Tag Archives: Evans: Fabricating Jesus

Criteria for authenticity – final post (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continued from More criteria . . . . Again, this post is part of a series of posts in response to Evans’s accusation that “no one trained in history” would ever think the evidence for the “historical Jesus” to be as thin as some of the radical critics assert.

Evans (Fabricating Jesus) lists two more criteria for establishing authenticity of Gospel sayings and deeds: Semitisms and Palestinian background, and Coherence (or consistency),

Semitisms and Palestinian background

This criterion . . . suggests that sayings and deeds that reflect the Hebrew or Aramaic language (Semitisms), of reflect first-century Palestine (geography, topography, customs, commerce) are what we should expect of authentic material. (pp. 50-51)

This explanation hardly lends justice to claiming that “semitisms and Palestinian background” ought to be regarded as a “criterion” for authenticity. I am quite sure Evans does not mean to suggest that if a saying does not reflect a “semitism” or a deed does not point to a specific “Palestinian background” that they must be ruled out as inauthentic!

Evans himself is clearly aware of the weakness of this “as a criterion of authenticity” on other grounds, too. He admits that semitisms detected behind the Greek translation do not mean that a saying was spoken by Jesus.

By all means it is certainly true that if Jesus did speak Aramaic (though in cosmopolitan Galilee is it not also possible he spoke Greek?), and if some of these sayings were handed down and translated into Greek and appeared in that form in our Gospels, then yes, we might expect some of them to retain traces of semitic constructions behind the Greek translation. But it does not follow that such a train of events preceded any particular case of a Greek saying that shows some evidence of a semitic original.

Ditto for the Palestinian background. The mere fact that the story of the gospels is set in Galilee and Jerusalem makes it virtually inevitable that there will be some “Palestinian background” reflected in some deeds and sayings. It does not follow that the narrator is faithfully recording the sayings and deeds of an historical Jesus.

Coherence (or consistency)

Finally, the criterion of coherence (or consistency) is also useful and functions in some ways as a catch-all. According to this criterion, material that is consistent with material judged authentic on the basis of other criteria may also be regarded as authentic. (p.51)

Nothing to say on this that has not already been said, in particular with the discussion of the criterion of Historical Coherence.

Summing up the criteria

Not one of the criteria can be used logically as a basis for judging the authenticity of a deed or saying. At best they can indicate plausibility. All historical events are at face value plausible — simply because they have actually happened. (Some events have appeared to be out of character for the actors involved, and some have happened unexpectedly, but that only means there are degrees of plausibility in hindsight.)

Much historical fiction, propaganda, false rumours and widespread beliefs only ever gain a foothold to begin with simply because they are plausible to the hearers or readers.

Criteria for authenticity that claim to be able to help us second guess what actually was said or done are not a substitute for genuine historical evidence. They are a lounge-chair substitute for primary evidence, if they are indeed expected to tell us as much. But no one “trained in history” can have any justification for placing on them any logical burden greater than they can bear.

The fundamentalist subterfuge

At this point Craig Evans writes:

All of these criteria have their place and can make (and have made) useful contributions to the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. They enable historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. The problem is in assuming that everything that is attributed to Jesus that does not enjoy support from one or more of the criteria should be regarded as inauthentic. (p.51)

In other words, I believe I am safe in interpreting this to mean that Evans wants just about everything in the Gospels to be believed as authentic even if none of the scholarly criteria for authenticity can support it. “Just about everything” because elsewhere Evans concedes that a few passages like that about the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John do not belong in any of the early manuscripts.

I also believe I am on solid ground in detecting dog-whistle language in the above paragraph by Evans. Read carefully, he says no more than that the criteria are “have their place”, “can make useful contributions”, “enable . . . good reasons”. But of course faith does not depend on “good reasons” that are better constructed to assist the tasks of a scholar. And Evans implies the obvious, that the criteria do not “have their place” and can make no “useful contributions” in those cases where a Gospel saying or deed are not supported by any of the criteria.

If I am seeing intellectual subterfuge where it does not really exist then I will be happy to be better informed. But having spent many years of my life within the ranks of fundamentalist believing Christians of various ilks, I think I am safe in saying I know enough of how they think and relate to the (unbelieving) public to make this accusation here with some confidence.

More criteria for authenticity: Historical Coherence (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continuing from 3 criteria for authenticity . . . . (this little series was prompted by Evans accusation that no historian “trained in history” would ever come to the sorts of conclusions about Jesus that some radical critics have arrived at.)

Historical Coherence

When the Gospels tell us things that cohere with what we know of Jesus’ historical circumstances and principal features of his life and ministry, it is reasonable to believe that we are on solid ground. (Fabricating Jesus, p.48 )

Circularity

I do not follow the logic here. Either something happened or it didn’t. A novelist can create scenes that “cohere” with what is known of the historical period and personalities that are consist the background of their work of fiction. A theologian or preacher may create a moral tale that “coheres” with the historical characters and settings the audience knows. People will often believe false propaganda about an enemy if it “coheres” with what they believe to be known historical facts.

