2010-02-14

“Creationist” slurs have no place in an honest mythicist-historicist debate

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by Neil Godfrey

Following is a silly post, one of the silliest I have ever written. Maybe the silliest. Its only point is to foolishly respond to baseless and ignorant slurs written and spoken by Associate Professor James McGrath against people who argue Jesus was a mythical or legendary figure, not a real historical one. I do not know why an associate professor would find it necessary to resort to insulting these people by comparing them with “creationists” (e.g. here, here and here). While admitting he has not read mythicist literature, he makes up for this lack by (in his own words) thinking about mythicist arguments a lot. And the more he thinks about them, the more he sees them having points in common with creationists. Maybe associate professors have acquired the ability to understand more about something by merely thinking about it without having to go to the trouble of reading the evidence for themselves.

It is a pity he and others like him could not take to heart the words of Albert Schweitzer who was able to discuss knowledgeably the mythicist arguments of his day and in a civil and professional manner.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century.

Among McGrath’s false allegations are that mythicists do not engage the mainstream scholarly literature. This seems to me like almost wilful ignorance, but I am sure no associate professor would ever be wilfully ignorant. Earl Doherty’s website is well known and his very extensive reviews of notable scholarly publications (Funk, Wilson, Crossan, et al) are there for anyone to read. Anyone who reads mythicist arguments of the kind that belongs to a line going back through Doherty, Wells, Drews, Smith, Whittaker, Bauer — on back to the Enlightenment era with Volney, Dupuis, Reimarus — and others, will be rewarded with introductions to some of the best and current biblical scholarship of each generation.

McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E.P. Sanders, and implied that his arguments for a historical Jesus were well enough established in the mainstream to be effectively indisputable. I have begun to take up this challenge in the post previous to this one — Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.

But for this post, I hope to avoid the charge that I am defining “creationism” tendentiously to suit my particular argument, so I have chosen to use a study of Creationism that many sceptics can acknowledge as hard-hitting, comprehensive and fair.

It would be helpful if associate professors took a similar approach with their uses of the term, too. This would enable them to avoid any suspicion of merely collating all the things they think they would like to see in common between “creationism” and that just as nasty “mythicism”. Granted, the more subjective approach does provide a rich store of material one can use to justify insults. Maybe some associate professors, like some of the rest of us, simply love to hoard junk.

So in order to attempt to expose how unfounded is the comparison between mythicists and creationists, I have chosen to use the points in a book by Michael Shermer (well known for debunking nonsense, e.g. Why People Believe Weird Things), Why Darwin Matters. Shermer is a wonderful example of how to tear down a false argument in a civil and polite and professional manner. He never once resorts to insult. . . . Continue reading ““Creationist” slurs have no place in an honest mythicist-historicist debate”


2010-02-13

Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical

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by Neil Godfrey

I intend to demonstrate in a series of posts that there is legitimate room for informed, rational, scholarly debate over the historicity of certain events in the so-called life of Jesus. To disagree with E. P. Sanders and “mainstream scholarly opinion” is by no means to be equated with failing to engage the views and arguments of E. P. Sanders and other scholars sharing a majority viewpoint.

Yet public intellectuals from the field of biblical studies have disgraced themselves by declaring that if so-called “mythicists” disagree with the conclusions of the likes of E.P. Sanders and “the mainstream” they are comparable to “Young Earth Creationists”. (It is Intelligent Design advocates who misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and fail to engage directly with the substantial thrust of the literature they oppose, while “mythicists” do indeed engage seriously and with “mainstream literature”, while “historicists” have tended to remain apparently lazily ignorant and willing to distort and misrepresent mythicist arguments. So if the insulting comparison is to be made at all, it would seem to apply more to the “historicists” than to “mythicists”.) Associate Professor James McGrath inferred that the arguments of E.P. Sanders in chapter 1 of his book, Jesus and Judaism, are of sufficient strength and repute to justify ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with the historicity they supposedly affirm. Hence this post as the first of a series.

Before beginning, for what it’s worth, I do not see myself as a “mythicist”. I cannot see the point of taking such a stand — either mythicist or historicist — in any debate. (I don’t like adversarial debates anyway. I’m more an exploration and testing type of guy.) What surely matters is the examination of the evidence in attempting to understand Christian origins. The point is to be as intellectually honest as we can wherever the evidence and out testing of our hypotheses lead.

