Category Archives: Christian Origins

A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question

Dr Sarah of FreethoughtBlogs.com Geeky Humanist has posted two interesting posts in favour of the historicity of Jesus. It makes a wonderful change to read arguments on this topic that are expressed in a civil and calmly reasoned tone. Her first post is Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter; her more recent one, Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price. This post gives my take on her earlier essay. (All formatting and bolding in Dr Sarah’s comments is my own.)

If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.

If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things.

Dr Sarah finds the first option the more simple one.

My first thought is that the two options are embedded in faulty, or at least questionable, assumptions. If the gospel figure of Jesus did indeed reflect the life of an ordinary person then the two horns of the dilemma are both a quandary. If, on the other hand, we pause to reflect that the earliest gospel that we believe to have been written was the Gospel of Mark, then we have quite different options. That’s because in the Gospel of Mark the Jesus figure is most unlike any ordinary human figure in ancient (or modern) literature. He is a human, of course, with brothers and sisters and a mother, and he eats and drinks. But he is unlike any other figure in works that we know to be ancient biographies or histories. He is presented to us “cold”, that is, without us having any knowledge of who the biographer is or why he is even writing about him. Without any explanation of how the author came to know anything about his life, he is depicted as engaging in conversations and activities with spirit beings both in heaven and on earth. He calls and mere mortals drop all their livelihoods in a moment and obey. He reads peoples minds and hearts. He exercises God’s prerogative to forgive sins and rules the physical elements. He talks in mysteries so none can understand, and though he explains all his mysterious messages to his disciples, even they don’t truly believe. Even his disciples are far from genuine human beings: they walk as if mesmerized into obedience to follow him at his call; they are unrealistically stupid in not recognizing his power despite seeing it demonstrated time and again; they, along with the crowds in the narrative, come and go as the author needs them, not as per any realistic plot device. In other words, Jesus is depicted in the earliest gospel as a figure of a human but certainly something trans-human. The story-line is absurd — quite against the grain of the way real people really are and how real people really respond — if read “realistically”. But if read a ciphers, or symbols, or personifications, or mouthpieces for some particular set of beliefs and doctrines, if read as a parable or symbolically, the story makes perfect sense.

We have evidence to encourage us in our view that this earliest gospel’s Jesus and disciples (and even his enemies and other persons that appear in the narrative) are far from realistic or natural. That evidence lies in the way that the subsequent evangelists (“Matthew” and “Luke” — even “John”, some would argue) changed Mark’s Jesus and disciples into somewhat more realistic figures. (“John”, on the other hand, went in the other direction and made him even less human.) “Luke” even reduces Jesus to a martyr in the tradition of the Maccabees.

With that background, the two horns of the dilemma are modified somewhat:

  • If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.
  • If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as a parabolic or allegorical type of person who walked the face of the earth conversing with humans and spirits and did many inexplicable things and spoke in ways that his hearers did not understand.

Or maybe I should make the dilemma a triceratops with a third horn:

  • If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how two of the three canonical evangelists who followed their earliest predecessor “corrected” his account and made him and his followers a little more realistically human.

Okay, you might think I’m playing with that second option a bit too loosely. But how else might it be worded given what we know about the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus and characters generally?

Dr Sarah proceeds to set out her reasons for embracing the historicity of Jesus in five dot points. I address each one. read more »

“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500010043.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more. read more »

There are two types of Jesus mythicism. Here’s how to tell them apart.

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Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.

Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.

What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.

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The Phlogiston Jesus

Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)

….

Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018. https://historyforatheists.com/2018/09/pz-myers-and-jesus-agnosticism/.)

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer. read more »

The Detering Commentaries: Christian Origins, Joshua, Gnosticism and Buddhism

René Salm has concluded his series of Hermann Detering Commentaries:

Dr. Hermann Detering

“The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginning of the Joshua/Jesus Cult” (2018)

Commentary by René Salm

This extensive series of posts explores literary, religious, and historical links between Buddhism and Christian origins.

