Sunday, December 20, 2009

Conservative Scholars "Make Do" with the Historical Jesus

ChrisB offered the following comment on my post about responses to the Christ myth theory from the conservatives in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. “All this is really telling us is that you would like more information. Well, so would I, but we have to make do with what we have.”

I find Chris’ use of the phrase “make do” quite revealing because it suggests that the goal remains unchanged even if the means are less suitable. If I cannot afford a car, I still have to get to work so I “make do” by riding the bus or walking. If I cannot afford steak, I still have to eat so I “make do” with hamburger or peanut butter. If the evidence is insufficient to say with any certainty how some first century Jews came to believe in a resurrected Messiah, the Bible believing Christian still has to affirm that the historical Jesus is the Jesus of orthodox Christian faith. For conservative scholars, “making do” means paying lip service to objective historiography while finding some way to define the historical Jesus solely in terms of the gospel accounts.

I think I find Luke Timothy Johnson’s approach in Five Views most interesting. He freely acknowledges that the gospels “are replete with accounts of 'events' that in principle fall outside the ability of the historian to declare: virgin birth, voices from heaven, exorcisms, healings, transfiguration, resurrection.” He does believe that it can be established “that Jesus existed as a Jew in the first century, that he was executed by Roman authority in Palestine, that a movement arose in his name and proclaiming him as risen Lord spread across the Mediterranean world within twenty-five years” along with a few other basic facts. However, he doubts history’s ability to get much farther.

For Johnson, the solution to this dilemma is to read the gospels as literature and Jesus as a character in a narrative:
Rather than ask first concerning a word or deed of Jesus, “did Jesus really do this or say that?” the reader asks first, “what does attributing this saying or that deed” do to shape the meaning of the character of Jesus within the narrative?
Johnson believes that this makes the gospels into useful sources.
In this approach, the Gospels are treated not as limited and problematic sources for historical reconstruction but as invaluable witnesses to and interpretations of—precisely in their integrity as narratives—the human person, Jesus. The Gospels are read literarily rather than historically.
According to Johnson, understanding the literary character leads to understanding of the historical person:
Precisely because of their obvious divergence in their interpretations of the human Jesus, the Gospels are all the more valuable as witnesses on those points where they agree—even if their understanding of the point differs.
As Johnson’s alchemy proceeds, the literary character becomes historical fact.
Finally, the Jesus whom we engage and come to know as a human character in the canonical Gospels is also the historic Christ. It is this fully rounded literary character that provides the basis for the “Christ-Image” in literature, so recognizable a way of being human that it can be mistaken for no other.
It is a marvelous piece of prestidigitation. Perhaps Johnson can apply his techniques to root out the facts about other characters whose true history has been obscured by legend. Surely he can tease out the truth about King Arthur from Excalibur, Camelot, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. No doubt the facts pertaining to the rogue of Sherwood Forest lie somewhere between Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Kevin Kostner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Cary Elwes in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. It is too bad that historians have not discovered this technique before.

Like Johnson, James D.G. Dunn is willing to admit that the gospel accounts pose problems for a historian. He acknowledges that “normal historical means can hardly confirm” the resurrection. However, he denies that the historian should draw a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith:
In direct contrast to this deeply rooted suspicion of faith as a barrier to and perversion of any historical perspective on Jesus, my proposal is that the quest should start from the recognition that Jesus evoked faith from the outset of his mission and that this faith is the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission.
Where Johnson made do with a literary character, Dunn makes do with the faith that the historical Jesus inspired:
One thing we can be sure about: that Jesus made an impact in and through his mission. . . . What has not been given sufficient recognition or weight, however, is the effect of this impact. These disciples encountered Jesus as a life-transforming experience: they followed him; they left their families; they gave up their livelihoods. Why? Because they had believed Jesus and what he said and taught. Because they believed in Jesus.
Frankly, however, I think it is precisely the faith response of his disciples that calls into question the Jesus of history and affirms the Jesus of myth. In all the surviving letters from first century Christians, not a single one indicates that the writer's faith was based on what Jesus said or taught. Not a single one indicates that its author had been influenced by a parable Jesus told or a miracle he performed. Their faith is shaped entirely by their understanding of the resurrected Christ. The itinerant preacher who wandered Galilee is absent.