E. P. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus

Image by djking via Flickr

I will not at this point address all the arguments of E. P. Sanders over what is more widely known as the “cleansing of the temple” scene. Most of his argument is, in effect, an analysis of various proposed reasons or motives for the temple act of Jesus. As such, it assumes the historicity of Jesus. To the extent that his argument does address historicity, Sanders is arguing that Jesus must have done something in relation to the temple, otherwise we are left with no explanation for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. I see this sort of analysis as an exercise in the exposition of a literary narrative. It is misguided to assume without external supporting evidence that such an exercise necessarily yields up “evidence” of an “historical fact” external to that text. But for now, I will focus on the assumption of historicity per se, and not address each and every one of Sander’s “extremely common” ‘aprioristic’ points (i.e. ‘if Jesus did X, he must have done Y’) (p.9). I will reserve these for a future post when addressing Sander’s discussion of his method and the nature of a “good hypothesis”.

Sanders “establishes” the historicity of the Temple Act before commencing his attempt to explain its specific nature and motive. Indeed, it is its “indisputable” historicity that he claims is his justification for his chapter 1 discussion.

Sanders begins by noting the problems with gospel passages that narrate the temple incident (p. 9, my formatting):

  1. there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
  2. nor is there absolute certainty of the authenticity of either or both of the sayings about the destruction of the temple.

Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. (p.9)

To justify his assertion that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that a real historical event lies behind the narratives, Sanders explains:

The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable. (p.9)

This is called in the literature an example of “multiple, independent attestation”. We have three sources (the synoptic gospels, Acts and John), all presumably independent of one another, saying something like the same thing. This, it is argued, strongly suggests that we have three independent witnesses to a tradition that must be traced back to something Jesus really did do or say.

Later, Sanders again writes (p. 73):

. . . the tradition contained in [John 2.19], Mark 14.58, Matt. 26.61, Mark 15.29, Matt. 27.40, and Acts 6.14: Jesus threatened the destruction of the temple (and perhaps predicted its rebuilding after three days).

We seem here to be in touch with a very firm historical tradition, but there is still uncertainty about precisely what it is.

I will unpack the assumption of the “tradition” as the common source below. For now, I will note only that it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.

So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we let the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.

Paula Fredriksen’s on the “scholarly consensus” in relation to the Temple Act

Paula Fredriksen certainly accepts some form of temple act as historical, but also has the honesty to write:

In research on the historical Jesus, however, no single consensus interpretation ever commands 100 percent of the scholarly opinion. . . . Other critics, rightly observing the crucial role played by the Temple incident in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ story — without it, Mark would have difficulty bringing Jesus to the attention of the priests — question whether it ever happened at all. Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – my emphasis)

Fredriksen is not ignorant of E. P. Sanders’ views. She cites Jesus and Judaism in her biography and makes frequent use of his ideas throughout her work. I suspect she is thinking in particular of Burton Mack when she writes: “Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.” Mack’s A Myth of Innocence is also listed in her biography.

Burton Mack’s’ argument for the Temple Act being fiction

The act itself is contrived. Some gesture was required that could symbolize both casting out and taking charge with some level of legitimacy.

Demons would be too much, since Jesus is about to be taken. It would, in any case, have been implausible. But filthy lucre would do just fine. Taxes and the temple treasury had been hot political issues underlying much of the history of conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. The citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah could put Jesus on the safe side of the conflict, motivated by righteous indignation. Jewish authorities (scripture) could be used against Jewish practice. The subtheme of temple robbery, moreover, given with the citation from Jeremiah, was also most convenient. Temple robbery was a stock image of temple degredation in the popular imagination, combining criminal activity with impiety.

The first use of the theme in Mark is Jesus’ application of Jeremiah’s charge to those who brought and sold in the temple (that is, animals for offerings and money at foreign rates of exchange). This subtheme occurs at the arrest where Jesus chides the arresters coming after him as though he, not the money changers, were the temple robber (Mark 14:48). This develops the theme somewhat, playing on the symbolic significance of the temple act and putting the countercharge in his opponent’s mouth. At the trial the question of Jesus’ authority is the more important theme, but the temple act has not been forgotten. Jesus’ authority is related to the kingdom, the substitute for the temple,  thus builds (sic) upon the temple act as symbolically having taken charge. The hearsay about destroying the temple pushes the symbolism of the act in the direction of an exorcism (casting out as destroying). And underlying the charge of blasphemy is desecration, also related allusively to the temple act. When Jesus is crucified then, he is positioned between two robbers, that is, as one who desecrated the temple (Mark 15:27). Thus the subtheme is carried through to the end. It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.

