Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fool Me Once

From In Defense of Sarah Palin by Norman Podheretz in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
Nothing annoys certain of my fellow conservative intellectuals more than when I remind them, as on occasion I mischievously do, that the derogatory things they say about Sarah Palin are uncannily similar to what many of their forebears once said about Ronald Reagan.
It's hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this "airhead," this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent. They readily acknowledged that his political views were on the whole close to ours, but the embarrassing primitivism with which he expressed them only served, they said, to undermine their credibility. In any case, his base was so narrow that he had no chance of rescuing us from the disastrous administration of Jimmy Carter.
I will admit that Ronald Reagan did not turn out as badly as I expected when I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 after having voted for Gerald Ford in 1976.  I even voted for him in 1984 although I feel worse and worse about that decision with every passing year.  I even drew a conclusion similar to Podheretz's in 2000 when the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush president.  I figured he wouldn't be as bad for the country as his worst critics supposed.  But "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me."  Or as Shrub put it "Fool me once, shame on . . . shame on you. Fool me . . . you can't get fooled again."

I suspect that many of Podheretz's fellow conservative intellectuals are annoyed with him because they have figured out based on W's performance that all air-headed conservative governors are not created equal.  They may have concluded, as David Frum, did that pandering to the most ignorant and uneducated elements of the party has not worked out so well.

For Podheretz and his fellow neo-conservatives, however, the Bush presidency was everything that could be hoped for.  Having an empty suit in the Oval Office allowed neocons in key posts like Dick Cheney, Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz unprecedented influence to drive U.S. foreign policy in the direction they desired.  No doubt, Podheretz is confident that he and fellow intellectual William Kristol will be able to place neocons in key posts in a Palin administration in a similar fashion as a reward for their loyal support.

Podheretz admits that Palin doesn't know anything about foreign policy, but claims an offsetting virtue:  "What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn." The problem is that Palin doesn't know this; she simply believes it as a matter of faith.  In order to know that what kind of a force the United States has been, you have to have some intellectual curiosity about history.  If Palin had ever made any attempt to connect with objective reality, she would have learned as Obama has that the United States is not always a force for good and a course of action does not become good simply because the United States pursue this.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Right Wing Thimk Tanks

David Frum has apparently learned that the last thing that conservative think tanks want is people who actually think.  Frum's suggestion that pandering to Fox News and wingnut talk radio was not in the Republican party's best interests made him persona non grata with the American Enterprise Institute.  He submitted his resignation today.

Republicans Refuse to Govern

Since Reagan famously declared "Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem," Republicans have gone about proving that the government cannot do anything right.  This strategy reached its zenith with the election of George Bush although the Republicans tried to top themselves last time around by seeking to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

As reported on Huffington Post, senate Republicans followed this tried and true strategy yesterday by refusing to work past 2:00 pm.  In a hissy fit inspired by passage of the health care reform bill, Republicans invoked an obscure senate rule to shut down all committee hearings. 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Republican Waterloo?

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum on why Sunday's vote is such a crushing defeat for Republicans:
We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Robert Reich on Healthcare Reform

From RobertReich.org

Most Americans continue to be suspicious of government. That distrust is deeply etched in our culture and traditions. Our system of government was devised by people who distrusted government and intentionally created checks and balances, three separate branches, and almost insuperable odds against getting big things done. The period extending from 1933 to 1965 — the New Deal and the Great Society — was an historical aberration from that long tradition, animated by the unique crises of the Great Depression and World War II, and the social cohesion that flowed from them for another generation. Ronald Reagan merely picked up where Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover left off.

But Reagan’s view of government as the problem is increasingly at odds with a nation whose system of health care relies on large for-profit entities designed to make money rather than improve health; whose economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America; and much of whose fuel comes from unstable and dangerous areas of the world. Under these conditions, government is the only entity that can look out for our interests.

We will not return to the New Deal or the Great Society, but nor will we continue to wallow in the increasingly obsolete Reagan view that we don’t need a strong and competent government. Today’s vote confirms our hope that we can have both strength and competence in Washington. It is an audacious hope, but we have no choice.

On HIstorical Assumptions

Having participated in many discussions about the historical Jesus recently, I was particularly struck by an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal concerning the identity of the designer of a golf course on Long Island titled Lost in History: A Golf Whodunit.

