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2017-12-06

Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered

by Neil Godfrey

Larry Hurtado’s ongoing attempts to defend the reasons biblical scholars opt to ignore the arguments of the Christ Myth theory reinforce fundamental points in my original post, Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”. Hurtado’s latest response is Focus, Focus, Focus. Some excerpts and my comments:

The question is whether the Gospels are best accounted for as literary productions that incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth, and on that question scholars over 250 years have broadly agreed that they do.  The earmarks of the traditions are there all over their texts.  The Gospel writers weren’t inventing a human figure, but composing biographical narratives of a figure who had been central from the beginning of the Jesus-movement.  The Gospels mark a development in the literary history of the first-century Jesus movement, appropriating the emergent biographical genre.  But they were essentially placing Jesus-tradition in this literary form.

That the gospels are “biographies” is not a fact but an interpretation, based most often on Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A number of scholars have found reasons to be critical of Burridge’s arguments, however, as have I. Both Tim and I have discussed Burridge’s book and some of the scholarly criticisms several times now as well as having written more studies on gospel genre generally, introducing a range of scholarly inputs on that question. But let’s stay focused. A “biographical” genre by itself does not mean that the person written about was historical. The ancient times saw a number of “biographies” written about persons we know to have been fictitious, even though the tone and style indicate to a less informed reader that they are about a “true” person. I have discussed several of these in the links above.

Scholars who pay attention to literary studies of the ancient world also know that ancient writers were trained to create details of verisimilitude to make their compositions (letters, novellas, speeches, poems) sound authentic or plausible.

Further, the claim that the gospels “incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth” is, in fact, an assumption that is generally “supported” by appeals to details in the text of the gospels that too often are in fact circular. The process is very often an exercise in the fallacy of confirmation bias. The assumption that oral tradition is behind the gospel narratives is the eyepiece through which the gospels are read, and lo and behold, the evidence expected is indeed found to be there. The method has too rarely been checked by controls. A few scholars have applied controls to these arguments, however, and have found that in several cases the evidence that was claimed to be support for oral tradition is, in fact, more directly found to be a sign of literary borrowing. Take, for example, the “rule of three”. Words, motifs, incidents in folktales are often repeated three times and this is said to be an aid to memory. Fine. But what is overlooked is that we find the “rule of three” also liberally populating very literary works with other literary influences.

Yes, I am very aware of studies on oral traditions in the Balkans and Africa and have addressed several of these in posts on this blog. Unfortunately, I have also found that in too many cases a scholar has quote-mined such a study and misapplied its statements to support an otherwise gratuitous claim about gospel origins.

The applicability of those oral tradition studies have been found by a number of scholars not to be applicable to the data we find in our canonical gospels. Again, see some of the posts on Vridar for references to some of the scholarly works addressing this question. I will be posting more in future.

Hurtado continues:

Another reader seems greatly exercised over how much of the Jesus-tradition Paul recounts in his letters, and how much Paul may have known.  Scholars have probed these questions, too, for a loooong time.  E.g., David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).  But, in any case, this isn’t the issue of my posting, or even essential to the “mythical Jesus” question.

Yes, and indeed it is “many scholars” who also write in their publications of Paul’s virtually complete lack of interest or even knowledge of the human Jesus. Unfortunately, Hurtado appears to have chosen not to even consider or read any of the criticisms of those arguments that bypass certain critical problems with those common assumptions about Paul’s supposed references to the “historical Jesus”. Again, the works available, by both mainstream scholars and Christ Myth theorists, are abundant and discussed in past posts.

The Pauline question is whether his letters treat Jesus as a real historical figure, indeed a near contemporary, and the answer is actually rather clear, as indicated in my posting.  Paul ascribes to Jesus a human birth, a ministry among fellow Jews, an execution specifically by Roman crucifixion, named/known siblings, and other named individuals who were Jesus’ original companions (e.g., Kephas/Peter, John Zebedee).  Indeed, in Paul’s view, it was essential that Jesus is a real human, for the resurrected Jesus is Paul’s model and proto-type of the final redemption that Paul believes God will bestow on all who align themselves with Jesus.  In Paul’s view, what God did to/for Jesus is what God will do for Paul and others who respond to the gospel.

Here Hurtado is glossing over a number of peer-reviewed scholarly studies that contradict some of his points. That conservative scholars choose to ignore these studies does not change the fact that they exist and stand as challenges to the claims by Hurtado here. See, for example, posts discussing the scholarly debate over a passage in 1 Thessalonians that speaks of Jews in Judea being responsible for Jesus’ death, discussions on the passage in Galatians that speaks of Jesus being “born of a woman”, and even my most recent summary of some (only some) of the points relating to the question of James being a “brother of the Lord”.