It argues that Christianity emerged from a gnostic substratum,
and that the figure Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament gospels
are second century CE developments.

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René Salm quotes Hermann Detering’s overall conclusion:

Beginning with the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus motif and the question of its origin, we have arrived at an element of critical importance: the metaphor of transcendence, expressed figuratively as [reaching] the “other shore”—which plays a central role in Indian/Buddhist spirituality. The question of where the two trajectories intersect—Jewish tradition/Hebrew Bible on the one hand, and Buddhist/Indian spirituality on the other—led us to the Therapeutae, about whom Philo of Alexandria reports in his De Vita Contemplativa.

Once the Buddhist origin of the Therapeutae is seen as plausible, it can be shown that their central mystery consisted of an interpretation of the Exodus, an interpretation based upon Buddhist sources. This interpretation, in turn, was the seed of the Christian sacrament of baptism. Early Christian gnostics, such as the Peratae and the Naassenes, transferred to Moses’ successor Joshua what the Therapeutae (more strongly rooted in Jewish tradition) maintained for Moses. The old cult of Moses would be surpassed by the new, Gnostic-Christian cult of Joshua. The counterpart of Moses became Jesus/Joshua.

Seen in this light, the “historical” Jesus, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, was hypostatized in the second century of our era out of the Old Testament Joshua. The Christian savior Joshua/Jesus is nothing other than the result of Jewish-Buddhist exegesis of the Old Testament.

I have read in translation much of Hermann Detering’s article. I look forward to being able to devote the time and energy that a proper assessment of his argument requires.

Enticed by a great quote & surprised by a unexpected “mythicist”

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

Yesterday I completed reading a most unexpected argument (an argument that led to the conclusion that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus) in a book I borrowed on the understanding it would do nothing more for me than clarify a few textual details about our early accounts of the Last Supper. I was following up sources associated with my earlier post, The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death.

I see now that if I had paid more attention to a few bibliographies of mythicists here and there on the web and to Klaus Schilling’s summaries/translations (here and here) I might have been forewarned. But I came to the name Jean Magne and some of his works in mainstream scholarly literature and had no forewarning.

The book I am talking about is From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Its Introduction arrests us with

The following pages set out the results of my investigations which started in 1945 soon after my return from captivity in Germany.

From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity (1993) consists of a partial translation of Logique des Sacrements (1989) and the complete translated text of Logique des Dogmes (1989). Anyone even slightly aware of prominent names in biblical scholarship could not fail to be somewhat impressed by the mention of Neusner in the same Introduction:

I would like to reiterate . . . my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Jacob Neusner who prompted this publication, writing to me on February 19, 1990: “I found your thesis entirely plausible. If you can get the book translated into English, I can get it published in a series I edit”, and again on April 23: “I thought your book showed how first-rate scholarship could produce a compelling and important thesis. This is why I wanted it in English”.

Earlier I had attempted to work my way through the original French text of Jean Magne’s “Les Paroles Sur La Coupe” [literally “the words on the (eucharist) cup”] and found the French very difficult indeed, so I was somewhat sympathetic to several of the infelicities in the English translation of Magne’s book in English.

The method

The first part of the book, “From Christianity to Gnosis”, focuses on the textual evidence we have (canonical gospels, Paul’s letters, the Didache) for the origins of the current ritual of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Mass. What particularly struck as I read was the author’s method. This could be epitomized by the epigraph at the beginning of Magne’s second chapter:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

My search for the author of that epigraph eventually led me to the following explanation.

Dom Maerten’s criticism highlighted the difference which exists between the historical method based on authentic, dated documents and the critical method which, like an archeologist when he excavates, has to distinguish between the various redactional layers in biblical or liturgical documents. Errors of syntax are one of the means of reconstructing the prehistory of a text in order to attain History. The historian’s shortcoming lies in his frequent inability to distinguish between two literary genres : works that have an author and works of living literature where each generation has added its contribution.

