2020-12-21

To Start a Religion or Movement: Jesus and Ned Ludd

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are some excerpts from A.J. Droge‘s article in the Caesar journal, “Jesus and Ned Ludd: What’s in a Name?” (2009)

Droge begins with two quotations that, despite their difference in tone, are saying much the same thing:

Yet again it is demonstrated that monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a few nonevents. (Hitchens, God Is Not Great)

To start a religion all you need is a name and a place. (Jonathan Z. Smith)

Droge segues into noting that to think through the implications of those two sayings is to realize:

first, that religions are not “founded” because there are no “founders” in the first place;

second, that there is no originating moment of insight, or “big bang,” that sets any religion in motion and drives it into the future;

third, that when it comes to the study of the religious imaginary, invention is everything.

The Ned Ludd analogy

Luddism was not generated by the dramatic actions of any one individual nor by the sudden emergence of class consciousness but rather by a single, forceful act of naming—the creation and appropriation of the eponym, “Ned Ludd.”

Take Ned Lud[d], for example. Luddism (so called) was a movement of early nineteenth-century English textile workers who, when faced with the replacement of their own skilled labor by machines, turned to destroying textile machinery to preserve their jobs and their craft. The movement began with an attack on wide-knitting frames in a shop in the vicinity of Nottingham in 1811 and in the next two years spread to surrounding cities. The “Ludds” or “Luddites,” as they called themselves, were generally masked, operated at night, and often enjoyed local support. They swore allegiance not to any British king but to their own “King Ludd” (also referred to as “Captain” or “General Ludd”). Some three decades earlier, in 1779, one Edward (“Ned”) Lud[d] is said to have broken into a house in the vicinity of Leicestershire and “in a fit of insane rage” destroyed two machines used for knitting hosiery. Soon, whenever a stocking-frame was found sabotaged—something that had in fact been occurring in Britain since the Restoration in the late seventeenth century(!)—folks would respond with the catchphrase, “Ludd must have been here.” By the time his name was taken up by the frame-breakers of 1811, the “historical” Ned Ludd had become “King Ludd,” now a more-than-human, nocturnal presence, roaming the hosiery districts of England.

What is called the “Luddite movement” consisted of

a number of sometimes conflicting tendencies, including appeals to centuries-old traditions, customs, and statutes regulating the textile industry, trade-unionist ambitions to gain a seat at the table with manufacturers, and Jacobin calls to overthrow king and aristocracy alike. Luddism turns out not to have been monolithic but a series of overlapping protests with discrete sets of discourses generated under unique local circumstances. . . . Luddism was not generated by the dramatic actions of any one individual nor by the sudden emergence of class consciousness but rather by a single, forceful act of naming—the creation and appropriation of the eponym, “Ned Lud[dJ.” 

The study of the origins of Luddism is a study in social formations and mythmaking. Historians are not preoccupied with uncovering the “historical Ned Ludd”. Studies of the rise of Luddism treat it as a very human event that can be explained as other events are through historical inquiry. Searches preoccupied with uncovering some lost moment of “genius”, “dramatic visionaries”, “charismatic leaders” are not called for.

The myth of Luddism has not died. Stories of the exploits of Luddites spread a romantic interest in the nineteenth-century events and today various protest movements are known to have embraced and reshaped the myth:

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but these neo-Luddites have nothing in common with their alleged forefathers other than the name. Instead, they are engaging anew in the imaginative and dynamic processes of social formation and mythmaking, in the construction of genealogies and the invention of histories, as they re-confect and re-deploy the figure of Ned Ludd in their own image and in their own struggles with what they see as the dehumanizing effects of rampant globalization, the dark forces of technology, and postmodernity.

That is, the figure of Ned Ludd has taken on a meaning that lies well beyond any historical figure. It is easy to lose sight of this fact because the renewed myths generally claim to be speaking of the “historical” Ludd. But we know that such historical reconstruction is another form of mythmaking.

Could any of us—at least those of us who construct our-selves as historians—imagine participating in the “quest of the historical Ned Ludd”? Or imagine writing books with titles like Meeting Ned Ludd Again for the First Time (cf. Borg 1995) and The Incredible Shrinking Ned Ludd (cf. Price 2003)? Or imagine ourselves pronouncing that “Ned Ludd and his first followers . . . were hippies in a world of Georgian yuppies” (cf. Crossan 1994: 198)? Or finally, and more pertinently, contributing a paper to “The Ned Ludd Project”? The answer to all four questions should be a resounding “No!”

Droge concludes . . .

Swan Song

Esteemed colleagues, haven’t we learned by now that the Nazarene simply can’t be killed? That he always manages to escape? And that, rather like Ned Lud[d] himself, he will always be out there somewhere, a more-than-human presence roaming the countryside of the religious imaginary? So let us be content simply to pronounce that, like Ned Ludd, Jesus [of Nazareth] was “probably apocryphal.” Please, just let it go at that and let us turn our attention to matters much more interesting and important when it comes to the invention of Christianity (and the invention of Christian “origins”). Take Marcion, for example.

Amen.


