Category Archives: Scholars

Scholarship and “Mythicism”: When the Guilty Verdict is more important than the Evidence or Argument

I recently wrote in a blog post:

Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”

A theme I come back to from time to time is the gulf between many biblical scholars and scholars of early Christianity. We saw what happened when Earl Doherty made his first “public appearance” online on the Crosstalk forum, a meeting place for scholarly discussion. A good number of the professional scholar in that forum reacted with outright disdain and insult. They did not “need” to hear or engage with Doherty’s arguments to “know” they were “rubbish”. The mere suggestion that their entire working hypothesis for Christian origins — a Jesus figure emerging and winning some small following at a time of messianic hopes, followed by the confused and evolving responses of some of his followers to his crucifixion as a political rebel — the mere suggestion that the foundations of their studies rested on questionable assumptions and that it should be an outsider who cries out that the emperor might be naked was too much for some.

Jim West’s response was typical of much of the tone:

It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist. Such silliness has no place on an academic list. Perhaps discussions of the non-existence of Jesus belong on the same lists as discussions of UFO abductions, alien autopsies, and the like. . . . 

The net is filled with crackpots, loons, and various shades of insane folk who spout their views and expect people to take them seriously. And when they dont get taken seriously they get mad.

. . . . Bill and his “voice behind the curtain” have simply repeated old junk which has been dealt with in the history of scholarship already. Why must we reinvent the wheel every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.

Did Jim West look at the arguments behind the claims? Yes, he could confidently declare that indeed he had:

(oh yes, I have visited the web page advertised— very pretty- yet filled with nonsensical non sequiters). Life is too short to rehash garbage.

And that settled it. Such “nonsense” had been more than adequately dealt with long ago — if pressed he may have mentioned the names of Maurice Goguel and Shirley Jackson Case — but if indeed the arguments had been dealt with Jim does not explain his hostile tone. Why not, like a sophisticated scholar, a tutor, or even a reference librarian, simply direct people such as Doherty and those who read his books to the sources that they have presumably missed? Who is it who is “getting mad” because they don’t think they are being taken seriously?

There is a contradiction there. It’s kettle logic. On the one hand we are informed that the Doherty’s and their arguments have been seriously addressed; but then on the other we are told that the Doherty’s get made because their arguments are not taken any more seriously than claims of UFO abductions and alien autopsies.

No, no-one expects a scholar to reinvent the wheel “every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.” So why the hostility? Why not simply refer Bill to the works that clearly establish the foundations of the scholarly enterprise and leave no room for a resurgence of what had long been dealt with professionally.

Jim covers himself to the extent that he says he did “visit” Doherty’s arguments and could most assuredly say that they were filled with “nonsensical” non sequiturs. No specifics, but no references to the earlier works that had settled all the questions, either.

I can go to any sizeable general bookshop and find books written by scientists and science reporters addressing the flaws in young-earth creationist literature. It is not hard to find. Some scientists clearly find time to address the fallacies and falsehoods of creationists to the extent that any serious enquirer can be assured they have all the essential data and all the basic arguments before them. I do not expect to find in such books sweeping assertions that creationist literature is filled with falsehoods and non sequiturs. I expect to find, and do find, examples of the flaws and clear discussions about them.

However, happily there are a few biblical scholars who are serious enough to make the time and effort to offer serious, scholarly rebuttals of some of this new material. Or are there? read more »

The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)

A spirit of obsession these past few days has possessed me with an intent to find something good and positive among mainstream biblical scholars of the historical Jesus and Christian origins. I fear I have proven to be a leaky and soon sunk vessel. All I discovered this past week was a post titled Revision and Dispute on the Critical Realism and the New Testament blog. I admit I was a little worried about opening and reading the post given my experience with a handful of other posts from the same author. But let bygones be bygones and focus on what we have in the here and now.

To begin:

In the opening paragraph the author directly compares (and I hope I am not misstating or misleading in any way) that the strength of evidence for the historical existence of Jesus lies in the same bracket of probability (that is, certainty) as the historicity of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

The author goes so far as to imply that anyone who doubts the historicity of Jesus is operating at a level equivalent to someone who would declare all the evidence for Germany’s invasion of Poland has been falsified.

Surely you jest. . . .

No, no, I am serious. But please let me continue. Please hear me out.

The same scholar (I believe he is a scholar, he says lots of things that indicate he is a real scholar) wrote

The recent resurgence in arguments for Jesus’ historical non-existence rested entirely upon the argument that there had emerged new insights into old evidence.

