2007-07-30

Spong on Jesus’ historicity: Paul’s contacts

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve responded to the first 3 of Spong’s stated reasons for believing Jesus was a historical character despite many of his analyses of the gospels leaving readers good cause to doubt this. They are listed in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007).

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history” (Spong, p. 210)

Response 1: To give this as a reason for believing in the historicity of Jesus is fallacious. It is another circular argument. Continue reading “Spong on Jesus’ historicity: Paul’s contacts”


2007-07-29

(revised) Spong on Jesus’ historicity: John the Baptist and the Crucifixion

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by Neil Godfrey

Spong in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007), lists four reasons that he claims leave no doubt about the historicity of Jesus:

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

An earlier post looked at #1, “the Nazareth Connection”. This post looks, much more briefly, at #2 and #3 together, because they both make the same fundamental error of logic. Continue reading “(revised) Spong on Jesus’ historicity: John the Baptist and the Crucifixion”


2007-07-28

Spong on Jesus’ historicity: The Nazareth connection

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by Neil Godfrey

I am not sure if Bishop John Shelby Spong believes in god (he speaks of a “god experience”, and of atheism as being defined as not believing in a “theistic definition of god”, which definition he also rejects) but he does believe in Jesus. This, according to his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007). After acknowledging, even arguing the case of, the many theological and mythical constructs that have built up a non-historical figure of Jesus as found in a surface reading of the New Testament, he laments that some go one step too far and reject belief in the historicity of Jesus altogether.

So in chapter 19 Spong devotes the equivalent of a full 4 pages out of a 315 page book to establish the reasons for believing Jesus was, nonetheless, an historical person. He gives 4 reasons that he believes establish this historicity:

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

This post addresses Spong’s view that no mythical character like Jesus would have been assigned a hometown like Nazareth. (I have so many loose threads on this blog I am still meaning to put up on this blog that I’m reluctant to say I will address the other points of Spong here “soon”.) Continue reading “Spong on Jesus’ historicity: The Nazareth connection”


2007-04-24

Would it really be a problem if there were no historical Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

Some years ago (around the time I seized the opportunity to personally thank Bishop Spong for helping me on my way to atheism 😉 ) I asked a well respected anglican cleric what his response would be if it could be reasonably established that Christianity did not begin with a real historical Jesus. My query was via email so he had a little time to think before responding. His words in effect were: Continue reading “Would it really be a problem if there were no historical Jesus?”


2007-04-16

What if Jesus intentionally acted out the OT “prophecies”?

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by Neil Godfrey

This question keeps popping up all over the place. I’d like to kill it. Continue reading “What if Jesus intentionally acted out the OT “prophecies”?”


2007-01-18

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Thallus

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by Neil Godfrey

I think I might have liked Bruce personally so please don’t take the title as anything but a response to those who should know better and who recommend his works for a purpose for which Bruce himself says they were not intended. (See my last post for the explanation of this.)

First, the comparative context:

Obscure references in obscure historians such as Thallus and Phlegon, to supposed eclipses which may or may not be identified with some tradition about the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion, have in any case reached us exclusively through the filter of later Christian commentators. Origen and Julius Africanus may well have put their own spin on what historians actually said; Africanus comes to us only second-hand. No case can be made based on references like this, and it is a mark of how thin the evidence really is that they would be considered of any evidentiary value. (p.203 of Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle)

Bruce writes:

[3rd century] Julius Africanus describes the earthquake and the preternatural darkness which accompanied the crucifixion of Christ, and says that Thallus, in his third book, explained this darkness as an eclipse of the sun . . . . We may wish that we had the actual passage from Thallus to compare with Julius Africanus’s account; but it is a reasonable inference that Thallus knew the Christian narrative of the crucifixion of Christ, and made some reference to it in his work. (p.30 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Bruce continues by claiming that Suetonius’s description of Jewish riots over Chrestus “meant that some knowledge of Christianity was available in that city around the time when Thallus was writing.”

If anyone is wondering if Thallus can still be used as independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus I invite ‘anyone’ to have a look-see for themselves on what Thallus is said to have written:

The entire quoted line is found here:

A lengthier discussion and the second/third hand context surrounding that one line can be found here:

I think most would agree with Doherty’s concluding remark cited above:

“it is a mark of how thin the evidence really is that they would be considered of any evidentiary value.”


