The interview with Thomas L. Thompson on the Greek Mythicists site is not as long as I anticipated when I posted #1. (A weird technical issue made it look to me three times longer than it in fact was!) Here is the last question and answer. Thanks again to Minas Papageorgiou of Greek Mythicists for alerting me to this interview they (he?) conducted and for forwarding me an English text.
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8) What is the future of mythicism views inside the academic community, considering the publication of many related books and papers in previous times? Would you agree that mythicists could follow the steps of biblical minimalists?
Minimalism is a movement in biblical studies which brings the study of biblical narrative closer to what is normal for historians. As far as I am aware, most mythicists also understand this, though I think they may be too quick to judge the single issue of whether he existed. The proper question is rather a largely literary question than an historical one. Until we have texts, which bear evidence of his historicity, we can not do much more with that issue. We can and must, however, ask what the texts mean—as well as ask what they mean if they are not historical (a minimalist question). My professor Kurt Galling from Tübingen was once asked how one could tell whether an Old Testament text was historical or literary. He answered: If Iron floats on water it isn’t! The reference is found in the Elijah Elisha stories, whose reiteration has dominated the gospels. One might also use the story of the bear who kills the 42 children and certainly Elijah’s flight out into outer space.
Quite some years ago I sat listening to a sabbath sermon by a Worldwide Church of God minister in which he made some very misleading assertions about the history of U.S. foreign policy. I approached him afterwards to point out what I had learned in an undergraduate course on the history of the United States. The minister had been trained at one of “God’s colleges” and told me that “the authority for” the point in question was one particular author and title I can no longer remember. What shocked me was that he claimed to have the equivalent of a B.A. in history yet spoke of one book being “the authority” on a historical question. My own education had led me to think of historical studies as an enquiry into the sources to attempt to evaluate the various points of view expressed in the literature on historical questions. There was no such thing as “the authority”. Perhaps the minister viewed my education as inspired by Satan.
[T]here is nothing in what they [Christ mythicists] write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.
I can’t read McGrath’s mind so I don’t know what he means by “authoritative and trustworthy” studies. The most I can suggest is that he is setting mythicist works in contrast with mainstream scholarly works on the historical Jesus and in the process somehow implying that the bulk of mainstream scholarly historical Jesus books are in some sense “authoritative and trustworthy”.
What is an “authoritative and trustworthy” book of historical explanation?
To me, an authoritative work is a trustworthy work. Authority implies trust, confidence, in whatever it is that the authority proclaims. I am sure McGrath does not believe that any particular historical Jesus study is “authoritative” in the sense that it replaces the need for any other study.
If I were to point out what I consider to be trustworthy books on any subject here are the markers of trustworthiness that I would identify:
the work never makes an assertion without providing evidence for that assertion;
that evidence will be discussed in the context of other evidence;
and a representative range of views or interpretations about that evidence will be shared with readers;
and citations will be given to enable readers to follow up those different interpretations for themselves;
especially, I will look for a fair presentation of opposing views to the one the author favours;
and a fair and complete discussion of those opposing views — again with citations to enable readers to check details for themselves and make their own assessments;
I will look for evidence of a wide knowledge of the field in which the discussion is taking place so that the author can demonstrate he or she is not approaching a question with some sort of limited tunnel vision.
That’s seven points. The perfect or authoritative number, yes? What else should be added to complete an explanation of what makes a work “trustworthy”?
Note that according to the above a work can be called trustworthy (some might even say “authoritative” in one sense of the word) but it would not be “the final answer or the ‘true’ opinion. It would be authoritative in the sense that it presents fairly and accurately the relevant evidence and enables readers to form their own judgments based on relatively complete information and understanding of the debates in the field; it will be a model of good scholarship.
It is possible, often likely, that one will find a scholarly work ‘trustworthy’ in the above sense yet still find room to disagree with its overall thesis. An alternative viewpoint and conclusion can be expressed through another ‘trustworthy’ work of scholarship, whether the author is a professional or amateur scholar.
Yes, there has been much poor work published by mythicists, but there has also been some exemplary scholarship, trustworthy and authoritative in the best sense as per above. In that sense, mythicist publications are no different from publications by those who write about “the historical Jesus”. There are some exemplary works in that field, too, as mythicists like Doherty, Price, Carrier have well noted. I would love to read an “authoritative and trustworthy” work that challenges certain mythicist views, so if anyone knows of one that meets the above understanding of what makes a work trustworthy do inform me.
Questioning the historical existence of Jesus attracts something other than mere curiosity or intellectual debate among many biblical scholars and some of the public who don’t even have any personal interest in religion. I can understand people with a personal faith in Jesus either simply ignoring the question with disdain or amusement or responding with some hostility. (One would have to be gauche indeed to even raise the question with them.) But some of us have been mystified by some people, not scholars, who proudly identify as atheists, who can be found to react with visceral invective towards those questioning the historicity of Jesus. Similarly among biblical scholars. Even the non-believer Bart Ehrman dismisses “mythicists” as animated by dishonest motives and culpable ignorance.
The answer to that question, at least in my own mind, is now as clear as daylight. Many of us internalize the values and ideology of society’s established intellectual class.