It seems that a real estate developer named Zucker bought the North Shore Country Club outside of New York City after its membership fell upon hard times. (At least ten families had invested with Bernie Madoff.). All the members agreed that the golf course which opened in 1916 had been the work of a famous designer named Tillinghast. However, after closing on the purchase, Zucker began to hear rumors that someone else had been the designer.

The source of those rumors was the biographer of two other famous course designers named MacDonald and Raynor. Several years earlier an acquaintance had suggested that he take a look at the North Shore course because it seemed to have a lot of features that were characteristic of MacDonald and Raynor’s work. The author agreed and subsequently called in another expert who concluded that the course did not bear any evidence of Tillinghast’s handiwork.

A careful search of the club’s records turned up evidence of payments to Raynor as well as a letter thanking both MacDonald and Raynor for their contribution. There was no evidence of Tillinghast’s involvement in designing the course and Tillinghast never listed it among his credits. Nevertheless, an official history of golf clubs in the New York area reported that Tillinghast had been paid $75,000 to design the course.

In 1916, Tillinghast was at the height of his fame and Raynor was just starting out. Nevertheless, Raynor subsequently designed many famous courses so Zucker was not too put out to find out the truth. Still it struck him as odd.
"I'm amazed how all the most knowledgeable people in golf, for so many years, made the assumption that because everyone else said Tillinghast was involved, that it must be true, even with no background evidence," Mr. Zucker said.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Melissa Francis: CNBC Twit of the Day 3/16/10

I haven’t been doing my CNBC Twit of the Day lately just because it is so painful to go back and watch one of those idiots a second time just to be sure they were as big an idiot as I thought they were the first time. Today for example, Melissa Francis was not content with her usual brownnosing of the shill from the Cato Institute and went all the way to Pavlovian salivation as Mark Calabria discussed today’s Federal Reserve Board meeting.

Mark Calabria: We need to keep in mind what Milton Friedman regularly reminded us . . .

Mellissa Francis:  Yes. Always.

Mark Calabria: . . . monetary policy acts with a long and variable lag.

My God! Melissa didn’t even know what it was that the Catotonic goofball wanted us to keep in mind. But it didn’t matter. She heard the hallowed name of Friedman and she she was ready to start speaking in tongues. “Amen! Amen!” “Glory be to the Chicago School!” It’s bad enough that she cannot bring herself to ask one of these libertarians idealogues whether less government oversight is really the cure for the banking system, do we have to listen to her ecstatic utterances, too?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (8)

When discussing the historical Jesus, I am often accused of “speculating” by someone who claims to be basing their conclusions on “the evidence we have.” It seems to me, however, that the fact that a theory is based on the evidence we have does not necessarily make it any better than any other theory. The theory must also be supported by the evidence we have.

Suppose for example, that I wanted an explanation for why Tom Cruise became a Scientologist that goes beyond the fact that he is batshit crazy. I would need information about his background, his education, his prior religious experience. I would want information about his emotional makeup, his fears, his anxiety, and his narcissism. I would want detailed information about his exposure to Scientology and the process by which he became a member. I would want the analysis of experts in the field of psychology. Even then, given the complexity of the human psyche, I would never think that any conclusion I drew would be much more than provisional.

Suppose, however, that the only pieces of evidence I had were a VHS tape of Top Gun and a copy of Dianetics. I suppose I could attempt to develop a psychological profile of Cruise based on his body language and the way he seemed to respond to the emotional changes that his character went through. Then I could look through Dianetics for elements that fit my psychological profile of Cruise. Any conclusion I reached could be said to be based on the evidence we have, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would claim that is was supported by the evidence we have.

Many Christian apologists claim that the reality of the resurrection is the best historical explanation for certain “minimal facts” which are usually deemed to include the conversion of James the brother of Jesus and the conversion of Paul. We know nothing about how or why James came to believe in his brother and very little about what was going through Paul’s head. We don’t have the kind of information we need in order to answer our questions.

The same problem holds true when it comes to group dynamics. Suppose I wanted to explain why the members of the People’s Temple followed Jim Jones to Guyana and drank the grape Kool-Aid. I would want the same kind of psychological information on all the Temple's members that I would want to explain any individual conversion, but I would also want all sorts of information about the group dynamics that influenced the members after they converted. I would want the analysis of experts in both psychology and sociology.