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Thallus, historical_Jesus, Julius_Africanus, Jesus_myth


2007-01-17

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on non-Christian sources vis a vis Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

I got carried away with my own comments on Bruce’s treatment of the non-christian sources. This morning I have reprimanded myself for straying from my original intent and made amends. I have gone back and revised each of the Bruce posts to include direct comparison’s with Doherty’s treatment of same.

Can’t wait to meet the next academic who is going to tell me or anyone else to “go to Bruce” the “sturdy” and “true” scholarly source on early non-christian sources!

I wonder if some just don’t like to be challenged to rethink their assumptions preferring for peer-pressure reasons as much as any other to lazily fall back on what “the majority of scholars” say.


R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised

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by Neil Godfrey

I have revised this 18th January to include more direct comparisons with Doherty’s treatment of the Pliny letter.

This one, like the emperor’s clothes, has too long been simply too good, too precious, to dare let anyone admit what they really see and laugh.

But before discussing the problems that Bruce bypasses or simply fails to notice, I should say now that I do conclude on a more positive note: the letter, whatever its provenance, whoever its author, does contain historical information of second century Christianity of genuine value and interest.

First, Doherty’s discussion:

I’ll begin with Doherty’s treatment of this letter of Pliny. I am sure most will find his analysis and commentary far more sober than Bruce’s discussion and my commentary.

After outlining the contents of Pliny’s letter (reason he is writing to Trajan, what he has learned about the Christians, including details of their assembly meetings, prayers, rites, oaths, and so forth, and finding them innocent of criminal activity) Doherty comments:

We might have expected Pliny to refer to the “Christ” as a man crucified in Judea as a rebel, if that were the object of Christian worship, for this would have been unusual and of some interest to the emperor. However, he does not. In any even, any information Pliny is imparting or implying in this letter he has received from Chrsitians. (p.201 of The Jesus Puzzle)

So in a few brief lines Doherty cuts to the core of the deficiency of Pliny’s letter as non-Christian evidence of Jesus. Compare Bruce’s three pages (six pages including the translations of the correspondence) of discussion elaborating on the face value of the text. Bruce is certainly deeply interested in the contents of Pliny’s letter about the Christians and never stops to question whether Trajan himself would be, let alone if it is the sort of content one could reasonably expect from a governor to his emperor regarding criminal cases worthy of death. One wonders if some orthodox scholars dismiss Doherty so quickly for fear of having their own intellectual nakedness exposed.

Compare Bruce:

Bruce typically starts with the passage itself. Had he begun with Pliny’s career background the nonsense that this letter contains would be all too apparent from the first few lines.

Although he gives background about Pliny’s uncle and how many books of letters were included in Pliny’s published collection, he does not appear to see any point in noting that the famous letter in question belongs to a collection (the tenth book) that was not published in Pliny’s lifetime. The significance of this latter point, if any, may be considered in light of both the other unfathomable anomalies in this letter and the relatively recent publication of Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Bruce writes:

Pliny, who had never had any official contact with Christians during the fifty years of his life thus far, found himself obliged to deal with them in Bithynia because of the rapidity with which they were spreading in the province. (p.25)

What was the extent of this rapidity?

[T]hey had grown so numerous that the pagan temples were being neglected and the purveyors of fodder for the sacrificial animals found their livelihood threatened. (p.28)

Now:

  • if Pliny had never had any experience as a courtroom lawyer in Rome,
  • and if he had thus never heard of or enountered a Christian on trial in Rome,
  • and if he was just embarking wet behind the ears on his public career,
  • and if he had just arrived in Bithynia as a newly appointed governor,
  • and if the rapid spread of Christianity was confined uniquely to Bithynia and had been a virtual unknown quantity elsewhere despite being so strong in Bithynia that pagan temples were being neglected,
  • and if Pliny before setting out for his governorship position had been completely unaware of such a major development he was about to face,
  • and if not a single Christian had been implicated in the great fire of Rome of the previous generation,
  • and if Pliny had somehow moved in different circles entirely from his friend Tacitus (who also appears to have written with some knowledge about Christians),

then yes, we would have no difficulty in accepting that one of the very first things Pliny would have to write to Trajan about was “the (uniquely Bithynian?) Christian problem”.

