Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Tag: Christ Myth Debate
All posts, for and against, the Christ Myth hypothesis are included here, except for posts relating in depth to Earl Doherty’s works. Posts relating in some depth to Earl Doherty’s ideas are found in the tag, Christ Myth Debate: Doherty.
As noted in a recent post, John Dickson [JD] wrote a lament over a significant number of Australians doubting the historicity of Jesus. Such a state of affairs was “bad news for historical literacy” in this country, he said. The thrust of his article suggested that more Australians should be mindful of what is found in certain major texts and fall into line if they wanted to be “historically literate” — as if historical literacy is about believing “authorities” without question. I pointed out that the sources JD referred to are not as assuring as he suggests and that they actually invite questioning. And a questioning engagement with teachers is how I would define genuine “historical literacy”.
In a follow-up post I noted that Miles Pattenden [MP] quite rightly responded to JD by noting that most classicists and ancient historians have had little (or no) reason, professionally, to take up serious research into the question of Jesus’s existence:
One of the few classicists who did do a study of Jesus was Michael Grant in his Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. I wrote a two-part post reviewing Grant’s effort and pointed out that all he did was write a study using older theologians’ works; I further noted that some more current biblical scholars faulted Grant for doing nothing more than “outdated hermeneutics” rather than real history.
[T]he existence of a critical mass of scholars who do believe in Jesus’s historicity will almost certainly have shaped the way that all other scholars write about the subject. Unless they are strongly motivated to argue that Jesus was not real, they will not arbitrarily provoke colleagues who do believe in his historicity by denying it casually. After all, as academics, we ought to want to advance arguments that persuade our colleagues — and getting them offside by needlessly challenging a point not directly in contention will not help with that.
Today JD has responded to MP. In his rejoinder he plays a game with the above quote by throwing a double-edged ad hominem: he suggests that MP was claiming that ancient historians are sloppy and don’t do their homework if they refer to Jesus in the manner explained above. Nonsense. If the historicity of Jesus was the question other historians were addressing JD would have a point. But a historian of ancient Rome does not discuss the historical Jesus when he or she explores the rise of Christianity throughout the empire. Indeed, the historicity of Jesus is of little relevance to the larger questions historians of the ancient Roman era pursue, even “how to explain the rise of Christianity”, and in such a context there is nothing wrong with mentioning the traditional account of Jesus in passing.
JD is somewhat disingenuous when he writes (with my bolded highlighting)…
[MP] notes that the fact that secular specialists, by an overwhelming majority, accept the historical existence of Jesus does not amount to actual evidence of Jesus’s existence. That is true. Happily, I did not make such a claim. The thrust of my piece was merely to note the striking mismatch between public opinion and scholarly opinion on the matter of the historical existence of Jesus. I noted a recent survey which found only a minority of Australians believed Jesus was a real historical figure, and I thought it was worth pointing out that the vast majority of ancient historians (I said 99 per cent) reckon Jesus was a historical figure.
No statement is made “merely” to note a neutral fact. The clear point of JD’s article was to fault the view of too many Australians according to the National Church Life Survey. He twists the knife by comparing doubters of Jesus’ historicity to climate change deniers. Again, this is insulting since it presumes that people questioned in the survey are incapable of forming rational opinions on the basis of what they might thoughtfully read and listen to. Indeed, there are scholars, including historians, who have expressed the desirability that scholarship becomes more open to the question of the historicity of Jesus. Such academics have expressed some bemusement when theologians are so quick to ridicule and insult those raising the questions. A survey among academics comparable to the NCLS one of the general public might, I suspect, lower the rate of believers in academia at least a little lower than JD’s estimated 99%. Let a serious and open discussion — an essential element of “historical literacy” — begin.
JD then falls back on the supposedly reassuring evidence for Jesus. He refers to hypothetical sources “behind” the gospels such as Q. He points to the passages in Josephus and Tacitus as if those authors necessarily had first-hand knowledge of the facts and not have relied upon Christian stories extant in their own day. He even infers that ancient historians might not begin to write useful history about a figure until as much as 80 years after his death. That’s a somewhat mischievous statement given that he knows full well that such historians had a wealth of known written sources — not hypothetical sources — from the deceased’s own day to refer to.
The fact remains that ancient historians do have ways of determining who and what happened: they have primary sources (inscriptions, coins, archaeological remains) and written materials whose sources can be traced back to the times in question. For Jesus, however, historical Jesus scholars speak of hypothetical sources and the assumption of oral tradition “behind” the gospels. Classicists and ancient historians would be horrified if that’s all they had to work with and some of them have indeed expressed serious misgivings about the methods of their Bible-studying peers.
I want to speak out on behalf of colleagues in Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, and Religious History (my own discipline) because I feel Dickson’s article misrepresents where many of us stand. And, in so doing, it does a slight disservice to important areas of scholarship. – Miles Pattenden
Miles Pattenden’s reply, On historians and the historicity of Jesus — a response to John Dickson, begins with a datum that should be obvious but seems too often to get lost in the heat of the bloodlust of argument. All the appeals to authority do is point us to the fact that most references to Jesus in historical works (even in works addressing specifically the “quest for the historical Jesus”) “accept an historical Jesus as a premise” (Pattenden). Such references can be nothing more than
evidence only of a scholarly consensus in favour of not questioning the premise. (Pattenden)
Another introductory point made by Pattenden introduces a factor that again ought to be obvious but is too often denied, that of institutional bias:
Christian faith — which, except very eccentrically, must surely include a belief that Jesus was a real person — has often been a motivating factor in individuals’ decisions to pursue a career in the sorts of academic fields under scrutiny here. In other words, belief in Jesus’s historicity has come a priori of many scholars’ historical study of him, and the argument that their acceptance of the ability to study him historically proves his historicity is mere circularity.
Where does this situation leave other scholars in other disciplines who speak of Jesus? I’m thinking of historians who write of ancient Roman history and make summary references to Christian beginnings as a detail within the larger themes they are discussing, or of educational theorists who speak of the methods of instruction by past figures like Socrates or Jesus. It would be absurd to suggest that such authors have necessarily undertaken a serious investigation into the question of Jesus’s historicity before making their comments. This question is getting closer to a key point I want to conclude with but before we get there note that Pattenden gets it spot on when he writes:
Just as significantly, the existence of a critical mass of scholars who do believe in Jesus’s historicity will almost certainly have shaped the way that all other scholars write about the subject. Unless they are strongly motivated to argue that Jesus was not real, they will not arbitrarily provoke colleagues who do believe in his historicity by denying it casually. After all, as academics, we ought to want to advance arguments that persuade our colleagues — and getting them offside by needlessly challenging a point not directly in contention will not help with that.
