Tag Archives: Historical Jesus

“Why Did The Washington Post Tweet A Debunked Hit Piece On Jesus?”

Scandalous. And it’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault! (Seriously…. that’s what the article does suggest)

“Given that the article has been widely debunked, what would lead the Washington Post to tweet it out, essentially rerunning it? . . . .

As with so much news coverage these days, the answer to why this essay ran may well boil down to two words: Donald Trump. . . .

It is perfectly acceptable to explore the historic nature of Jesus. It happens in colleges across the world every day. But it should be done in a way that is respectful and balanced. The Washington Post article is neither. . . . .

The protection of minority religious views that media has extended to Islam and Judaism must now be offered to Christianity, as well. Attacks on Christian belief are no longer a redress of historical inequality, they are now simply bigoted. And they need to stop.”

The cause of the alarm at such dire threats to the foundations of our society . . . .
read more »

The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility

Herod the Great

Yes, it does seem odd for Vridar to have so many Christmas posts this year. I normally watch the holidays go by and think to myself, “I should have written something about that.”

In any case, I promise this will be my last Christmas post of the year, which should be an easy vow to keep, since it’s already the 28th.

In a previous post, I wrote about the date of the nativity. This time we’ll look at the year of Jesus’ birth. Considering all the ink scholars have spilled over this subject, and all the contortions many of them have gone through to push for specific dates that “work” (even so far as to move the death of Herod to 1 BCE), it’s a wonder there is a consensus. And yet, almost everywhere you look, you’ll find the date range of 6 to 4 BCE.

Only the most diehard apologist would try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity. They diverge at nearly every point. Moreover, most critical scholars recognize the birth stories as legends. Both Matthew and Luke contain two momentous events which, had they actually occurred, would have given us a precise date for Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, Herod the Great slaughters all the young children in Bethlehem. In Luke, Augustus calls for “all the world to be taxed.”

Neither of these events happened, and therein lies the problem. They are legendary accounts told for religious, doctrinal reasons. And here’s a good rule of thumb: Once you’ve tossed rotten fruit into the dumpster, don’t climb back in to see if you can find some edible bits. In other words, resist the temptation to find a kernel of truth in fictional accounts, especially when you have absolutely no corroborating external evidence. There’s no shame in saying, “We don’t know, and we may never know.read more »

Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s OHJ: A Brief Comment

Before I address specific points of Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus here is my overall assessment.

Despite having the appearance of a comprehensive review of the primary argument of OHJ (37 pages that includes a detailed background discussion on “who Carrier is” certainly has all the appearance of being comprehensive) Gullotta has failed to convey Carrier’s method of evaluating the evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus.

On the contrary, Gullotta’s discussion of selected arguments in OHJ turns out to be misleading because of what it fails to observe.

For example, although Gullotta criticizes some aspects of Carrier’s analysis of the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19, he fails to point out that in the final analysis that Carrier weights the evidence of that verse in favour of historicity! Carrier is arguing his mythicist case a fortiori so that although he personally argues for broad contextual and stylistic reasons that that the appellation does not supports the historicity of Jesus, he acknowledges the historical Jesus viewpoint and weights that phrase as being 100% what would be expected if Jesus were indeed historical.

That is, Carrier concedes in the final weighting of the evidence that Galatians 1:19 favours the case for the historical Jesus.

So how can Carrier still argue mythicism?

The answer to that question is unfortunately where Gullotta’s review fails its readers.

All Bayesian analysis does is provide a symbolic mnemonic to help one (1) be sure nothing is overlooked in assessing all the available evidence that relates to a particular historical question and (2) keep in mind the need to carefully evaluate each piece of that evidence. It serves as a mnemonic to help one guard against tunnel-vision solutions or what I call simplistic “proof-texting” in historical inquiry.

I recently quoted the historian G.R. Elton’s warning about the nature of responsible historical inquiry:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Bayesian formula represent what we know of relevant background information and all the contextual factors, for and against, relating to a particular hypothesis. They are nothing but a set of tools to help lead us away from the pitfalls of “confirmation bias” and otherwise failing to give due weight to how the evidence stacks up both for and against one’s hypothesis.