And in fact, most of the people who make it through the education system and get into the elite universities are able to do it because they’ve been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years—that’s the way I did it, for example. Like, you’re told by some stupid teacher, “Do this,” which you know makes no sense whatsoever, but you do it, and if you do it you get to the next rung, and then you obey the next order, and finally you work your way through and they give you your letters: an awful lot of education is like that, from the very beginning. Some people go along with it because they figure, “Okay, I’ll do any stupid thing that asshole says because I want to get ahead”; others do it because they’ve just internalized the values—but after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you’re out: you ask too many questions and you’re going to get in trouble. (Chomsky, 236)
(I use Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power as the structure for this post because a fellow ex-Worldwide Church of God member reminded me of it in his book of his experiences in that cult, Showdown at Big Sandy. The author, Greg Doudna, spoke of many attempts that both he and a colleague, Russell Gmirkin, made to address doctrinal questions with the hierarchy.)
Some lay people who have been through much of the education system have even gone to such an extreme that they even justify the ruling powers who forced Galileo to recant! Tim O’Neill, author of History for Atheists, is perhaps the best known for this authoritarian stance. Questioning “the consensus of experts” is a sign of arrogance:
* The complaint that a questioning and critical analysis of orthodox views amounts to a “lack of understanding” of them has a long heritage. Back in the days of Galileo and Descartes the rector of the University of Utrecht deplored challenges to the expert consensus views of his day in the following words (1642):
First, it is opposed to the traditional philosophy which universities throughout the world have hitherto taught on the best advice . . . Second, it turns away the young from this sound and traditional philosophy and prevents them reaching the heights of erudition; for once they have begun to rely on the new philosophy and its supposed solutions, they are unable to understand the technical terms which are commonly used in the books of traditional authors and in the lectures and debates of their professors. . . . And lastly, various false and absurd opinions [follow], opinions which are in conflict with other disciplines and faculties and above all with orthodox theology.
(Voetius’s letter to Father Dinet, quoted in Cottingham, 395)
Then analogy [between creationists and mythicists] is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding* of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks. (Oct 2, 2018)
The same atheist critic even goes so far as to defend the consensus of the intellectual elites embedded in the Catholic Church against Galileo!
[T]he Church’s opposition to Galileo and heliocentrism was primarily based on this clear scientific consensus. (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/07/the-great-myths-6-copernicus-deathbed-publication/)
Galileo received high praise and encouragement from the Pope down. . . . It was not until Galileo strayed into theological questions with his widely-circulated “Letter to Castelli” in 1615 that the Inquisition began to take an interest in him (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/08/sam-harris-horrible-histories/)
O’Neill elaborates with a citation of a letter by Cardinal Bellarmine that superficially suggests that he was ready to call for a study into revising church doctrine if the new views in astronomy proved true, but overlooks the fact that the Holy See itself flatly rejected such “liberalism” and that Galileo was in branded a heretic for his heliocentric view that contradicted the Bible. (O’Neill following even says Galileo was not charged with “formal heresy” without identifying the source of that term or explaining how “formal heresy” differed from “heresy” per se. Nor should one overlook the words of Galileo’s contemporary, Descartes, who expressed fear for himself at the news of Galileo’s trial. See green side box.)
So we see here a crusade for “better history” by a lay non-historian, an atheist, who cherry-picks quotations and rationalizes submission to the consensus of intellectual elites all the way back to the seventeenth century. Now that’s ‘internalization of the university elite’s values’!
On hearing of Galileo’s fate Descartes wrote in a personal letter, 1634:
Doubtless you know that Galileo was recently censured by the Inquisitors of the Faith, and that his views about the movement of the earth were condemned as heretical. I must tell you that all the things I explained in my treatise, which included the doctrine of the movement of the earth, were so interdependent that it is enough to discover that one of them is false to know that all the arguments I was using are unsound. Though I thought they were based on very certain and evident proofs, I would not wish, for anything in the world, to maintain them against the authority of the Church. I know that it might be said that not everything which the Roman Inquisitors decide is automatically an article of faith, but must first be approved by a General Council. But I am not so fond of my own opinions as to want to use such quibbles to be able to maintain them. I desire to live in peace and to continue the life I have begun under the motto ‘to live well you must live unseen’. . . . For I have seen letters patent about Galileo’s condemnation, printed at Liège on 20 September 1633, which contained the words ‘though he pretended he put forward his view only hypothetically’; thus they seem to forbid even the use of this hypothesis in astronomy. For this reason I do not dare to tell him any of my thoughts on the topic. Moreover, I do not see that this censure has been endorsed by the Pope or by any Council, but only by a single congregation of the Cardinals of the Inquisition; so I do not altogether lose hope . . .
(Kenny, ed. pp. 42f. The message sent to Descartes was that Galileo was not even permitted to teach his view as an unproved ‘hypothesis’, contrary to the weight O’Neill assigns to Cardinal Bellarmine’s apparent statement otherwise. Still, as can be seen from D’s conclusion, he continued to hope for better days.)
Surely we have here a credible explanation for the vociferous backing of the “mainstream scholarly consensus” among certain lay persons, atheist or otherwise.
But there is more than years of indoctrination and internalization of such values.
And there are many other subtle mechanisms which contribute to ideological control as well, of course . . . .