Hurtado’s assertions are not facts; they are interpretations that are indeed debated in the scholarly literature. Yes, conservative scholarship might dominate the guild today, and minority views might be ignored. But they do exist and ought to be considered fairly.

Of course, with the Jesus movement of his time more widely, Paul also ascribed to Jesus a post-resurrection heavenly status and regal role as God’s plenipotentiary, and likewise (and on the basis of Jesus’ heavenly exaltation) a “pre-existence”.  But for Paul and earliest believers it wasn’t a “zero-sum game,” in which Jesus could only be either a human/historical figure or a heavenly king.  For them, the one didn’t cancel out the other.

Hurtado here conflates “human” with “historical”. I suggest the equation is not necessarily valid given that the world has seen perhaps as many fictitious humans in its cultural history as non-human ones. Some Christ Myth theorists propose that Jesus was always entirely non-human. My own interests are in a different area, but as far as I understand, it makes no difference to the historicity question if Jesus was thought to appear as a human for a few hours, days, or even years, or even having “slipped through” the womb of Mary in order to be “human”. Let’s stay focused.

The earliest circles of the Jesus movement ransacked their scriptures to try to understand the events of Jesus, especially his execution and (in their conviction) his resurrection.  But it was these historical events that drove the process.

Again, this is mere assertion, an assumption, for which there is no independent evidence. The justifications for the claim derive from circular reasoning, I suggest. Or at least they are simply begging the question of the existence of Jesus. The evidence that is before us allows for quite another interpretation: that the early Christians derived their knowledge of Jesus from revelation, including the revelation of scriptures. Again, such viewpoints have been discussed at length many times on this blog.

Finally, this discussion is about history, not theology or faith.  What you make of early Christian claims about Jesus’ significance, how you view traditional Christian faith, etc., are all quite separate matters from the historical judgement that Jesus of Nazareth was a real early first-century Jew from Galilee.

Oh that that were true! The Christian faith, it must be kept in mind, is faith that a certain event in the past was more than just theological; it was historical. Faith in the historicity of the event is what Christianity is all about for most conservative Christians.

A handful of Christians I know of have found a way to move beyond such an earthly bound faith (as Schweitzer himself believers them to do) and have found a way to remain Christian even without belief in a historical Jesus. (Not that Schweitzer did not believe in a historical Jesus; he did. But that was not his spiritual message. See Schweitzer in context)

So, let’s stay focused, folks.

Indeed. Focused, but not blinkered.

 


2017-09-13

Deuteronomy’s Military Law — So Very Greek

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from previous posts, the following draws upon a secondary source used by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in his discussion of military law as set out in Deuteronomy. The extracts that follow are from Anselm C. Hagedorn’s Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law.

I have occasionally changed the formatting of Hagedorn’s text and a few times replaced Hebrew or Greek text with English translations. Some footnotes I have converted into hyperlinks to the source text.

Russell Gmirkin’s comparative conclusion goes beyond the details in Hagedorn’s discussion so I will quote that broader perspective before embarking on my Hagedorn study:

The lack of a military role for the king in Pentateuchal law contrasts with the king as leader of the army at war in both the Ancient Near East and in the historiography of the biblical monarchy. The citizen army described in both the narratives and legal passages of Exodus-Joshua corresponds closely to the Athenian model. The notion of military practices being governed or limited by law is characteristically Greek. The involvement of the national Assembly in negotiating peace treaties in wartime in Josh. 9 suggests a commitment to democratic practices similar to that found at Athens but unheard of in the Ancient Near East. The Deuteronomistic exemption from military duties for a soldier with a new house, vineyard or wife appears to have been modeled on the statutorial exemption from military training for an Athenian soldier who newly became head of a household through marriage or inheriting an estate. (Gmirkin, p. 125)

–o0o–

Military Law Between Moses and Plato

Deuteronomy 20

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.

Hagedorn p. 176

“You” in Deut 20:1 is in fact the assembly of all male Israelites who will go out and fight. This phenomenon is well attested in the Greek world. In an inscription from Athens we have a decree regarding warfare, here we read:

this decided in the Lykeion (the people of) Athens (Without the assembled people) it shall neither be (possible) to start a war (nor) to end one —

The people are responsible for military action in the law and at the same time the δήμος πληθύων [=popular assembly] controls the actions of the council, a fact not represented in Deut 20:1-20. If the law is indeed directed towards the same individuals who are already responsible for the investiture of the judges and the king in the leges de officiis, we are now able to use the so called Hoplite model of the Greek city states to investigate further what implications a fighting male citizenship had on the society.