Now that little point suddenly reminded me of another work I read and wrote about last year: Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”. Revelation among many learned Judeans was not considered sealed up in a single book, but was always open to new understandings so that works in the names of certain authors multiplied. Adding to an existing text is not the same thing but it is similar. Did not the author of Revelation address this very practice when he pronounced a curse on anyone who would tamper with what he had just written — which ironically looks like something written over and around another earlier (non-Christian) text!

I cannot agree more with the first quote that speaks of the need to “reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts”. But when it comes to the particular method of reasoning as set out in the second quotation I have some niggling doubts.

So when Jean Magne showed how textual inconsistencies in the various sources appeared very much to be resolved by fitting Jesus words that he would not drink the cup again until in the kingdom back into the gathering at Bethany and not on the Passover itself just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, I was fascinated. The Last Supper ritual of the Passover evening when Jesus declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, etc. was a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. An earlier version of that gospel placed the arrest of Jesus immediately after his anointing for burial at Bethany.

I found the argument intriguing (and still do) but at the same time, and especially after many more such arguments relating to the various gospels and epistles, one is left with a very neat and very new picture of the evidence. It’s like the way the archaeologists found scattered pieces of an inscription at Tel Dan and studied to see the way they best fit together to make the most sense. Except with the texts we begin with texts that are already in one piece, only with lots of curious inconsistencies or non sequiturs in them that years of familiarity has very often hidden from us.

The point I am getting to is that after finding such nice fits by sifting out earlier from later strata one is left wishing one could find some additional independent source to test the new reconstructions. Have we built a new house of cards?

So I remain intrigued by Jean Magne’s arguments but I am also held in suspense, waiting for “the proof” to come along to confirm or demolish them. What I really would need to do, pending that moment, would be to devote considerable time and energy to a detailed study of Magne’s arguments and not simply rely upon a single reading of his book.

The overall argument

The general case Magne presents is that although our surviving gnostic texts (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Testament of Truth) are comparatively late, he finds that earlier Jewish and Christian texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) are best explained in places as attempts to refute the arguments that are often found in those later gnostic writings, or sometimes even advance them. The surviving forms of the gnostic works have themselves introduced efforts to rebut those earlier rebuttals. The Pseudo-Clementine writings about the contest between Simon Magus and Simon Peter may well attest to the real debates that were extant much earlier at the time of Paul and the authors of the gospels. (We know, of course, of the arguments from Roger Parvus, Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price that identify Paul with Simon Magus.)

Crucified in heaven

Before I fully grasped the extent of this argument I was struck by a passing comment on 1 Cor. 2:8 that I had posted about at length. read more »

PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.

PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.

The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, p. 99

And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

Here’s how another scholar put it:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.

 


Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.

Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.

See also posts archived under Ancient Historiography and Greco-Roman Biography


 

Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)

Why for that matter do people gather in a special building, listen to accounts of a long-past torture-session and pretend to eat the flesh of a god? (Boyer, p. 262)

As we noted recently, our historian friend Eddie Marcus made the following comment — I paraphrase:

Christians obsessed over the eucharist.

The reason we think it MUST have been Jesus was their obsession over it. ALL faith communities have this in common. . .  — this bread and wine ritual obsession. Something triggered that. Easiest explanation for that ritual is that one person did it.

I don’t think so. I think the explanation that “one person did it” is the most difficult explanation.

Luke 22:14-20
And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I shall not eat it, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.

The reason I think it is difficult to imagine one person starting the ritual as per the gospel narratives is that such an explanation fails to take into account the nature of ritual itself. What is the eucharist, or Mass, or Lord’s Supper? Before taking up the question of origins it is surely necessary to first understand what it is that we are seeking to explain.

We know of stories where comrades in arms, after experiencing a traumatic bonding time together, solemnly vow to meet every year to commemorate those who did not survive and renew their friendship. I don’t think we’ve ever heard of any of those gatherings expand to include their children and subsequent generations, certainly not other friends, continuing the anniversary long after the original parties have died.

