Tag Archives: Biblical Scholars

Bible Scholars Who Get History Right

Philip R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel (1992) pp. 35-36

historical research by biblical scholars has taken a . . . circular route, whose stages can be represented more or less as follows:

Philip Davies

Davies then lists the four assumptions that these scholars have brought to their study:

1. The biblical writers, when writing about the past, were obviously informed about it and often concerned to report it accurately to their readers. A concern with the truth of the past can be assumed. Therefore, where the literary history is plausible, or where it encounters no insuperable objections, it should be accorded the status of historical fact. The argument is occasionally expressed that the readers of these stories would be sufficiently knowledgeable (by tradition?) of their past to discourage wholesale invention.

2. Much of the literature is itself assigned to quite specific settings within that story (e.g. [the time of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Gallio, Gamaliel, Agrippa]). If the biblical literature is generally correct in its historical portrait, then these datings may be relied upon.

3. . . . Thus, where a plausible context in the literary history can be found for a biblical writing, that setting may be posited, and as a result there will be mutual confirmation, by the literature of the setting, and by the setting of the literature. . . .

4. Where the writer (‘redactor’) of the biblical literature is recognized as having been removed in time from the events he describes or persons whose words he reports . . . he must be presumed to rely on sources or traditions close to the events. Hence even when the literary source is late, its contents will nearly always have their point of origin in the time of which they speak. The likelihood of a writer inventing something should generally be discounted in favour of a tradition, since traditions allow us a vague connection with ‘history’ . . .

But Davies sees those four assumptions as flawed:

Each of these assertions can be encountered, in one form or another in the secondary literature. But it is the underlying logic which requires attention rather than these (dubious) assertions themselves. That logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself.

Here are Davies’ rejoinders to each of the assumptions above, taken from my vridar.info page:

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

The solution for Davies?

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records and the finds of archaeology.

read more »

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 »

An Interesting Discovery to Start the New Year

While sorting through some papers that have been stored away in a shed for many years I came across a reminder of something I heard long ago and really liked at the time, and still do. It was a forum post to the Crosstalk2 list, a forum scholars discussing the historical Jesus and Christian origins (my bolded emphasis).

Vernon K. Robbins

From: “Vernon K. Robbins” <relvkr@L…>
Date: Mon Feb 24, 2003 10:58 am
Subject: We Sea Voyages—Troas to Rome

February 23, 2003

Dear XTalkers,

I have become aware that there is a divide in the audience of XTalkers between people interested in learning new things about the relation of early Christian texts to the world of antiquity and people whose primary interest and love is debate. Both kinds of interests are, of course, unending for those who have them. Most of you will know that my interests focus on learning new things. I have no illusion that my interests will satisfy the goals of debaters. I presume that the goal of debaters is to debate. My primary goal is not to debate but to learn new things. Or to put it another way. I am interested in debate only when it is a medium for learning new things. For me, debate is not so much a manner of “persuasion” as it is a matter of “finding” things we, have not seen before. Debate is truly interesting when all parties are “looking at the data together.” In all of this, I am deeply informed by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which explains how people following one “paradigm” of inquiry often wiil “totally” discount the primary evidence of people following another paradigm of inquiry.

. . . . . .

Vernon K. Robbins, Emory University

Happy New Year to all Vridarians! May we continue to debate in the spirit of Vernon K. Robbins.

Earl Doherty’s First Day with Biblical Scholars on Crosstalk Forum

I begin by repeating Earl Doherty’s maiden post to Crosstalk. I have colour coded different discussion threads. Links below are to the archive.org site where Earl’s Jesus Puzzle website is as it existed at the time of the Crosstalk exchange. For the current site see http://www.jesuspuzzle.com/jesuspuzzle/index.htm

I have decided to present this early conversation to allow readers to see the evidence and judge for themselves various claims that are made about the character of those early exchanges.

I was floored. Ridicule, outright insult, rude dismissal . . . all delivered with an air of smug superiority 

5011    The Jesus Puzzle

Earl D

Feb 9, 1999

On the weekend, Bill told me that he had brought the Crosstalk list’s
attention to my web site (Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle) and asked for
opinions. He sent me a selection of postings he had gotten in response. On
Monday morning, I resubscribed myself after an absence of a few months, and
read several more responses to Bill’s queries about my views and those of
other “mythicists”.

I was floored. Ridicule, outright insult, rude dismissal of any counter
argument, all delivered with an air of smug superiority that would do any
fundamentalist proud. Is this the discussion of reasonable and educated men
(I haven’t noticed any women yet), moving in the corridors of open-minded
investigation and an honest search for truth and understanding? Many of the
Crosstalkers identify themselves as members of university faculties, where
one assumes the standard is one of reasoned debate and basically courteous
discussion, even where contentious ideas are involved. Instead, the
reaction to Bill’s queries has been mostly that of snarling dogs incensed at
having their fireside chats disturbed by unorthodox inquiry. The ad hominem
attacks in several of those postings would be flattered by the word
“sophomoric”.

I was floored. Ridicule, outright insult, rude dismissal of any counter
argument, all delivered with an air of smug superiority that would do any
fundamentalist proud. Is this the discussion of reasonable and educated men
(I haven’t noticed any women yet), moving in the corridors of open-minded
investigation and an honest search for truth and understanding? Many of the
Crosstalkers identify themselves as members of university faculties, where
one assumes the standard is one of reasoned debate and basically courteous
discussion, even where contentious ideas are involved. Instead, the
reaction to Bill’s queries has been mostly that of snarling dogs incensed at
having their fireside chats disturbed by unorthodox inquiry. The ad hominem
attacks in several of those postings would be flattered by the word
“sophomoric”.

