Tag Archives: Biblical Scholarship

Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History

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.

Parachuting Before the Plane Takes Off

And one more example of “two ways of doing history”. . . . read more »

What concord hath Christ with Inquiry?

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

How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence

Questions about their reliability deserve better than sheepish mumbling

https://www-images.christianitytoday.com/images/85811.jpg?w=700
Image from Pixel Creative / Lightstock. The header calling for a “bold defence” is accompanied by worshipful, praying hands.

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 provocative tweet: “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.

Synonyms for provocative:

adj aggravating

challenging disturbing exciting inspirational insulting offensive outrageous  annoying  galling  goading heady incensing inciting influential intoxicating provoking pushing spurring . . .

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.

 


McLaughlin, Rebecca. 2019. “How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence.” ChristianityToday International, January. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/january-web-only/peter-williams-can-we-trust-gospels.html.

Fisher, Vardis. 1956. A Goat For Azazel: A Novel of Christian Origins. Testament of Man 9. New York: Pyramid.


 

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.

On Bart Ehrman’s Claim Jews “Would Not Make Up” a Crucified Messiah

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.

read more »

Postscript to my Constructive Exchange post

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.


 

The Queen of the Sciences?

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

So true, so true…

From Taborblog, by James Tabor:

Two Widely Held Assumptions About Early Christianity that Should Be Questioned

  1. The first assumption is that the essential story line we read about in the New Testament book of Acts is an accurate version of the early years of the Jesus movement following the crucifixion. John Dominic Crossan, properly calls the period from 30 CE when Jesus was executed, to around 50 CE when we get our first letter of Paul, the “Dark Age” of early Christianity. In other words we have almost no surviving texts or evidence from this period.
  2. The second grand assumption about early Christianity is the portrait of its clean break with Judaism and its subsequent harmonious (despite a few evil heretics) unbroken advance into the second and third centuries. This is the tale presented to the world by that undaunted “father” of Church History, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (c. 300 AD).

 

 

The more things change . . . .

In 1914 a book the renowned biblical scholar Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare addressing the Christ Myth arguments of the day was published:

Conybeare, F. C. (Frederick Cornwallis). 1914. The Historical Christ : Or, An Investigation of the Views of Mr. J. M. Robertson, Dr. A. Drews, and Prof. W. B. Smith. London : Watts.

The following year saw a response by William Benjamin Smith (the last named “mythicist” discussed by Conybeare)

Smith, William Benjamin. 1915. “Conybeare on ‘The Historical Christ.’” The Open Court 3 (4): 27.

How familiar Smith’s comments sound today! He responds to Conybeare’s criticism of Smith’s book, Ecce Deus.

Inasmuch as Conybeare’s “searching criticism,” so far at least as it touches my work (and it would be officious as well as impertinent for me to mingle in his fray with others), concerns itself mainly with details, rarely considering the case on its general merits . . .

Conybeare holds that if Jesus never lived, neither did Solon, nor Epimenides, nor Pythagoras, nor especially Apollonius of Tyana. By what token? The argument is not presented clearly. One cannot infer from the Greek worthies to Jesus, unless there be close parallelism ; that there is really any such, who will seriously affirm? . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “Jesus, our authors affirm, was an astral myth.” But Smith is one of “our authors” and, as Conybeare knows, affirms nothing of the kind. At best, Conybeare’s statement is one-third false. . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “In these earliest documents [Mark] Jesus is presented quite naturally as the son of Joseph and his wife Mary, and we learn quite incidentally the names of his brothers and sisters.” Who by reading this is prepared for the fact that Mark never mentions Joseph, who is named only in Matt. i. and ii., Luke i., ii., iii., (acknowledged late fictions), iv. 22, and John i. 45, vi. 42, also late? Moreover, Mark introduces Jesus without any family reference and only in two passages refers to any “brethren,” in one of which Jesus declares his mother and brethren to be spiritual . . . .

[Conybeare writes that:]W. B. Smith is named among those that “insist on the esoterism and secrecy of the cryptic society which in Jerusalem harbored the cult,” p. 31. W. B. Smith does naught of the kind, has never said aught of any such society in Jerusalem.

Conybeare quotes (p. 32) as a “naive declaration” a statement on page 74 of Ecce Deus; but he fails to hint the reasons there assigned. This misleads the reader, who naturally thinks of naivete as unsupported by reasons.

