Category Archives: New Testament

Mostly straightforward but still some questions arise. Where does New Testament end and Church history and question of Christian origins, also certain roles of Marcion, begin? (Marcion’s argued influence on NT should be included here; also evidence of early readings found in Fathers like Tertullian.) Relevant manuscript discoveries and analysis belong here, including histories of their later copying.

Review, part 2 (Damnation upon that Christ Myth Theory!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

M. David Litwa declared at the outset of his book How the Gospels Became History

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern. (p.3)

So I remain mystified by his decision to make his first chapter entirely about the “Jesus Myth Theory”. It adds nothing to his argument about the “How the Gospels Became History” — which was the argument I wanted to read about when I sought out the book.

Litwa does excuse his discussion of the Jesus myth theory by explaining that the three “mythicist” views he will address are

examples of how comparison ought not to be done. (p. 22)

But he further delays this discussion by irrelevantly accusing most “nonscholarly mythicists” of being disgruntled and obsessed former fundamentalists.

[Maurice Casey] successfully showed that most of them were responding to their previous Fundamentalist views of Jesus. (p. 23)

Litwa cites nothing more than Casey’s assertions, magically transforming his baseless claims into a “successful demonstration”. I demonstrated that Casey’s assertions were lacking in any evidentiary foundation, with the abundance of evidence actually contradicting his claim. See Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics. Not a single testimony or publication (internet or print publication) of anyone who has left a fundamentalist or cultic church that I have read has “blamed Jesus” or expressed a desire to banish Jesus from history, though I suppose, given the bigness of the world, that there must be some exceptions somewhere. Former fundamentalists are generally either thankful to Jesus for bringing them out of their cultic associations or simply treat Jesus as an “innocent bystander”, the mere object of belief, while the villainy is always placed squarely on manipulative humans. I myself returned to mainstream churches after my cult experience and was very thankful and happy to do so. It was only after ongoing questioning that I eventually left mainstream Christianity after becoming an atheist, and even later still before I took any interest in the question of the historicity of Jesus.

I do have to wonder if M. David Litwa genuinely read Maurice Casey’s book against mythicists (Casey also personally attacks non-mythicists, anyone whom he appears to think has unfairly dared to criticize his work in the past) because the intellectual level of the book is surely an embarrassment to any professional scholar. Raphael Lataster remarked,

I find the posts by Hoffman, Maurice Casey, and Stephanie Fisher to be too mean-spirited, scornful, unconvincing, polemical, and amateurish to be even remotely worthy of consideration here. (Lataster, 133)

and I also posted some responses that are now archived here.

So Litwa informs readers that “nonscholarly mythicists” are

dispelling a phantom from their own tormented past[s] (though the daimon often returns — seven times as strong) 

and that their mythicist belief is

born of seething resentment and (un)spoken rage against Fundamental Christianity (p. 24)

— without explaining what any of this has to do with his thesis that he has already said is not concerned with the question of historicity. Yet he does insist that there are serious Christ Myth scholars who are not former fundamentalists and that their arguments need to be taken more seriously. Why, or how this advances the thesis of his book, he does not explain. But having thoroughly poisoned the well Litwa proceeds to tackle the arguments of Bauer, Brodie and Carrier.

Bruno Bauer

Litwa manages to discuss Bauer’s “mythicist” views without once mentioning Paul or the New Testament epistles even though it was Bauer’s study of Paul that led him to conclude Jesus had not existed.

At the end of his investigation of the Gospels, Bauer is inclined to make the decision on the question whether there ever was a historical Jesus depend on the result of a further investigation which he proposed to make into the Pauline epistles. (Schweitzer, 139, my emphasis)

As long as Bauer studied the gospels he remained open to the possibility of a historical Jesus as the beginning of Christianity. read more »

Review, pt 1e (e for Exceptions!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

There are other types of Greco-Roman historical works that have received less attention in M. David Litwa’s introductory chapter but that may yet be closer to the gospel narratives. Litwa did refer to these but with less elaboration in his introduction so I’ll address them here. Overall, we will see that these types of historical writings were not held with much respect among educated readers.

Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the evangelists, also complained that many historians turned to fantastical tales (mytholegein) to win a reputation as successful historians.

(Litwa, 12)

The Roman author Lucian satirized these types of historical works in True History (or True Story). One passage, to give you an idea of the flavour of the whole:

The rich men have garments of glass, very soft and delicate : the poorer sort of brass woven, whereof they have great plenty, which they enseam with water to make it fit for the workman, as we do our wool. If I should write what manner of eyes they have, I doubt I should be taken for a liar in publishing a matter so incredible : yet I cannot choose but tell it : for they have eyes to take in and  out as please themselves : and when a man is so disposed, he may take them out and then put them in and see again : many when they have lost their own eyes, borrow of others, for the rich have many lying by them.

(Lucian, True History, 71)

The same Lucian also wrote a more serious work in which he detailed the faults of many pop historians of his day and explained more seriously how history should be written. The hacks, Lucian pointed out, wrote for personal fame. They did not write anonymously. They sought to out-entertain their rivals. They capitalized on major news stories sweeping through the empire.

. . . from the beginning of the present excitements — the barbarian war, the Armenian disaster, the succession of victories — you cannot find a man but is writing history; nay, every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. . . .

If rumours about Jesus were popular throughout Syria and Jordan at during his lifetime then one can compare Lucian’s observation that popular news created a ready market for relevant histories.