The theory that no Jesus of Nazareth existed at the beginning of the
Christian movement has been around for two centuries, championed by many
researchers in many countries over the years, some of them respected
scholars, long before Wells or myself. Outright “loony” ideas don’t usually
have that kind of shelf life. The myth theory is there, and refuses to go
away, and the fact that it exists in a charged field like religion does not
justify it being denied the respect it might deserve. After all, we would
surely condemn any physicist, any anthropologist, any linguist, any
mathematician, any scholar of any sort who professes to work in a field that
makes even a partial bow to principles of logic and scientific research who
insisted on ignoring, vilifing, condemning without examination a legitimate,
persistent theory in his or her own discipline. There are tremendous
problems in New Testament scholarship, problems that have been grappled with
for generations and show no sign of getting any closer to solution.
Agreement is lacking on countless topics, and yesterday’s theories are being
continually overturned. Scholarly commentaries are shot through with words
like “riddle”, “puzzling”, “insoluble.” Some documents are said to “lead to
despair.”

Sorry, I don’t mean to turn this into a lecture, but if any of you would
take an honest and open-minded look at some of my site you might find
material that would at least give some food for thought. Two members of the
Jesus Seminar, Darrell Doughty and Robert Price, were impressed enough with
it that they invited me to write an original article for their Journal of
Higher Criticism (out of Drew University). Both of them have brought up my
name and observations at Jesus Seminar meetings on a couple of occasions.
That Journal article appeared in the Fall 1997 issue, and is now reprinted
on my site. It would be a good intro to the essentials of the Jesus-as-myth
theory, particularly my own arguments for it, which differ substantially
from those of Wells in important respects. I’ll quote the direct URL for it
at the end of this.

I’ll also quote a couple of other articles on the site which I regard as
especially cogent. While I hardly claim to be an expert in every aspect of
biblical research (is there anyone here who would be that presumptuous?), I
would be willing to let a few of the efforts now on my site (my analysis of
Hebrews, for example, or my consideration of contemporary Platonism and
hellenistic mythological thinking (in Article 8) as it may shed light on
what Paul actually believed) stand beside anything produced in these
areas–always allowing for the fact that I’ve aimed partly for the
understanding of the general, uninitiated reader. Those of you who take the
trouble to look at them are certainly free to challenge me, hopefully with a
modicum of professionalism and common human decency.

One of the things that has struck me in reading responses to Bill is the
general lack of understanding even of the basic principles of the
non-existence of Jesus theory. This, of course, is due to the disdainful
and knee-jerk dismissal of the very idea which is commonly accorded it. It
seems to me that if you seriously want to cope with this stubborn theory
which refuses to go away and which is gaining wider currency even in the
general population (if you hadn’t noticed), you owe it to yourselves and
your discipline (I won’t say your confessional beliefs) to investigate the
matter a little more thorougly, so as to offer a more reasoned and effective
response to it.

What also surprised me was the rejection, or ignoring, by many of
well-established views within standard liberal scholarship, such as the
widespread rejection, or at least questioning, of the authenticity of 1
Thessalonians 2:15-16. Labelling this an interpolation is not exactly some
arbitrary crackpot idea of my own. Pearson is ably seconded by such as
Mack, Koester, Meeks and Brandon. One cannot simply ignore a body of voices
like that when seeking to heap scorn on myself. Another case is failing
even to acknowledge the view held by many (such as Norman Perrin, whom I
highly respect and regret the early death of) that Paul’s so-called “words
of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians are not a drawing on any body of Jesus’
earthly teaching in circulation, but are personal communications he believes
he has received from Christ in heaven, something postulated as a common
feature of the early prophetic movement. The same goes for the common
interpretation of 1 Cor. 2:8’s “rulers of this age” as referring to the
demon spirits (which is one of the cornerstones of my argument). Not even
to take such trends within one’s own discipline into account in one’s
arguments (even if you don’t agree with them) is hardly the mark of honest
and up-to-date investigation and debate.

Some of what was written by a couple of people against Bill was
unconscionable in a milieu that professes to be dedicated to reasoned and
scientific discussion of historical questions, and I am reminded of a
comparison I made to the fundamentalist J P Holding who attacked my views.
I called his attention to a short piece of music by the American composer
Charles Ives, called “The Unanswered Question.” Against a quiet orchestral
backdrop, a serene trumpet asks a musical question which a chorus of flutes
at first calmly and confidently answers, but when the questioner continues
to restate his query several times (evidently because the answer is
inadequate) the flute contingent gradually degenerates into nattering,
scoffing, sneering hyenas choking on their own scorn. (I recommend the
Leonard Bernstein performance.) I guess Ives’ flutes can be found just
about anywhere, and their snarling has often managed to drawn out many a
questioning voice.

Before they drown me out, on this listserver anyway, I’ll make a posting
or two in the next couple of days (nothing too long) to respond to a few
points raised by several of you. Jeff Peterson made the sole considered,
reasonable response, I think, and I’ll address him first, then add a few
things raised by others. I’m not overly determined to get into an extended
debate (especially on a daily basis), but if one develops I won’t engage in
anything which isn’t at least moderately polite. That doesn’t mean one
can’t be provocative and challenging, but some base level of decency and
respect can surely be expected and maintained.

And I hope Bill will continue to make his voice heard and give me some
support. It is sometimes an advantage to be outside a discipline and heavy
study in it, and evaluate something simply on the basis of one’s own
reasoning capacity and innate primal instinct.