Coherence and/or Historical Fact

A “coherent” story is not any more true by virtue of its coherence. Stalin was known to have distrusted just about everyone. So if I read a historical tale that he trusted Hitler not to invade Russia I can dismiss it, according to the logic underpinning the “criterion of historical coherence”. That the most distrustful of people (as evidenced by the executions and purges of those closest to him) should trust the least trustworthy of men not to commit the thing he feared the most is not “historically coherent”, but of course, it is historical fact. So it is a matter of fact and logic that “historically/biographically incoherent” things can and do happen, and that fictitious events can be and are created that are “historically coherent”.

The criterion of “historical coherence”, it seems to me, suffers the same logical difficulty of circular reasoning as the criterion of Dissimilarity (discussed in previous post).

Is a well constructed plot all that is needed for plausibility? What of authenticity?

Evans continues:

Jesus drew a following, attracted the attention of the authorities, was executed and yet was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son. Deeds and sayings attributed to him in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us understand these major elements should be judged authentic.

This of course is completely circular. It does not help establish historicity. It assumes historicity. It assumes that at least some parts of the Gospels are true, and argues that therefore anything that explains those bits of the Gospels must also be true. We know the widow in this crime novel murdered her husband, so we know it was true that she stood to collect a nice insurance payout if her husband died, because that explains why she murdered him.

Historical coherence can inform us of the plausibility of an event or saying within a given context, but it cannot of itself establish its historical status.

If it were that simple, then it one could say that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus ordered a fish to be caught so it could be opened up to yield a coin to pay his taxes, that he walked on water and rose from the dead simply because these are coherent with other statements in the Bible about him. In other words, even the most implausible claims can be raised to a status of credibility simply on the grounds that they are told within a coherent story narrative.

Logically this means that even the miracle stories of Jesus found outside the canonical gospels — e.g. his miraculously extending the length of a piece of timber that his carpenter father had cut too short — are also “authentic” too. Will Christian fundamentalists allow this criterion to be applied consistently across all surviving gospels?

Historical coherence used to disprove the biblical narrative?

Evans is not alone in using this criterion to assert the authenticity of any event in the Gospels that can be interpreted as giving Pilate a rationale for crucifying Jesus.

I find it odd that many fundamentalist Christians will likewise claim that Jesus was crucified by Rome because “it was believed” he was a political subversive. The way this statement is expressed is necessarily a a bit vague because the Bible itself flatly contradicts the claim. The claim is made because it fits a natural historical explanation for a crucifixion, but it is made in defiance of the Biblical narratives. The one thing all the Gospels are clear about is that Pilate did NOT believe Jesus was a political subversive. They are unanimous in asserting that Pilate found Jesus innocent of any such charge. Pilate crucified him, it is unanimously agreed, to please the blood-lust of the mob. This is doubly emphasized in the Gospel of John where the author points out that the title was over Jesus head on the cross was not a statement of his crime (that “He said, I am King of the Jews”) but an ironic image with theological import for the readers of the gospels, or perhaps a statement that Pilate believed he really was the king, albeit innocent of subversion.

So those sayings and events in the Bible that Evans says are “historically coherent” with Jesus being crucified as a political subversive were judged by Pilate — according to all four Gospel authors — to be not at all necessarily coherent with subversive activity.

Or are such apologists claiming that certain deeds and sayings of Jesus are historically coherent with a secular hypothesis that proposes a nonbiblical reason for Jesus’ death?

It’s a little amusing to think that many fundamentalists who use this criterion to “authenticate” certain deeds and sayings of Jesus because they “explain his crucifixion”, do so in contradiction to the Bible they are seeking to defend. And could there ever have arisen a Gospel narrative about the death of Jesus unless the authors told what some moderns seem to think must have been their “holy white lie” about the reasons for it?

Conclusion

As I concluded my previous post, these sorts of criteria cannot establish historicity, only plausibility — within certain contexts. I by no means say that all biblical scholars think otherwise. This post is meant primarily for those who do place more value on them than they are truly worth.

3 ‘criteria for authenticity’ (“Fabricating Jesus” / Craig Evans contd)

In Fabricating Jesus Craig Evans writes:

Some of the criteria used for supporting the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings apply in the case of his mighty deeds. (p.140)

The criteria for authenticity that he cites in this context are: Multiple Attestation, Dissimilarity and Embarrassment. Elsewhere he lists additional criteria that he says are also useful for assessing the authenticity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus (e.g. Historical Coherence), but will look at those separately in another post.

Multiple attestation

By this is meant “two or more independent sources” for a particular event, suggesting that the event was “not invented by a single writer”, so the event is deemed to have a more reliable documentation for its historicity. (p.48 )

Comment 1: What can reports themselves logically tell us?