Rather than “making do” with the evidence, perhaps we need to “make peace” with the evidence. We need to acknowledge that there are many possible historical explanations for how the stories about Jesus came to be written the way they were ranging from a Jesus who is largely legendary to a historical Jesus who said and did many of the things that are attributed to him. Our sources are not sufficient to allow us to do much more than outline some of the possibilities. Choosing any one of them as most likely is by nature speculative and choosing any one to the exclusion of all others is silly.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jon Stewart Rips Laura Ingraham for Holocaust References

A few years back, the Right Wingnuts went crazy when Illinois Senator Dick Durbin dared to suggest that the photos coming out of Abu Ghraib prison reminded him of something he would expect to find in a totalitarian regime. Now, however, these same jackasses have no qualms about using Holocaust analogies to oppose health care reform that would still leave Americans far short of what citizens enjoy in almost every other industrialized democracy in the world.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Perhaps Stewart's best line was his response to the moron who insisted that "we can never let the pen become mightier than the sword."

"The pen being mightier than the sword is only the basis for our civilization."

Ehrman on Paul's Historical Jesus

As I noted, I am not persuaded by conservative scholars attempts to read the historical Jesus of the gospels into Paul's epistles. However, I haven't run across any liberal scholars tackling the issue as thoroughly as I would like. I heard Bart Ehrman say that he sometimes assigns his new students the task of listing everything Paul says that Jesus said and did, and that they are always surprised by how little there is. On the other hand, I haven't heard Ehrman address the implications of that for the question of the historicity of Jesus himself.

I was intrigued to run across the following comment from Ehrman about the dispute that Paul describes having with Peter in his letter to the Galatians:
One can imagine Peter himself saying such a thing to Paul in their controversy in Antioch: "You think you're right because you saw Jesus for a few moments on the road to Damascus? I spent years with him."
I can imagine that very well. What I find much harder to imagine is how no hint of that found its way into any of the epistles.

I occurs to me, however, that the historical Jesus might have had a much shorter ministry than the gospels give him credit for. Perhaps he was a disciple of John the Baptist who started proclaiming John's message after John was beheaded only to be snatched up and executed by the Romans within days of starting out. Perhaps there are no disputes in the epistles about the meaning of what he said because he did not have a chance to say much besides "Repent. The end is near."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Conservative Scholars Respond to the Christ Myth Theory

It is often hard to find conservative Christian scholars who will respond to the mythological Jesus arguments with anything other than derision so I was pleased to find a recent book titled The Historical Jesus: Five Views in which scholars of various viewpoints give their take on the current state of the quest for the historical Jesus. What I really like about the book is that each of the scholars writes a brief response to the other essays so we get to see how conservative scholars James D.G. Dunn, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Darrell L. Bock as well as Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan respond to Robert Price’s defense of the argument that there never was a historical Jesus.

Price’s argument is titled Jesus at the Vanishing Point and it focuses heavily on the question that I find most intriguing: Why don’t Paul’s epistles contain any details of Jesus’ life prior to the crucifixion?
Setting aside the very late 1 Timothy, which presupposes the Gospel of John (the only Gospel in which Jesus “made a good confession before Pontius Pilate”),19 we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context, only that the fallen angels (Col 2:15), the archons of this age, did him in, little realizing they were sealing their own doom (1 Cor 2:6-8). It is hard to imagine that the authors of Romans 13:3 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 (where we read that Roman governors punish only the wicked, not the righteous) believed that Jesus died at the order of Pontius Pilate. We should never even suspect he performed a single miracle, since none are mentioned. Did Paul think his Jesus had been a teacher? We just don’t know, since his cherished “commands of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:10, cf. 25; 9:14), while they might represent quotations from something like the Q source, may as well be midrashically derived inferences from Old Testament commands of Adonai in the Torah, or even prophetic mandates from the Risen One.