It is important to note that one was first a citizen and then a soldier and not vice versa. To maximise its numbers of Hoplites, every polis had to be very keen on the maximisation of smallholdings so that more citizens could afford Hoplite armour.

Hoplites in phalanx formation

–o0o– read more »


2017-01-14

Schweitzer in context

by Neil Godfrey

My response to Cornelis Hoogerwerf’s post on Γεγραμμένα, Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, has raised the question of the intended meaning of Schweitzer’s words in relation to historical probability, common sense, and more. Cornelis has said my own explanation of S’s words is wrong; I attempted to explain why I disagreed. But rather than leave the discussion hanging with as a “you are wrong; no I am not wrong” exchange I copy a fairly large section of the relevant section from the Fortress Press edition of Schweitzer’s Quest so that readers can hopefully have a more secure handle on the evidence in order to make up their own minds about the meaning and significance of S’s words.

Before I do let me comment on a new post by Bart Ehrman in which he explains that “some” biblical scholars are also “historians”. The gist of his explanation appears to me to be that if a scholar chooses to study and write about “history” then s/he can be called a historian. Of course that makes perfect sense. But is such a scholar any better at “doing history” than an amateur historian without training or background knowledge in the philosophy and methods of historical research and history writing? I have found that some of the best history writing about “biblical times” has come from those pejoratively labelled “minimalists”. It is their work, and in particular their explanations of their methods, that resonates with the best historical research I read among those writing in other (non-biblical) areas. Most significantly, (a) they do not begin with the assumption that a text’s provenance can be understood entirely from its own self-testimony; (b) they understand the importance of independent confirmation of its contents in order to establish its degree of reliability; and (c) they “take seriously” the question of genre and wider literary matrix of the text prior to deciding how to interpret it, and do not assume that its content is essentially a window through which readers can look to see “true history” in the shadow of its narrative. These may sound like simple basics but they are very often overlooked by many biblical scholars who aspire to write “history” from the Gospels. Unfortunately Bart Ehrman fails on all three of those points. Among some of the best historians working with the “Old Testament” texts are, in my view, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Russell Gmirkin. There are a few names I would consider genuine historians among later biblical-related history, Steve Mason being one.

It is in that context that I read with interest Schweitzer’s words. Even though Schweitzer was not a mythicist and argued extensively against the Christ Myth theory, he did acknowledge the theoretical importance of the above historical principles, especially point (b).

To return to Cornelis’s post, I do see that he has since acknowledged his debt to Bart Ehrman for the views and complaint he expressed in the first part of his post. Given his failure to cite a single “mythicist” who has misquoted Schweitzer in an attempt to mislead readers into thinking S himself presented an argument against the historicity of Jesus, I conclude that no-one has done so and that efforts from certain quarters to mislead readers and repeat baseless rumours related to my own quotations of S are entirely mischievous.

In our recent discussion on my post Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate other differences arose. Cornelis believes that scholarship since Schweitzer’s day has indeed raised the level of probability that Jesus was historical to as close to 1.0 as one might wish. Again, his reasons unfortunately indicate a poor grasp of how historical methods and epistemology is understood outside the field of biblical studies.

Schweitzer, pages 400-402

read more »


2017-01-08

Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate

by Neil Godfrey

Without citing any instances to support his claim, Bart Ehrman charged “mythicists” as sometimes guilty of dishonestly quote-mining Albert Schweitzer to make it sound as if Schweitzer supported the view that Jesus was not a historical person. Ehrman’s unsubstantiated allegation has been repeated by Cornelis Hoogerwerf on his blog (without any acknowledgement to Ehrman); Jona Lendering of Livius.org has reportedly alerted Jim West of Cornelis’s “observation” and Jim has in turn informed his readership of Cornelis’s “excellent post”.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (Albert Schweiter, p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest) — and ditto for the 21st century!

Here’s an excellent post . . . on the way the Jesus mythicists misrepresent Schweitzer to further their unhinged, maniacal, idiotic goals. (From The Crazy ‘Jesus Mythicists’ Lie About Schweitzer the Way Trump Lies About Everything)

If anyone knows who has quoted Schweitzer to support a claim that Jesus did not exist please do inform me either by email or in a comment below. I am not suggesting that no-one has mischievously or ignorantly misquoted Schweitzer to suggest he had doubts about the historicity of Jesus but I have yet to see who these mythicists are of whom Ehrman, Hoogerwerf and West speak. I do know that my own blog post quotations of Schweitzer have been picked up by others and recycled but I was always careful to point out that Schweitzer was no mythicist, and indeed that was a key reason I presented the quotations: the strength of their contribution to my own point was that they derived from someone who argued at length against the Christ Myth theory.