But you will be quick to say that that is not a fair comparison because there is no divinity involved. I would say that the comparison rather draws our attention to what it is we are seeking to explain. What is a ritual?

Scholars of religion, including anthropologists and psychologists, have identified special characteristics about rituals that are unlike other sorts of behaviour and emotional responses.

One such theme in rituals is

purity, purification, of making sure that participants and various objects are clean, etc.

(Boyer, p. 237)

Paul stressed as much when he wrote:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged.

1 Cor 11:27-31

Yes, as Eddie said, the early Christians “obsessed” over the eucharist. But what he failed to appreciate is that most people who observe the ritual today also “obsess” over it. That they did so in Paul’s day is not necessarily a pointer to the historicity of its etiological myth any more than today’s “obsessives” are evidence of the historical truth behind Luke 22:14-20.

But Eddie did come very close to what is actually the defining trait of the ritual when he spoke of obsessive interest. read more »

How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion

Previous posts:

  1. PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism (2018-09-05)
  2. How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional? (2018-09-06)
  3. How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical? (2018-09-07)

I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.

–o–

PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.

Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.

Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.

–o–

PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.

Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.

— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.

— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.

— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.

— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.

— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.

Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.

The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.

So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.

Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.

I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.

To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.

–o–

PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.

Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.

PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality? read more »

Review of R. G. Price’s book on the Christ Myth theory — and a review of Richard Carrier’s to come

I have posted a review of R. G. Price’s book , Deciphering the Gospels — proves Jesus never existed, arguing for the Jesus of the gospels being an entirely literary invention on Amazon. At the time of this post it has not yet appeared but I expect it will be processed and published soon. I have posted a copy of what I wrote below.

Meanwhile, I have been persuaded I should also do my own review of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus. It’s a big book and the review will be lots of work so it won’t be completed by tomorrow but it is in the “to do” basket.

Here is what I wrote for amazon on Price’s book:

read more »

How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical?

Continuing from PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism and How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

–o–

PZ Myers asks: How do we approach this kind of topic?

Eddie Marcus, introduced as a professional historian, responds:

Eddie Marcus informs listeners that his expertise is in Australian culture and history, not first century Palestine. He has a business webpage, History Now, and a blog, Dodgy Perth. His LinkedIn page informs us that he has a BA in history from Cambridge and a Post Graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage from Curtin University of Technology.

there is a lot of commonality between how science approaches evidence and how history approaches it, and that way we could get there slowly.

Comment: Eddie unfortunately does not explore this “slow” option of determining the historicity or otherwise of Jesus (or any historical figure). This is a significant oversight, in my view, because it is that “scientific approach” that is the one used by the major authors of the Christ Myth theory, in particular Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. (I am not suggesting that their arguments are infallible; like many scientific approaches they find themselves in need of testing and revision.) It is also the method used by some historical Jesus scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan) to reconstruct their interpretation of what Jesus was like. As with any scientific exploration, results will likely vary according to the assumptions underlying one’s starting questions. Carrier’s book on Proving History is one excellent discussion of how a “scientific approach” to history is ideally undertaken. (For anyone who thinks that Bayesian reasoning is not used by historians I recommend a work by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker. Bayesian reasoning does not have to involve numbers, by the way. More simply and immediately, one can see how a more valid approach to evidence has been advanced by an Old Testament scholar, Philip R. Davies. Davies, by the way, urged biblical scholars to take up seriously the question of Jesus’ historicity in order to become a more academically respectable guild.

–o–

Top to bottom: Tucker, Davies, Lemche

Eddie refers to the scientific method sets it aside in order to launch instead into the discussion at “the deep end”. How, he asks, does a historian approach “the resurrection”.

But to start at the deep end, consider the resurrection. We have “loads of evidence” about the resurrection. It’s what we do with the evidence that becomes history.

The best evidence Eddie cites (he calls it “amazing” evidence) is our collection of four gospels. They are written, he says,  “comparatively close to the events they say they are describing.”

