Tag Archives: Exchanges with McGrath

A Succinct Argument for the Historicity of Jesus

I have been asked to address certain arguments on another forum and thought I’d draft out this one here as something of a prep.

. . . I was asked if I am “sure” Jesus existed as a historical figure, and if so why. I tried to give a short answer as follows:

“Sure” is relative. I’m as confident as one can be for a figure in the ancient world who did not mint coins or erect edifices on which he placed inscriptions about himself.

The shortest argument (which, like a short argument for anything, may not seem persuasive unless it is expanded on) is this:

– the anointed one descended from David referred to the king and the restoration of that line to the throne

– being executed by the Romans before establishing one’s throne disqualified one’s claim to be the one to restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne

Therefore

– It is less likely that early Christians invented from scratch a crucified anointed one and went around trying to persuade their fellow Jews to accept him, than that there was a figure that they believed to be this messiah who was then executed, and they managed to maintain that belief despite the cognitive dissonance resulting from this counterevidence.

(From Mythicism and the Bacterial Flagellum, and from the discussion at A Popular Blunder . . . )

McGrath is careful to point out that these few words are only a short form of the argument, but fortunately he had more opportunity in a lengthy discussion to expand on some of the points. To underscore aspects of this argument he elsewhere stated:

Paul was trying to persuade his contemporaries that a crucified man was nonetheless the restorer of the Davidic kingship. . . . 

. . .

The Davidic anointed one was the awaited king that it was hoped would restore his dynasty to the throne and usher in a golden age of one sort or another. Being crucified pretty much disqualified you from being the person in question. Is it probable that a group that was concocting a message about the long-awaited king, which they planned to proclaim to others in order to persuade them to believe, would also invent that this individual was executed and thus at least apparently a failure and a thoroughly implausible candidate for the role? . . . .

. . .

In response to your last question, it is unlikely that if someone is inventing a Davidic Messiah that they plan to ask people to believe in, they will invent a failed one. . . . 

. . .

You hadn’t seemed to yet have grasped my extremely basic point about the unlikelihood of a group having invented a crucified Davidic messiah as the focus of a belief they wanted to convert their fellow Jews to. . . . 

(from the discussion at A Popular Blunder . . . )

Cognitive dissonance indeed! A crucified failure as the conquering Davidic messiah?! It would indeed take a miraculous intervention to get Christianity started from that foundation.

But is not the whole argument based on a misreading or very distorted reading of our evidence?

Let’s start with Paul. I’ll set aside problematic questions of interpolations and authenticity and assume the passages I quote are all genuinely Pauline.

Paul says in Romans 1:3 that Jesus was “having come of the seed of David according to the flesh / γενομένου κ σπέρματος Δαυεδ κατ σάρκα”. Let’s set aside all the known oddities associated with that passage and just accept that Paul was saying that Jesus was born as the principal heir to David.

Now in 1 Corinthians 15 we find Paul making other associations between Jesus and David. Paul applies the Davidic Psalms 110 and 8 to Jesus. In Psalm 110 David sings:

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”

In Psalm 8 David writes

thou hast put all things under his feet

and Paul applies that passage to the David Messiah’s rule.

Paul makes it clear that Jesus has fulfilled that Davidic hope by multipliers. I Corinthians 15:17-26

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile . . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead . . .  when He comes . . . Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 

With 15:25 Paul says, “He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (25). The “must” means it is necessary that Jesus reigns. Paul’s wording in verse 25 is a reference to Ps 110:1–2 . . . . 

Paul is interpreting Ps 8:6 both literally and christologically. . . . Corporate personality is in view here. Psalm 8 is addressed to man in a general sense, but since Jesus is the ultimate Man and last Adam, He represents man. As Mark Stephen Kinzer notes, “The psalm is read in both an individual and a corporate sense.” The use of Psalm 8 is further evidence that Paul is thinking of a future earthly reign of Jesus.

Vlach, Michael J. 2015. “The Kingdom of God in Paul’s Epistles.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 26 (1): 59–74.

Paul did not pick up on the “cognitive dissonance” of the first apostles. What was being preached was that Jesus, through death and resurrection, had become the ultimate fulfilment of the all-powerful and cosmos-ruling Davidic Messiah.

