Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes

Further Daniel Gullotta Disrepresentation of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

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

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

Daniel Gullotta criticizes Richard Carrier’s purported argument that the first canonical gospel (the Gospel of Mark) constructs its Jesus primarily as a counterpoint to the Greek hero Odysseus, declaring that Carrier has hewed essentially to the “discredited” arguments of Dennis MacDonald in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. In previous posts I have attempted to demonstrate that Gullotta’s representation of Carrier’s argument on this point in particular is without foundation; in fact, it is contrary to the clearly expressed and detailed argument that Carrier in fact does make.

Gullotta concludes this section with

Yet while Odysseus was an important figure within Greco-Roman culture, Romulus and Aeneas were far more important characters. . . . .

Furthermore, although Mark does make use of sources in constructing his gospel, the most obvious source is that of the Jewish scriptures. Given the high esteem the early church held for the Jewish scriptures, along with the numerous references and allusions made by Mark and the other evangelists to them, the Hebrew Bible is obviously the primary source for Christian literary inspiration, whereas no direct quotation or reference to Homer is anywhere to be found within the Gospel of Mark.

(Gullotta, p. 339)

Anyone reading the above words would think that Richard Carrier asserted that the Gospel of Mark Jesus primarily on Odysseus instead of, say, Romulus and, more importantly, anyone from the Jewish Scriptures. But read what Richard Carrier did in fact say:

Jesus in not only the new (and better) Moses and Elijah and Elisha, he is also the new (and better) Odysseus and Romulus (see Chapter 4, §1, and Element 47), and the new Socrates and Aesop (Element 46).

(Carrier, p. 436)

Consult the index of Carrier’s OHJ and one finds the following entry for Romulus:

There is no index entry for Odysseus.

Moreover, Chapter 4, §1 and Element 47 refer to seven pages(!) of discussion of the gospel parallels with Romulus, whom Gullotta said Carrier “should”(!) have compared with Jesus, not noticing that he in fact did — in far more extensive detail than he did with Odysseus.

Carrier early in his discussion of the gospels does indeed point out how the Roman poet Virgil drew upon and changed incidents in the epics of his Greek predecessor, Homer, but that is before he brings MacDonald into the discussion, and anyone who studies ancient Greek and Roman history will be familiar with the literary technique Virgil followed in imitating yet changing Homer’s stories. The same technique was evidently followed by the evangelists in their use of the Jewish Scriptures.

Gullotta appears to have dozed through well over forty more pages (as we began to address in the previous post) in which Carrier discussed gospel comparisons with characters from the Jewish Scriptures!

I cannot understand how Gullotta could have written such a totally false portrayal of what Carrier in fact argued. We cannot doubt that he read the book he reviewed. We cannot doubt that he has at minimum average reading comprehension and attention span. So how is it that he could write such a patently false portrayal of Carrier’s work?

read more »

Gullotta’s Dysrepresentation of Carrier’s Case for the Gospels as Myth … Part 3

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

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

I ended my previous post with these words:

From this point Gullotta loses sight of Carrier’s own line of reasoning, sometimes erroneously conflating MacDonald’s and Carrier’s views, and even at one point distorting the meaning of MacDonald’s words in order to fire a salvo at “mythicists” in general.

As I said, trying to get a complete handle on Gullotta’s fifth point is a long haul. I’ll set out the evidence for the assertions in the previous paragraph in my next post.

So from that point I continue.

That mis-aimed salvo

For example, Gullotta writes

Because almost every event in Mark has some sort of Homeric counterpart according to MacDonald, many mythicists have taken his work to indicate that the Gospels have no historical value whatsoever. This, however, is not the conclusion MacDonald has come to, and because of the popularity of his research among mythicists, he has had to clarify his own confidence in the existence of the historical Jesus.97

97. For example, ‘A Jewish teacher named Jesus actually existed, but within a short period of time, his followers wrote fictions about him, claiming that his father was none other than the god of the Jews, that he possessed incredible powers to heal and raise from the dead, that he was more powerful than ‘bad guys’ like the devil and his demons, and that after he was killed, he ascended, alive, into the sky’, in Dennis R. MacDonald, Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), pp. 1–2. Also see Dennis R. MacDonald, Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), pp. 543–560.

(Gullotta, pp. 337f)

Yes, indeed, Dennis MacDonald has always made it clear that he does not dispute the historicity of Jesus and that he has never intended his research to lead to such a conclusion. But not even the quotation Gullotta finds to repeat this point can support his insinuation that MacDonald’s arguments believing in the historicity of Jesus somehow equates with the gospels containing some kind of “historical value”. Gullotta appears not to notice that the quotation he supplies to supposedly rebut the idea that the gospels have no historical value itself says that the gospels are indeed fictions! One does not need to believe in the historical value of the gospels to believe in a historical Jesus as a good number of scholars can testify. (Again, where were the peer reviewers part of whose job, I thought, is to prevent such non sequiturs going to into print?)

An erroneous conflation

Almost amusing is Daniel Gullotta’s attempt to use Margaret Mitchell’s 2003 critical review of Dennis MacDonald’s Homeric thesis in support of his contention that Carrier has as much egg on his face as MacDonald for (supposedly uncritically) jumping on MacDonald’s bandwagon. But if Gullotta has paid closer attention to both what Mitchell faulted in MacDonald to what Carrier himself concluded about MacDonald’s views, he would have seen they were not very far removed from one another! read more »

Masters of Propaganda — tutors of Saudi Arabia, alumni include Hitler

It has been a trying couple of weeks for Saudi Arabia. First, a tweet from an account associated with the Saudi government appeared to threaten Canada with a 9/11-style attack if they continued to “stick their nose where it doesn’t belong.” . . . . .

And then, not long afterwards, the Saudi government beheaded and crucified on a public pole a Burmese man found guilty of murder. . . . . .

Then, on August 9, a Saudi jet targeted and destroyed a school bus full of children in Yemen. . . . . .

How does one manage the “optics” for a country that behaves this way? First, you need to recruit as many public relations men and lobbyists as possible. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia has done . . . . . hiring some of the best PR and government relations firms in Washington and London.