But we have, rather, a Pliny problem:

  • Pliny had been a prominent lawyer in Rome for 28 years — it is therefore incredible to think that he had no knowledge of any precedents re Christians
    • Trajan’s reply failing to address any precedents in Rome or elsewhere in the empire (in particular the fire of Rome a generation earlier?) equally defies explanation.
  • Pliny had been travelling throughout Bithynia as governor for a year and a half before he saw fit to write a letter about the Christian problem — just how seriously can we take the letter’s descriptions of the seriousness of this problem if 18 months could lapse before this first and only letter addressing it?
  • Pliny begins by saying he has never seen a Christian trial so has no idea how to conduct one, and confesses his ignorance on how to deal with Christians and indeed, this is his reason for his letter to Trajan — to seek guidance. Yet in the same letter Pliny goes on to say:
    • that he has been conducting trials of Christians for some time — long enough to notice that the pagan temples are once again being frequented;
    • that he has routinely executed Christians who stubbornly refused to recant;
    • that he has routinely released those who do;
    • that he only decides to write the letter after carrying out these convictions and acquittals for some time when he happened to learn as a consequence of torturing two female slaves that they were guilty of “nothing more than a perverse superstition” (no details provided)

Conveniently for the naive reader the author fails to detail the cities affected, where the victims lived, how many Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial, etc. Why do not more heads spin when they are hit with this illogical and utterly implausible nonsense? Biblical scholars like to insist that the coherence of the Testamonium Flavianum is evidence that it is built on a genuine original statement by Josephus about Jesus, yet blithely accept without question the incoherence of this letter.

  • Pliny lists point by point detail to demonstrate the good character and innocence of the Christians on the one hand, then reverts to stereotypical persecuter mode by pronouncing that the Christians are nevertheless guilty of the vaguely generalized charge of perverse and unspeakable superstition. How can anyone fail to see through this blatant contradiction the hand of a pro-Christian apologist awkwardly attempting to simultaneously pose as the stereotypical anti-Christian!
  • Trajan is just as confused in his reply. Christians must die: punish them if they are accused of being a Christian. Christians are harmless: do not seek to punish them.

Bruce’s discussion is blind to any of these problems. This strange contradictory letter that did not appear in Pliny’s lifetime and that raises incomprehensible questions within the context of Pliny’s career and conventional history of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire (including Rome) with persecutions and court hearings by Trajan’s time, and what we know of Roman law and custom is seized as one of our earliest non-christian evidences of early Christianity. Pagan Rome’s tolerance of religious practice was well-known; the only people normally required to offer sacrifice to the emperor were those taking official government office; the liberty of Marcion himself and the rise and rise of Marcionism in Asia Minor are difficult to explain if, as Pliny says here, his policies restored pagan practices at the expense of Christianity; Justin Martyr’s apparent ignorance of Pliny’s and Trajan’s situation as a precedent in his letter pleading for tolerance to Antoninus Pius might also be seen as a problem; and the emperor soon after Trajan, Hadrian, who travelled and loved the eastern provinces especially, despite his bureaucratic and legalistic mind is not known for any follow-up ruling on Christians, let alone anything from Trajan or Pliny.

Genuine historical value nonetheless

Pliny’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians nevertheless is of genuine historical interest in its description of an early Christian service. It matters little if that description was inserted some time after Pliny the Younger.

Bruce’s treatment in summary:

Bruce does not offer a scholarly thought provoking discussion of the Pliny letter but essentially narrates a confessional, “Look, here is more (rare indeed so oh how precious!) evidence of Christianity from a non-Christian source.” The source does contain an interesting description of early Christian practices, although it says nothing whatever about the name of Jesus. It does speak of a worship of Christ and thus could possibly reflect a Pauline (Marcionite?) theology of a spiritual or heavenly Christ deity as opposed to an earthly Jesus figure.



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2007-01-16

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised

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by Neil Godfrey

I have revised 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Tacitus.