Miles Pattenden proceeds to touch on the nature of the evidence for Jesus compared with other historical subjects, the disputed nature of the array of sources for Jesus, the logical pitfalls such as circularity, and so forth, all of which I’ve posted about many times before.
But the historical Thakur may be as well attested by categories (if not quantity) of contemporary evidence as the historical Jesus is. So do we not risk charges of hypocrisy, even cultural double standards, if we accept different standards of proof for the existence of the one from that for the other?
Such questions ought not to be entirely comfortable for historians of liberal persuasion or those of Christian faith. However, the authors of “The Unbelieved” in fact pose their conundrum the other way around to the way I have described it — and in their position may lie a helpful way to reconcile beliefs concerning the historicity of Jesus and in the need to be sufficiently critical of sources. (Pattenden. Bolding in all quotes is my own.)
But then Pattenden veers away from the question of the historical reality of “the man Jesus” and introduces a discussion among historians about how to study and write about events that the participants attribute to divine commands and acts. This approach may seem to beg the question of Jesus’ historicity but bear with me and we will see that that is not so. I want to focus on just one point in that discussion because I think it has the potential to remove all contention between believers and nonbelievers in the study of Christian origins. The authors – Clossey, Jackson, Marriott, Redden and Vélez – propose three strategies for the handling of historical accounts in which the historical subjects testify to the role of divine agents in their actions. It is the first of these that is key, in my view:
Adopt a humble, polite, sceptical, and open‐minded attitude towards the sources.
Notice that last word: “sources”. The historian works with sources. Sources make claims and those claims are tested against other sources. Claims made within sources are never taken at face value but are always — if the historian is doing their job — assessed in the context of where and when and by whom and for what purpose the source was created. The article goes on to say
Often miracles have impressive and intriguing documentation. A Jesuit record of crosses appearing in the skyabove Nanjing, China, mentions “numberless” witnesses who saw and heard the miracle, and later divides them by reliability into “eleven witnesses, plus many infidels” . . . .
Many biblical scholars will say that Jesus was not literally resurrected in the way the gospels describe but that the followers of Jesus came to believe that he had been resurrected. We can go one better than that: we can say that our sources, the gospels, claim that the disciples of Jesus believed in the resurrection.
Notice: we cannot declare it to be a historical fact that Jesus’ disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected. The best a historian can do is work with the sources. The sources narrate certain events. To go beyond saying that a source declares X to have happened and to say that X really happened would require us to test the claim of the source. Such a test involves not only examining other sources but also studying the origins and nature of the source we are reading. Do we know who wrote it and the function it served? When it comes to the gospels, scholars advance various hypotheses to answer those questions but they can rarely go beyond those hypotheses. It is at this point that the “humble, polite, sceptical, and open-minded attitude towards the sources” is called for. It is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which our beliefs about our sources are really hypotheses that by definition are open to question and that our long-held beliefs about them are not necessarily facts.
Some readers may suspect that what I am saying here would mean that nothing in history can be known. Not so. I have discussed more completely historical methods and how we can have confidence in the historicity of certain persons and events in HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins.
As long as a discussion is kept at the level of sources and avoids jumping the rails by asserting that information found in the sources has some untestable independent reality then progress, I think, can be made.
A problem that sometimes arises is when a scholar writes that, as a historian, they “dig beneath” the source to uncover the history behind its superficial narrative in a way analogous to an archaeologist digging down to uncover “history” beneath a mound of earth. The problem here is that the “history” that is found “beneath” the narrative is, very often, the result of assuming that a certain narrative was waiting to be found all along and that it was somehow transmitted over time and generations until it was written down with lots of exaggerations and variations in the form we read it in the source. In other words, the discovery of the “history behind the source” is the product of circular reasoning. It is assumed from the outset that the narrative is a record, however flawed, of past events. Maybe it is. But the proposition needs to be tested, not assumed.
It should not be impossible for atheists and believers, even Jesus historicists and Jesus mythicists, to work together on the question of Christian origins if the above principle — keeping the discussion on the sources themselves — is followed. The Christian can still privately believe in their Jesus and it will make no difference to the source-based investigation shared with nonbelievers. Faith, after all, is belief in spite of the evidence.
There is a bigger question, though. I have often said that to ask if Jesus existed is a pointless question for the historian. More significant for the researcher is the question of how Christianity was born and emerged into what it is today. The answer to the question of whether Jesus existed or not, whether we answer yes or no, can never be anything more than a hypothesis among historians. (It is different for believers but I am not intruding into their sphere.) The most interesting question is to ask how Christianity began. Even if a historical Jesus lay at its root, we need much more information if we are to understand how the religion evolved into something well beyond that one figure alone. It is at this point I conclude with the closing words of Miles Pattenden:
Partly because there is no way to satisfy these queries, professional historians of Christianity — including most of us working within the secular academy — tend to treat the question of whether Jesus existed or not as neither knowable nor particularly interesting. Rather, we focus without prejudice on other lines of investigation, such as how and when the range of characteristics and ideas attributed to him arose.
In this sense Jesus is not an outlier among similar historical figures. Other groups of historians engage in inquiries similar to those that New Testament scholars pursue, but concerning other key figures in the development of ancient religion and philosophy in Antiquity: Moses, Socrates, Zoroaster, and so on. Historians of later periods also often favour comparable approaches, because understanding, say, the emergence and diffusion of hagiographic traditions around a man like Francis of Assisi, or even a man like Martin Luther, is usually more intellectually rewarding, and more beneficial to overall comprehension of his significance, than mere reconstruction of his life or personality is.
This approach to the historical study of spiritual leaders is a more complex and nuanced position than the one Dickson presents. However, it also gives us more tools for thinking about questions of historicity in relation to those leaders and more flexibility for how we understand about their possible role (or roles) in our present lives.
Surely no scholar would want to be suspected of secretly doing theology when they profess to do history so no doubt every believing scholar can also say, Amen. And if an evidence-based inquiry leads to scenarios beyond traditional theological narratives for the believer, or scenarios closer to traditional narratives than the nonbeliever anticipated, then surely that would inspire even greater wonder and a double Amen!
Pattenden, Miles. “Historians and the Historicity of Jesus.” Opinion. ABC Religion & Ethics. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 19, 2022. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/miles-pattenden-historians-and-the-historicity-of-jesus/13720952.