These firms know how to mold public opinion. They are heirs to the father of the dark art of “public relations,” Edward Bernays . . . . .

(Michael Horton in The American Conservative, Aug 14, 2018.)

Which brings us to how the United States in particular became the world’s leading practitioner of propaganda.

Contrary to common assumptions, propaganda plays an important role — and certainly a more covert and sophisticated role — in tech­nologically advanced democratic societies, where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion.

In contrast, under authoritarian regimes power and privilege are not open and vulnerable to dissenting public opinion.

— Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (p.12)

A more anodyne term for propaganda is “business and corporate public relations”.

In the fifty years 1890 to 1940:

Least experience of democratic institutions Limited experience of democratic institutions Longest experience of liberal, democratic institutions
Italy & Japan Germany England & USA
Least competent propaganda Nationalist Socialist propaganda better organised, more vociferous, more versatile Public relations propaganda is the most highly coloured and ambidextrous, more-so in USA than England

Compare the Soviet Union:

One area of social science that is ordinarily assumed to be useful to a total­itarian regime is research on social and political attitudes … Ironically, psychology and the other social sciences have been employed least in the Soviet Union for precisely those purposes for which Americans popularly think psychology would be used in a totalitarian state political propa­ganda and the control of human behaviour.

Democracy must be seen to be done, but the will of the elite powers-that-be must be protected and advanced. Hence, after Edward Bernays another early propaganda theorist, Harry Lasswell, as early as 1938 wrote that in the modern world more could be done by illusion than coercion and that a professional class had emerged for that purpose:

The modern world is busy developing a corps of men who do nothing but study the ways and means of changing minds or binding minds to their convictions. Propaganda … is developing its practitioners, its teachers and its theories. It is to be expected that governments will rely increasingly upon the professional propagandists for advice and aid.

An early illustration of “democratic propaganda” read more »

Gullotta’s Misleading Portrayal of Carrier’s claims…. Part 2

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

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

For other Archives by Topic, Annotated see the right margin.

In the previous post we began to look at Daniel Gullotta’s treatment of Richard Carrier’s argument that the gospels are more like myth than remembered history and concluded with a look at a quotation taken from page 396 of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. In the next sentence Gullotta refers to another sentence of Carrier that is taken from a full 40/41 pages after the first one.

Carrier’s claims that ‘Mark updated Homer by recasting the time and place and all the characters to suit Jewish and (newly minted) Christian mythology’ is principally based on the work of Dennis R. MacDonald.93 After heavily citing the work of MacDonald, Carrier claims, ‘[i]n constructing his Gospel, the first we know to have been written, Mark merged Homeric with biblical mythology to create something new, a mythical syncretism, centered around his cult’s savior god, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his revelatory message, the ‘gospel’ of Peter and (more specifically) Paul.’94

93  Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 436.
94  Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 437.

Gullotta, p. 337

That is a misrepresentation of Carrier’s argument. Carrier’s “claim” did not follow on “after heavily citing the work of MacDonald”. The words Gullotta quotes in fact followed a single citation of MacDonald.

In those 40 pages separating the quotes Gullotta has fished out Carrier set out details of his case for reading the gospels as myth rather than history and peppered his discussion with supporting (sometimes contradicting) views of other scholars. There are 83 footnotes in those 40 pages and Dennis MacDonald appears in no more than 5 of them. Others cited in those 40 pages of establishing his case for the Gospel of Mark being constructed as a mythical narrative are: read more »

Gullotta’s Misleading Portrayal of Carrier’s Argument (Gospels Myth or Remembered History? – Part 1)

The focus of my response will center on Carrier’s

  1. claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed,
  2. his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus,
  3. his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces,
  4. his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community,
  5. his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths,
  6. and his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison.

(Gullotta, p. 325. my formatting/numbering for quick reference)

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

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

For other Archives by Topic, Annotated see the right margin.

–o–

This is the most difficult of my posts so far discussing Daniel Gullotta’s treatment of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. On pages 336 to 340 of his review Gullotta conveys the clear impression that Carrier has relied primarily, even perhaps entirely, on Dennis MacDonald’s thesis that the Gospel of Mark was based on Homer’s Odyssey and last two books of the Iliad and has consequently concluded that the gospel is primarily myth rather than remembered history. Gullotta further leads readers to understand that Carrier claimed Jesus was essentially based on Homer’s character Odysseus and that criticisms of MacDonald’s entire thesis equally applied to Carrier’s treatment of the Gospel of Mark. I will demonstrate that all of this representation of Carrier’s argument is grossly misleading. One scarcely knows where to begin.

Let’s start with his heading for this section Mark, the Christian Homer? Jesus, the Jewish Odysseus? That heading sets up the expectation that we will learn that Carrier argues accordingly.

Gullotta begins, however, with a genuine Carrier assertion unrelated to the Homeric thesis of MacDonald: that the characteristics of myth are a combination of

  • (1) strong and meaningful emulation of prior myths (or even of real events);
  • (2) the presence of historical improbabilities (which are not limited to ‘miracles’ but can include natural events that are very improbable, like amazing coincidences or unrealistic behavior); and
  • (3) the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements (because a myth can incorporate real people and places, but the central character or event will still be fictional).

(my formatting)

Gullotta seems perturbed by the idea that such criteria should invalidate the Gospel of Mark as “remembered history” when he comments:

Because of this, Carrier deems the Gospels to be ‘allegorical myth, not remembered history’.

(Gullotta, p. 337)

I thought most critical scholars, even devout Christian ones, considered the gospels to be primarily mythical or theological tales long removed from history. The question Carrier is taking up is whether there was a historical Jesus behind them at the beginning.

But even at this early point of the discussion Gullotta leads readers to think that such criteria and understanding of myth is Carrier’s idea. He begins the criteria with

According to Carrier, ‘the gospels are primarily and pervasively mythical’ and he bases this assessment on the following criteria

and Gullotta gives readers no indication that those criteria are Carrier’s distillation of lengthy scholarly discussion and debate.

