Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tapestry or Jigsaw Puzzle?

Try to imagine the picture of the historical Jesus that emerges from a rigorously, historical, critical examination of our surviving sources as a large tapestry. The individual threads make up the overall portrait. There are a few threads here and there that appear out of place at first glance. But you can’t take these few threads and claim that they represent the overall portrait of the tapestry. The tapestry has to be understood as a whole, looking for the major features of its portrayal (and of course the stray threads need to be fit into it somehow).
Bart Ehrman.

The quote above comes from a blog post Ehrman wrote discussing Reza Aslan's book Zealot, which argues that Jesus was actually a political revolutionary who advocated violent resistance to the Romans.  Ehrman finds Aslan's thesis unpersuasive.
The data that do seem to support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary are very, very few and far between. They do not comprise the majority, or even a significant minority, of the data we can establish as going back to the historical Jesus.
I can imagine the picture of the historical Jesus as a large tapestry, but I think that the analogy is terrible. I think that a better analogy is a large jigsaw puzzle for which we only have a handful of pieces--say a 5,000 piece puzzle where we only have about seventy-five of the pieces.

Now suppose that of our seventy-five pieces, sixty are green.   We might be inclined to conclude that the picture is some sort of landscape, perhaps a forest.  However, in order to justify this conclusion, we would need to know how we got those pieces.  If someone simply reached into the box and grabbed a handful of pieces, it might be reasonable to think that they are a representative sample and that 80% of the entire picture is green.  On the other hand, if someone grabbed the pieces from a single area of a completed puzzle, there would be less reason to think that green predominates in the whole.

Even if we could establish that some data goes back to the historical Jesus (which I doubt), Ehrman's argument presupposes that such data constitutes a representative sample of Jesus' words and deeds.  I cannot see  how such a presupposition can be justified.  The data we have is the data preserved by people who came to believe that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah who God had raised from the dead. They would have no reason to preserve anything about him that did not support that picture.  Had Jesus been a revolutionary Zealot, data that portrayed him as an apocalyptic preacher might still have been the only data that was preserved.  In fact, if you subscribe to the criteria of dissimilarity, those few data points that support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary may be the points that are most likely to be authentic as no one would have any reason to invent those.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul as Evidence for a Historical Jesus: HJA (29)

When my earliest extant source for Alexander the Great tells me that he is relying on contemporary biographers of Alexander, I take that as some evidence that information about a historical person was remembered and passed on. I may need to consider the possibility of invention or falsehood, but it is at least some evidence.

On the other hand, when my earliest extant source for Jesus tells me that he is relying on divine revelation, supernatural appearances, and centuries-old holy writings, I do not think that I can take that as any evidence that information about a historical person was remembered and passed on. I can consider the possibility that this occurred, but I cannot say that he has given me any evidence that it did. Moreover, I may even need to ask whether he hasn't given me some evidence that the opposite is the case.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Can We Be Sure that Jesus Died on a Cross?

Apologist Michael Licona answers this question in the affirmative:
First, Jesus' execution is reported in a number of ancient sources: Christian and non-Christian. In addition to the four Gospels and a number of letters contained in the New Testament, all of which were written in the first century, Jesus' execution is even reported by a number of ancient non-Christian sources. Josephus (late first century), Tacitus (early second century), Lucian (early to mid second century), and Mara bar Serapion (second to third centuries) all report the event. The fact that these non-Christians mentioned Jesus in their writings shows that Jesus' death was known outside of Christian circles and was not something the Christians invented.
Regarding the non-Christian sources, Licona is plainly mistaken.  The fact that the story of Jesus' crucifixion became known outside Christian circles sixty years later does not in any way show that Christians didn't invent it.