What “recent resurgence” did he mean?

He did not say. But I can only think he is talking about Richard Carrier. But that’s getting on a bit, isn’t it? Earl Doherty (an acknowledged inspirations of both Carrier and Price) took up the mantle from G. A. Wells, and before him we had P.L. Couchoud and, who knows ….. I don’t know what or who he means. He doesn’t say. But just from reading his post one would think that he is unaware of any mythicist publications until “recently”. He seems to suggest that Jesus mythicism has simply popped up “recently” from nowhere. So it is all very confusing.

Sigh. But surely there must be a smidgen of academic advance since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

No, no, not at all. The Critically Real Blogger says that

those competent in the matter and fully familiar with the evidence recognized immediately that these were not new insights at all but almost without exception insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.

You cannot be serious!! Sorry… I let reality sway my impulses for a moment. I mean, ….. Yes, yes, I know what you mean. Sigh.

Okay. Where do we go from here? Let’s think.

I suppose we could call on him to produce the citations that will lead us to where all of those competent had known and debunked all of those puerile mythicist myths long ago, even as far back as the eighteenth century. Surely!

Of course he will say he is too busy and flick us off to look for ourselves. The only problem, of course, is that we have looked at all of those rebuttals and see that they are for most part non sequiturs or worse.

So then he will tell us to look more closely and when we do we return to say that none of the initial arguments have been addressed. All the words that we read have to do with apologetics and non sequiturs and other fallacies.

Can I ask something here? Haven’t we, on Vridar, lately posted two series of critical reviews of mythicism that have appeared  in the Journal for the Historical Study of Jesus?

Yes.

Do you think that that is part of the problem?

What do you mean?

Do you think our blogger is simply up in arms against those who do not submit to the good sense of his intellect?

How so? Surely, if our blogger is a genuine intellectual, and he surely is, then he will see from what we have written that we address nothing but the plain facts. We set out the plain facts of what the scholarly reviewer (whether Gullotta or Gathercole) says and side by side we place those words with what the reviewed target (Doherty or Carrier) says, and judge for ourselves the honesty of the review.

Yes, but I don’t think they see it that way. I think they want to portray any of us who questions the historicity of Jesus as idiots. Full stop. The want to reassure every faithful Jesus believer that they are on the side of “sanity”.


I am tiring of this post. I have been here too often before. SOME (NOT ALL BUT WAY TOO MANY) historical Jesus scholars really have no idea about the most fundamental principles of historical methods outside their cherished field of God and theology and divinity and faith and all that.

To cut to the chase:

I state here that every event that historians (setting theologians and divinity doctors aside for a moment) claim to be a bedrock fact can be found to be grounded in contemporary evidence, that is, evidence contemporary to the person under discussion, or to evidence that can be shown to have derived from contemporary evidence.

There is NO such evidence for Jesus. There IS such evidence for Socrates, for Cicero’s slave, and for Seneca’s philosophical rivals (figures with even less claim than Jesus to being significant enough to enter the historical record) who are otherwise lost from history.

Biblical scholars who write posts like Revision and Dispute demonstrate each time that they write that they have no inkling of how vast is the gulf between what they call history (something that opens visions of persons and worlds otherwise hidden behind texts) and what historians, real historians without any theological baggage, call history.


Finis


 

 

Addressing S. Gathercole’s Case for Jesus’ Humanity: “Born from a Woman” (#2)

‘Mortal man, born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.’ (Job 14.1)

We introduced this series in the previous post. Simon Gathercole begins his case with Galatians 4:4 where we read that God sent his Son, “born of a woman, born under the law”. To Gathercole, the meaning of the verse is obvious:

In Galatians 4, Paul says that God sent his son, ‘born from a woman’ (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, 4.4). It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of Jesus’ humanity. This phrase, and others very like it, are commonly used as synonyms for ‘human being’. (186)

To drive the point home he cites “poetic parallels” in the Book of Job and Sirach.

‘But man (ἄνθρωπος) vainly buoys himself up with words; a mortal born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) like an ass in the desert.’ (Job 11.12)

‘Mortal man, born of woman (βροτὸς γὰρ γεννητὸς γυναικός), is of few days and full of trouble.’ (Job 14.1)

‘What is mortal man (βροτός), that he could be pure, or one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός), that he could be righteous?’ (Job 15.14)

‘How then can a mortal (βροτός) be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) be pure?’ (Job 25.4)

‘Pride was not created for human beings (ἀνθρώποις), or violent anger for those born of women (γεννήμασιν γυναικῶν).’ (Sir. 10.18)

I have highlighted the instances of “born” and the Greek original in each case for reasons that will become clear.