All multiple attestation can really tell anyone is what beliefs or stories were circulated widely via a number of sources. The question of the historical authenticity of the content of those stories is another matter entirely. Surely this is simple logic. How many independent sources have there been for the miracles of Aesclepius or the miracles at Lourdes or for the experiences of alien abductions? We have several ancient “reports” testifying to the existence of the Phoenix, but only one first hand report of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

No historian worth their salt will make use of reports, however numerous they be, uncritically. The interests and purposes of the authors of the reports need to be assessed; as also their sources of information. This means making judgments about reports that take into account their provenance, their social and cultural or political (or religious) matrix, their authors. This is all part of “the training of a historian” that Craig Evans speaks dismissively of in relation to those who are sceptical of fundamentalist claims about the Bible. read more »

‘Fabricating Jesus’, Craig Evans Fabricating Scholarship — Marked F pending . . .

If Craig Evans had been in my class when I was a high school history teacher and if he handed in his essay on “Criteria for evaluating the Gospels” (as published in his Fabricating Jesus) I would have liked to have given him fair marks for his description of some of the criteria, but would have held back any mark at all until I had

  1. questioned him orally on his comprehension of what he had just described;
  2. and required him to repeat his assignment and resubmit it without the glaring contradictions that left a reader confused over whether he was arguing for against the criteria.

How could any senior high school teacher accept an essay that began:

Thoughtful people rightly apply criteria in evaluating claims . . . .

So also historians apply criteria for assessing the historical worth of documents. . . .

Over the years, biblical scholars have developed historical and literary criteria for assessing biblical literature. . . .

But concluded:

Here is where I think many skeptical scholars, especially among the prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, go wrong. They not only misapply some of the criteria (such as dissimilarity) and ignore or misunderstand others . . . , they tend to assume that sayings and deeds not supported by the criteria must be judged as inauthentic. This severe, skeptical method leads to limited results . . .

Either this student has not understood what he was writing about, or he wrote very late at night and went off the rails under addling weariness. Earlier he had chastized Robert Price’s conclusions and methods for not being acceptable to anyone “trained in history”. Yet here Evans concludes a discussion on historical criteria, tools of historians, with a statement implying that the best historical standards will discard them if they do not support his religious beliefs!

Or maybe he was just playing a game of Let’s Pretend at the beginning of his essay, pretending to sound as if he did agree with the logic underpinning the criteria and the functions they served. Maybe then his third person “historians” were in his mind very much a very distant third party far removed from anything he himself felt affinity with. But under weariness he finally let his guard down and it became clear that the only criterion he really understood as a budding historian was the authority of the Bible. If the criteria don’t support a particular biblical narrative, so much the worse for the criteria! They suddenly become a false method, no longer “thoughtful criteria”, but instruments of “severe scepticism”.

If the latter, he would have to be confronted for his intellectual dissembling.

Criteria problems nonetheless

Not that I don’t have some qualms with such criteria myself and how easy it is sometimes to read too much into them. I will discuss them in future posts, hopefully, along with the apparent “necessity” for them in the absence of primary sources. (Compare discussion in previous post on historical methods.)

Meanwhile, I should leave the reminder that would best be whispered in Evans’ ear on the side (to avoid embarrassment for all) that he was overstated his complaint by claiming scholars do not as a rule deem “inauthentic” words and deeds unsupported by the criteria, but rather as unable to be assigned as authentic. Perhaps in his evangelistic enthusiasm he got carried away and way overstated his case (to the point of unfortunate misrepresentation) unintentionally.

But till then, I by no means deny that the criteria do have some merit. For example, if I were to advise anyone wishing to write an historical novel I could do no better than to direct them to these “criteria for authenticity” and advise them to construct only fictional scenes that complied with any number of them. A novelist who did so would have the flavor of unassailable authenticity guaranteed.

Criterion of ignorance

Meanwhile, the teacher in me skimmed ahead through the later chapters looking for this student’s use of the criteria but found little that stood out.

I did expect he was about to discuss the criteria, however, when I came to this passage:

When the gospel writes that Jesus said “No prophet is without honor, except in his own country” (Mark 6:4), we can likely trust this to be truly historic because “it is hard to understand why early Christians would make up a saying implying that Jesus’ relatives and acquaintances did not treat him with respect.” (p. 224)

Unfortunately no. Rather, this student of mine was guilty of the most unforgivable sloppy laziness. He knew very well the arguments explaining why Christians would most certainly “make up” such a saying. Or maybe he was asleep and did not do his homework on those earlier lessons. I’ll have to remind him of the basics and require him to discuss in his re-written essay the arguments for and against the following well-known reasons for such a passage in Mark:

The author of the gospel was portraying Jesus with the same motifs as were used of the most prominent chosen people of God in the past — family rejection. Remember Joseph? Remember David? Both were deemed unworthy of any special status by their brethren. I would have thought Craig Evans would have known Psalm 27:10 well and would have taken it to be a Psalm of David, and would have taken Jesus to be a son of David, and would have been moved by David’s proclamation in that Psalm that even his mother and father rejected him. Not to mention the more colorful narrative of how David’s father and brothers never thought him worthy enough to be thought kingship material.

