Tag Archives: Historical Jesus

The Jesus Story Mirrors Anthropologist’s Observations of Shamanism?

I.M. (Ioan Myrddin) Lewis

Is it possible to read the following passage from a study of shamanism and spirit possession without recalling a central theme of the gospel narratives about Jesus?

We shall find that those who, as masters of spirits, diagnose and treat illness in others, are themselves in danger of being accused as witches. For if their power over the spirits is such that they can heal the sick, why should they not also sometimes cause what they cure? Reasoning in this fashion, the manipulated establishment which reluctantly tolerates bouts of uncontrolled possession illness among its dependants, rounds on the leaders of these rebellious cults and firmly denounces them as witches. Thus, I argue, the most ambitious and pushing members of these insurgent cults are kept in check, hoist, as it were, with their own petard.

Lewis, I. M. 2003. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. 3rd edition. London ; New York: Routledge p. 28

One cannot help but be reminded of historical Jesus studies such as the one by Stevan Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origin of Christianity.

Just what do you mean… HISTORICAL JESUS?

Fellow-former members of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God will recognize that cult’s influence in the title. (It is tongue-in-cheek, an in-house joke.) It came to me after reading the following by PZMyers:

Now I have to recalibrate. What does “Jesus mythicist” mean? Apparently, rejecting the idea of the Son of God wandering about Galilee, and thinking that many of the tales that sprang up around him were confabulations, does not make one a Jesus mythicist. I also don’t know what the “historical Jesus” means. If I die, and a hundred years later the actual events of my life are forgotten and all that survives are legends of my astonishing sexual prowess and my ability to breathe underwater, what does the “historical PZ” refer to? Does it matter if my birth certificate is unearthed (and framed and mounted in a shrine, of course)? Would people point to it and gasp that it proves the stories were all true <swoon>?

Exactly. What do we mean by “historical Jesus” in any discussion about him, most especially the very existence of such a figure. (PZ begins by asking what Jesus mythicist means and that’s a good question, too. Most critical scholars, at least among the critical ones I have read, would say that the gospels do present a mythical Jesus, a Jesus of myth. The quest, they would say, is to find the “historical Jesus” behind the “mythical Jesus” of the gospels.

So we return to my previous post and I have thoughts of revising the conclusion of it to discuss the idea of definition more explicitly. Others may disagree but I think we can replace the concept of “reference class” with “definition”.

Outside the more fundamentalist-leaning believers few people would believe the historical Jesus is the Jesus of the canonical gospels: a miracle working, water-walking, temple-cleansing power who instilled such fear and jealousy among the leaders that they had him crucified, etc.

Many say something quite the opposite, that he was someone who was essentially a nobody that no-one was particularly interested in apart from a few village followers — hence we have no record of him until the movement his followers started somehow remarkably reached a critical mass that included gospel-writing literates who recorded how this nobody was remembered as the turning point in human history.

In general we have those two theories of historicity, the reductive theory (Jesus was an ordinary but obscure guy who inspired a religious movement and copious legends about him) and the triumphalist theory (the Gospels are totally or almost totally true).

Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 30

The “reductive theory” confuses me sometimes, though. Some of those who say he was a “local nobody” also say that he was a political rebel not very unlike other political rebels (or maybe a prophet of “the great tribulation” before “the wonderful world tomorrow”) we read about in the Jewish historian Josephus, and who therefore was not so obscure at all. For some reason Josephus did not speak of this Jesus in the same way he spoke of other political rebels or apocalyptic prophets who met their demise at the hands of Roman power, but spoke of him as a good man without any hint of him having political ambitions or rebellious modus operandi — even though Josephus is typically hostile to all other political and religious outsiders. Nonetheless, that is the “definition” of historical Jesus that some critical scholars embrace. (For those not familiar with the arguments, they believe this to be what Jesus “must have been” because that’s the only way they can understand how he came to be crucified as a supposed claimant to be king of the Jews. Of course that leads to another question that they then must grapple with: why did the Romans in this one case execute the leader and ignore his followers?)