Earl Doherty

The Jesus Puzzle: <http://www.magi.com/~oblio/jesus.html>
Article for the Journal of Higher Criticism: …/jesus/jhcjp.htm>
Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? …/jesus/supp03.htm>
Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel: …/jesus/supp06.htm>
Article No. 8: Christ as “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person? …jesus/supp08.htm>

The solution is not necessarily peeling away the onion layers

5012    Re: The Jesus Puzzle

Jack Kilmon

Feb 9, 1999

Earl D wrote:

> The theory that no Jesus of Nazareth existed at the beginning of the
> Christian movement has been around for two centuries, championed by many
> researchers in many countries over the years, some of them respected
> scholars, long before Wells or myself.

Having been pretty busy lately, I have missed this thread and others’responses.
Since I am one of those to whom you refer with:

> It is sometimes an advantage to be outside a discipline and heavy
> study in it, and evaluate something simply on the basis of one’s own
> reasoning capacity and innate primal instinct.
>

Having reviewed the articles on your site, on the surface, there arethings with
which I disagree but will take the time to study the articles
(which I have printed) and respond on each of the 12 “pieces of the puzzle.”

At the very least, I agree..like most, that the historical Jesus is so
profoundly
overlain with mythological strata the germinal layer will never be fully
exposed. The solution to this, however, is not necessarily peeling away
all the layers of the onion, leaving nothing.

Jack

It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist.
5013    please….

Jim West

Feb 9, 1999

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. Indeed, a new list should be
started by those interested in such things and it can be called
“sci.fic.christianity.alt”

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.

Sorry to sound a little irritated- but 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”.

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

Best,

Jim

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

Jim West, ThD
Quartz Hill School of Theology

Hmmm…. Now this is bizarre reasoning

read more »

The Day Earl Doherty (author of ‘The Jesus Puzzle’) Personally Entered the Global Forum

Earl Doherty, author the The Jesus Puzzle website, The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus Neither God Nor Man and other books, and contributor to The Journal of Higher Criticism, made his “public appearance” on a biblical scholars forum on Tuesday, the 9th of February, 1999: Crosstalk. In the light of some unfortunate mischaracterizations of the tone of Earl’s engagement with scholars and the wider public I have decided to post the lead up to Earl’s entrance into that web forum and the initial responses of scholars to his presence. This post only looks at the first half of that intention and concludes with the entrance of Earl to Crosstalk. The next post in this series will set out the posts demonstrating the way the different parties responded to his arrival.

Bill2200 started it.

It was a Thursday, 4th February 1999 when he did it. He posted the 4891st post to the Crosstalk forum, a forum for scholarly discussion among biblical scholars. He chose as the title of his post,

A man or a myth?

and this is what he wrote:

Hello. I’m new to Crosstalk and may not stick around long, but am hoping
someone can help me out here. I’m interested in the historical Jesus. Did such
a person actually exist? I’ll refer you to Earl Doherty’s work at:The basic argument, for those unfamiliar with it, is this: The NT epistles,
all the other 1st century non-canonical Christian writings and most of the
writings well into the 2nd century say nothing of an earthly Jesus: no
ministry, miracles, holy places, Mary & Joseph, the trial, the passion, etc.
The most plausible explanation for this is that Jesus started out as an
entirely divine entity, just like all the other gods in all the other
religions of the day. The idea of a historical human founder was a later
development in Christian mythology.So . . . is Doherty onto something here? I’ve read the lengthy rebuttal given
by Christian apologist J. P. Holding (Doherty provides a link), and it’s
rather feeble. I’ve read articles on Josephus and Doherty’s rebuttal. It’s
fairly obvious that the Testimonium Flavianum is a bad joke which offers not
one iota of support for a historical Jesus. The smaller Josephus reference is
better, but a far cry from compelling evidence.Most people posting messages here would seem to agree that the gospels are
loaded with fiction. To argue a mythical Jesus requires assuming the gospels
are ALL fiction—in other words, just like every other story of every
other god in every other religion in all of history. Is there anything
implausible about this?So help me out here! I like Doherty’s arguments, but am not a scholar and
can’t say whether his premises are true or whether he has been misleading or
has omitted significant information. Thanks in advance for any insightful
replies!Bill

And that’s who started it. We learn later that his surname is Paulson.

The first response was from Jim West (who still seems to have some difficulty making an informed response)

Jim West

At 10:33 AM 2/4/99 -0500, you wrote:

>Hello. I’m new to Crosstalk and may not stick around long, but am hoping
>someone can help me out here. I’m interested in the historical Jesus. Did such
>a person actually exist?

 

Yes, Jesus relly existed. Arguments (really pseudo arguments) to the
contrary notwithstanding.

Best,

Jim

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

Jim West, ThD
Quartz Hill School of Theology

Next came Antonio:

Antonio Jerez
Feb 4, 1999

No, Doherty is definitely not into something here. And I’m definitely no
Christian apologist, since I’m no Christian – but I still believe that the
mass of data show that a galilean prophet by the name of Jesus was
crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of a roman governor around 30 A.D.
And let’s leave Josephus out of this for a moment. You don’t really need
the Testimonium Flavianum or the notice about James execution to
be practically certain that Jesus really existed and died the way the NT
claims. You just need a little common sense and some knowledge about
the Messianic ideas that were in vogue in Palestine around year 0. There
simply wasn’t any expectations about the coming of a SUFFERING and
CRUCIFIED Messiah. The last thing a jew would have invented if he wanted
to missionize in Palestine around that time was a dead Messiah, specially
one crucified by Israels enemies. The simple fact is that the Jesus movement
one day found itself with a very dead leader. This terrible fact they had to
explain to both themselves and to other Jews. So next they started searching
the Scriptures for clues and “found” them in places like the Servant songs
of Isaiah, Psalm 22 and the Wisdom of Solomon. Also remember that the
ancient Jews read the OT much like many moderns read the prophecies
of Nostradamus – EVERYTHING about the fate of the world, from beginning
to end, can be found there if God opens your eyes to the mysteries.