Or just take the fact that certain topics are unstudiable in the schools—because they don’t fall anywhere: the disciplines are divided in such a way that they simply will not be studied. That’s something that’s extremely important. . . .
Well, these [corporate controls of political systems and national resources, including national populations] are major phenomena of modern life—but where do you go to study them in the universities or the academic profession? That’s a very interesting question. You don’t go to the economics department, because that’s not what they look at: the real hot-shot economics departments are interested in abstract models of how a pure free-enterprise economy works—you know, generalizations to ten-dimensional space of some nonexistent free-market system. You don’t go to the political science department, because they’re concerned with electoral statistics, and voting patterns, and micro-bureaucracy—like the way one government bureaucrat talks to another in some detailed air. You don’t go to the anthropology department, because they’re studying hill tribesmen in New Guinea. You don’t go to the sociology department, because they’re studying crime in the ghettos. In fact, you don’t go anywhere—there isn’t any field that deals with these topics. There’s no journal that deals with them. In fact, there is no academic profession that is concerned with the central problems of modern society. (239-242)
And ditto for the study of the question of the origin of the Jesus figure. New Testament scholars study Christology and the different views of the Jesus figure in the various sources, but they take for granted as their starting position that such a historical figure did exist. Hence in 2012 Bart Ehrman was able to confidently write:
Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it (Ehrman 2012)
Before commenting let’s finish Chomsky’s words:
And it’s extremely important that there not be a field that studies these questions—because if there ever were such a field, people might come to understand too much, and in a relatively free society like ours, they might start to do something with that understanding. Well, no institution is going to encourage that. I mean, there’s nothing in what I just said that you couldn’t explain to junior high school students, it’s all pretty straightforward. But it’s not what you study in a junior high [course] . . . . (Chomsky, 242)
It is at this point that we find an explanation for a type of response by the Ehrmans, the McGraths, and others against mythicism. I am talking about the default targeting of personal motives, even personal morality and character, of proponents of the Christ Myth view. Equally depressing is that these accusations are coupled with bizarre distortions, misrepresentations, blatant “misunderstandings” of the mythicist arguments. Recall the somewhat bizarre reviews of mythicism by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole in scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus for biblical scholars. (The general public can read one of its articles if they are prepared to pay $US30 — per article — for the privilege.) We saw how both Gullotta and Gathercole [see side box for references] clearly felt free to not pay any serious attention to the arguments they believed they were discussing and gross misrepresentation was par for the course. Compare:
MAN: What I’m struck with in each of the . . . major misunderstandings that are used against you. . . . is how much your views have been distorted and oversimplified by the press. I don’t understand why you’d want to keep bringing these ideas to the mass media when they always insist on misrepresenting them.
[Chomksy:] But why is that surprising? First of all, this is not happening in the mass media, this is happening in the intellectual journals. And intellectuals are specialists in defamation, they’re basically commissars [Soviet officials responsible for political indoctrination]—they’re the ideological managers, so they are the ones who feel the most threatened by dissidence. The mass media don’t care that much, they just ignore it, or say it’s crazy or something like that. In fact, this stuff barely enters the national media; sure, you’ll get a throwaway line saying, “this guy’s an apologist for this that and the other thing,” but that’s just feeding off the intellectual culture. The place where it’s really done is inside the intellectual journals—because that’s their specialty. They’re commissars: it’s not fundamentally different from the Communist Party. (Chomsky, 206)
“It’s the ideology, stupid!” It is easy to be dismayed (as I know I have been) at the utter “disunderstanding” of the arguments they say they are addressing. But notice that there’s another explanation:
But if any of you have ever looked at your F.B.I. file through a Freedom of Information Act release, you’ve probably discovered that intelligence agencies are in general extremely incompetent—that’s one of the reasons why there are so many intelligence failures: they just never get anything straight, for all kinds of reasons. And part of it is because the information they get typically is being transmitted to them by agents and informants who are ideological fanatics, and they always misunderstand things in their own crazy ways. So if you look at an F.B.I. file where you actually know what the facts are, you’ll usually see that the information has some relation to reality—you can sort of figure out what they’re talking about—but by the time it’s worked its way through the ideological fanaticism of the intelligence system, there’s been all sorts of weird distortion. And that’s true of the Anti-Defamation League’s intelligence too.
But this stuff certainly is circulated around—like, probably somebody in this area received it from the regional office, and there’ll be some article in the local newspaper tomorrow that’ll pull a lot of junk out of the file, that’s what usually happens when I go places. And the point is that it’s used to close off the discussion: since they can’t deal with the issues, they’ve got to close off the discussion—and the best way to do it is by throwing enough slime so that maybe people will figure, where there’s smoke there’s fire, so we’d better not listen.
. . . But there are plenty of others who do the same sort of thing—because this is really the institutional task of the whole intellectual community. I mean, the job of mainstream intellectuals is to serve as a kind of secular priesthood, to ensure that the doctrinal faith is maintained. So if you go back to a period when the Church was dominant, the priesthood did it: they were the ones who watched out for heresy and went after it. And as societies became more secular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the same controls were needed: the institutions still had to defend themselves, after all, and if they couldn’t do it by burning people at the stake or sending them to inquisitions anymore, they had to find other ways. Well, over time that responsibility was transferred to the intellectual class—to be guardians of the sacred political truths, hatchet-men of one sort or another.
