Category Archives: Larry Hurtado

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 »

No Public Engagement, Please. We’re Theologians!

20027876-r
Otto Günther, Disputatious Theologians [Disputierende Theologen] (1876)
Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado is a well respected scholar who has made significant contributions to his field. I have read four of his books (How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? — which I have discussed favourably on this blog; One God, One Lord; Lord Jesus Christ; and The Earliest Christian Artefacts) and have a fifth (“Who Is This Son of Man?”) on my shelf waiting in line to be read soon. I have learned a lot from Professor Hurtado. I especially love to follow up footnotes and I have learned much from other readings to which Hurtado’s works have led me.

However, I also have some differences with the Professor. That’s only to be expected. Probably none of will ever find anyone with whom we agree on everything. In an exchange some time ago I realized just how deep our differences were when I asked him for what he considered the bare raw data that any historian of Christian origins needs to be able to explain. His reply demonstrated that he is fails to distinguish data from interpretation. (I described this interaction and illustrated Professor Hurtado’s confused reply in Who’s the Scholarly Scoundrel? — Do excuse the editorial choice of heading. I do not believe Larry Hurtado is really a scoundrel. I once almost had the opportunity to visit the university where he resides and had looked forward to shaking his hand had the trip come off.) I found this confusion of data and interpretation/conclusions drawn from data alarming in someone who claims to be a historian. But then long-term readers of this blog will know how I have often pointed out the stark differences between the way historians of other fields when at their best employ methods that are unlike anything found in theology departments. Richard Carrier is not the only historian to point to Bayes’ theorem as a tool that can help historians monitor their biases and lapses in valid analyses of data and prod them towards more reliable results. Historians of the New Testament have a lot of catching up to do.

But there was another exchange with Professor Hurtado that shook me even more. He appeared to declare that one is only qualified to make a sound judgement on whether Jesus existed if one spends years in the studies of ancient languages and textual analysis and more:

Anything is open to question, of course. But to engage the sort of questions involved in this discussion really requires one to commit to the hard work of learning languages, mastering textual analysis, text-critical matters, historical context of the ancient Roman period and the Jewish setting of the time, archaeology, and more. And we know when someone has done this when they prove it in the demands of scholarly disputation and examination, typically advanced studies reflected in graduate degrees in the disciplines, and then publications that have been reviewed and judged by scholarly peers competent to judge. That is how you earn the right to have your views taken as having some basis and some authority. I’m not an expert in virology, or astro-physics, or a number of other fields. So, I’ll have to operate in light of the judgements of those who are. Why should I distrust experts in a given subject? Why should I term it “intellectual bullying” if scholars in a given field asked about a given issue state the generally-held view in a straightforward manner, and ask for justification for rejecting it? (Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Did Jesus Exist? Encore)

Professor James McGrath has said the same:

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally(and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I won’t repeat here what should be the very obvious counter-arguments that I have spelt out in the related posts linked above, especially Can A Lay Person Reasonably Evaluate A Scholarly Argument?

Professor Hurtado’s latest blog post repeats this point:

read more »

Scholarly Preaching

How remarkable that some scholars find confirmation of the literal fundamentals of the Christian faith in their erudition. One of these is emeritus professor Larry Hurtado who would appear to have found proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course it is difficult for a scholar who insists that his religious faith does not undermine his scholarly integrity to express conviction that an academically rigorous analysis of the evidence demonstrates the near-certainty of the resurrection, so the point is expressed in reverse. One cannot say that the resurrection of Jesus explains the evidence, but one can say that the followers of Jesus had overwhelmingly experienced something that they came to believe was evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Scholars are happy, thereby. The sceptics can supposedly free to attribute psychotic problems to the disciples. But the believers know what is being said. And his recent audience at Perth’s Trinity Theological College who “commissioned” Hurtado to deliver his address certainly believe in the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

So what is the proof?

It lies in they way two Old Testament texts — Psalm 110 Isaiah 45:23-25 — were interpreted by the “earliest believers in their efforts to understand and express their experiences and convictions about Jesus and God.”

First, the mind-conditioning.