When one turns to Carrier’s discussion of myth and its relationship with the gospels one finds that Carrier has in fact drawn upon the following scholarly corpus (taken from several pages between 380 and 396, my formatting) as the basis of his understanding of myth itself and ways in which the gospels themselves are mythical narratives: read more »

Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, point #4, “James, the brother of the Lord”

This is not the first time we have seen Gullotta inexplicably fail to acknowledge that Carrier is prepared to concede for the sake of a fortiori argument the very position Gullotta is arguing.

The focus of my response will center on Carrier’s

  1. claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed,
  2. his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus,
  3. his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces,
  4. his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community,
  5. his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths,
  6. and his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison.

(Gullotta, p. 325. my formatting/numbering for quick reference)

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

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

This is a new page that I have added to the Archives by Topic, Annotated — see the right margin.

–o–

Daniel Gullotta begins is foray into Richard Carrier’s argument that James was a fictive, not biological, brother of Jesus.

It has been claimed that if there is an Achilles’ heel to the Jesus Myth theory, it would be the reference to ‘James, the brother of the Lord’ (Gal 1.19). Typically, historical Jesus scholars take James to be one of Jesus’ many biological siblings; however, Carrier and other mythicists have argued that the familial language used throughout the Pauline letters is reason enough to doubt that James is Jesus’ biological brother.

(Gullotta, p. 334)

Gullotta does not identify any of the “other mythicists” who share Carrier’s argument in his footnote so it appears he knows only Carrier’s mythicist argument. For other arguments about this passage and important background information that needs to be taken into account in its interpretation see any of the other posts addressing these points. Again we are faced with the irony of reading a review that fails to consider opposing arguments in the context of all relevant background information when reviewing a book about the importance of considering alternative hypothesis against all relevant background information.

But the most curious detail of Gullotta’s criticism of this point is his failure to comment on Carrier’s conclusion that he will argue that the passage in Galatians 1:19 is exactly 100% what is to be expected if James indeed was the biological brother of Jesus!

However, I must argue a fortiori, and to that end . . .  I’ll allow that it [i.e. Galatians 1:19 being a reference to James’ biological sibling status to Jesus] might be twice as likely on historicity [despite their] internal ambiguity and surrounding silence. . . .

(Carrier, p. 592)

Carrier’s point is to lay out all the evidence and background information and then in that context to compare rival hypotheses or interpretations. That is the essence of the Bayesian method that Gullotta elsewhere indicates he fails to understand. Without that understanding Gullotta is able to do no more than repeat the same proof-text type arguments that are based on scholarly tradition rather than a comprehensive survey of the data.

This is not the first time we have seen Gullotta inexplicably fail to acknowledge that Carrier is prepared to concede for the sake of a fortiori argument the very position Gullotta is arguing! One cannot imagine a more solid evidence that he has failed to understand the whole methodology of Carrier’s argument – or the principles of sound historical reasoning with competing hypotheses.

James the Just
James . . .

There is a light-hearted moment in Gullotta’s review, however, when he proceeds to demonstrate his assertion that

there is solid evidence to affirm James was the biological brother of Jesus.

(Gullotta, p. 335)

Hold tight. Prepare for another Gish Gallop. The “solid evidence” appears to consist of

  • a list of seven names in Paul’s letters who are said to be a sample of those who are not called “the brother of the Lord”
  • James is reputed to be a pillar in the Jerusalem church
  • James has authority in the Jerusalem church
  • Paul highlights his meeting with him
  • James received a vision of the resurrected Jesus
  • Paul mentions his name before Peter’s (Cephas’s)
  • later traditions said he was a brother of Jesus
  • how else can we explain the above unless this James was a brother of Jesus?

“Solid evidence”? No other explanation is plausible than that James must have been a literal sibling of Jesus?

Regardless of the status of Richard Carrier’s specific arguments why not consider the question in the light of all the relevant “background information” as I have attempted to do in Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19


Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.


 

Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s argument #3: crucified by demons or Romans?

The focus of my response will center on Carrier’s

  1. claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed,
  2. his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus,
  3. his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces,
  4. his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community,
  5. his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths,
  6. and his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison.

(Gullotta, p. 325. my formatting/numbering for quick reference)

Posts so far:

  1. Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (2017-12-13)
  2. Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s OHJ: A Brief Comment
  3. How Bayes’ Theorem Proves the Resurrection (Gullotta on Carrier once more)
  4. What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 3 (Tim Widowfield)
  5. Who Depoliticized Early Christianity? (Tim Widowfield)
  6. Gullotta, Homer, and the Training of a Correct Scholar
  7. The Function of the Term: “Born of a Woman” (Tim Widowfield)
  8. Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus”: that “born of a woman” passage (again)
  9. Continuing Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus
  10. Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s argument #2: relating to Jesus’ birth and humanity

Daniel Gullotta takes up Carrier’s argument that Jesus was crucified “in heavenly places” beginning as follows:

Rather than believing that Jesus was crucified at the hands of Romans, Carrier claims that Paul and the first Christians believed that ‘Jesus was celestially crucified by the ‘rulers of this world’, by which Carrier means ‘Satan and his demons.’ Most of Carrier’s evidence relies heavily upon 1 Cor 2.8 and Paul’s reference to ‘the rulers of this age’. According to Carrier, these rulers ‘cannot mean the Jewish elite, or the Romans, or any human authority’ but rather ‘Satan and his demons’. But this assessment is inaccurate because it places an artificial distinction between earthly and other-earthly powers that does not exist in Second Temple texts, particularly of the apocalyptic variety.

(Gullotta, p. 331)

Rather than point out the reasons Carrier gives for his interpretation of 1 Cor 2.8 Gullotta dwells entirely on opposing arguments without at any point indicating Carrier’s responses to any of these. Gullotta’s “rebuttals” are in fact answered by Carrier although Gullotta appears to have overlooked that fact. For example, Gullotta in the above quotation says Paul cannot mean the Jewish elite or the Romans quite ignoring Carrier’s point that

This cannot mean just Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin. This is everyone in power: they killed Jesus, and did so only because they were kept from knowing their doing so would save the human race.

