Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Does Paul Mean by "Received": HJA (26)

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul writes
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
To the historicist, this passage demonstrates that Paul was simply passing along what he had learned from Jesus' original disciples.

Mythicists, on the other hand, say "Not so fast."  Paul doesn't say where he received the information in this passage.  Moreover, in Galatians 1:11-12, Paul denies that anyone other than God himself taught him the gospel:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
So the mythicist argue that the "received" in 1 Corinthians 15:3 should be read as "received by revelation" rather than "received from earlier Christians" because that is how Paul said the gospel came to him in Galatians. 

One of the things that has kept me on the fence about a historical Jesus is that Paul never says that anything he knows about Jesus came from anyone who knew Jesus personally.  The only two sources of information Paul cites explicitly are direct revelation and scripture.  Nevertheless, I think it is going too far to say that Galatians 1:3 governs the interpretation of "received" in 1 Cor. 15:3.  It seems to me that there are several reasonable arguments for thinking that "received" in 1 Corinthians 15:3 should be read as "received from my predecessors in the faith" rather than "received by revelation."
  1. The former is how Paul uses "received" earlier in the same passage.  In 1 Corinthians 15:1, the word refers to the person-to-person transmission that occurred between Paul and the Corinthians.  If Paul intended the word to refer to a different type of transmission two sentences later, i.e., by divine revelation, we might reasonably expect him to make that clear

  2. When Paul wants to refer transmission by revelation, he knows how to do so as he did in 1 Corinthians 11:23  where he wrote "received from the Lord." 

  3. At least some of the events in 1 Corinthians 15 happened to people Paul knew personally.  All other things being equal, when someone tells such a story, the most likely explanation is that those people told others about the events and the information came either directly or indirectly from those people.  It is possible that Paul invented the stories or that they came to him in a dream, but I wouldn't think that would be our first guess.

  4. Before we read Paul's claim that he was taught nothing by men into 1 Cor. 15, we should want to establish that the information in 1 Corinthians 15 is the same information that Paul claims to have gotten by revelation in Galatians.  Unfortunately, Paul doesn't tell us in Galatians what exactly was included in the revelation.  He merely refers to "the gospel I preached."  Was it just the death and resurrection? Was it also the appearances?  Maybe it was only the theology of the death and resurrection and not the events themselves that were revealed.  When he says that no man taught him the gospel, does it mean that no man ever shared any of his experiences with Paul?  

  5. We should also want to establish any similarities or differences in the contexts of the two letters.  We are all familiar with political candidates who portray themselves as reactionaries when speaking to a gathering of the Tea Party and as moderates when speaking to independent voters.  If it suited his purposes, Paul might very well emphasize his independence from his predecessors on one occasion and emphasize his continuity on another.   In the case of Galatians, Paul's rhetoric was driven bya specific dispute he was having with the pillars in Jerusalem and he needed to show that his to authority to teach the gospel authority did not depend upon any man.   That dispute does not appear to be an issue in Corinth. 
None of these prove conclusively that Paul meant "received from my predecessors in the faith" rather than "received by revelation" in 1 Corinthians 15:3, but I think they may be sufficient to eliminate Galatians 1:11-12 as the kind of trump card that some mythicists try to make it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Whose Founding Vision?

I wish the federal government would just build highways and protect us, then stay out of our business for the most part. C. Michael Patton. Parchment & Pen

I cannot help but get cynical when conservatives start invoking a “founding vision” as if it is something that is easily determined by reading a history book and easily applied to the world today. The Constitution does not represent a monolithic vision. It was a compromise reached among a diverse group of people with many very different visions for the future of the country. Jefferson, for example, envisioned the United States as a collection of citizen farmers producing their livelihoods from the land upon which they lived.

In a post titled Is This the End of America? C. Michael Patton asserts that "[p]eople need to understand where we have come from so they have a compass to guide future generations." However, it is hard to imagine that many (if any) of the founders would have approved of the kind of standing army that America maintains today and the role it plays in the world. Moreover, even something we take so for granted as the interstate highway system would have been highly controversial among the founders because many thought that such things should be left to the states. Proponents of federal involvement in public improvements didn’t gain the upper hand until the Civil War. It's not forgetting the past that's the problem. It's remembering a past that never was.

The problem isn't just that people forget the past.  It's that people remember a past that never was.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Most Liberal Ever? What Are Conservatives Smoking?

I keep seeing conservative bloggers claiming that the United States has just reelected the most liberal  president in its history.  This just seems silly to me.  While I think it is hard to put modern presidents on the same left/right scale as 19th century presidents, just going back a hundred years, I would judge Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as being way more liberal than Barack Obama, and I would put Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter ahead of him, too.  I would judge Obama to be about as liberal as John Kennedy and Bill Clinton.  Not only is Obama not the most liberal ever, he may not be in the top third for the last century.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why Are Republicans So Confused?