So you see, as a dissident, you shouldn’t be surprised to get all of this stuff done to you, it’s in fact a positive sign—it means that you can’t just be ignored anymore. (207f)
I intend to pause and try to analyse, in future, exactly what is going on when I read a scholar responding to an explanation, a hypothesis, an alternative viewpoint by saying “I don’t find that persuasive”. My reason for taking on this hope is partly the result of having begun to gain some notion of the main ideas that I first read in
(I further skimmed much of the book but have yet to read it thoroughly.)
Very often the “I don’t find it persuasive” is all that is said, apparently on the understanding that it is all that needs to be said, to not accept an argument or attempt at a different explanation for the evidence at hand.
What I am currently wondering is the extent to which the “not persuasive” retort may be derived from the need or desire to have a story, a narrative, that expands or builds one’s own larger story idea of how things are or should be. If the rejection of the new idea were based on a cold, hard study of the data then we would expect the response to be more along the lines of: “but how does your idea explain this or that?” and so forth. It would be a critical response with the data under review.
I said I am raising this question “partly as “the result” of reading Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of narrative and their place and function in human society. The other part of the reason is having begun a review of Vridar posts as I begin to recategorize, re-organize and re-label them. I am somehow gobsmacked at the amount of deplorable personal attacks, including outright misrepresentation and slander, that has characterized so many biblical scholars engagements not only against amateur outsiders who question their assumptions but even against each other when new paradigms or finds are introduced into the field. And above all, I find it depressing to be confronted in such a concentrated span of time and focus on the extent to which so many core arguments of too many (not all) biblical scholars are illogical, self-serving, contradictory, ill-thought-through, merely speculative, simply very bad. It is difficult to accept that so many of these particular scholars are actually employed as scholars in the first place. On the other hand, I need to add that there are also many excellent biblical scholars putting out very fine research. I find myself wishing that those latter would leave their faculties and departments of theology or biblical studies and apply to join the history and classics departments of their universities. Anyway, enough of the rant. Where was I?
Alex Rosenberg appears to be suggesting that narrative stories function to bind us into our preferred groups. They enable us to see ourselves as part of those stories and in the narratives with those we like or need to get along with. As such, they also have the yin side of their yang. They exclude others, they even have the power to cause us to denigrate and hate others, the outsiders, who take the adversarial role in our narratives. Strifes between races, tribes, countries, are fueled by narratives of the past that get in the way of simply getting together and addressing current needs and issues.
Scholarship at its best, when it’s working professionally as intended, works with ways to analyse the data, to make predictions and test them, etc. It is not narrative based in the same way as much of (by no means all) of biblical studies is. Take, for example, the view that the gospels, or even the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, are said to sourced via oral traditions. Really, that’s a narrative model. I think that a good number of biblical scholars (and this is understandable given the faith biases of many of them) see themselves as part of that same story, personally as part of that same story, that began with a “scientifically unexplainable” event that evolved into the “Easter myth” and was passed on through oral tradition . . . until today, . . . — you get the picture.
That, I think, appears to be the framework through which a huge bulk of biblical scholars are working. They are, at bottom, finding ways to elaborate and discover more exciting details of that narrative. They approach their subjects of interest very like the way ancient historians (even Thucydides) approached their narrative histories, with mixes of myth and fact, and with even the facts being interpreted in ways to add to the story they wanted to tell either as a lesson for others or for their entertainment. Either way, the narrative histories functioned to help build or cement group bonds. “This is our history that tells us where we come from and where we fit in.”
Few of them approach the foundations of their field in the way critical scientists might start from scratch with the data and whose explanations are almost entirely critical-analytical as distinct from narrative story. Yes, of course, there is much critical-analytical study among most biblical scholars but I find myself thinking that most of that real scholarship functions to add new or revised details to the larger narrative that they are really endorsing.
I don’t believe one has to be religious to do this, either. Jesus is a cultural icon for Western societies generally and is not reserved only for his faithful devotees. Recall images of Che Guevara evocative of a passionate and suffering Jesus. John Lennon produced a hit The Ballad of John and Yoko with its unforgettable searing line, “Christ you know it ain’t easy, they’re gonna crucify me.” Even a contemporary atheist biblical scholar published a book with an image of a stereotypical Jesus’ face on the cover that looks very much like that scholars’ own image. (I should avoid embarrassing him with an identification in this context.) Jesus is not just for the religious. (Evangelical apologists narcissistically preach that “the whole world” is either “for or against” Jesus — simply on the grounds that everybody has reason to make some comment about one of several foundational cultural figures in our society and not, as the fundamentalists like to think, because they tremble and fear or tremble and love him.)
This post is only introducing an idea that has been playing around in the back of my head for at least 24 hours now. I hope I haven’t been too gauche in making this initial foray into jotting it down for future reference, elaboration, exploration.
I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.
McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .
It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.
About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.
I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.
Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for
an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.
Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.
McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:
The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.
A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.
At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.