When we come to the gospels “fleshing out” a Jesus narrative we find that even the lead up to the crucifixion is thoroughly Davidic.

The evangelists appear to have modelled Jesus on the David who was first and foremost a pious exemplar who suffered. David was renowned as the psalmist who suffered for righteousness. It is in that capacity that Jesus quotes David’s words. David was God’s anointed (messiah) but notice what this meant for him —

In the Psalms attributed to him, he cries out to God as one forsaken and persecuted. (Pss 18, 142). In Psalm 22 he cries out in pious agony, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

David’s career is one of fleeing from persecution. He is the chosen and pious, righteous sufferer. His persecution is a badge of his honour, not shame, in the eyes of all who look to him as a model of piety. He is betrayed by his closest followers and ascends the Mount of Olives to pray in his darkest hour. He prepares for the building of the future temple after his death. If early Christians ever thought to apply the Davidic motifs to Jesus, they surely did so with remarkable precision. David may have ruled a temporal kingdom, but Jesus demonstrated his power over the invisible rulers of the entire world. Even though ruler over the princes of this world, he was still betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest followers. He ascended the Mount of Olives in prayer at his darkest hour. And he suffered the injustice that the righteous have always proverbially suffered, even crying out with David, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But as in the Psalms God delivered David from the depths and pits of hell to exalt him in vindication before his enemies, so did God deliver and exalt Jesus. What was the suffering of humiliation in the eyes of his enemies has always been the badge of honour in the eyes of God and devotees.

Conclusion

So did the first disciples struggle with cognitive dissonance over attempting to maintain a belief that a failed, dead, crucified man was the Christ of their salvation? Did they somehow manage to convert enough followers to start a new religion by preaching that a dead failure was the Christ?

Is that really an argument to make one “sure” of the historicity of Jesus? That a man had such power that he could persuade his followers to believe in him and convert others to that same belief even though he clearly failed in his mission?

Certainly, “– being executed by the Romans before establishing one’s throne disqualified one’s claim to be the one to restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne” would disqualify a messianic claimant. But that’s not what Paul of the first Christians appear to have believed for a moment. They believed that it was through crucifixion that Jesus conquered the powers of death and would come to finish the task by conquering his human opponents in the final judgement. Rather, crucifixion qualified Jesus and this was proven by his resurrection.

Now, back to the question of historicity.

No one argues that the story was “invented from scratch”. The evidence points to a story coming together as a result of emerging Second Temple era interpretations of Jewish scriptures (e.g. the evolution of a suffering servant and son of man messianic figure from Isaiah to Daniel to Enoch). The first believer we have a record of boasts that his belief came about entirely through visions and from that foundation he made converts. Only decades later does a “fleshed out” story in our gospels, set in a time and place no longer accessible to most readers, emerge.

That does not prove Jesus was not historical. But it sure leaves the door to the question somewhat ajar.

 

“Nothing in what [mythicists] write is authoritative or trustworthy”

Quite some years ago I sat listening to a sabbath sermon by a Worldwide Church of God minister in which he made some very misleading assertions about the history of U.S. foreign policy. I approached him afterwards to point out what I had learned in an undergraduate course on the history of the United States. The minister had been trained at one of “God’s colleges” and told me that “the authority for” the point in question was one particular author and title I can no longer remember. What shocked me was that he claimed to have the equivalent of a B.A. in history yet spoke of one book being “the authority” on a historical question. My own education had led me to think of historical studies as an enquiry into the sources to attempt to evaluate the various points of view expressed in the literature on historical questions. There was no such thing as “the authority”. Perhaps the minister viewed my education as inspired by Satan.

Since someone drew my attention to James McGrath’s following comment I have been thinking back on that experience:

[T]here is nothing in what they [Christ mythicists] write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.

I can’t read McGrath’s mind so I don’t know what he means by “authoritative and trustworthy” studies. The most I can suggest is that he is setting mythicist works in contrast with mainstream scholarly works on the historical Jesus and in the process somehow implying that the bulk of mainstream scholarly historical Jesus books are in some sense “authoritative and trustworthy”.