Clossey, Luke, Kyle Jackson, Brandon Marriott, Andrew Redden, and Karin Vélez. “The Unbelieved and Historians, Part II: Proposals and Solutions.” History Compass 15, no. 1 (2017): e12370. https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12370.
The point of this post is to demonstrate how easy it is to read documents from the perspective of commonly accepted knowledge and mistakenly misread them, thinking they say what we have always assumed they say, and to fail to register that the original texts are not quite as clear in their meaning — nor even as assuredly “authentic” — as we have always assumed.
A historian needs to work with facts to have any chance of proposing a narrative or hypothesis that is going to stand up to scrutiny. The facts lie in the sources we use. But sources must be interpreted and it is easy to read into a source what we think it must be saying.
The key point here is that … Paul’s letters … do contain references that indicate Paul understood Jesus to have been a recent, historical, and earthly human being who was elevated to higher status after his death.
External facts / context related to interpretation
In Romans we read it said that the revelation about Jesus is recent; it is the revelation of Jesus that happened in Paul’s time.
the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God
The things revealed in that revelation happened “now”, “very recently”.
1 Peter 1:18-20
… you were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Belief in the recency of an event does not support its historical truth: Examples…
Ancient writings inform us that the ancients also believed gods and goddesses (sometimes in human form) were periodically seen by sundry eyewitnesses and not only in a mythical time.
The second-century author Lucian wrote a biography of his teacher, Demonax, whom many readers have subsequently assumed — wrongly — to have been a historical figure.
Ned Ludd was understood to have been a recent figure, if not a contemporary, of protestors in eighteenth-century England.
External facts / context related to interpretation
No historical context is found for Jesus in Paul’s letters except for:
1 Thessalonians 2:14-15
in Judea … those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.
but scholars are not agreed that this passage is genuinely from Paul so it is not a secure base from which to make a point about Paul’s thought. See https://vridar.org/tag/1-thessalonians-213-16/ for the scholars’ reasons for interpolation.
1 Timothy 6:13
Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession
Overwhelmingly critical scholars agree that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul.
When the 1 Thessalonians 2 passage is cited, since not all scholars agree it is an interpolation, it is thought sufficient to casually dismiss the interpolation thesis as unlikely.
More generally, the simple fact that Paul wrote of the Christ event as reality is taken as proof that there was a historical person behind it.
Ancient historians, like modern historians, sometimes wrote about persons and events they believed to be historical but in fact weren’t.
External facts / context related to interpretation
As above; additionally…
1 Corinthians 2:8
… the rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of glory.
Also “born of woman” — see below
Events imagined to have happened on earth are presumably historical.
“Rulers of this age” are assumed to have been the rulers of Judea and Rome we read about in the gospels who were responsible for the crucifixion.
Until Earl Doherty in the 1990s advanced his thesis that Paul believed “the Christ event” occurred entirely in a “heavenly realm”, albeit a sublunar one, the Christ myth idea generally understood Paul’s letters to speak of birth, life and death of Jesus on earth. Apart from a very early view that the entire gospel story was fleshed out from astrological beliefs, the only exception that I am aware of is the view of Paul-Louis Couchoud who anticipated Doherty’s views, though Doherty’s thesis was his own. Richard Carrier has further elaborated and popularized Doherty’s entirely “celestial Christ”. Such has been the success of the Doherty-Carrier Christ myth view that among some quarters it has become equated with the Christ Myth theory itself and it appears that some critics are unaware that there is an alternative. However, most Christ myth views over the decades have accepted Paul’s view of Jesus as an earthly human. The Christ myth thesis certainly does not stand or fall upon the thoroughly “celestial Christ” view of Doherty-Carrier. The “celestial Christ” hypothesis is not the foundation or reason Doherty became sceptical of the historicity of Jesus. Carrier raises many problems with the historicity thesis that stand apart from the “celestial Christ” idea.
*My own view of the question is different from above. I point out opposing arguments when I think they are unfairly ignored.
If the previous post was a repeat at least let me try to say something new with this one. I concluded the previous post with Joshua Efron’s final words on his case for the James passage being an interpolation:
External evidence thus complements and strengthens the findings of internal criticism. This passage is an insertion, and by its contents and style can only be a Christian interpolation. (336)
I did not quote the footnote Efron appends to that conclusion. Here it is:
Josephus obviously totally disregarded the young Christian congregations in their first stages of development, despite his extensive detailed descriptions of the period before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Revolt. As a historian and writer addressing non-Jewish readers, defending Judaism and aspiring to gain appreciation for it, he preferred to delete sensitive, inconvenient manifestations likely to arouse a negative reaction and controversy. The three “Christian” passages — the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of his brother James and John the Baptist’s death — are exceptional in spirit as well as in their artificial contextual interpolation. Similarly Josephus’ contemporary and rival, Justus of Tiberias, author of a Jewish history in Greek, who did not however renounce his people, made not the slightest mention of Jesus or the miracles he wrought, as noted in Byzantine Christian testimony of Photius, Bibliotheca, Codex 33, PG 103; Photius, Bibliothèque, ed. R. Henry, vol. 1 (Collection Bude-Paris 1959), p. 18f: τής Χρίστου παρουσίας και των περί αυτόν τελεσβέντων καί τών ύπ’ αύτοΰ τερατουργηθέντων ούδέν δλως μνήμην έποιήσατο. See also Τ. Rajak, “Justus of Tiberias,” CIQ 23 (1973): 345 ff. Philo’s complete silence is equally significant. (336f)
In Efron’s earlier outline of the gospel narratives about Jesus (319-324) it is very clear that he considers the entire story an ahistorical, anti-semitic theological drama through and through. In that context one’s eyebrow might be felt to raise just a little at the above footnote. I might be quite wrong, of course, so am very willing to retract this post if necessary.
Efron, Joshua. Studies on the Hasmonean Period. Leiden; New York: Brill, 1987.
But the fact is this huge consensus exists. So in history, that means something. After all, academics work in an environment where it pays to find reasons to disagree with each other. — Tim O’Neill
Since watching Tim O’Neill’s 28-minute video Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) I have been toying with the idea of bringing out lessons I learned from my teaching days and try making short podcasts or video clips in response. Why I think they need a response is, well, if this particular video is any guide, — almost everything he says in it is either factually wrong or logically fallacious.
Take the above quotation. That is made at about one minute in. The point is that if Jesus mythicism had any reasonable case at all then the academic environment would logically make significant room for it because, after all, academics are in an environment where it pays to present ideas that disagree with traditional or majority views.