. . . Another is a keen emulator of Thucydides, and by way of close approximation to his model starts with his own name — most graceful of beginnings, redolent of Attic thyme! Look at it: ‘Crepereius Calpurnianus of Pompeiopolis wrote the history of the . . . .

Yet the persons who wrote the gospels did so anonymously. (Compare many of the books of Jewish scriptures and other Second Temple novellas.)

. . . Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law — the poet’s fancy.

. . . The vulgar may very likely extend their favour to this; but the select (whose judgement you disregard) will get a good deal of entertainment out of your heterogeneous, disjointed, fragmentary stuff.

Are the “poetic fancies” in the gospels presented as sheer entertainment or as something more?

Returning to Josephus. We began with Litwa’s mention of his essay against the views of Apion. Here is what Josephus wrote:

It is, then, the absence of any previously deposited record — which would have both instructed those who wished to learn and refuted those who lied — that accounts for the extent of the disagreement among the writers.

But a second reason must be added to this: those who hastily set about writing did not bother about the truth — although they were always quick to make this their promisebut displayed their literary prowess, and in whatever way they thought they could outshine others they adapted themselves in accordance with this, some turning to recount mythology, others seeking favor by praising cities or kings; others set out to criticise historical actions or the historians, thinking that their reputation would shine in this way.

In short, what they continue to practice is the complete opposite of history. For it is evidence of true history if everyone both says and writes the same things about the same (events). They, on the other hand, think that they will seem the most truthful of all if they describe the same things differently.

(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)

I wrote more fully of what Josephus might have thought of the gospels as works of history in What Josephus might have said about the Gospels. By Josephus’s ideal standards, at least as he professed them, we might conclude that he would have had a very poor view of our gospels as supposed works of history or biography.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

There is one more exception, one not explicitly brought out in Litwa’s Introduction, and that is historians’ accounts of omens that precede historical turning points. I discussed this exception to the rule only recently so I will not elaborate again here: see Herodotus and Miracles — Material for a Gospel Comparison. A comparison with gospel material would be limited to the unexpected darkness enveloping the land at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and the earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, and perhaps even Matthew’s corpses of saints rising from their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem.


Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

-o-

Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.

Lucian of Samosata. 2016. “The Way to Write History.” In Works, by Lucian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Web edition. The University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lucian/works/chapter24.html.

Lucian of Samosata. 1894. Lucian’s True History. Translated by Francis Hickes. London : Privately printed. http://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala.

Origen. 1869. “Contra Celsum.” In The Writings of Origen. Vol. 2, translated by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark. http://archive.org/details/writingsoforigen02origuoft.


 

Review, pt 1d: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Gospels as Mythic Historiography)

I have been slow posting with the first few pages of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History but I hope the time I’ve taken with the foundations (see various recent posts on ancient historians) will pay off when I get into the main argument. A reason I have taken a detour with readings of ancient Greco-Roman historians is the difficulty I have had with some of Litwa’s explanations in his introductory chapter. Was I reading contradictions or was I simply not understanding? I’m still not entirely sure so I’ll leave you to think it through.

Litwa will set out a case that educated non-Christians would have read the gospels as a certain type of history:

I propose that educated non-Christian readers in the Greco-Roman world would have viewed the gospels as something like mythical historiographiesrecords of actually occurring events that nonetheless included fantastical elements. . . . There was at the time an independent interest in the literature of paradoxography, or wonder tales.67 Literature that recounted unusual events especially about eastern sages would not have been automatically rejected as unhistorical.

Even as the evangelists recounted the awe-inspiring wonders of their hero, they managed to keep their stories within the flexible bounds of historiography. They were thus able to provide the best of both worlds: an entertaining narrative that, for all its marvels, still appeared to be a record of actual events. In other words, even as the evangelists preserved fantastical elements (to mythödes) in their narratives, they maintained a kind of baseline plausibility to gesture toward the cultured readers of their time.

67 – the citation is to mid-second century records

(Litwa, 12. Bolding and formatting are mine in all quotations)

I interpret this particular comment to mean that the gospel narratives were similar to other historical writings of the time insofar as they sprinkled a tale of “normal” (i.e. plausible) human activities with stories of miracles and wonders. That is, the main (“normal”, “plausible”) narrative (represented by green blocks) flows independently of the sporadic wonder tales (purple with sun disc). The wonder tales add entertainment but the story itself does not depend on them. They can be omitted without any damage to the main narrative.

Examples in Greco-Roman histories: where an author inserts a tale that “they say” but leaves it open to the reader whether to believe it or not. For some examples, see The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors. Usually the “wonder story” is only loosely integrated into the larger realistic account by rhetorical devices such as “they say” or “there is a story that” or “poets have written” or “a less realistic account that is well known…” etcetera.

Examples in noncanonical gospels: Jesus being “born” by suddenly appearing beside Mary after a two-month pregnancy (Ascension of Isaiah); Jesus causing clay pigeons to come alive (Infancy Gospel of Thomas). . . . Tales of wonder that entertain as interludes rather than drive the plot.

In the canonical gospels, on the other hand, miracles are an essential part of the respective plots. To see how true this is, try reading the Gospel of Mark after first deleting or covering up the episodes of the miraculous, the divine or spirit world, mind-reading, and other supernatural inferences. One is left with a story that makes no sense. Was it because of an argument over unwashed hands that Jesus was crucified, for example? In the canonical gospels, the miracles are essential to the plot development: they are what bring notoriety to Jesus and identify him as the one whom the priests must, through jealousy, get rid of. The gospel narratives simply don’t work as stories without Jesus’ ability to perform miracles and demonstrate (though he is not obviously recognized as such by the human actors) his divine nature. The Greco-Roman histories would lose some entertainment value by omitting certain miracles but their fundamental narratives would still survive.