Mitt Romney’s message [was] “I am going to take away Medicare from everybody under fifty-five and I am going to cut Medicaid for everybody by about a third, and I’m going to do that to finance a giant tax cut for me and my friends, and the reason I’m going to do that is that half the country contribute nothing to our national endeavor.” 
David Frum on Morning Joe.

What I find most amazing is how utterly baffled so many Tea Party types are over the fact that a majority of Americans didn't want Mitt Romney to be their president. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Should We Expect God to Communicate with Us?

[S]ince we know beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists and that he has the characteristics we’ve listed above—characteristics that include design, purpose, justice, and love—then we should expect him to reveal more of himself and his purpose for our lives. This would require that he communicate with us.
I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.200, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek

I have been running across a number of Christians in the blogosphere recently who justify their belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible, in part at least, on the grounds that it is reasonable to think that God would want to explain what's going on to us directly.  I just can't see why this would be so.  Certainly God might choose to communicate with us (and I would be interested to know what he had to say if he did), but why in the world should I think it more likely than not that he would want to?

If an infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient God exists, he is so far above us that I don't see how we could ever have any reasonable expectation that he would want to explain himself to us.  We cannot have any expectation that we are even capable of understanding his purposes.  There is no reason to think that we are anything more to him than an ant farm or a tank of tropical fish, i.e., something that he finds interesting to observe from time to time, but nothing with which he desires to communicate.

It seems to me to be every bit as reasonable to think that God expects us to figure out things for ourselves. He gave us the world to live in and the capacity to reason and he is watching to see what we come up with. It might be that communicating with us directly would defeat his purposes completely.  I can't know this to be the case, but it is no less reasonable than thinking that communicating with us would achieve his purposes.

As far as I can tell, this idea that we should expect God to reveal himself to us is founded on nothing more than our capacity to reason, but that is like a dog thinking that he is the center of his owner's universe rather than her cat because his ability to respond to a few simple commands means that he is on her wavelength in some fundamental way that her cat is not.   It could just as well be that she views them equally as mere pets, or even that she responds to her cat in some important ways that are beyond the dog's ability to comprehend.

The significance of this for the belief in divine revelation is that unless we have good reason to think that God would want to communicate with us directly, it is really hard to see any justification for wasting much time to trying to figure out whether he did.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ignorance is Bliss

It's not just that Rep. Todd Akins thinks that pregnancy constitutes proof that a woman wasn't forcibly raped, i.e., she must have really wanted it.  It's that he thinks it's a scientific fact. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Motes and Beams: HJA (25)

I find it interesting how mythicists and historicists sometimes make the exact same criticisms of each other.
Jesus scholars continue multiplying contradictory pictures of Jesus, rather than narrowing them down and increasing their clarity--or at least reaching a consensus on the scale or scope of our uncertainty or ignorance.  More importantly, the many contradictory versions of Jesus now confidently touted by different Jesus scholars are all so very plausible--yet not all can be true.
  Richard Carrier, Proving History p.12.
The very fact that some mythicists have been able to claim that the New Testament is entirely based on pagan myths, while others have been able to claim that it is entirely based on stories in Jewish Scripture, shows that people who want to find precursors will do so, and will find diverse and even mutually exclusive ones.
James McGrath, Exploring Our Matrix.

The difference is that Carrier only infers that there is something wrong with the methods of historicists while McGrath thinks that he has put "a nail in the coffin of Jesus mythicism." 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Quote of the Day: Questioning the Consensus

Imagine listening to a lecture about the historical Osiris by a noted scholar who finishes with an invitation to take part in a voluntary prayer to Osiris in which the scholar asks him bless us and keep us safe as we drive home. Who could blame us if we wondered whether the scholar’s views on the historical Osiris were somehow colored by his belief that Osiris is his “personal savior”?

This dilemma is the crux of the matter. How can the consensus on the existence of the historical Jesus ever change if the majority of scholars are confessing Christians and if the majority of institutions who employ those scholars depend on money from confessing Christians?
Scholarly Consensus in Biblical Studies — Does It Mean Anything?, Tim Widowfield

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Curious Exchange With Dr. Larry Hurtado

It is generally my policy in the blogosphere not to claim victory in an argument simply because someone declines to respond to a point that I have made.  There are any number of legitimate reasons why a person might choose not to address a particular point such as not finding it particularly interesting or feeling that it is tangential to the main issue under discussion.  Sometimes I suspect that my point was so devastatingly incisive that the person can't answer it, but I find it tiresome when comment threads devolve into "Blogger A still hasn't responded to my point" and "Well Blogger B still hasn't responded to mine."  If I suspect that someone is purposely ignoring my point because he knows it refutes his position, I simply wait for another opportunity to raise it politely again.  I figure that eventually it will become obvious that a point is being ducked.