[Conybeare writes:] “W. B. Smith’s hypothesis of a God Joshua” (p. 35). Conybeare knows I have made no such hypothesis, nor ever used such phrase. He is seeking to identify my views with Mr. Robertson’s, though knowing quite well they are widely distinct. . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “The name Jesus, according to him,means. . . .Healer.” How can Conybeare write thus? Where have I said that Jesus means Healer? . . . .

[Conybeare writes:] “It would appear, then, that Apollos was perfectly acquainted with the personal history of Jesus.” For this important thesis, where does Conybeare offer the faintest semblance of proof ? The word “then” suggests that reasons have been given; but what are even hinted? . . . .

The rest of page 38 is mere wild assertion. . . .
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A Bedrock Assumption in Historical Jesus Studies

A few months ago I posted about Michael Zolondek’s claims that historical Jesus scholarship uses the same historical methods as those used by other historians. Michael himself responded and I assured him and others that I would return to his book and compare his claims about his methods with the actual processes found in the book. I am finally getting around to returning to that promise. But first I need to refresh my memory on a few things and catch up with certain details. So those further posts I promised are still a few weeks away.

Till then, however, I can say that I have caught up with one important volume Michael cites (p. xiv) as one of a few “useful discussions by historical Jesus scholars on ‘doing history’:

Meyer, Ben F. 2002. The Aims of Jesus: Reprint edition. San Jose, Calif.: Wipf & Stock.

The book was originally published in 1977 and an introduction in the reprint edition by N.T. Wright indicates that it has been very influential among the “less liberal” historical Jesus scholars.

The first of the two parts of Meyer’s book is about hermeneutics and historical methods. What I was looking for in particular was Meyer’s explanation for how biblical or historical Jesus scholars decide what is historical bedrock in the gospels. There is discussion about various criteria and inference and such. That word “inference”, distinct from “proof” or “fact”, reminded me of an objection PZ Myers’ raised in his discussion with Eddie Marcus. It was encouraging to see Meyers acknowledge the place of inference and its meaning in his discussion.

But then I came to a passage that echoed everything I have been come to see in how historical Jesus scholars work, but here it was stated in black and white.

Control of the data requires insight into how the gospel literature refers to the past of Jesus and this must be brought to bear on a mass of detail, repeatedly answering the question, ‘Is this a potential datum on Jesus?’

(Meyer, p. 81, my bolded emphasis)

Did you see it? The historical Jesus historian is required to have insight into how the gospels refer to the past of Jesus. The gospels are assumed to speak about the past of Jesus without question. Why? Presumably because they are a past tense narrative (notwithstanding Mark’s gospel regularly using the present tense). Presumably because they look like historical accounts (notwithstanding their significant departures from other historical accounts of the era). But let’s leave aside the “presumablies” and see what Meyer himself says. At the end of the chapter he spells it out:

Finally, the motives, values, uses, and ulterior purposes of history, be it ever so critical, are themselves metacritical presuppositions. They are not controlled by method but arise from the historian’s intellectual and moral being, and in the end they account more fundamentally and adequately than anything else for the kind of history he produces. For a history of Jesus what counts is especially the stance toward religion and faith.

(Meyer, p. 94, my bolding)

To me, that sounds like Ben Meyer is saying that a Christian historian will necessarily approach the gospels as if they are “obviously” reports of the “past of Jesus” and the task of the historian is to work out how much those gospel accounts have added to or coloured the actual historical past of Jesus.

The possibility that the gospel accounts are not history or not even based on historical events at all never so much as approaches Ben Meyer’s mental horizon. The model that James McGrath used to describe a historical reading of the gospels is affirmed. The gospels are not read as literature but are read as gateways to imagining what happened independently of the narrative.

The assumption that the gospels are some sort of biographies or historical works is a presupposed “fact”. All the historical method discussion, all the discussion about how to determine a historical probable Jesus, is premised on the gospels being reports that are written in such a way that the researcher can validly “see through” their narrative and language and identify some image of historical persons and events. The narrative is assumed to be based on reports or memories of historical persons and events.

When I read the works of classicists and ancient historians I see the same approach to historical narratives only when that approach has been justified by identifications of authorship and provenance, and by independent contemporary verification and/or by identification of relatively reliable historical sources for that narrative. We see none of those things in the case of the gospels.

Scholarly Snobbery and Wikipedia (again)

The corrected article

I trust most readers here would patiently attempt to point out to intellectual snobs who look down with scorn and mockery on those less well educated that their privileged status obligates them to act with responsibility and do what they can to broaden a community’s education.