On the Historicity of Jesus is not just another series of arguments for the mythicist Jesus. It is an attempt to set out all of the evidence both for and against the hypothesis and to find a way to validly weight the many variables before coming to a tentative and probabilistic conclusion.

Leave the proof-texting level of argument to the apologists. A professional historical inquiry follows Elton’s advice. There is indeed some evidence that even an “anti-mythicist” recognizes as problematic for the simplistic proof-texting use of Galatians 1:19 to settle the question. (See my post on A.D. Howell Smith’s discussion from his book Jesus Not a Myth.)

Perhaps Carrier has worked “too hard” to be “too comprehensive” in OHJ and by adding too much of his own arguments for or against particular interpretations of certain passages in the New Testament epistles he has exposed himself to criticisms that in fact deflect from the main argument. Some of his “newer”(?) interpretations might have been better tested (and potentially refined over the long term) by being published in journals prior to their appearing “raw” in the book.

I also have my disagreements with several of Carrier’s arguments and interpretations. (I have posted some of those on this blog.) At the same time, any criticism of Carrier’s overall thesis, in order to be valid, does need to do more than argue against any of those specific arguments.

A critical review of Carrier’s work needs to acknowledge the a fortiori approach of Carrier’s method (giving as much weight as reasonably possible to the historical Jesus case — even to granting Galatians 1:19 is exactly consistent with the historical Jesus case!) and to address the totality of the evidence and background information that needs to be brought to the table in a historical investigation that would rise to the standards of a G.R. Elton.

 

Bowling with Bumpers or How Not to Do Critical Scholarship

Note: I wrote this post back in February of 2012. I just never got around to adding a nice conclusion and finishing it. I offer it up now as a way to kick-start my blogging habit again.

Failure-proofing the world

I suck at bowling. I’ve tried. Heaven knows I’ve tried. I even bought a pair of bowling shoes, had a ball drilled to fit my hand, the works. Doesn’t matter. I still stink.

watching the ball go

watching the ball go (Photo credit: whatnot)

But hang on — help is on the way. There’s a surefire method for keeping your ball (if not your mind) out of the gutter. They call it “Bumper Bowling.” Just toss the ball down the lane and you’re at least assured of knocking down the seven or the ten pin.

In our “losing-is-too-hard” culture, which simply delays the age at which children learn that the world is a lonely, cold, hard place, we don’t want anyone to suffer the pain of failure, so we reward any effort. No more tears at the bowling alley. Any errant ball is gently kept on its course to the pins thanks to a set of railings, or in some cases, a gaudy pair of inflatable tubes.

Of course my problem isn’t landing in the channel, it’s missing the easy spares. So while the bumpers keep the very young, the weak, and the infirm from getting skunked, it won’t assure them of a decent score. Unless, that is, they start handing out strikes for knocking down eight or nine pins. “Close enough, Tyler! High five, Brianna!”

The Gospel of John as a beautiful, clumsy child

Pity poor John. If you wanted to explain Christianity to someone who knew nothing about it, wouldn’t the Gospel of John be the first thing you’d show him or her? It’s just so “right.” Jesus knows who he is from the very start. His disciples immediately know he’s the Messiah, even before they become disciples. “Peter, come quick! We have found the Messiah!”

And then there’s all that wonderful stuff in the discourses. “I go to prepare a place for you. In my father’s house there are many mansions.” That’s unforgettable. It’s sweet, poetic, and comforting.

But when it comes to historicity, the Gospel of John is the beautiful child who can’t throw, can’t catch, and runs like an eggbeater. From the very start, commentators on John’s gospel said it was a “spiritual gospel.” That’s like when your grandma cocks her head to one side and says, “Oh, bless his heart. He tries so hard.” read more »

What Biblical Scholars Say About Historical Jesus Studies

Dale C. Allison (November 25, 1955-) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of Early Christianity, and Christian theologian who for years served as Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. — Wikipedia (2nd Oct 2015)

historicalchristI like reading Dale Allison. He is open and forthright about his methods. When some biblical scholars indignantly insist that their field is faith-neutral (after all it includes atheists and agnostics and Jews!) and that they are as on the level as any other historians could possibly be, I wonder if they have ostracized Dale Allison from their community.