Gathercole cites another instance of the idiom in the apocryphal literature:

A variation on the idiom also appears in the Life of Adam and Eve, or Apocalypse of Moses. Here Eve has a vision of heaven and looks at what is impossible for ‘anyone born from a womb’ (τινα γεννηθέντα ἀπὸ κοιλίας) to see (Ap. Mos. 33.2).

Though we have here a “variation” in the form of the verb gennao we should at the same time note that it is a form of the same verb used, gennao. 

And then we have the expression in the gospels of Matthew and Luke:

In the New Testament, the phrase appears in Matthew-Luke parallel material. In Luke’s version, Jesus says: ‘I tell you, among those born of women (ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν) there is no one greater than John.’ (Lk. 7.28). The same phrase ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν also appears in Matthew (11.11). The Synoptic formulation here is the same as LXX Job’s except that Job’s are all singular, and Matthew and Luke have the plural.18

Footnote #18 directs readers to Daniel Gullotta’s list of non-Greek and later uses of the expression, so it is appropriate that at this point for me to direct readers to my own analysis of Gullotta’s specific claims: 10. Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s argument #2: relating to Jesus’ birth and humanity.

Gathercole underscores the relevance and force of this expression “born of a woman” (my bolding):

It can hardly be doubted, however, that Paul makes here an indisputable claim about Jesus’ human birth. The only real solution for the mythicist is to regard ‘born from a woman’ as an interpolation.19

——

19  Thus, Doherty, Jesus – Neither God nor Man, pp. 795–798 (epub edition).

The “historicist” side of the debate will surely have more chance of persuading non-specialists if its specialist scholars take the time to read and engage with the arguments that seem to be increasingly persuading the public. Simply dismissing arguments with what are clear mischaracterizations can only reassure those who have no interest in informing themselves of the points that are being presented in favour of mythicism. We saw the same flaws in Daniel Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s book. What eventually led me to lean towards the mythicist side of the debate was the failure of the mainstream scholars to engage with the actual arguments that challenge the conventional wisdom.

That reference to Earl Doherty, implying he could only “get around” the clear meaning of this verse was to declare the passage to be an interpolation, was not how I remembered reading Doherty’s argument at all. After re-reading the relevant chapter I have to say that Gathercole has somehow inadvertently misrepresented Doherty’s argument. In fairness to Doherty I think we should take a little time to set out what he does in fact say on pages 197 to 212 (hard copy edition) of Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, chapter 15.

 

Not only has Doherty’s discussion been misrepresented by such a dismissal but its main pillars have been entirely swept out of sight. Gathercole explains that he is presenting a “thought experiment” by focusing on what we can learn from Paul’s letters alone, but in doing so he has entirely overlooked the most significant parts of Paul’s letters that are addressed by mythicists. Recall Mark Goodacre’s observation of this method the context of another debate:

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence. — Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)

I don’t think Gathercole is deliberately suppressing Doherty’s argument; I think, rather, that he can see only those passages in Paul that he finds supportive of his own larger understanding, and that perhaps he finds it difficult to really focus and concentrate when his eyes hit pages presenting a quite different perspective undermining what he and his peers have always accepted. Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”

I will attempt to present Doherty’s key points in précis or note form interspersed with quotations. I trust readers will realize I am compressing much explanation that needs to be read in the book itself. There is still online an earlier version of the published chapter, Supplementary Article No. 15 – “Born of a Woman”? Reexamining Galatians 4:4 so readers who do not have Doherty’s book and who want to look further into some of my summaries will probably find fuller explanations there. I trust at least the summaries I present will be enough to demonstrate the failure of yet one more reviewer to engage with mythicist arguments, instead dismissing them with misleading comments.

Here is how Earl Doherty opens his discussion headed “Born of Woman”? read more »

Two Optimists

1. Steven Pinker


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

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

Whose face is the model for this image?

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Holland

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

Why I was wrong about Christianity

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

G. A. Wells Obituary

I was saddened to learn of the death of George Albert Wells via a Facebook friend. The Guardian has an obituary by Martin Jones. Wells’ books challenging the historicity of Jesus were among the first that I read on the question and I have never found their basic arguments overturned. Earl Doherty had quite a different view of the Jesus of earliest Christianity and I enjoyed reading some of the exchanges or criticisms of each other’s arguments that appeared online. In later years Wells did accept that the Q sayings of Jesus originated with some form of “historical Jesus” — but I found his arguments there less cogent than his earlier work.