Droge, Arthur J. “Jesus and Ned Ludd: What’s in a Name?” Caesar: A Journal for the Critical Study of Religion and Human Values 3 (2009)


 


2020-12-09

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Smith and the Ideal Type

As you recall from the first post in this series, on several occasions Robert M. Price has accused Jonathan Z. Smith of not understanding and grossly misapplying Max Weber’s ideal type. For example, in Price’s critique of Drudgery Divine (see: Higher Critical Review), he wrote:

In the same way, Smith seems unwilling to admit the viability of an ideal type of the dying-and-rising god mytheme. If the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. [sic] al. do not all conform to type exactly, then they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box, so let’s throw out the box. Without everything in common, he sees nothing in common. [Price 1996]

Eugene V. Gallagher

He has recycled this accusation elsewhere, sometimes copying and pasting the “et.” error, sometimes not. Price is quite proud of his “throw-out-the-box” turn of phrase, as he should be — if he were correct.

Fortunately for us, Smith actually discussed ideal types, so we have a window into his thinking on the matter. In a footnote on p. 99 of Drudgery Divine, he refers to a book by one of his students, Eugene V. Gallagher. In Divine Man or Magician, Gallagher examined the work of Ludwig Bieler, whose studies of the divine man (θεῖος ἀνήρ) type were groundbreaking and insightful, but often misunderstood.

Smith put it this way:

While justifiable criticisms can be brought against both Bieler’s theoretical presuppositions and his methodological procedures, it is sadly revealing and utterly characteristic that most scholars of early Christianity have fundamentally misunderstood his enterprise, in that they have historicized the Typus and viewed the second comparative step as genealogical. E. V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, 1982): 10-18, in the series, SBLD, 64, offers a sophisticated account of Bieler’s enterprise, and usefully compares his work to Max Weber’s notion of the ‘ideal type’. [Smith 1990, p. 99]

Let’s examine the two fundamental errors Smith has identified above. First, some scholars forgot (did they ever know?) that the ideal type is a modern construct. The “theios aner” exists not in the historical past, but in the realm of ideas. Hence, to criticize Bieler’s type as an anachronism misses the point entirely. Second, when Smith criticizes scholars on the basis of genealogy, he means they’ve jumped the gun on issues of dependence and who borrowed from whom. The second step should be that of analogy, which includes seeking evidence of both difference and similarity. In To Take Place, he wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)”


2020-12-06

“Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited

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by Neil Godfrey

Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.

Josephus and Tacitus say

So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:

Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .

Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.

In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.

As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?

Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:

Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?

The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.

But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.

The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.

But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.

There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).

Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)

Why would anyone….!

Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:

Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings  as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)

Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”

If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”


2020-12-03

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Was Jesus a Dying-and-Rising God?

Burton Mack

As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few months I’ve been rereading several important scholarly works from 20th-century NT Studies. I found it interesting that several scholars seemed to be in dialog with one another — especially those involved in Q Gospel research and the cynic-sage Jesus theory. Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, relied heavily on Burton Mack’s works, while Mack referred to Smith in his books, including (among others) The Christian MythWho Wrote the New Testament, and A Myth of Innocence.

As you may recall, in the last book listed above, Mack argued that some of the earliest Jesus-following groups were not Christ cults. In fact, the notions of Jesus’ martyrdom, resurrection, exaltation, ascension, etc. could have seemed alien to them.

It should be emphasized at this point that nowhere in this tradition running from Q into the early stages of biographic interest in Jesus is there any evidence for a view of Jesus’ death as a “saving event,” much less for thinking that Jesus had been transformed by means of a resurrection. The express application of the notion that Jesus had suffered a prophet’s fate appears to have been made when the authors of the gospels combined the Jesus traditions with views of Jesus’ death and resurrection that had developed in the Christ cults. But the notion of rejection was very near the surface in some of the later oracles in Q, thus preparing the way for thinking of Jesus as the rejected prophet. That Jesus had died a prophet’s death would only have meant, however, that he also and especially had been a true prophet in the line of prophets, nothing more. That would have been, in itself, a striking claim about Jesus and his purposes, to be sure, a claim of great significance for the emergence of Christian thought. But it would be wrong to read in any additional Christian nuances about the importance of Jesus’ death for those thinking in these terms. [Mack 1988, p. 86, emphasis mine]

Smith agreed. He believed that several competing groups of Jesus-followers sustained their own different communities. Some communities believed in a dying-and-rising Jesus; some did not. Consider the community that produced and preserved the Didache. For them, the bread and wine had nothing to do with the body and blood of a martyred savior.

[T]here is a set of Jesus-traditions which either do not focus on his death, or conceive of his death without attributing either saving significance to the death or linking it to a resurrection. For these latter options — a significance to Jesus’s death without a resurrection or the development of a ‘dying/rising’ myth with respect to Jesus — we must turn from the ‘movements in Palestine and southern Syria that cultivated the memory of Jesus as a founder-teacher’ to the ‘congregations in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece wherein the death and resurrection of the Christ were regarded as the founding events’. [Smith 1990, p. 138]

In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where even the most central cultic rituals drew their entire meaning from it. And yet other Jesus-following communities focused their concerns on other things. He cites Mack here, noting five groups that “constructed thoroughly satisfying Jesus-myths without either a death or a resurrection.” [Reformatted below:] Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)”


2020-11-25

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”


2020-11-20

Understanding Historical Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

Steve Mason

Speaking of Steve Mason’s historical inquiry into what we can reconstruct of the origins of the Jewish War from Josephus, here are some quotations I marked as I read his second chapter. I hope to post one more time on this book, sharing some specifics of how he approached Josephus’s writings as historical sources. I began an archive listing key posts on historical methods and the nature of history more generally but Ouch!, I see that I haven’t worked on it since the day I started it! I need another time out but not from illness or injury this time. I’ll be adding this post there before the archive is finished.