The tales of wonder in the gospels are (1) rich with theological meaning (e.g. feeding multitudes in the wilderness represents a “greater Moses” or shepherd role of Jesus) and (2) integral to the plot (e.g. the miracles set in train the events that lead to the atoning death of Jesus).

Hence I find Litwa’s thesis difficult to accept in the light of what we know of Greco-Roman histories. In the gospels, the tales of wonder themselves must be understood as the historical events, essential to the historical narrative, not optional entertainment along the way. There are not “two worlds” in the gospels, mundane and wonders, but one world in which the wonders are as essentially historical as the preaching and the debates.

A Better Comparison?

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Three Lessons from Classics for Biblical Studies?

Some interesting points I came across while reading A. J. Woodman’s Rhetoric in Classical Historiography and some of his references:

Initial eyewitness claims not followed up

Earlier in this same chapter Thucydides drew a distinction between events which he experienced himself and those which were reported to him by others (22.2). Although  he never gives us any indication of how many, or indeed which, events fall into each category . . . 

(p. 26)

The implication is that Thucydides’ rhetoric is designed to impress; there is no evidence of any truth to the claim. Indeed, works demonstrating Thucydides’ reliance upon literary sources (e.g. Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristarchus of Syracuse) — sources that Thucydides attempted to deny — are listed. That reminded me that we never read in Luke-Acts which events are derived from the “eyewitnesses” apparently referenced in the prologue.

Poetic devices appearing in prose

Herodotus often echoes the rhythms of poetry, and some passages of his prose can actually be turned into verse without too much difficulty. . . . . [Thucydides] . . . concludes, perhaps significantly, by reproducing the hexameter rhythm of an all but complete line of epic verse.

(pp. 3, 9)

Prose authors periodically break into poetic rhythms. That makes me wonder if there are similar practices in philosophical or epistolary literature from the era of the Pauline letters. Paul is sometimes said to be incorporating earlier hymn verses into his letters; what is the likelihood he authored such passages himself?

Grounds for suspecting interpolation

To be considered for inclusion in the category of ancient interpolations in Aristophanes a word, phrase or passage must satisfy two conditions: first, there must be grounds for thinking that Aristophanes did not write it, or at least not with the intention that it should stand where it now stands in the text; and secondly, there must be grounds for thinking that it was present in at least one copy of the text earlier than the dark age which separates late antiquity from the Photian renaissance.

Sounds reasonable. The criteria would open floodgates of possible interpolations into the NT texts, though.


Dover, Kenneth J. 1977. “Ancient Interpolation in Aristophanes.” Illinois Classical Studies 2: 136–62.

Woodman, A. J. 2004. Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies. London : New York: Routledge.


Once More — Homer, History and the Gospels-Acts

I know some readers find it difficult to accept that our canonical gospels and Acts were seriously influenced by the epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey.

Here is something (two things, actually) to think about.

Thomas Rosenmeyer

We think of “history” as a genre of literature that is meant to convey the idea of facts, truth, “what essentially happened”. But after reading an essay by classicist Thomas Rosenmeyer I suspect that that notion is not applicable to those we think of as historians in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Rather, what ancient authors were attuned to was emulation of a forefather — e.g. Homer — who set the standard.

Finally, there is one factor that I am inclined to think doomed any genre thinking from the start. This is the ancient critical commitment to the operation of zelos, aemulatio. I suspect that if one were to ask an ancient dramatist or a writer of epic why he was working in his medium and not in another, and which model he was following, he would cite his allegiance to the protos heuretes, the founder of the fine in which he was engaged. . . . Instead of genre criticism, the ancients practiced model criticism. Their allegiances and affiliations connect, not with a mode or a kind, but with a father, a personal guide. If they ally themselves with a work, it is identified as the work of a revered author, the precipitation of a literary act, not a fatherless text or a textual segment or a generic idea. Like the Pythian priestess inspired by her god, writers and critics are inspired by the effluences, aporroai, that stream into their souls from the sacred mouths of great models (Longinus, On the Sublime 13. 2). Where genre thinking is scientific, inferred from a sufficient sampling of texts and their properties, model thinking is, as it were, moral, and triggered by predecessors.

(Rosenmeyer, 435-36)

John Marincola

But Homer? What does Homer have to do with history? Here we scan an article by John Marincola in The Homer Encyclopedia

As in other areas of ancient literature, the influence of Homer on the Greek and Roman historians was profound and abiding. . . . 

The Odyssey exerted a strong influence on early investigators into other cultures (Montiglio 2005, 118–146), and the figure of Odysseus himself was important in many foundation myths of Greek colonies (Malkin 1998). . . . 

The other important area of Homeric influence was on the historians themselves. The developed genre of historiography took from the Homeric poems many features of epic: a mimetic, largely third-person narrative of deeds, interspersed with the speeches of historical characters in direct discourse; a concern to articulate the causes of actions and to pinpoint responsibility; an elevated style appropriate to “great” deeds; and a concern to immortalize those deeds for posterity and to draw from them important lessons about life and human action. The historians were also influenced by Homer in their choice of “suitable” subject matter: from the Iliad, the story of great deeds and struggles . . . from the Odyssey, an interest in foreign lands and places, in the guile and cunning of leaders, and in the pleasures of narrative itself. . . . 