Best wishes

Antonio Jerez

Next, Stevan Davies

Stevan Davies
Feb 4, 1999

Absolutely. You have Paul testimony from 50 AD that he knows of

Jesus AND, against wierd theories that Paul made him up, Paul’s
testimony about his relationships to James Peter John whom other
sources indicate knew Jesus personally. Not to mention lots of other
Paul references to people who were adherents of Jesus and who were
so prior to meeting Paul. So if Jesus were invented
it wasn’t Paul who invented him but X the unknown who did so
a considerable period before. It’s just silliness.Steve

Tom Simms
Feb 4, 1999

Then Tom Simms

On Thu, 4 Feb 1999 16:45:11 -0400, miser17@… writes:
Right on, Steve,
.. but don’t say God raised him from the dead and turned him into
some kind of a spirit and all that hocus pocus stuff. The
personal appearances recorded were not imagination. You know
how Meso-America works! The appearances’ effect turned a mob
running away afraid of their shadows into a group who knew
something they’d not known before. They didn’t get the
facts straight but they got a great message – and they really
ran with it!

Tom Simms

Followed by Stephen Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson
Feb 4, 1999

At 10:33 AM 2/4/99 EST, Bill2200@… wrote:

>The basic argument, for those unfamiliar with it, is this: The NT epistles,
>all the other 1st century non-canonical Christian writings and most of the
>writings well into the 2nd century say nothing of an earthly Jesus: no
>ministry, miracles, holy places, Mary & Joseph, the trial, the passion, etc.

Why are the gospels excluded from this august list of documents? The basic
argument is circular: there is no earthly Jesus because all of a select
list writings say nothing of an earthly Jesus. What was Doherty’s selection
criterion? Apparently, those documents that do not saying anything about
the earthly Jesus. But then there’s a pesky NT epistle, 1 Thess. 2:14-15,
which states that the Jews killed the Lord Jesus, an earthly event.
Predictably, Doherty dismisses this passage as an “obvious interpolation.”
Doherty can only make his argument from silence work by systematically
ignoring the contrary evidence.

Stephen Carlson


Stephen C. Carlson mailto:scarlson@…
Synoptic Problem Home Page http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/synopt/
“Poetry speaks of aspirations, and songs chant the words.” Shujing 2.35

To all of whom Bill replied as follows:

#4901

Re: A man or a myth?

Bill2200@aol.com
Feb 4, 1999

Thanks to everyone who has offered input so far. The responses have been
polite, if unconvincing.First, I apologize if I’m posting messages in an odd or inconvenient manner.
I’ve tried repeatedly for two weeks to post from the web site (click “Post”,
type message, click “Send”). It fails every time. I’ve sent pleas of help to
the egroups folks, who say they’re working on the problem. Meanwhile, I’ve
resorted to “posting” by sending e-mail. (Is this common? Do many others post
this way?)

From Antonio: read more »

Postmodernist Values & Questions of Power: From Reality to Biblical Studies

I came across the 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky on human nature a couple of days ago; I last viewed it quite some years ago but found myself still fascinated enough to listen to it carefully through to the end once more. (There’s also a transcript online, I afterwards discovered.) And what memories — all that student long-hair!

What surprised me was that Foucault had lost none of his ability to leave me in some dismay with his insistence that a concept like justice is a social construct and instrument of class oppression.

I’ve been trying to get some little idea into the nature and origins of human ethics from the perspective of evolution and have come to see what we call ethical systems as phenomena found also in other social animals. No doubt Foucault would have said that what we observe in the animal kingdom generally is nothing more than displays of power struggles.

My own limited reading has suggested to me that a fundamental factor underlying ethical systems is the biological principle of reciprocity. Some readers no doubt have read more and can enlighten me further. Is not all ethics fundamentally about the well-being of living organisms so they can survive, flourish and reproduce? I will live at peace with you and not infringe upon your space as long as you respect my piece of territory that I need for my survival. From there we move to those experiments showing us monkeys throwing tantrums if they are not given the same rewards as their peers without any apparent justification for the inequity. Monkeys don’t talk about fairness or justice but they seem instinctively to understand the “fact” of what we describe with those labels.

Instruments of power? No and Yes

read more »

Freudian slip

Chris Keith writes the following in his review of Anthony Le Donne’s new book, Near Christianity:

Despite my attempts, Le Donne continues to read Mark 15:35//Matt 27:46 as a divine abandonment and says, “Jesus also accused God of abandonment” (166).  I am not afraid of a Jesus who makes me uncomfortable, but I think there’s a better way to read that narrative that makes more sense of the full narrative.

The emphasis is mine. I thought, What a strange thing for a historian of to say! The thought betrays, I think, an unhealthy personal emotional investment in a certain view of Jesus. When an author appears to be coming out and boasting that they are prepared to break with a conventional theological view of their subject it suggests, to me at least, that the field is typically mired in agendas that are far removed from genuine and purely historical interests.

 

 

Society needs to know what Christian academics and academic biblical scholars have to say

Jim West indicates that because of his training and guidance by the holy spirit he speaks with a true understanding of the Bible. All others, he infers, inevitably fall into error or fanaticism. The Bible according to the trained (at an unaccredited seminary) and spirit led Jim is not simply an collation of historical documents but is imbued with magical powers, being

incapable of causing believers to err or stray from the revealed will of God. The Bible reveals the truth about the Divine and the Human. Believers who adhere to that revelation are kept safe from errant behavior or belief and the Scriptures do not err in teaching said proper behavior or belief.