One of the more insufferable intellectual snobs on the internet poured scorn on the public in general when he wrote

Wikipedia’s Editors Are Imbeciles

Wikipedia’s editors are, of course, the general public. The scholar who went on to call them dullards and add labels to his post that included disdain, scorn, stupidity, could have deigned to dirty his hands and correct the article himself. That’s how Wikipedia works. Anyone who sees a mistake can correct it. Some scholars would seem to prefer to sit back and laugh at lesser mortals than actually go to the trouble of sharing their knowledge and better informing them.

I am reminded of a 2005 study. If there is anything comparable that is more recent do let me know. I wrote some time ago the following about it:

Research that was published in Nature in 2005 showed that it is comparable in accuracy and thoroughness with Encyclopedia Britannica. There were round about the same number of mistakes in each. Wikipedia responded by correcting its mistakes. EB, on the other hand, responded with a furious rebuttal and even threatened to sue Nature or the authors of the research. But Nature published a pretty strong rebuttal.

Anyone interested who missed this study can follow it up:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html (and see related links)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4530930.stm

http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038_3-5997332.html

I notice that the wikipedia entry has since corrected the photo in the article that made the scholar feel so so superior to the less well informed.

I do have to confess that this time I have not followed my own advice and attempted to point out to our gentleman scholar that he not only has the freedom and invitation to make a correction himself in the democratic encyclopedia, but some would even think he has a responsibility to do so. Previous attempts to engage the gentleman scholar have unfortunately resulted in him responding with vile insults. But don’t let my negative experiences stop you.  (I have at times gently pointed out to the occasional person who mocks wikipedia out of ignorance that they themselves are free and encouraged to make corrections themselves.)

I should add that Wikipedia is far from perfect. There are indeed a few articles that seem to have been taken over by dedicated persons determined to undo any editing that does not agree with their own biases. I understand that there are ways to respond to those sorts of situations, but then one has to decide on priorities and time against the an every painful awareness of the shortness of life.

What is a scholar to do when there is no agreement on the basics?

“[342] By “fictive,” I mean that the narratives, even quite likely derived from historical events, are now cast in terms which render it impossible to create any more than the vaguest semblance of modern history from the ancient New Testament texts. By “fictional,” I mean that the narratives have their origin entirely within human and community imagination and have no historical origin.”

Over time, as my own studies in Luke-Acts matured, I came to see that most of the New Testament narratives were — by modern standards — at least fictive, if not entirely fictional.[342]  Although my convictions about the fictive nature of most New Testament narratives have often rendered me a bewildered spectator to scholarly debates about the “history” of early Christianity, my skepticism about the wisdom of deriving modern historical claims from the New Testament narratives seldom impacted my own scholarly work. Even while chairing the section on Acts at the Society of Biblical Literature, I silently excused myself from discussions which presumed the historicity of Acts, and I confined my own work to other areas of inquiry.

Phillips, Thomas E. 2016. “‘When Did Paul Become a Christian?’” In Christian Origins and the New Testament in the Greco-Roman Context: Essays in Honor of Dennis R. MacDonald, edited by Margaret Froelich, Michael Kochenash, Thomas E. Phillips, and Ilseo Park, 163–82. Claremont, Calif: Claremont School of Theology Press.

I have to ask. Is this experience unique to the study of Christian origins? Surely not. I would appreciate being informed of comparable examples in other historical fields.

 

 

My turn to jump the gun: Bart Ehrman’s courtroom analogy

My post of two days ago Once more on that false courtroom analogy jumped the gun. I see now that Bart Ehrman has just today (19th July) posted his extract from his 1999 book on the courtroom analogy to illustrate his method of historical inquiry: An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened.

Since Ehrman explains in his introduction that

I haven’t changed my views of these matters in all these years!

I would be interested to know if he has previously encountered in any forum the objections to his methods that I have raised here (I cannot believe my criticisms are unique since I have developed them from reading the works of biblical scholars themselves), or if he has anywhere addressed the specific criticisms of his methods that have been raised by not only Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier but even among tenured academics in his own field of interest.

Ehrman writes:

Over the course of the past fifty years, historians have worked hard to develop methods for uncovering historically reliable information about the life of Jesus. I need to say up front that this is a hotly debated area of research, with some very smart and competent historians (and quite a few less than competent ones) expressing divergent views both about what criteria to use and about what conclusions to draw, once they agree on the criteria.

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof.