Anyway, here are the things Steve Mason has to say about principles of historical research. There’s nothing new here for many of us, but they are points worth keeping in mind and sharing with others who are less familiar with what it’s all about.

Don’t just dive into a historical source and grab hold of whatever statements in it look useful tidbits for telling us what happened. First examine the source, see what sort of writing it is. We can’t merely assume a work that looks like history really is what most of us think a work of history should be. In Mason’s words,

In principle all survivals from the past, material or literary, need first to be understood for what they are if we are to use them to answer other questions. (60)

Don’t dismiss literary analysis of a source as irrelevant to your search for historical information in a source. Literary analysis at some level must come first before one knows how to interpret what one reads. That’s true even at the most basic level: e.g. is our source a diary or a parable?

A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. (61)

Here are “the most basic principles underlying this inquiry into the Jewish War.” The bolding and sometimes the layout are mine.

1. “Until someone can show otherwise, I am happy believing X. …”

1. Outside the academy, history seems most often to be equated with the past itself or with supposedly authoritative records. (61)

The past no longer exists. We need to interpret sources and with those interpretations re-imagine bits and pieces of the past and continue to revise our imaginations of the past as we learn more.

Each historian uncovers a new angle and offers it as a better key to understanding, but this very activity of constant reimagining means that we are not in a position simply to learn the facts and lessons of history. We are required instead to think, explore, and judge: not to hear what the past is itching to tell us but to investigate for ourselves.

History, then, is the process of methodical inquiry into the human past. (62)

Continue reading “Understanding Historical Evidence”


2020-11-17

Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Since recent posts have in some way drawn me into the question of the historicity of Jesus once again let me set out where I stand. There is nothing new here.

I have never, as far as I recall, set out an argument that Jesus did not exist. The reason? I have no interest in doing so. My interest has long been to understand the nature and origins of the biblical texts. And what I have learned so far is that the gospel narratives can most economically and comprehensively be explained as inventions woven from other texts without any need to introduce oral traditions going back to a historical Jesus.

Similarly for the New Testament epistles. We do not need to introduce a historical Jesus to understand their contents.

It’s really as simple as that.

–o0o–

Why don’t I begin with the assumption that the gospels are historical or biographical accounts, even if exaggerated, of a historical Jesus? Because as far as I am aware that’s not how any other historical inquiry works. We need to apply the same methods to the study of Christian origins that we rely on for any other inquiry.

Here’s how valid historical inquiry works across the board, whether studying ancient, medieval, modern, eastern, or any other history. I copy from another page where I have discussed this some time back….

A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument. Let’s take the gospels as one set of sources to be used in investigating the question of Christian origins. What does any historian need to establish about these — or any — sources?

  • We need to know when they were written.
  • We need to know by whom and why. (“By whom” means more than the name of the person: it refers to where the person is from, to what social or political entity he or she belongs — “Who is this person?” — that is more important than a mere name.)
  • We need to know what they are, what sorts of documents they are. Their genre, if you like. This will include knowledge of how they compare with other literature of their day.
  • We need to know something about their reception at the time they were written and soon after.
  • We need to know something about the world in which they were written — both the political and social history of that world and the wider literary and philosophical cultural world to which they belonged.
  • We need to know a little how the documents came into our possession. Through what authorities or channels were they preserved and what sort of manuscript trail did they leave.

That’s the first step. We can very broadly classify all of this knowledge as the provenance of the documents.

If we draw blanks on any of these questions then we need always to keep those blanks in the foremost of our minds whenever we read and interpret the gospels. Those blanks will help remind us of the provisional nature of anything we draw from the gospels.

So for the first point above, the date of the gospels, we can do no better than accept a range of year in which they were written. A combination of internal evidence and the evidence that they were known by others leads us (well, me at least) to a period between 70 CE and the mid-second century (possibly known to Justin, certainly to Irenaeus).

Those who argue for a date prior to 70 CE fail to take into account the apocalyptic character of the gospels. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel) is known to be about events in the recent memory of the readers. The pre-70 date also fails to take account of the internal evidence for an audience facing persecution, including persecution from Jews. There is no confirmable evidence for such persecutions of Christians until post 70 CE. If some dispute this and argue for a much earlier date then I’m happy to address those arguments, too; I would be willing to change my view if they proved to be plausible and if the scare Caligula gave with his threat to install a statue in the Temple was the best explanation for other features in the Synoptics.

The question of who wrote the documents is of primary importance. Just saying the author was a Christian is way too broad and tells us nothing except the obvious. It’s no more useful than saying a work of history was written by a Greek historian. So what? We need to know what sort of Christian, where, when and why — whom was he writing for? why? Since we know none of these things — speculations and educated guesses change with the tides of fashion — we are at an enormous disadvantage in knowing how to interpret or understand the gospels.

Is what we read a composite document composed over several editorial hands? That, too, is a most important question to answer. Again we are at a real disadvantage here.