What is an “authoritative and trustworthy” book of historical explanation?

To me, an authoritative work is a trustworthy work. Authority implies trust, confidence, in whatever it is that the authority proclaims. I am sure McGrath does not believe that any particular historical Jesus study is “authoritative” in the sense that it replaces the need for any other study.

If I were to point out what I consider to be trustworthy books on any subject here are the markers of trustworthiness that I would identify:

  1. the work never makes an assertion without providing evidence for that assertion;
  2. that evidence will be discussed in the context of other evidence;
  3. and a representative range of views or interpretations about that evidence will be shared with readers;
  4. and citations will be given to enable readers to follow up those different interpretations for themselves;
  5. especially, I will look for a fair presentation of opposing views to the one the author favours;
  6. and a fair and complete discussion of those opposing views — again with citations to enable readers to check details for themselves and make their own assessments;
  7. I will look for evidence of a wide knowledge of the field in which the discussion is taking place so that the author can demonstrate he or she is not approaching a question with some sort of limited tunnel vision.

That’s seven points. The perfect or authoritative number, yes? What else should be added to complete an explanation of what makes a work “trustworthy”?

Note that according to the above a work can be called trustworthy (some might even say “authoritative” in one sense of the word) but it would not be “the final answer or the ‘true’ opinion. It would be authoritative in the sense that it presents fairly and accurately the relevant evidence and enables readers to form their own judgments based on relatively complete information and understanding of the debates in the field; it will be a model of good scholarship.

It is possible, often likely, that one will find a scholarly work ‘trustworthy’ in the above sense yet still find room to disagree with its overall thesis. An alternative viewpoint and conclusion can be expressed through another ‘trustworthy’ work of scholarship, whether the author is a professional or amateur scholar.

Yes, there has been much poor work published by mythicists, but there has also been some exemplary scholarship, trustworthy and authoritative in the best sense as per above. In that sense, mythicist publications are no different from publications by those who write about “the historical Jesus”. There are some exemplary works in that field, too, as mythicists like Doherty, Price, Carrier have well noted. I would love to read an “authoritative and trustworthy” work that challenges certain mythicist views, so if anyone knows of one that meets the above understanding of what makes a work trustworthy do inform me.


This post is an extension of the earlier Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists


Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)

In Australian private hospitals we are likely to see pictures of a crucifix or Mother Mary. In Thailand we see Buddhist paraphernalia. View of one taken by me from a hospital bed where I arrived as result of accident. Life is always full of unexpected surprises.

Again waylaid by life experiences so surfacing here another post begun way back. The first post in this series is  Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

This time we are addressing

McGrath begins:

Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him.  He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”

Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.

Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.

First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.

That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:

Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.

The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:

Here is how the New International Version renders it:

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.  I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Important things to note are

(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church (Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,

(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,

(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally

(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.

I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:

Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction

We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.

Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.

(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)

Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.

So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”

McGrath Does Make a Serious Point

It is too easy to dismiss everything McGrath writes after we read the above lapses where he fails to address the verse Vinny was discussing and confuses the historian’s choices of descriptive and explanatory interpretations. McGrath does, in fact, make a serious point in the next section of his post. read more »

Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.

McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .

It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.

About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.

I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

I will address each one in chronological order. So we start with

Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for

  • an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
  • an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
  • for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
  • parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
  • monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.

Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.

McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:

The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.

A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.

At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly: read more »

Rules of Historical Reasoning — Still Controversial Among Religion Profs

Professor James McGrath continues to take an interest in my discussions about historical methods in the context of the “quest for the historical Jesus”. I was surprised to read the following words of his earlier today:

Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less. I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet.

I had never heard of anyone on any discussion board or blog attempting to work out methods for historical study “for themselves”. So I had to click on the link to see who could possibly be doing such a thing. Lo and behold, the link is to a post on the Biblical Criticism and History forum more than a year ago that was written by yours truly. So what did McGrath mean by suggesting there was some fatuous lay attempt to “invent methods for historical study for themselves”? My post was in fact a presentation of what professional historians themselves explain about their methods.