While I don't like to comment on someone's failure to address a point I have made, I feel no such qualms when in addition to ignoring my point, they delete it. I don't ever recall anything like this happening before I visited Dr. Larry Hurtado's blog and commented on a point he made in a post titled  The "Did Jesus Exist" Controversy and Its Precedents:
So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate!
I have never commented on Dr. Hurtado's blog before, but I was interested to see what his response would be to some of the arguments I have making recently.  Rather than respond in a separate comment, Dr. Hurtado inserted his responses into my comment.  However, he deleted what I thought were some important points which I have restored in the following quotes.  Dr. Hurtado's remarks are in italics.
 (L. Hurtado: The following comment attempts serious discussion, but is flawed with invalid claims and inferences. I print it here and respond to it, interleaving corrections below, identified as “LWH”.)

Vinny: According to mainstream scholarship, it is entirely possible that Jesus of Nazareth was an uneducated itinerant preacher who was unknown outside a small group of followers who were mostly illiterate peasants. As likely as not, he spent his life unnoticed by anyone of prominence or importance until he somehow annoyed the Roman authorities sufficiently that he became one of countless insignificant troublemakers that they put to death.

LWH: Two points in response. First, as I say to my students, almost anything is possible (and you’ll find someone asserting almost any possibility), so the task of critical historical analysis is to judge, from various possibilities, what is the most likely. Second, I take it that you’re not denying that Jesus lived, only that if he did he made no mark on history. I don’t know what “mainstream scholarship” you’re drawing on (it’s best to give citations), but what you allege is not in fact widely held. The level of Jesus’ formal education isn’t a major issue; the question is whether he circulated, attracted followers, and became sufficiently odious to authorities that he was executed. All of these things are affirmed by as near a unanimous verdict as you can get among scholars (who delight in differing with one another!). An “insignificant troublemaker” didn’t get executed, and especially not by crucifixion. Flogged maybe.

Vinny: From that starting point, we might expect it to be very difficult to prove that he existed because we would have no specific reason to expect such a person to leave the sort of mark in the historical record that would be readily discernible two thousand years later. A few such people did, but most of the people we know of in the ancient world were either literate or prominent people themselves or they accomplished something during their lives that had an impact on the literate and prominent people of their day. The overwhelming majority of people of Jesus’ social status came and went without leaving a trace in the historical record.

LWH: The impact of Jesus is rather obvious I should think (and so would virtually all historians I’ve read on the subject). He sufficiently polarized contemporaries to make some of them devoted followers, and others mortal enemies. I’d call that impact. Moreover, almost immediately after his execution, his followers were claiming him as God’s ordained Messiah and more. To be sure, that claim rested mainly on experiences that they took as encounters with the glorified/risen Jesus. But the meaning and significance of those experiences (as vindications of Jesus’ messianic status) likewise surely presuppose a prior conviction/execution of him as a messianic/royal pretender (again, as would be very widely held).

Vinny: Unlike every other person from the ancient world who left a mark as the result of the impact that they had during their lives, stories about Jesus of Nazareth were preserved as a result of his supernatural accomplishments after his death. Jesus is only known to us today because some people claimed to have encounters with a supernatural being who they believed had once been a flesh and blood human being named Jesus. While it is certainly possible that such a person existed, the appearances of the supernatural being can’t be considered any evidence that he did.

LWH: Well, yes and no. Certainly, without the rapid emergence of the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus and installed him in heavenly glory, there would have been no such religious movement that we know as earliest Christianity. But this conviction clearly motivated his followers to preserve and disseminate his teachings as well as his deeds. Virtually all scholars in the subject agree that the body of traditions extant in the Gospels distill, adapt and convey a prior body/stream of Jesus-tradition that had been used in preaching and formation over the decades between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

Vinny:  This is why I find comparisons to events like the moon landing so ridiculous. If the moon landings really happened, we would expect the evidence to be so overwhelming that no rational person could doubt it, and it is. On the other hand, if the secular historians’ Jesus existed, we would expect to have very little evidence and very little certainty. 

This is not to say that a historian might not reasonably conclude that the existence of a historical Jesus is more likely than not. I simply don’t think that we can ever hope to have the kind of certainty about his existence that we can have about someone like Julius Caesar whose accomplishments during his lifetime left the kind of mark in the historical record that gives us a high level of confidence that he existed in the ancient world.