Written around 200 A.D. by the Greco-Roman author Longus, Daphnis and Chloe is a pagan pastoral romance that echoes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Daphnis and Chloe are simple country-dwelling teenagers in love. They are the adopted children of pastoralists indentured to a far off Master. In a meadow where the couple often meet, there is an apple tree, completely bare except for one large and sweet apple hanging from the topmost twig. Daphnis climbs the tree and picks it for Chloe, to her dismay. Daphnis justifies himself, saying that if he did not pluck it, the apple would fall to the earth and be trampled by a beast or poisoned by a snake.
In spite of some variations, all the principal elements of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve are included in Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe. There are male and female counterparts, the tree and the fruit in the Edenic setting and even an ominous mention of a snake. It is likely that Longus knew some version of the Genesis story, whether by first or second hand. As Theodore Feder writes, Daphnis and Chloe is an example of how “stories of the Jews and early Christians were becoming part of the general cultural inventory of the time.”
An Edenic setting, of course, for this biblical scholar, not a “pastoral setting” as any classicist would recognize. See previous posts where the Daphnis and Chloe novel has been discussed or referenced. (No-one should be allowed to read the Bible until they first read the ancient Greco-Roman literature, including what are technically called the “erotic novellas” — really just short love stories. Be prepared for lots of preparation for biblical motifs, like discovering baffling empty tombs, apparent resurrections, even heroes surviving crucifixions, and all sorts of other “miraculous” things.)
[I]t is appropriate to discuss the questions of when specific [New Testament] texts were written, how the early versions were stacked together, and what their dates of origin may be, and how these matters of dating relate to early Christianity and to the questions of the “historical Jesus.” In that discussion . . . I shall suggest that, from the viewpoint of a professional historian, there is a good deal in the methods and assumptions of most present-day biblical scholars that makes one not just a touch uneasy, but downright queasy. Try as I might, I cannot come even as close to believing in the soundness of their enterprise as King Agrippa did to believing in Pauline Christianity: “Almost thou persuadest me …” (Acts 26:28).
Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 214)
Would you trust a history professor who introduced his first lecture to you like this?
Make your PhD [does the message apply any less to undergraduate history students?] an object of service, devotion, worship, and love, for both God and the church. Your job is to preach Jesus and be forgotten.
Not all biblical scholars are evangelicals. Correct. But is it not a worry that a field with claims to serious academic standing even tolerates such intellectual wolves in their midst, in same journals, books, conferences…?
I don’t mean “ha ha” funny; I mean “something fishy” funny.
I posted not so long ago a biblical scholar’s sophistry in order to effectively erase any difference between a historian’s “facts” and a historian’s “hypothesis”. Clearly not having read even some of the most foundational discussions about the relationship between a historian and his/her facts (e.g. Collingwood, Carr, Elton, Finley, Evans) our biblical scholar argued that it was a “hypothesis”, an “argument”, that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “justifying” the claim by resorting to theoretical models of probability. Well, the argument sounded good enough for another biblical scholar to write up praise of such an “informative” post and encourage others to read it by bizarrely declaring the post to be a
really . . . great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.
Doing History Fearfully or Intelligently
The same scholar encouraged readers to take in a lesson set out by another blogger, Steve Wiggins, who did have a more serious and saner message than the one confusing real-world facts with arguments and hypotheses. We move on now from the fishy funny and get to something more serious. Wiggins is writing as a believing Christian and the problems such a person faces when trying to recover the original faith as it was first delivered:
History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation. [The Bible is] a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.Herein lies the dilemma.With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.There is no way, though, to test the results.
Eventually a decision has to be made.Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.The problem is that centuries have intervened.That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.Historians know, however, that no originals exist.We have no original biblical manuscripts.Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.At the same time the stakes have not changed.The consequences are eternal.Those who choose must do so wisely.
That is from a post aptly titled The Problem with History. I have no intention of arguing against Steve’s faith or the dilemma he faces, but what I find interesting is the opposite approach to history, one that I much prefer to embrace, in an article by Philip R. Davies that I read not long ago. (Some readers may recall that a Martin Lewadny offered to post an article for other readers and I am linking to it here: Reading the Bible Intelligently.)
just as no modern expert on Plato is expected to be a Platonist (even of the Middle or Neo-sort), no Bible expert should be expected to accept the ideas it puts forth, far less believe in its god(s) or its divine origin. . . .
The Bible is far too interesting and enjoyable — too important, even — to be left to the religious, who have done as much damage as good with it.
Davies is speaking specifically of the Old Testament but exactly the same point applies for readers of the New Testament:
(there is no need to treat the narrative as historical unless you want to miss the point entirely).
Of the contradictions one finds in the various “historical” narratives Davies says
Again, these separate visions do not argue with each other, but are laid out side by side, inviting — requiring — the reader to discriminate, interrogate, decide on what the perfect society might look like. It is both a more eloquent and a more open presentation than, say, Plato’s Republic: it is, as followers of Bakhtin would declare, dialogic. Thus, its multiple voices demand intervention from the reader. They are not presented as authoritative, even though each comes from the mouth of the same god. They demand to be discussed! . . .
The Bible is rich in philosophy: only the unintelligent, or those let down by the experts, think that it is merely myth, history, or divine law, or oracles, or sacred poetry.
. . . . it is more comfortable to view the Bible as obsolete mythology or merely as wonderful literature.