Interestingly, McGrath’s post continues by quoting others who express disdain for amateurs who don’t show due deference to certain responses from biblical scholars and then reminding readers of the methods of biblical historians who study questions relating to the historical Jesus. Of course, my point was that nonbiblical historians work by different rules. The title of McGrath’s post included “Reinventing the Wheel” but I don’t believe any historian outside biblical studies uses the criteria or other methods specifically characteristic of biblical scholars to determine historicity. There is no reinvention but stark contrast.

McGrath has asked me not to engage with any of his posts on his blog so I can only trust fair minded readers will click on the “discussion boards” link and see that there has been some no doubt inadvertent confusion. I am not quite sure what the relevance of the second link is to form criticism and other tools used by biblical historians unless it is a reference to a point made before on the Religion Prof’s blog that biblical historians are pioneers leading the way in techniques of historical inquiry.

Here is my discussion board post that was confused with a layperson inventing methods for himself: read more »

Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

read more »

Ongoing Disregard for Facts and Denials of Old Criticisms (yes, McGrath again, sorry)

Dr McGrath, after I demonstrated that he once again claimed a mythicist wrote the opposite of what he really did write, has quaintly responded with a post titled Why Do Mythicists Care So Little About Facts and Details? in which he writes a revisionist account of his original post.

With a beautiful irony McGrath opens with an astonishingly cavalier disregard for the facts and details that both Richard Carrier and I have ever written about scholars such as Thompson and Noll with respect to mythicism:

[Neil Godfrey] repeats Richard Carrier’s claim that mythicism is embraced by individuals like Thomas Thompson (who has distanced himself from mythicism) and Kurt Noll (whose contribution to Is This Not the Carpenter? is rather wonderful and does much to undermine mythicism).

Here was my quote from Richard Carrier:

Combine this with Brodie’s defection to mythicism, alongside Thompson’s, and (like Thompson’s) the publicly professed “historicity agnosticism” of Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, and Ehrman’s argument that only amateurs and outsiders take the Jesus Myth theory seriously is now in the dust. There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars. And they need to be paid attention to, not dismissed and mistreated, their arguments straw manned or ignored.

So McGrath is once again careless with the facts and details. That is not a claim that Thompson and Noll “embrace mythicism”. They do not. Carrier clearly states Droge and Noll are “historicity agnostics”! The point is just as damaging to McGrath’s case, however. They are not viscerally hostile towards the Christ Myth possibility as is McGrath. They acknowledge its plausibility. McGrath can never accept even that much. Never.

I don’t know if Carrier has ever said Thompson “embraces” mythicism. I certainly have never said any such thing. I have always been quite clear about Thompson’s own case. Thompson addresses the nature of the evidence that we rely upon for Jesus and argues for its stereotypical nature. The same type of literature is found elsewhere applied to both historical and mythical figures. Thompson is, as he writes in the very article McGrath hand-waves readers to study (does McGrath ever stop to take note of the detailed contents in any of the citations he hand-waves people to look at?), pointing out that the prevailing assumption of the historicity of Jesus is problematic given the nature of the evidence we have:

I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology—an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. . . . It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits.

Yes, his argument has the potential to open up the question of mythicism. But Thompson himself is not addressing mythicism per se. I know his argument reasonably well, I hope, because I believe my own arguments are very strongly influenced by Thompson’s. That’s why I have generally avoided the label “mythicist” for myself.

McGrath’s hyper-sensitivity in this area does not seem to benefit him with any capability of understanding such subtleties.

Er, no, I meant he tried to publish with the wrong companies

In my initial response to James McGrath’s review of Thomas L. Brodie’s Memoir, I zeroed in on a single remark by McGrath that grotesquely misrepresented what Brodie himself explicitly wrote. I explained why I was not writing a comprehensive response at that time and why I chose to single out that one point for attention.

300px-Caprichos_Nr_23,_Dieser_Staub
Never learned how to do scholarship

McGrath was trying to establish a point that the reason Brodie’s thesis was not published had to do with unscholarly methods and not its conclusion that Jesus was not an historical person. He needs this to be true to argue a case that the only reason mythicism is rejected is that it is not based on sound scholarship. Hence he stressed:

Brodie indicates that he had this conviction even before he had learned to do scholarship, and that his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes . . . (see the complete sentence below)

But although his idea was concocted prior to his learning how to do scholarship . . .