The above gaps in our knowledge of the gospels ought to pull up every historian short and make them wonder if it is worth even continuing to work with these documents. Certainly any historian worth his or her salt will always be tentative about any conclusions and data taken from them.

The second step. Continue reading “Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus”


2020-11-15

Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults

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by Neil Godfrey

At about 57 mins of the MythVision podcast O’Neill underscores the importance of Paul’s claim to have met James the “brother of the Lord”. Not only is Paul’s claim from a contemporary of Jesus but it is even from one who is opposed to his source:  Paul is saying, says O’Neill, “Yeh, I have met the brother of Jesus and he’s a dick.” Now evidence from contemporaries, especially contemporary adversaries, is certainly strong evidence for historicity, but at this point, O’Neill tosses aside and out of sight the most fundamental principle he said was the basis of all good historical inquiry: a need to acknowledge ambiguity in the evidence. O’Neill’s first task, therefore, is to characterize any interpretation that allows for ambiguity to be outright nonsense.

Basic historical methods applied to Paul meeting “the brother of the Lord”

Writing against Christ Mythicists, A. D. Howell Smith in Jesus Not a Myth: “There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics.” (p. 76)

Yet there is an even more fundamental rule for any historian examining sources that O’Neill never mentions: study the context of the source and the information in it!  It’s this simple:

  1. Acknowledge the fact that that “met James the brother of the Lord” phrase is unknown to Church Fathers who would dearly have loved to have known it to win their theological debates against “heretics” (– I was first informed of this fact by an honest author who was arguing against the Christ myth theory);
  2. Stop and think how bizarre it is that there are no other early Christian accounts that record that one of the leaders of the Christian church at Jerusalem was the very brother of Jesus! Is it really plausible that this one passing reference in a letter of Paul, a letter that was the focus of so much controversy in the early church, should be the only evidence we have from the early days of the church that Jesus’ brother became the new leader alongside Peter? Not even the Book of Acts, which portrays James as a noble head of the Jerusalem church, leads anyone to suspect that that James was a brother of Jesus.

For further details discussing the above context of this passage see

O’Neill emphasizes that a historian must be open to ambiguity when studying the sources. Indeed. There are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in which Paul says he met the “brother of the Lord” was added some time in the second century in order to better assist “orthodox” Christians argue against their theological opponents. Further, fundamental questions arise when we try to understand how a brother of Jesus could have become the church’s leader without any other contemporary or near contemporary indication that anyone knew about it.

It is “bad history” to take a passage as testimony to a “historical fact” without first testing the authenticity of that evidence.

Basic historical method guards against circular reasoning

David Hackett Fischer

O’Neill next engages in a very common failing of many historical Jesus scholars: circular reasoning. That failing is not unique to biblical scholars, though, since it is one of the fallacies pointed out in a famous book from 1970 by historian David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. A hypothetical example might help to clarify the point. A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?
Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.
(Tacit Assumption ) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.
Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Absurd as this fallacy may appear in a hypothetical way, it is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship.

(Fischer, 49)

petitio principii : a fallacy in which a conclusion is taken for granted in the premises; begging the question.

Dietary laws

One of several examples of this fallacy that O’Neill offers (paraphrasing):

In the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus addresses the Jewish dietary laws. This makes sense if there was a historical Jesus who was saying those things about the dietary laws that the church (at the time the gospel was written) no longer followed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jesus didn’t exist.

O’Neill here is uncritically repeating an argument found among some mainstream biblical scholars. It makes just as much sense on the assumption that the Jesus of the gospels was a literary figure created to express the view of the church.

Clark Kent to Superman

By excising all evidence to the contrary some exegetes conclude that the Jesus behind Mark’s gospel was mundanely human.

At this point the host, Derek Lambert, interjects with another piece of circularity common among too many mainstream biblical scholars (again, my paraphrase):

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus appears like a Clark Kent but by the time of the Gospel of John he is Superman. The evidence is so easily explained if there was an original guy who wanted the temple brought down, and then that happened, but because it didn’t get rebuilt, the Christians had to change the prophecy of Jesus into one where he claimed to be speaking about the temple of his body.

Yes, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus at the start, then we can indeed say that the subsequent evidence can be explained by that same historical Jesus. That’s circularity. The same logic can be used to say that if we assume that the gospel authors portrayed a Jesus who fitted the time of those writers, then we can explain the later changes to the gospels as the result of adapting to changing circumstances and beliefs. Question begging works any way you want to use it.

Besides, O’Neill ought to have picked Derek Lambert up on his factual error (another one common among many biblical scholars) that the Gospel of Mark portrays a relatively ungodly “merely human” Jesus. A man who walks on water and commands the storms to cease just like the Yahweh in the Psalms is not a “merely human” figure. Nor is the range of emotion imputed to Mark’s Jesus “merely human”: anger, for instance, is a very common godly emotion. For further details see

From Nazareth or Bethlehem?

Another very common instance of circularity appears in discussions about the birth narratives. The assumption is that there was a historical Jesus who was born in Nazareth, and since everyone supposedly knew he came from this tiny village “no-one had ever heard of”, the gospel authors tied themselves in knots trying to explain how he was really born, according to the messianic prophecy, in Bethlehem.