I’m reminded of belief in the curse of the pharaohs and the healing powers of a murderer’s corpse. Jim does insist that the secret to drawing on this saving power from the Bible is that it be “correctly understood”. Hence only a person with both training and God’s spiritual presence can properly divine the true mantic meaning of the sacred magical words.

Jim West is also one of the pioneers of biblioblogging and today he laments what he sees as the decline of informed blogging about matters pertaining to biblical scholarship: read more »

What a bizarre profession

Romans 13 has been getting a lot of mention lately. Romans 13:1 was the one biblical text that the Communist authorities in Romania consistently knew. “Submit to the authorities” – the Bible says so! — Religion Prof, Nov 14 2016

The Religion Prof tagged those words with this image:

Meanwhile, another “religion prof” has singled out his research into this same passage for special attention with a title that on the basis of a confusing document from an ancient civilization strangely advises modern readers on their contemporary civic responsibilities:

When to Disobey Government – Quick Look at Romans 13

This post is a recycling of appreciation from a “religion master”, again providing instruction for readers today on how they should relate to political authorities:

How Should Christians Relate to Governing Authorities? Michael Bird Clarifies

How strange. Would anyone today turn to the recordings of the Sibyl Oracle for messages of guidance? Or to Hammurabi’s Code for how to treat a purveyors of faulty goods? Or to Plato or the wisdom of Imhotep? Or to the heavenly influences on human affairs according to Porphyry?

I am all for studying ancient documents. I have always loved studying ancient history. But the point has always been to understand how the ancients thought and lived, not how I can learn from them as guiding lights for my own life.

But notice how religion profs and masters take an ancient writing and strain and pull to make it somehow “relevant” as an instruction to readers today:

Consider Stanley Porter’s condition: qualitative superiority. “According to Porter, Paul only expects Christians to obey authorities who are qualitatively superior, that is, authorities who know and practice justice.” (449) The Greek for “governing authorities” (exousiais hyperechousais) seems to suggest this, given that hyperecho carries with it a “qualitative sense of superiority in quality.” (449) Therefore, the only governing powers to which Christians should submit are those that reflect the qualitatively divine justice they’ve been entrusted to bear, enact, and steward.

Woah there! Where to begin?

A raft of scholars have found reason to doubt that the passage in question was even original to the writing addressed to Romans: Pallis (1920); Loisy (1922: 104, 128; 1935: 30-31; 1936: 287); Windisch (1931); cf. Barnikol (1931b); Eggenberger (1945); Barnes (1947: 302, possibly); Kallas (1964-65); Munro (1983: 56f., 65-67); Sahlin (1953); Bultmann (1947). And who was this Paul, anyway? What independent evidence do we have to establish anything for certain? And how does one get from “a qualitative sense of superiority in quality” to modern readers’ concepts of “God” and “divine justice” (whatever “divine” justice is)? What was the original context and provenance of the document — we can only surmise — and what in the name of Mary’s little lamb does it have to do with anything in today’s world?

It would be naïve to suggest this passage is the last word on church/state relations, given that our conception of “state” is conditioned by post-Enlightenment views and the original context for Paul’s instructions came during a time of relatively benevolent and well-behaved authorities.

Amen. But why oh why does it deserve to be introduced into today’s discussion at all? Why not bring in Plato as well?

Bird reasons there are occasions resistance to governing authorities is both required and demanded by Christian discipleship. “Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to rebel against governments because of the same conscience.” (450) When governments misuse their power, sometimes Christians must say, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)

Bird likes John Stott’s summary of this discussion: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s Law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.”

Deep. Just what everyone instinctively knows and follows. We all acknowledge the need for some form or organization and cooperation. We are social mammals, after all. And we all live this way for the sake of peace and getting along. But of course those of us who have crises of conscience will very often find themselves resisting or evading those causing them such grief. It’s the stuff of thousands of movies and novels and pages of history books. “Christian discipleship” is no exception to the common experience of humanity and living in organized societies. Just dressing up the same conflict in the verbiage of one’s particular ideology makes no difference. My god, Sophocles’ Antigone has remained a timeless classic because of the way it epitomizes the theme of the individual standing up for right against the state.

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

And religion careers and publishing businesses are built on the determination to wrestle with problematic Roman era discourses in the belief that they offer something exceptional for initiates into the arcane mysteries.

 

Fear and desperation from a theologian?

Christianity may teach us to be honest but as long as dishonesty serves the interests of faith I’m sure God forgives.

A certain Butler University Professor (his blog makes it clear he writes in his capacity as a Butler academic) who is well known for his strident dogmatism on the question of the historicity of Jesus has been at it again.

He writes in response to a “meme” that he realizes is false or flat wrong in every way except one: it scorns mythicism!

First falsehood:

the attempt to argue that because someone is only mentioned in the New Testament, therefore they are not historical, simply does not work.

Of course he cites no instance of anyone arguing this way. No publication putting in a word for the mythicist case that I know of has ever suggested that “because someone is only mentioned in the New Testament, therefore they are not historical”.

But he does say something that is obviously true. I think we can all agree with the following:

Mythicist dogmatists and Christian fundamentalists are not at polar opposite ends of the spectrum, except on the trite matter of what they insist they know. Their approach is an all-or-nothing one that are mirror images of one another, two sides of the same coin.

There certainly are “mythicist dogmatists” who are as, well, dogmatic, as any Christian fundamentalist.

Then he writes something most professional:

Historians, on the other hand, are supposed to deal in a nuanced manner with evidence, and to recognize that each piece of evidence must be assessed separately and on its own terms.