So I would like to know the identities of the “quack historians” of whom Cornelis Hoogerwerf writes:

To no surprise for those who are a little bit familiar with the contrivances of quack historians, Albert Schweitzer is getting quote mined to bolster the claims of the defenders of an “undurchführbare Hypothese” (infeasable hypothesis), as Schweitzer himself called  the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (p. 564). Part of it is due to the English translation, but another part is certainly due to the fact that quotations of his work circulate without context, and moreover due to the lack of understanding of Schweitzer’s time and his place in the history of scholarship. Perhaps some light from the Netherlands, in between the German and the Anglo-Saxon world, could help to clarify the matter.

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Now, without context, it seems that Albert Schweitzer rejects the whole project of historical Jesus research. But nothing is further from the truth, for Schweitzer criticises the liberal scholarship that was current in the nineteenth century, which, according to Schweitzer, tried to make the historical Jesus a stooge for their modern religious predilections. That Jesus had never any existence. Schweitzer’s own historical Jesus was the eschatological Jesus, who remained strange, even offensive, to our time.

(Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, my bolding in all quotations)

What is the source of this claim? Has Cornelis Hoogerwerf really read any post, article or book in which Schweitzer has been so quoted for such a dishonest purpose? He cites none. But his wording does have remarkable similarities to the text of Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? when he made the same charge — also without citation of supporting sources.

To lend some scholarly cachet to their view, mythicists sometimes quote a passage from one of the greatest works devoted to the study of the historical Jesus in modern times, the justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus, written by New Testament scholar, theologian, philosopher, concert organist, physician, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Albert Schweitzer:

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Taken out of context, these words may seem to indicate that the great Schweitzer himself did not subscribe to the existence of the historical Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The myth for Schweitzer was the liberal view of Jesus so prominent in his own day, as represented in the sundry books that he incisively summarized and wittily discredited in The Quest. Schweitzer himself knew full well that Jesus actually existed; in his second edition he wrote a devastating critique of the mythicists of his own time, and toward the end of his book he showed who Jesus really was, in his own considered judgment. For Schweitzer, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of history as we know it. (Did Jesus Exist? p. f)

I hesitate to suggest that Ehrman’s accusations were made without substance but I have yet to find any “mythicists” quoting the above passage by Schweitzer for the intent that Ehrman and Hoogerwerf claim. Is this an entirely manufactured accusation? Is West alerting readers to Hoogerwerf’s “excellent” relaying of a baseless rumour?

***

Cornelis Hoogerwerf adds a second part to his post: read more »


2016-10-20

And the Mysterious Unknowns of Other Historical(?) Figures

by Neil Godfrey

following on from the previous post . . . .

What is wrong with living with doubt and uncertainty as to the historicity of any figure of the past? Unless one is a fundamentalist or ideological nationalist whose very identity depends upon the literal certainty of past figures and events, what is wrong with simply accepting that we cannot know for certain if there was a historical Buddha, or Moses, or David or Solomon, or even Socrates, or Honi, or Hillel, or Muhammad, or Jesus . . .

What difference would it make? Certainly it would make an enormous difference to certain fundamentalists or believers whose personal identity hangs upon the certain reality of some such figure, but for scholars, for academics, for the general public…..? Very little, if anything, of history would have to be re-written. Maybe just the wording of a few lines here and there would need to be tweaked, that’s all.

Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, as I understand their publications, have misrepresented my reference to a quotation from Albert Schweitzer. My point is not that Schweitzer is casting doubt on the historicity of Jesus — not at all — but that he is saying that religious faith should not rest upon the mundane. Our certainty of what we know of the mundane can rarely be secure and the focus of spirituality belongs elsewhere. Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my emphasis):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .


2016-09-11

“America, the most propagandised of all nations”

by Neil Godfrey
This post is a sequel to Propaganda in Modern Democracies

Man is essentially more rational than irrational when he has access to adequate knowledge. When issues are clearly understood, a generally sound judgment is in evidence. The tragic fact remains, however, that he still lives in a world which seldom allows him the full information he needs to display consistently rational behavior. . . . The American man in the street is, as Childs contends, the most propagandized person of any nation . . . (Meier 1950:162)

Nor do other nations that have come increasingly under the influence of the United States have room for complacency and future posts will look at instances where American propaganda techniques have become established in other countries.

Propaganda in a democracy has been most commonly channeled through commercial advertising and public relations.

In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that ‘advertising is peculiarly American’, but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that ‘Hitler … employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilising advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost’ (Dudley 1947:106, 108, cited in Carey 1997:14).

Traditional media deployed: film, radio, TV, even comic strips, and now, of course, our new communication technologies daily vying for our attention.