About the 1 hour and 10 minute mark O’Neill says, quite rightly, that later (noncanonical) gospels sometimes harmonize the earlier gospels. Matthew and Luke offer contradictory, even incompatible, nativity stories. This makes sense, he rightly says, if we assume that the authors were each independently struggling to work out their own narrative to explain how Jesus came to be known to be “from Nazareth” even though he was born in Bethlehem. I say “rightly” because yes, it does make sense if we assume the premise we are trying to prove is true from the outset.

It makes just as much sense to say that the authors of both Matthew and Luke were trying to establish a legend that Jesus was born at Bethlehem (according to the messianic prophecy) while at the same time attempting to remove an embarrassing epithet by which the earliest sects of Jesus worship were known, the “nazoreans” or “nazarenes”. (The Arab and Muslim world still today refer to Christians by a cognate of that same term.) The Gospel of Matthew at 2:23 bizarrely twists a scripture and grammatical Greek to make it give that title a new meaning.

Thus the evidence of Matthew is that the early evangelists were struggling with a title they no longer felt comfortable with and decided to hide its original meaning by re-interpreting it as meaning “from Nazareth”. Luke most likely re-wrote Matthew to give a better narrative account.

By setting aside the fallacy of assuming a historical Jesus at the outset we open ourselves to a much richer scenario in accordance with all of the evidence.

Nazareth did not exist — “a stupid idea”?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults”


2020-11-14

Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints

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by Neil Godfrey

I do care about bad history. — O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)

Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.

Two instances of “bad history”

At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee.  That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.

Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?

No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.

Maps from Hayes and Hanscom, 436 (above); holyland-pilgrimage.org (right)

Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints”


2020-10-02

Origins of the Abraham Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey


Let’s return to having a closer look at some of the chapters in the book I  described back in  August this year. (Actually my recent post History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone began as a closer look at Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter titled “What People Want to Believe: Or Fighting Against ‘Cultural Memory'”, but since I’ve discussed the same thoughts of Lemche in many earlier posts I somehow ended up with my own little bottom-line spiel instead.)

In the chapter “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, author Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò [NS] seeks to understand the most plausible context from which those stories originated. I know some readers will be as interested as I am in his approach. I address a few — not all — of the arguments in the chapter. I will cover the stories of Jacob and Esau in the next post.

Abraham

Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò

NS points out  that in the book of Genesis Abraham is “depicted as a figure disconnected from any historical realities, by being alien and of a nomadic way of life.”

The stories connected with Abraham are set within the mythical illo tempore, in the same way as Greek heroes are described in un-historical realities of the tragedies or Homeric epic for which a coherent historical background does not exist. (NS, p.50)

NS zeroes in on two moments in the Abraham story that he considers the most important:

  • the covenant between God and Abraham promising Abraham multitudes of descendants who become God’s chosen
  • the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah)

Begin with that second episode. NS views it as dramatizing the kinds of complex theological questions we elsewhere encounter in books like Job and Ecclesiastes. To what extent is the pious person expected to obey and trust God? Is the reward expected to be in this or the next life? The problems facing Abraham point to sophisticated philosophical (or theological) quandaries of the sort that preoccupy intellectual elites. The story does not come from popular folklore, surely. Rather,

it is a reflection of the Jewish elites of the late Hellenistic period (second-first century BCE), an expression of their intellectual, highly sophisticated interest. (p. 51)

* de Pury, A. 2000. “Abraham: The Priestly Writer’s ‘Ecumenical’ Ancestor.” In Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters, edited by Steven L. McKenzie, Thomas R. Mer, and Thomas Romer, 163–81. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.

On the first of those two key moments, NS observes that Abraham is a rather “pure in nature” figure unlike his progeny — Ishmael, Isaac and the sons of Keturah — who are all coloured with distinctive features that clearly associate them with certain historically known peoples: the Ishmaelites, the Jews, the inhabitants of Arabia. NS points readers to an article elsewhere by de Pury showing us that Abraham serves as an “ecumenical figure” serving as a unifying focus for both Jews and certain of their neighbours. Though descendants of Isaac will the “the chosen”, the narrative demonstrates God’s love for all of Abraham’s descendants. (de Pury remarks on the way Abraham must give up both sons — Ishmael exiled into the wilderness and Isaac sacrificed on the altar — only for God to miraculously intervene to save each of them.)

But if the narrator merely wanted to demonstrate that the sons of Isaac were to be the most favoured ones, why did he make the plot so complicated by having Isaac born after Ishmael? If the message for Jews was that they should embrace the descendants of Ishmael, Hagar and Keturah, why the “twisted narrative device”? NS sees two possible reasons:

Firstly, it might have served as inter-propaganda directed to members of the Jewish community, with the statement about Arabs, who shall not be treated as aliens. This may have served certain political needs.

Secondly, the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael tradition might have been addressed to the Arab population with the same friendly information. In this case, we would be dealing with the declaration of friendship, which in the reality of politics might have been understood as an invitation toward the Arab population to join the political unity of the Jews. (53)

The question that follows is, When, historically, would such propaganda needs have appeared? Continue reading “Origins of the Abraham Narrative”


2020-09-27

History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone.

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by Neil Godfrey

To see all the human race, from the beginning of time, pass, as it were, in review before us, . . . what spectacle can be imagined so magnificent, so various, so interesting? — David Hume (Of the Study of History)

To which R. G. Collingwood replied:

History is not a spectacle. The events of history do not pass in review’ before the historian. They have finished happening before he begins thinking about them. He has to re-create them inside his own mind . . . .