As I noted in my last post, historicists criticize the mythicists for failing to explain how and why so many first century Jews came to accept that a crucified criminal was the Messiah. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about how the early church grew and spread. We have some general knowledge of the expectations that Jews had concerning the Messiah in the first century, but little knowledge about the specific individuals who first preached a crucified Messiah. We also have no information about the specific individuals who first accepted that preaching or the dynamics of the first communities. It seems rather silly to suppose that our understanding of how the Christian religious movement spread is actually enhanced by positing a few general facts about a particular crucified criminal.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (7)

Historicists often criticize mythicism because it fails to adequately answer the question of how Jesus’ disciples were able to convince large numbers of Jews that a crucified criminal was actually the Messiah. The mythicists sometimes respond by pointing out that this assumes the historicity of a crucified criminal, but I have another problem with the question. Is it the kind of question that we can even expect a historian to answer? Isn’t it really a question more properly with the realm of psychology, sociology, or perhaps anthropology?

If we were to seek an explanation for why large numbers of people came to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and why they uprooted their lives to follow him across the country, would we even think to ask whether there was some historical basis for his claim that he had translated the book of Mormon by sticking his head in a hat and reading off golden plates with seer stones? Wouldn’t we first look to sociology and psychology in an effort look to understand the circumstances under which the religious manias arise? Wouldn’t we try to figure out what was going on during that particular time that made so many people susceptible to a charlatan like Smith.

When investigating the origins of Christianity, the historian must take into account a phenomenon that has been observed to occur repeatedly throughout recorded history, i.e., gullible people who want to believe in a supernatural meaning for their lives can be taken in by a charismatic person who fills their heads with fantastic stories and ideas that he claims were revealed to him by God. They do so because the religious experience meets some psychological or sociological needs, not because of the historical basis for the stories they are told.

I don’t doubt that the idea of a crucified Messiah would been contrary to Jewish expectations in first century Palestine (although the fact that so many Jews did accept it would seem to suggest that it was no bigger stumbling block to belief than the idea of the Messiah making a trip to America was to Joseph Smith’s followers). However, I would think that almost all religious movements are characterized by some elements that would have violated the prior expectations of the people who became persuaded. I would also think that the explanation for why that element came to be accepted is much more likely to lie in the psychological need it met in the people who accepted it than in the historical basis for the element

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (6)

For some reason, Dr. James McGrath thought the following quote was worth passing along:
Indeed, to assume from silence that Paul did not know the Jesus tradition because he does not cite it more explicitly and more often is almost analogous to assuming that the writer of 1 John was unaware of the Johannine Jesus tradition because the document presupposes rather than cites that tradition.

Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

To me, this is just typical apologetic claptrap. Keener accuses the skeptic of assuming that Paul doesn't know about the Jesus tradition (whereas I would argue that the skeptic infers it as the best explanation for Paul's silence). But what does Keener offer in response? A presupposition!  There is something wrong with concluding that Paul doesn't know things that he doesn't mention, but it is apparently perfectly reasonable for Keener to affirm Paul's knowledge of things that he doesn't mention based on presupposition.

I don't see any reason to view Keener's statement (and McGrath's quotation) as anything more than a smokescreen.  Even if I cannot infer Paul's lack of knowledge, I am still left with no evidence of what Paul knew about things that he does not mention, which leaves most of the historical core uncorroborated by the earliest source.  I am still left with Mark as the earliest source for the traditions.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Mom 1916-2010

My mother passed away on Wednesday.  She was ninety-three. She has been slipping over the last few  years, but up until a couple months ago, she was still going to Sunday mass and playing bridge once a week.  She had been living with my sister, who called me last Sunday to say that my mom hadn't felt like getting out of bed.  I got to spend a couple of hours with her on Tuesday.  She was frustrated by her infirmity, but she still enjoyed having company.

My mom spent a couple of nights in the hospital about a month ago and one night last fall because she had trouble breathing.  Other than those occasions, no one at the wake could remember her ever spending a night in the hospital other than after delivering one of her ten children. 

My mother was a sincere Catholic who believed in God and the afterlife. She missed my dad a lot since he passed in 2003 and it is nice to think that they may be together again.  However, if a life well lived is its own reward, she died a very rich woman.  If I can do half as well, I think I will be content with the time that has been allotted to me.

A Wish, 
by Matthew Arnold

I ask not that my bed of death
From bands of greedy heirs be free;
For these besiege the latest breath
Of fortune's favoured sons, not me.