We are hit with a series of descriptors to lead us to interpret whatever is coming as “curious”, “strange”, “astonishing”. That is, whatever is about to come has a strong emotive force — not unlike something that the earliest believers themselves supposedly felt when they encountered something strange in need of explanation.

it is a curious fact that neither [OT passage]seems to have been particularly prominent in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition.  

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

each of these OT texts receives a remarkable and highly innovative interpretation/usage in the NT texts.

Note that. There is no merely “new” or “deviant” or simply “innovative” interpretation of texts when it comes to the early Christians. No, their new interpretations are “highly” innovative, even “remarkable”.

In an astonishing reading, in vv. 9-11 the OT text is drawn on to portray a universal submission to Jesus as Kyrios, thereby bringing glory to the one God (the Father).  That is, an OT passage that emphatically declares the sole supremacy of the one God is drawn on to declare a dyadic obeisance, to Jesus and to God.  

The earliest Christians “astonish” us — scholars included! Their resurrection experience is being relayed to us all by some form of wave emotion. And of course, the OT is interpreted most dogmatically (or is that word pejorative? should I say “emphatically”) that God is a single entity, period. So let all those radical scholars who disagree be shut outside the door. And yes, Hurtado does have his critics on this point, despite his efforts to inform the public that they are somehow behind the eight-ball. (Recently I spoke to a linguist here at the campus where I work and I asked him about the status of Chomsky’s ideas in the field today. Unlike a good many biblical scholars he did not tell me that what he personally believed as if that were the only story worth listening to. He began with, “It depends on who you talk to!” Yes, he did then give his own view — but made it clear that it was his and his was one among several. How many biblical scholars prominent in the public domain are like that?)

So, what could have prompted these radically innovative readings of these OT texts in earliest Christian circles?

The argument avalanches. It is no longer merely “highly innovative.” It has now become “radically innovative”!

And what is the answer to that question? read more »

We Are All Mythicists Now

English: Portrait of Milton Friedman
Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all fill-in-the-blank now

You probably recognize the title of this post as a play on the quotation by Milton Friedman, “We are all Keynesians now.” I hadn’t known until recently that Friedman’s (or Nixon’s) quote is itself a play on the earlier “We are all socialists now,” coined by William Vernon Harcourt back in 1887. The phrase has a tasty ironic ring to it, which is why I suppose it reappears every few years with a new predicate nominative.

And I suppose that’s the same reason it occurred to me while reading Larry Hurtado’s recent post “‘Revelatory’ Experiences and Religious Innovation.” Not that Hurtado is a Jesus mythicist, not at all. However, in a sense, everyone acknowledges that some parts of the Jesus “corpus” are mythical. For example, an inerrantist Christian would identify the Jesus as portrayed in the gnostic gospels as mostly mythic or legendary. A liberal Christian might point to examples closer to home in the canonical books of the New Testament.

Where did the myths come from?

The standard model for the development of Christianity posits a human Jesus who ran afoul of the Roman authorities (perhaps accidentally, possibly on purpose) and was crucified. His followers were stunned and the experience somehow caused them to start seeing visions and interpreting scripture in a radically new way.

The way in which this “post-Easter” sequence of events played out remains a bit murky. You can expect to see lots of hand-waving and hear lots of fuzzy talk. But it’s worth serious discussion in the attempt to come up with a plausible story. The first step, I think, toward plausibility is to describe what kinds of processes must have been at work to create new, mythical representations of Jesus. How, for example, did the view of the risen Christ in heaven come to be thought of as true and real — so real and so immediate, that for someone like Paul it essentially eclipsed the human Jesus?

In discussing the question of how Jesus became a “co-recipient of devotion along with God,” Hurtado points to two processes: (1) revelatory experiences and (2) charismatic exegesis. The first has to do with visions of Christ, the second, with interpreting the Bible in new ways.

While I’m more interested in how the mythical, exalted, resurrected Christ emerged, Hurtado is focused on how the model of worship in which God and Jesus are both venerated could have arisen out of Judaism. We recall a similar question from Hurtado: namely, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? In the current blog post he writes:

read more »

Only scholars can “know” Jesus existed

I asked Dr Hurtado point blank:

I grant that there are many questions that require much training in order to make reliable judgements. But what specific expertise do I need to make “to make a reliable judgement” on whether or not Jesus was historical?