Recall Jacques Ellul’s definition from the previous post to keep in mind what is at work through these media:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.

There are certain characteristics of American society that has made it particularly fertile ground for the creation of durable emotional symbols charged with power to manipulate public attitudes.

goodevilOne of those characteristics is the historical predisposition of American society to fall in line with a dualistic or Manichean world-view.

This is a world-view dominated by the powerful symbols of the Satanic and the Sacred (darkness and light). A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic. (Carey 1997:15)

Another quality is the pragmatic orientation of US society.

This is a preference for action over reflection. If the truth of a belief is to be sought in the consequences of acting on the belief, rather than through a preliminary examination of the grounds for holding it, there will be a tendency to act first and question later (if at all — for once a belief is acted upon the actor becomes involved in responsibility for the consequences and will be disposed to interpret the consequences so that they justify his belief and hence his action). If it is that American culture, compared with most others, values action above reflection, one may expect that condition to favour a Manichean world-view. For acknowledgement of ambiguity, that is, a non-Manichean world where agencies or events may comprise or express any complex amalgam of Good and Evil — demands continual reflection, continual questioning of premises. Reflection inhibits action, while a Manichean world-view facilitates action. On that account action and a Manichean world-view are likely to be more congenial to and to resonate with the cultural preference found in the United States. (Carey 1997:15)

read more »


2016-03-25

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

by Tim Widowfield

In my previous post, I discussed the basic element of Bart Ehrman’s understanding of Maurice Halbwachs, the founder of the study of collective memory. This time, I’d like to focus on his remarks concerning Formgeschichte (form criticism) as it applies to the New Testament in general and memory theory in particular.

Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

“Forget it — he’s rolling.”

♦ Dibelius said what?

This is more like a scholar of American history saying that George Washington wrote the Declaration of Independence.

jesusbeforeBart gets on a roll in Jesus Before the Gospels, as he describes the early form critics. He writes:

The authors of the Gospels—all of them, not just Mark—wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they wrote. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities. For [Martin] Dibelius, “stringing together” is precisely what the Gospel writers did. The Gospel stories are “pearls on a string.” The authors provided the string, but they inherited the pearls. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 46, emphasis mine)

It would appear that Ehrman wishes to attribute the well-known metaphor, pearls on a string, to Martin Dibelius. When I first saw it, I thought, “I must not be reading that right.” But then I noticed a post on his blog, entitled “The Next Step: Redaction Criticism,” in which he wrote: read more »


2015-01-04

Inviting Jim West to read Schweitzer

by Neil Godfrey

Baptist Pastor and Professor of Biblical Studies Jim West posted the following recently:

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 9.57.36 am

Jim is a faculty member of the Quartz Hill School of Theology that advertizes itself as

an academic institution designed to train believers for more effective ministry, both in and out of the church. QHST affirms that each believer is a priest before God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, not needing any human intermediary to reach God and competent to judge spiritual matters for him or herself. Quartz Hill School of Theology is a ministry of Quartz Hill Community Church, a very small Baptist congregation which is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

But has Jim himself really read Schweitzer? Although very much a believer in the historicity of Jesus Schweitzer wrote some interesting words about the implications of mythicism and historical methods that I suspect Jim would not like one bit. Jim certainly does not believe in emulating Schweitzer in this area.

Perhaps he has only read the first edition, from 1910, of Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus. There we read the famous insight that has been repeated by many a scholar ever since, that in searching for a historical Jesus each scholar has found a Jesus in his own image:

As formerly in Renan the romantic spirit created the personality of Jesus in its own image, so at the present day the Germanic spirit is making a Jesus after its own likeness. (p. 309)

But the historic Jesus and the Germanic spirit cannot be brought together except by an act of historic violence which in the end injures both religion and history. A time will come when our theology, with its pride in its historical character, will get rid of its rationalistic bias. This bias leads it to project back into history what belongs to our own time, the eager struggle of the modern religious spirit with the Spirit of Jesus, and seek in history justification and authority for its beginning. The consequence is that it creates the historical Jesus in its own image, so that it is not the modern spirit influenced by the Spirit of Jesus, but the Jesus of Nazareth constructed by modern historical theology, that is set to work upon our race. (p. 312)

Jim West is a model of faith-based scholarship. I say this because of his ability to recognize the circularity of much that passes for research into the historical Jesus while not allowing such unstable intellectual foundations wobble his insistence that there really was a historical Jesus.

Jim is also a very unpleasant and dishonest character when he broaches the subject of mythicism and here he and Schweitzer stand poles apart.