He became a lecturer in German at UCL in 1949, and was appointed head of department at Birkbeck in 1968. He retired in 1988.

George’s views on the historicity of Jesus – which he first denied, then accepted in a qualified form – were controversial. He published nine books on this subject between 1971 and 2009, most notably The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1982). His work in this field generated debate in the US, where he was awarded the title of Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism in 1983.

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Framing the Historicist-Mythicist Debate: A Case Study

The citations refer to the previous two interview posts.

Miami is the first one with David Fitzgerald; Logicast is Daniel’s follow up podcast.

The time references match the preceding time marker in each of the two posts.

So [Logicast, 49:00] means that the source for my statement can be found by beginning to read from the 49:00 minute header in Daniel’s followup podcast post.

Daniel Gullotta is a young student (26 years old, just starting a Masters course at Yale) who is looking forward to breaking into the field of biblical studies as a professional scholar [Logicast 49:00, Miami 72:40 and blog bio]. The field is winding back in many universities but Daniel is doing all the right things — especially with his self-promotion via his blog and other social media [Logicast, 29:00, 1:29:30] — to improve his chances of eventual employment. All credit to him and we wish him well as we do anyone embarking on a new career.

What I would like to do in this post is to raise some of the dynamics — psychological and social — that I noticed at work in the recent exchanges I recently posted here.

thumbnailWhat interested me as I wrote up my notes on these two exchanges was not so much the arguments themselves — they were at a very basic level and sometimes misinformed — but the way the issues were framed and what the flow of conversation revealed about the different perspectives at play.

In other words, what is really going on when challenges to mythicism are raised and when there are discussions between mythicists and historicists? What is it that lies behind the arguments themselves and that perhaps indicates why arguments on neither side “work”?

It’s a question I could explore more widely by examining a wide range of exchanges and denunciations but I also have to invest in a full time job so that’s not going to happen today. I am, however, revising the many comments on the old Crosstalk discussion forum where Earl Doherty made his first public appearance in the world of scholarly exchanges and would like to share a similar set of observations from those exchanges one day. Till then, we start with a very small case-study based on one “budding scholar” in two online interviews.
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Under the Grip of Christianity: New Testament Scholars and the Myth of Transparent Fiction

Engineer's Bench Vise
Engineer’s Bench Vise Source: Wikipedia

Under the Grip

I just noticed over on the Cakemix that Dr. McGrath is once again comparing Jesus mythicism to creationism. He writes:

Mythicism says: universities are so much under the grip of Christianity that mythicism cannot get a fair hearing.

As you know, the good doctor finds this idea laughable. Implicit in his short post is the notion that evolutionary biologists and biblical scholars are serious, trustworthy, trained professionals. Thus, to insist that NT scholars unfairly reject mythicism is to engage in conspiracy mongering. One of his fans (a guy named Jim) chimes in:

Yeah, great point. That’s why I disagree with the current value of the speed of light. It was arrived at by physicists, who are naturally biased because they had … well … advanced degrees in physics. The speed of light should have been determined by a group who is not biased towards physics, like say zoologists. 🙂 Isn’t it weird how science departments are full of faculty that have science backgrounds, and departments focusing on Christian history attract an interest group like people with Christian backgrounds. … (just being a bit of a jerk here 🙂 )

But Dr. Jimmy tells Mr. Jim:

I don’t think you’re being a jerk. I think such snarcasm is called for.

When considering NT scholars, McGrath, of course, isn’t talking about those teaching at universities with a confessional bias.

There certainly are scholars at religiously-affiliated institutions, and I could certainly understand atheists viewing such figures with suspicion and ignoring what they have to say. But people like Ehrman and myself who teach at secular universities do not need to be placed in the same category, do we? And as for having Christian backgrounds, how many professional scientists are from Christian backgrounds, and how many are at least nominally Christians? I am confident that, if such a background does not invalidate the conclusions of mainstream biology, neither does it invalidate the conclusions of mainstream history.

He’s got one thing right: I would never put Ehrman and McGrath in the same category.
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Biblical Scholars in a “Neoliberal-Postmodern” World

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This is part 2 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

The point of chapter 2, Neoliberalism and Postmodernity, is to

provide the broad contextual basis for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades. (p. 21)

To explain postmodernism and postmodernity Crossley directs us to Terry Eagleton’s understanding in The Illusions of Postmodernism, p. vii:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodemity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities. . . . Postmodernism is a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience.