But then he slips off the rails. Two true statements bracketed by two false ones. A nice chiastic structure.

And so the heart of the matter is this: mythicism – the complete dismissal of the historicity not just of accounts but of the individual portrayed in them – is as illogical and indefensible as claims of Biblical inerrancy – the complete acceptance of the historicity of everything in the Bible because the existence of individuals mentioned in it has been confirmed.

Notice where he slipped? At first he made the obvious statement that a “mythicist dogmatist” is as bad as a “Christian fundamentalist”, but here he speaks of “mythicism” generically. Mythicism itself is as bad as Christian fundamentalism. I would have thought “mythicism” would stand in this context as a counter to “Christianity”: just as Christianity has its fundamentalists so does mythicism have its dogmatists. Both stand outside the realm of serious discussion.

And then he underscores the point:

Neither mythicism nor Christian fundamentalism is engaged in the practice of history.

Not, “neither mythist dogmatism nor Christian fundamentalism”, nor, of course, “Neither mythicism nor Christianity….”

Then we meet the professional indignation:

And when historians and scholars object to this misuse of their work, mythicists and inerrantists typically respond in the same way: by insisting that the academy is in fact conspiring to cover up the truth or infested with an ideology that blinds us to the truth.

Interesting that he speaks of “historians and scholars”. Is he trying to impress readers once again that theologians like himself really are true historians and scholars? Certainly a good number of theologians do call themselves historians and in one sense they are, but even in their own ranks we find criticisms that their approach to history is quite different from the way other historians work. (Raphael Lataster demonstrated that most emphatically in his book. Recall a paper of his discussing historical Jesus methodology that was rejected by a scholarly Biblical publisher was accepted by a Historical conference.) And of course our Butler Professor cannot be ignorant of the fact that it is theologians themselves, his own peers, who regularly complain about the ideology that blinds them as a whole to seriously radical ideas.

Recall again his point:

Historians, on the other hand, are supposed to deal in a nuanced manner with evidence, and to recognize that each piece of evidence must be assessed separately and on its own terms.

Do I need to quote again here the many instances of nuance and tentativeness and scholarly humility in the way scholarly mythicists (scholarly referring to any mythicist who argues in a scholarly manner — leaving aside the dogmatists) very often present their arguments and set them beside a list the many abusive and dogmatic denunciations of theologian “historians and scholars” like the Butler Professor himself when arguing for the historicity of Jesus?

 

 

Biblical Scholars Reacting . . . Part 2

Continues from part 1 . . . .

Philip Jenkins in his reaction, The Myth of the Mythical Jesus, has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” by pursuing questions that have no place among biblical scholars:

Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship. That is by far the most important point against the mythicists, and really, nothing more needs to be said.

Jenkins remains silent about Carrier’s book, the book that largely prompted Brian Bethune to ask serious questions about the evidence for the existence of Jesus. One can only conclude Jenkins has not read it and that his confidence that he knows all he needs to know about mythicist arguments is perversely misplaced. After all, it’s not a view “done” by scholars so it would be a waste of time bothering with it. One cannot imagine a more classic illustration of contempt for (ideologically incorrect) public interests.

Such ignorance gives him the confidence that merely repeating a few mantras to a few informal mythicist bylines he may have heard second hand or from some “over zealous riff-raff on the web” is all that he needs to do to persuade right-thinking people to stay clear of the danger zones around those far swamps.

The affirmative evidence for that existence is easily offered, consisting as it does of a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described.

Those documents are, without question, the most closely debated and analyzed in human history. A vast body of scholars works on those texts and their implications, and they come from a wide body of religious backgrounds – Christians of every possible shade, Jews, skeptics and atheists, and people of various other faiths. Within that scholarly universe, the number of qualified scholars who today deny the historical existence of Jesus is infinitesimal. The consensus on that matter is near-total. (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

“A paper I had written on a disturbing, ridiculous, and idiosyncratic method used by historicists was rejected by a prominent society of Biblical literature, but was later accepted by a general historical research organisation – forgive me if I feel a smug sense of vindication.[32] This paper dealt with what I call Ehrman’s law, which shall be explained later and discussed throughout this book. My presentation of the paper was very successful, with almost everybody (a room full of proper historians) agreeing with me that this method used by Biblical ‘historians’ is ridiculous and not typical of historians proper.

“[32] Raphael Lataster, “The Gospel According to Bart: The Folly of Ehrman’s Hypothetical Sources” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, Sydney, 7th July 2015).”

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 400-405).  . Kindle Edition.

Mainstream biblical scholars often point to atheists among their ranks as evidence that they are not swayed by Christian bias. Craig Evans in the debate mentioned in my previous post did this when he spoke of the atheist James Crossley arguing that the Gospels were written considerably earlier than even many Christian scholars concede. What Evans was doing in reality was demonstrating that atheist scholars can only survive in the Christian dominated field of biblical studies as long as they conform to the minimal ideological foundations of Christianity. Arguing a Marxist model of Christian origins naturally conforms admirably with the values of many liberal Christians.

In fact neither Bethune nor anyone denies the “near total consensus” in the public face of the biblical studies guild. When prominent authors like Philip Jenkins not only demonstrate their ignorance of the arguments of those “infinitesimally” few scholars but even despite their ignorance insult them as belonging to the “far swamps of crankery”, one has to wonder if Raphael Lataster is quite correct when he writes that the historicity of Jesus is a debate that cannot be conducted among biblical scholars but can only move forward in other history and religion departments.

Hence reaction, neither engagement nor education, is the response.