LWH: Well, everyone is welcome to his/her own judgement. But the overwhelming judgement of others (of any personal stance on religious questions) is that (1) Jesus did live; (2) he did generate a following during his own lifetime; (3) he did come under the condemnation of the political (and likely temple) authorities and suffered crucifixion; (4) remarkably soon thereafter astonishing claims about him arose and a rapidly trans-local and trans-ethnic religious movement erupted and grew thereafter. I should think that by most judgements of historical impact, this one is hard to match. Not even Julius Caesar compares.
I thought it a little odd that he had deleted my paragraph mentioning the moon landing deniers since he had specifically used that analogy, but I didn't want to complain when an eminent scholar responded so thoroughly to everything else I had written.  I also thought that maybe I had been a little out of line in calling his analogy "ridiculous" so I toned that down in my next comment.
(Editor’s note: I have edited this lengthy comment, retaining essentials, and I interleave responses identified with “LWH”).

Vinny: Thank you for your detailed response. I am personally agnostic about whether Jesus of Nazareth was historical in any meaningful sense.

In The Historical Figure of Jesus (pp. 10-11), E.P. Sanders offers the following facts as being “almost beyond dispute”: Jesus was born around 4 B.C.E; He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth; He was baptized by John the Baptist; He called disciples; He taught in the town and villages and countryside of Galilee; He preached “the kingdom of God”; Around the year 30 C.E. he went to Jerusalem for Passover; He created a disturbance in the temple area; He had a final meal with his disciples; He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities; He was executed on the orders of Pontius Pilate. . . . . This seems to me to be pretty typical of the kinds of things that scholars like Bart Ehrman and James McGrath think we can know about the historical Jesus. None of these seem to me to be the kinds of things that we would necessarily expect to leave the kind of mark in the historical record that we would be able to discern 2000 years later.

LWH: Yes, fair enough. But as Sanders also notes, we have to allow for a Jesus (historical figure) adequate to have generated a group of followers among whom after his execution there arose the powerful conviction that God had made him messiah and lord. That conviction certainly required more than Jesus’ own earthly activities, for they ascribe to God the source of it. But it was a conviction about the historical figure to whom they had already been drawn in commitment.

Vinny: Being crucified was certainly a significant punishment, but it was typically applied to the people with the lowest standing in the Roman Empire, sometimes in huge numbers. . . e.g., the slaves of Spartacus’ rebellion and the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem. I would guess that for only a tiny fraction of its victims do we know their identities or do we have more than a general idea about why they were crucified.

LWH: You have to distinguish between crucifixions carried out in times of war/revolt (many crucified) and the crucifixion of individuals. The Romans didn’t go about crucifying people for the hell of it or on a regular basis. Yes, for hardly any do we know much about them, which makes it all the more interesting that for this one crucified man we have a lot of attention and testimony.

Vinny: [Omitted reference to George Washington] After his death, George Washington was thoroughly mythologized for propaganda purposes as the “Father of His Country.” He was put forth as the embodiment of every virtue for which the new nation wished to think it stood. Stories were told about him for the purposes of creating a sense of identity for the fledgling United States. Historians have always struggled to get behind those myths to understand who the man really was. This task is incredibly difficult despite the fact that there is a wealth of primary source material that predates the myth making.

With Jesus of Nazareth, there is nothing that predates the myth making and nothing that can be separated from its effects.

LWH: Sorry, but you’re wrong. We don’t have any textual sources from Jesus’ own lifetime, but we do have reports of his actions and teachings, which are commonly thought to preserve essentials. These point to a figure who generated considerable polarity about him.

Vinny: Our earliest sources are the letters of Paul and he knew only a supernatural being who made himself known through revelation and whose postmortem accomplishments were supposed to usher in the kingdom of God. Paul has nothing to say about a flesh and blood person interacting with people that he knew personally. Paul has nothing to say about the character in the gospels who polarized his contemporaries into devoted followers and mortal enemies. To put it crudely, Paul only knows that there was ever a man named Jesus because he saw his ghost.

LWH: Sorry, but you greatly exaggerate and so distort matters. Paul in fact refers to the human figure of Jesus more than once, e.g., specifying his Jewish birth (Gal 4:4), the claim of Davidic descent (Rom 1:3-4), his death (treated as an action of love, e.g., Gal 2:20), and other matters (see, e.g., David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). It is simply a non sequitur to take the limited references to the earthly Jesus in Paul as indicating either ignorance or lack of interest in Jesus by Paul. What, after all did Paul and Cephas discuss during their two weeks together in Jerusalem, the weather? (Gal. 18).