I don’t suppose that anyone will be shocked to learn that I didn’t find the conservative Christian responses to Price terribly convincing. I thought that they were much too blithe in asserting that a historical Jesus could be found throughout the New Testament and not just in the Gospels. When it came to citing actual points at which the historical Jesus could be found in Paul’s epistles, I thought their examples were pretty weak.

Timothy Luke Johnson got first crack at Price and he appealed to what he calls “two interrelated historical facts” that require explanation:
The Christian movement did not exist before Jesus, and when it appeared across the Mediterranean world of the first century, the “Lord” who was believed to be present in the cult worship was not an Egyptian or Persian deity, but a failed Jewish Messiah who was executed under Roman authority in the time of Tiberius. . . .

The second historical fact is the composition of at least twenty-seven distinct compositions within a fifty year period by members of this religious movement, all of which, despite their diversity of literary genre, social setting and theological perspective, have the same Jesus as their point of focus, and the same generative matrix, namely the death and resurrection of the human person Jesus.

The problem is that I do not think that either of these counts as a historical fact. The earliest record we have of the appearance of the Christian movement is the letters of Paul and he doesn’t say anything about when or where Jesus was executed and very little about why. Of “the twenty-seven distinct compositions,” only five of them contain details about what a human person said or did and the time and place when he lived. The point of focus of the other twenty-two is a theological figure whose significance rests entirely on his death and resurrection. The writers of these twenty-two books don’t demonstrate any knowledge of the contents of the other five and write nothing to indicate that the contents of them would be relevant to anything they have to say about the theological figure.

Johnston goes on to point out where he thinks the historical Jesus can be found outside the gospels:
Price’s effort to remove evidence of Jesus from Paul’s letters amounts to an unconvincing tour de force. I mention only three examples. (1) He leaves aside the evidence in Paul’s letters that Jesus was Jewish (Gal 4:4)—indeed, descended from David (Rom 1:3)—and was regarded as Messiah (Rom 9:4). (2) He does not acknowledge that Paul’s reference to a command of the Lord concerning divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10 provides multiple attestation for Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 10:2-8; Mt 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Lk 16:18) and shows how the criterion of dissimilarity—for all its problems—actually yields positive evidence concerning Jesus’ teaching, for the very struggles found in Matthew and Paul to provide some exceptions to the command testify to its being a received tradition, and one contrary both to Greco-Roman and Jewish practice.

These don’t seem terribly impressive to me. That Paul thought the Jewish Messiah was Jewish doesn’t seem to require a known historical person. Neither does the fact that the Jewish Messiah comes from the line of David. The prohibition against divorce is more interesting, but it does not seem nearly as definitive as Johnson would like to believe. The passage in Corinthians deals with what changes believers should make in their lives given the imminent Second Coming. Paul advises slaves to remain slaves and he advises married people to remain married citing the Lord as his source for the latter admonition. That context seems much different than Jesus’ teachings on divorce in the synoptic gospels. They could be related, but I think there is plenty of room for doubt.

I suppose I should say what I think the epistles might contain if Paul did have well-known recently deceased teacher in mind. First I would expect Paul to support his arguments when possible by citing things that Jesus had said. Second, I think Paul would be forced to discuss the significance of things Jesus said and did when others referred to them. For example, Paul argues against other believers who insisted that pagan converts should be circumcised and observe the Jewish dietary laws. His opponents would naturally have pointed to Jesus’ statement that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished,” (Matthew 5:18) had they heard it from Jesus’ own mouth. The fact that the letters of the earliest Christians don’t reflect any disputed interpretations of the things Jesus said or did during his life leads me to believe that none of them had any knowledge of them.