(Carrier p. 564)

A review is entitled to disagree with Carrier’s argument but he is not entitled to a criticism that gives readers the impression that Carrier’s argument is nonexistent.

Moreover, Gullotta’s responses are not based on a comprehensive awareness of the range of arguments that have been raised in the history of the interpretation of 1 Cor 2:8 but dwell exclusively on one interpretation only, as if there is no scholarly debate. Since I have only recently explored the extent of the scholarly arguments, past and more recent, both for and against Gullotta’s position, I am reluctant to repeat them here. Anyone interested in the question and the range of arguments, including where Gullotta’s fall short, can access any of those posts. It is fine for Gullotta to disagree with any of them but it is not appropriate to write a review as if Carrier’s position finds no support among specialists in the question.

  1. Are the “Rulers of the Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 Human or Spiritual? – the sea change Who Killed Christ? Human rulers and/or angelic rulers. Addressing 1 Cor 2:6-8.
  2. Who Crucified Jesus – Men or Demons? Continuing Miller’s Study of 1 Cor 2:6-8
  3. A Crucified Messiah Was Not an Offensive Scandal to Jews (with a postscript on evangelical language among scholars)
  4. Seven problems for the view that Paul’s “rulers of this age” were human authorities
  5. What they used to say about Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified the “lord of glory”
  6. 5. More older arguments for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being spirit powers
  7. Once more on the “Spiritual Rulers” in Paul’s Cosmic Drama
  8. Paul’s “Rulers of this Age” — Conclusion (Part ?)

Certainly there is no doubt that demonic powers were believed to influence the actions of earthly authorities. But whether that is the point Paul is expressing in 1 Cor 2:8 is another question.

One is free to argue that Paul did believe that Jesus was crucified on earth but one cannot base that argument on a passage whose meaning is disputed among one’s peers without at least acknowledging that dispute that potentially favours Carrier’s interpretation.

Once again, I suspect Paul may well have understood the crucifixion to have been on earth, yet that position does not contradict the view that in 1 Cor 2:8 Paul says it was the demons were responsible entirely for the crucifixion of Jesus. As addressed in the above posts we see indications that even the evangelists believed that human agents were mere puppets whose strings were being pulled by Satan and demonic forces (as per the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John). (In this respect I remain less certain about Carrier’s and Doherty’s mythicist view of the necessity of a crucifixion in the lower heavens.)

Gullotta concludes his “rebuttal” of Carrier’s point by a long non sequitur listing second and third century references to earthly powers crucifying Jesus and comments:

Given our sources concerning Jesus’ death and knowledge about his executed contemporaries, the reality of a crucified Jesus as another failed messianic pretender from Palestine is remarkably more likely than a demonic crucifixion in outer space.

(Gullotta, p. 334)

Gullotta fails to notice the circularity of his appeal “other failed messianic pretenders” but what is particularly ironic is his appeal to probability. Carrier’s entire method is to establish relative probabilities of each possible explanation for the evidence against the full range of background knowledge. Gullotta typifies the flawed approach Carrier is attempting to address: the habit of appealing only to a narrow range of background information, those few details that support the conventional wisdom, and to fail to balance the probability of the historicist interpretation against arguments for the alternative probability. Gullotta has unfortunately simply swept aside the arguments and background information that he has just read in favour of the mythicist hypothesis as if the relevant pages were blank text. One must infer that Carrier’s fault is disagreeing with the consensus.

More forgivable given Gullotta’s early days as a scholar is his undermining the strength of his review by indicating his ignorance of the range of interpretations among his peers on the Corinthians passage about the rulers of this age crucifying the lord of glory. But where were his peer reviewers whose job surely it was to prevent the publication of such an oversight?

Next: argument #4

 

 

Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s argument #2: relating to Jesus’ birth and humanity

The focus of my response will center on Carrier’s

  1. claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed,
  2. his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus,
  3. his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces,
  4. his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community,
  5. his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths,
  6. and his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison.

(Gullotta, p. 325. my formatting/numbering for quick reference)

Daniel Gullotta next addresses Richard Carrier’s discussion of the passage in Galatians that speaks of Jesus being “born of a woman”. If in the previous criticism Gullotta failed to grasp the “background information” status of Philo’s interpretation of Zechariah, this time he fails to point out to his readers that Carrier actually allows for Gullotta’s criticism and is willing to grant, for the sake of arguing a fortiori, that Gullotta’s interpretation is entirely correct. Why or how Gullotta failed to inform readers that Carrier made this concession is difficult to understand.

Readers have a right to expect that a review does not give a false impression about how the the reviewer’s criticism fits with the author’s argument.

Gullotta writes:

[Carrier] makes an unlikely claim that Paul in Galatians 3.29-4.7 is ‘speaking from beginning to end about being born to allegorical women’, and thus Paul meant that Jesus was born, in an allegorical sense, to Hagar. Carrier mistakenly links Paul’s usage of the story of Abraham and the birth of his sons by different women to Christ, claiming ‘Jesus was momentarily born to the allegorical Hagar, the slave woman, which is the Torah law (the old testament), which holds sway in the earthly Jerusalem, so that he could kill off that law with his own death, making it possible for us to be born of the free woman at last.’

This, however, is not validated by the text. . . . . There is no direct connection between the woman in Gal 4.4 and the women who bear the sons of Abraham in Gal 4.22-24. Paul’s statement that ‘this is an allegory’ appears in Gal 4.24, well after his earlier proclamation . . . .

Carrier explains that his interpretation of the passage is an attempt to approach it without preconceptions of the historicity of Jesus. Even so, I find myself siding with the standard interpretation of the passage as set out by Gullotta. What is important to note, though, is that whatever interpretation one embraces, the Greek word translated “born” does embrace the meaning of “made”. Certainly the phrase itself could and was used to refer to normal births but the fact remains that Paul’s earliest interpreters themselves disputed the exact meaning (see posts linked in the “Born of a Woman” archive).

