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


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.

.

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.

Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians (Part 1)

Damn. I fell for it (again). A professor promoted a new book as “making the most sense of the crucifixion” and “making a fresh contribution to studies of the ‘historical Jesus'” so I made a rush purchase and read it the same day it arrived. Silly me, I should first have checked the University of Edinburgh Library’s open access policy and archive of dissertations because it is sitting there free of charge for all to read. Access is also online through the British Library. There are only slight modifications of wording and more truncated bibliographic references in the published version.  Sadly both versions make it clear that the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh is responsible for some very crude fundamentalist-level apologetics posing as serious scholarship. I expected better from the University of Edinburgh.

The first difficulty I had with the book (We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question) was lack of clarity over its aim. It often sounded as if the author, Michael Zolondek (=MZ), was arguing that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah in some absolute sense that Christians today could claim was “the” identifier of Jesus. That is, we today should think of Jesus as a genuine Davidic Messiah just as surely as we think of him as a Jew or a male (or god in the flesh?) — quite independently of what anyone else thought of him (passim from p. xiv to p. 143). Other times MZ narrows the question down to suggest he meant he was the Davidic Messiah in the eyes of the disciples specifically (chapter 5). Does he mean the reader to understand that the disciples’ perspective is “The Truth” that readers of the gospels should also embrace? Confusion of terms bedevils other areas as well. For example, at one point MZ appears to acknowledge that the criterion of multiple attestation has value only if each witness is independent (p. 92) but other times he implies that multiple attestation has value even when the witnesses are not independent (p. 98).

But my interest in this post is one particular detail about the book that I found quite curious. On at least three separate occasions in his chapter on “methodological issues” MZ stressed that biblical scholars such as himself really are following the same methods as historians of other fields. By the third time I had to ask if MZ doth protesteth too much.

Another strange feature of this doctoral dissertation was a bizarrely irrelevant and quite misleading comment about Jesus mythicism. I can post about that quirk another time.

Before I get into the discussion of the fallacious foundation of MZ’s argument here let me quote one passage that at first glance appears to contradict what I have just said:

The most significant of these [methodological issues] is, in my opinion, the fact that often times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would. (p. 98, my emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

It turns out that what MZ means here is that Jesus scholars “often times” are working by far stricter standards than anything followed by “ancient historians normally”, and that if only more Jesus scholars would lower their standards to be consistent with those found in Classics and Ancient History departments at universities they would, lo and behold, find their job much easier and be able to reconstruct and prove all sorts of things about Jesus. Further, in his discussions of historical methods MZ cites sources that actually discuss the philosophy of history and debatable questions of historiography and problems in creating historical narratives, apparently confusing them with discussions of research methods brought to bear in evaluating sources and discovering certain facts about the past. I believe that these are generally distinct areas of study that MZ appears to have confused as I will also discuss below or in a follow up post.

Here are MZ’s more insistent claims that Jesus scholars use the same methods as other historians: read more »

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 »

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.

 

The evidence of ancient historians

Is it “hyper-critical” to approach ancient historians like Livy, Plutarch, …. with caution? In response to my previous post on why I do not think of myself as a “Jesus mythicist” one person insisted that we have every right to accept the words of Tacitus and Josephus about some incident that they say happened a couple of generations earlier. Here is my detailed response.

Why can’t we simply take at face value the statements we read in Tacitus and Josephus about Jesus? (Formatting and bolding in all quotations is my own.)

Let’s set aside for a moment the evidence that the references to the Christ are interpolations and assume they are genuine. Read what one prominent historian of ancient history wrote about the surviving works of ancient historians:

Yet a Livy or a Plutarch cheerfully repeated pages upon pages of earlier accounts over which they neither had nor sought any control. . . . Only Thucydides fully and systematically acknowledged the existence of a dilemma, which he resolved in the unsatisfactory way of refusing to deal with pre-contemporary history at all. . . . .

Where did they [ancient historians like Tacitus and Josephus] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . . .

I suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. . . .

Unless something is captured in a more or less contemporary historical account, the narrative is lost for all time regardless of how many inscriptions or papyri may be discovered. . . . .

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time, it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that has been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . .

There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention . . . .

Some of the supposed data are patently fictitious, the political unification of Attica by Theseus or the foundation of Rome by Aeneas, for example, but we quickly run out of such easily identified fictions. For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

For reasons that are rooted in our intellectual history, ancient historians are often seduced into two unexpressed propositions. The first is that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian).

That’s all from Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2

That’s what I posted on the BC&H Forum. Finley is not a lone voice, however.

The Christmas cake view of history

The historian of ancient documents needs first to study the nature of those documents and to try to understand what they are capable of revealing. That means literary criticism.

To see some posts in which I have addressed other work by Woodman discussing the creative imaginations of ancient historians, see http://vridar.org/?s=woodman

To quote A.J. Woodman . . . :

‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’ . . . . 

Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.

 

Compare “the nugget theory” of ancient history.

Later in the same chapter . . .

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.

And

Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself. But there were some occasions when the issues were so serious that it was rhetorically necessary, even at the risk of attack, to maintain the illusion of strict historicity. On those occasions the historian could never admit to manipulation or invention. Such is the tyranny of factual truth.

J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

It takes no great effort to refute him — he’s a historian.

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An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

What do ancient historians think of the efforts of biblical scholars to inquire into “the historical Jesus” and the origins of Christianity?

M.I. Finley was an influential historian of ancient history who found time out from his studies on the classical (Greco-Roman) world and methodological problems in ancient history more generally to write a handful of articles on problems facing biblical scholars attempting to reconstruct Christian origins. Finley compiled three of these articles into a single chapter, “Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography” in his small volume, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).

Interestingly (to me, certainly) Finley zeroes in on the same methodological problems faced by scholars of Jesus and Christian origins that I have often addressed on this blog and in other online forums. It is nice to find agreement in a scholar so highly regarded as Finley was.

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

In the second part of his chapter and in the course of discussing Maurice Goguel’s methods in arriving at some detail about the historical Jesus, Finley comes across an all too common point in the work of another well-known name, A.N. Sherwin-White:

An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not‘, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ (Aspects, p. 177)

One is reminded of works by Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham attempting to show how similar the gospels are to ancient biographies and histories. But Finley knows better than to allow Sherwin-White’s statement a free pass (my own bolding in all quotations):

Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. (Aspects, p. 177)

So we see that Finley called out the rhetorical sleights of hand we find are in fact all too common in the works of too many biblical scholars.

Finley then turned to another historian’s work exploring the nature of history:

In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history … means not history proper … but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls(Aspects, p. 177)

“With no external controls”? That is the very phrase I have been using in my own criticisms of the methodology at the heart of historical reconstructions based on the gospels. To verify that claim type the words external controls and/or independent controls in the Search Vridar box in the right-hand column of this blog page.

Finley expands on this problematic point in other essays collated in The Use and Abuse of History (1975) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1999) but before I address any of that elaboration let’s keep with his focus on Goguel as an example. Goguel worked before terms like “criteria of authenticity” became commonplace but he understood and worked with the same principles or methods. He might call them “logical and psychological” tests (= criteria of coherence, plausibility…) applied to gospel passages to “uncover” probable “facts” about the historical Jesus.

One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus … This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of ‘form-criticism’, has even abandoned history at this stage completely. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Rudolph Bultmann, ‘we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.’ (Aspects, p. 178)

It does not appear that Finley was prepared to go along with the methods, let alone conclusions, of biblical scholars in their efforts to establish what was historical about Jesus. A gospel narrative is merely a gospel narrative. We have no way of testing whether any of its narrative was genuinely historical or based on historical memory.

Sometimes one hears how accurate are the details of geography or social customs in the gospels as if such details add any weight to the historicity of the narrative. Finley responded to that rejoinder in the third part of his chapter in Aspects of Antiquity. He begins with a reminder of the point just made above:

[T]he Gospel accounts . . . are the sole source of information about the Passion – that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough – and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. . . .

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, and there are added confusions and impossibilities in the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. (Aspects, p. 182)

Finley then returned to Sherwin-White’s misleading comparison of the gospels with Greek histories:

Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigour by A. N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus, one does not get very far. Mr Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. For that Mr Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion. (Aspects, pp. 182f)

And that’s exactly what we read so often even among biblical scholars — that background details somehow lend historical credibility to the gospel narrative.

He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. (Aspects, p. 183)

Enter the deus ex machina of oral tradition to strengthen faith in the literary sources . . . 

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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!

 

 

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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