Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (2)

Dr. James McGrath of Butler University devoted much of his February blogging at Exploring Our Matrix to making comparisons between creationists and mythicists.  In a series of posts he argued that it is just as goofy to doubt that there was a historical as to doubt evolution.  I questioned McGrath on a few points but his chief challenger was Neil Godfrey both in his comments and in posts on his own Vridar blog.

For me personally, the biggest flaw in McGrath's analogy is in the question of the paths that lead to each conclusion.  I don't think that mainstream biology is likely to lead anyone to seriously consider creationism.   On the other hand, I had always assumed that there was a historical Jesus, but I have become less sure that I can know anything about him with any certainty as a result of reading the work of mainstream scholars like Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, John Dominic Crossan, Geza Vermes, John Shelby Spong, Burton Mack, and even James McGrath.  The more I read of these scholars, all of whom are historicists, the more Robert Price's notion of "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" resonates for me.

One the questions I tried to raise with McGrath  was what it really meant to say that Jesus was historical or mythological:
Suppose that Paul’s Jesus was mythological or suppose that Paul’s understanding and preaching of Jesus was based entirely on the visionary experience he had of the risen Christ and had nothing to do with anything that an actual person said or did.

Further suppose that some of the things described in Mark’s gospel happened to actual people or were said by actual people, and that Mark attributed these sayings and events to Paul’s Jesus.

Would that make the Jesus of the gospels historical or mythological?

I am troubled by the argument that the mythicist position fails “[i]f even one saying of Jesus, or action by him, or something done to him such as the crucifixion, is clearly more likely to represent authentic historical information rather than something invented.” As a matter of probability, it seems likely to me that something described somewhere in the gospels happened to an actual historical human being who may even have been named “Jesus.” On the other hand, it also seems possible to me that the Christian movement sprang from the ecstatic visions experienced by the members of a cult in first century Jerusalem and that it was only coincidentally related to any actual historical person.

If it could be shown that there was an actual historical person named Arthur Pendragon, wouldn’t we still think of King Arthur of Camelot as a myth?
McGrath conceded that this was an "excellent point," and a few of the other commenters seemed interested in discussing the whether historicism and mythicism overlap.  In particular, Eric Reitan responded directly to my question by laying out sliding scale :
Contrast the following claims:

(1) There was an historic king of the Britons named Arthur, and his life was exactly as described by Sir Thomas Malory in _Le Morte d’Arthur_.

(2) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great that, after being slain by a usurper, those loyal to him would gather secretly to swear allegiance to his bloodline and share stories about him—stories said to come from Artur’s closest thanes. The earliest writings from these communities are by a priest more interested in the meaning of Artur’s life than the details of it. But after a few decades, several followers attempted to write accounts of Artur’s life and sayings based on what their respective communities had preserved. While not historically accurate, they offer clues for anyone wanting to understanding the historic King Arthur.

(3) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great to prompt storytelling about him. This storytelling became quickly severed from actual historic events, becoming interwoven with the creative fancies of bards whose interest lay more in telling colorful tales than in preserving history. Eventually these stories evolved into the legendary figure we now know as King Arthur. But the King Arthur we encounter in the inherited legends has little similarity to the historic figure that inspired the original storytelling.

(4) There was no historic king of the Britons who gave rise to the King Arthur legends. Instead, this figure was wholly an invention of bards interested in creating colorful tales—although the first bard to invent the first King Arthur story borrowed a few of his plotlines from divergent bits of recent events he’d witnessed in his travels, and decided to name his hero “Artur” because he had some vague memory that there was some king by that name who’d lived a generation ago.

Your question gestures to claim (3). As I understand it, Earl Doherty and his followers are making a claim akin to (4) with respect to Jesus. Fundamentalists embrace something akin to (1). Most biblical scholars I know are closer to (2) but allow for elements of (3). The case of (3) is interesting. If we accept it, is there a sense in which there is an “historic Arthur”? I’d say yes, but only in the sense that there is an historic figure who prompted the storytelling—and I’d be quick to add that the character in the stories bears little resemblance to the historic figure. (2) offers more room for dispute about which details are historical.
Eric expanded on this comment on his blog, and Qohelet and John Hobbins blogged about the scale as well.  I would have liked to see McGrath spend a little more time discussing the range of positions that might be said to fall within the mythicist or historicist camps, but he was intent at hammering away at the most radical mythicist position, i.e., that the first Christians actually thought of Jesus as an entirely spiritual being whose death and resurrection took place on heavenly spiritual plane.

I think Eric is probably correct about most scholars falling in neighborhood of (2), but I wonder whether this is because so many of them start out at (1).   I suspect that there are many more examples of scholars who move up the scale than down.


  1. There was an historical person behind the character of Popeye

  2. As a matter of probability, it seems likely to me that something described somewhere in the gospels happened to an actual historical human being who may even have been named “Jesus.”

    Consider "Jesus" son of Ananias:

    An incident more alarming still had occurred four years before the war at a time of exceptional peace and prosperity for the City. One Jesus son of Ananias, a very ordinary yokel, came to the feast at which every Jew is expected to set up a tabernacle for God. As he stood in the Temple he suddenly began to shout: 'A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the Sanctuary, a voice against the bridegrooms and brides, a voice against the whole people.' Day and night he uttered this cry as he went through all the streets. Some of the more prominent citizens, very annoyed at these ominous words, laid hold of the fellow and beat him savagely. Without saying a word in his own defence or for the private information of his persecutors, he persisted in shouting the same warning as before. The Jewish authorities, rightly concluding that some supernatural force was responsible for the man's behaviour, took him before the Roman procurator.

    There, though scourged till his flesh hung in ribbons, he neither begged for mercy nor shed a tear, but lowering his voice to the most mournful of tones answered every blow with 'Woe to Jerusalem!' When Albinus -- for that was the procurator's name -- demanded to know who he was, where he came from and why he uttered such cries, he made no reply whatever to the questions but endlessly repeated his lament over the City, till Albinus decided he was a madman and released him. All the time till the war broke out he never approached another citizen or was seen in conversation, but daily as if he had learnt a prayer by heart he recited his lament: 'Woe to Jerusalem!' Those who daily cursed him he never cursed; those who gave him food he never thanked: his only response to anyone was that dismal foreboding. His voice was heard most of all at the feasts.

    For seven years and five months he went on ceaselessly, his voice as strong as ever and his vigour unabated, till during the siege after seeing the fulfilment of his foreboding he was silenced. He was going round on the wall uttering his piercing cry: 'Woe again to the City, the people, and the Sanctuary!' and as he added a last word: 'Woe to me also!' a stone shot from an engine struck him, killing him instantly. Thus he uttered those same forebodings to the very end.

    - Josephus, "War of the Jews" 6.5.3

    1. This guy's name is "Jesus"
    2. This Jesus preached doom for Jerusalem
    3. This Jesus caused a disturbance at the temple during Passover
    4. This Jesus was handed over to a procurator by the Jews
    5. This Jesus was silent at his trial

    Is it reasonable to say that this was the "historical" Jesus? Is the only criterion for finding the "historical" Jesus only about finding similarities? Once you strip away the mythical elements from the gospels (which would be the rational thing to do) you're not left with just one Jesus - you're left with possibly hundreds.

    Which is also why I'm agnostic about the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus becomes the historical John Doe.

  3. "Historical Jesus"?!?
    Using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.