I recommend that this book be widely read. It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, . . .

The book can serve as a warning to young scholars to be open to criticism and feedback (and to more established scholars to provide honest and clear feedback, since I found myself wondering whether anyone actually told Brodie that he was using dubious methods and criteria to produce dubious results).

Specifically, the words of McGrath I was exposing as a blatantly false portrayal of what Brodie himself explained about the reason his manuscript was not published were these:

Brodie indicates that . . . his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations, and attempting to find a Christian publisher for what he wrote on the subject (pp.32,35,40,42).

All of a sudden, in his second defence of his initial review, McGrath is now telling us that the last line of the above was his main point! Brodie’s real problem was that he was going to the wrong sort of publisher! We will soon see how questionable this take is. read more »

Selective, One-Eyed Responses from Scholars Against Mythicism (SAMs)

The problem with mythicists such as Doherty, Salm, Zindler, Wells, Ellegard, Price is that they engage with the mainstream scholarly literature devoted to studies of Christian origins and the historical Jesus. This poses a problem for anti-mythicist scholars such as Ehrman and McGrath. It forces them to do two things:

  1. Accuse the mythicists of dishonesty because they dare cite works that are not written by mythicists when they find in those works some point that they believe supports their case;
  2. Argue against mythicism by means of just one particular argument as if the many opposing viewpoints of their own peers simply do not exist. That is, they must suppress the fact that there are mainstream scholars who do support some particular details found in mythicist arguments.

The fallacious charge of dishonesty

I addressed #1 only recently at Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman so won’t repeat myself here. I will add a brief note from Richard Carrier’s list of axioms of historical method:

Axiom 12: When one of us cites a scholar, it should only be assumed we agree with what they say is essential to the point we cite them for. (p. 34 of Proving History)

What happens is that when, say, Earl Doherty cites scholarly works supporting his view that 1 Corinthians 2:8 was originally understood by Paul to mean demons were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, hostile critics retort that those same scholars also argue that they crucified Jesus by proxy, that is, through the Romans. They certainly do, and it is well understood that they do since it is well understood that Doherty is arguing a position against the views of the general scholarly community. It is clear and obvious to everyone that those scholars are not also mythicists. In their attempts to disallow Doherty the right to use scholarly views to support any point at all he is making in his argument for mythicism they accuse him of being dishonest by quoting scholars who do not agree with his larger point. (See Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman for details.)

There’s a converse to this. Carrier expands on this axiom from that converse position. One might call it the fallacious charge of gullibility, but Carrier calls it the baggage fallacy:

This kind of ‘baggage’ fallacy (often deployed as a variety of the text-book fallacy of “poisoning the well”) is common enough to warrant particular condemnation. In fact, I see this fallacy committed so regularly, so widely, by accomplished scholars who ought to know better, that I feel the need to call particular attention to it now, in the hopes it will forestall a repeat performance. If you cite a scholar as proving point A, and that same scholar also argues B, but B is not necessary to A, then it is a fallacy for anyone to assume you agree with B, and a fallacy to employ this assumption to argue that if B is not credible then A is not credible. I call this the ‘baggage’ fallacy because it amounts to saddling an author with all the ‘baggage’ attached to the scholar he cites or the views he defends, when such attachment is neither entailed nor warranted. Just because I take certain positions or arrive at certain conclusions is no excuse to impute to me all the baggage that is usually supposed to come along with those positions or conclusions.

For example, when I argue a point (such as that distinct elements of Osiris cult can be seen in early Jesus cult), it might be assumed I agree with something else that supposedly goes along with this (such as that all elements of Osiris cult were present in early Jesus cult, or that Jesus is merely Osiris under another name, of that Christians just “borrowed” and “revamped” an Egyptian religion). That would be mistaken. . . . The same fallacy also results when I agree with something a particular book said, or cite it as a reference of importance on a specific subject, and then it’s assumed I agree with everything that book said or its author elsewhere defends. (p. 35)

Selective rebuttals read more »

Leap of Faith or Failure of Reason?