Here is the passage that Gullotta overlooked. It is in Carrier’s concluding paragraph of his discussion of the passage, p. 582:

But since all this [Carrier’s allegorical interpretation of “born of a woman”] is not yet commonly accepted . . .  I will argue a fortiori by saying [this standard explanation, the one argued by Gullotta] is 100% expected on minimal historicity. . . .  So again, although I doubt it, this passage might also be twice as likely on historicity.

Gullotta has bypassed sixty-five pages of discussion of Paul’s statements about the activities and words of Jesus to zero in on a five page treatment of apparent exceptions without noticing that Carrier actually conceded Gullotta’s interpretation as acceptable.

So when Gullotta goes to lengths to point out the common understanding of Paul’s letters where his statements can well be interpreted in a way that “does not rule out” a belief in the historicity of Jesus, he is saying nothing more than what Carrier acknowledges and accepts in his own argument. The difference between the two is that Carrier is balancing those interpretations against the weight of other passages and information and not treating them as absolutist proof-texts when interpreted in the light of the gospels.

Readers unfamiliar with Carrier’s argument might be asking: If Gullotta’s interpretation is conceded by Carrier then does that not close the case and prove that Paul believed Jesus to be an earthly historical figure? The answer is “no” because even though one can interpret Paul’s words to mean that Jesus had a natural human birth the history of early Christian doctrinal disputes demonstrates that this was not the universal earliest interpretation of Paul. (Besides, although they are contrary to Carrier’s own “minimal criteria for mythicism”, there may be other reasons to see the evidence pointing to a celestial Christ who descends into the physical world in order to die without thinking of such a figure as genuinely historical.)

–o0o–

There are other oddities in Gullotta’s criticism of Carrier’s argument at this point. One such addition is his pointing to the passage in Romans that says Christ came from the seed of David and that therefore he could not be born allegorically of Hagar. Again, Gullotta has overlooked vital details in Carrier’s discussion that address just that point which included a discussion of a second allegorical birth.

–o0o–

Before leaving this particular criticism I cannot avoid dropping in a particular point that sometimes seems to be overlooked. Even if Paul did think of Jesus as appearing as a man on earth that tells us nothing about the “historicity of Jesus”; it only tells us about Paul’s belief.

Next in the series, argument #3.

 

 

Continuing Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

Earlier posts:

Daniel Gullotta presents his review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus as a sound scholarly perspective that rises beyond the religious partisanship of previous efforts to address the Christ myth theory.

In the rare instances where these theories have been addressed, they are predominantly countered by self-confessed (and typically evangelical) Christian apologists and scholars.

(Gullotta, p. 312)

“The Jesus mythicists are a group of enthusiastic atheists who through websites and self-published books try to prove the equivalent of a flat earth. I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.” — Michael Bird, Dec 2014.

Unfortunately, while drawing attention to the “self-confessed Christian” bias of previous responses to mythicism Gullotta indicates that his own effort has been compromised when he expresses “particular” thanks to a number of scholars who are themselves not only “self-confessed Christian apologists and scholars” but also well-known for their disdain for the Christ myth theory (e.g. Craig Evans, Larry Hurtado, James McGrath and others) for their assistance in the preparation of his own review. Even the choice of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus as the publisher of the review adds to the irony given that one of its more stridently apologist editors has said the editorial board is hostile to the very idea of Jesus mythicism (see box insert).

Gullotta selects six features of Carrier’s argument to address:

The focus of my response will center on Carrier’s

  1. claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed,
  2. his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus,
  3. his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces,
  4. his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community,
  5. his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths,
  6. and his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison.

(Gullotta, p. 325. my formatting/numbering for quick reference)

I hope to further address Gullotta’s confession that he failed to understand Carrier’s methodology in a future post. Here I address his discussion of Carrier’s “claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed”.

Inspired by the central idea of Doherty’s work, Carrier’s foundational argument is that Jesus was not understood within the earliest days of Christianity as a human-historic figure but rather as a celestial-angelic being, akin to Gabriel in Islam . . . . According to Carrier, ‘some [pre-Christian] Jews already believed there was a supernatural son of God named Jesus — because Paul’s contemporary Philo interprets the messianic prophecy of Zech 6.12 in just such a way’. Carrier draws this conclusion from Philo of Alexandria’s On the Confusion of Tongues 63, which evokes the story of the high priest Joshua, son of Jehozadak, in Zech 6. He then compares the common language used by Philo to describe the logos with the language used by Paul to describe Christ as evidence of their shared belief in this heavenly being named Jesus.

…..

The most damning argument against Carrier’s claim is that there is no literary or archeological evidence within the entirety of the Mediterranean world and Second Temple period that validates the existence of this pre-Christian celestial Jesus. In surveying references to angels during this time, one of the most common features in the names of angels is the appearance of the element of ‘el’. This survey reveals that the most common angelic characters of this period were named Michael, Gabriel, Sariel/Uriel, and Raphael.

…..

At no point does an angel or celestial being called Jesus appear within Second Temple Judaism, and ‘Jesus’ exhibits all the signs of a mundane name given to a human Jewish male within the period.

(Gullotta pp. 326f)

My response is double-edged. While Gullotta throws Carrier’s argument out of all perspective Carrier has opened himself up to unnecessary criticism with the manner of his discussion of Philo’s interpretation of Zechariah.

I begin with Gullotta’s point. read more »

News, Information and Propaganda (How the Three Become One)

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

In a recent post I pointed out how information overload, even of hard facts, can function as propaganda rather than as a genuinely educational resource. At the time I made mention of Jacques Ellul as the source for this particular point. Here are Ellul’s words (in translation and with my own bolded highlighting for the tl;dr types) from his 1965 book, Propaganda:

That propaganda has an irrational character is still a well-established and well-recognized truth. The distinction between propaganda and information is often made: information is addressed to reason and experience—it furnishes facts; propaganda is addressed to feelings and passions—it is irrational. There is, of course, some truth in this, but the reality is not so simple. For there is such a thing as rational propaganda, just as there is rational advertising. Advertisements for automobiles or electrical appliances are generally based on technical descriptions or proved performance—rational elements used for advertising purposes. Similarly there is a propaganda based exclusively on facts, statistics, economic ideas. Soviet propaganda, especially since 1950, has been based on the undeniable scientific progress and economic development of the Soviet Union; but it is still propaganda, for it uses these facts to demonstrate, rationally, the superiority of its system and to demand everybody’s support.