Most ancient historians would kill for that kind of evidence. I wish I had it for most of the stuff I study.

Comment: Right from the start Eddie jumps in the deep end of biblical scholars’ interpretations and models, bypassing the evidence and methods themselves. It is not a “fact” that the gospels were written “comparatively close” to the events they narrate. Such a claim is an interpretation and one that is grounded in the theological desire to date the gospels as close as possible to Jesus in order to buttress their credibility as historical sources. (Christian theology is for many though not all theologians grounded in belief in historical events: see Nineham.) To see how documents are dated “scientifically” I recommend Niels Peter Lemche’s discussion that I have summarized at Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels. Lemche was referring to Old Testament texts but the same principles apply. Cassandra Farrin set out a comparable set of points to consider in relation to New Testament texts.

It is possible that the four gospels as we know them in their canonical form did not exist until at least the mid second century. I think there are very good reasons for dating our earliest canonical gospel, Mark, soon after the year 70 CE, but there are also very good reasons advanced by some scholars for dating the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to the mid to latter half of the second century.

But even if the gospels were all written according to biblical scholars’ conventional dates in the last decades of the first century, by the standards of historians of ancient times that does not make them “amazing” or “close” enough to the events narrated to be worth “killing for” (as Eddie says). The highly renowned ancient historian, M.I. Finley, discussed the problems we have with ancient sources that I think many New Testament scholars would profit from reading: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. Ancient historical works are of value to the extent that their sources and provenance can give the modern scholar some degree of confidence in their reliability. In the case of the gospels we have no information about their provenance (only speculations) or their sources (only the hypothesized oral tradition). See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons.

If the only evidence Eddie had for an historical figure said to have existed forty years earlier, and the story was riddled with tales of the fabulous, and their was no way to identify its author, then I do not believe Eddie would consider such evidence as having any worth as testimony for the historicity of that person at all. This would be especially so if he found on closer inspection that that story (or “biography”) could be seen to have adapted many phrases and motifs from Alice in Wonderland.

–o–

Eddie describes the gospels as biographies.

He further says that we know exactly why Luke wrote his gospel because he tells us so in his preface: it is to assure Christians of the origin stories that justify their rituals, like the eucharist and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. read more »

PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has posted an interview with a historian in order to discuss The ontology of historical figures — with a particular view to the question of this historicity of Jesus.

I intend to post a critical commentary on the remarks by the historian, Eddie Marcus (I think that was the name but correct me if I misheard). Marcus may be a specialist in Australian history (again, correct me if I misheard — I will need to listen a second time as I do my review posts) and was clearly out of his depth when it came to knowledge of the breadth and depth of scholarship relating to Christian origins. Most frustrating for me was his failure to clearly conceptualize the questions, regularly slipping in and out of references to “evidence” and the assumption that the narrative characters had a historical origin == question begging in other words.

One detail I will mention here before I start …..

PZ Myers asks the very valid question: how do historians deal with now-lost oral traditions? And right there, at the very start, we are faced with the depth in which our cultural assumptions and the question itself are so difficult to view at arms length. The very idea that there were oral traditions containing variants of the gospel narratives preceding our canonical gospels is itself based on an assumption that the narratives in those gospels is “true” to some extent. The idea is that from Jesus or some sort of “easter event” stories arose that were later put down in gospels. A significant section of biblical scholarship is constantly showing the evidence that much of what we read in the gospels is not from oral tradition at all but from literary borrowings and artisanship. I have posted on some of the New Testament publications addressing the unsupported assumptions of oral tradition on this blog several times and will create easy to find archival lists of those posts as I discuss Eddie Marcus’s discussion.

Meanwhile, I left the following on PZ’s blog:

The historian being interviewed clearly has only a shallow or popular notion of New Testament scholars’ arguments about earliest Christianity and the nature of the evidence — he even admits he prefers to read the trade books by Bart Ehrman than check out the “serious research” being done. His statements about the NT evidence were grounded in assumptions and hypotheses that are simply not facts at all (as any serious look into NT studies will soon show) and his understanding of the very question appeared clouded in circular reasoning. I was reminded of many of Tim O’Neill’s straw man arguments and misrepresentations.