It is hard to understand why this student, Craig A. Evans, would put to writing a statement implying that early Christians saw no reason to think that Jesus’ relatives and acquaintances might have been unlike those of Joseph or David, especially when such comparisons are regularly drawn even in weekly church sermons without the aid of any scholarly apparatus. With all his learning, has he just lost sight of the necessary scholarly balance beneath the mass of data he as accrued for his faith-based purposes?

Criterion of biblical authority

There was another opportunity for Evans to appeal to a discussion of some or even one of the criteria of authenticity again, but again he failed to seize his opportunity.

Beginning on the same page Craig Evans complained about those scholars who see in the gospels’ use of the title “rabbi” for Jesus an anachronism, since “rabbi” did not become a title till after 70 c.e. (Although Evans refuses to use the c.e. designation, insisting throughout, for reasons not hard to imagine, on the anachronistic and theologically charged A.D. Stubborn pupil. Obviously thinks he is above scholarly conventions and norms.)

And what is Evans’s argument contra? Well, simply that the Gospels use it of Jesus, therefore it cannot have been anachronistic after all. In other words, the Gospels are true and all other so-called evidence should be evaluated in the light of literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of them. Gospels do not need any further corroboration — faith is all they need. Scholarly controls are useful for other textual studies, but are “misguidedly suspicious” if applied to the Gospels!

Evans says “the use of rabbi in the Gospels is informal and evidently reflects Jewish usage in the first century, before its later, formalized usage.” He does not, however, offer the reader an example to demonstrate his claim that the word is used “informally” in the Gospels. It simply isn’t. Nor does he discuss the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus forbidding the use of the term for his disciples (Matt. 23:9) — clearly he considered it a formal term, even “in the first century”!

How could bible-believing Evans have honestly overlooked this passage? Will he need to be confronted for his intellectual dishonesty on this count too? Stressful. Teachers have enough stress without having to confront situations like these.

Nor does he offer any evidence that it reflected informal Jewish usage in the first century. One witness — even an anonymous witness that has been dated anywhere between the mid first century and the early second century, what we know as the canonical Gospel of Matthew — is enough, he thinks, to settle his claim. In other words, Evans seems to be trying to slip into this classroom essay a view something like:

The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!

I will have to have a talk with the principal and then with Craig’s parents to see if he really should continue in a school that seeks to inculcate a “training in history” in all its students – a matter discussed in this previous post.

‘Fabricating Jesus’, ch1. Evans on Bart Ehrman

Continuing this little series of posts on some aspects of Evans’ book Fabricating Jesus . . . .

Evans discusses Bart Ehrman’s “faith biography”, as he did for Funk, Robinson and Price, as if this is critical to understanding why scholarship of such people “distorts the gospels”.

It was the study of textual variants — the usual myriad of scribal errors and glosses that are found in handwritten books from antiquity and the Middle Ages — that caused Ehrman to question his faith. . . . Errors in Scripture, thinks Ehrman, mean that the words of Scripture can no longer be viewed as God’s words.

Rather rigid ideas about the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture underlie Ehrman’s problem . . .

Because for Ehrman the Bible became a human book and therefore no longer could be viewed as God’s words, he lost confidence in it. (pp.26-27)

Craig Evans even quotes a few passages from Bart Ehrman confirming all this. Once again he will argue that Ehrman’s loss of faith is not the result of honest enquiry but “grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian.” Yes, well, this sort of condescension and avoidance of Ehrmans’ own words has been dealt with enough in my previous posts.

But then Evans proceeds to fly sky high above the issues to a point from where Ehrman’s argument can no longer be seen. read more »

Some “training in history” for Craig A. Evans, Richard Bauckham, et al.

final editing about 2 hours after first posting . . .
 

In my last post on Fabricating Jesus I discussed Craig Evans’ put-down of sceptical conclusions on the grounds that “no-one trained in history” would entertain such “extreme” doubts as to whether we can know anything historical about Jesus at all or even if he existed. Evans isn’t the only bible scholar who has made such a comment, and my last post was not my final word on the subject. Will elaborate a little on that earlier post here. I’ve included Bauckham in the heading because his “historical” reconstruction of the gospels in another series of posts I submitted here also displays an abysmal ignorance of the most basic historical “training”. Since my last post began with von Ranke, a natural segue would be a discussion drawn from Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. He, too, begins with von Ranke. (See earlier post for discussion of one of von Ranke’s contributions to historiography.)