The good doctor explained most explicitly: read more »

Lost Responses to Larry Hurtado

Dr Hurtado asked me for specific and concise responses to his recent comments and I gave them. Presumably they have got lost in his moderation queue because they have not appeared on his blog though later comments from others have since appeared. It gets to the heart, I think, of where historicist reasoning gets warped within its institutionally embedded assumptions. Larry appears to me to be genuinely confusing the logic of the argument involved and is trapped in his own belief that scholarly attention to what Jesus was like by “definition” has taken care of the question of having addressed the historical existence of such a figure. Scholars have found the answers to past questions so easily answered by the historical Jesus model that to now question its logical foundations is beyond their abilities.

In short, Jesus is said to have existed primarily because scholars have found him such a handy reference in all their questions — never mind that the questions were always ultimately predicated upon his existence in the first place.

Larry asked the following:

Neil,  

I stand by my characterization of your stance (and that of Vincent) [that is, that we are intellectually akin to flat-earthers]: I provide you with texts and reasoning, and the typical response has been “oh yes, but it just might also mean something else,” without offering any reason for preferring the latter.   read more »

Larry Hurtado’s Wearying (and Irresponsible?) Encore

Larry Hurtado’s initial response to my post did not offer any expectation that he might engage with the larger argument I made. I was surprised to find him refer to it as a post about him (personally) and mystified as to how he could interpret my reference to “some scholars” engaging in insult and ridicule as a descriptor of his approach. I only used his initial post as an example to segue into a more general discussion about the difficulty even scholars (or especially scholars) and others generally often have in listening to the arguments of the Christ Myth theory with any seriousness. But he did attract some discussion from others commenting on his blog post.

I did not read all the comments there — I am unfortunately sometimes pushed to read all the comments on my own blog — so I cannot tell the extent to which his reactions expressed in his follow up post, The “Did Jesus Exist” Controversy–Encore, were justified.

But I will make a few general remarks here. I welcome Larry’s thoughts if he is at all inclined to respond.

No knowledge of the central thesis

He epitomizes what he sees as some “foundations” of the Christ Myth theory:

We’ve had examples of the erroneous, but confidently asserted, claims on which the “mythicist” stance seems to rest. E.g., no evidence of Nazareth as a real village (cf., e.g., J. L. Reed, Archareology and the Galilean Jesus, 131-32; J. L. Rousseau & R. Arav, Jesus and His World, 214-16); or that a figure called “Jesus” was an object of religious devotion before early Christianity (no evidence of this at all); or that statements in Paul’s letters about Jesus’ brothers were later interpolations (no text-critical support or in scholarship on these texts), etc.

If this is the impression Hurtado has gained about the “claims on which the ‘mythicist’ stance seems to rest” then it is very clear he has not himself read mythicist arguments. Perhaps he is relying on incidental blog comments to form a judgment about the entire theory. read more »

Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Historical Jesus Question

Don’t get me wrong. I have found many worthwhile nuggets in the publications of Larry Hurtado. I find some of the analysis and conclusions in his “How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?” very insightful. If I see his name in a contribution or bibliography I generally take notice and follow up. If I ever met Larry in person I would very much hope we could shake hands and enjoy a stimulating discussion. I have no doubts he could teach me much.

So let anyone who broadcasts some nonsense about my supposedly “hating scholars” please take a valium or step outside and water your garden.

And what’s more, I find myself in total sympathy with his weary plight when he writes (only a day or two ago):

The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Row...
The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Rowbotham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate!

Hurtado, I have no doubt, believes sincerely that “the current wave of ‘mythicist’ proponents” is “ill informed and illogical”. According to his post his only acquaintance with mythicist arguments is an eighty-year old book opposing mythicism. It is the most natural thing in the world for him to accept that this book, in 1938 published by the Student ChristianMission Press, would in a cordial and Christian manner give readers a full grasp of the basis of mythicist arguments and with good grace and irrefutable logic and undeniable evidence tear those arguments apart limb by hapless limb.

And he cannot imagine today’s mythicists being any better informed or logical because, to him, the very denial of the historical existence of Jesus is akin to denying the earth is round, the earth orbits the sun, or the moon landings really happened.

And that’s the problem! read more »