Regarding the Christian sources, I am struck by a comment Licona made about Matthew 28:16 in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.   In that passage, the disciples go to Galilee to meet the resurrected Jesus and "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."  Licona suggests that one possibility is that it was not any of the disciples who doubted, but outsiders who just happened to be present:
In the back of the crowd one man says to another, "What is all the excitement about? We have heard Jesus before. What is so special this time?" The other answers, "Didn't you hear? Jesus was crucified last Friday in Jerusalem and he has risen from the dead!" The first is skeptical of the report and says, "Someone got things wrong. The Romans must have crucified someone else."
This strikes me as an eminently sensible analysis. The very fact that Jesus is walking around and talking is an excellent reason for doubting that he had been crucified. I can easily imagine that same skeptical fellow asking "Did any of you see Jesus being crucified?" The disciples might have honestly replied "No. After Jesus was arrested, we went into hiding," after which, the skeptical fellow would have been fully justified in remaining skeptical.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Did Paul Go to Jerusalem for an Endorsement or a Sit Down?

I've been wondering recently why Paul's Christian communities in Galatia didn't break away from the apostles in Jerusalem.  After all, in the first two chapters of Galatians Paul speaks of the Jerusalem gang as false brothers and hypocrites who taught him nothing and added nothing to his message.  One possibility that occurs to me is that the Jerusalem gang had a connection with the actual historical Jesus of Nazareth that Paul identified with the risen Christ of his visions.

I ran this theory past Richard Carrier in a recent comment on his blog and he didn't buy it.  He suggested other reasons why Paul wouldn't and couldn't have split off on his own
Paul’s communities were probably supporting Jerusalem because he didn’t form them. Paul doesn’t ever explicitly say he did (neither does Acts, incidentally: it mentions making converts, but never being the first to have done so, or having established communities; Paul’s letters, meanwhile, were written twenty years after Jesus is supposed to have died, and thus the churches he is writing to could well have existed half a generation before Paul came and expanded them with new converts). Thus Paul may well have just come to already-existing congregations, teaching a new gospel (just as Apollos then did, which Paul then has to accommodate, Paul then being in the same position Peter and gang were with respect to Paul).
According to Carrier, Paul needed both the support of the entire church network and the endorsement of the apostles in Jerusalem.

Although I appreciate Carrier's insights and look forward to his book outlining his theories on mythicism, I am doubtful that I will be persuaded that mythicism is more than one of a number of possible explanations for the origin of Christianity.  It may well be that rather than forming communities, Paul brought his message to existing communities, but I don't see any way to be sure.  For every "it may well be," there is an equal and opposite "it may well not be" (or at least a comparable one).

Paul may well have needed the endorsement of the Jerusalem gang to carry on his work among the gentiles, but there is a key point that makes me question that whether that was so.  Jerusalem called for the circumcision of converts and Paul didn't.   I cannot help but think that this would have given Paul a tremendous amount of leverage.  In any conflict between Paul and the gang in Jerusalem, the Galatians would have a strong motivation to take Paul's side.

Carrier imagines a relationship in which Paul is like the loan shark who seeks permission to operate within the local mob boss's territory, in return for which the mob boss gets a cut of the profits.  While that may well be, I think it is just as easy to imagine a relationship in which Paul is one mob boss having a sit down with another mob boss in order to establish that one of them gets Brooklyn and the other gets Queens. When Paul writes "they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. . . . James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me," (Gal. 2:7,9) I hear Tony Soprano and Carmine Lupertazzi divvying up turf.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Doubting the Resurrection

One of the best parts of Kris Komarnitsky's book Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box? is his discussion of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.  He provides several examples of religious movements that were faced with evidence that seemingly disconfirmed their belief irrefutably.  In each case, the believers found a way to reinterpret and reinvent their beliefs in order to keep the movement going.