Jenkins sees no need to bother with anything Carrier might have written nor even with the actual problems raised by Bethune. Leave all that to the “swamps of extreme crankery” — a nice intimidating phrase attached to the pointy headed doubters among those leprous masses.

And so Jenkins proceeds to address what he blindly presumes anonymous ignoramuses argue. The challenging questions of Bethune and Carrier are lost in the far swamps of Jenkins’s awareness and are replaced by some vague general points from the minds of an undefined “they”.

The first vague point unrelated to any of the questions troubling Bethune and that is posed as a substitute for Bethune’s questions:

  • *Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus

Jenkins’s ignorance of serious mythicist arguments is palpable. Sweeping aside the issues of concern to Brian Bethune and many readers of the Macleans article, Jenkins embarrasses any slightly knowledgeable reader with this “explanation”:

All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.

Plausibility is a condition of historicity but that is a long step from being an argument for any particular scenario. Historical fiction works because it is equally plausible, set as it is in real times and places. That this point is ever raised as a serious argument for the historicity of Jesus is truly an embarrassment to our intellectual elites. Craig Evans made much of it in his debate with Richard Carrier. Why? It’s so obviously a red-herring, a non sequitur, an offence to anyone who has read any historical fiction, including ancient historical fictional writings.

As for the second point that there are “clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of the gospels”? Well, yes, there certainly are “clear and well understood” imaginative constructs of what scholars who presume a core historicity behind the gospel narratives believe must have existed. Of course there is no evidence for those oral traditions. Indeed, works that have seriously challenged the prevailing presumption that “there must have been oral traditions” passed on from eyewitnesses to eventually reach the authors of the gospels have been largely ignored. (See discussions of some of these in the oral tradition archive, as well as other posts on scholarship presenting evidence for literary mimesis.) Yet Jenkins presents the presumed model of oral tradition as part of a “clear and well understood chain of evidence“!

Clearly unaware of his ignorance that the mythicist case for Jesus as an “otherworldly being” is grounded in the writings of

  • the New Testament epistles
  • and Revelation,
  • other Second Temple Jewish literature,
  • and documents such as the original form of the Ascension of Isaiah dated by mainstream scholars to the end of the first or very early second century,

Jenkins surely mystifies readers of Macleans and Carrier’s book when he writes: read more »

Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

Biblical scholars are reacting uncomfortably to signs of public interest in the view that Jesus did not exist. Not all biblical scholars, though. A tiny few do publicly welcome and accommodate this mythicist view of Jesus with their Christian faith and others who have confessed to being open-minded on the question. (For details see Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicists Agnostics.) But it is no secret that biblical studies is dominated by the Christian faith, both its liberal and conservative wings, so when articles questioning the most fundamental precept of that faith appear in prominent media outlets like The Washington Post, Salon.com, and most recently Macleans, some of those scholars let their indignation and impatience show. Unfortunately for their cause, however, while they focus on defending their traditional assumptions they all too often completely ignore (or misrepresent) the actual reasons many intelligent and educated people continue to have doubts.

bethune
Asking a question: Did Jesus really exist? by Brian Bethune

My own position on mythicism: Following is my (slightly modified) email reply to someone who recently asked me if I was an agnostic on the mythicist question. —

Yes. It is the best we can argue. The evidence and critical methods we have can only allow us to argue that our New Testament literature can well be explained without recourse to a historical Jesus but that fact does not itself prove their was no historical Jesus. Even some “historicists” admit that the historical Jesus is essentially irrelevant to what became Christianity.

Personally I see no reason to believe in the existence of a historical Jesus but I cannot prove that position, so I must remain agnostic. The best I can do is to demonstrate how the evidence we have for Christian origins can be explained far more cogently without reference to a historical figure.

[A danger some mythicists fall into is an ideological desire to prove Jesus was not historical but the expression of some other deity or cosmic phenomena,] — that is, looking only for evidence to support their theory. That approach is susceptible to confirmation bias. If we can’t find ways to test our hypotheses and identify how they could be disproved then we are not using valid historical or scientific reasoning. [I think a more interesting and profitable pursuit than trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus is to explore and understand the evidence that sheds light on Christianity’s origins.]

In posts on Vridar I’ve said several times that by explaining the origin of a gospel narrative as an adaptation of another story (say, Jesus stilling the storm from the Jonah story) we do not disprove the historicity of the event. Ditto if we find mythical associations with Jesus: even known historical emperors described themselves and were described by others in ways comparing them with mythical persons. What matters is what the evidence we have points us towards. If we have evidence for a literary or mythological borrowing, and that is all there is, then — all other things being equal — it is reasonable to tentatively assume that that the literary or mythological source is the origin of our narrative. But our conclusion is tentative – pending the discovery of additional evidence that there is also a historical source.

In this series of posts I will address the public responses of two mainstream scholars, Philip Jenkins and Stanley Porter (who responds jointly with Hughson Ong, a relatively new name in the field), to Brian Bethune’s discussion of Bart Ehrman’s new popular book, Jesus Before the Gospels, in the context of questions raised by Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The two articles:

Both responses are clearly written with considerable impatience:

In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. (Jenkins)

Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. (Porter-Ong)

And both responses completely sidestep Brian Bethune’s core questions. By way of reminder here are those unaddressed questions that arise from Ehrman’s book:

Q1. Almost entirely from the Christian tradition

Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence. His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago:

  • Jesus was a Jew,
  • an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist;
  • his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms;
  • Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought;
  • in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest;
  • Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.