Here Ellul presents examples of modern “rational and factual propaganda” such as

  • the French economic film Algérie français which is “overloaded with economic geography and statistics. But it is still propaganda.”
  • education in Mao’s China being based on “pseudo-rational proofs”
  • American propaganda in the form of “rational and factual” news bulletins of the American services “based on ‘knowledge’ and information”.
9 Ernst Kris and Nathan Leites have correctly noted the differences, in this connection, between the propaganda of 1914 and that of 1940: the latter is more sober and informative, less emotional and moralistic. As we say in fashionable parlance, it is addressed less to the superego and more to the ego.

We can say that the more progress we make, the more propaganda becomes rational and the more it is based on serious arguments, on dissemination of knowledge, on factual information, figures, and statistics.9

Purely impassioned and emotional propaganda is disappearing. Even such propaganda contained elements of fact: Hitler’s most inflammatory speeches always contained some facts which served as base or pretext. It is unusual nowadays to find a frenzied propaganda composed solely of claims without relation to reality. It is still found in Egyptian propaganda, and it appeared in July i960 in Lumumba’s propaganda in the Belgian Congo. Such propaganda is now discredited, but it still convinces and always excites.

Modern man needs a relation to facts, a self-justification to convince himself that by acting in a certain way he is obeying reason and proved experience. We must therefore study the close relationship between information and propaganda. Propaganda’s content increasingly resembles information. It has even clearly been proved that a violent, excessive, shock-provoking propaganda text leads ultimately to less conviction and participation than does a more “informative” and reasonable text on the same subject. A large dose of fear precipitates immediate action; a reasonably small dose produces lasting support. The listener’s critical powers decrease if the propaganda message is more rational and less violent.

Propaganda’s content therefore tends to be rational and factual. ….. Besides content, there is the receiver of the content, the individual who undergoes the barrage of propaganda or information. When an individual has read a technical and factual advertisement of a television set or a new automobile engine, and if he is not an electrician or a mechanic, what does he remember? Can he describe a transistor or a new type of wheel-suspension? Of course not. All those technical descriptions and exact details will form a general picture in his head, rather vague but highly colored—and when he speaks of the engine, he will say: “It’s terrific!”

It is exactly the same with all rational, logical, factual propaganda. After having read an article on wheat in the United States or on steel in the Soviet Union, does the reader remember the figures and statistics, has he understood the economic mechanisms, has he absorbed the line of reasoning? If he is not an economist by profession, he will retain an over-all impression, a general conviction that “these Americans (or Russians) are amazing. . . . They have methods…. Progress is important after all,” and so on. Similarly, emerging from the showing of a film such as Algérie française, he forgets all the figures and logical proofs and retains only a feeling of rightful pride in the accomplishments of France in Algeria. Thereafter, what remains with the individual affected by this propaganda is a perfectly irrational picture, a purely emotional feeling, a myth. The facts, the data, the reasoning—all are forgotten, and only the impression remains. And this is indeed what the propagandist ultimately seeks, for the individual will never begin to act on the basis of facts, or engage in purely rational behavior. What makes him act is the emotional pressure, the vision of a future, the myth. The problem is to create an irrational response on the basis of rational and factual elements. That response must be fed with facts, those frenzies must be provoked by rigorously logical proofs. Thus propaganda in itself becomes honest, strict, exact, but its effect remains irrational because of the spontaneous transformation of all its contents by the individual.

We emphasize that this is true not just for propaganda but also for information. Except for the specialist, information, even when it is very well presented, gives people only a broad image of the world. And much of the information disseminated nowadays—research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, analyses—eliminate personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion even more surely than the most extravagant propaganda. This claim may seem shocking; but it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener: they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image. If a man is given one item of information, he will retain it; if he is given a hundred data in one field, on one question, he will have only a general idea of that question. But if he is given a hundred items of information on all the political and economic aspects of a nation, he will arrive at a summary judgment—“The Russians are terrific!” and so on.

A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them. They are caught in a web of facts and must remain at the level of the facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modem information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information. His opinion will ultimately be formed solelv on the basis o£ the facts transmitted to him, and not on the basis of his choice and his personal experience. The more the techniques of distributing information develop, the more the individual is shaped by such information. It is not true that he can choose freely with regard to what is presented to him as the truth. And because rational propaganda thus creates an irrational situation, it remains, above all, propaganda—that is, an inner control over the individual by a social force, which means that it deprives him of himself.

Ellul, J., 1973. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Reprint of the 1965 ed. Vintage, New York. pp. 84-87

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Why We Connect Moral Judgments to God(s)

. . . . religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions 

How is it possible to live a moral life if we don’t believe in a god?

Without belief in God, some believers shriek hysterically, we would have no moral code. We would believe we would be free to kill and steal and do all sorts of other horrible things.

Christians, Muslims, Jews claim that their God gave humanity its moral laws or codes. Other believers attribute moral interests to their respective deities, too. Gods are so interested in the morality of our actions, we are told, that they will even punish or reward people according to whether they have been good or bad.

What follows is from a book first published a decade and a half ago so others more in the know may be able to contribute more current insights or simply alternative explanations. Pending those updates here is Pascal Boyer‘s explanation for why people connect moral interests to gods or spirits or ancestors that he set out in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer writes:

[W]e know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people’s moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or no such concepts. Also, these thoughts naturally come to children, who would never link them to supernatural agency. Finally, even religious people’s thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than by codes and models. (p. 191)

Boyer begins by addressing the many cross-cultural studies that demonstrate beyond all doubt what all parents have always known: that even young children have moral intuitions. They don’t need to be taught by a thunderous voice from heaven that it is wrong to intentionally deceive someone else with misleading information. No-one taught my infant that it is wrong to lie before he  told his first lie with clear signs of associated guilt. Further, young children know the difference between “moral principles” and “conventional rules”. In a classroom, for example, they know the difference between shouting out in class and stealing someone’s pencil case. They also know that stealing an eraser is not as serious as hitting others.