Fundamentalists will dismiss Lemche because his methods do not lead to conclusions supporting their beliefs, but I challenge them to find historiographical, or even simply logical, rationales for overturning the historical principles he works by. But Lemche is by no means a one-off. After I finish with Lemche I hope to dig out a list of other names from my notes and edit them to post here with similar discussions about valid historical methodology, from both ancient and modern history. read more »

‘Fabricating Jesus’, ch1. Evans on Robert Price, and comments on “trained” historians

(revised a bit of an hour after first posting)

Craig Evans writes of his astonishment that Robert Price concludes that

  1. the Jesus Seminar is too optimistic in attributing even as much as 18% of the Gospel sayings and deeds of Jesus really were said and done by Jesus
  2. the evidence for the historical Jesus is so weak we can know nothing certain or meaningful about him
  3. he is even willing to entertain the possibility that there was no historical Jesus

Evans replies

Virtually no scholar trained in history will agree with Price’s negative conclusions. (p.25)

Of course, such a response is a cop-out from dealing honestly with the arguments. Those who use this dismissal do not, in my experience, explain what it is about a trained historian’s skills that makes the difference. Is it because they think their lay audiences will be awed into unquestioning acceptance of this put-down by its implication that the requisite “training in history” is something only an elite can master?

Credible history begins with primary sources. There are no primary sources for the sayings, deeds or even the existence of Jesus. There are only what historians can best call secondary sources. I would like Evans and others who rely on this dismissal to list all the historical research areas those “trained in history” undertake in the absence of primary sources. The only disciplines I know where this is done is in the field of biblical studies.

Leopold von Ranke: ‘The founder of the science of history’. “The authoritative criticism of sources which he mainly developed is still valid today as a method of working in history . . .” – Humboldt University, Institute of History.

Where the only sources are folk tales of earlier days, then what the historian has at her disposal are the primary sources of the society that recorded those tales. They are not primary sources of the earlier days which are the topics of their narrative contents. As primary sources of the societies that produced or recorded them, they inform the historians of those societies’ respective interests, values, beliefs, myths, literacy, etc. As primary sources of these societies, they enable the historian to study those societies and what they believed or fancied.

I myself was “trained” in modern history, and we dealt at length with primary sources. I was also “trained” in ancient history, and the scope of the questions we could explore about ancient societies and movements and historical actors were so much more limited and qualified by virtue of the nature of the primary sources. Historians do not waste time discussing the impacts of people for whom there is only questionable or legendary or mythical (or theological) evidence. The Macedonian and Roman empires are undergirded by primary evidence, including primary evidence for some of their leaders, Philip, Alexander, Julius Caesar. There is no comparable primary evidence for the biblical empire of David and Solomon.

When it comes to great teachers like Socrates and Jesus, they may be notorious for not leaving any primary evidence, and not even writing down anything for posterity. In the case of Socrates this hardly matters, because what philosophers and historians of philosophy study are the writings of Plato. That he used the name of Socrates to express his views is widely acknowledged — the literary Socrates is used to inform us about the thoughts of Plato, not those of a historical Socrates. Even IF Socrates turned out to be nonhistorical nothing would be lost by that. Not much hangs on trying to sift through Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes to try to discover “the historical Socrates”.

A comparable study in the case of Jesus would mean that historians of theology would study the gospels as sources of theological beliefs of a particular period.

As for the writings of Paul, we have only their self-reference until the mid second century. Without the controls historians are “trained” to look for when it comes to all other evidence they work with, we simply lack the necessary assurances about provenance and context that will enable us to use them confidently as a basis for “historical” research. “Trained” historians treat with caution any evidence that appears without controls that will enable a proper assessment of its nature and value. This caution has enabled historians to expose forgeries.

Secondary sources of historical events are of course studied by historians, and in some cases may well tell us more accurately of the past than the primary sources. A king might set up a monument to tell misleading propaganda about his reign, for example. Secondary sources may well help us detect the lies in the primary sources.

But there is simply not enough data for historians to do real history about the origins of Christianity. If they rely on Acts and the letters of Paul they are working with documents that lack the controls for a historian to assess their true provenance and value. We don’t even know — we can only make a variety of educated guesses — the authors or provenance or dates or audiences of the gospels. To rely on such documents to create history is not good history. We cannot professionally do what our tools will not allow us to do.

And/or they can apply anthropological and sociological and economic and literary models and attempt to fit all those over scant data, but there is simply not enough evidence to work with for historians to do anything much more than make educated guesses about how Christianity originated. Historians can work with primary and secondary evidence to attempt to explain the nature and development of Athenian democracy or the Roman empire. But some topics simply lack the requisite data that would enable a true historical enquiry.

Or they can study the documents as they are and attempt to analyze them for what they reveal about those who produced them, the sort of conditions that must have prevailed for them to have been produced in those ways, and how they appear to have influenced the development of one another. That is the closest to “real history” of any worth one can come.

That state of affairs — the application of the methods of “trained” historians — would not serve the religious interests of Craig Evans so he simply dismisses Price’s work as being animated by “a philosophical mindset that is at odds with historical research — of any kind.” In other words, Price’s methods, along with his justifications for them, are simply ignored as useless because there is no way anything Evans believes could be substantiated by them. If they don’t support his beliefs then they are useless for anything.