Crossley explains that he will attempt to link “postmodernity with the political trends in Anglo-American culture”, if not precisely, then by means of a “general case” that itself will be “a strong one”. We’ll see how strong it is as we progress through these reviews.

Crossley did say (see the previous post) that

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (p. 10)

Now there is much about Crossley’s politics that I like. I share his despair at the political conservatism, the lack of critical political reflection and awareness among his biblical studies peers. I like his idealism and frustration with his peers as well as his respect for their individual decent natures. Unfortunately I sense that too often Crossley loses himself in his efforts to politically educate his peers that he only maintains the most tenuous links with how these political views influence the shape of the historical Jesus produced by these scholars.

The chapter is wide-ranging as we expect when discussions of postmodernity and postmodernism arise. The cultural, economic and political context involves a broad-ranging discussion that consists masses of data: “near hagiographical treatments of the ‘material girl’ Madonna and her MTV stage”,  “Steve Jobs, advertizing his iPoducts as the machinery of the casually clothed”, the politico-cultural symbolism of decaffeinated coffee, television parodies of entrepreneurial culture, 1970s Chile, the recession and oil crisis of 1973, the “sharp rise in personal image consultants in the 1980s”. . . .

Only passing mentions to biblical scholars are found in this chapter (for the reason I mentioned above) and I will focus on those in this post. read more »

History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”

Yet Another Ehrman-Evans Debate

In a recent Bart Ehrman blog post, he referred to a debate he had with Craig Evans on the reliability of the New Testament, which took place back in January of 2012. If you watch it (perhaps you already have) and you’re familiar with these guys, don’t expect to see or hear anything new. I’ve come to realize that whenever Bart starts a sentence with, “I tell my students at Chapel Hill,” he’s going to tell a story I’ve heard at least ten times already.

However, Evans did say something that caught my ear. If you click on the start button on the video below, it should cue up to the 14:04 mark, at which point Evans says . . .

Second, New Testament scholars, historians, and archaeologists view the gospels as essentially reliable, because they exhibit verisimilitude, a Latin word that means “they resemble the way things really were.” That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.

Their contents cohere with what is known through other written sources and through archaeological finds. Their contents give evidence of acquaintance with the topography and geography of the region that forms the backdrop to the story. The authors of these documents exhibit knowledge of the culture and customs of the people they describe. Ancient narratives that possess these characteristics are used by historians and archaeologists.

The New Testament Gospels and Acts exhibit a great deal of ver-ee-similitude. They speak of real people — Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus — and they speak of real events — the death of John the Baptist, the death of Agrippa I. They speak of real places — villages, cities, roads, lakes, mountains — which are clarified and corroborated by other historical sources and by archaeology.

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John’s Wedding at Cana — Chronicle or Parable?

The Wedding at Cana (1820)
The Wedding at Cana (1820) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Gospel without Parables?

We all know the standard line: the synoptic evangelists tell us that Jesus’ ministry heavily relied on parables, while the Fourth Gospel contains none. It’s a striking conundrum. However, for a long time now I’ve been considering the possibility that John is itself entirely a parable gospel.

That is to say, each pericope may stand primarily as an allegorical story, regardless of whether it is based on historical events. The story of Jesus changing the water into wine, for example, seems to contain so many obvious references — narrative points and objects that have direct theological allusions — that resemble the parables in the other gospels.

Rudolf Bultmann in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971, pp. 114-121) counsels us not to overstate the significance of the water as referring to baptism, blood, or the new covenant. On the other hand, F.F. Bruce writes:

Jesus’ action was, in C. S. Lewis’s terminology, a ‘miracle of the old creation’: the Creator who, year by year, turns water into wine, so to speak, by a natural process, on this occasion speeds up the process and attains the same end. But if it is a miracle of the old creation, it is a parable of the new creation. (p. 45, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, emphasis mine)

John as “Megaparable”

If Bultmann gave us a red light, Bruce at least changed that light to amber. Earlier this year in The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan changed it to full-on green. He subtitles chapter 10: “The Parable Gospel according to John,” writing:

John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus. Look back, for example, at John 4 and note how physical drinking in 4:7-15 and physical eating in 4:31-38 become spiritual symbols of Jesus. Or, again, do you really think that Cana was just about wine? (Kindle location 3748, bolding mine)

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