Allison acknowledges the circularity at the heart of historical Jesus arguments and that the Gospel narratives are largely midrashic parables. But he is a serious historian nonetheless (according to the lights of historical studies within theological circles) and does the best he can to know “the historical Jesus” despite the challenges thrown up by the nature of the sources:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (See Dale Allison on Memory and Historical Approaches to the Gospels)

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Allison clarifies what he means by the above:

What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 839-841). Kindle Edition.

(Think that “historical method” through for a few moments.)

With thanks to Anthony Le Donne for alerting me to Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus here are a few more of Allison’s insights worthy of note:

I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

Don’t misunderstand. Dale Allison firmly believes he is professional enough to recognize (at least in hindsight) when his historical reconstructions of Jesus have been guided by theological interests as the following quotations will demonstrate. Before making those acknowledgments, however, he draws on his experiences in the wider field to recognize what his peers are also doing.

In recent years we have seen works by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham arguing for the earliest “Christians” attributing to Jesus a very high divine Christology from the very beginning of their faith. If you have wondered if these professors might be influenced by their own conservative faith, Allison encourages your suspicions. He tells us we can also predict the personal beliefs of scholars who flatly reject any form of high christology:  read more »

Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?

I’d like to comment on one section of the inaugural lecture of Prof Chris Keith, Chair of the New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. Its title is ‘Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: Assessing the First Decade.’

Keith is a co-blogger of The Jesus Blog. Both Tim and I have previously addressed facets of Keith’s views and co-publications.

Keith’s postmodernist perspective on the gospels offers a valuable critique of traditional “historical Jesus” scholarship but it also leaves untouched and builds upon a fundamental blind spot in that scholarship.

Around the 47th minute into the address Keith expresses regret that other scholars who have criticized the social memory approach have failed to address the pioneering work of Jens Schröter. No doubt Chris Keith will be gratified to see that in the interests of public religious literacy Vridar has outlined and critically engaged with a core feature of Schröter’s arguments: see the Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”.

Following is a transcription of a few minutes of Keith’s talk. I have bolded sections I find of particular interest for good or ill.

It is notable that recent criticisms of social memory applications in gospel studies fail to engage his work altogether.

In very general terms Schröter proposes that every approach to the historical Jesus behind the gospels has to explain how these writings could have come into being as the earliest descriptions of this person.

Insofar as this approach grounds historical Jesus inquiry in the past as portrayed in our extant sources, it is similar to what Assmann labeled mnemohistory which also foregrounds the text in traditions as they stand before historians. Related directly to this fact, Schröter insists that one cannot neatly separate past from present, history and interpretation, due to their intertwined and mutually interdependent natures of commemorative activity.

Keith’s/Schröter’s point is that the past is lost to us and the best that the historian can do with respect to Jesus or the “Jesus tradition/s” is to attempt to understand how/why the Gospels came narrate their respective lives of Jesus.

The comparison with Jan Assmann‘s mnemohistory (history of memories) is not quite apt but Keith does say that Schröter’s approach (and by extension Keith’s, too) is “similar”. Actually a comparison with Assmann’s work raises serious questions about Keith’s approach and I’ll address those toward the end of this post.

Notice in the last sentence above that Keith refers to Schröter’s words about “commemorative activity”. read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 6: How Did Paul Remember Jesus?

We have covered the subject of the apostle Paul’s silence on Jesus’ life many times on Vridar. But for quite a while now, I’ve been thinking we keep asking the same, misdirected questions. NT scholars have kept us focused on the narrow confines of the debate they want to have. But there are other questions that we need to ask.

Last Judgment panel Diest 001

Last Judgment panel Diest 001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty apocalyptic prophets, all in a row

For example, Bart Ehrman, defending his claim that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, has habitually argued that we can draw a sort of “line of succession” from John the Baptist, through Jesus, to Paul. In Did Jesus Exist? he explains it all in an apocalyptic nutshell:

At the beginning of Jesus’s ministry he associated with an apocalyptic prophet, John; in the aftermath of his ministry there sprang up apocalyptic communities. What connects this beginning and this end? Or put otherwise, what is the link between John the Baptist and Paul? It is the historical Jesus. Jesus’s public ministry occurs between the beginning and the end. Now if the beginning is apocalyptic and the end is apocalyptic, what about the middle? It almost certainly had to be apocalyptic as well. To explain this beginning and this end, we have to think that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

Dr. Ehrman sees the evidence at the ends as “keys to the middle.” For him, it’s a decisive argument.