I ask not each kind soul to keep

Tearless, when of my death he hears;
Let those who will, if any, weep!
There are worse plagues on earth than tears.

I ask but that my death may find

The freedom to my life denied;
Ask but the folly of mankind,
Then, at last, to quit my side.

Spare me the whispering, crowded room,

The friends who come, and gape, and go;
The ceremonious air of gloom—
All which makes death a hideous show!

Nor bring, to see me cease to live,

Some doctor full of phrase and fame,
To shake his sapient head and give
The ill he cannot cure a name.

Nor fetch, to take the accustomed toll

Of the poor sinner bound for death,
His brother doctor of the soul,
To canvass with official breath

The future and its viewless things—

That undiscovered mystery
Which one who feels death's winnowing wings
Must need read clearer, sure, than he!

Bring none of these; but let me be,

While all around in silence lies,
Moved to the window near, and see
Once more before my dying eyes

Bathed in the sacred dew of morn

The wide aerial landscape spread—
The world which was ere I was born,
The world which lasts when I am dead.

Which never was the friend of one,
Nor promised love it could not give,
But lit for all its generous sun,
And lived itself, and made us live.

There let me gaze, till I become

In soul with what I gaze on wed!
To feel the universe my home;
To have before my mind -instead

Of the sick-room, the mortal strife,

The turmoil for a little breath—
The pure eternal course of life,
Not human combatings with death.

Thus feeling, gazing, let me grow

Composed, refreshed, ennobled, clear;
Then willing let my spirit go
To work or wait elsewhere or here!

Why I Am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (5)

Dr. James McGrath continues to bash away at mythicists over at Exploring Our Matrix, although now he divides them into two categories: those who “do not hesitate to offer an 'explanation' of sorts: Christianity began when people borrowed motifs from myths about Horus, Osiris, Mithras and various other figures to create a new dying-and-rising deity” and others who “are aware that such a scenario makes little historical sense and yet have nothing better to offer in its place.” The former group would I suppose include Earl Doherty, while the latter would include Neil Godfrey.  Concering some of Godfrey's arguments,McGrath writes that even if he found them persuasive, “all they would have accomplished so far is to indicate that the evidence is inconclusive regarding the historicity of these particular incidents and sayings. In order to conclude that these stories are most likely not historical, we need some further argument.”

McGrath goes on to explain why further argument is necessary:

Historians are interested in literature that doesn't actually relate historical stories. A historian of early Christianity will be interested in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or the Acts of Paul and Thecla, even if they are persuaded that they do not contain any genuine historical information about Jesus or Paul or Thecla. Because when we situate them in their historical context, they tell us about the time in which they were written, the views and beliefs that Christians had in that period. And that contributes to our understanding of history.

If the Gospels were pure fabrication, I would still want to understand when they were written, and what sorts of communities produced them. Historians don't just look at texts to get information from the details of the story about the time in which the story is set. Even when historians feel there is little or no valuable historical information in a story, they still study it carefully to learn about the author (even if we don't know his or her name) and the time in which it was written.

I will admit that I do not hold a doctoral degree in either history or New Testament studies, but it seems to me that if the evidence is inconclusive, there should be no shame in saying that the evidence is inconclusive. In fact, no matter how much one wants to resolve a question, intellectual and academic integrity might demand agnosticism.

Rick Sumner at The Dilettante Exegete made what I thought were some excellent points about the unwarranted surety that New Testament scholars are inclined to express:

Even if we agreed there was an historical Romulus, for example, if you started telling me a specific act he did in the founding of Rome, with details about his consciousness while he did it, I'd laugh in your face. It seems preposterous everywhere but here. And even if we let you get away with it, your statement would be a lot more provisional. If someone replied that they doubt Romulus even existed, you would doubtlessly allow for the possibility, and acknowledge that your later conjectures were based on an earlier conjecture: That Romulus was real.

When we deal strictly with textual evidence elsewhere, we recognize the limits of our conjectures. But here we have none . . . . Not only do we not have to be provisional, we can suggest that all the gospels fundamentally misunderstood Jesus' message, and we know even better than they do what it was. While many critics would disagree with those sorts of efforts, we don't deprive them of dialogue, while virtually anywhere else we wouldn't deem to treat such speculation with a grain of seriousness.
It has always struck me the way that Christian apologists (and I do not put McGrath in that category) claim to be applying the same techniques as other scholars who study ancient sources, and yet think they can know details about what Jesus said and thought and did at precise moments with much greater specificity than any historian would ever claim about Julius Caesar or any other figure from the ancient world.  