By now we’re getting the picture.
Bruce writes:

Pilate’s execution of Christ, and any report that he may have sent to Rome about it, would never have been heard of again, if in fact that execution had put an end to the movement which Christ began. (p.23)

If the aim of Bruce here is to offer independent evidence of the existence of the historical Jesus this logic here is of course entirely circular. He is arguing that because Jesus existed and started the Christian movement that spread like wildfire to Rome then this is evidence that Rome’s “police” would have kept records that they would not normally have kept, and that Tacitus would have used these! No hint that this passage of Tacitus (ca.115-117 c.e.) implicating the Christians in the Fire of Rome in Nero’s reign (64 c.e.) raises more questions and problems, if indeed historical, than one can throw matches at.

But Bruce does belie some sense that he is aware of the circularity and hollowness of his argument since he goes on to cover himself with the most tentative “perhaps”, “possiblies”, “who knows?”, “would have”, “if indeeds”:

[W]here did [Tacitus] go [for his information]? To some official record, perhaps — possibly to Pilate’s report; who knows? Tacitus had an official stnading which would give him access to such archives, if indeed they survived to his day.(p.23)

Pilate, he concedes, is not mentioned in any other pagan document known to us, thus underscoring further the complete unlikeliness that Tacitus would indeed have found such records in Rome in his day. This passage, he admits, is a most unlikely one — one based on “records” that would not normally make their way to Rome. Rather than prompt other questions of historical evidence and alternative explanations this “unlikely” fact (and a fact that assumes the historical existence of Jesus that this passage is meant to be supplying additional evidence for) merely increases the dramatic irony in Bruce’s eyes.

Why does Bruce insist that these admittedly unlikely police records had to have been Tacitus’ source? Because, he explains,

from the contemptuous and hostile tone which he adopts towards the Christians, we may gather that he did not seek his information from them. (p.23)

One would not have thought a historian had to be on friendly terms with Christians to have had some knowledge of their claims and beliefs. Such assertions by Bruce indicate a naivety about methods historical that surely place his book more comfortably among other confessional writings for the choir.

Compare Bruce’s and Doherty’s discussions of Tacitus

While Bruce treats Tacitus as “a source” Doherty seeks for the source that Tacitus himself used.

While Bruce is content to repeat the Eusebian model of Church history (fanning out with spirit-like rapidity throughout the empire from the time of Jesus’ death), Doherty makes note of the fact that modern historians are being forced to limit the initial impact of Jesus given, amongst other factors, the degree of silence about Jesus in the contemporary record. This silence makes it even less likely that Tacitus ever had bureaucratric records of any particular one of countless thousands of crucifixions and executions benighting the empire decades earlier.

While Bruce is content to assume that Tacitus searched police records for his information about Jesus (on the grounds that this is the only alternative given that his unfriendly tone tells him he could not have been informed by Christians themselves), Doherty notes that Tacitus was not in the habit of consulting original documents. In support of this is the fact that Tacitus gets Pilate’s title wrong. This, of course, ought to have informed Bruce that he was being too cavalier in his discussion.

Doherty’s suggestion that Tacitus’s source was most likely picked up directly or more likely indirectly from what Christians themselves were saying in his time is by far more economical than Bruce’s presumptions of what Doherty says would have been an unheard of scale of record-keeping even for the Romans. Doherty leaves it open whether the information derived from Roman Christians or those in the province of Asia where Tacitus had earlier governed.

Conclusion:

Bruce’s conclusion is that this passage from Tacitus presents history with “an irony” — so notable that it places the sole reference of a pagan writer to Pilate in a “hand to hand” moment with “the ancient Christian creed: ‘. . . suffered under Pontius Pilate’.” It does truly appear that Bruce’s interest in dramatic presentation of his confessional interest has caused him to view this passage from but a single — apologetic — view.

Again, there is no discussion of the historical problems involved (except to express the unlikelihood of such records normally existing in Rome). No explanation — not even any mention of — the silence of the early Church Fathers on this record. It does not do to say that an “argument from silence” in this case means anything since the arguments for and against the silence of the Josephan TF among early Church Fathers are admitted as vital in many scholarly discussions. It is unthinkable that there could be no references to this passage of a presumably most salient historical event among those early Christians given their regular cravings for all records, good and bad, of the treatment of early Christians. Doherty discusses this aspect persuasively and in depth.