The only plausible explanation for the connection between an apocalyptic beginning and an apocalyptic end is an apocalyptic middle. Jesus, during his public ministry, must have proclaimed an apocalyptic message.

I think this is a powerful argument for Jesus being an apocalypticist. It is especially persuasive in combination with the fact, which we have already seen, that apocalyptic teachings of Jesus are found throughout our earliest sources, multiply attested by independent witnesses. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

You’ve probably heard Ehrman make this argument elsewhere. He’s nothing if not a conscientious recycler. Here, he follows up by summarizing Jesus’ supposed apocalyptic proclamation. Jesus heralds the coming kingdom of God; he refers to himself as the Son of Man; he warns of the imminent day of judgment. And how should people prepare for the wrath that is to come?

We saw in Jesus’s earliest recorded words that his followers were to “repent” in light of the coming kingdom. This meant that, in particular, they were to change their ways and begin doing what God wanted them to do. As a good Jewish teacher, Jesus was completely unambiguous about how one knows what God wants people to do. It is spelled out in the Torah. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 309)

Unasked questions

However, Ehrman’s argument works only if we continue to read the texts with appropriate tunnel vision and maintain discipline by not asking uncomfortable questions. Ehrman wants us to ask, “Was Paul an apocalypticist?” To which we must answer, “Yes,” and be done with it.

But I have more questions. read more »

Alternet

Valerie Tarico’s article is published in Alternet:

Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong

Correction (27 Feb 2015): I should have given priority to Alernet's publication of Valerie Tarico's article. It was published on Alternet a day before it also appeared on her blog. 

***

Valerie Tarico last September ruffled a few feathers with her article on mythicism (see Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar) and then followed up with an article in The Humanist outlining the views of James McGrath, Raphael Lataster and yours truly. (See Savior? Shaman? Myth? Ink Blot? — Views of Lataster, McGrath and Godfrey).

Valerie’s most recent post is

Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong

It’s not about mythicism this time but it does link to four Vridar posts to illustrate some of her points.

“It is absurd to suggest . . .” — Shirley Jackson Case on The Historicity of Jesus

Shirley Jackson Case

Shirley Jackson Case — Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01582, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Way back in the previous century, I attended Ohio University at Athens. A young, naive freshman, I headed off one gloomy autumn day to the campus library, searching for source material for an astronomy paper. The stacks were vast; I was looking at more books than I had ever seen in one place.

By New World standards, OU is an old school, founded in 1804, the year after Ohio entered the Union. They’ve been gathering books and periodicals for quite some time.

According to Wikipedia, the Vernon R. Alden Library has switched completely from the Dewey Decimal System to the Library of Congress System. However, back in 1977 they were still in transition. All the old books were in Dewey, but the staff were categorizing new acquisitions using LOC codes. I gravitated to the old stacks, perhaps because I was more comfortable with the older numbering system. Or maybe I just like the smell of old books.

Ready Steady Go!

At any rate, that day I came upon Fred Hoyle’s Astronomy from 1962. Hoyle, of course, believed in the Steady State theory of the universe. This was my first introduction to it, and I found it fascinating. So I wrote a short paper on the subject, based on Hoyle’s treatment. What my naive freshman self didn’t know was that just a couple of years after Hoyle published Astronomy, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson found the echo of the Big Bang — background radiation evenly spread throughout the sky, compelling evidence for the origins of our universe.

[I find it mildly ironic that while writing this post, news has arrived that calls into question the Big Bang. Try wrapping your head around this: “Brian Koberlein from the Rochester Institute of Technology pointed out that while it may appear that the study suggests that the Big Bang did not happen, the event still occurred.“]

While reading Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I was reminded of that incident from my youth. As I recall, the teacher’s aide who graded my paper was more forgiving than I deserved. But I learned my lesson. It’s all right to have some familiarity with older research, but the careful student will always keep up with the most recent work in the field.