Evans also complains that Price “uncritically embraces the dubious methods and results of the Jesus Seminar”, but he also said on the previous page that Price is critical of the results of the Jesus Seminar. So one is left wondering if Evans is simply reacting intestinely rather than cranially to Price.

Evans further says Price “adopts much of the (discredited) Christ-Myth theory from the nineteenth century”. That struck me as a bit at odds with my recollections so I double checked the indexes in a couple of Price books and found the scantest references, usually footnotes, to any such nineteenth-century proponents. Price does discuss J. Z. Smith’s work on Frazer, and I would have liked Evans to have made a comment about that for fairness.

I also wish Evans had added a footnote to inform me of just one source that verifies his claim that much of that nineteenth century scholarship to which he refers has been “discredited” — as opposed to ignored. A biblical scholar once directed me to Walter P. Weaver’s The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century (1900-1950) but in addition to historical description I found there nothing more than synopses and brief statements of disagreement with some of the positions of those earlier authors.

And of course Evans tosses in info about Price’s background “with a fundamentalist Baptist church” — presumably to sustain his theory that scholars turn against the faith because of a misguided confusion of the true faith with errors in the church.

And a postscript to this:

Of course there are “trained historians” who write about their research in nonbiblical areas but who also draw on their peers in biblical studies. But their focus is not on exploring “the historical Jesus”, and they are really using shorthand as they must when making reference to some of the branches and twigs of the tree trunk they are examining. It is impossible for a single person to examine in the same depth every single datum, but that does not necessarily affect their main theses.

A link to Robert M. Price’s webpage here.

Next in this series — Evans on Ehrman . . . .

‘Fabricating Jesus’: ch 1. Evans on Funk and Robinson

Continuing from this earlier post

After assuring the reader of his superior scholarly background in comparison with “modern scholars” of the Jesus Seminar, Evans goes and undoes all the intellectual confidence he has sought to establish by falling into the most astounding logical fallacies when he attempts to explain why 4 scholars in particular are no longer fundamentalist believers.

Of Funk and Robinson he says: read more »

‘Fabricating Jesus’ by Craig Evans, ch1. Misplaced Faith and Misguided Suspicion

Having discussed the Preface and the Introduction, I continue here with chapter 1 of Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans.

Misplaced Faith and Misguided Suspicion

A tired and common condescending put-down so often leveled against anyone who drifts away or turns against a tight-knit group of any kind is to accuse them of never having understood or been truly with the group from the beginning. The group-defensive-arrogance is almost too hot to approach. “No-one who really understands what we are about could ever possibly disown us.” Those remaining true to the original cause reflect and look for past signs of faults in those departed to explain why they left. Those who do leave or dissent are never taken at their word when they try to explain their reasons. It is some sin or missing key element that is the “real reason”. A letter in the Bible says the same, and Craig Evans says it of scholars whose studies have led them away from their fundamentalism:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; . . . 1 John 2:19

Erhman’s struggle with faith — and I feel for him — grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian. (p.31)

The condescension reeks. In both passages. Evans “feels for” the lost sheep who was wrongly set up from his days as an “impressionable” youth. We are listening to a pastor of superior learning and experience (according to his Preface) informing his other children why their erstwhile colleague no longer plays with them. The message is religious and moral, not scholarly. It is about the True Faith. It is not scholarly except in some of its language and in relation to a few branches growing out of Ehrman’s views.

Like the author of the first epistle of John, Evans seems to think it enough to propose his personal “insights” into the spiritual flaws of the scholars Robert Funk, James Robinson, Robert Price and Bart Ehrmann. He opts to spiritually condemn rather than offer a synopsis of scholarly arguments that would, when unpacked, hopefully challenge to their views of the Bible. A reader wanting to discover what is actually wrong in scholarly terms with the basic arguments of these scholars will find nothing here. Certainly Evans does give a few contradictory views of specific points of their arguments, but this is only tackling the odd twig or branch of one of the sceptic’s arguments, not their fundamental conclusions.

I should clarify at this point that I am not supporting here any of the arguments of Funk, Erhman et al, but am discussing Evans’ religious sermonizing approach posing as scholarly critique in relation to them.

I have studied in depth various strands of history, educational philosophy and English literature but until I began reading a few of the Christian fundamentalist apologetics I had never come across scholars rebutting one another with barbs like “misplaced faith” or “misguided suspicion”. Suspicion is, of course, the antithesis of faith, so the two complaints are really the stamp of the one coin.

Rather than take up critical debate and challenges on their own terms, as is done in every other discipline I know, fundamentalist scholars seem to insist on applying special rules of their own: one must have “faith” in the gospel and the texts that bear witness of that gospel, and failure to take the texts at face value is somehow deemed “a hermeneutic of suspicion”, that is, “unscholarly”. Reasons and evidence for a fundamentalist interpretation need not be a factor. The failure to adopt the “right” interpretation, the “face value” fundamentalist interpretation, is enough to invite the charge of “misguided suspicion”.

“Rigid fundamentalism” — never the Bible — is mostly to blame!