I suppose a professional writer has to select a topic and style that is going to attract readers and an editor is paid to lure those readers with alarmist headers, so we should not be too surprised to read in this month’s Christianity Today
Questions about their reliability deserve better than sheepish mumbling
Attention all readers who need to defend the reliability of the Gospels boldly. Can it really be that 250 years after Voltaire and Hume people still see themselves in need of honing their defences against . . . .?? Against what, exactly?
The article begins:
Last month, Harvard psychologist and atheist public intellectual Steven Pinker posted this provocativetweet: “As any Jew knows, there is controversy (to put it mildly) over whether Jesus was the messiah. But did he exist at all? A new book by R. G. Price argues, ‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.’”
So that’s it. Against “provocation” in the form of a tweet.
So that’s it? For someone to publish their that Jesus may not have existed is considered…. disturbing, insulting, offensive, inciting…?
But it gets worse. The author holds a doctorate from Cambridge University:
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University as well as a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Worldview, will be published by Crossway in 2019.
Part of me thinks, “I did not think it possible for a Cambridge educated PhD to consider different viewpoints about Jesus “provocative” or “insulting” or “disturbing”.” But then I am reminded of my own past life living in a double-bind, in cognitive dissonance, so I know it can and does happen.
Notice something, though. The next paragraph says
This comment garnered well over a thousand likes and 600 shares. This, despite the fact that the book Pinker highlighted was self-published by someone without the relevant scholarly credentials. Its thesis is historically laughable. But the takeaway is one that even a highly educated atheist like Pinker will gladly swallow and propagate. Posts like this reinforce the popular idea that Jesus is a flimsy, semi-mythological character—wearing sandals for sure, but without any clear historical footprint.
We Christians know better. Or do we?
Ah. There it is. The “we-them” world-view. And what was the offence? It was a thesis that is described as “historically laughable”. There is no reference to any particular argument behind the thesis. One may fairly assume that Rebecca McLaughlin has not read the book Pinker found interesting enough to tweet about. The arguments are clearly so irrelevant that they are not worth looking at. All that is needed is a few disparaging words about the author and scoffing way of telling readers that the thesis cannot be taken seriously.
From that paragraph McLaughlin segues into a review of a book titled Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams.
This is a PhD from Cambridge, a full 250 years after the heyday of the Enlightenment, telling a flock she fears may be overly “sheepish” to laugh mockingly (or “historically”, whatever that meant in context) at a different view and respond not by understanding the arguments for the “provocation” but by reading good arguments that can be used to strengthen one’s “defences” against “the other”.
As for myself, when I read R.G. Price’s book (the subject of Pinker’s tweet) the last thing on my mind was how believers would respond to it. I presume believers have no interest in such books. I never for a moment saw the book as “provocative”. I simply saw it as a presentation of an interesting argument for a new way of reading the gospels. To have a new way of understanding what the gospels were all about is something I normally find interesting. I certainly don’t see the exercise as part of some warfare against believers.
It seems that not all believers view new ideas the same way.
Anyway, what did McLaughlin have to say about this book that equipped believers to boldly defend their faith in the gospels?
There is the usual (tiresomely predictable) introduction with Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger and the “would have beens” (as in Jesus family would have been known by Church leaders….
I have finally concluded that apologists who continue to write such nonsense about late first and early second century historians have no interest at all in what historians of ancient Rome have to say about such sources, even less what those of us on the “other side” have to say about them, and that the reason for repeating the same dot points in a new publication is to maintain a ritual. Rituals are comforting, I suppose.
Then there is this other piece of irrelevance:
Turning to the Gospels themselves, Williams argues that Jesus’ life produced more detailed and better-attested accounts than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius, “the most famous person in the then-known world.” While the earliest surviving manuscripts describing Tiberius’s life date from the ninth century, the earliest surviving incomplete copies of the Gospels are from the second and third centuries, and we have complete copies of all the Gospels from the fourth.
Again, the words are ritually republished, and ritually re-read, generation after generation.
Where Williams’s book comes alive for a more seasoned reader is in sections showing how the Gospels drip with local detail.
Detail! Such detail. There is even a subheading:
Dripping with Detail
Just like detail-dripping works Homer, and Virgil, and Juvenal, and Petronius…. and Vardis Fisher:
The first course, the gustatio or appetizer, included oysters, eggs, mushrooms, all saturated with a sauce of sweet wine mixed with heavy amber honey. Among the tidbits were tongues of flamingoes and other birds, the flesh of ostrich wings, breast of dove and thrush, livers of geese, and a concoction of sow-livers, teats and vulva in a thick syrup of figs. Of the main dishes he managed to taste chicken covered deep with a sauce of anise seed, mint, lazerroot, vinegar, dates, the juices of salted fishguts, oil and mustard seed. There were many kinds of fish, all heavily spiced, rich and dripping; thrush on asparagus; a pastry of the brains of small birds; sows’ udder floating in a thick jelly that smelled of coriander; roast venison, pig, fowl and hare; and innumerable sausages and pickled or spiced meats. A dish in great demand was a jelly of sow-livers that had been fattened on figs, an invention of Apicius, a famous gourmet under Tiberius.
Now that’s dripping with detail. It is from the opening pages of a modern novel set in imperial Rome.