On the bright side, because Case’s book is over a century old Google (before it lost interest in such altruistic efforts) has lovingly scanned it and put on line. You can even download a PDF copy or read it at archive.org. On the other hand, because he wrote it nearly 103 years ago, some of the arguments are a little stale.  read more »

Why Believers Ought Not To Get Involved in the Christ Myth Question

Raphael Lataster article that recently appeared in The Washington Post as well as The Conversation opened with these words:

Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

Christian evangelist scholar John Dickson saw red and responded:

No student – let alone an aspiring scholar – could get away with suggesting that Christians “ought not to get involved” in the study of the historical Jesus. This is intellectual bigotry and has no place in academia, or journalism.

I read Raphael’s words as a bit of common-sense advice. How can anyone whose faith commits them to believing in the divine Jesus who walked on water possibly approach the question with a truly open mind? One would expect from such people little more than hostility and insults. And that’s exactly how two believers have responded in print to Raphael’s article.

John Dickson has very little to say (at least honestly or accurately) in response to Raphael Lataster’s alerts to various problems with both the evidence for the historical Jesus and the methods Bible scholars have generally used to study him but he does have a lot of good old Christian and scholarly invective to vent:

“Mythicists” are the historical equivalent of the anti-vaccination crowd in medical science. They are controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!” This is precisely what Raphael does . . . . It is as if he thinks he wins the game by declaring all its rules stupid and inventing his own path.

And later we read this:

[Lataster’s article] underlines the impropriety of a student in religious philosophy, whatever his faith perspective, assuming the mantle of academic historian.

Of course Raphael nowhere even hints the word “conspiracy” nor does he “assume the mantle of an academic historian”. In fact what he does is bring to the public attention what every critical scholar knows about the state of evidence and problems with traditional methodologies in relation to the historical Jesus.

John Dickson is a Christian evangelist who attempts to argue in his various publications that sound historical methods leave the objective inquirer in no doubt about the fundamentals of the Gospel narratives about Jesus. I suppose he therefore has good reason to fear a publicizing of the the simple facts about the problems with the evidence and methods that critical scholars know only too well. As a believer he can hardly be expected to seek to argue against Latater’s article solely on a rational level.

Raphael has in fact sought to publicly debate John Dickson without success:

John Dickson surprisingly (we have always been very friendly) defriended me after he wrote a (grossly inaccurate) reply article to my own on Jesus’ possible ahistoricity, and continues to refuse to debate with me on Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. the Jesus he actually believes in). I would think that believers would relish the chance to show their courage and defend their faith. I’m not that scary… If anyone would like to see this debate happen, do let John and I know. John’s contact:

http://www.johndickson.org/contact.html

Michael Bird, too

Meanwhile a colleague of John’s, Michael Bird, (editor and co-author of How God Became Jesus, a response to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God), joined the fray on Euangelion with Taking on the Jesus Mythicists. I didn’t think anyone could surpass JD for ad hominem, distortions and blatant inaccuracies in a response but Michael Bird certainly did.  read more »

Lost and Bereft: The Quest (not) for the historical Jesus — Crossley style

Professor James Crossley on his blog last month justly critiqued various criteria biblical scholars traditionally apply in their efforts to extract some form of historical Jesus from the gospels and finally concluded:

So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation:

  • interpretation of the material . . . ,
  • guesswork about contexts
  • and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight.

But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case.

All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition. (My formatting)

This is not the way one does history. I am even reminded of the popular evangelical line of delivering a message that is hoped to bring audiences to despair, to thinking they have no hope, that they are helpless — all with the aim of motivating them to turn to the messenger for The Answer of hope and salvation. That just comes to mind but I would never suggest Crossley is deploying a similar rhetoric to entice readers to his own view of the way history should be done.

Let’s analyse these words.

“Interpretation of the material”.