But in this case it is not only the silence of the early church writers that begs for explanation. It is also the correspondence only 50 years later between emperor Trajan and his governor Pliny — neither Roman official knows of any precedent for how to handle Christians! And they were in ignorance just 50 years after Christians were slaughtered by imperial edict over the fire that destroyed a third of Rome? Yeh, right!


R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised

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by Neil Godfrey

I have revised the following 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Suetonius.

Oh dear, this is embarrassing from the historian’s point of view. I am sure F.F.Bruce represented the brightest lights of his time but, well, 1974 was another generation ago, even if I was part of it, and the series to which this book belongs is by its own account “by theologians” to further advance their belief that it is only religion that can contribute a “deeper understanding of the mystery that surrounds us” (The Editor’s Preface pp.7-8).

So it is little wonder that Bruce’s work reads as a superficial rationalization of ancient evidence while demonstrating precious little of genuine historical method and serious interest in analytical debates over the evidence in which he finds nonbiblical references to the historical Jesus.

In his discussion of the passage in Suetonius that deals with the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius for reportedly rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” he writes:

Chrestus, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ.

From that, the rest of the discussion rests on this “evidence” that the Jews indeed did riot in Rome in some connection over Christ and Christianity. It matters not, it seems, that Bruce admits that the name over which they rioted really was “a common slave-name”. Surely this is every reason to take the passage at face value and not try to turn the name into something else.

But perhaps sensing a little weakness in this argument Bruce tosses in for good measure gratuitous claims that Suetonius got this information from “police records”. Of course, this causes more problems so he has to explain that Suetonius would have misunderstood the police records. — The police records would not have said that “Chrestus” was actually “in Rome” at the time of the riots that were “instigated by him”. (p.21) Bruce is silent on the implication that the police records wrote the wrong name for the instigator of these riots. Besides, anyone who knows Suetonius and his style of histories knows he was never one for painstaking research, and that for him good old gossip and rumour were far more titillating than any facts.

Bruce does not inform us in what sources the name Chrestus is found as a “common mis-spelling” of Christ. I would like to follow this up further. I do, however, seem to recall that some sects or Christians appear to have used “Chrestus” not as a mis-spelling of Christ but as an alternative to Christ. Were these expected to be known to Suetonius? That might be worth checking. But there is a more telling reason to question Bruce’s assumptions.

Comparing Doherty’s discussion of Suetonius

Who is “Chrestus”? Is this a misspelling of “Christus”? An unknown Jewish agitator with a very common name? Are these Christians at all, or simply apocalypti-minded Jews anticipating the arrival of the Messiah? Is this figure supposedly on the scene, or is he merely the object of the agitator’s beliefs? There is too much uncertainty here to take this as evidence of anything. (p.203 of The Jesus Puzzle)

I challenge anyone to dismiss this as “fringe” or “extreme” or even merely “radical” scepticism. I suggest they represent some of the questions that go through most reader’s minds on first encountering this passage in Suetonius.

Compared with Doherty Bruce looks like a naive confessionalist rationalizing anything close to his goal. Compare how creative his imagination and how his speculations become fact:

‘Chrestus’, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ. The situation referred to was probably the result of the recent introduction of Christianity . . . . Police action was called for . . . . [and] police records provided one of his[Suetonius’s] sources of information. . . . (p21 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Other reasons to reject the assumption that Suetonius meant “Christ”

But when Acts appears to refer to the same event (18.2) it gives not a hint that the expulsion by Claudius or Aquilla and Priscilla had anything to do with Christianity. Aquilla meets Paul because of his common trade only. Later in the same chapter when another Jew, Apollos, who does bring some (imperfect) knowledge of Jesus with him, arrives in Paul’s area, Acts tells us so. So one must ask if Suetonius meant that Jews were expelled because of “Christ” why both he AND the author of Acts did not say so. One cannot plead that a riot over Christianity would have been embarrassing to relate because Acts is if nothing else a long catalogue of riots instigated by the name of Christ! And if it was Paul in the vanguard of taking this controversial Christianity to the gentiles then who was responsible for these so-called “Christ-instigated riots in Rome” so early? The book of Acts concludes with Jews in Rome declaring their near total ignorance of the Christian faith, hearing only of its reputation in places outside Rome. (28.22)

Further, if Acts was a mid-second century anti-Marcionite work (assuming that its author also extensively redacted Luke) it is not impossible that Suetonius was the source of Acts 18.2. If so, then it appears that the author did not make any link between Chrestus and Christ.