The gospels are so “very Jewish”, so that adds to their reliability for some reason. And the fallacy laden (“dripping with logical fallacies”) book of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is called in as an expert witness, as seems to be routine nowadays among gospel apologists.
McLaughlin suddenly seems to become a little “sheepish” herself when she seems to be suggesting that Williams even argues for the historical truth of the virgin birth. She doesn’t say it outright, but what else are we to conclude when she “sheepishly mumbles” something about Williams’ claim that such a detail could not be introduced into the church in the early days because Jesus’ family, mother in particular, no doubt, were still alive to refute the claim; but then it couldn’t be introduced later, either, because by then all the traditions had been settled and set so anything new at that stage would be suspect.
The part that disturbs me about Rebecca McLaughlin’s article is that the sentiments she expresses, the scoffing at an idea combined with disregard for finding out anything about its arguments, the ad hominem denigration, ….. they are not confined to lay people or clergy, are they. One might just as easily think one is reading something by a biblical scholar in a theology or divinity department at a public university. Now that’s a thought ought to be provocative.
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).
From: “Vernon K. Robbins” <relvkr@L…> Date: Mon Feb 24, 2003 10:58 am Subject: We Sea Voyages—Troas to Rome
February 23, 2003
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.
This post is a response to a question in the comments section. The indented colour-coded section are Bart Ehrman’s claims; all links are to other Vridar posts where I have discussed topics more fully and presented evidence for the statements made here.
The earliest followers of Jesus were convinced that he was the messiah. How do we know? Because they called him this, repeatedly, constantly, all over the map. As I have explained, the word “messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “anointed one.” In Greek, “messiah” gets translated as “christ.” So anyone who says Jesus Christ is saying Jesus the Messiah.
We have late gospel stories about Jesus being understood by a handful of followers as the messiah. The authors tell us nothing about their actual sources for any specific detail they narrate; nor do the authors explain why they change certain accounts of other authors writing about the same sorts of things. The stories are told as “tall tales” by our standards. Yes, other Greco-Roman historians also spoke of miracles but as a rule they did not present those miracles as “facts”, but in virtually all cases explained why they were repeating such unnatural events associated with historical figures and explained why readers should or should not believe the tales. A good number of New Testament scholars and Classicists have been able to identify the sources of many of the stories told about Jesus and they are adapted from other literary tales (not handed down via oral tradition).
And what we have are stories written near the end of the first century or early second about a Jesus called Christ. We have no independent corroborating evidence to give us grounds for thinking that the stories are true.
“Christ” was early and universally (by Christians) applied to Jesus. They called him the messiah so much that it became Jesus’ second name. You find this already in the writings of the New Testament – in fact, in our earliest author, Paul, who refers to him as Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, or just Christ, as a name. For Christians, Jesus was the messiah.
It is old scholarship that still claims Christ was used as a second name for Jesus among the earliest Christians. But that detail aside, yes, of course our earliest sources call Jesus the Christ. It is begging the question to say “you find this already in the writings of the NT” because we have no evidence for anyone calling Jesus the Christ before any of the NT writings.
This claims is what made the Christian message both laughable and infuriating for non-Christian Jews. Most Jews knew full well that Jesus could not be the messiah. Jesus was just the opposite of what the messiah was supposed to be. The messiah was supposed to be the powerful ruler (earthly or heavenly) who destroyed God’s enemies and set up a kingdom on earth. Was that who Jesus was? Is that what Jesus did?
Again, Ehrman’s claims here are based on a conventional view of old scholarship, of undergraduate scholarship at that. There was no single view that the messiah had to be a conquering king in this world. I have attempted to present in many posts the evidence that Jews were not united in their belief of any particular kind of messiah. One of the foremost Jewish historians today, Daniel Boyarim, argues that the raw material for the Christian messiah — the idea that the messiah was to die and be resurrected — was one of the extant pre-Christian Jewish ideas. I have posted further evidence that plausibly points to the same view not so long ago. The Second Temple Psalm of Solomon is sometimes used as evidence of the Jewish belief in a conquering messiah, but those who advance that psalm as evidence appear not to realize that that same psalm is drawn from the canonical Psalm 2 that presents the messiah as suffering rejection by the world.
The notion of Davidic messiah itself expresses the concept of a messiah who suffers, who is persecuted, yet who in the end is raised by God over his enemies. That’s the gospel Jesus, too. That’s the messiah of the psalms.
Jesus was not at all “just the opposite” because the earliest Christian teaching is that Jesus conquered a kingdom far more powerful than the human one and that he now sits beside God in heaven, continuing to scatter the powers of demons, and advancing his kingdom. I think Ehrman did not mean to say what he actually said in the above quote where he appears to admit that among Jews it was believed that the messiah was to be a powerful ruler earthly or heavenly. Heavenly is just what he became as a messiah, and the conquering of the kingdom of demons who ruled this world was nothing to be sniffed at.
We have no evidence for the claim that all Jews believed that the messiah’s kingdom was going to be set up on earth. We have numerous indications of the contrary. The fact that Christianity emerged out of Judaism is one of the pieces of evidence itself.
