Monday, June 30, 2014

Who Would Invent a Crucified Messiah?

Liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman and James McGrath argue that one of the ways we can know that Jesus was a historical person is that first century Jews had no expectations that the messiah would suffer and die.  At the time, all Jews believed that the messiah would be a conquering hero. Therefore, the only explanation for this belief arising is that someone who was believed to be the messiah by his followers actually suffered and died.

Christians claim that the prophet Isaiah predicted that the messiah would suffer for the sins of his people:
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53 3:5.  However, Ehrman says that first century Jews didn't understand this as a messianic prophecy.  Rather, the prophet is describing the past suffering of Israel during the Babylonian exile.

What I find interesting is that Christian apologists use the same logic to argue that Jesus was really resurrected from the dead.  Since no first century Jews expected the messiah to suffer and die, the only explanation for this belief arising is that Jesus of Nazareth proved he was the messiah by rising from the dead.

Personally, I don't think we really know enough about how an idea like this might have been invented to say what must have happened to cause it.  Ehrman writes "Who would make up the idea of a crucified messiah?  No Jew that we know of."  So what?  Prior to Joseph Smith, did we know of any Christians who would make up the idea of the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni?  Does that give us any reason to think that there is anything historical about Smith's stories.

I think it entirely plausible that the idea arose of a crucified messiah because the follower of an executed messianic claimant interpreted Isaiah as a prophecy in order to cling to his belief in the man he had followed.  However, I don't see how that makes it highly probable and I don't see how that is the only way it could have happened.  Given the number of devout Jews who must of been searching their scriptures in order to understand why God had not sent a messiah to deliver His people from their tribulations, I think that any number of people might have stumbled on the idea that Isaiah 53 3:5 was a prophecy.

Moreover, even if we could establish that the execution of a real messianic claimant is the most likely circumstance under which a first century Jew would come up with the idea of a suffering messiah, does that mean that it must have been one of Jesus' followers who did so?  Potential messiahs were a dim a dozen if first century Palestine.  It's equally likely that it was a follower of John the Baptist who stumbled upon the idea in an effort to understand his death or the follower of one of the many other messianic claimants of the day.

I was recently chided by Dr. McGrath for making such suggestions:
[T]he existence of sources which say things that are radically different than the ones we have is itself a mere possibility, which cannot be excluded but neither should it be assumed to be probable. And so we should and do assess historical probabilities using the evidence we have, not the evidence that we could theoretically have.
I could not help but note that the sources we have say nothing about the idea of a crucified messiah arising from someone's attempt to maintain their belief in a messianic claimant in the face of his execution.  The sources we have say that the belief in a crucified messiah arose from Jesus of Nazareth literally rising from the dead and appearing physically to his followers.  The whole enterprise of trying to determine the actual events that might have led to the development of such stories necessarily involves a great deal of speculation and conjecture.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Historical Jesus Agnosticism is Not a Slippery Slope

The fact that we can have little, if any, certainty about a first century itinerant preacher who had little impact during his life outside a small group of illiterate peasant followers doesn't mean that we can't have a reasonable degree of certainty about emperors and generals and politicians who were widely enough known during their lives that their activities were chronicled by their contemporaries.  The notion that questioning the existence of a historical Jesus necessitates tossing out all ancient history is nonsense.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Minimal Facts Needed to Explain the Growth of Christianity

(1)  People want their lives to have meaning.

(2)   People are afraid of death.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Can We Be Sure About Anything that Jesus Said?

One of the reasons I remain so skeptical about the mainstream consensus of historical Jesus scholars is their propensity to express what seems to me to be absurd degrees of certainty about things that Jesus said and did. For example, last year in a blog post titled Is Historical Jesus Research Futile?, Dr. James McGrath wrote, "The fact that one can configure things that Jesus almost certainly said in different arrangements and thus different overall portraits does not mean that there are not things that he almost certainly said."  The problem is that what things a scholar thinks Jesus really said is going to depend on the overall portrait that they draw.

I've never been completely sure which things Dr. McGrath is almost certain Jesus said, but he provided one example in a recent comment.  "And given the evidence, I certainly do think that there are a small number of things which it is very probable that Jesus said - the use of abba in reference to God being a good example."  "Abba" is an Aramaic word meaning "father" that appears three times in the New Testament at Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, and Galatians 4:6.  It is only the first passage that attributes use of the word to Jesus while he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I found the explanation for McGrath's confidence in a 2008 post titled What Jesus Said and Did: 1) Prayer in Gethsemane
Paul already seems to have associated the address of God as Father in Aramaic with Jesus’ relationship to God as son. The only appearances of this Aramaic word in the New Testament are in the earliest Gospel and in Paul’s letters. And there is no reason Paul would have used the term in writing to non-Aramaic-speaking Christians other than that the term already had some significance for them, presumably in connection with Jesus, the object of their faith and devotion.
That's a pretty big leap there.  It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that Christian use of the word "Abba" predates Paul's letters, but that doesn't give us any reason to suppose that it was Jesus who first used it.  It could have been Peter or James or any other Aramaic speaker who introduced the word into the Church's vocabulary.  It might even have been Paul himself at some time prior to writing the epistles.  There is nothing in Paul's letters that gives us a clue as to how the word "Abba" came to have significance for Greek speaking Christians.

The only thing pointing to Jesus as the responsible party is Mark 16:36, where Jesus prays “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”  However, this could just be Mark attributing to Jesus a usage that was already common among Christians.  I find it interesting that Jesus' only use of the word comes in the Garden of Gethsemane when there would have been no witnesses as he was praying alone while his disciples slept.  Had tradition preserved some genuine memory of Jesus using the word, I might expect Mark to put the word on his lips in some more public setting.

Is it possible that Jesus actually used the word "Abba" to describe his relationship with God?  Sure.  Is it "very probable" based on the available evidence?  Not a chance.

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.