It seems to me that expressing warranted agnosticism in an academic inquiry is a positive good.  In the field of textual criticism, scholars like Bart Ehrman have noted the futility of talking about the "original manuscripts" of the New Testament given the paucity of early manuscript evidence. They choose instead to talk about the manuscripts that survive and what they can tell us about the communities that produced them and used them. They profess agnosticism about the original texts because they are effectively irretrievable, however this does not stop them from reaching meaningful conclusions where data exists.  I don't see how admitting agnosticism on historicity would do anything but enhance the exploration of those further arguments that McGrath thinks are so important.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (4)

As Robert Oerter of Early Christian Religion has pointed out, Paul is not our only source for information about the historical Jesus.  He is just our earliest source, and in my opinion, he leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  So for me, the best argument for a historical Jesus would be one that showed that the gospels were not simply an attempt to historicize Paul's possibly ahistorical Jesus.  I know that people who know a lot more than the subject than me have been persuaded that "Q" is something that points to an independent source supporting the historical Jesus hypothesis.  So while historicists like Dr. McGrath may be convinced that anyone who questions the historicity of Jesus has simply made up their mind to be irrationally skeptical, I don't think that is where I am at all.

I do agree with Neil Godfrey that historicists sometimes have a tendency to overlook the circularity that creeps into their arguments.  One place where I noticed this was on the question of whether Paul meant to designate a biological or symbolic relationship when he referred to James as "the brother of the Lord."  McGrath said of this argument,
If Paul only made vague references to "the brothers of the Lord" of course it might be a viable option to consider it Paul's generic use of "brothers." But Paul's reference to "James the Lord's brother" coupled with the fact that there is no other evidence for "brother" as an honorific title in early Christianity, and later authors either understood it as biological brother or made strenuous attempts to argue it meant "cousin" or "half brother" so as to support the perpetual virginity of Mary, the evidence seems clearly to favor taking it in its straightforward sense.
I cannot help but wonder where in early Christianity other than Paul we would be able to look  for evidence of the use of "brother" as an honorific.  Isn't the conclusion that we have no such evidence based on the assumption that Paul was using "brother" in the biological sense?  And if the theory is that Mark historicized Paul's mythological Jesus, can we really refute it with the fact that Mark and later Christians treated James relationship to Jesus' as biological?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Islam vs. Christianity

I have been getting so much traffic as a result of being linked by both Debunking Christianity and Exploring Christianity that I thought I would take the opportunity to post one of my favorite religious debates.

Overstated Analogies in the Mythicist-Historicist Debate

Historicist to Mythicist:  You might just as well doubt the existence of George Washington and Napoleon!

Mythicist to Historicist:  You might just as well believe in the reality of Romulus and Odysseus!

Speaking only for myself:  If our first records of George Washington and Napoleon came two decades after their deaths from men who only claimed to know of them by divine revelation, I would probably not be as confident that they existed.  On the other hand, if I had accounts of the lives of Romulus and Odysseus written within fifty years of their deaths by men who purported to know stories told by eyewitnesses, I would feel like I had to take the possibility of their existence more seriously.

The Sarah Palin Win-Win

Say stupid things and then complain about the fact that liberals think you are stupid.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (3)

I am certainly open to the possibility that there was a historical Jesus, however, I am puzzled that our earliest source, Paul, doesn't seem to confirm it.  Whenever a scholar like McGrath gives a list of facts that can be known about Jesus, they seem to be facts that aren't found in the undisputed Pauline epistles.  For example, at one point, McGrath listed the following six facts as being part of a "historically reliable core":

  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus called disciples.
  3. He preached “the kingdom of God”.
  4. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  5. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  6. After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.

Paul does not seem to know any of these facts.  He never mentions John the Baptist. He never mentions Jesus' interaction with any of his disciples. Paul discusses "the kingdom of God" but he never identifies it as something that Jesus preached during his earthly ministry. Paul never mentions Jesus engaging in a a controversy about the temple. He never says where Jesus was crucified. Finally, Paul does not indicate that any of his contemporaries in the movement had been followers of Jesus prior to his death.

There are plenty of references in Paul that could lead to the conclusion that he saw Jesus as a real flesh and blood human being who actually walked the earth.    I don't think that is enough to make his Jesus historical though.  After all, Paul seems to indicate that he considered Adam a real flesh and blood human being who walked the earth and .