Vinny: Supernatural stories arose surrounding Alexander the Great even during his own lifetime, but those stories arose because of the accomplishments of a natural man. If we scrape away the supernatural stories, we still have a significant historical footprint.  With Jesus of Nazareth, the stories about his natural life were perpetuated and preserved, and often invented, in order to propagate a belief that had arisen in his postmortem supernatural accomplishments. If you scrape away the supernatural stories, you scrape away the reason that he left a mark at all. It seems to me that this creates challenges to historical inquiry that I have never seen adequately addressed.

LWH: Again, a bit of over-simplification. But, true, we know of Jesus because his followers were convinced that God had raised him to heavenly glory, vindicating his messianic status (which of course suggests that they had already entertained such a view of him). Also, in fact the problem that you mention has been discussed oooodles of times by scholars over the years, for at least a century. But most scholars don’t see the difficulties of historical inquiry about Jesus as justifying despair.

Vinny:  As I said, this is why I find comparisons to events like the moon landing inapt. If the moon landings really happened, we would expect the evidence to be so overwhelming that no rational person could doubt it—and we do. On the other hand, if the historical Jesus of scholars like Sanders existed, we wouldn’t expect to have much evidence of him. Unlike a George Washington or an Alexander the Great, he wouldn’t have left the kind of historical footprint that would give us any confidence that we could separate the myth from the reality. 
Curiouser and curiouser.  It seems to me that when you write, "I take it that you're not denying that Jesus lived," you have to allow the person to explain exactly what his position is on the question.  I have no idea why he decided to delete the sentence that mentions Ehrman and McGrath or the references to specific mass crucifixions as neither appreciably lengthens the comment.  On the other hand, I thought that deleting the references to Alexander the Great and George Washington as "non-essential" was quite presumptuous.  The reason that I am agnostic about a historical Jesus is that I don't believe that we have the kind of evidence that would allow us to separate myth from reality and the comparison to historical figures where we have such evidence illustrates the problem.

(Editor’s note: Again, I interleave responses to “Vinny”, my responses marked “LWH”. I’ve also deleted some of the unnecessary expansive statements to save space, preserving essential points.)

Vinny: I’m not at all certain what Paul and Cephas discussed during those two weeks in Jerusalem, but I have often thought that it might well have been Paul who did most of the talking. . . . . . After all, Paul was a dynamic and well educated man who had been successfully preaching his message about the region for three years while Cephas was (or might have been) an illiterate peasant who was still sitting around Jerusalem. I would guess that Paul had a very firm idea of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus going into that meeting, and given Paul’s reputation for dealing harshly with people who disagreed with him, I can easily imagine that it was Paul’s ideas that dominated. 

LWH: Paul says (Gal 1:18) that he went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Cephas (Greek historesai Kefan), not to browbeat or propagandize him.

Vinny:  Paul does seem to be referring to a human figure of Jesus, but the sources he cites for his knowledge are revelation, appearances, and scripture. There can be no doubt that he knew things other than what he puts in his letters, but I don’t see how the historian can claim to know what those things were. Based on what Paul writes, which is the evidence we have, I don’t think we can conclude that his understanding of the earthly Jesus was particularly close to the portrait we find in the gospels. It could have been, but I don’t think that the evidence is at all sufficient to determine that it was.

LWH: No. Paul explicitly says more than once that he had access to Jesus-tradition, as the two-week interview with Cephas cited in Gal 1:18, and as reflected in his use of sayings of Jesus also reflected in the Gospels (again, Dungan’s book that I referred you to in the earlier comment). If you want to make claims about what Paul did or didn’t know or say, it’s good to have done the work of close analysis of the evidence and interaction with the scholarship on the evidence.

Vinny: I’m simply not persuaded that we do have to allow for a historical Jesus adequate to have generated the Christian movement any more than we would have to allow for a historical Moroni adequate to generate Mormonism. . . . . It was Joseph Smith’s belief that he had encountered a supernatural being that explains the origins of the Latter Day Saints. How can we determine that the beliefs of Peter and Paul that they had encountered a supernatural being would be insufficient to explain the origins of Christianity?  I certainly don’t know for sure, but I just don’t see that we know enough about what happened in those early years to determine that the growth of Christianity necessitates a historical Jesus.

By the way, while I greatly appreciate your responses, I think I might differ with you somewhat about which elements (e.g., George Washington and the moon landing) are essential to the points that I am making.