One of his examples is the 19th century Millerites:
The Millerite movement began in 1818 with a man named William Miller and by the 1840s had membership in the thousands across many cities. Miller believed that the Bible predicted Jesus’ second coming would be sometime between March 21st 1843 and March 21st 1844. When the later date came and went without incident, the movement did not crumble. Instead, despite heavy ridicule, the group’s founder and his apostles rationalized that there must have been some minor error in calculating the exact time, but the end was nevertheless still near. A corrected date came from a follower within the movement by the name of Reverend Samuel Snow. Despite the objections of the group’s leaders that the exact date could not be known, Snow declared October 22nd 1844 as the new date for Jesus’ second coming.
Not surprisingly, Jesus failed to show again
This second disconfirmation almost killed the movement, but still, yet another and this time much more complex rationalization emerged – the date had been correct, but Jesus’ second coming had occurred in heaven not on earth, Jesus had begun an investigative judgment of the world, and when he is done he will return to earth, but no one knows exactly when.18 This rationalization was sustained and continues to this day with membership in the millions. It is known as the Church of Seventh-day Adventists.
Komarnitsky suggests a similar thinking process among the apostles.
Like the earlier examples of cognitive dissonance reduction, a sustaining rationalization for Jesus’ death would most likely have emerged very quickly and in the presence of others who could offer mutual encouragement. . . .The rationalization did not need to be perfect, but it did need to adequately answer what would to them have been the two most natural and pressing questions: Why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah? I suggest that these two pressing questions resulted in the following initial two-part rationalization among some of Jesus’ followers: 1) Jesus died for our sins and 2) Jesus will be back soon to reign as the Messiah should.

According to Komarnitsky's hypothesis, the apostles rationalized the death of Jesus as a necessary atonement for the sins of Israel and comforted each other with the notion that God would restore him to life very shortly in order to finish the task of ushering in the kingdom of God.  It was only after they had reached these conclusions that the appearances began.  Some of the experiences might have been visual hallucinations while others may simply have been simply strong feelings of Jesus' presence.  Once the precedent had been set, every dream, hunch, and tingle would have been interpreted as Jesus' making his presence felt.  Paul never says that it was the appearances that led the apostles (nor himself for that matter) to believe that Jesus had been resurrected.   Komarnitsky suggests that the belief in the resurrection came first and that the gospel stories were later embellishments.  I think that his hypothesis is entirely plausible.

One quibble that I do have with Komarnitsky is his tendency overstate the strength of some apologetic arguments before offering his own hypothesis as the only convincing counter.  For example, he quotes N.T. Wright's argument that mere hallucinations couldn't have caused the apostles to believe that Jesus had been resurrected: "Precisely because such encounters [visions of a recently dead person] were reasonably well known, they could not possibly, by themselves, have given rise to the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead…." Komarnitsky explains:
In other words, if a regular post-mortem hallucination of a recently deceased loved one gave birth to the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, then we should see beliefs in resurrected loved ones scattered throughout Jewish history. But we do not see that. The only explanation that seems to me to be capable of explaining the nearly instantaneous rise of such radical beliefs is the just as radical human phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.
While I agree that Komarnitsky's hypothesis makes a lot of sense, I don't quite buy the idea that the apostles' understanding of hallucinations was so sophisticated that they couldn't have misinterpreted one as a resurrection without first believing in the resurrection.  While they may have understood the idea of a hallucination of someone who wasn't really there, they also believed in genuine encounters with heavenly beings that might be phsyical such as the Transfiguration or non-physical such as the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream.  I don't find Wright persuasive at all.

Another point where I think he gives to much credit to the apologists is in answering William Lane Craig's assertion that "[i]t is unlikely that women would have been selected to find the empty tomb if it was a legend."  Writes Komarnitsky:
I would agree with this if it were not for the last sentence in the Gospel of Mark: “[The women] fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). As argued in Chapter One of this book (pg. 14-18), this ending makes perfect sense if, in this first version of the discovered empty tomb legend, the women’s fear-induced silence gave an answer to the question why the women’s story of the empty tomb remained unknown for so long. The use of women makes perfect sense in this case – all women could do was react in fear and terror; they were so scared that they never passed the message on.
While I agree that this is a valid reason for rejecting Craig's claim, I think there are plenty of other reasons to disagree as well, i,e., the women were not being called to testify in a Jewish court; Mark was writing to Christian converts living in communities where women enjoyed a higher status than they did under Jewish law, Mark's audience is hearing the story from Mark, not the women, and they will believe it because they believe him, not the women; a major theme in Mark's story is that the apostles don't understand who Jesus is.   Using the women to provide cover for Mark's invention is far from the only plausible explanation.