The early historians were particularly influenced by and engaged with Homer. Herodotus plays a key role here, and was recognized already in antiquity as “most like Homer” . . . [I]t was Homer who offered him an intelligible model for the presentation of those enquiries: how to construct a large-scale narrative, with (sometimes expansive) shifts in time and space; how to subordinate individual episodes and digressions within a larger, unified narrative structure; and how to present the events of the past with immediacy and clarity. Herodotus unites both epics within his work, since his thematic conception – a great war between East and West – is indebted to the Iliad, while his own travel, enquiry, interest in marvels, and preoccupation with reversals of fortune owe much to the Odyssey. . . . 

Yet even while imitating Homer, Herodotus challenged him . . . “correcting” and “improving” him . . . 

Even Thucydides followed Homer’s trail:

This twin legacy – emulation and challenge – was bequeathed to Thucydides, who maintains the general epic features imported into historiography by Herodotus. . . . Thucydides’ narrative technique follows Homer more closely than Herodotus, especially in the suppression of the ubiquitous “I” of Herodotus work in favor of a more “unintrusive” Homeric narrator (Rengakos 2005, 2006). And ancient critics saw Thucydides too as one who “vied with Homer” (Marcellinus, Vit. Thuc. 35–37): Thucydides’ consistent emphasis on the magnitude of the sufferings in war is thoroughly Homeric (Woodman 1988, 28–34).

Historians thereafter continued to look to Homer for inspiration. . . . .

In the Hellenistic world, Polybius shows great respect for Homer . . . , and argues at length that Homer even cre ated a figure of the ideal historian: Odysseus, who united in his person both the practical skill of a general and leader of men, and the intellectual interest of the explorer and traveler . . . .

Ancient historians, Greek and Roman, consistently looked to Homer to infuse their narratives with an elevated tone and a “heroic” cast. . . . Thucydides’ narrative of the Sicilian Expedition in Books 6–7 is suffused with Homeric motifs and themes . . . . as is Livy’s account of the battle of Lake Regillus, where several incidents are modeled directly on Homer . . . . Likewise, speeches of generals before battle show a long tradition of Homeric influence . . . . Although scholars frequently refer to a “contamination” of history by epic, we cannot forget that the Homeric poems and characters were present to the ancients in an immediate and profound way, often serving as exempla, and it is perhaps just as likely that some, if not many, of the reminiscences of Homer in the Greek and Roman historians reflect the enormous influence that the Iliad and Odyssey actually had in the real world.

(Marincola, 357-59)

All of that would lead one to expect a priori Homeric influence in the Gospels and Acts, yes?


Marincola, John. 2011. “Historians and Homer.” In The Homer Encyclopedia, 2:357–59. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. 2005. “Ancient Literary Genres: A Mirage?” In Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism, edited by Andrew Laird, 321–439. Oxford Readings In Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 

Review, pt 1c: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Looking like history?)

Continuing from part 1b …

M. David Litwa’s opening chapter of How the Gospels Became History is an overview of ancient history-writing looked like, including its frequent allowance of myth, and how the canonical gospels fit in with this type of literature. So far we have been moving slowly as we take note of what ancient writers themselves said about the connection between history and myth, truth and fiction, with the implication that the gospels are part and parcel of the world of ancient historiography.

Not all scholars have agreed and Litwa takes up the challenge of Richard C. Miller who argues that the gospels are far removed from the genre of Greco-Roman history. I’ll quote a little more of Miller’s argument that does Litwa:

[T]he panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acta, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is,

  • no visible weighing of sources,
  • no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural,
  • no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity),
  • no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin,

the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.

(Miller, p. 133. Bolded highlighting and dot point formatting is mine in all quotations)

I have reservations about Litwa’s attempt to meld the gospels into the same apparel as ancient historiography. My understanding and recollection are that as a rule, Greco-Roman historians introduced their tales of the miraculous with “apologies” of sorts. They would comment that the tale was “what was reported” by others, or express some sympathy with readers/auditors if they found the tale hard to believe, and so forth. Only in biblical narratives (and satirical put-downs of hack Greco-Roman historians) do we find a prose history-like narrative that declares the miraculous as fact without any hint of self-conscious possibility of doubt by the author. I will present another post with examples to illustrate.

As for the evangelists being careful selectors of their material I suggest that Litwa is relying more upon conventional assumptions and interpretations than clear evidence to that effect. See, for example, various posts discussing other scholarly views of the Luke-Acts prologue.)

Litwa responds with the following objections:

  • Yet simply by writing in sober, nonpoetic forms, the evangelists distinguished their accounts from the dominant mythoi found, for instance, in Homer and Euripides.
  • They did not, moreover, need to apologize for describing miraculous events since these events were a regular feature of ancient historiography.
  • Finally, the evangelists weighed their sources in the sense that they strongly valued eyewitnesses over hearsay (Luke 1:2) and were careful selectors of material to include and exclude from previous texts.43
    • 43 Although the evangelists did not cite sources, they certainly used them and, in the case of Luke, gave the impression that they used eyewitness reports (Luke 1:2).

(Litwa, pp. 7, 228)

Litwa further claims that Miller has misunderstood the character of ancient historiography.

At a deeper level, Miller’s comments reveal a misunderstanding about how most ancient historiographies were written. Ancient historiography did not have a single form with a single set of lofty standards.