However appealing and reasonable such a list is to modern skeptics, it is still drawn almost entirely from within the faith tradition, with buttressing by the slimmest of outside supports—brief references from Roman observers. (My own bolded emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

Q2. Buttressed by the slimmest of outside supports

Bethune then shows us just how slim the most “rock-solid” of those outside supports are:

Consider one item on Ehrman’s list, perhaps the most accepted and certainly the one with the largest claim to historical accuracy embedded within it: Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. Scholars are almost universally on-side, as are most Christian churches. Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’s trial for whom we have undoubted archaeological evidence, and he’s also, perhaps coincidentally, the only one to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely embraced capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought.

  • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant.
  • Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome.
  • The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)

Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubtboth brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians. . . .

The Gospels are forthright in their agendas to serve theological and not historical needs. Mark may have pinned Jesus’s death on Pilate because he knew or believed it to be true, says Carrier, or he may have been practising “apocalyptic math.” [“Apocalyptic math” is a reference to the interest in that day of finding a timetable for the appearance of the messiah in the mysterious numbers in the Book of Daniel.]

Craig Evans interlude

Uh oh, is Carrier befuddling the public with the question begging “interpolation” card? Is he blithely sweeping aside contrary evidence as possible forgeries? That’s how Craig Evans, another mainstream scholar, chose to react to Carrier’s case in a recent debate. But in a live debate situation Carrier was able to respond on the spot and remind the audience that far from any question begging, detailed and abundant evidence for the claim of forgery was used to back up the assertion. (Bart Ehrman himself not very long ago even wrote another popular book demonstrating just how widespread forgery was in the early Christian world.)

http://ksutv.kennesaw.edu/play.php?v=00030027

When Craig Evans brushed aside Carrier’s assertions he was brushing aside all the evidence and argument upon which those assertions were grounded. That’s not addressing the arguments; it’s reacting to them in a way that leaves the critical public unpersuaded. read more »

Blinded by the Trivialities of the Mythicist-Creationist Comparisons

I believe Professor James McGrath is quite sincere in his inability to grasp why it is that Jerry Coyne (as one example of a mainstream public intellectual failing to be convinced by the claims of biblical scholars that Jesus existed) cannot see that mythicism is any different from creationism. McGrath has demonstrated repeatedly an apparent cognitive inability to actually comprehend and directly address mythicist arguments, invariably focusing instead on trivial objections, on red herrings, on straw men, on blatant misrepresentation. McGrath makes no secret of his visceral loathing of mythicism and of those who argue for it, and especially of those who attempt to hold him to account for his own arguments both against mythicism and for the historicity of Jesus. He is not alone. Colleagues of his have publicly appreciated his efforts to rid the world of a challenge to their fundamental assumptions about the evidence we have for Jesus.

So McGrath elects to write the following as a riposte to Jerry Coyne’s musings on the failure of biblical scholars to convince him that we have sound evidence for the existence of Jesus:

I’m always surprised at how much rancor is directed toward “creationists”—those who deny that evolution, whether on the macro or micro level, is the best explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. I’m also surprised at how certain many biologists are that evolution occurred (Jerry Coyne, to give a prominent example).

Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in science, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible evidence for the reality of evolution, and that arguments can be made that evolution is a purely mythological notion, derived from earlier ideologies, which gradually attained “facthood.” As a historian, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that evolution occurred as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all scientists to that view. It’s almost as if rejecting evolution brands you as an overly strident religious person, one lacking “respect” for science. There’s an onus against creationism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.

What McGrath demonstrates with these words is a failure of his to grasp the fundamental arguments of the mythicists. Unlike creationists, mythicists do not appeal to divine revelation or dogma to explain the evidence before them.

Creationists pose no threat to evolution; mythicism, on the other hand….  read more »

The Fundamentalist Mind of the Historicist Scholar

Continuing the pots and kettles theme . . .

The Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University has posted the following under The Fundamentalist Mind:

Samantha Field has written an excellent post about the fundamentalist way of thinking. Far from being irrational, Field suggests, the fundamentalist might be called hyper-rational. There is a desire for absolute consistency and clarity, which is precisely why fundamentalist atheists who embrace mythicism, as well as fundamentalist Christians who embrace Biblical inerrancy, cannot tolerate the kind of uncertainty that historical inquiry, for instance, must treat as par for the course.

I think the Chair has missed some of the core points of Samantha Field’s article (an article that I largely agree with, by the way) and added some of his own elaboration (e.g. the reference to “clarity”) but it is interesting to compare his own dogmatic certainty about his opponents and his own absolute belief in the historicity of Jesus with the following passage from a mythicist who, I think, can be fairly considered to speak for Carrier, Doherty, Price and others:

All it [Bayesian reasoning in historical inquiry] does is indicate what theory is most rationally believed, at that time. Just like sound historical reasoning. There is a reason for that. Sound historical reasoning is Bayesian. Indeed, sound reasoning in general seems to be Bayesian. Bayesian reasoning simply symbolises and formalises what already takes place in the heads of logical people. In fact, we can take comfort by the fact that this probabilistic approach allows us to make judgements even when evidence is scarce, as it is with the issue of Jesus’ historicity. Bayesian reasoning informs us as to what is more reasonably believed, based on the currently available evidence. As we gather more evidence, our conclusions may change.

Even those that disagree with a scientific-mathematical representation of history can at least agree that history then becomes ambiguous and shall not give us certainty[ 545] – so that the inappropriateness of historicists claiming certainty is illuminated, and agnosticism over Jesus’ history is already justified. . . . 

While we may never know the truth with absolute certainty,[ 548] Bayes’ Theorem allows the scholar to objectively compare how revealed evidence and background knowledge fits various theories, and thus should prove to be very helpful in historical Jesus studies; more so than the popular Criteria.

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 3068-3086). . Kindle Edition.

Would that the Chair could demonstrate the same tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. . . . .