The first response I usually get when I question the historicity of Paul's Jesus is that Paul met with the original apostles.  This may be true, but according to Galatians, Paul had already been out preaching his gospel for three years before he went to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James.  Paul's understanding of who Jesus was and what he had done must have had some other source.  What was it?

The only source that Paul acknowledges seems to be direct revelation from God.   "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Gal. 1:11. "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you . . ." 1 Cor. 11:23. After Paul had been preaching the gospel to the Gentiles for seventeen years, he finally went to Jerusalem to set it before the other apostles, but he is quite adamant that "those men added nothing to my message." Gal. 2:2,6.

McGrath points out that it unreasonable to accept Paul's claims to divine revelation at face value and that that Paul was simply unwilling to acknowledge any dependence on others for information because he was trying to establish his own apostolic bona fides.   That seems sensible.  However, determining who those others might have been is still a problem since Paul denies that he even met Peter and James until he had been preaching for three years.  The only source would seem to be the Christians that Paul was persecuting prior to his conversion, but how likely is it that such information can be deemed historically reliable.

McGrath also thinks that Paul's persecutions are the logical place to look for his human sources of information about the historical Jesus and he asked what I think is a very revealing question: "Don't you think that it is a priori likely that Paul was led by things he knew about Christianity to persecute it, and thus had some knowledge about it even before he himself became a Christian?"

My response to this question is (and was) that a priori it is likely that Paul was led to persecute the early church by misunderstandings of their beliefs as much as by any accurate information he had about them.  I think that this is the lesson of history.  The pogroms and the Holocaust were not carried out because a sound and rational understanding of Judaism convinced someone that it posed a threat to Russian civilization.   Persecution of the Jews was based on nonsense like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don't think there is any reason to think that Paul began persecuting Christians because he had an accurate understanding of their beliefs.

Nor do I think there is any reason to think that Paul would have gained an accurate understanding of the early church's beliefs while he was persecuting it.  Paul could very well have used paid informants to identify heretics and he might well have used torture to elicit confessions from his victims.  In either circumstance, Paul was likely to have heard stories that were shaped by a desire to tell him what it was thought he wanted to hear rather than a desire to give him a fair and accurate understanding or theological beliefs.  I would think it quite likely that when Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus, his understanding of early Christian beliefs was likely to contain plenty of misinformation.

John Loftus of Debunking Christianity is also convinced that the link between Paul and the historical Jesus runs through Paul's persecutions:  He commented:
Vinny, in my opinion there is only one way to deny there was a historical founder of the Jesus cult and that is to reject the whole NT tradition in total. Paul said he was persecuting the church in Galatians chapter one so the church was already in existence in some form or another when Paul was converted by his vision. Paul was not the original founder to this original movement, although he did hijack it. So you must deny that Paul is the actual author of the seven letters usually attributed to him, or deny that he existed too, and I find such an utter skepticism unjustified.
I don't think my agnosticism about a historical Jesus constitutes utter skepticism at all.  I simply don't see how we can determine the degree of theological continuity between the gospel that Paul preached and the beliefs of the early church that he persecuted.  We don't know much about what Paul thought Jesus said or did during his time on earth.  Since he does not credit any human sources for his understanding of Jesus, we cannot say how much of his gospel might have been the product his own imagination or creativity, which he then identified as his revelation and we don't know how much was part of some ecstatic visions.  We don't know how much Paul's gospel varied from earlier beliefs as the result of misinformation.  As Loftus pointed out apocalyptic prophets were a dime a dozen in first century Palestine so Paul's gospel even could have been an amalgamation of messianic beliefs that were in the air.  In short, since we don't know how much Paul hijacked the original movement, I think it makes sense to be agnostic about the extent to which Paul's gospel goes back to an earlier historical person.

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.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why I Am Agnostic About the Historical Jesus (1)

It seems to me that any historical inquiry should start with the earliest source.  For Jesus, the earliest source is the letters of the apostle Paul, written some twenty or more years after the time that Jesus is thought to have lived and died.  These letters strike me as problematic for a couple of reason:
  1. Paul doesn't seem to know very much about Jesus;  and
  2. What Paul does know he claims to know by divine revelation. 
Neither of these points disprove the hypothesis that Jesus was a real person, but I think that both of them justify careful scrutiny of later sources.