(Litwa, p. 7)

For example, Litwa explains, the “father of history”, Herodotus, was well-known for including many tall-tales and myths in his history of the free-ranging background to the Greco-Persian wars. Many later historians likewise felt free to entertain their audiences with mythical tales, too. Then there was Thucydides, known as “the father of scientific history”, who wrote a no-nonsense, straightforward, factual account of the Peloponnesian War — or so he tells us and so many believe. Thucydides certainly shunned all hint of ostensible myth. Yet, and Litwa overlooks this point, though it supports his larger argument, even Thucydides is known to have fabricated scenes of “what would have happened” and to have done so through dramatic genre and sources unrelated to historical specific events as we have seen in previous posts:

But Thucydides was different in his avoidance of the fabulous tales. Litwa is quite correct to point out that

As a genre, historiography was sometimes different from mythography more in its rhetorical conventions than in its content.

(Litwa, p. 8)

Plausibility and entertainment value were high priorities for Greco-Roman historians. At this point, Litwa appears to bring out a point I made in the above insert box that for the sake of plausibility a historian would often need to couch his account of the miraculous with some hint of an apology:

They could pass off a fantastical story as something they heard of and did not subscribe to, or they could give two different versions of a story: one miraculous, the other rationalizing.

(Litwa p. 8)

So those who wrote our first surviving narratives of the life of Jesus used a genre that was associated with genuine — believable — historical or biographical accounts even is spiced up with stories of miracles. (Another detail that Litwa may bring out later in the book is his suggestion that the historical/biographical genre was in part used to appeal to more educated people who were apparently joining the flocks.)

One caveat I have: Litwa is comparing the gospel narratives with Greco-Roman histories and biographies: that the evangelists were modelling their narratives as much on the conventions of other stories in Jewish literature, especially what we classify as their Scriptures, is not mentioned, at least not in this chapter. Yet it is that latter comparison that I find draws attention to a closer match to the rhetoric of how the miraculous events were introduced, as I have attempted to indicate above.

Sources and tropes

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Review, pt 1b: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

In the first post we cited ancient authors on the meaning of myth.  Two more authors that M. David Litwa cites:

A fable (mythos) is a fictitious story giving an image of truth . . .

Aelius Theon, 1st C CE (Kennedy 2003. Progymnasmata)

A myth aims at being a false tale, resembling a true one; therefore it is far removed from actual events, if a tale is but a picture and an image of actuality, and a myth is but a picture and image of a tale. And thus those who write of imaginative exploits lag as far behind historians as persons who tell of deeds come short of those that do them.

Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4

Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5

Continuing from part 1a …

M. David Litwa’s interest is exactly what I was hoping for. As he explains (p.3),

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern.

Good. It is the history-like narrative of the gospels themselves that interests me. Why are they written that way? He continues:

Evidently they thought they did. At any rate, my focus is on how the evangelists used historical tropes to convince readers that they spoke of real—and thus “true”—events.

Some readers might quibble over that way of expressing the problem. Can we really know the thoughts of unknown authors? But the task can be reframed as an exploration of what makes the gospels function as history-like narratives.

Since the line between myth and history can often look quite blurry at times Litwa makes the excellent point that the two genres are in reality “ideal types”. As an “idea”, “pure history” only relates actual events, and “pure myth only “mythical/fantastical/impossible/unhistorical” events so are not always found in their pure, or “ideal”, forms:

In actual literature they mixed and blended without apology or sense of contradiction. 

(For a more detailed explanation of the technical term ideal type see the post On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES).

Certainly our earliest accounts by Christians make it clear that they did not consider their beliefs to be mythical. Litwa cites Origen’s Contra Celsus (2.58; 3.27) in which Origen declaims that the resurrection is certainly historical and “proves” the point by reminding us that disciples died for that belief, after all. Further, we even have New Testament epistles:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:4)

. . . pay no attention to Jewish myths . . . (Titus 1:14)

and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.

Truth and history

So what of history, or the writing of history, the practice of historiography? read more »

Revised Post: “Review, pt 1a: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

To anyone who has read the previous post . . . I have entirely rewritten the last part of that post. My original text was misleading. Now corrected.

Review, pt 1a: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We declared a while ago on Vridar that we would never sell anything so I am at this moment trapped between gratitude and principle. Yale University Press kindly agreed to send me a review copy of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but, as it turned out, they requested their agent in Australia, Footprint Books, to forward me the review copy, and Footprint Books asked me to add a notice of a discount offer at the end of my review. (Because its such a departure from past practice I want to be upfront and place this notice at the beginning this one time rather than appear to be “sneaking” it in at the end.) It’s an expensive book so hopefully, some readers will appreciate the discount offer. 

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

Myth and/or history: where do our four canonical gospels fit? Can history contain myth? Is history fundamentally a type of myth? The gospels contain stories of the supernatural and miraculous but did not other ancient (genuinely) historical works likewise contain such stories? Why do the gospels look like history even though they begin with divine beings speaking and making things?

Why do our gospels look like history while clearly containing so much of the fabulous? How did they come to be what they are?

We addressed the question of the centrality of belief in history to Christian faith in an earlier series addressing Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible (though I see now that I never got around to posting part 5, so that’s another item added to my “to do” list). That was a study of theology. M. David Litwa’s book, How the Gospels Became History, appears to be a literary study of the gospels. Yin and yang. (But we have covered the same theme from other viewpoints, too, such as that of Chaim Milikovsky in Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation.)

But this time it is M. David Litwa’s turn so we’ll look at his Introduction in this first post. It is titled “The Gospels, Mythography, and Historiography”.

What did the ancient people make of these terms or their equivalents? I am always drawn to endnotes while reading books like this one and if they are many I can spend more time there than in the main text, and here I’ll quote key translations:

In addition to this, since of the things history deals with one part is history, one myth, and one fiction, of which

history is the exposition of certain things that are true and took place (such as that Alexander died in Babylon poisoned by conspirators),

fiction that of things that did not take place told like those that took place (such as comic plays and mimes),

and myth is the exposition of things that did not take place and are false (such as that the race of poisonous spiders and snakes was brought to life “from the blood of the Titans, they tell”, and that Pegasus jumped out of the head of the Gorgon when her throat was cut, and that Diomedes’ companions were transformed into sea birds, or Odysseus into a horse or Hecuba into a dog)

(Sextus Empiricus – apparently referencing AsclepiadesAgainst the Grammarians 1:263-64, my formatting)

Compare Cicero,

The narrative is an exposition of events that have occurred or are supposed to have occurred. . . . That which consists of an exposition of events has three forms fabula, historia, argumentum. Fabula is the term applied to a narrative in which the events are not true and have no verisimilitude, for example

“Huge winged dragons yoked to a car”

Historia is an account of actual occurrences remote from the recollection of our own age, as

“War on men of Carthage Appius decreed”

Argumentum is a fictitious narrative which nevertheless could have occurred. An example may be quoted from Terence

“For after he had left the school of youth” . . .

(Cicero, De Inventione, 1.27)

Or as Quintilian wrote in Latin,

Now there are three forms of narrative, without counting the type used in actual legal cases.

First there is the fictitious [Latin = fabula, fable = Greek mythos, myth] narrative as we get it in tragedies and poems, which is not merely not true but has little resemblance to truth.

Secondly, there is the realistic narrative as presented by comedies, which, though not true, has yet a certain verisimilitude.

Thirdly there is the historical narrative, which is an exposition of actual fact. Poetic narratives are the property of the teacher of literature. The rhetorician therefore should begin with the historical narrative, whose force is in proportion to its truth. 

(Quintilian, “Orator’s Education”, 2.4.2)

So it would seem that myths were opposed to truth; and history was “the truth”.

But Litwa offers a warning . . . read more »

Reviews — past and next

I have compiled the ten posts reviewing Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus into a single PDF file and made it available to anyone interested through Dropbox.

I am looking forward to reviewing next, engaging in similar depth, M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. 

There are several other works in my “to do” basket. One task at a time.

 

 

Review part 10: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Conclusion)

As I read each chapter or section of Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus, I wrote about it here, but now that I have read the concluding pages I discover that Lataster anticipated some of the points I made along the way. Especially this one, the final footnote on the final page:

The poor criticisms offered indicate people that have already decided that mythicism must be wrong, simply because they find the conclusion distasteful, without knowing what the best arguments are, let alone how to argue against them.

(Lataster, p. 452)

There have been several responses to the work of Carrier and myself which cannot be dealt with in detail here; I shall point out their failings elsewhere. This includes the articles and blog posts by Christina Petterson, Daniel Gullotta, John Dickson, Michael Bird, James McGrath, Brenda Watson, and Simon Gathercole (and Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos A. Colombetti, who responded to Stephen Law’s agnosticism). None of them add anything substantial to the debate, mischaracterising our work and typically focussing on attacking the person instead of the argument. Additionally, every single one of them completely ignored our most salient points.

(Lataster, p. 463)

Responses by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole have been addressed in-depth on this blog. Lataster’s criticisms are entirely on target. A decade ago a colleague of Philip R. Davies (to whom Lataster’s book is dedicated) spelled out in detail the unscholarly tactics of “conservative scholarship” in addressing the so-called “minimalists” who dared question the historicity of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. Niels Peter Lemche’s description of those tactics applies just as much to the critics of those who question the historicity of Jesus:

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists [substitute mythicists]. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [substitute Doherty, Brodie, Carrier, Lataster]; read books [or articles] about them!

For a more detailed account of Lemche’s criticisms see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche).

As we have seen, Lataster mentioned in the opening of his book names of mainstream scholars who accept the legitimacy of doubting the historical existence of Jesus. More names are added in his final chapter.

Lataster’s concluding call for agnosticism concerning the historicity of Jesus contains all the punch of the preceding 440 pages. His argument has been three-fold:

  1. the case for historicity (part 1, chapters 1 to 3) demonstrated the frequently unscholarly and generally fallacious efforts of recent attempts by mainstream scholars to present an argument for the historical existence of Jesus, and how such efforts effectively (unintentionally) support the case for agnosticism;
  2. the case for agnosticism (part 2, chapters 4 to 6) demonstrated the hollowness of the foundations (both source foundations and the methods by which certain inferences are drawn from these sources) for any assertion that Jesus did exist
  3. the case for mythicism (part 3, chapters 7 to 9) demonstrated that one does not need a historical Jesus to explain the evidence we have for Christian origins and that Christianity began with a belief in a heavenly (not historical) Jesus is indeed plausible.

