Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (10)

The issue that continues to feed my doubts about the existence of the historical Jesus is the failure of the earliest Christian writings to substantiate any of things that we are supposed to be able to know about him.

Historian E.P. Sanders asserts that the following facts about Jesus' public career are "almost beyond dispute":

  1. He was born around 4 B.C.E.
  2. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth;
  3. He was baptized by John the Baptist;
  4. He called disciples;
  5. He taught in the town and villages and countryside of Galilee;
  6. He preached "the kingdom of God";
  7. Around the year 30 C.E. he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  8. He created a disturbance in the temple area;
  9. He had a final meal with his disciples;
  10. He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities;
  11. He was executed on the orders of Pontius Pilate.
    The Historical Figure of Jesus pp. 10-11.

    Of the facts pertaining to Jesus' public career, almost none of them can be confirmed by our earliest sources; mostly the genuine Pauline epistles, but including almost all the epistles other than the Pastorals and 2 Peter.
    1. The early epistles don't indicate where or when Jesus was born;
    2. They say nothing about where he lived;
    3. They never mention John the Baptist;
    4. They say nothing about Jesus having disciples;
    5. They say nothing about Jesus having a teaching ministry;
    6. They do not claim that he said anything during his life about the kingdom of God;
    7. They don't say he went to Jerusalem;
    8. There is nothing about a disturbance in the temple;
    9. Paul says that Jesus instituted a Eucharistic meal, but he doesn't say anything about disciples being in attendance and Paul attributes his knowledge of it to revelation;
    10. There is nothing about an arrest or interrogation;
    11. The earliest writings don't mention Pilate.
    All this leaves me wondering whether Paul would have recognized the itinerant preacher described by Mark as the man he preached about being exalted after his death.  He might have, but I don't think that there is anything in Paul's writings to compel that conclusion.  It seems clear that Paul didn't think there was anything about Jesus' life on earth that was necessary to understand the meaning of his resurrection.  Perhaps he thought that Jesus lived his life in such obscurity that nothing could be known about him prior to his crucifixion.

    I recently had a chance to raise some of these issues with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University when he returned to one of his favorite topics with a post titled "Why Can't Mythicists Be More Like Creationists?"   Normally when he posts on this topic, he draws comments from a swarm of belligerent mythicists and I am lucky if I can get him to address more than one or two of the questions that interest me.  For some reason, however, the only one of the usual suspects who showed up was Steven Carr and he was rather subdued.  As a result, I was able to engage Dr. McGrath in a fairly extended dialogue.  I enjoyed the exchange, however, Dr. McGrath didn't really give me any reason to think that historicists have really engaged the issues.

    I was particularly struck by one (or two) of the questions that McGrath put to me:

    Vinny, please explain to me why, in your view, it is illegitimate to allow a Gospel and a no longer extant source written within a few decades of Paul's letters to complement the information we have in them. In your view, why is the universal consensus in all early Christian literature that Peter and others were followers of Jesus during his public activity to be excluded from consideration as potentially historically accurate?

    I think the legitimacy of allowing the gospels to complement the early writings depends on the question being asked.  If the question is, "Do the earliest writings corroborate the gospels?" then we can't simply allow the gospels to complement the epistles because that assumes the answer rather than determining it. The only way to answer the question is by examining the epistles to determine what information in them corroborates information found in the gospels.  

    Moreover, if it legitimate to allow one source to complement another, why isn't it legitimate to allow them to stand separately?  Is it wrong to allow Paul to have his own distinctive voice about the significance of Jesus' sojourn on earth without insisting that his writing be harmonized with someone else's narrative?  Should we insist that Paul's Jesus is a recently deceased miracle working Rabbi if Paul never says so?


    1. "Do the earliest writings corroborate the gospels?"

      No, they assume them. The gospels tells about Jesus' life. The epistles tell what Jesus' life and death and resurrection mean.

      In those places where the epistles do seem to support the gospels, you throw the material out as being late or of questionable origin.

      Quit worrying about what you don't have. Deal with what you have.

    2. ChrisB,

      And how do you determine what the earliest writings assume? If they make perfect sense without Jesus being a recently deceased, miracle working Rabbi, how do you decide that they were taking the Jesus of the gospels for granted?

      I think I am dealing with what I have.

    3. Vinny,
      So, what is your interpretation of Paul's understanding of Jesus?

    4. DoOrDoNot,

      I'm not really sure since Paul says so little about Jesus prior to his crucifixion. He might have thought of Jesus as someone who had lived at some undefined time and place like the character Job in the Old Testament. On the other hand, he might have had some specific idea of where and when Jesus had lived, but that he had lived such a humble existence that there was nothing anyone would have noticed about him prior to his crucifixion.

      I don't think that Paul thought of Jesus as a miracle working, authoritative teacher and I don't think Paul believed that anyone he knew personally had known Jesus during his life.

    5. MCGRATH
      In your view, why is the universal consensus in all early Christian literature that Peter and others were followers of Jesus during his public activity....


      Where does Paul say such a thing?

      Where does 1 Peter say such a thing?

      Where does James say such a thing?

      Where does Jude say such a thing?

      Is McGrath really oblivious to facts?

    6. VINNY
      On the other hand, he might have had some specific idea of where and when Jesus had lived, but that he had lived such a humble existence that there was nothing anyone would have noticed about him prior to his crucifixion.

      Yes, Paul says Jesus 'emptied' himself, so perhaps he did think of a Jesus who nobody noticed anything about.

    7. Steven,

      I was kind of surprised that you didn't jump all over McGrath's "universal consensus" assertion at the time.

    8. Some things that stand out to me about inserting gospel material into Paul is the assumption that Jesus had "students", that Paul knew a guy named "Peter", and that he was the head disciple (or student) of Jesus.

      Reading Paul's letters in isolation- he doesn't mention any students of Jesus, he doesn't know about a 'Peter' but a 'Cephas', and this Cephas plays second fiddle to James.

      Obviously, the first point of contention that people will have is saying that Peter and Cephas mean the same thing (rock) but in different languages (Greek and Aramaic). The problem is that I don't know anyone whose name is translated literally between languages. They are usually translated as phonetically as possible. As far as I know, the issue with the name Peter is the only time in both the Tanakh and the New Testament where a name was translated literally from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek.

      So already, this kind of name change is suspect.

      It's my little hypothesis that Mark (writing in Greek) translated Cepha's name literally into Greek for a purpose: the Parable of the Sower, Mk 4:1-8 (a prediction of Peter's negative actions later in Mark). Thus we have a literary reason for both the name change and him being the head disciple.

      This has the implication of every Christian writing that has the name Peter being penned after Mark was written. For example, in Paul's letters, the only place where he writes "Peter" in Greek is Galatians 2:7-8. Every other instance is Cepha. It's also the only point in Paul's letters where Peter is seen as the head honcho.