James D.G. Dunn decided to go with derision in his response to Price:
Gosh! So there are still serious scholars who put forward the view that the whole account of Jesus’ doings and teachings are a later myth foisted on an unknown, obscure historical figure. . . .
This is always the fatal flaw with the ‘Jesus myth’ thesis: the improbability of the total invention of a figure who had purportedly lived within the generation of the inventers, or the imposition of such an elaborate myth on some minor figure from Galilee. Price is content with the explanation that it all began "with a more or less vague savior myth." Sad, really.
Personally I find this kind of sarcasm rather sad.

Dunn does even worse then Johnson when he tries to find evidence of a historical Jesus in Paul’s epistles:
Where I begin to become irritated by Price’s thesis, as with those of his predecessors, is his ignoring what everyone else in the business regards as primary data and his readiness to offer less plausible hypotheses to explain other data that inconveniences his thesis. Why no mention of 1 Corinthians 15:3—generally reckoned to be an account of the faith that Paul received when he was converted, that is, within two or three years of the putative events—“that Christ died….” Why no reference to Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23), his preaching as openly portraying Christ as crucified (Gal 3:1)? How can Price actually assert that “we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context,” when it is well enough known that crucifixion was a Roman political method of execution characteristically for rebels and slaves? I could go on at some length—“seed of David” (Rom 1:3), “born under the law” (Gal 4:4), “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). Yet Price is able to assert that “the Epistles…do not evidence a recent historical Jesus,” a ludicrous claim that simply diminishes the credibility of the arguments used in support.

Dunn’s argument boils down to little more than “we should read all these passages as referring to a historical person because everybody knows that Jesus was a historical figure. The reason that Price doesn’t mention the passages in Corinthians is because Paul says nothing to indicate where or when the crucifixion took place. While the fact that Christ was crucified may bring to mind the Romans, the Carthaginians, Persians, and Greeks had practiced crucifixion in the five centuries since it had been invented so it really doesn’t narrow potential times, places, or responsible parties very much. I have no doubt that Dunn could go on at length but if he decides to lead off with “seed of David,” “born under the law,” and “did not please himself,” I doubt that he is going to get very far towards establishing that Paul believed in a recent historical Christ.

Bock is much more civil than Dunn, but he also assumes the points that upon which Price seeks evidence:
Price’s claim actually ignores many features we can consider historically, such as a figure’s impact on his contemporaries or their testimonies that this impact is not a matter of myth. First-century Christian documents clearly claim this distinction, which means they are aware of the difference and reject a tie to myth for Jesus. This puts Jesus and his historical reality on the table.
Price's point is that Jesus’ teachings and miracles do not seem to have made any impact whatsoever on the writers of twenty-two out of the twenty-seven first century Christian documents. It may be clear that the gospel writers claim the distinction between a mythological and historical Jesus, but it is not clear that anyone else does.

After reading three leading conservative scholars’ comments on the mythological Jesus argument, I still don’t see a more satisfactory explanation for the dearth of evidence for the historical Jesus in the epistles that that the writers of those epistles did not have a historical figure in mind.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Historical Reliability of the Gospels and Eyewittnesses

One of the arguments I see most frequently in support of the historical reliability of the gospels is that they were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. The idea seems to be that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could not have gotten away with fabricating stories about Jesus because the eyewitnesses who knew the true stories would have set them straight.

The first problem with this argument is it assumes that there were eyewitnesses who knew true stories about Jesus. As I pointed out in my posts about Paul's understanding of the historical Jesus, our earliest Christian sources don't say anything about anyone having any contact with Jesus before he began making appearances after his resurrection. If the earliest Christians weren't witnesses to the events described in the gospels, they wouldn't be in a position to contradict the gospel stories.

Another problem is that we do not know that the gospels' authors weren't contradicted. As I also pointed out, references to the gospel stories by other Christian writers are not found until sometime in the second century. If the dates traditionally assigned to the gospels of 60-90 A.D. are correct, it is possible that they were contradicted by the first generation Christians who knew that the movement was not founded on the person that the gospel writers were describing. It could be that the gospel stories only came to be accepted as part of the tradition after the earliest Christians had passed from the scene.