Lataster has made it abundantly clear where the sound scholarly approach lies:

But look at what Casey did. Look at what Ehrman and the others do. These prominent historicists strangely and illogically appeal to the majority, appeal to authority, appeal to possibility, and, worst of all, appeal to innumerable sources that don’t even exist, in order to prove something that is supposed to be very obvious, something that is allegedly borderline insane to deny. This must stop. Scholars cannot be allowed to continue building on previous scholarship in the field, when the foundations – such as the appeals to hypothetical sources – are highly conjectural to begin with. If we ahistoricists argued like they do, we would be overlooked (well, more than we already are), and rightly so. These historicists did not argue in a transparent probabilistic fashion; they merely declared that their hypothesis is true or almost certainly true, and that anybody who’s anybody agrees with them. Contrast that with the approaches of Carrier and myself. Who are the ones trying to posit a wealth of non-existing foundational sources, whilst disregarding the impact of numerous actually existing sources? And who are the ones simply applying and asking others to apply transparent probabilistic reasoning to the sources that we do actually have access to?

This all should make it easy to figure out which scholars have an agenda, and which scholars merely go where the evidence leads. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you prefer the arguments of the people that used evidence, and logic, and had no real desire to deny the existence of a Historical Jesus, or if you prefer the wild and unsubstantiated claims about near-infinite non-existing sources, and just so happen to arrive at conclusions that placate their ultimately Christian benefactors. I strongly encourage philosophers and historians, and even other scholars, from outside the field to continue to scrutinise the methods and conclusions of these Biblical specialists. Several educated outsiders – and even some insiders – so far have done so and discovered that the emperor has no clothes.

(Lataster, p. 450)

Exactly. As for mythicists being driven by some need to debunk the existence of Jesus, such an accusation is entirely without evidential support and actually flies in the face of the evidence.

Calculations

read more »

Review part 9: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism – the Evidence)

The third part of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus is where he presents his case for mythicism, and since his case is essentially a review of Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus, this post is a review of a review.

Lataster has is differences from Carrier and several times points to areas where he wished Carrier had approached a point differently and so forth, but in the end he concedes that all of his criticisms make no real difference to the core of Carrier’s argument:

It is surely an endorsement for Carrier’s book, that my most significant criticisms reveal an intent to raise mostly petty objections, which pose no problems whatever to his case.

(Lataster, p. 392)

Another use for Bayes – Q

One such disappointment Lataster expresses is Carrier’s failure to elaborate on the tendency of many historical Jesus scholars to rely upon “imaginary sources” such as Q. In turn, however, I would like to comment on what I think is to some extent an over-reach by Lataster with respect to “imaginary sources” at least with respect to the Q source — the hypothetical source of Jesus sayings that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are said to have shared. Quite some years ago now I was preparing to dismiss the notion of Q and look more favourably on arguments that the author of the third gospel instead knew and adapted sayings (and other) material from the first gospel, but in personal correspondence Earl Doherty convinced me that I had not investigated the arguments for the Q hypothesis diligently enough to justify setting it aside so easily. Doherty challenged me with detailed arguments I had not thought through carefully before and I soon saw that I needed to study the detailed works of John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack and others to know what it was I was “against”. It is a little unfair to dismiss Q as an “imaginary” source because it is in fact a serious hypothesis subject to various tests. What I think would be an interesting approach to the debate between the Q hypothesis and the Goodacre-Farrer hypothesis (that the author of Luke used both the Mark and Matthew has sources) would be a Bayesian analysis of the evidence for underlying each hypothesis and to see which one emerges the more probable.

But I am digressing. As both Lataster and Carrier would acknowledge, even if Q were a highly probable source for both the first and third gospels it would bring us no closer to a determination of whether Jesus originated as a historical or mythical person.

An important reminder – a fortiori

Lataster rightly emphasizes throughout his discussion of Carrier’s treatment of the various sources for Jesus that Carrier argues a fortiori, always preferencing the odds in favour of historicity wherever possible. Lataster further stresses that Carrier even counts the evidence of the Pauline epistles, the references to James the brother of the Lord, as favouring the hypothesis of historicity. Examples — of which critics of Carrier’s book should note, and which should lead readers of certain critical reviews of Carrier’s arguments to pause and reconsider the intellectual honesty of some of what they have read:

So again, though he thinks Paul’s failure to distinguish biological from fictive brothers of Jesus is evidence against historicity, he nevertheless still counts it as evidence for historicity, and thus against mythicism. . . . .

Despite thinking that the evidence from the Pauline and non-Pauline epistles is at least 16 times more likely on minimal mythicism, Carrier very charitably decides that the consequent probabilities should here favor historicity instead, effectively claiming that the Historical Jesus is 3 times more likely.209

209 Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 594–595.

(Lataster, pp. 426, 427)

On avoiding unhelpful responses

Back to “mostly petty objections”, I do find somewhat jarring certain terms like “mentally disabled” and “lying” (fortunately appearing only occasionally) when speaking of recipients and authors of visionary experiences. I would prefer consistent use of language that opened up the mental horizons of the ancients to moderns rather than introducing modern analyses that cloud a modern reader’s grasp of the historical culture. Another term, one taken over from Carrier, is the expression “cosmic sperm bank” in discussing the ancient beliefs in how God might preserve a Davidic line across and beyond human generations. Such anachronisms invite ridicule. Lataster even refers to the Zoroastrian belief that a certain lake contained the sperm of Zoroaster so that a virgin bathing in it would be impregnated and bear a messianic figure. The scholar of Second Temple Judaism owes it to readers to explain the thought-world of the ancients and avoid misleading anachronisms. Lataster attempts to smooth over the conceptual difficulties with read more »

Review part 8: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism)

Until now I have been working from a digital version of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, that was supplied to me by Brill for these review posts.  I have since been forwarded by Brill a physical copy of the book after I informed them that it might make exploring it for discussion a little easier. It does make a nice change to leaf through fresh clean book-odour pages and marking them with a light pencil. I am also reminded of the retail price with a physical copy of this volume: Brill advertises both the e-book and hardback at $US210. The Australian Amazon site equates that to $A294.97 + $15 postage. Australia’s Dymocks bookstore advertizes it at $A587.99 Those sorts of prices tell us that Brill clearly is looking at libraries (in particular academic libraries) as its primary market. (The publisher balances costs of publication against expected sales and such prices are not uncommon for scholarly books; so don’t assume the prices are a gold mine for the authors.) At this point it is appropriate to recall the emerging number of scholars (discussed in the opening post in this series) who are prepared to consider the Christ Myth theory as a reasonable hypothesis that deserves serious discussion if not outright acceptance.