Friday, February 7, 2014

More on Michael Licona's Apologetics

It's not often that you can engage with a big time apologist about his book, but I had the opportunity to do so on a post at Crux Sola which discussed a recent interview with Michael Licona.  After I criticized his claim that "Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels," he replied
You obviously have not read my large volume on the topic, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” (IVP Academic, 2010). In that volume, I’m very clear that I’m not using the Gospels.
Which gave me the opportunity to say
I have read your book and it explicitly appeals to the gospels repeatedly. Among other things, you use the gospels to “support the conclusion that the reports of Jesus’ resurrection place it in a significantly charged religious context,” which you claim is one of the criteria by which a historian can judge that a miracle took place. Your discussion of the nature of the appearance experiences necessarily depends almost entirely on the gospels as Paul gives us no details about them.
Whereupon he responded
You’re correct about that, Vinny. However, it’s not at all a major portion of my historical argument as I thought you were suggesting. Of course, I also use the Gospels to discuss the empty tomb, the conversion of Jesus’s brother James, and Jesus’s predictions pertaining to his imminent death and resurrection. However, I distinguish all of these as tier two facts. And I state that I would only use tier two facts in my process should two or more hypotheses end up in a draw after only considering tier one facts. My final case for Jesus’s resurrection only appeals to tier one facts. So, I would not put it as you did that my book “depends heavily on the portrait of Jesus painted by the Gospels.”
So let's take a look at Licona's tier one facts and see whether or not they depend on an appeal to the Gospels:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
Now I suppose that Licona might claim that he can establish that Jesus was crucified without appealing to the gospels, but in fact he cites them as a source for this.  However, I can't see any way he can get his second fact without appealing to the gospels, because Paul doesn't provide us enough information to do so in his only discussion of the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Let's note the elements of Licona's second fact that Paul doesn't corroborate:
  • Paul doesn't say that the appearances occurred "very shortly" after Jesus' death. In fact, Bart Ehrman has written that it may have been weeks or months later.
  • Paul doesn't say that the appearances led to the belief that Jesus had been resurrected. One of the points Kris Komarnitsky makes in his book is that the process of cognitive dissonance reduction might have led the apostles to rationalize the seeming failure of their movement by inventing the idea that God had returned Jesus to life before they had any visions and that it was in fact the rationalization that primed them to have the visions.  For all we can say from Paul, the belief in the resurrection could have led to the appearances.  Interestingly, Paul never says whether Jesus' appeared to him before or after he came to believe in the resurrection.  Perhaps the appearances were similar to the Mormon's Twelve Witnesses, who believed in the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni before they saw them.
  • The only appearance that Paul explicitly identifies as a group experience is the appearance to the five hundred.  Although the occurrence of group appearances is not expressly a part of Licona's second fact, he does refer several times to the appearances occurring to individuals and groups, but Paul doesn't say that the appearances to the Twelve or the appearances to all the apostles were simultaneous.
  • Paul also doesn't say much about anybody's proclamation but his own.
So I'll be interested to see whether Licona responds to my follow up comment:
Do you really suppose that there would be any consensus among scholars on your first tier facts were it not for the Gospels? Don’t you cite them yourself as evidence that Jesus was crucified? How would any scholar be certain that the appearances occurred “very shortly” after Jesus’ death without the Gospels? Paul never says so (and in fact Ehrman thinks it might have been weeks or months). Nor does Paul tell us it was the appearances that convinced the apostles that Jesus had been resurrected rather than simply confirming a revelation that was received in some other way. Without the Gospels, you have no basis for claiming that your first tier facts constitute “historical bedrock.”