That goes without saying no matter what one is studying. Of course historical inquiry is interpretation of the material. One can never avoid interpretation of some kind. Even understanding a claim to be an “uninterpreted plain fact” is an act of interpretation. I would expect most senior high school students of history and beyond to understand that history is about the interpretation of evidence, data, “facts”.

“Guesswork about contexts”. read more »

Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge

Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.

1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?

The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.

2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.

The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.

3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose? read more »

Historical Jesus Scholarship in a “Neoliberal” World

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This post and several ensuing ones will be about what we can learn about historical Jesus scholarship from the book Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by Professor James Crossley.

The second half of this post addresses some background that readers should understand as they read my engagement with Crossley’s book. There I address Crossley’s personal animosity towards me and his conviction that my past treatment of his works has been grotesquely unfair.

Crossley’s main thesis is

to show how Jesus is a cultural icon in the sense that he is reconstructed by historians not simply as a figure for Galilee in the 20s and 30s but also, intentionally or not, as a figure for our ‘postmodern’ times. . . . (p. 8)

The thesis extends to arguing that the same Jesus becomes compatible with neoliberalism’s political agendas and very often subtly perpetuates “anti-Jewishness”.

[T]he emphasis could be placed on the greatest historic critic of our age, an obscure article in an evangelical journal or a rant on a blog: they all provide insight into our cultural contexts, irrespective of how good or bad they are. . . .

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (pp. 8-10)

Obviously any cultural artefact provides insight into its cultural context, but when Crossley limits cultural context in his book to “postmodernism” and “neoliberalism” in their primarily political and racial-cultural manifestations I suspect he is presenting a two-dimensional perspective of scholarship. Quite often it appears his argument is another application of “parallelomania” in the sense that any scholarly interpretation that can be matched to a “neoliberal” or “postmodern” concept becomes the basis of his argument. His thesis would have been more deeply grounded had he been able to demonstrate more consistently, not just sporadically, how certain changes in views and presentations resulted from the direct interaction with political and cultural pressures.

Now I happen to agree with much of Crossley’s own political views. So in one major respect he had me onside from the beginning with Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism, just as he did with his earlier companion book, Jesus in the Age of Terror. I found a number of aspects of his book insightful. I do think that in a number of instances he does make a sound case. Others, as I have indicated above, lacked rigour, were only superficially supported, ill-defined or simplistically conceived; and on occasion it seemed Crossley indulges in soap-box political declamations against his colleagues’ views while almost losing any solid relationship with historical Jesus studies. He appears to have assumed too much on the basis of partial evidence. Overall the book tends to read like an extended editorial opinion piece. So his preface overstates what follows when it says:

It is hoped that this book will establish the general case for the importance of the context of neoliberalism for understanding contemporary scholarship and for others to provide new case studies. This book is merely about certain examples of the impact of neoliberalism in understanding Jesus and contemporary scholarship. (pp. ix-x)

The “case studies” or “certain examples” in the book are of variable authenticity. Several names appear to have been dumped in the neoliberalism matrix with only superficial justifications that overlook evidence for alternative perspectives. Worst of all, one is left wondering if Crossley’s book is a thinly veiled swipe at scholarship that disagrees with his own (and his PhD supervisor Maurice Casey’s) problematic assumptions, methods and (even to some extent) conclusions about the historical Jesus and Christian origins. Unfortunately Crossley appears to have prepared in this book a rationale for dismissing anyone who disagrees with him on these points as “politically incorrect”.

But Crossley would protest:

I do not think that all historical Jesus scholarship is simply ‘reducible’ to an outworking of neoliberalism or simply historically wrong even if it does seem that way. I still have some sympathies with some fairly traditional modes of historical criticism and I am aware that there are strands of Jesus scholarship, and biblical scholarship, which can at least be felt threatening to power.(p. 14)

Examples of the latter are liberation theology in Latin America and works by Keith Whitelam and Nadia Abu El-Haj.

I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

In these posts (I expect they will be strung out over some weeks) I hope to point out where I think Crossley has got things spot on and where he could have got things a bit more spot on. More generally, I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

And I do invite James Crossley to notify me if at any point I misrepresent anything he has written and to explain clearly (civilly would be a bonus) exactly how I have done so.

So here we go.

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