Incapable of admitting that there could be any real merit in a sceptic’s view of the Bible, Evans has to confess the sins of the church for being largely responsible for such waywardness. read more »

‘Fabricating Jesus’ by Craig Evans, Introduction

This is a continuation of my comments on Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus (first post is here) — am making here some introductory comments on his book with special focus on his Introduction.

Introduction

Craig Evans lays out what he sees as the context of book in its Introduction. As he writes passages like

We live in a strange time that indulges, even encourages, some of the strangest thinking. It is a time when truth means almost what you want to make of it. And in these zany quests for “truth”, truth becomes elusive. (p.15)

and

Modern scholars and writers, in their never-ending quest to find something new and to advance daring theories that run beyond the evidence, have either distorted or neglected the New Testament Gospels, resulting in the fabrication of an array of pseudo-Jesuses (p.16)

one can hear the clear echoes of

But we know this, that in the last days perilous times will come, for men will be . . . always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:1-2, 7)

and

For the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but telling or hearing some new thing. (Acts 17:21)

and

O Timothy, guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge — by professing it, some have strayed concerning the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

and

For false Christs . . . will arise . . . (Matthew 24:24)

And when he later speaks of his puzzlement and amazement (pp.27, 29) at how some scholars have abandoned their fundamentalist beliefs and moved to unorthodox views of Jesus and the New Testament, one hears the resounding biblical text:

I marvel that you are turning away to . . . a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. . . (Galatians 1:6)

Craig Evans has tossed in the dog-whistle words that his fellow believers will register and that will recall the above passages to mind as his real message. Dog-whistle words and phrases like: “we live in strange times”, “a time when truth means almost what you want to make of it”, “in these quests for truth, truth becomes elusive”, “their never-ending quest to find something new”, “pseudo-Jesuses”.

 

Source: Silly Toons & Pics

Craig Evans makes it no secret that one of his concerns is “the times” and conditions that have led to scholarly divergences from orthodoxy. As I will demonstrate, he at best attacks twigs of arguments that are debated even among “sceptics”, or sometimes oversimplifies the position of some sceptics to the point of straw-man caricature. But the main focus of his book is an attempt to explain biblically and in biblical terms — while only marginally addressing the real positions and arguments themselves — why so many have departed from orthodox faith. Hence his main target will be the “misplaced faith and misguided suspicions” that the scholars had and that led to their fall from grace.

So even when he addresses points such as “questionable texts from later centuries”, or “failure to take into account Jesus’ mighty deeds”, or “cramped starting points and overly strict critical methods”, etc. it is from the perspective of a spiritual failing, a lack of correct faith. The dog-whistle words here, though are “suspicion” and “overly sceptical”. It seems enough to dismiss some questions as borne of an “overly sceptical attitude” when one seeks to avoid grappling with the actual arguments and reasoned assumptions underlying the methods of some of the “modern scholars”.

Ironically though not surprisingly, in some cases Evans even fully embraces the arguments the most liberal of sceptics himself — when that sceptic is arguing for a particular conclusion that he likes. So Evans is clearly not really opposed to the methods of the sceptics at all — at least not when they come to the “right conclusions”. I will discuss an example or two in the appropriate place in a future post.

But this apparent contradiction clearly explains why he does not grapple with the methodologies of sceptics, and why this book is really a religious tract born of his “love to lecture . . . love to preach . . . love to tell the stories of the Gospels . . . love to see the look in the faces of people in the congregation when they first understand what Jesus meant — what he really meant . . .” (p.13).

So who is the book for? Evans writes:

  1. for anyone confused by “wild theories and conflicting portraits of Jesus”
  2. for anyone interested in wanting to learn more about Jesus and the Gospels but is confused by the “strange books” available
  3. “for skeptics, especially for those prone to fall for some old nineteenth-century philosophical hokum that almost no one today holds”
  4. for the scholarly guild in hopes of lifting the “standard of scholarship”, that is a “scholarship” “which doesn’t presume that skepticism equals scholarship”
  5. “Finally, this book is written to defend the original witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”

Meaning:

  1. to reassure the flock that they don’t have to take any notice of scholarly enquiries that depart from orthodoxy
  2. to reaffirm the orthodoxy
  3. for those without faith who are likely to fall prey to fatuous ‘hokum’
  4. “true scholarship” is one in which the rules insist that faith always trumps skepticism; that is, it serves the interests of the prevailing orthodox fundamentalist ideology
  5. as an apology for the orthodox Christian faith

So the introduction makes it clear that Evans is only looking for any arguments (no doubt cherry picked from scholarly tomes, or from cherry picked scholarly tomes) that will be found to support the conclusion that his religious faith from his youth has not been misplaced. He has paid good heed to those who warned him, when he entered Claremont, “that critical study would not be good for [his] faith.” (p.13)

One is reminded of Soviet science serving the ideology of the Soviet state, of Catholic scholarship serving the Catholic orthodoxy, of Nazi intellectuals being bound to bolster the claims of Nazi ideology, and the often subtler forms of political pressures in many academic and research fields today. Unfortunately it is left to the outsiders, or those looking back from another time, to see most clearly the fallacies that must inevitably abound in the interests of preserving the ideology, whatever its brand.