LWH: Please note carefully: As I’ve tried to indicate at some length in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (2003), pp.27-78 (“Forces and Factors”), there were multiple factors involved in the eruption of the early Christian movement and its intense Jesus-devotion. One of them was surely the impact of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. That was a necessary factor, but, in my view, not in itself a sufficient factor to account for the eruption of devotion to Jesus as sharing in divine glory. But, to repeat, by virtual consensus among scholars, it is very hard to account for devotion to Jesus except by granting that the historical figure had a considerable impact on his followers. (I think we’ve now probably dealt with matters sufficiently for this venue.)
Now this is just getting silly. He asks me what I think about Paul's visit to Cephas and simply deletes most of my response.  He's arguing that we need a historical man Jesus as well as the claimed encounters with a supernatural being to explain the origins of Christianity, but he considers it unnecessarily expansive for me to point out another major religion that began with nothing more than the claimed encounters.

I realize that "blogging ethics" is an oxymoron, but I would really hope for better from a respected scholar.  I have no problem when people ignore my comments.  I don't mind when people delete my comments or refuse to allow them through moderation. I don't even mind when people mischaracterize my comments as long as the comment is left standing so others can make their own judgment.  It's another thing altogether to edit my comments and to respond to the edited comment without letting others see what it was that I really wrote.  That's horseshit.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Getting Behind the Myth Making

After his death, George Washington was mythologized for propaganda purposes as the “Father of His Country.” Stories like the one about the child who could not lie about chopping down the cherry tree were invented to present him as the embodiment of every virtue for which the new nation wished to think it stood.  This image helped create a sense of identity for the fledgling United States. Historians have always struggled to get behind those myths to understand who the man really was.  Even thought there is a wealth of primary source material that predates the myth making, historians have had found it incredibly difficult to get a grip on the Washington.

With Jesus of Nazareth, we have nothing that predates the myth making.  Our record starts with the letters of Paul who knew only the supernatural being who made himself known by appearances and revelation.  Paul may have thought that this supernatural being had once been a man who walked the earth, but Paul did not know that man and doesn't seem to know anything about what he said or did.  Neither is there much in Paul to indicate that he thought that any of his contemporaries had known the man.  Even if there was a historical Jesus, our record of him starts with the myth of the exalted being who was raised from the dead.

I have little patience with historicists who claim that doubting Jesus' existence is akin to doubting that man landed on the moon.  If man landed on the moon, we would expect to have evidence that is so overwhelming that no rational person could doubt it—and we do.   On the other hand, if the historical Jesus of secular scholarship existed, we wouldn't necessarily expect to have much evidence of him at all.  Such a man could easily have come and gone without leaving any trace in the historical record that would still be discernible after two millennia.  Unlike a George Washington, Jesus of Nazareth wouldn't have left the kind of historical footprint during his life that would give us any hope of being able to separate the reality from the myth making that took place after his death.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

About those Parallels: HJA (24)

Suppose that a student at a religious school is assigned to write an essay upon the person in his life who best exemplifies Christian virtue.  The student submits an essay about his uncle who had been a missionary in Africa.  Upon closer examination, the teacher finds that every incident recounted in the essay has very close parallels to stories about missionaries that can be found on the internet.  What might the possible explanations for this be?
  1. The student's uncle had experiences that are generally common among missionaries.
  2. The student's uncle claimed the experience of other missionaries as his own.
  3. The student attributed the experiences of other missionaries to his uncle.
  4. The student invented the missionary uncle for purposes of the essay.
The parallels do not prove that the uncle is entirely fictitious, but they create doubts.  They raise the possibility that the stories in the student's essay came from the internet rather than from the life of his uncle.  If nothing in the essay had any parallel  in stories that were already in circulation, we would think it much more likely that they had come from a person the student had actually known. Without some reason in addition to the essay to believe that the uncle exists, we would probably need at least to remain agnostic on the question.  It is certainly possible that the student has an uncle, and it is even possible that the uncle was a missionary, but we can't consider the essay to be very strong evidence of his existence.

In the debate over the existence of a historical Jesus, much time is spend arguing about parallels between stories about Jesus and the those found in the Old Testament or in pagan mythology.  Sometimes, historicists like James McGrath feign puzzlement that mythicists consider the parallels significant at all: 
[Thomas Thompson] points out, as he does in his book, that Jesus in the Gospels is depicted using motifs and echoes from literature about earlier royal figures. It is hard to imagine that anyone could make a claim to kingship in a Jewish context without doing so. And so it is not clear why anyone thinks that the points in Thompson's book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus.
It is hard for me to take McGrath's confusion seriously.  It is of course possible that a historical Jesus existed even if his life was not the source of all the stories told about him just as it is possible that the student had a missionary uncle even if the stories about him were lifted from the internet.  However if we have reason to believe that the source of the stories was not the actual life of the character, then we have less reason to think that the character in the story was an actual person than we would otherwise.  Therefore, the parallels have a bearing on historicity even if they are not dispositive of historicity.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Douglas Adams on Why Things Are the Way They Are

I'm sure that many of the people who chance upon this blog are familiar with Douglas Adams' Puddle Analogy:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
I don't think that his parable about the television is quite as well known:
A man didn’t understand how televisions work, and was convinced that there must be lots of little men inside the box, manipulating images at high speed. An engineer explained to him about high frequency modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, about transmitters and receivers, about amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, about scan lines moving across and down a phosphorescent screen. The man listened to the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step of the argument. At the end, he pronounced himself satisfied. He really did now understand how televisions work. Then he said “But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren’t there?”