Notwithstanding the logical problems that surface with either definition — that he was a nobody who made no ripple in the history of his own day; that he was a political rebel who supposedly made a notice in Josephus unlike his portrayals of any other political rebel — these are the commonly advanced depictions of what is meant by the “historical Jesus”.

But scratch the surface of historical Jesus studies and we find that there are many more views on what this historical Jesus was.

So the quest at the turn of the millennium is characterised by the production of different ‘types’ of figure which more or less plausibly capture the Jesus of history:

the Jewish ‘holy man’,70

the rabbi,71

the Pharisee,72

the Galilean peasant,73

the Cynic philosopher,74

the social revolutionary,75

the sage, the seer,76

the prophet of the end-time,77

the true Messiah.78

70  Vermes, Jesus the Jew and The religion of Jesus the Jew.

71  Chilton, Rabbi Jesus.

72  Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee.

73  The Jesus Seminar and Crossan, The historical Jesus.

74  Crossan; and Downing, Christ and the Cynics.

75  Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs and Jesus and the spiral of violence.

76  Witherington, Jesus the sage and Jesus the seer.

77  Sanders, Jesus and Judaism and The historical figure; Allison, Jesus of Nazareth; Ehrman, Jesus.

78  Wright, Jesus and the victory of God.

Mitchell, Margaret M., and Frances M. Young, eds. 2006. The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 1: Origins to Constantine. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 23 (my formatting)

read more »

The never-ending “brother of the lord” proof for the historical existence of Jesus

James McGrath has posted that it is time to return to the Jesus mythicism question. He writes:

It’s time to return once again to the subject of Jesus mythicism, the stance that denies the overwhelming consensus of professional historians and scholars that there most likely was indeed a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Translated, that means it is “time to return to addressing those who question the conventional wisdom bequeathed to us from our society’s Christian heritage.” The use of the word “consensus” makes it sound as if the belief in the the historicity of Jesus is a position arrived at by serious research on the part of all those “professional historians and scholars”. But we know that is not the case because Bart Ehrman let a terrible secret out of the bag when he wrote:

Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it . . . 

I also find the phrase “most likely” confusing in the context. “Most likely” suggests to me that there is some room for doubt, however slim. The words suggest something short of “definitely” or “without doubt”. Yet the very suggestion of any doubt at all is what appears to offend McGrath.

Another framing word in his introduction is “denies’. That word allows him to follow up with “denialist” to characterize sympathy with the mythicist argument. Denialism suggests irrational stances and is hardly a fitting word to be used of scholarly disagreements. Would not the word “disagrees” be more appropriate and accurate?

Next, McGrath comes to the immediate point of his pot:

Evidence about his brother James (Jacob) is an important factor in historical reasoning on this subject.

By adding Jacob in parenthesis beside the name James indicates to the reader that the author is aware of subtleties in the primary sources and so is presenting a scholarly argument.

But what follows is a quotation by someone who regularly demonstrates a lack of awareness of the fundamentals of methods of historical research and who routinely uses personal insults to smokescreen the weaknesses and fallacious nature of some of his arguments.

The post to which McGrath directs readers rests on the most fundamental errors of historical research. Its author, Tim O’Neill, simply assumes that the letter to the Galatians that he sees before him is just what a mid-century Paul originally wrote. To raise the well known fact that textual variants were the norm for ancient letters, especially Paul’s, and that there is indeed evidence that points to the possibility that Paul did not write those words.

After more loaded language and ad hominem aspersions against mythicists (they are too predictable and too numerous to bother discussing one by one here) McGrath does actually say something that I fully agree with:

Each piece of evidence needs to be evaluated on its own merits. And the fact that some evidence does not confirm something should never be treated as undermining what the positive evidence shows.