‘Fabricating Jesus’ by Craig Evans — The Preface

Given the high praise so widely given Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans, and given the book’s subtitle, How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, I had hoped to find a scholarly engagement, albeit accessible to a lay audience, with the methods and arguments of “modern scholars”.

The book generally avoids doing anything like this. Rather, it is a strong statement of the correct views and interpretations according to Craig Evans, mixed with sermonizing laments that some Christians have made shipwreck concerning the faith because of their misguided learning and enquiries. If books like Fabricating Jesus are held up as “powerful and persuasive” arguments — that’s the description by Lee Strobel on the dust jacket — for fundamentalist faith then fundamentalists are betrayed. They do not have in this book anything like an understanding of the issues required to engage a sceptic in debate. They have nothing more than a book that makes strong noises supportive of their faith, that gives strong assurances that they don’t have to worry, or even think about, or honestly investigate the issues for themselves. They have only an empty illusion that here is an authority that demolishes the “distortions” of “modern scholarship”.

Will try to explain here for any fundamentalists relying on the wisdom contained in Fabricating Jesus why they will fail completely to engage a student of a “liberal modern scholar” or Bible sceptic.

But first, I wonder if this book was able to win a few of its accolades, such as “exposes the misinformed nonsense that has confused the reading public over the past few years”, by including a discussion of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh and their The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in the same volume he discusses the Jesus Seminar. I haven’t yet bothered to read his critique of those authors since the nonsense they have peddled (and even had to concede is fiction in order to make a copyright challenge against Dan Brown) has been amply demonstrated by journalists in the mainstream media.

“Jesus at the MOMA” Kathy Moniot art, http://web.archive.org/web/20080828122756/http://www.kmoniot.com/art2.html

Preface

Craig Evans opens his Preface by lightheartedly comparing his “journey” to the Christian faith with that of Paul. He was diverted from a career in the law to a life of faith while at college.

But the apparent intent of this Preface is to inform the reader that he is more learned in areas that matter than many of the Jesus Seminar scholars, and that the latter are misguided dilettantes by comparison.

In college he “majored in history”, and the reader soon sees the significance of this datum when he reads several times that Evans states categorically that virtually no scholar trained in history would ever come to the conclusions of some of the sceptics he discusses.

The biting sermonizing tone of the book is felt early:

Professor Mack was in those days . . . at that time a warm-hearted Christian scholar. . . . Times change and so do some people. (p.10)

Evans claims that his background studies in “the Greek and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic literature were an enormous asset in the study of Jesus and the Gospels.” He believes “the oddness of much of the work of the Jesus Seminar” is to be blamed on too many New Testament scholars lacking the same depth of knowledge of “early rabbinic literature and the Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture” (this particular deficit is repeated for emphasis on the same page), of deficient “training in the Semitic background of the New Testament”. He even complains that only “[f]ew have done any archaeological work.” I wondered about the relevance of this latter point, but on page 220 Evans writes that the archaeological “evidence for the existence of Jesus . . . is overwhelming” (p.220).

Regrettably I did not see any instance in Fabricating Jesus where Evans demonstrates where his superior understanding or practical experience in these areas was used to undercut the methods and arguments that have led some scholars to question the veracity of the Bible.

Interestingly, Evans says that his studies in biblical criticism challenged not the essence of the Christian message but “the baggage that many think is part of the message.” And of what does this baggage consist?

  1. views of authorship of the gospels (e.g. that they are written by the apostles)
  2. view of the dates of biblical books (e.g. that they are early)
  3. assumptions regarding the nature of biblical literature (e.g. gospels are history only)
  4. assumptions about the nature of Jesus teaching (e.g. that Jesus taught only new things)

The examples Evans offers for each bit of “baggage” are important. He is using those examples to narrow the real meaning of what he thinks is baggage in each case. He will not concede, for example, that whoever wrote the gospels was doing anything other than relying on orally transmitted memories of the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Nor will he concede for a moment the possibility the nature of the gospels could be something quite apart from anything truly historical. Nor that the assumptions about the nature of Jesus’ teaching could embrace sayings and proverbs from other sources put into his mouth.

In other words, despite the apparent disclaimer, Evans is, it must be said, playing word games. These four items of baggage are only baggage so long as they stay within limits that nonetheless support the conservative Christian message. In other words they are not baggage at all to Evans. They are really the container of his faith with a built in limited elasticity. He speaks of “baggage” but really means “limited elasticity”.

Fabricating Jesus is a book that takes a hard look at some of the sloppy scholarship . . . that [has] been advanced in recent years. . . . Some of it, frankly, is embarrassing.” I’ll have a look at chapter one of this book and see how Evans begins his treatment of some of this “sloppy” and “embarrassing” scholarship.