In fact, part of the “hotly debated” aspects have been the very idea of the “criteria of authenticity” and the logical fallacies behind each one of them, not just some of them. Anyone reading the above words would not be aware of such challenges to not just particular criteria but to the entire exercise of what has been termed “criteriology”. Ehrman did appear to be addressing the new area of memory studies in historical Jesus research — a field that is critical of the “criteriology” approach Ehrman endorses — in his book Jesus Before the Gospels, but as one reviewer noted,

Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory.

I am not suggesting that memory theory is “the answer” to the flaws in the “criteria of authenticity”. It is not if only because its application is based on the same groundless assumptions and misguided questions as the criteria approach. The “memory” scholar also needs to be asking the genuine research question: how best to explain the narrative found in the documents, not whether the narrative is at any level true. That question does not exclude historicity but it establishes the answer (whether historical core or something else) on a sound foundation. See the historian Aviezer Tucker’s words in the previous three posts if that sounds wrong.

I have profited immensely from some of Ehrman’s earlier books. What I would like to see is clear evidence that he continues to keep abreast of critics, even if minority voices, among his peers. His blog is meant to engage with lay readers, too, so one might hope that specific critical questions would be raised there as well.

 

Once more on that false courtroom analogy

(Second part to “The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun)

.

Courtroom, lawyer and detective analogies seem to be especially favoured by evangelicals and even mainstream biblical scholars. No doubt the comparison with judges and criminal investigators lends a certain aura of credibility and authority to the methods or arguments that are being buttressed by the analogies, but as we have seen here a number of times before the analogy is very misleading.

Bart Ehrman is currently repeating the courtroom analogy he set out in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) that seeks to explain how historians of Christian origins work. On pages 89-90 he writes (again my own bolding):

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof. As in a court of law, certain kinds of evidence are acknowledged as admissible, and witnesses must be carefully scrutinized. How, then, can we go about it?

. . . .

In any court trial, it is better to have a number of witnesses who can provide consistent testimony than to have only one, especially if the witnesses can be shown not to have conferred with one another in order to get their story straight. A strong case will be supported by several witnesses who independently agree on a point at issue. So, too, with history. An event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historical than an event mentioned in only one.

But that is not how biblical scholars work and the analogy is seriously misleading. read more »

Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity

John S. Kloppenborg

Thanks to Jim West I was informed of the public availability of a new article by the well-known New Testament scholar John S. Kloppenborg.

Kloppenborg, John S. 2017. “Disciplined Exaggeration: The Heuristics of Comparison in Biblical Studies.” Novum Testamentum 59 (4): 390–414. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685365-12341583.

I think the article should always be cited whenever reference is made to Samuel Sandmel’s 1962 article warning of the flaws of uncontrolled “parallelomania“. Together they warn against either extreme.

Some quotations from Kloppenborg’s article (with the usual notice that formatting and bolding is mine):

By contrast, comparison in the historiography of early Christianity has had a peculiar history: comparisons were often employed either to establish the difference and, indeed, the incommensurability of Christian forms with anything in their environment; or, as Jonathan Z. Smith has observed, comparison was used to create “safe” comparanda such as the construct of “Judaism,” which then served to insulate emerging Christianity from “Hellenistic influence.” . . . .

. . . . comparison in the study of early Christianity has often been used to assert its sui generis and incommensurable character. That is, comparison is invoked to rule out comparison or to limit it so that comparison becomes inconsequential.  (p. 393)

Some readers will be aware of the work of the Jesus Seminar and the publications of John Crossan, Burton Mack and others pointing out similarities to Q and Cynic sayings.

On this hypothesis, the social postures evident in either the Sayings Gospel Q, or (for Crossan) in for the historical Jesus himself could be fruitfully compared with Graeco-Roman Cynicism. There was no claim that Q or Jesus were “influenced” by Cynicism, but instead that the social postures of Q (or Jesus) were “cynic-like,” in the sense that they constituted a radical deconstruction of the prevailing ways in which Galilean society constructed social and economic hierarchies, moral categories, and the very nature of piety. The reaction to this proposal was immediate and visceral. (pp. 394f)

And continues to this day, I notice.

No! No! No! went the reaction. There was no “archaeological evidence” of Cynicism anywhere in Galilee. Recalling the story that the reputed founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, set up his home in a bathtub (some say wine-cask) Kloppenborg wryly comments:

one wonders what could constitute archaeological evidence of Cynicism: bathtubs?

But K more pertinently notes the evidence of the tendentiousness of this reaction: read more »