Perhaps the reason Jim promotes disinformation about mythicist arguments and makes the effort to excise any hint of a reference to a mythicist site (see his response to being informed of inaccuracies in Casey’s book; his editing to remove a reference to a scholar’s comments on Vridar; and his churlish treatment towards one solely on grounds of suspected mythicism) is his deep-down recognition of this methodological vacuity at the heart of his faith-based scholarship.

Contrast Jim West’s language with Schweitzer admonition:

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

read more »


2014-05-05

Jesus and the “Great Men” View of History

by Neil Godfrey
Crossley's portrait as a Che Guevara Jesus crucified?

Crossley’s portrait as a Che Guevara Jesus crucified?

This post is an overview of chapter 4 of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism by James Crossley and is part of the series reviewing this book.

Crossley’s stated purpose of this chapter is

to show that a dominant feature of the quest for the historical Jesus — Jesus as Great Man — works in harmony with a dominant capitalist understanding of causality, particularly the importance of a freely acting autonomous individual with little concern for material conditions as historical mover. (p. 68)

(Once again we see the ambiguity and and vagueness of definition coming through as so often in Crossley’s works: “a dominant understanding”, “Jesus as Great Man”, “working in harmony with” — these leave lots of room for many exceptions, qualifications and imprecision and even inconsistencies in hypothesized relationships.)

What troubles Crossley is that the traditional focus of historical Jesus studies has concentrated on the qualities and actions of the person of Jesus in order to explain the formation of Christianity and tended to either overlook or minimize the role of larger historical forces (sociological, economic, political) in Christianity’s emergence.

Most historical Jesus studies attempt to identify sayings and doings of Jesus the individual. They assume he personally is the decisive factor, effectively independent of other historical forces or trends, that produced the Christian religion. Crossley links this approach to what he calls “individualism” or “individualistic history”, both in this context said to mean that the historian writes as if the individual acts all powerfully and autonomously in apparent disregard for larger forces in the material world.

So far I can sympathize with Crossley’s concern. This contrast between historical Jesus studies and the sorts of historical studies in other fields (including historical biographies) was the first thing that struck me when I began to read works about the historical Jesus. To anyone who is even slightly familiar with other historical biographies it is very clear that the study of Jesus is in a class of its own.

But Crossley goes further and directly associates such an “individualism” with capitalist values. read more »


2014-02-06

Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality

by Neil Godfrey
woodman

Professor of Classics, A.J. Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

There are good reasons for approaching the Book of Acts and other historical writings of the Bible from the perspective of the wider literary culture of their day. Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, is generally thought of as an outstanding exception among ancient historians because of his supposedly well-researched and eyewitness accounts of the facts. Classicist Professor A.J.Woodman reminds us, however, that we may be advised to reconsider why we should ever think of anyone as being an exception to the ethos and culture of one’s own day.

Through these posts I am exploring the nature of ancient historiography, and by implication re-examining the assumptions we bring to our reading of the Bible’s historical books. Beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides is relevant because we will see that Jewish historians, in particular Josephus, were influenced by them. We will see that by understanding Greek and Roman historians we will also understand more clearly and in a new light the nature of the works of Josephus. And by understanding the nature of ancient historical texts we will read Acts and other historical books in the Bible with fresh insights and improved critical awareness.

The first thing to note about Thucydides is that, for all his differences from Herodotus, he wanted his own work to be read with reference to Herodotus’ Histories. He borrowed directly from Herodotus to demonstrate to readers the superiority of his own work.

Herodotus advertized the greatness of his topic. Thucydides did the same and more so. Herodotus announced that the Persian Wars were a large-scale event? Thucydides responds by greatly exaggerating the extent of the Peloponnesian War to a far greater scale.

Far from being disengaged or objective, Thucydides has deployed standard rhetorical exaggeration in order to demonstrate the superiority of his own work and subject over those of Herodotus. (p. 7)

The translation reflects the original Greek words borrowed:

thycyherod1

We will see that this — the choice of a most important or great topic — is a recurring theme in all historical writings. Ditto for intertextuality.

Homer the historian

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2013-12-18

Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 2 (Staying Christian With a Symbolic Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey
The times, they are changing

The times, they are changing (Photo credit: riacale)

Come writers and critics
who cauterize with your pen . . .
You’ve spoken too soon,
the wheel’s still in spin . . .

. . . Mythicism is compatible with Christian faith.

That is certainly the argument of Fr Thomas L. Brodie in chapter 20 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.