That is wrong. Academics work in an environment where it pays to advance knowledge by testing and building on prior research. Think “shoulders of giants”.
But does it pay “to find reasons to disagree”? Recently I posted here some of the ideas of prominent economist, one who worked at the University of Sydney and later became a prominent Greek and then European political figure, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis was a left-wing economist, one who disagreed with the relevant ideological status quo — though this was not known to the hiring committee at the university. He wrote of his appointment as an academic to the University of Sydney:
When I chose the subject of my doctoral thesis, back in 1982, I deliberately focused on a highly mathematical topic within which Marx’s thought was irrelevant. When, later on, I embarked on an academic career, as a lecturer in mainstream economics departments, the implicit contract between myself and the departments that offered me lectureships was that I would be teaching the type of economic theory that left no room for Marx. In the late 1980s, I was hired by the University of Sydney’s school of economics in order to keep out a left-wing candidate (although I did not know this at the time).
Note that. Ideological conformity was a key criterion in his academic appointment. And that’s in Economics. Imagine Biblical Studies!
Within academic disciplines, knowledge-claims are socially validated through negotiation and eventual consensus among experts, with recognition and esteem accruing to those scientists who, in Merton’s words, “have made genuinely original contributions to the common stock of knowledge” (1957/1973: 293). Writing in the field of biology, Myers (1990) shows how knowledge-claims are negotiated and, thus, socially constructed through the peer-review process, with its characteristic exchange of referee comments and author revisions. He illustrates this by analyzing the transformation and ultimate denouement of two manuscripts, each of which was revised multiple times in response to referees’ criticisms before being accepted for publication. In doing so, he describes the negotiations that unfold as the manuscripts’ authors try to make their claims to originality as strong as possible and the referees attempt to place the authors’ assertions within a body of existing literature. Myers documents that such negotiations are flexible, but only within limits. Authors must claim some minimum level of novelty (or have their work dismissed as unoriginal). At the same time, however, if they venture too far beyond a discipline’s established knowledge structure, they risk the charge that their work is irrelevant to existing research and, thus, unworthy of publication.
Let’s bring in an example directly relevant to Jesus mythicism. Here is what Mike Bird, one of the editors of the academic Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesuswrote:
I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.
That’s as blunt as can be. No caveats to allow for an original or methodologically sound argument. Just a big red No sign on the door. (The remainder of Bird’s article is riddled with blatant misrepresentation of Lataster’s book but that’s another story. He makes it very clear that mythicism is to be excluded from any academic discussion without any acknowledgement that there could possibly be anything new to say about it since it first appeared over 100 years ago.)
Or is that example too extreme? What about Thomas L. Thompson’s thesis that the patriarchal narratives in Genesis had no historical basis, a view that challenged the consensus of the day (mid-1970s)? The view has since become the consensus but not because TLT “worked in an environment where it paid to disagree.” He explained:
During the whole of this period, the reaction in the States to my dissertation, both from within the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature, was consistently negative, with a large number of review articles, criticizing and rejecting my work, my competence and my integrity.
The figure of Jesus Christ is first and foremost the personification of his people
Most of us have little difficulty imagining that the authors of the gospels conceptualized Jesus as a personification of the people of Israel. In Nanine Charbonnel’s words, the gospel narratives are not so much presenting Jesus and Israel as parallels but rather Jesus as a personification, an embodiment, the figure of “a new Israel” itself. Here’s a refresher of the points we all know. The character who is named “YHWH Saves” . . .
° is born through the miraculous intervention of YHWH, as the people of Israel were born from the miraculous fertility of the aged Sarah and Abraham.
° escapes the royal edict to slay all male newborns [my note: Pharaoh ordered all male infants slain in order to keep Israel in subjection to Egypt]
° is called from Egypt as were the people of Israel,
° is baptized, recollecting Israel’s passage through the Red Sea,
° After his baptism he spends forty days in the wilderness as Israel spent forty years in the wilderness,
° he is a target for trials or tests [not “temptations” — I have changed NC’s term] as Israel succumbed to tests in the wilderness
° he explicitly quotes in each of his three responses to these tests verses from Deuteronomy that had been addressed to the people in the wilderness,
° he takes twelve disciples as Israel has twelve tribes, etc.
NC’s list is fine as an overview but leaves questions hanging when one realizes that it is true only of the Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. As we have seen, Jesus in the wilderness in the Gospel of Mark more likely represents the new Adam, not Israel. In this context it is of interest to note that the Gospel of Mark, unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, portrays Jesus as reaching out to gentiles as well as Jews to bring them together “in him” (see the post on the “sea voyages” of Jesus, The Story of Mark, History or Theology?) — so an opening presentation of Jesus as a New Adam is fitting. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke change Mark’s plot so that the gentiles are to be evangelized after the resurrection of Jesus.
So I think Mark’s variation supports NC’s view of Jesus being a literary creation to function as the theological interests of the authors decided. Matthew and Luke created a Jesus who personified the people of Israel. But we will see in the next section that Paul’s concept was closer to Mark’s.
Throughout this series of posts we have referred to NC’s repeated point that the Hebrew Bible so easily portrays entire peoples as individual characters (e.g. the “two nations” in Rebecca’s womb, Jacob and Esau). NC cites David Strauss’s words that neatly encapsulate this sort of personification in Hosea where we read Matthew’s inspiration for how he created his Jesus: the people of Israel are, collectively, the son (singular) of God.
While Herod awaits the return of the magi, Joseph is admonished by an angelic apparition in a dream to flee with the Messianic child and its mother into Egypt for security (v. 13-15). Adopting the evangelist’s point of view, this is not attended with any difficulty ; it is otherwise, however, with the prophecy which the above event is said to fulfil, Hosea xi. 1. In this passage the prophet, speaking in the name of Jehovah, says : When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. We may venture to attribute, even to the most orthodox expositor, enough clear-sightedness to perceive that the subject of the first half of the sentence is also the object of the second, namely the people of Israel, who here, as elsewhere, (e.g. Exod. iv. 22, Sirach xxxvi. 14), are collectively called the Son of God, and whose past deliverance under Moses out of their Egyptian bondage is the fact referred to : that consequently, the prophet was not contemplating either the Messiah or his sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, as our evangelist says, v. r5, that the flight of Jesus into Egypt took place expressly that the above words of Hosea might be fulfilled . . .