For me, however, the biggest problem with this theory is that fanatics tend to be impervious to facts. In our present day, we have people who deny the holocaust. We have people who deny that man landed on the moon. We have people who believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. We have people who believe that a controlled demolition engineered by the Bush administration brought down the Twin Towers. We have people who believe that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus in order to kill Black people. We have people who believe that Jewish scientists created the AIDS virus to kill Black people. I could go on and on. There is more than enough evidence available at the click of a mouse to render all of these beliefs absurd. Nevertheless, people believe these theories with a passion that is frightening. What possible reason could we have for thinking that the earliest Christians would have been deterred by an eyewitness who asserted that the tomb was not empty?

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (4)

In many ways, the Jesus we find in Paul’s letters is a cipher. His activities prior to his death are unknown other than the fact that he instituted the Eucharistic meal. Where and when he lived is unknown. Where and when he was crucified is unknown. Little if anything is known of the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion other than that he was betrayed. His only contacts with identifiable people are the appearances he made after he rose from the dead. He might have had a brother named James, but maybe that was a spiritual relationship rather that a biological one.

Paul was not the first person to witness an appearance of Jesus, but we don’t know much about the theological significance that the others attached to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul says that the message he preached about Christ’s atoning death was revealed to him directly by Christ himself. Even the part about the Eucharistic meal Paul says he received from Christ. We don’t know whether this is what the earlier believers thought before Paul came along because Paul says that they contributed nothing to his message.

If all we had was Paul’s letters, we might reasonably conclude that Christianity had its origins in the vision that Paul had on the road to Damascus rather than in an actual person who lived and walked around Galilee in the first century.

So where did the gospel stories come from?

Paul was undoubtedly a very charismatic guy and his story and his message of Christ’s atoning death was enough to convince a lot of people to embrace the new faith. As time went by, however, and the religion spread, curiosity about what Jesus had said and done would have grown. Paul’s story might have been enough for people who heard it directly from him, but as the religion became several steps removed from it, people might have been easier to convert if the preachers could tell them some stories about Jesus himself.

If these early preachers were honest fellows, they wouldn’t want simply to invent stories, so they would need a source. They knew that Jesus had been the Messiah who had been foretold in the Jewish scriptures because Paul told them so. As the Messiah, he must have done the things that the Jewish prophets had said the Messiah would do. All the preachers had to do was look in the Old Testament to find out what Jesus had done during his life.

As the stories were told and retold, they were expanded. Things that Paul had said were attribute to Jesus. Things that other apocalyptic preachers like John the Baptist had said and done were attributed to Jesus. Eventually, the author of the Gospel of Mark pulled the stories together to form a coherent narrative that supported his interpretation of Jesus.

Can I prove that this is what happened?

Of course not. In fact, I see some serious holes in this theory as well, because it is not just Paul’s letters that neglect Jesus’ life prior to his crucifixion. None of the first century Christian writers including Clement demonstrate any knowledge of the gospels or the stories they contain. Perhaps the attempts to historicize Paul’s Jesus did not take place until much later.

In the comments to a post about alternative explanations for the resurrection over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton posed the following question: “If you did not have a anti-supernaturalistic bias against the possibility of the resurrection, wouldn’t you say that a belief that Christ rose from the grave is at least a good possibility for the evidence?”

Not surprisingly, I answered no. A big part of that no comes from my inability to trace the lineage of the gospel stories. If in fact the Christian message in Jerusalem around 35 A.D. was based on a recently diseased individual whose life and death were personally witnessed by the earliest Christians, I would think that any historical explanation would have to take the stories about Jesus’ life and death seriously. However, I don’t think that there is enough evidence to show that the gospel stories were not much later additions to a movement that was founded solely on Paul’s interpretation of a vision he had. As such, I cannot see any reason to resort to supernatural explanations.