As Brodie was becoming increasingly aware of the extent of the debt the Gospels owed to the Old Testament narratives, his faith did not waver:

In September 1972, when I was first struck by the deep similarities between the Gospels and the Old Testament, I immediately had two responses: ‘This is strange stuff that may have radical implications’; and, ‘It’s OK’. Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright (sic). (p. 197)

It was within two years that Brodie finally saw the way 1 Corinthians had synthesized various sources in order to “[compose] the very figure of Christ and [lay] that figure down as a foundation for others” and it was only then that the foundations of his belief-system were fully impacted.

Still it seemed that, in some way I did not understand, things would be OK. God was still God, and eventually things would work out, they would become clear. However, while I kept trying, as usual, to be faithful to the practices of the Catholic faith, I often wondered what that faith really meant. (p. 198)

Coincidentally, a Westar Fellow of the Jesus Seminar I met a few years ago acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Brodie’s conclusion here when I asked him what it might mean for Christianity if it were learned that there had been no historical Jesus. His reply as I recall it, “Well I suppose if Judaism can get by without a literal Abraham . . .”

Some time in the 1980s as Brodie was continuing to ponder what he truly believed he concluded that he “was really sure of the Abraham story, not of its history, but of its meaning.” It turned out that this belief in the meaning (as opposed to the literal history) of a biblical narrative would point the way forward to a Christian faith without a literal, historical Jesus.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

Bishop John Shelby Spong, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brodie calls upon imagination and mysticism. I am reminded of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels. By the time I finish reading the main text I am wondering why Spong believes in Jesus at all. Then I read the epilogue only to find he speaks of being “overwhelmed” by his “God consciousness” and the “mystical presence” of God. He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels. (Spong emphatically does believe there was a historical Jesus who was crucified, however.)

Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am also reminded of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my bolding):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer, of course, did believe there was such a historical figure and he argued against Christ-myth theorists of his day. That’s what makes the above passage all the more significant. He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events. (Please Stephanie F., do not come back here with your undergrad essays on some tangential argument about another and quite unrelated aspect of Schweitzer’s faith.)

By “imagination and mysticism” Brodie means read more »


2013-11-18

Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Unreliable Criteria

by Neil Godfrey

marginalJewBrodieContinuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here. (I am breaking up Brodie’s chapter 17 into a series of smaller posts, and adding more of my own commentary in the process. I hope I keep the distinction between my own thoughts and Brodie’s clear.)

In the previous post we reviewed what Brodie sees as “two key problems” in John Meier’s A Marginal Jew:

  • reliance upon oral tradition,
  • inadequate engagement with the literary features of the sources.

These two shortcomings in turn lead to further problems. The first of these is criteria.

Brodie explains that by beginning with the assumption that the Gospels are derived from oral tradition, scholars are led to the “delicate operation” of trying to sift what is historical from the final narratives. So criteria of historicity have been developed. A Marginal Jew (like probably most historical Jesus works) relies heavily upon these.

Brodie begins with the criteria of contradiction and discontinuity. That is,

if something in the Gospel is seriously out of line with what is said elsewhere in the Gospels or Epistles, then the reason for including it must be very strong, must be due to reality in history, in the life of Jesus. (p. 157)

Most of us have read the methodological and logical flaws in these criteria, but Brodie does not address these here. Instead, he points out something about “contradictions and discontinuities” in the Biblical literature that only a handful of his peers seem to be conscious of. Contradictions and discontinuities are, Brodie reminds us, are prevalent throughout the books in the Bible. They are integral features of biblical literary artistry. It starts with Genesis. Man is first created in the image of God (1:26); then he is made of clay (2:7). First he is made to rule the earth (1:28); then he is made to serve it (2:5).

read more »


2013-06-26

The Making of a Mythicist, Act 1, Scene 1 (Thomas Brodie’s Odyssey)

by Neil Godfrey

memoirDominican priest Thomas Brodie has written an autobiographical narrative of how he came to the realization that the New Testament writings about Jesus, in particular the Gospels, do not derive from reports about the life and teachings of an historical person at all but are entirely sourced and re-created from other theological writings. The Jesus of the Gospel narratives was created as a kind of parable or theological symbol.

Eventually Brodie’s literary studies of the New Testament led him to go even further than realizing the Jesus narratives were entirely theological-literary creations. The same even had to be concluded of the persona behind the bulk of the New Testament epistles.

His book, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, is a recounting of how his ideas developed and also of the lessons he learned along the way as he attempted to share and subject his research to independent scholarly criticism.

More, it is also a survey of the history of scholarly interpretations of the Bible, sweeping the reader through a panoramic view of how we got to where we are today with how we critically read the Bible.

Anyone not aware of Brodie’s background can learn a little more from my earlier posts in relation to Beyond the Quest. (Check the Index of Topics drop-down list in the right margin to see posts on other works by Brodie.)