Unfortunately, McGrath appears to be so committed to the historicity of the central person of his own religious faith that he can allow no room whatever for any suggestion of doubt. That one piece of “evidence” (I would call it “data” waiting to be interpreted to see whether or not it is evidence for or against a proposition) appears to be all he needs to establish not merely “most likely” but that there “definitely without any shadow of doubt” was a historical Jesus.

If you know my sibling and they mentioned me, but you have also heard a number of improbable things about me (whether that my parents won the lottery just in time to pay the medical bills after I was born, that I have been interviewed by MTV News and E! Online, or that I have a tenure track position at a university), the latter details should not be evaluated as reasons to doubt my historicity. This sort of probability calculation may be appropriate to figuring out the likelihood that some individual in theory would happen to have my unique combination of characteristics. But once my existence is established, even ludicrous claims that turn out to be false do not make my existence less likely.

I have bolded and italicized the last words. Here McGrath contradicts his opening claim in which he indicated that the historicity of Jesus was the “most likely” explanation to account for the data. Rather, he concludes by saying that there is nothing that could make the existence of a person any “less likely” once it has been established by the meeting of one known to be the person’s sibling. That sounds to me as though he takes Galatians 1:19 as definitely, unequivocally, establishing the historicity of Jesus.

I think at this point it is time to examine each piece of evidence and evaluate it on its own merits. And that means going back to the most fundamental rules of assessing the nature of the documents we have and the totality of data that bears upon the question. That’s what I have tried to do in my post Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?


“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 »

Could a common name like Jesus really be “a name above all names”?

Here is a modified form of an exploratory essay I posted at another forum. It was in response to the question raised by the “Philippian Hymn”: was the name of Jesus itself “the name above all names” that was bestowed on God’s Son after his exaltation after crucifixion?

6 [Christ Jesus], being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.  (NIV)

That looks like Jesus is the name that is “above every name”. But that seems so strange. We know the gospels tell us that Jesus had the name from birth. Besides, the name was the sixth most common male name at the time according to Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names (part 1, Palestine, 330 BCE – 200 CE, p. 56)

1 Simon 257
2 Joseph 231
3 Judah 179
4 Eleazar 177
5 Yohanan 128
6 Joshua = Jesus
7 Hananiah 85
8 Johnathan 75
9 Mattathias 63
10 Menahem 46

According to Wikipedia’s lists of most common given names in the last 100 years in the UK, Australia and USA, the equivalent would be Harry, Thomas and Benjamin.

We certainly don’t expect a “name above all names” to be a very common personal name, but then we don’t expect a very common personal name — the name itself — to have magical power when associated with a particular deity, either. Yet we do find the name of Jesus itself being chanted as having a magical power. From The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation:

Place olive branches before him, I and stand behind him and say:

“Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos,
the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father, who is above the Seven, / who is within
the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth; may your power issue forth from him, NN, until
you drive away this unclean daimon Satan, who is in him. I conjure you, daimon, —- p. 62

After placing [the patient] opposite [to you], conjure. This is the conjuration:

“I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, / Jesus, IABA IAE ABRAOTHA ….. etc. p. 96

A phylactery for fever:

“SARICH “Of Jesus Christ, son of IAO (?),
AORKACH quickly, quickly,
/ ROUGACH heal!…”

……………. p. 323

Ditto in Acts 3:16 — healing was performed by or in the name of Jesus

It is his name—that is, by faith in his name—that has healed this man whom you see and know. (ISV)

But in Acts 19:13 some mere nobodies or charlatans tried to use the name of Jesus to perform a miracle but they were punished and made to look complete idiots. The magical power of the name only worked if deployed by people with the right credentials.

Then some Jews who went around trying to drive out demons attempted to use the name of the Lord Jesus on those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by that Jesus whom Paul preaches!”  Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit told them, “Jesus I know, and I am getting acquainted with Paul, but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit jumped on them, got the better of them, and so violently overpowered all of them that they fled out of the house naked and bruised.

Otherwise it was nothing more than a powerless common name. 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.


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.

Jens Schröter
Jens Schröter

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 »

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.

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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Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...
“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.'”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:
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