The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his “instruction” and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (pp. 291-292, my emphasis. I have also broken up the first paragraph into three parts for easier web-reading.)

(Mack’s statement, “If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence”, addresses a point too rarely absent from “historicist” discussions about Jesus. Remove the scriptural embellishments and other plot devices and there is no ‘person’ left for history to see. This is why it is fallacious to claim that, since mythical associations do not discredit the historicity of ancient characters like Alexander or the Caesars, so therefore they should not discredit the historicity of Jesus. This argument misses the point: remove the mythical associations from Alexander and the Caesars and there is still plenty of ‘historical person’ left over to see. This is not the case with Jesus. But I am addressing here the correct logic of Mack’s argument. Mack himself accepts that there was an historical Jesus. One wonders, however, how Fredriksen or other “mainstream scholars” might have reacted if it had been a “mythicist” who expressed the above argument.)

The Origin of the story: Historical Tradition or Textual Tradition?

Continue reading “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical”


2010-02-09

Historicist Misunderstanding : a reply to James McGrath and others

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by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath has expressed his concerns about apparent misunderstandings of the historical process on the part of those who argue that Jesus was probably not an historical figure in his blog post: Mythicist Misunderstanding

I wish to address his post in some detail, because he brings together the sorts of objections one regularly sees raised by “historicists”. Obviously my comments are mine alone, my perspective on things, or my interpretation and application of the words of others.

James writes:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?” Such objections reflect a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. I think it is safe to say that there is no historical figure from the past that we know existed apart from evidence for actual things he or she said or did. We know George Washington existed because he wrote documents, because he served as President of the United States, because he slept here or there. There is no such thing as proof of a historical person’s existence in the abstract or at a theoretical level. There is simply evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others.

Here is reference to “evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others”, but without any indication what this evidence actually is. Is he referring to letters? diaries? monumental inscriptions? newspapers? pamphlets? By referring vaguely to “evidence of activity” this comment bypasses all serious conversations about historical methodology. The vagueness of the term covers a multitude of sins.

And so when historians engage in the tedious but ultimately rewarding process of sifting through the relatively early texts that mention Jesus, and painstakingly assess the arguments for the authenticity of a saying or incident, they are not “treating the existence of Jesus as a presupposition.” They are providing the only sorts of evidence we can hope to have from a figure who wrote no books or letters, ruled no nations, and did none of the other things that could leave us more tangible forms evidence. And so I will state once again what is obvious to historians and New Testament scholars but apparently unclear to some who are not entirely familiar with how historical investigation works. Historians are confident Jesus existed, first and foremost, because we have sayings attributed to him and stories about him that are more likely authentic than inauthentic. We have enough such material to place the matter beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of most experts in the field.

Here the sins take root. What is it that gives historians confidence that Jesus existed? We are told that this confidence rests on early texts that attribute sayings to and narrate stories about him. Moreover, historians are discerning enough to sift out those sayings and stories that are “more likely authentic than inauthentic”, and this process is said to add weight to the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

But the idea that a document can give us some measure of confidence in the historicity of its narrative just because it is “early” and purports to narrate sayings and deeds of a hero is a baseless assumption. A narrative cannot logically testify to the “historical factualness” of its own tale.

Simply removing the miracles will not work. As others have shown, and as I have also repeated here, that sort of “rationalization” usually only results in destroying stories and their meanings, not in finding some “historical core”.

Sifting through layers of speech to identify what words conform to some criteria such as that of “dissimilarity” can only tell us what words in the narrative are “dissimilar” from some other words. This process can never logically unearth a true artefact of bedrock history. Stripping away everything to reach a “reasonable plausibility” cannot, by itself, bring us any closer to qualitative probability of a “true event”.

Self-testimony of a narrative, alone, can never by definition establish historicity of its own tale. Not even if the same basic tale is told in various ways in several documents. We need first to establish some evidential link or testimony to the narrative from a source that can claim to be an external witness to that tale.