Precisely the opposite. Jesus was an obscure and virtually unknown rural preacher who was arrested as a criminal, humiliated, and tortured to death by the Roman authorities. It’s no wonder that most Jews found the Christian claims ludicrous.
Thanks to comment left by db on that post I was alerted to a perspective on the historical Jesus expressed by Jesus Seminar pioneer Robert Funk:
Why did this book [Gerd Ludemann’s The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology] provoke such violent reactions in Germany? The book itself states the reason: “. . . in the church the serious crisis of present-day Christianity is not recognized” (8). Scholars, theologians, and ministers attempt to pave over the crisis with load after load of verbiage, but to no avail. The crisis in what the church believes about Jesus will not go away. The only remedy for Luedemann, as for us, is to face the issues squarely, honestly, with complete candor, and ask, as Luedemann does, whether in the face of the evidence we can still be Christians.
The crisis does not arise merely from the way in which the gospels and later interpreters have treated the resurrection. The crisis arises, in large part, from what we can know about Jesus himself. For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations. I therefore find it difficult to assent to Luedemann’s final affirmation:
Compare p. 17 of Ludemann, Gerd. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology . [Translated by John Bowden]. London: SCM Press.
If one assumed that the resurrection of Jesus were not a historical fact (so Jesus did not rise, and remained in the tomb – in contradiction to the classical confessions of the church and probably also to Paul), but was grounded in the vision of Peter and Paul, a new explanation would have to be given of whether in that case Easter can still be regarded as an experience from outside (extra nos) or whether it does not prove, rather, to be a wish of the human spirit, as critics of Christianity, ancient (Celsus) and modem, have claimed.
And the further question whether the extra nos is guaranteed is to be answered with an emphatic affirmative, because Jesus is not an invention or a projection. (182) [see insert]
The extra nos refers to something beyond us, outside of us, something of which we can be absolutely certain. While share Luedemann’s conclusion, I do not share his conviction.
In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings. Everything I believe in or want to believe in lies in that no man’s-land of uncertainty—a region of anomalous, ambiguous, and indefinite claims. Both as Christians and as scholars, we must stop laying claim to transcendent certain ties and submit to all the conditions of finite existence.
Nevertheless, I can agree with Luedemann that Jesus is the ground of our faith as Christians (182). Even so, we do not learn from Jesus that faith means the overcoming of death or that faith inspired by him is the final faith. On the contrary, we find in Jesus the willingness to accept finitude and the provisional as the basis for liberation. I subscribe wholeheartedly to this formulation of Luedemann:
Christians should live by the little that they really believe, not by the much that they take pains to believe, That is a great liberation, which already bears within it the germ of the new. (184)
If Jesus was an advocate of an unbrokered relationship to God, then we cannot and should not posit the resurrection as the threshold of faith. For if we were to do so, our faith would be made to depend on the faith of Peter or the faith of Paul or the faith of someone else in the fourth decade of the first century. Congratulations to those who have faith prior to and apart from the resurrection!*
Luedemann’s book is a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of scholarly discourse. It belongs with Sheehan and Spong and Fuller and Crossan as a truly ground-breaking study. . . . .
*In more traditional language this beatitude would read: Blessed are those who have faith prior to and apart from the resurrection!
I will add an extra note to my commentary on the list of non-Christian scholars that Tim presented as significant for his argument.
Funk, Robert W. (1995). “The Resurrection of Jesus”. The Fourth R. Westar Institute. 8 (1): 9.
My attention was captured by theologian/biblical scholar Jim West’s post reminding readers that
theology used to be called the ‘Queen of the Sciences’.
I’m not sure if that was meant to be a nostalgic recollection of something he wished were still true or if it was an expression of sardonic humour.
In the days when theology was crowned with such honour the word for “sciences” meant something quite different from what it means today.
Scientia is also the historical source of our modern term ‘science’. But the medieval and the modern terms do not mean the same thing(s): there is some overlap in their meanings, but the differences in their meanings must be recognized as being as important as the areas of similarity. . . . .
Seven liberal arts:
3 of language –
grammar, rhetoric, dialectic/logic
4 of number –
arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music
The kind of knowledge which was taught in cathedral schools, using the seven liberal arts, was known as scientia, that is human knowledge, knowledge about the world (at the theoretical level), and knowledge which can be shown to derive from firm principles.
For theology . . . was a matter of dialectical argumentation, not of insight gained by meditation, nor the decisions of episcopal or other authoritative sources. . . . For in this ‘theology’ mystery and revealed truth were to be investigated by the test of reason. This ‘theology’ was a new, God-centred subject, for which the seven liberal arts – and especially logic – were to be essential bases. Theology was the application of scientia to the understanding of the nature of God and of the Christian religion.
In the thirteenth century there was a faculty of theology only in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. But whether or not there was a theology faculty at a given studium, everyone regarded theology as the highest faculty. Indeed they regarded theology as the Queen of the Sciences, and theology continued to be seen like this for the next 600 years. It was Queen because it dealt with the highest study available to man, and it was a Science (scientia) because of course, like the other scientiae, it dealt in theory and it was built on sure and certain principles.
French, Roger, and Andrew Cunningham. 1996. Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy. Aldershot, Hants ; Brookfield, Vt: Routledge. pp. 4, 55, 57-58, 64