English: Jump from Nevis Bungee Platform near ...
Image via Wikipedia

Accommodating the unaccommodatable

I was taken aback when I saw that the pingback on my previous post, Miracles and Historical Method, was from the Doctor of Whoville. Since we know McGrath doesn’t read Vridar, somebody must have told him about it.

I kid. We love the good doctor. Salt of the earth and all that. So what’s happening over on the Matrix? Sure, he’s peddling his latest book, but the subtitle is “What Does History Have to Do with Faith?” so I guess the pingback is legit. In yesterday’s post, Demolishing and Reconstructing the Burial of Jesus (and Christianity Itself), McG asks: “What, in short, should Christianity look like in the aftermath of historical study?”

This subject marginally interests me. I’m curious about religions and what people believe, but the ways in which people accommodate ancient superstition with modern reality makes me uncomfortable. Not that there’s anything wrong with accommodation, it’s just that the part of my life where I tried to salvage the good parts of Christianity in light of — well, in light of reality — is over. The mental gymnastics involved just weren’t worth the effort. It felt too much like keeping two sets of ledgers: one set of books with cooked numbers that add up to God and another set that actually make sense.

Honk if you’re a skeptic

The paragraph that linked to my post reads as follows: read more »

Appeal to Vridar readers re Dr McGrath

Dr McGrath has a bee in his bonnet about mythicism and says a lot of crazy things about it and anyone who presents an argument for it or (in my own case) even presents an argument that leaves room for it as a valid possibility.

This sort of response to my views took me a bit of getting used to and I look back and see there are some things I said or ways I said things that I have come to regret.

It is clear that Dr McGrath relies upon ad hominem, personal attacks and innuendo, to make his case. I cannot say I have always remained patient in all of my responses. Sometimes I have expressed even the mildest sarcasm on his blog and have been met with pounding of reprimand from Dr McGrath for my tone. (Meanwhile, of course, others will stoop to foul language and crude insults against me without a blink from him.)

I think it is important to stand up to Dr McGrath’s fallacies and hold him accountable for his assertions. It is important to have it on record that his claims do not go without a response.

But what I would ask is that, even if it is against our clearest judgement and the facts of the evidence before us, that we refrain from giving Dr McGrath the sort of material that he is eagerly looking for from us — that is, insults in kind, abusive remarks, character attacks. He has said, for example, that he cannot post on this blog because people abuse him. Well, I don’t think that was the case at all, nor is it the real reason.

Let the records and the evidence speak for themselves. We need do nothing more than argue the case, present the evidence, and let others draw their own conclusions about his character and integrity.

The main reason is not so much for the benefit of any exchanges with Dr McGrath — he will never change his spots no matter what. But to me it is important that this blog be seen as a reasonable and professional sounding voice in the debate in the wider community.

I don’t, however, reject any good-natured humour or satire. Dr McGrath is not averse to  having a laugh at mythicists from time to time and I am sure he is big enough to laugh at his own side of the fence with good natured comedy, too.

I know I have said things I regret and cannot make promises for the future. But I’d like to try anyway.

And I’m glad that there has been very little personal attack on Dr McGrath on this blog. I’m sure we can keep it that way.

Thanks.

Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game

“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”

Ring Toss
Ring Toss (Photo credit: burakiewicz)

Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?

Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases, the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.

Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”

If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table. read more »

I ask the following directly to Dr. McGrath in all sincerity

I am copying Tim’s comment on a recent post here as a post in its own right.

Some interesting backpedaling today on Exploring Our Matrix . . .

McGrath:

“But as yet, the Vridar crowd have not pointed out any errors. What they have pointed out is that I did not adopt the view of the Documentary Hypothesis advocated by either Wellhausen or Friedman, which of course is typical of the crowd that gathers on that blog: they read at most a few scholars, and treat the ones they like as normative and anyone else as making mistakes or having misunderstood because they disagree with or view things differently than those few scholars the Vridar crowd has read or approves of.