Beyond the Quest is divided into five parts. Below are the intellectual themes of each part. These are narrated within the context of Brodie’s own life-experiences, exchanges with other (sometimes highly prominent) scholars, personal aspirations and challenges. He also reveals the background to each of his major publications.

  • Part 1
    • Learning the fundamentals of historical criticism. . . .
  • Part 2
    • Discovering literary sources of the Gospels
  • Part 3
    • Discovering the practices of the wider literary world and how they illuminated the New Testament writings in unexpected ways
  • Part 4
    • Grasping the first rule in historical inquiry (see my earlier post for an outline of Brodie’s chapter here), understanding the flaws in the oral tradition arguments (posts one, two, three, four detail his arguments from his earlier book), and the fate of Paul.

The book concludes with an epilogue reviewing Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

In this post, Act 1, Scene 1, I’ll highlight the principle intellectual discoveries in Brodie’s early career as a student. These in themselves are well-known today among most readers with a critical interest in the Bible. They do not themselves directly lead to Brodie’s mythicist views. But we need to start at the beginning. There is much of Brodie’s own personal experiences that form the background to his education, and I encourage anyone interested to read his book to appreciate a little the personal odyssey this proved to be for Brodie. There is much of human interest as he relates his intellectual journey to his personal and wider social experiences.

And more than that, the reader will likewise begin to share Brodie’s learning and understanding of the sweep of critical biblical studies since the eighteenth century and even earlier.

Part 1

The First Revolution: Historical Investigations

Chapter 1

At one moment in his high school years Brodie was struck by the “extraordinary experience of depth and calm and truth” in Jesus’ farewell speech in the Gospel of John. He went on to learn by heart that entire Gospel.

One day an older Dominican remarked casually that the words of Jesus in the Gospels were not necessarily the exact words Jesus spoke. Brodie describes the slightly disheartening feeling that probably many other young believers have felt on first learning this.

But that is the sort of stuff most of us go through in our teen years. We learn to understand more the ways of the world, accept reality, and move on with faith unshaken or even cemented.

Ecole Biblique

Ecole Biblique

Then in the 1960s Brodie was taught in the tradition of Jerusalem’s Dominican-run biblical school, Ecole Biblique, a school that emphasized history and archaeology. Here is where Brodie was introduced to the historical-critical method.

“Historical” means trying to establish the facts.

The process is like that of a wise court-room where the facts of a case are in doubt, or of a calm history department in a university. The various biblical accounts of an event or life are examined individually, compared with one another, and compared also with other accounts or with other pertinent evidence. (p. 4)

Example. The Book of Jonah. read more »


2013-02-25

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)

by Neil Godfrey
Michael Grant

Michael Grant

Sometimes when attempting to demolish the arguments of the Christ myth theory historical Jesus scholars point to a popular biography of Jesus, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by a scholar situated well outside the faculties of theology or biblical studies, the classicist Michael Grant. The reason they point to Michael Grant’s book is to be able to say, “See, even a non-theologian, a secular historian, knows Jesus really existed.” The implication is that the normal methods of everyday historical inquiry (quite apart from anything theologians might bring to bear on the topic) are sufficient to “prove” that the person Jesus is a fact of history.

So this post looks at what Michael Grant himself said about the evidence, his methods and why he believed Jesus to be an historical person.

I wonder how many of these Jesus scholars have taken the time to read Grant’s book since none, as far as I am aware, has ever pointed to Grant’s own argument in that book against the Christ Myth view and his own justification for believing Jesus to have been historical. Or maybe it is because they have read it that they choose to remain quiet about Grant’s arguments.

Who was Michael Grant?

Michael Grant was a classicist specializing in the study of Roman coins who was responsible for over 70 books on historical topics.

Immensely prolific, he wrote and edited more than 70 books of nonfiction and translation, covering topics from Roman coinage and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the Gospels. He produced general surveys of ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite history as well as biographies of giants such as Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Nero, Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul. (Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

His reputation as an historian of ancient history was mixed:

As early as the 1950s, Grant’s publishing success was somewhat controversial within the classicist community. According to The Times:

Grant’s approach to classical history was beginning to divide critics. Numismatists felt that his academic work was beyond reproach, but some academics balked at his attempt to condense a survey of Roman literature into 300 pages, and felt (in the words of one reviewer) that “even the most learned and gifted of historians should observe a speed-limit”. The academics would keep cavilling, but the public kept buying.

(Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

The work of his that I remember most clearly as an undergraduate was a collection of translated readings of Roman literature. This was supplemented by many other more comprehensive readings.

The “notoriously hard and challenging task”

At the end of Grant’s book on the life of Jesus he asks how we know if anything he has written is truly historical. read more »