(Strauss Part 1, Chapter IV §34 – p.167)
Jesus, as the “new Israel”, resists temptations, overcomes trials, unlike the old. NC emphasizes that Jesus does not personify the Christian church but the people of Israel. To half paraphrase and half translate the words of Jean Radermakers whom NC quotes:
What was said about Israel is in the gospels said about Jesus because he is both a son of Israel and one who takes on the totality of the nation in order to bring it to its destined fulfilment. Thus he is the Son called from Egypt (Matt 2:5 = Hos 11:1), the Beloved Son, the one who is the object of divine indulgence (Matt 3:17; 17:5 = Gen 22:2; Ps 2:2; Isa 42:1), and after crossing the Jordan he walks through the Promised Land to Jerusalem. In Matthew Jesus appears in Galilee, noted as being “Galilee of the Nations” (Matt 4:5). In Jesus, therefore, Israel fulfils its calling to be a “people for the nations” according to the promise made to Abraham: In you will all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:3; cf Jer 4:2; Sirach 44:21). In this same way he also fulfils the universal message of the prophets (Matt 4:15-16 = Isa 8:12; 11:5 = Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1), as we read “in his name the Nations will place their hope” (Matt 12:2 = Isa 42:4) (Approximates the words of Jean Radermakers)
In future posts we will see how NC develops the point that Jesus, as the people of Israel, will further be presented as God. If the Jews are understood to be the bearers of the divine presence in their midst we can more easily understand how Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel, can simultaneously be depicted as God. Above we saw that what was said of Israel was said of Jesus; so also what is said of God is likewise said of Jesus. Again, to borrow from Radermakers (p 371):
he speaks with authority (Matt 7:28),
he commands the sea (Matt 8:26-27)
and forgives sins. (Matt 9,:1-8),
he summons his people (Matt 16:19)
and feeds them in the desert (Matt 14,:15-24 and 15:32-39),
he remains in the midst of his own as the very presence of God (Matt 18.20; 28.20; cf 1:1-23) in whom the history of his people converges and is fulfilled.
To expand on NC’s discussion, it is commonplace among biblical scholars to think of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as the “more human” than in the other gospels. They point to episodes where he appears to lose his temper and needs to heal a person in two stages. Yet there are interpreters who have argued that this “very human” Jesus in Mark is misguided. But there is nothing “human” about one who commands the storm (Mark 4:39 = Ps 107:29; 148:8) and walks on water (Mark 6:48-49 = Job 9:8; Sirach 24:5-6). We have covered in depth how a number of scholars have shown that the supposedly human emotions of Jesus were deemed in ancient times to be divine and/or the noblest of feelings:
Returning to NC: What we see the evangelists doing, and most directly in Matthew, is quoting passages in the Old Testament that refer to the people of Israel and bringing those passages to fulfilment in the person of Jesus, whose name means “YHWH saves”, and who is the personification of those people. The gospel works to bring to pass in the individual “YHWH Saves” what the Scriptures said about the sons of Israel.
The gospel figure of Jesus Christ was created as a “double personification”:
he was created as a personification of a people — both the Jewish people and ultimately as a “new people of God”. Nanine Charbonnel [NC] calls this “horizontal personification”. This is why we so readily see in the Jesus character aspects of the ideal King, the Prophet, the Priest, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who as a new Adam creates in himself one new people
at the same time,
he was created as a personification of the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its spiritual and heavenly and eternal focus — he is the embodiment of God and God’s presence with his people. As such, he embodies the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Glory and Presence, Glory (Shekinah) of God, the Word of God, the Law, the Name of God through which he saves.
The authors of the gospels were familiar with the Jewish literary technique of creating individual characters to represent collective ethnic groups. Recall, for example, the creation of the Jacob-Esau story which begins with the explanation that the two boys represent “two nations” (Gen 25:23). Recentpostshave set out NC’s illustration of this technique with lesser characters. By creating the gospel Jesus figure they were seeking to create a new person who represented both a new people of God and the God who came to dwell with them. NC details the way Jesus was drawn to embody the divine persons and entities. She calls this “vertical personification”. This post and those immediately succeeding it look at how the authors have created a “horizontal” personification of a “new man”.
The New Adam
Before the gospels were penned Christians thought of Jesus as a “new Adam”. Thus Paul in 1 Cor 15:45-49
The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. . . .
This second Adam is created in the same way the first Adam was — as a symbol or representative of mankind. Adam is a literary figure, a single character, but one with whom all of humanity are meant to identify. NC quoted from Paul Ricoeur‘s discussion of the Adam myth:
In Adam we are one and all; the mythical figure of the first man provides a focal point at the beginning of history for man’s unity-in-multiplicity. (244)
Jewish elites have addressed the idea of Adam in Genesis. NC mentions Philo as an example. Philo determined that the Adam created in God’s image was the perfect, heavenly Adam; while the Adam of dust was the corruptible Adam who needed laws to control him from his base tendencies. We will see that the heavenly Adam is also the son of God.
It is “Yahweh who saves” (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) who was imagined as the “new Adam”, the embodiment of (redeemed) humanity.
Another instance not mentioned by NC, but one addressed by many scholars commenting on the Gospel of Mark, is the apparent depiction of Jesus as the New Adam cum Messianic figure in the wilderness where he is “with the wild animals”.
and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13)
The gospel begins with an echo of the beginning of Genesis (“the beginning of the gospel”) and after the parting of heavens (as per the parting of the waters “at the creation of the cosmos”– Allison, New Moses 200, Thompson, Mythic Past 18 ff, Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 33 ff) and leads to Jesus being tempted by Satan, with the animals and angels, as was Adam in Genesis and Jewish writings of the Second Temple era elaborating on the Adam story. Where Adam failed in his temptation, Jesus succeeded; where Adam once had but then lost his companionship and peace with wild animals Jesus restored harmony with them; where the angels refused to serve Adam they did serve Jesus. Jewish apocrypha also said angels fed Adam for a time. Other scholars prefer to interpret the passage as a proleptic fulfilment of harmony with animals by Isaiah’s messiah; some accept both interpretations together. I will post about this interpretation of Mark 1:13 with reference to Richard Bauckham, Ulrich Mell, Joel Marcus, C.S. Mann, Francis Maloney, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in a future post.)