A moment’s thought and we can see how absurd is the image of “history laid out for us to survey”. Imagine historians a hundred years from now yet ignorant of our times getting into a time machine and coming back to our day to “survey” this particular time in history. What would they see? They would see the vast world just as we see it today — masses of populations, groups, activities: where would they start to look for any particular “historical moment”? There would be thousands of possible starting points. History of “what, exactly?” would be the first question to ask in order to try to narrow down the search into something of particular interest for the generation a hundred years hence. If perchance they decided to investigate the history associated with the American presidency, again, the same question arises: where would they start? The options would be almost limitless. When we watch movies we are watching scenes created by a narrator and viewed through the perspective of a director. We do not see people in real life or that would be boring. We cut out the moments they tie their shoelaces and every step they take from an office to their car. Selection is always necessary. And how we put scenes together will also decide the type of story we tell. When it comes to a historical narrative we are reading a story that comes about through processes of selection, heavy editing, and the influence of the message the creators want to convey.

History has to be created or constructed. It is not “there” to be observed and recorded. The ideal in modern times is that the construction is derived from material or textual evidence of events that actually happened. We can see from public monuments, memorials, museums, that there was once a Great War in 1914-1918. To understand the effects of that war on various societies requires uncovering and sifting through another mass of material and textual evidence.

The conclusions vary over time according to the particular interests and needs of each historian. One historian will write that the Great War really “broke” the spirit of Australia so that an era of promising social progress (workers’ and women’s rights, egalitarianism, for example) was replaced by a general demoralization of the nation and cynicism that led to hitherto unimagined divisions, intolerance and exploitations. Another historian will write that the Great War made the spirit of Australia, put Australians on the world stage as heroic fighters and gave us a national pride that never existed before. Another historian will make a study of those two historians to find out why each was so different: what were the background influences and interests of each of them that led them to such opposing histories?

History has no existence except in our imaginations. The history many of us learned in school was a story especially constructed by socially approved elites for the purpose of instilling in us a particular sense of (national) identity and sense of place in the world. Those who decided what the curriculum should look like were the politically and economically powerful in society. Alongside state institutions, there have been religious ones that have instilled into believers another history, that of their church or communities of faith.

We grow up with these indoctrinations about our past and if anyone challenges us on them we can easily feel as if our own personal identities are being assaulted and it can be so easy to react with hostility. We can resort to defending the “true history” that we take as our own. When we do that, we fail to recognize that we are defending a fiction, a myth, a construction that appeared at a certain time and place to meet the particular needs and interests of that time and place.

The past is long lost dead and gone. What remains are memories that have been constructed by historians to meet the needs of those whom those historians represent.


2020-08-27

continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


2020-08-11

“When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” — Thompson’s Rule

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by Neil Godfrey

Another Thompson aphorism: ‘When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong’. In other words, as Thompson has also put it, ‘in our fields, if all are in agreement, it signifies that no one is trying to falsify the theory: an essential step in any scientific argument’. — Doudna 2020

That’s not being perverse. It’s about pausing when “things seem too good to be true” and taking time out to ask if “there has probably been a mistake”. (Gunn, @ 2 mins)

[U]ntil the Romans ultimately removed the right of the Sanhedrin to confer death sentences, a defendant unanimously condemned by the judges would be acquitted [14, Sanhedrin 17a], the Talmud stating ‘If the Sanhedrin unanimously find guilty, he is acquitted. Why? — Because we have learned by tradition that sentence must be postponed till the morrow in hope of finding new points in favour of the defence’.

That practice could be interpreted as the Jewish judges being intuitively aware that suspicions about the process should be raised if the final result appears too perfect . . .

[I]f too many judges agree, the system has failed and should not be considered reliable. (Gunn et al 2016)

Or even more simply,

They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made. (Zyga, 2016)

Sanhedrin deciding the death penalty . . . but . . . https://arthive.com/vasilypolenov/works/493225~Guilty_of_death
See Interview 1 and Interview 2 with Thomas L. Thompson. All Vridar blog posts on Thompson’s work are archived here. I expect to begin posting my thoughts on Biblical Narratives, Archaeology & Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson fairly soon.

The opening quotation above is from a footnote to a chapter by Gregory Doudna in a newly published volume in honour of Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology & Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Doudna’s footnote continues:

I thought of what I have come to call Thompson’s Rule when I encountered this scientific study showing that, as counterintuitive as it sounds, unanimous agreement actually does reduce confidence of correctness in conclusions in a wide variety of disciplines (Gunn et al. 2016).

The paper by Gunn and others is Too good to be true: when overwhelming evidence fails to convince. The argument of the paper (with my bolding in all quotations):

Is it possible for a large sequence of measurements or observations, which support a hypothesis, to counterintuitively decrease our confidence? Can unanimous support be too good to be true? The assumption of independence is often made in good faith; however, rarely is consideration given to whether a systemic failure has occurred. Taking this into account can cause certainty in a hypothesis to decrease as the evidence for it becomes apparently stronger. We perform a probabilistic Bayesian analysis of this effect with examples based on (i) archaeological evidence, (ii) weighing of legal evidence and (iii) cryptographic primality testing. In this paper, we investigate the effects of small error rates in a set of measurements or observations. We find that even with very low systemic failure rates, high confidence is surprisingly difficult to achieve . . . . 