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Bit of an Overreaction?

Why is it that mythicists who question the existence of the historical Jesus are so often compared to creationists or Holocaust deniers? Creationists deny the foundations of biology.  Holocaust deniers seek to undermine our understanding of one of the most profound events of the 20th century.  Mythicists, on the other hand, merely suggest the possibility that a heavily mythologized 1st century Palestinian peasant may in fact have been completely mythologized.  Does raising that question really pose a similar challenge to our ability to understand the world around us?

In terms of the epistemological significance of the the issue, might not a better comparison be those people who question whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays that were attributed to him?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Which Came First?: HJA (23)

Thanks, Vinny. Agreed that there are special problems for the historian with Jesus of Nazareth -- and that's why Historical Jesus study is a kind of industry all its own.

But the issue about "supernatural events that occurred after [he] died" begs the question. After all, what was it about his life and people's interactions with him / memories of him / traditions told etc. that gave birth to those beliefs about his post-mortem life?
Dr. Mark Goodacre.

Dr. Mark Goodacre of Duke University doesn't blog about mythicism all that often, but I always appreciate it when he does.  Dr. Goodacre is one of the leading challengers of the Q hypothesis, which posits that material common to the gospels of Luke and Matthew but not Mark came from another written source called Q.  Although Goodacre doesn't buy the mythicist argument, as one who challenges commonly held assumptions among his colleagues, he seems to appreciate the challenges they raise.

I particularly appreciated the way in which he phrased his question because I think that it really highlights the issue of Paul's silence about the historical Jesus.  Indeed, Dr. Goodacre's question begs the question that most puzzles me:  Was it something about people's interactions, memories, and traditions concerning a flesh and blood person that gave birth to the belief that he had become a heavenly being after his death?  Or was it the other way around?  Was it the encounters that people believed they had with the heavenly being that gave birth to the belief in the earthly man and the creation of stories about him?

When I look at our earliest source, I don't see much to indicate that Paul's understanding of Jesus was in any way the product of interactions, memories or traditions associated with an earthly person.  The only sources that Paul cites for his understanding of Jesus are revelation and scripture.  The only interactions Paul describes are the appearances of the risen Christ.  There are indications that Paul thinks that the risen Christ had once been an earthly person, but nothing to indicate that such a person was the source for anything Paul thought.  Paul never interacted with the earthly Jesus and he never indicates that anyone else did either.

Had it been interactions, memories or traditions concerning the life of an earthly person that gave birth to a belief in the postmortem activities of the supernatural being, I think that we would see some indication of that in the early epistles.  Even if Paul didn't know the earthly Jesus personally, sharing the deeds and teachings of such an extraordinary individual would have been a vital part of the life of early Christian communities, but there is nothing (as far as I can see) in our earliest sources to indicate that it was.

Friday, June 8, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (22): What Would It Take to Convince Me?

I am periodically asked by some internet apologist “What evidence would it take to get you to believe in the resurrection?” I usually reply that in my knowledge and experience, miracle stories are invariably the product of human foibles like superstition, gullibility, ignorance and prevarication so I would need to personally experience a miracle in order to change the background knowledge against which I evaluate miracle claims.

The most common response I get to this is “I don’t think you would believe even then” which usually brings the discussion to a halt. In essence, the apologist seems to be saying “I don’t have good evidence for the resurrection, but since a skeptic might not accept good evidence, I am justified in believing in the resurrection on lousy evidence.” The apologist is right that I might just interpret my miracle experience as a sign that I was losing my mind, but I think the real problem is that the apologist doesn’t want to talk about the possibility that his reasons for believing in the resurrection aren’t the best ones possible.

A similar argument is sometimes made about mythists:
At one point in the interview, [Dr. Robert] Price suggests that one letter mentioning Jesus would be enough to destroy the Christ myth theory. I like Price, but this seems to betray a lack of self-awareness. He is on record as disagreeing with the consensus dating and authorship of nearly every piece of text within the New Testament. What exactly could an archaeologist find that Price could not argue is misinterpreted, interpolated or an outright forgery?
Unreasonable Faith, H/T James McGrath

This seems to be a variation of the apologetic dodge. Rather than addressing the possibility that there might be better evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus than we have, the historicist sidesteps it by asserting that the mythicist wouldn’t believe the better evidence if we had it. While it is entirely possible that Price might try to explain away better evidence, it is still worth discussing what that evidence might be in order to identify the shortcomings in the evidence we have.

