Category Archives: Biblical Scholars

Prominent and not-so-prominent scholars of the Bible. Should this category be restricted to individuals with discussions of scholars collectively to be included within Biblical Scholarship? Scholars of the Bible should include persons who produce scholarly quality works even if not a member of a biblical studies academy or department (e.g. classicist like John Moles; historian like Richard Carrier). Technically I also think Earl Doherty and Rene Salm should be part of this category but wouild their inclusion raise problems? If so, in what category should such persons be included? What of Acharya S and others of questionable scholarly standards? Perhaps better to keep names like these within a Category related to discussions of the Christ Myth Hypothesis.

Historical Jesus Scholarship and Mythmaking

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)

Wajdenbaum, not unlike Russell Gmirkin and M. David Litwa, identifies Hellenistic or Greco-Roman myths as having spawned much of the biblical characters and narratives.

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.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox Pub.

Q: Where scepticism is really hip right now; and other thoughts on historical Jesus studies methods

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 [2003]: 210–236.

(p. 36)

“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. read more »

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1

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)


Thomas L. Thompson

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.

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.

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. read more »

Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists

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. read more »

Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism

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.



What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)

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

yellow, Umbrella, bad weather
Yellow umbrella in bad weather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[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.

Eternal sunshine

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: read more »

Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)

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: read more »

Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. — Isaac Asimov

Properly read, the books arguing for the historicity of Jesus by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey present a strong case for being agnostic about the existence of Jesus. — paraphrasing Raphael Lataster

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)

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)

Other scholars may have stressed other “proof points” for Jesus’s historicity (e.g. the “core” of a Josephan reference to Jesus) but Lataster shows how Ehrman effectively demonstrates the inadequacy of such material as clear evidence for Jesus.

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. read more »

Review part 1: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster.

Brill, a publisher who value[s] academic freedom and rejects attempts to silence it. . . There are others of course but [Brill is among] these academic treasures that are on the side of truth and not beholden to ideologues of any stripe. — Jim West (ThD)

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

Philip Davies

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)

I’m so proud of this kid.
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.

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.
James Crossley

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.

read more »

How the Seasons Change (We DON’T have Q; We DO have Q — Ehrman)

PItalics are original; the bolding is mine:

I’ve pointed out that we don’t have the Q source. Since we don’t have it, you might expect that scholars would be fairly cautious in what they say about it. But nothing is further from the truth. Books on Q have become a veritable cottage industry in the field. . . . Not bad for a nonexistent source!

. . . .

Let me repeat: Q is a source that we don’t have

(Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 1999. pp132, 133)

That was when Ehrman was responding to scholars who use Q as evidence to counter his argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. (There are other arguments in the literature that contradict the apocalyptic prophet view of Jesus that Ehrman overlooked entirely.)

Then later,

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is [sic] pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

(Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? HuffPost 03/20/2012)

Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others.

(Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? HarperCollins, 2012. pp. 82 f)

To be fair, Ehrman does eventually qualify the last statement by stating that our “having” is an “inference” but that word nowhere appears in the HuffPost article.

And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Chris­tian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right.


“I don’t find that argument persuasive”

I intend to pause and try to analyse, in future, exactly what is going on when I read a scholar responding to an explanation, a hypothesis, an alternative viewpoint by saying “I don’t find that persuasive”. My reason for taking on this hope is partly the result of having begun to gain some notion of the main ideas that I first read in

(I further skimmed much of the book but have yet to read it thoroughly.)

Very often the “I don’t find it persuasive” is all that is said, apparently on the understanding that it is all that needs to be said, to not accept an argument or attempt at a different explanation for the evidence at hand.

What I am currently wondering is the extent to which the “not persuasive” retort may be derived from the need or desire to have a story, a narrative, that expands or builds one’s own larger story idea of how things are or should be. If the rejection of the new idea were based on a cold, hard study of the data then we would expect the response to be more along the lines of: “but how does your idea explain this or that?” and so forth. It would be a critical response with the data under review.

I said I am raising this question “partly as “the result” of reading Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of narrative and their place and function in human society. The other part of the reason is having begun a review of Vridar posts as I begin to recategorize, re-organize and re-label them. I am somehow gobsmacked at the amount of deplorable personal attacks, including outright misrepresentation and slander, that has characterized so many biblical scholars engagements not only against amateur outsiders who question their assumptions but even against each other when new paradigms or finds are introduced into the field. And above all, I find it depressing to be confronted in such a concentrated span of time and focus on the extent to which so many core arguments of too many (not all) biblical scholars are illogical, self-serving, contradictory, ill-thought-through, merely speculative, simply very bad. It is difficult to accept that so many of these particular scholars are actually employed as scholars in the first place. On the other hand, I need to add that there are also many excellent biblical scholars putting out very fine research. I find myself wishing that those latter would leave their faculties and departments of theology or biblical studies and apply to join the history and classics departments of their universities. Anyway, enough of the rant. Where was I?

Alex Rosenberg appears to be suggesting that narrative stories function to bind us into our preferred groups. They enable us to see ourselves as part of those stories and in the narratives with those we like or need to get along with. As such, they also have the yin side of their yang. They exclude others, they even have the power to cause us to denigrate and hate others, the outsiders, who take the adversarial role in our narratives. Strifes between races, tribes, countries, are fueled by narratives of the past that get in the way of simply getting together and addressing current needs and issues.