To think that by reaching a “more plausible” narrative in historical terms we somehow magically arrive at a “more probable” historical tale is to think like a child who wishes hard enough for a story be true till she can find enough confidence to finally really believe it. Except that with maturity the child learns to replace “really believe” with “believe it was probably” so.

Here is the heart of an historicist misunderstanding. (But not all historians of the Bible share this misunderstanding. From my lay perspective I have the impression that Old Testament studies have become increasingly aware of this statement’s critical logical and methodological flaws since the advent of the so-called “minimalist” perspectives emanating from the likes of Davies, Lemche and Thompson.) Continue reading “Historicist Misunderstanding : a reply to James McGrath and others”


2010-02-04

The legitimacy of questioning the historicity of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

To argue for a nonhistorical Jesus has been ignorantly compared with arguing “Creation Science” (“Intelligent Design”).

So it is interesting to read the following from one of the foremost public critics of Creation Science:

Of course, there are scholars who are more openly secular humanist, and are willing to depart from the religionism that permeates historical Jesus studies. One example is Robert M. Price, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who provides a devastating critique of historical Jesus studies in Deconstructing Jesus — and we share many of his conclusions. Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. Burton Mack and Gerd Ludemann also have done much to erode our confidence in the more religionist versions of historical Jesus research. Our purpose is not to slight them, but rather to show that the predominant schools of historical Jesus research in academia have still not superseded Reimarus, who had a perfectly reasonable hypothesis centered on empirico-rationalism.

p. 197, The End of Biblical Studies (2007) by Hector Avalos.

And who is this Avalos?

From Wikipedia, Avalos “is also one of the most prominent secular humanist biblical scholars today.”

As for his credentials in detecting genuine studies from fraudulent ones like Creation Science, again from Wikipedia:

“Avalos has become an internationally-recognized critic of Intelligent Design, and he is often linked with Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, the advocate of Intelligent Design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007. Avalos co-authored a statement against Intelligent Design in 2005, which was eventually signed by over 130 faculty members at Iowa State University. That faculty statement became a model for other statements at the University of Northern Iowa and at the University of Iowa. Gonzalez and Avalos are both featured in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008).”

And from another:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.

p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson

So who is this Thompson?

Also from Wikipedia, Thomas L. Thompson was a theology professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1993 to 2009.

[He] has held positions at the University of Dayton (Instructor in theology, 1964 – 65), University of Detroit (Assistant Professor: Old Testament, 1967 – 69), Tübingen Atlas of the Near East (research associate, 1969 – 76), École Biblique (visiting professor, 1985 – 86), Lawrence University (visiting associate professor, 1988 – 89), and Marquette University (associate professor, 1989 – 93), and was professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993-2009. He was named a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 1988. He is general editor for the Equinox Press monograph series Copenhagen International Seminar and associate editor of the Scandinavian Journal for the Old Testament, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Holy Land Studies and Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift.

He has written 14 books, one of which, The Bible in History, is widely used as a set-text in undergraduate courses in biblical studies.

And one more for luck:

Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus.

p.402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

Who’s Schweitzer?


Added 14 Feb, 2010:

I had thought that the heading of this post was sufficient to contextualize the quotations above. (I certainly thought it was enough not to give the biographical detail on him as I gave on the others — I assumed my concluding quip was enough to set the tone and context.) But I have recently learned that one person (here) has interpreted my reference to Schweitzer as an attempt by me to get others to think that Schweitzer is a mythicist sympathizer. That is, of course, ridiculous. I took for granted that readers who know anything about Schweitzer would know his position on this. This was, of course, my point — that even one who argued comprehensively against mythicist arguments should concede certain facts about the argument that enable it to endure.

To repeat part of my response on that blog here:

Michael Shermer is able to quite comfortably pull apart Creationist arguments in a civil, courteous and professional manner and tone. I have demonstrated it is quite possible to pull apart in an informative and clear way something as “fringe” as Atlantis theories.

It is perhaps sadly instructive that quite a number of biblical scholars appear to find such processes beyond them when confronted with mythicist arguments, and they feel a need to resort to ridicule and misrepresentation and insult.

Albert Schweitzer — and this is a key point of my references to him — would not be impressed.

You are public intellectuals and I would consider that you have a responsibility to your publics to give them more than examples of prejudice and uncivil responses when faced with a radical difference of view.


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