Sometimes as we find more and more agreement we can begin to lose confidence in those results. Gunn begins with a simple example in a presentation he gave in 2016 (link is to youtube video). Here is the key slide:

With a noisy voltmeter attempting to measure a very small voltage (nanovoltage) one would expect some variation in each attempted measurement. Without the variation, we can conclude something is wrong rather than that we have a precise measurement.

Another example:

The recent Volkswagen scandal is a good example. The company fraudulently programmed a computer chip to run the engine in a mode that minimized diesel fuel emissions during emission tests. But in reality, the emissions did not meet standards when the cars were running on the road. The low emissions were too consistent and ‘too good to be true.’ The emissions team that outed Volkswagen initially got suspicious when they found that emissions were almost at the same level whether a car was new or five years old! The consistency betrayed the systemic bias introduced by the nefarious computer chip. (Zyga 2016)

From https://www.cagle.com/arend-van-dam/2015/09/smart-vw-cars

Then there was the Phantom of Heilbronn or the serial killer “Woman Without a Face“. Police spent eight to fifteen years searching for a woman whom DNA connected to 40 crime scenes (murders to burglaries) in France, Germany and Austria. Her DNA was identified at six murder scenes. A three million euro reward was offered. It turned out that the swabs used to collect the DNA from the crime scenes had been inadvertently contaminated at their production point by the same woman.

Consider, also, election results. What do we normally suspect when we hear of a dictator receiving over 90% of the vote?

We have all encountered someone who has argued that “all the evidence” supports their new pet hypothesis to explain, say, Christianity’s origins. I have never been able to persuade them, as far as I know, that reading “all the evidence” with a bias they either cannot see or think is entirely valid.

Ironically, scholars like Bart Ehrman who attempt to deny a historical and even slightly significant “Jesus myth” view among scholars are doing their case a disservice. By insisting that there is and that there has been no valid or reasonable contrary view ever raised, such scholars are undermining confidence in the case for the historicity of Jesus. If they could accept the challenges from serious thinkers over the past near two centuries, and acknowledge the ideological pressure inherent in “biblical studies” for academics to conform within certain parameters of orthodox faith, then they could begin to not look quite so like those politicians who claim 90% of the vote, or like those police chasing a phantom woman serial killer for eight years across Europe, of the dishonest VW executives . . . . Continue reading ““When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” — Thompson’s Rule”


2020-06-22

The Great Method Gap between “Biblical Historians” and Historians in History Departments

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by Neil Godfrey

I have written often about history, the nature of history, the history of historical writings, and historical methods. Very often the context of those posts has been biblical scholarship that falls short of meeting the basic standards of scholarly historical inquiry as it is typically found in history and classics departments. Occasionally one comes across a biblical scholar (e.g. Scot McKnight) who does bring up the names of historians in “nonbiblical fields” (e.g. Geoffrey Elton, E.H. Carr) but too quickly the main point of difference is bypassed even in those discussions. To find biblical historians who have taken up the methods of other historians — beginning with primary evidence and moving cautiously from there to secondary evidence — one turns to those unfortunately labelled “minimalists” in the studies of ancient Israel.

This post is a response to some specific claims about historical methods by Justin Meggitt, another scholar of religion, in his 2019 article, “More Ingenious than Learned’? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus”. Meggitt, I hope to demonstrate, has also misinterpreted the way nonbiblical historians work and misapplied some of their methods to the question of historical Jesus studies — even while attempting to better inform his biblical scholar peers. In so doing I trust a more valid way forward will become clearer.

105

    • V. Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2012);
    • S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2013);
    • A. I. Port, ‘History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory’, ed. J. Wright, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015) 108–13.

Indeed, the lack of conventional historical training on the part of biblical scholars may well be evident in the failure of any scholar involved in discussing the Christ-myth debate to mention any long-established historiographical approaches associated with the study of the poor in the past, such as History from Below, Microhistory or Subaltern Studies,105 approaches that might help us determine what kind of questions can be asked and what kind of answers can reasonably be expected to given, when we scrutinise someone who is depicted as coming from such a non-elite context.

(Meggitt, 22. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)

History from Below is taken from the title of an encyclopedia article, “History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory”, by A. I. Port. (The link is to the same article on academia.edu.) According to Port historians who work at this level

. . . dramatically reduce the scale of their historical investigation, confining it to a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event which is then subject to painstaking microscopic analysis involving an intensive study of the available documentary material.

Port cites some examples:

Such histories usually fall into one of two categories: the ‘episodic’ and the ‘systematic’ (Gregory, 1999: 102). The first type, which tends to take a narrative approach and rely heavily on ‘thick description,’ focuses on a single, spectacular episode or event usually involving one person or a small group of individuals – such as

    • the investigation of a heretical sixteenth century Italian miller by Inquisition officials (Ginzburg, 1980),
    • the elaborately staged murder of dozens of cats by disgruntled apprentice printers in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton, 1984),
    • or an antisemitic riot incited by accusations of blood libel in a small Prussian town in the early twentieth century (Smith, 2002).