Scholarship at its best, when it’s working professionally as intended, works with ways to analyse the data, to make predictions and test them, etc. It is not narrative based in the same way as much of (by no means all) of biblical studies is. Take, for example, the view that the gospels, or even the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, are said to sourced via oral traditions. Really, that’s a narrative model. I think that a good number of biblical scholars (and this is understandable given the faith biases of many of them) see themselves as part of that same story, personally as part of that same story, that began with a “scientifically unexplainable” event that evolved into the “Easter myth” and was passed on through oral tradition . . .  until today, . . . — you get the picture.

That, I think, appears to be the framework through which a huge bulk of biblical scholars are working. They are, at bottom, finding ways to elaborate and discover more exciting details of that narrative. They approach their subjects of interest very like the way ancient historians (even Thucydides) approached their narrative histories, with mixes of myth and fact, and with even the facts being interpreted in ways to add to the story they wanted to tell either as a lesson for others or for their entertainment. Either way, the narrative histories functioned to help build or cement group bonds. “This is our history that tells us where we come from and where we fit in.”

Few of them approach the foundations of their field in the way critical scientists might start from scratch with the data and whose explanations are almost entirely critical-analytical as distinct from narrative story. Yes, of course, there is much critical-analytical study among most biblical scholars but I find myself thinking that most of that real scholarship functions to add new or revised details to the larger narrative that they are really endorsing.

I don’t believe one has to be religious to do this, either. Jesus is a cultural icon for Western societies generally and is not reserved only for his faithful devotees. Recall images of Che Guevara evocative of a passionate and suffering Jesus. John Lennon produced a hit The Ballad of John and Yoko with its unforgettable searing line, “Christ you know it ain’t easy, they’re gonna crucify me.” Even a contemporary atheist biblical scholar published a book with an image of a stereotypical Jesus’ face on the cover that looks very much like that scholars’ own image. (I should avoid embarrassing him with an identification in this context.) Jesus is not just for the religious. (Evangelical apologists narcissistically preach that “the whole world” is either “for or against” Jesus — simply on the grounds that everybody has reason to make some comment about one of several foundational cultural figures in our society and not, as the fundamentalists like to think, because they tremble and fear or tremble and love him.)

This post is only introducing an idea that has been playing around in the back of my head for at least 24 hours now. I hope I haven’t been too gauche in making this initial foray into jotting it down for future reference, elaboration, exploration.


Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)

In Australian private hospitals we are likely to see pictures of a crucifix or Mother Mary. In Thailand we see Buddhist paraphernalia. View of one taken by me from a hospital bed where I arrived as result of accident. Life is always full of unexpected surprises.

Again waylaid by life experiences so surfacing here another post begun way back. The first post in this series is  Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

This time we are addressing

McGrath begins:

Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him.  He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”

Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.

Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.

First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.

That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:

Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.

The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:

Here is how the New International Version renders it:

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.  I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Important things to note are

(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church (Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,

(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,

(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally

(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.

I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:

Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction

We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.

Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.

(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)

Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.

So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”

McGrath Does Make a Serious Point

It is too easy to dismiss everything McGrath writes after we read the above lapses where he fails to address the verse Vinny was discussing and confuses the historian’s choices of descriptive and explanatory interpretations. McGrath does, in fact, make a serious point in the next section of his post. read more »

Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.

McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .

It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.

About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.

I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

I will address each one in chronological order. So we start with

Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for

  • an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
  • an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
  • for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
  • parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
  • monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.

Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.

McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:

The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.

A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.

At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly: read more »

Do Parallels Only Work in One Direction?

Daphnis and Chloe

I found the following slightly amusing:

I was really struck by the article in Bible History Daily about how the story of Daphnis and Chloe echoes the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Here’s an excerpt:

Written around 200 A.D. by the Greco-Roman author Longus, Daphnis and Chloe is a pagan pastoral romance that echoes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Daphnis and Chloe are simple country-dwelling teenagers in love. They are the adopted children of pastoralists indentured to a far off Master. In a meadow where the couple often meet, there is an apple tree, completely bare except for one large and sweet apple hanging from the topmost twig. Daphnis climbs the tree and picks it for Chloe, to her dismay. Daphnis justifies himself, saying that if he did not pluck it, the apple would fall to the earth and be trampled by a beast or poisoned by a snake.

In spite of some variations, all the principal elements of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve are included in Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe. There are male and female counterparts, the tree and the fruit in the Edenic setting and even an ominous mention of a snake. It is likely that Longus knew some version of the Genesis story, whether by first or second hand. As Theodore Feder writes, Daphnis and Chloe is an example of how “stories of the Jews and early Christians were becoming part of the general cultural inventory of the time.”

Bringing Ravel . . . (my bolding throughout)

An Edenic setting, of course, for this biblical scholar, not a “pastoral setting” as any classicist would recognize. See previous posts where the Daphnis and Chloe novel has been discussed or referenced. (No-one should be allowed to read the Bible until they first read the ancient Greco-Roman literature, including what are technically called the “erotic novellas” — really just short love stories. Be prepared for lots of preparation for biblical motifs, like discovering baffling empty tombs, apparent resurrections, even heroes surviving crucifixions, and all sorts of other “miraculous” things.)

Read, now, the context of that scene about the apple and the serpent. I quote just one page of an almost 60 page story: read more »