Since the twelve disciples are symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is the new Moses. The famous transfiguration scene clearly indicates that Jesus is the embodiment of the law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah. Moses was made radiant as was Jesus; both were covered with the cloud of God’s glory; both were ordained by God to be the shepherds and teachers of the twelve tribes/disciples; both perform miraculous signs; and so forth and so forth. NC copies forty points that some Catholic exegetes have seen that demonstrate Jesus as the new Moses:
NC admits that not all of the 40 points listed there are unquestionable. One that springs to notice for me is the point that Jesus left a higher royal court to join his lowly people — as Moses left Pharaoh’s court to join his people — is taken from Philippians 2:5-7; yet this detail is not found in the context of a Moses comparison. There are, nonetheless, reputable scholarly works that make the case for the Gospel of Matthew in particular deliberately building up Jesus on the Moses template. One of the more notable works is The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison Jr. I looked at one of Allison’s discussions in the post Additional Sauces for the Feedings of 5000 and 4000. NC does not mention Allison’s book so this is my addition to her discussion and what I think is a more trenchantly argued replacement than the 40 point list. Allison states in his concluding chapter,S
The Moses typology, especially strong in the infancy narrative and the [Sermon on the Mount], definitely shapes all of Matthew 1-7. It is also definitely present in the great thanksgiving of 11:25-30, in the narrative of the transfiguration (17:1-9), and in the concluding verses, 28:16-20.1 am further inclined, but with less faith, to find the typology in the feeding stories (14:13-22; 15:29-39), the entry into Jerusalem (21:1-17), and the last supper (26:17-25). But proposals concerning the missionary discourse, the requests for a sign (12:38; 16:1), the woes of chapter 23, the eschatological discourse, and the crucifixion (27:45-53) are to be rejected or entertained as nothing more than possibilities.
An interesting observation emerges from the foregoing conclusions: the passages in which Moses’ tacit presence is the strongest display an order which mirrors the Pentateuch:
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many . . . .
Exodus 12:37-38; 15:22-26 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. . . . Then Moses led Israel . . . He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Exodus 19:1-2, 17
On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt . . . and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. . . .
Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.
Exodus 24:1, 4, 8-10
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. . . .
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. . . .
Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.
Many more Moses imitations are cited throughout Isaiah’s New Exodus by Rikki E. Watts. One of many examples in which Watts is outlining the work of another scholar,
Although at first sight Mark appears to make little use of the OT, M. D. Hooker recognises that this is largely because of his distinctive approach. Not only is the opening quotation significant, ‘his story is good news precisely because it is the fulfilment of Scripture‘, but ‘Jesus’ words and activities constantly echo OT scenes and language, until what is “written” of the Son of Man (9:12; 10:21) is finally fulfilled’ (p. 220). . . .
In the conflict over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ traditions, Mark 7:1-23 shows that while Jesus upholds the Law (vv. 1-13; cf. Nu 30:2; Dt 23:21-23) his authority is even greater than that of the Law (vv. 14-23). The same is borne out in examinations of 12:18ff and 28-34 (p. 224), and several Pentateuchal allusions (2:1-10; 2:23 – 3:6; cf. 1:44). Three other allusions recalling incidents in Moses’ life serve likewise to demonstrate that Jesus is either Moses’ successor (6:34, cf. Nu 27:17) or his superior (9:2-13; cf. Ex 24:15f; Dt 18:15), while 9:38-40 (cf. Nu 11:26-29) shows Jesus acting as did Moses.
Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.
Josephus and Tacitus say
So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:
Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .
Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.
In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.
Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:
Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.
Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?
The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.
But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.
The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.
But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.
There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are carelessmisrepresentations).
Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)
Why would anyone….!
Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:
Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?
Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)
Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”
It’s been too long since I visited our French scholars of the Bible so here I continue with part 5 of Nanine Charbonnel’s table setting out the “Old Testament” sources of the Gospel narratives. In Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier Charbonnel is presenting a case for the gospel figure of Jesus Christ being created entirely from a form of “midrashic” type composition in which diverse scriptural texts are woven together into a new story to meet new community needs.
The table below is my own adaptation of Charbonnel’s French-language multi-page table, with a few slight editorial changes and my own translations and summaries.
The work of checking every scriptural reference (they are all hyperlinked for you to check them easily too) has impressed upon me just how totally the gospels are very likely pastiches of Jewish scriptures and some non-canonical writings. There appears to be nothing left over requiring explanation as if from any other source. Jesus walking on water was not an exaggerated retelling of a biographical event where Jesus happened to be walking on a sandbank (as some have said); nor were the healing miracles exaggerations of some real-life psychological power Jesus had over those with ailments. . . . they, everything, was written as a renewal of a sacred saying or scripture. Nor is there anything new about the teaching of Jesus: everything he is narrated as having taught is a re-writing of Scriptural or proverbial teachings of the time of the evangelists.
Jesus is created as a new voice and representative of a new Israel. The kingdom of God has come, the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. Nations, gentiles and Jews, are now one in Him. The gospels are written, surely, as a new set of scriptures through which the old are to be interpreted anew.
There is no historical person of Jesus behind the narrative. If there had been then there would be some indication of a real person that the narrative had to adapt somehow to scriptures. What we find instead, however, is a figure entirely, entirely, made up of scriptures. Scriptural rewriting is the warp and woof of what he does, what happens to him, and what he says and teaches.
Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:
a. the calling of disciples and sending them out to preach
b. teachings of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles
c. miracles of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles
d. the fate of John the Baptist and the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus
Since recent posts have in some way drawn me into the question of the historicity of Jesus once again let me set out where I stand. There is nothing new here.
I have never, as far as I recall, set out an argument that Jesus did not exist. The reason? I have no interest in doing so. My interest has long been to understand the nature and origins of the biblical texts. And what I have learned so far is that the gospel narratives can most economically and comprehensively be explained as inventions woven from other texts without any need to introduce oral traditions going back to a historical Jesus.
Similarly for the New Testament epistles. We do not need to introduce a historical Jesus to understand their contents.
It’s really as simple as that.
Why don’t I begin with the assumption that the gospels are historical or biographical accounts, even if exaggerated, of a historical Jesus? Because as far as I am aware that’s not how any other historical inquiry works. We need to apply the same methods to the study of Christian origins that we rely on for any other inquiry.
Here’s how valid historical inquiry works across the board, whether studying ancient, medieval, modern, eastern, or any other history. I copy from another page where I have discussed this some time back….
A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument. Let’s take the gospels as one set of sources to be used in investigating the question of Christian origins. What does any historian need to establish about these — or any — sources?
We need to know when they were written.
We need to know by whom and why. (“By whom” means more than the name of the person: it refers to where the person is from, to what social or political entity he or she belongs — “Who is this person?” — that is more important than a mere name.)
We need to know what they are, what sorts of documents they are. Their genre, if you like. This will include knowledge of how they compare with other literature of their day.
We need to know something about their reception at the time they were written and soon after.