For what it’s worth I will be posting a series on my own blog dissecting key statements by the historian in the interview. I have often posted on this very topic, addressing the methods used by ancient historians to establish historicity, and will critique this fellow’s statements against the actual works of ancient historians themselves, and against what NT scholars themselves actually say about their evidence.

PZ — you have had discussions with Tim O’Neill. I have several times now offered to debate Tim O’Neill in any online forum on one condition: that he refrain from personal insult and innuendo in his discussions. He has declined till now. If you were to be a mediator of such a debate I would welcome the opportunity.

See also youtube:

 

Gnostic Interpretation of Exodus and Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Red_Sea#/media/File:Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_Sea.jpg

Recall that Hermann Detering was a work out about the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus and the beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus cult. See my earlier posts:

Since then René has posted a second installment. Meanwhile, on Hermann Detering’s page we see that a translation by Stuart Waugh is due to be “published soon”.

Here I set out my own notes from the first part of the work. I don’t read German except through machine translators, alas, so if anyone who has read the German original can see I have misstated something do let me know.

Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus

Philo

The earliest Jewish allegorical interpreter of the Exodus is Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century CE. In Philo’s Allegorical Interpretations II we see that Philo interpreted Egypt as a life of pleasure, a symbol of physical passions, in contrast to the wilderness, representing the spiritual life of the ascetic.

But notice that Philo extends his allegory of the exodus from Egypt to the wilderness by inclusion of the crossing of the Jordan River, apparently conflating this event with Moses’ (not Joshua’s) leadership.

Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan.” {Genesis 32:10.} But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

The passage through the Red Sea is symbolic of the transition from the worldly to the spiritual life.

The Therapeutae read more »

The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

Hermann Detering has a new essay (70 pages in PDF format) that will be of interest to many Vridar readers — at least for those of you who can read German. In English the title is The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult. 

See his RadikalKritik blog:

 

The work begins with reference to Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Exodus and concludes with references to Buddhism. . . .

5 Zusammenfassung

Ausgehend von der gnostischen Interpretation des Exodus-Motivs und der Frage ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Herkunft stießen wir auf die zentrale Bedeutung des als Transzendenzmetapher gebrauchten Bildes vom „anderen Ufer“, das in der indischen/buddhistischen Spiritualität eine erhebliche Rolle spielt. Die Frage, wo die beiden Linien, jüdische Tradition und hebräische Bibel einerseits, buddhistische bzw. indische Spiritualität andererseits, konvergieren, führte uns zu den Therapeuten, über die Philo von Alexandrien in seiner Schrift De Vita Contemplativa berichtet.

Nachdem die buddhistische Herkunft der Therapeuten plausibel gemacht wurde, konnte gezeigt werden, dass ihrem zentralen Mysterium eine auf buddhistische Quellen zurückgehende Deutung des Exodusmotivs zugrundeliegt. Diese Deutung enthält zugleich den Keim für das christliche Taufsakrament. Frühe christliche Gnostiker wie Peraten und Naassener übertrugen auf den Nachfolger des Mose, Josua, was bei den stärker in der jüdischen Tradition verwurzelten Therapeuten Mose vorbehalten blieb. Der alte Mosaismus sollte durch den neuen, gnostisch-christlichen Josuanismus überboten werden. Jesus/Josua wurde zum Gegenbild des Mose.

Der christliche Erlöser Josua/Jesus ist so gesehen nichts anderes als – ein Ergebnis der jüdisch-buddhistischen Exegese des Alten Testaments! Der „geschichtliche“ Jesus, d.h. Jesus von Nazaret, wurde im Laufe des 2. Jahrhunderts aus dem Bild des alttestamentlichen Josua heraushypostasiert. 

Translators . . . . Where are you? We need you now!