There’s a lot here to unpack. But before I analyze the insults, I will at his insistence enumerate the good doctor’s errors:

McG’s Error 1:

For me, the strongest support for the Documentary Hypothesis’ distinction between sources based on different ways of referring to God comes from the Psalms, specifically Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. If you read them both side by side, you’ll see that they are both essentially the same psalm, the only major difference being that one addresses God using the divine name YHWH, and the other does not.

This is clearly wrong, because neither E nor P has an enduring preference for Elohim over Yahweh. As I’ve said at least three times now, the importance of the divine name in the Pentateuch is when it becomes known to humankind. For example, after the revelation of the divine name, the E source switches over comfortably to YHWH. For example in Exodus 4:11 (from the E source), God is angered that Moses offers the feeble excuse that he can’t speak in public because of his “heavy tongue”:

11. And the LORD [YHWH] said unto him, Who has made man’s mouth? or who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD [YHWH]? (KJV)

According to the DH, the community that produced the Elohist tradition believed in YHWH, worshiped YHWH, and called God YHWH. However, they believed that the name “Yahweh” was unknown until it was revealed to Moses.

McG’s Error 2:

I don’t see any way of accounting plausibly for these two psalms being part of this collection other than in terms of there being different groups, or regions, or kingdoms, which had different preferences regarding how to refer to and address God. And that makes it seem plausible to account for the different passages in the Pentateuch which refer to God in different ways in terms of those same distinct traditions or groups.

Again, within the Pentateuch both P and E use Elohim from the Creation until the Burning Bush. So there are great chunks of the patriarchal narrative in which Elohim is used. The group that copied and saved Psalm 53 appears to have changed YHWH to Elohim, but this very likely happened well after the United Monarchy but before the collection of the Ketuvim.

According to Eerdmans Commentary (p. 376):

“The variations [between Psalm 14 and Psalm 53] indicate different transmission processes and different traditions, which have resulted in the two psalms being included in different collections of the psalter.”

The evidence, then, indicates that some particular group at some undefined time preferred to use Elohim liturgically vs. Adonai (YHWH). But this redaction likely occurred in the exilic or post-exilic period, not in the fictional time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact at least one commentator (W.O.E. Oesterley) thinks Psalm 53 comes from the later Greek period.

Incidentally, the first commenter on Exploring Our Matrix brought up the Elohistic Psalter. It’s unfortunate that nobody seemed to pick up on that term. Without going too far down the rabbit hole here, it’s interesting to read the different theories on the explanations of the variations in the different collections. But I think we’re far from seeing any kind of consensus that explains all the related phenomena. I’ve only recently come upon Goulder’s books on the Psalms, and they’re really fascinating.

McG’s Error 3:

What is significant about these two psalms (which are put to notirious [sic] use nowadays by some Christians) is that they provide corroboration external to the Pentateuch for differing traditions which resemble and presumably bear some relation to the traditions that produced and passed on the different Pentateuchal sources.

This is the same error as Error 1, but repeated for effect. Even if we were to accept Goulder’s theory that Psalm 53 is older than Psalm 14, it’s the process of textual transmission to a later period that accounts for the change to YHWH. For by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the use of Yahweh was clearly dominant.

McG’s Error 4:

I think some may be forgetting that the P source, which is generally dated late, perhaps exilic or postexilic, had a preference for the use of Elohim, i.e. referring to God rather than using the name Yahweh.

The P source had no preference for the use of Elohim. It merely carried on the conceit that the name YHWH was unknown until the revelation to Moses in Exodus 3. After the revelation, YHWH is used freely. You needn’t take my word for it; you can read it for yourself. Try to count how many times in Leviticus the P source says certain laws must be followed because, “I am YHWH.”

————–

Now to the question of verbal abuse

Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament, and Eminent Blogger has some choice words for anyone who posts on Vridar. I suppose that would include me. read more »

Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

Reproduction of a coloured copperplate engraving of the Czech edition of a book by German theologian and historian Heinrich Bünting
From Czech Parliament: I can forgive a historian cum theologian who makes Prague the centre of the world

Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.

This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.

Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.

Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).

The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.

Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.

Two caveats to the above, though.

  1. An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
  2. Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.

Certain Basic Matters

Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)

What are some of these basic matters? They explain: read more »

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...
Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry-picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: read more »