We need to know something about the world in which they were written — both the political and social history of that world and the wider literary and philosophical cultural world to which they belonged.
We need to know a little how the documents came into our possession. Through what authorities or channels were they preserved and what sort of manuscript trail did they leave.
That’s the first step. We can very broadly classify all of this knowledge as the provenance of the documents.
If we draw blanks on any of these questions then we need always to keep those blanks in the foremost of our minds whenever we read and interpret the gospels. Those blanks will help remind us of the provisional nature of anything we draw from the gospels.
So for the first point above, the date of the gospels, we can do no better than accept a range of year in which they were written. A combination of internal evidence and the evidence that they were known by others leads us (well, me at least) to a period between 70 CE and the mid-second century (possibly known to Justin, certainly to Irenaeus).
Those who argue for a date prior to 70 CE fail to take into account the apocalyptic character of the gospels. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel) is known to be about events in the recent memory of the readers. The pre-70 date also fails to take account of the internal evidence for an audience facing persecution, including persecution from Jews. There is no confirmable evidence for such persecutions of Christians until post 70 CE. If some dispute this and argue for a much earlier date then I’m happy to address those arguments, too; I would be willing to change my view if they proved to be plausible and if the scare Caligula gave with his threat to install a statue in the Temple was the best explanation for other features in the Synoptics.
The question of who wrote the documents is of primary importance. Just saying the author was a Christian is way too broad and tells us nothing except the obvious. It’s no more useful than saying a work of history was written by a Greek historian. So what? We need to know what sort of Christian, where, when and why — whom was he writing for? why? Since we know none of these things — speculations and educated guesses change with the tides of fashion — we are at an enormous disadvantage in knowing how to interpret or understand the gospels.
Is what we read a composite document composed over several editorial hands? That, too, is a most important question to answer. Again we are at a real disadvantage here.
The above gaps in our knowledge of the gospels ought to pull up every historian short and make them wonder if it is worth even continuing to work with these documents. Certainly any historian worth his or her salt will always be tentative about any conclusions and data taken from them.
This is the final post covering my response to Tim O’Neill’s interview on MythVision. For other posts, parts one, two, three.
In 1959 Khrushchev declared that there were no political prisoners in the USSR, only mentally ill people (Bukovsky).
Arrests and trials became their last resort . . . . The authorities preferred other means, from psychiatric confinement and defamatory campaigns . . . .
Publicly branding dissidents as having some psychological issue had the desired effect:
I remember how, emerging from the psychiatric hospital in 1965, I suddenly discovered that all my “thaw-time” friends had disappeared somewhere, as if they had melted away. When we met by chance in the street, they would hurry away, clutching folders or briefcases or, even better, wheeling a pram. Sorry, old man, they would mutter without stopping, eyes lowered, I have to defend my diploma, dissertation, get my candidate’s application approved. Or I need to raise my children first. Then they would speed off, looking neither left nor right. . . .
(Bukovsky, Judgment in Moscow)
In the US, by contrast, political power is not necessary. The mainstream merely needs to publicly shame dissidents in the free press:
In this respect, America is an amazing country. On the one hand, publishing slander is recognized as the sacred right of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. On the other hand, America is a country of extreme conformists, where any criticism in the press, even if it is genuinely slanderous, renders a person unacceptable . . . . Note that it is the victim of slander who becomes “controversial and not the slanderer.
Recall from the previous post one biblical scholar’s observation of the conservative mainstream in his field of study:
There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . .
What is the aim of this labeling? . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you.
One biblical scholar who was viscerally hostile against Christ mythicists, Maurice Casey, was very willing to employ the above tactics to discredit anyone who dared disagree with his views or those of his doctoral student and partner at the time. I responded to Casey’s assertions with the Who’s Who page of anyone identifying with or merely open-minded towards the Christ myth theory in order to demonstrate that his accusations were without foundation. His psychological analyses of mythicists — they were by and large disturbed ex-fundamentalists — was baseless slander.
Tim O’Neill in his MythVision interview resorted once more to the same tawdry psychoanalysis of mythicists (he allowed for a “few” exceptions). In his online statements he has added outright character defamation and some of the ugliest humiliation to his characterization of Christ mythicists. I have invited O’Neill several times to engage with my criticisms of his work but only on condition that he refrain from verbal abuse and he has declined. Rather, he has written that he finds my criticisms too petty to bother with. That’s another way of telling his followers to stay clear of my responses to his posts or to read them with a condescension that guarantees they will be dismissed from the outset.
At about 57 mins of the MythVision podcast O’Neill underscores the importance of Paul’s claim to have met James the “brother of the Lord”. Not only is Paul’s claim from a contemporary of Jesus but it is even from one who is opposed to his source: Paul is saying, says O’Neill, “Yeh, I have met the brother of Jesus and he’s a dick.” Now evidence from contemporaries, especially contemporary adversaries, is certainly strong evidence for historicity, but at this point, O’Neill tosses aside and out of sight the most fundamental principle he said was the basis of all good historical inquiry: a need to acknowledge ambiguity in the evidence. O’Neill’s first task, therefore, is to characterize any interpretation that allows for ambiguity to be outright nonsense.
Basic historical methods applied to Paul meeting “the brother of the Lord”
Yet there is an even more fundamental rule for any historian examining sources that O’Neill never mentions: study the context of the source and the information in it! It’s this simple:
Acknowledge the fact that that “met James the brother of the Lord” phrase is unknown to Church Fathers who would dearly have loved to have known it to win their theological debates against “heretics” (– I was first informed of this fact by an honest author who was arguing against the Christ myth theory);
Stop and think how bizarre it is that there are no other early Christian accounts that record that one of the leaders of the Christian church at Jerusalem was the very brother of Jesus! Is it really plausible that this one passing reference in a letter of Paul, a letter that was the focus of so much controversy in the early church, should be the only evidence we have from the early days of the church that Jesus’ brother became the new leader alongside Peter? Not even the Book of Acts, which portrays James as a noble head of the Jerusalem church, leads anyone to suspect that that James was a brother of Jesus.
For further details discussing the above context of this passage see
O’Neill emphasizes that a historian must be open to ambiguity when studying the sources. Indeed. There are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in which Paul says he met the “brother of the Lord” was added some time in the second century in order to better assist “orthodox” Christians argue against their theological opponents. Further, fundamental questions arise when we try to understand how a brother of Jesus could have become the church’s leader without any other contemporary or near contemporary indication that anyone knew about it.
It is “bad history” to take a passage as testimony to a “historical fact” without first testing the authenticity of that evidence.