The other type assiduously reconstructs the complex web of familial and extrafamilial social relations in a small community. Prominent examples include

    • Giovanni Levi’s study of social interaction in a village in the Piedmont in the 1690s – “a banal place and an undistinguished story,” in the words of the author (Levi, 1988) –
    • and David Sabean’s dense studies of property, production, and kinship in the southern German village Neckarhausen from 1700 to 1870 (Sabean, 1990, 1998).

(Port, 108, formatting is my own in all quotations)

From Kanopy

Surely, you are probably thinking, the historian must have primary and secondary sources on which to base any research into subjects like those. Indeed, they do. History from Below is not about subjects for whom we lack sources; it is a history that works with sources for “commoners”, everyday people, as opposed to the “great names” and institutions and parties that we normally turn to to “do history”. Another reference cited by Meggitt is What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice by S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, which contains a chapter on “Refashioning a Famous French Peasant”. It addresses method and sources for a historical inquiry into the sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols. (Martin Guerre went missing and an imposter subsequently appeared to take his place. You know the story if you have seen the film Sommersby.) The sources available to historians on this person and his community are

    • court documents and correspondence penned by Judge Jean de Coras;
    • Histoire Admirable by Guillaume Le Sueur who based his story on notes by another judge involved in the case.

The poor villagers did not usually leave behind written records themselves but historians do have access to

reports by police and church officials, teachers, physicians, and factory inspectors; personal correspondence and travelogues; parish registers, wills, notarial records, and protocols.

(110)

We have nothing comparable for the study of Jesus or any of his presumed disciples.

Meggitt advises biblical scholars that they should be aware of the problems with this sort of “microhistory”. In principle, that is true. The nature of the evidence will always dictate what questions can be asked in the expectation of useful answers. But one does have to note that there is simply no primary source material of the kinds addressed in the three sources Meggitt cites for “microhistory” or “history from below” that is comparable to sources available for Christian origins and Jesus or any of his disciples. So the advice to be “aware of problems” of using primary sources for a person from the lower classes is misplaced in the context of historical Jesus studies.

106

      • Knapp, Robert. 2011. Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women… The Romans That History Forgot. London: Profile Books.

    107

    • Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.

For example, given that most human beings in antiquity left no sign of their existence, and the poor as individuals are virtually invisible,106 all we can hope to do is try to establish, in a general sense, the lives that they lived. Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all? To deny his existence based on the absence of such evidence, even if that were the case, has problematic implications; you may as well deny the existence of pretty much everyone in the ancient world. Indeed, the attempt by mythicists to dismiss the Christian sources could be construed, however unintentionally, as exemplifying what E. P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’107 in action, functionally seeking to erase a collection of data, extremely rare in the Roman empire, that depicts the lives and interactions of non-elite actors and seems to have originated from them too.

(Meggitt, 24f)

“For example” — that introduction is misplaced as a follow on from a discussion of “microhistory” or “history from below” by Chaturvedi, Magnússon and Port. Those three authors are addressing not “virtually invisible” persons, but persons of whom we have enough primary sources to write serious history even though they were not elites. The preceding paragraph was referring to a type of history includes the bringing to light those “poor as individuals” for whom we do have “signs of their [individual, personal] existence.” Knapp, whom Meggitt now cites at #106, is writing a quite different kind of history. Knapp is not an example of a historian doing the sort of history just described as “microhistory”. Knapp is doing something very different. He is doing another form of “macrohistory”:

I seek to uncover and understand what life was like for the great mass of people who lived in Rome and its empire. . . .

Ancient evidence comes in two types: the one intentionally provided and the other incidentally. The first is generally irrelevant to our purpose, but the second can be crucial. An elite author setting out, for example, to write on the Roman wars of expansion, will sometimes include contextual details and bits of information which, when combined with other evidence, begin to create a picture of ordinary people. The experience of ordinary people has no direct voice in the histories the Romans have left us. Yet sometimes it is possible to garner insights into the lives of the invisible people even where none was intended and to amplify these by deploying perspectives and evidence from a variety of other sources.

(Knapp, 7f)

That’s very different from a “people’s history” in the sense discussed in the preceding paragraph. Knapp’s history of “ordinary people” (as he calls his demographic target of study) leaves no room whatever for a study of “a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event” (Port). As the article stands it appears that Meggitt has confused two quite distinct types of history. This is not a promising start for advancing historical Jesus studies.

So when Meggitt goes on to rhetorically ask

Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all?

he has already given us the answer but has turned his back on it because he has confused history of masses with micro or people’s history. To do “history from below” on Jesus a “micro-historian” will expect to find, as he or she does for other low-class persons, contemporary evidence preserved by literate classes about a person who was attracting a lot of attention among “the masses”. Literate classes have servants and contact with markets and will learn of any person making a name for themselves. Josephus notes quite a few of them, often with disgust. So do other Roman elites. We know, for example, interesting details about Cicero’s slave, Tiro.

Meggitt’s misguided citations of other historians continue when he suggests mythicists are guilty of the renowned historian E. P. Thompson’s charge of “enormous condescension of posterity”. This is an unfortunate reference because it misreads Thompson’s context and full scope of his work. Here is Thompson’s phrase in the context of the complete sentence: Continue reading “The Great Method Gap between “Biblical Historians” and Historians in History Departments”