Most significantly, they know that

social consequences are specific to moral violations. (p. 179)

If they forget or disregard an instruction not to leave their notebook beside the fireplace they will not be surprised or troubled by the worst consequences in the same way they expect to suffer social ostracism or condemnation for being caught stealing.

So experimental studies show that there is an early-developed specific inference system, a specialized moral sense underlying ethical intuitions. Notions of morality are distinct from those used to evaluate other aspects of social interaction (this is why social conventions and moral imperatives are easily distinguished by very young children). (p. 179)

There is something remarkable about such moral intuitions in the story of our development to maturity. Certain actions are seen as immoral for their own sake no matter what, and that understanding does not change into adulthood. Stealing an eraser is wrong, period. Now there might be circumstances where you, the thief, think stealing it is justified — the owner doesn’t care; its owner stole something from you earlier so stealing the eraser is rationalised as “just deserts”; etc. — but the fact remains we know that stealing the eraser is nonetheless a moral breach.

So it is all the more interesting that no such change is observed in the domain of moral intuitions. For the three-year-old as well as for the ten-year-old and indeed for most adults, the fact that a behavior is right or wrong is not a function of one’s viewpoint. It is only seen as a function of the actual behavior and the actual situation. (p. 180, my highlighting in all quotations)

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Expulsion of the Palestinians, Part 11

This series of posts has put a spotlight on the historical evidence that despite certain public comments to the contrary the pre-1948 Zionist movement was dominated by the intention to cleanse Palestine of its Arab population to make way for the settlement of Jews from Europe and elsewhere. Much of the evidence surveyed has come from archival sources such as the Israel State Archives and the Central Zioist Archives (CZA), as well as from personal diaries of key Zionist leaders and minutes of Zionist meetings. This is the eleventh post of what are my notes from Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 by Nur Masalha.

This post begins with a look at one more transfer plan that interested many Zionists even though it failed in the end to be implemented:

Edward Norman’s Plan of Transfer to Iraq, 1934-48

Edward Norman (1900-1955) was an American Jewish millionaire deeply involved in fund-raising for the Jewish settlement in pre-1948 Palestine, the Yishuv. With the collaboration of Yishuv and other major Zionist leaders he spent much time and energy working on a transfer plan throughout the years 1934 to 1948.

Norman’s first plan, 1934, was titled An Approach to the Arab Question in Palestine. The premise of this 19 page memorandum:

immigration and possession of the land by definition are the basis of the reconstruction of the Jewish homeland.

Norman understood that Jewish colonization was “a general cause of concern” for the Palestinian Arabs because it entailed

taking over Palestine without the consent of the indigenous population.

The crux of the problem for the Yishuv, therefore, in Norman’s view, was that Jews were to gradually take over Palestine while simultaneously finding a new place for the Arab population to live.

The solution, he suggested, was “the kingdom of Iraq”. What he wanted was for the Iraqi government to agree to donate agricultural land for the Palestinian Arabs and to facilitate their free transfer, along with all their cattle and other property. The Arab press would have to support the plan, too.

What is interesting here is Norman’s assumptions about the character of Arabs: no matter how long they had been settled agriculturalists they were still nomads at heart —

It must be remembered that a transportation such as suggested by Arabs from Palestine to Iraq would not be a removal to a foreign country. To the usual Arab there is no difference between Palestine, Iraq, or any other part of the Arab world. The boundaries that have been instituted since the War are scarcely known to many of the Arabs. The language, customs, and religion are the same. It is true that a moving of any kind involves leaving familiar scenes, but it is not a tradition of the Arabs to be strongly attached to a locality. Their nomadic habits still have that much influence, even among the settled elements. (Masalha, p. 143)

Norman feared that anything other than economic inducements for the Palestinian Arabs to evacuate their homes would backfire in the long run. He wanted to avoid a situation where the Jewish settlers looked as though they were pressuring the Arabs to leave:

If the Jews ever succeed in acquiring a major part of Palestine a large number of Arabs perforce will have to leave the country and find homes elsewhere, if they are forced out inexorably as the result of Jewish pressure they will go with ill-will and probably will cherish an enmity towards the Jews that might persist for generations and that would render the position of the Jewish homeland precarious. The rest of the world, too, easily might come to sympathize with the Arabs. (p. 143)

How to initiate the plan

The first step was to involve influential and sympathetic Jewish persons and to make very discreet investigations into Iraq’s willingness to assist. The costs of moving Arabs village by village to Iraq would have to be ascertained without raising any public alarms. The necessary meetings with the British Colonial Office were also mapped out. The first Arabs to be moved would be the ones along the Palestinian coast since their agricultural ways were the more easily transferable to Iraq in the initial stages.

Revision 1

In 1937, however, violent confrontations between the Yishuv and Palestinians led Norman to expand and revise his plan. He had to acknowledge an unsavory fact: read more »

Reconstructing Papias and a new look at the Synoptic Problem

After five years of guilty looks at my unread copy of Dennis R. MacDonald’s Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord, I finally overcame my fear of reading its 700 pages of radically new argument addressing the “synoptic gospel problem” — and was very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it. It was not fearsomely complex at all. It was a positively challenging and thought provoking read. Speculative in places, yes, but speculation is always tethered to the rocks of data; it is not free-floating speculation. And much of the discussion is a close examination of composition and density of those data rocks with a view to testing the explanatory power of the thesis.

Before I outline MacDonald’s suggestions let’s refresh our memories of the most common prevailing views of the synoptic problem. The most common view is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke independently drew upon the Gospel of Mark and another (mostly sayings) source now lost to us, Q:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels

Still a minority view, but one that appears to be gaining a little more ground since Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q is a revamping of the Farrer thesis:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels

You can see other proposed solutions to the question of the relationship between the synoptic gospels if you go to the wikipedia link I have added to each of the above models.