Basic historical method guards against circular reasoning
The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. A hypothetical example might help to clarify the point. A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :
Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes? Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes. (Tacit Assumption ) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen. Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.
Absurd as this fallacy may appear in a hypothetical way, it is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship.
petitio principii : a fallacy in which a conclusion is taken for granted in the premises; begging the question.
One of several examples of this fallacy that O’Neill offers (paraphrasing):
In the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus addresses the Jewish dietary laws. This makes sense if there was a historical Jesus who was saying those things about the dietary laws that the church (at the time the gospel was written) no longer followed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jesus didn’t exist.
O’Neill here is uncritically repeating an argument found among some mainstream biblical scholars. It makes just as much sense on the assumption that the Jesus of the gospels was a literary figure created to express the view of the church.
Clark Kent to Superman
At this point the host, Derek Lambert, interjects with another piece of circularity common among too many mainstream biblical scholars (again, my paraphrase):
In the Gospel of Mark Jesus appears like a Clark Kent but by the time of the Gospel of John he is Superman. The evidence is so easily explained if there was an original guy who wanted the temple brought down, and then that happened, but because it didn’t get rebuilt, the Christians had to change the prophecy of Jesus into one where he claimed to be speaking about the temple of his body.
Yes, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus at the start, then we can indeed say that the subsequent evidence can be explained by that same historical Jesus. That’s circularity. The same logic can be used to say that if we assume that the gospel authors portrayed a Jesus who fitted the time of those writers, then we can explain the later changes to the gospels as the result of adapting to changing circumstances and beliefs. Question begging works any way you want to use it.
Besides, O’Neill ought to have picked Derek Lambert up on his factual error (another one common among many biblical scholars) that the Gospel of Mark portrays a relatively ungodly “merely human” Jesus. A man who walks on water and commands the storms to cease just like the Yahweh in the Psalms is not a “merely human” figure. Nor is the range of emotion imputed to Mark’s Jesus “merely human”: anger, for instance, is a very common godly emotion. For further details see
Another very common instance of circularity appears in discussions about the birth narratives. The assumption is that there was a historical Jesus who was born in Nazareth, and since everyone supposedly knew he came from this tiny village “no-one had ever heard of”, the gospel authors tied themselves in knots trying to explain how he was really born, according to the messianic prophecy, in Bethlehem.
About the 1 hour and 10 minute mark O’Neill says, quite rightly, that later (noncanonical) gospels sometimes harmonize the earlier gospels. Matthew and Luke offer contradictory, even incompatible, nativity stories. This makes sense, he rightly says, if we assume that the authors were each independently struggling to work out their own narrative to explain how Jesus came to be known to be “from Nazareth” even though he was born in Bethlehem. I say “rightly” because yes, it does make sense if we assume the premise we are trying to prove is true from the outset.
It makes just as much sense to say that the authors of both Matthew and Luke were trying to establish a legend that Jesus was born at Bethlehem (according to the messianic prophecy) while at the same time attempting to remove an embarrassing epithet by which the earliest sects of Jesus worship were known, the “nazoreans” or “nazarenes”. (The Arab and Muslim world still today refer to Christians by a cognate of that same term.) The Gospel of Matthew at 2:23 bizarrely twists a scripture and grammatical Greek to make it give that title a new meaning.
Thus the evidence of Matthew is that the early evangelists were struggling with a title they no longer felt comfortable with and decided to hide its original meaning by re-interpreting it as meaning “from Nazareth”. Luke most likely re-wrote Matthew to give a better narrative account.
By setting aside the fallacy of assuming a historical Jesus at the outset we open ourselves to a much richer scenario in accordance with all of the evidence.
I do care about bad history.— O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)
Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.
Two instances of “bad history”
At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee. That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.
Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?
No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.
Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?
I took time out last night to follow up a comment left on Vridar and listen to Derek Lambert’s MythVision interview with Tim O’Neill, author of the blog History for Atheists. If one sets aside the revealing psychological portrait that emerges from the incidental comments O’Neill lets drop about himself throughout the interview and focuses on his message one finds an unfortunate mix of contradictions, logical fallacies and factual errors presented with a confidence that evidently many readers find persuasive. I will attempt to deal with just one or two points per post to illustrate why readers and viewers need to put on their critical hats and examine carefully some of O’Neill’s claims.
In this post we look at what O’Neill has to say about the late Josephan specialist Louis Feldman, who came to reject the authenticity of any part of the Testimonium Flavianum (the passage about Jesus in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities), and in particular at what O’Neill has to say about Feldman’s claim that a second century passage in a Dialogue with Trypho points to some debate at the time about the existence of Jesus.
Here is the Trypho passage.
But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .
Mythicist Earl Doherty acknowledged the passage’s ambiguity:
As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.
But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.
But O’Neill does not allow for any reasonable ambiguity and suggests that Feldman has fallen victim to senility for disputing the common interpretation of the passage.
The Intolerability of Ambiguity?
About 20 minutes in O’Neill professes adherence to the truism of the need to be tolerant of ambiguity in the evidence. The claim is made that “mythicism” appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those “who don’t like ambiguity”, who “want absolutes”, who “shun ambiguity and shades of grey”. About an hour in, he repeats “I am used to ambiguity”, to evidence that can be “read in different ways”, and that certain others “find ambiguity really weird”.
The sentiment is laudable. But when discussing a particular point of evidence that is clearly ambiguous O’Neill (around the 46-47 minute mark) unfortunately dismisses as blatantly wrong, as “a bad misreading, quite a remarkable, actually, misreading”, the interpretation that draws attention to its ambiguity.
Worse is the ad hominem: O’Neill goes so far as to suggest that the interpreter’s judgment was evidence of senility:
The problem with Feldman switching sides late in his life is … to be honest, I don’t think he was firing on all cylinders, he was in his eighties at that point, and also I think that his premise [is] on the misreading of a text.
Towards the end of the interview O’Neill declares that he believes in the importance of “reading books” and becoming familiar with “critical scholarship”. Again, a laudable sentiment. But had he done so in the case of Feldman’s claim about Trypho he would have known that Feldman did not somehow come to “remarkably misread” the text of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho “late in his life” but had published the exact same point twenty years earlier.
When O’Neill refers to Paget’s criticism of Feldman’s “misreading” of Trypho, all he is doing is pointing to a blunt single sentence that says, without any argument or justification, that Feldman has “misread” the passage:
Feldman’s attempt to argue that Justin, Dial. 8 witnesses to such an argument is a misreading of the passage.
No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.