What is certain is that the early Church Fathers are as silent regarding this passage in Suetonius as they are the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus — both silences begging for explanations if they were both known to refer to Christ and Christians from such an early date.
So there is no historical discussion of the evidence in question. In this case not even an uncritical naive face-value acceptance of the evidence. We have a common riot instigated by a person with a common name turned into “evidence” for another name (Christ) and a related event (riot in Rome) of which the biblical record is inexplicably silent.

Interestingly Bruce himself writes of another biblical scholar who through arbitrary recasting and erudition cleverly made texts say something other than what they clearly did say, so that:

the unwary reader might easily be misled by it; it is important to emphasize that it rests upon his own arbitrary recasting of texts which say the opposite of what he makes them say . . . . (p.46)


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Suetonius, Chrestus,


2006-12-16

what’s wrong with this argument?

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by Neil Godfrey

I did succumb to the temptation to reply to a thread of a debate over whether or not a “historical jesus” existed. Below is what I wrote. Maybe in the next day or two when I return to this I will see glaring logical and factual flaws. But till I do, i do invite any passers-by who may happen to be reading this to put in their 2 cents/hundred-dollars’s worth…… (the bit at the top in the square brackets and related to ‘peter kirby’ are the immediate comment i was responding to in iidb)…..

[QUOTE=Peter Kirby;4010439]I am a naturalist, not a metaphysician. I approach this within such framework. If there was a Santa, or a Jesus, it is not the god which you are exercised to declaim.

In any case, the original question concerned what Paul believed, which is certainly a question for historical inquiry. Instead of advancing that question, what you and gurugeorge have posted serves only to obfuscate with this `burden of proof’ dime store philosophy.
[/QUOTE]

“Silly substitution method” and “dime store philosophy” are denigrations of Kimpatsu’s argument that appear to arise from a misunderstanding of it. If you are a naturalist you do not believe in a god or gods or god-men or sons of god any more than you believe in the tooth fairy.

Some historical figures did attach to themselves mythical labels like “gods” etc but we do not start with those mythical labels to establish their historicity. Nor do we start with one or two references whose authenticity is hotly disputed to establish their historicity.

The only reason we treat a son of a god or god-man figure differently from our historical foundations for other known figures is the power that that god-man figure has in our culture. That it takes books like Wells’ and Doherty’s to begin to alert us to the difference between statements of logic (‘tooth fairies don’t exist’ vs ‘tooth fairies do exist’: “these are equally plausible logical statements that require competing arguments for us to decide”) from statement of knowledge (the sun will rise tomorrow, tooth fairies do not exist, god-men or men possessed by gods or sons of god do not exist) is a bizarre indictment on the power of that myth in our 20-21st century culture.

It ought to be a no-brainer to even ask the question “did a historical Jesus exist”. We simply have nothing to begin any quest with. All we have a theological writings about a theological or metaphysical (not historical) person.

Even if there was a historical Jesus for whom we no longer have any evidence (does anyone still believe one can establish a “historical” jesus out of the theological and metaphysical constructs of which our evidence consists?) that question has simply become irrelevant and pointless.

The much more interesting question, one for which we do have evidence with which to work, is the origins of Christianity question. The cause of naturalism and science will be better served by secular historians not leaving it to “religionists” to explore the question of the origins of Christianity.

Valid historical method does not waste its energies trying to find something for which we have no evidence and that defies all basic precepts of naturalism.

The “did jesus exist” question is a distracting waste of time from the real question about the origins of Christianity. The only purpose the ‘did jesus exist’ question serves is, as alluded to above, to prise our culturally bound thought processes back into logical sanity and common sense knowledge in relation to ALL metaphysical constructs, even those bound up in our seemingly otherwise inescapable cultural heritage.

Neil


2006-12-14

The search for an “historical core” in Christian origins??