Enter Dennis MacDonald and his thesis that includes the writings of Papias. Papias? We know about him from what others like Eusebius and Irenaeus have said about him. You will remember that he was the early second century name associated with a rather bizarre story about Judas (he swelled up until he exploded) yet more soberly with discussions he held with certain elders and accounts of the gospels of Mark (it was a record of Peter’s memories but Mark got the order of events all mixed up) and Matthew (Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew but he got the order of events right).

Papias was said to have written The Expositions of the Logia (sayings and stories) about the Lord in five books. With the benefit of other scholars’ research (especially Norelli’s) into the ancient references to these five books of Expositions MacDonald has attempted to reconstruct some idea of the contents of these respective five volumes.

In the following outline of MacDonald’s resulting suggested (he is far from dogmatic) “reconstruction” I have mostly incorporated extracts from Ben C. Smith’s Textexcavation site.

.

The Five Books of the Expositions of the Logia of the Lord

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A Well Known Historian Praises Bart Ehrman’s History of Christianity’s Triumph

I have enjoyed and learned from two historical tomes by the popular historian Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. Holland knows how to garnish historical detail and interpretation with narrative colour.

Whose face is the model for this image?

Some days ago Holland reviewed Bart Ehrman’s new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World in The Spectator: How Christianity saw off its rivals and became the universal church. He had the highest praise for both Ehrman as a scholar and his newest publication:

This is the work of a great scholar, sifting sources, placing them in their historical context, interrogating the assumptions that may condition how we interpret them. There are even some graphs. Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. . . .

Ehrman is a great scholar, and this — as one would expect — is a book full of learning and nuance.

Larry Hurtado blogged a notice of Tom Holland’s review of Ehrman (while parenthetically noting Holland’s positive words about his (Hurtado’s) own book, Destroyer of the Gods.)

It is nice to see scholars getting along so well, especially from different areas of speciality. We can for a while at least put behind us those times biblical scholars complain that outside critics are not qualified to properly assess the worth of publications of “historian-theologians”. If some readers were becoming just a tad uncomfortable with the inordinately(?) prodigious output of a scholar who simultaneously carries a full-time teaching load they are surely reassured by the confirmation that Ehrman’s new book is further evidence of his scholarly greatness. Now I do not question that Ehrman has made notable contributions to both scholarship and popular knowledge of early Christianity and its sources. Can I be forgiven, however, for suggesting that some of his most informative and valuable publications (e.g. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Lost Christianities…) are some decades old? His recent work that purported to address memory theory in Jesus studies for a popular audience was Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior unfortunately disappointed his peers who are specialists in the current application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies. I am reminded of the ancient historian Michael Grant who wrote more books than he had active years as a classicist. Obviously there has to be a relationship between quantity and quality at some point.

Tom Holland

And not even the most popular of historians and theologians, neither Tom Holland nor Bart Ehrman, are without biases and professional flaws. Holland laid out his own bias when he wrote the following in September 2016:

Why I was wrong about Christianity

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian. . . .

. . . .

The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. . . . .

Holland, T. (2016). Why I was wrong about Christianity. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity

I have suggested before that Tom Holland has overlooked something that even biblical scholars have noted: that Christianity not only contained novelty; it also encapsulated values that appealed to ancient ideals. See, for example, some of the work by Gregory Riley discussed on this blog.

Since bias is inevitably with us all what we look for in an author is awareness of one’s biases. If Holland appears not to notice his own neglect of an alternative narrative he does at least pick up Ehrman on this point:

Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. ‘I do not celebrate it either as a victory for the human race and a sign of cultural progress on the one hand, or a major sociopolitical setback and cultural disaster on the other.’ Historians rarely proclaim their neutrality with quite such emphasis.

Perhaps, though, Ehrman protests too much. Neutrality on the topic of Christianity, for historians brought up in the West, can present peculiar challenges. That Christians are parti pris does not mean that agnostics and atheists are necessarily any the less so. No scholar today writing about Isis or Mithras has skin in the game; but Ehrman, when he writes about early Christianity, most certainly does. A one-time evangelical who found the experience of studying biblical texts so destabilising to his faith that he is now an agnostic, he is also an American — and therefore, simply by virtue of being a professor of religious studies, a participant in the US’s ongoing culture wars. Neutral he is not.

What of professional competence, even consistent skill in maintaining the distinction between evidence and justified interpretation on the one hand and more free-wheeling extrapolations on the other? If at least one scholar has found fault with Ehrman’s at times cavalier approach to his material so has at least one other found fault in Holland’s desire to tell an acceptable story outstripping due care to maintain professional standards:

In “Dynasty,” his history of the first five emperors, another British historian, Tom Holland, admits quite candidly, citing Tacitus, that “even when it comes to notable events, we are in the dark.” The Roman historians themselves were well aware of this. Tacitus begins his “Annals”: “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, while they remained alive, out of dread — and then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” Alas, Tacitus himself was not immune to similar prejudices, nor was our other prime source, the gossipy Suetonius. Holland, too, itches to get on to the juicy bits, quoting Suetonius: “But enough of the emperor; now to the monster.” He always perks up when, as he puts it in his breathless way, “fresh and murderous novelties were brewing,” and he does not always stop to catch his breath and assess just how true it all is. Did Nero really murder his mother and two of his wives, sodomize his stepbrother and deliberately set fire to Rome to make room for his new palace, putting in some lyre practice the while? Did the austere and high-minded Tiberius really spend his retirement in Capri cavorting with nymphets and toyboys in the most esoteric debaucheries? — (my emphasis)

Mount, F. (2015, November 20). Mary Beard’s ‘SPQR’ and Tom Holland’s ‘Dynasty.’ The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/books/review/mary-beards-spqr-and-tom-hollands-dynasty.html

 

It’s very nice to have the commendations of scholars from a field outside one’s own. Surely the praise of a “non-biblical historian” can add prestige to the work of a “historian-theologian”. It is worth being reminded, however, that even the most popular historians and theologians are not beyond serious criticism.