In my essay, “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey” (Widowfield 2021), I mentioned a few core ideas that I’ve been meaning to expand upon here. My recent reading of Richard Carrier’s review, in which he said my brief article “should be required reading for anyone keen to evaluate these kinds of arguments” (Carrier 2022, p. 190) has spurred me to write again.
Back in 1979 when he was engaging with Géza Vermes over the Son of Man Problem, Joseph Fitzmyer remarked his interlocutor’s analysis completely ignored any notion of historical stages in the gospel tradition. Specifically, when did “the Son of Man” enter the early Christian lexicon? This question has special interest for those of us who think the evangelists considered it to be some sort of title. However, Fitzmyer noted that the “distinction in the levels of the gospel tradition . . . [was] strangely lacking in Vermes’ discussion of the whole matter.” (Fitzmyer 1979, p. 65) Continue reading “Expanding on My Essay in Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Part 1″
Indeed, some of Vermes’s distinctive contributions have been extremely influential and so far stood the test of time. In addition to the general view of Jesus the Jew, placing Jesus in the same category of charismatic Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa has proven to be particularly popular and the overall thesis has not been refuted, even if various details have been challenged. (See earlier post on Why Christianity Happened, p. 29. My bolding and formatting in all quotations)
[James Crossley’s] lecture emphasized two other things for me as well. First, the work of really appreciating and articulating the influence of Vermes’s 1973 Jesus the Jew is perhaps still only starting. Obviously, most people in historical Jesus studies know that Vermes’s study was important, even a watershed. But I have heard several lectures here lately where scholars are emphasizing just how revolutionary it was. This position is not just because of Vermes’s emphasis on seeing Jesus against a Jewish background, which deservedly gets attention, but also for his noted dislike of structured “methodology.”
Let’s see what happens when Vermes discards “structured methodology” in relation to just one of the points, though a key one, in Jesus the Jew.
Placing Jesus in the same category of Jewish holy men
We see above Crossley singling out Vermes placing Jesus in the category of charismatic Jewish holy men like Hanina ben Dosa. Let’s look at Vermes’s justification for this.
(Note: I cannot in this one post cover all of the details and nuances of Vermes’s argument. I touch only on key points. Anyone who has read Jesus the Jew may well raise some objections to specific points I make here. I believe my points can withstand more extensive discussion but please note that I would not want anyone quoting what follows as my “final word”. Take what follows as my tentative disagreements with Vermes’ interpretation of the evidence.)
The term “charismatic” is used because Jesus is said to have drawn upon “immediate contact with God” for his supernatural abilities. While Vermes tells us that such individuals were found throughout “an age-old prophetic religious line” he does not, from what I can recall, offer evidence for this age-old line. In fact, he seems to me to be forcing the evidence associated with two names to provide proof of the existence of this “line” in the time of Jesus.
Hanina ben Dosa
Vermes tells us that Hanina ben Dosa was
one of the most important figures for the understanding of the charismatic stream [of Judaism] in the first century AD.
In a minor key, he offers remarkable similarities with Jesus, so much so that it is curious, to say the least, that traditions relating to him have been so little utilized in New Testament scholarship. (p. 72)
The sources are from the later rabbinic writings. These tell us that he lived near Sepphoris, a major city otherwise noted as situated close by Nazareth.
This post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.
In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.
Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.
In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.
Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.
A Tale of Two Scholars
Two biographies are his primary exhibits.
What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)
Géza Vermes is not a mythicist. He believes in the historical reality of Jesus to be found beneath the Gospels. But in the context of any mythicist debate what he writes in The Changing Faces of Jesus about the “myth” of Christ Jesus in Paul’s writings is noteworthy. It shouldn’t be. What he writes is noncontroversial. What makes his remarks noteworthy in the context of a mythicist debate is that he is not addressing mythicism at all and so his comments are not tainted with anti-mythicist polemic.
Consequently readers interested in an honest debate are free to see where traditional mainstream scholarly views and mythicist arguments do in fact coincide. One also encounters a reminder that certain stock responses to mythicist arguments are akin to tendentious “proof-texting”.
There are more things in the mainstream scholarly literature, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your stock anti-mythicist proof-texts.
Firstly, why are Paul’s views so significant? Vermes writes:
Catching up with Géza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus I was surprised to find Vermes suggesting that the entire Philippian Hymn (2:6-11) is an interpolation inserted probably around the early second century!
I guess anti-mythicist crusaders have been on my back so much that I had begun to lose sight of what is acceptable and respectable fare in the works of mainstream biblical scholars.
For those not in the know Géza Vermes, according to the Wikipedia article (and I don’t apologize for using Wikipedia since, for all its many faults, it has been recognized by a study published in Nature as no less authoritative than the Encyclopedia Britannica in science articles, so we may reasonably feel entitled to some confidence in the rest) is described as:
a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient works in Aramaic, and on the life and religion of Jesus. He is one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research, and he has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time. (I retain the linked footnotes)
In the prologue Vermes reinforces his well-groundedness within the scholarly mainstream: