)
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ehrman’s critical awareness of the limitations of the sources that we do have (the gospels, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius) leads him to explain why in none of those can we find secure grounds for believing Jesus to have had a historical existence, and that having dispensed with those sources he falls back on hypothetical sources behind the gospels. Continue reading “Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)”
The publisher Brill has forwarded me access to Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why A Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, for review on this blog.
Disclaimer: Raphael Lataster makes a brief but favourable mention of me in the book. I can only plead my best efforts at honest neutrality by pointing to my critical responses to another scholar, Richard Carrier, who has also spoken positively about me.
The book’s dedication honours the late Emeritus Professor Philip R. Davies, no doubt because of his courageous 2012 article in The Bible and Interpretation, Did Jesus Exist?, in which he wrote
I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. (Bolding is all quotations is mine.)
A lengthy Foreword is written by Professor James Crossley who was a student of an anti-mythicist, Maurice Casey, but also a colleague of Philip Davies. Crossley acknowledges the contributions of outsiders from the field of biblical studies such as Raphael Lataster whose doctoral dissertation was in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion in the Religious Studies department of one of the world’s top fifty universities, the University of Sydney. Crossley notes that biblical studies departments have traditionally assumed the historicity of Jesus and that challenges to this assumption have come “from outside in recent years”, and notes specifically of Lataster’s contribution:
Thinking about the challenge provided by Lataster, my take is that more scepticism is indeed needed. (p. xii)
— Jim West on James Crossley
Interestingly Crossley refers to his own particular contributions to the study of Christian origins and acknowledges that we cannot be certain that the themes he raised (the Gospel of Mark’s treatment of the sabbath, purity laws and eschatology) started with a historical Jesus:
Did these issues emerge with the historical figure of Jesus? It is possible, certainly. But they could have developed in (say) the 30s or 40s CE. Moreover, people can create stories in days, never mind a decade or decades. Stories can also retain historical information. But how do we actually prove this either way once we’ve established an early tradition or theme? (pp. xii f)
Note that. Lataster, likewise, argues the agnostic position.
Crossley is not denying the historicity of Jesus:
As is hopefully clear, this is not a mythicist position in the sense that it does not disprove Jesus’ existence (nor does it attempt to do so) but it is a position which acknowledges that we are severely restricted in what we can say about reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. (p. xiii)
And then makes a point I find most reassuring myself, having attempted to promote it often enough on this blog:
But this does not have to be a bad thing. Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.
This brings us to Raphael Lataster’s own Introduction. I am dwelling on both the Foreword and Introduction in this first post on Lataster’s book because the question is certainly controversial enough and misconceptions abound and need to be confronted and cleared away in order for a serious reading to happen.