Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quote of the Day: We're Still Screwed

Unfortunately, most of our political elite – both left and right – is still living in a land of illusions. They cannot even seriously discuss what would be required to bring our true fiscal position under control – remember that most of the recent damage to our collective balance sheet was done by big banks blowing themselves up. No one who refuses to confront the power of those banks can be taken seriously as a fiscal conservative.
Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario

Sunday, January 16, 2011

To Hume is Ehrman

There are countless blogs and websites (or maybe 46,700) that compare and contrast Bart Ehrman's argument that miracles are inherently the least probable historical explanation for any set of evidence with David Hume's Of Miracles.  Amazingly however, no one else ever seems to have come up with the obvious bad pun.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (16): The Problem with the Sources

Imagine trying to write a history of the first seventy-five years of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints based only on the writings of Joseph Smith and his most devoted followers.  If you took seriously the possibility that many of these writers were either deluded or dishonest to varying degrees, you might be able to come up with a tentative outline of who the leaders were, what the church believed, and a broad picture of how the church got from upstate New York to Utah.  On the other hand, if you decided to take these writings at face value absent some proof that the accounts were less than truthful, you would probably come up with a narrative that was flat out wrong in countless major and minor details.

The problem with studying the origins of Christianity is that we only have a few documents from the first seventy-five years of its existence and those documents are overwhelmingly the product of men who were fanatically devoted to the new religion.  Our earliest and most prolific source is a man who claims to have received direct revelations from God, but never met the putative founder of the religion and gives very little indication that he knows what that founder is supposed to have said or done during his life or even when or where that founder lived or died.  While it is certainly possible that this man was scrupulously honest in everything he wrote, we would be fools if our analysis didn't incorporate the possibility that he was a lunatic, a pathological liar, or a charlatan.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (15): What Did Paul Know?

James Hamman of Quodlibeta has posted links to some articles he wrote that were intended to debunk the theory that Jesus never existed.  I was very interested in his list of “details about the historical Jesus” which he claims can be found in the undisputed letters of Paul.  What strikes me is the degree to which Hamman needed to twist these passages in order to characterize them as statements about the historical Jesus that Paul had to have heard from his followers as opposed to statements about the resurrected and exalted Christ that Paul would have thought he learned by divine revelation. (The numbering has been added.)

1. Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)

I find this misleading. When I think of Jesus “having a ministry,” I think of him tramping about Galilee with his disciples healing and teaching. Paul doesn’t seem to be talking about anything like that: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” Gal. 4:4-5.

2. Jesus was referred to as "Son of God." (1 Corinthians 1:9) 

This is just plain wrong.  Paul doesn’t say that the historical Jesus was Jesus was referred to as “Son of God.” Paul himself refers to Jesus Christ as the son of God. "God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."  1 Cor. 1:9.  This isn’t something that Paul is indicating he knows about a historical person. This is something that Paul knows about the exalted Christ who revealed himself to Paul.

3. Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. (Romans 1:3)

Paul does say this.

4. Jesus prayed to God using the term "Abba." (Galatians 4:6)

I think this one is just plain wrong, too.  Paul isn’t talking about anything the historical Jesus did. He is talking about what the spirit does in the heart of the believer. "Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.'”  Gal. 4:6.

5. Jesus expressly forbade divorce. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
6. Jesus taught that "preachers" should be paid for their preaching. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
7. Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)

My problem with all three of these is that Paul doesn't claim that the historical Jesus taught these things during his earthly ministry nor does Paul ever claim to know about anything the historical Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry.  On the other hand, Paul does claim to know things by divine revelation.  Why should we think that Paul saw the historical Jesus rather than divine revelation as the source of these teachings.   

8. Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Corinthians 3:22)

The truth is being stretched here.  Paul refers to a man named Peter, but he never indicates that this man had any connection with the historical Jesus.

9. Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)

I won't quarrel with this although Paul refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” rather than “Jesus’ brother.”

10. Jesus initiated the Lord's Supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

Paul does say this, although he claims to have received this from the Lord as opposed to learning about it from anyone who knew the historical Jesus and attended the meal.

11. Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

This may reflect Paul's belief, although some scholars think that “handed over” is a more accurate translation than betrayed. Once again, Paul attributes his knowledge of this to revelation.

12. Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

I think this is misleading.  Paul says that Jesus is our Passover lamb, but he doesn't link the death of the historical Jesus to the dates on the calendar when the Jews celebrated the Passover.
13. The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Paul does say this, although he doesn’t tell us who those rulers were.

14. Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)

This seems like another long stretch. I don't see anything in this passage to make me think that Paul is referring to anything that happened to the historical Jesus. In fact, it looks to me like he is talking about things that will happen to Christians.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. Romans 15:1-4.

15. Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)

More of less.  Paul refers to the Jews to generally rather than the Jewish authorities and some scholars think this passage is an interpolation.

16.  Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Corinthians 13:4, et. al.)

Paul does say this.

17. Jesus was physically buried. (1 Corinthians 15:4)

Paul does say this.

According to Hannam, mythicism "is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking."  I think many mythicists are guilty of all these failings, but I have yet to see an attempted refutation that didn't engage in the same fallacies. I guess historicists believe in debunking fire with fire.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (14): The Earliest Source

Suppose we came to Paul without any expectations. Suppose we simply tried to put together a picture of earliest Christianity based on our earliest source, i.e., not reading anything in Paul through the lens of later writings.

If all we had to go on were Paul’s writings, I don’t think that it would even occur to us that Christianity was predicated in any way on the teachings of a historical person named Jesus who lived in first century Palestine and who had disciples who passed those teachings along to others. Rather, we would think that Christianity was predicated on the teachings of a small group of men, the primary one of which was Paul, who claimed to have had an encounter with a heavenly being and claimed to have received divine revelations from or concerning that heavenly being. We might not think it all that different from the founding of Mormonism, i.e.,Joseph Smith claimed to encountered the Angel Moroni and received revelations. Like Smith’s Moroni, Paul’s Christ had once been a man who walked the earth, but neither Paul nor his contemporaries had known him personally and what they knew about him when he was a man was only known by revelation.

It is true that Paul talks about knowing other apostles, however, Paul never describes them in terms that would lead us to believe that they had had been disciples of an itinerant apocalyptic preacher named Jesus who had recently tramped about Galilee teaching and healing. If we only had Paul to go on, I think we would assume that these were men who were believers because, like Paul, they had experienced appearances of the risen exalted Christ. Without something else to indicate that Paul knew when and where the man Jesus lived or died or what he said and did during his life, I don’t think we would interpret the reference to James as “the Lord’s brother” as indicating a biological relationship.

Of course Paul is not our only source and it is entirely reasonable to try to make sense of what he wrote in light to what others wrote. Nevertheless, Paul is our earliest source and in many ways our best source so I think it makes sense to think about the picture we get when he is allowed to stand alone. Moreover, many of the early sources other than the gospels seem to paint the same picture that Paul does.

The question that causes me to remain agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus is this: Do we accept as historical any other person where the earliest and best source seems to point so exclusively to a mythical or legendary figure?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I Like to Think I'm Smart, but . . .

I took down the Christmas tree today. It is an artificial tree that we have had for many years. I keep it in the basement in two very large boxes. The boxes are not terribly heavy but they are very awkward to maneuver up the stairs and around the corners into the kitchen, the hallway, and then finally to the living room. I invariably knock things off shelves and tables that I pass and the boxes pop open spilling branches  on the floor.  The same thing happens when I take the tree down and return it to the basement.

Two years ago, as I stood in the basement dreading the prospect of carrying the boxes upstairs and considering whether I should call my son to help me, an amazing thought occurred to me. Why not just take the branches out of the box and carry them upstairs? It only took me five trips, which is just one more than I would make with the boxes since I would return them to the basement until I was ready to take down the tree.  The reduction in frustration and aggravation paid for the effort of that extra trip many times over.

As I carried the branches downstairs today and packed them back in the boxes,  I was still amazed that I struggled with those boxes for fifteen years before I hit upon such an obvious alternative.