So far we have surveyed Lataster’s Part 1, his analysis of the case for Jesus having been a historical figure (the first three chapters) and Part 2, the justification for being agnostic about the question of historicity (the next three chapters). We now come to the third and final part of the book, “The Case for Mythicism”.

Here Lataster hews closely to Richard Carrier’s exhaustive (ca. 600 pages) case for mythicism in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. His case therefore entails a justification of Carrier’s Bayesian approach to the question. (See part 4 of this series for an earlier discussion by Lataster in which he addressed some common misconceptions about this application of Bayes’ theorem.) I think Lataster has made a worthy contribution by abbreviating and simplifying Carrier’s arguments and overall thesis. The main reason I think so is the quite disjointed and misleading criticisms I have seen online (including in the scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus) of Carrier’s book. Too often criticisms have targeted specific discussions in On the Historicity of Jesus without giving readers any indication of the context and weight put on those points by Carrier himself. So Carrier lists forty-eight pieces (or “elements”) of background information that need to be considered against any detailed arguments for or against historicity, with each of them having different degrees of significance, and none being of itself decisive, yet some critics will take just one or two of these points of background discussion and give readers the impression that they are foundations of his entire argument, and so convey the notion that criticizing just those is enough to demolish the case for mythicism. To read Lataster’s discussion of Carrier’s book is to refresh one’s memory of exactly both the method and details of Carrier’s presentation — something several critics apparently failed to grasp. read more »

Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)

We now come to what I think is Raphael Lataster’s strongest argument yet for being agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. It’s the last part of chapter 6 addressing “problems of Paul”.

Lataster begins by pointing out the well-known divergences between the accounts of Paul and the gospels and what these divergences specifically suggest about the theologically fractious evolution of the Jesus narrative. The argument then moves to what Paul tells us of his relations with followers of Jesus before him, especially James, and the many serious questions his comments raise given the assumption that those followers knew or were even related to an impressive prophetic figure now believed to have ascended to heaven. And that brings the argument to that ever contentious passage in the mythicist-historicist debate, “James, the brother of the Lord”.

Again Lataster’s broader knowledge of religion studies (as distinct from the narrower speciality of New Testament) and the histories of newly developing religions enables him to inform readers of the interesting possibility that biological relationships were created to co-opt pre-existing religious ideas into the new faith. Not that Lataster relies upon mere possibilities. Mainstream biblical scholars — in particular two who are “historicists” — are identified as either disputing the authenticity of the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians or (again with Bart Ehrman) at least provide enough caveats to lead one to have doubts about its authenticity. I think Lataster is on more secure ground when he develops the in full the argument for this passage not being original to the epistle than he is when reminding readers (as he also does) of the various arguments that the phrase has a range of meanings, especially in religious contexts, and does not necessarily point to a biological relationship. Many conservative biblical scholars reflexively recoil from suggestions of interpolation but Lataster is correct to point out that this reflex is in the main a product of religious conservatism. When the broader context of the dates and conditions of our manuscripts are considered, along with what is well-known about literary reproductions (including forgeries and theologically driven “redactions”) of the day, then it is only sensible and fair to be open to reasonable arguments for interpolations.

Later we read of the dual standards of scholarship in Bart Ehrman’s works. Lataster reminds us how Ehrman’s efforts to argue against the mythicist case in Did Jesus Exist? were very often shots fired at straw men yet in his subsequent books, How Jesus Became God and Jesus Before the Gospels, Lataster shows that many of Ehrman’s arguments suddenly align with the arguments of the mythicists that he earlier regrettably misrepresented or failed to grasp, arguments that he even mocked when they were presented by mythicists!

At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources. The specific case Lataster refers to is Dan G. McCartney’s assertion that one of the church fathers “simply accepts that James was Jesus’s younger half-brother”, yet the three sources cited do not even mention James; and then James McGrath is cited as confidently appealing to McCartney’s assertion as having established that point. Worse, a biblical scholar is quoted making assertions about the church father’s views that directly contradict the explicitly stated words of that church father in the same paragraph. Such is some of the worst of biblical scholarship engaged in arguments against mythicism that Lataster exposes.

Lataster’s case for interpolation of the “brother of the Lord” passage is strong, being based on the use of the relevant epistle by the church father Tertullian who was using it to attack a view of a heretic that Jesus was not truly human. Tertullian points out that the heretic had problems with other gospel passages asserting Jesus had brothers but fails to drive home to the Paul-loving heretic that Paul himself claimed to have met “the brother of the Lord” — even though he quotes verses either side of that passage.

The only slight lack in Lataster’s argument is when he raises the question of why an interpolator would not make the “brother of the Lord” passage even less potentially ambiguous than it is. He fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text. read more »