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by Neil Godfrey

I have held off posting on IIDB’s thread on the search for an historical core to Christian/Jesus origins until just now when I asked how one might define “historical core” and how one might know when one has found it. The whole question seems to me to be making assumptions about the methods of historical investigation that cannot be justified. But I need time to collect my thoughts on it more thoroughly before posting on it, if I ever do. The term seems to suggest that the way historians interpret and evaluate evidence can establish something that really is beyond that evidence and the constructs of the historians.

I fail to understand how starting at a later point and working back is any more likely to arrive at such a historical core — If the root reasons for not establishing some common understanding of Christian origins has more to do with unscientific approaches to historical method in so much of what passes for biblical scholarship and the paucity of evidence, then aren’t we just going to end up reaching the same impasse only from the opposite direction?

(But I don’t want to go the way of being absurdly post-modernistic on this or sounding that way. Some constructs can be more than just theoretical. A person shot another person may be a construct but it’s also a reality beyond the construct. )


2006-12-13

So the “record” of Jesus’ brothers “proves” J’s historicity?

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by Neil Godfrey

One of many “arguments” brought out to support the case that Jesus really was an historical character is the “recording” of his brothers’ names in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I like the choice of the words like “recorded” or “reported” or their synonyms that are so often used in this context. They connote the idea of conveying fact like a newsreader or historian.

But how do we “know” Jesus’s brother’s names? The only source for these names is a book (Matthew clearly copied straight from the bulk of Mark so cannot count as an independent source) that appears to be riddled with typology and symbolic names (e.g. Jairus meaning enlightened, Bar-Timaeus meaning son of honour) and fly-by-night characters whose only role is to illustrate theological points (e.g. the naked man fleeing, the name Peter, those healed…) ; and that is written in a style largely redolent of a popular ancient novel.

Of course none of this necessarily means the names are not historical, but it surely cuts the ground from under any over-confidence that we “know Jesus had brethren and here are their names”.

By assuming that because these names are listed in Mark they therefore must originate in historical fact aren’t we continuing the line of argument that we “know” Abraham and Moses and Solomon (why not add Adam and Eve?) existed because the bible authors must have got them from “somewhere”?

Does the nature and purpose of the gospel of Mark really give cause to quickly assume the characters it names are historical? There many have been a Bartimaeus and a Jairus, or even a Joseph of Arimathaea and a Judas Iscariot, maybe even an Abraham and Isaac, an Odysseus and Penelope, but we obviously we can’t say we “know” there were simply on the basis that their names appear in narratives that are most strongly characterized by their mythical or figurative or other non-historical purposes.

Should add, I suppose, that I do not doubt the historicity of some characters in Mark (e.g. Pilate) since that was standard fare for popular literature then just as it is for many novels today. Nor am I saying the Gospel of Mark is strictly a popular novel, though it does appear to share more in common with that ancient genre than any other.

Neil


2006-12-08

The nonsense of believing in a historical Jesus.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This post is a first draft of an argument I am formulating as I continue to read Majella Franzmann’s “Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings“, and is partly posted in iidb.

We have NO primary or secondary historical evidence for Jesus comparable for our historical evidence for Julius Caesar (his own writing and references by contemporaries) or Alexander (coins).

The earliest references to Jesus in secular histories (found in Tacitus, Josephus, Suetonius and Pliny) are either challenged by reasonable arguments as forgeries and/or contain no certain reference to a historical Jesus at all.

Our evidence for Jesus is nonhistorical (it is theological or theo-philosophical) and describes him as a being who is either not human — he is a heavenly agent, he walks on water, was not begotten by human sperm, rose from the dead, etc. — or is a human being possessed unnaturally by a spirit (at conception in the gospel of Philip and at baptism in the gospel of Mark) and who subsequently behaves and speaks unlike a real human being.

It is more plausible that a mythical concept of a heavenly being who makes decisive contact with the earthly creation would evolve over time in some schools into a human-like character than it is that a historical person would evolve over time into a mystical entity with God.

The earliest debates over Jesus included disagreements over whether he was a real human or something else, and this fact also sets him apart from historical persons. (The assertion that “he was both god and man” is illogical nonsense and also disqualifies him from having historical existence.)

Therefore in a truly rational world the burden of proof for a historical Jesus ought to be on those who want to prove such a person really did exist.

Neil Godfrey


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