I think that the problem for the historicists is a simple one. The historical Jesus was likely as not an obscure itinerant preacher who went unnoticed for most of his life beyond a small group of illiterate peasants. To the extent that he drew more attention than that, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire. There is no reason to expect such a man to have left a discernible trace in the historical record and there is no reason to expect that we should be able to establish such a man’s existence. As a result, there is no way for the historian to argue by analogy to any known cases.

I am doubtful that mythicism is ever going to be much more than an intriguing possibility, but I don’t see how we can hope to have anything more than provisional confidence in the existence of a man whose life we wouldn’t have expected to leave a mark in the historical record. We are never going to find the kind of evidence that usually makes us confident about the existence of someone in the ancient world because Jesus' life wasn't likely to have produced such evidence.

Friday, May 11, 2012

DJE? (12); Interpolations of Convenience

One way that some mythicists have gotten around the problem that this, our earliest Christian source, refers to the historical Jesus in several places is by claiming that these references to Jesus were not originally in Paul's writings but were inserted by later Christian scribes who wanted to think that he referred to the historical Jesus. This approach to Paul can be thought of as historical research based on the principle of convenience. If historical evidence proves inconsistent to one's views, then simply claim that the evidence does not exist, and suddenly you're right.
Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? p.118.

I am sometimes accused of proposing interpolations of convenience when I suggest the possibility that maybe Paul did not write "I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother." Gal. 1:19. Maybe he only wrote "I saw none of the other apostles—only James." Maybe some later scribe inserted "the Lord's brother" because he thought readers might be confused about which James it was that Paul met. For that matter, maybe Paul only wrote "I saw none of the other apostles." Maybe the insertion of "only James, the Lord’s brother" was the result of some theological turf war where a member of some James faction was trying to make him equal to Peter by putting him at those first meetings with Paul.  Given the 150 year gap between the composition of Galatians and the earliest surviving manuscripts, there are no doubt many interpolations that didn't leave any evidence in the manuscript tradition and whose motivations we might not recognize.  What if this is one of them?

In a discussion over at Exploring our Matrix, one comment seemed to sum up the the anti-interpolation viewpoint pretty well:
I also have a real problem with people reading in interpolations wherever it's convenient for their theory (rather than on textual critcal evidence), as it makes their theories unfalsifiable. And if they are unfalsifiable, are they really acceptable theories?

In the absence of the original autograph, could you prove that any passage in any classical text isn't an interpolation? If you think there's a gap between Paul and our earliest extant copy of his letters, think about how big that gap is for other classical authors: it's well over 1,000 years for Herodotus, I think.
This seems like a perfectly reasonable position, i.e., absent evidence to the contrary, why not presume that the text we have is what the author originally wrote?  But like so many arguments in this field, it can be turned around:

Given that we can't prove that any passage isn't an interpolation, why would we treat any text as any more than an approximation of the original, i.e., our best guess?  Why would we claim any more certainty about a passage being original than is warranted by the gap between the original and the earliest manuscripts?  Why would we propose any theory that was not robust enough to withstand the possibility of interpolations?  If we can't prove that any passage is original even where our manuscripts agree, how can we adopt the presumption that it is, even if that presumption is rebuttable?  Isn't it more logical to adjust the conclusions we draw to the appropriate level of certainty?

The objection that is raised to answering yes to any of these questions is that it puts us on a slippery slope to a place where nothing is certain, but I think that this is overblown.   First off, if we can reliably date the earliest extant manuscripts to the end of the second century, then we can reliably say what the church at that time understood Paul to be saying.  Admittedly, that is not nearly as satisfying as thinking we know what Paul actually said, but it's still valuable.  Second off, we can develop positive reasons for thinking that a particular word or passage does go back farther.  In Paul's case, we can look for ideas that are expressed consistently in several places in several letters or ideas that fit well with his overall themes and concerns. One of the reasons historians always look for corroboration from multiple sources is because any single piece of evidence could be wrong or mistaken.  The more evidence you have bearing on a point, the stronger the conclusion.

Moreover, I do not think that this would necessarily open the door to just any old interpolation based argument.  The probability of any argument being correct is still going to decrease as the number of proposed interpolations increases.  If someone needs eight cherry picked interpolations to support a particular hypothesis, the odds are going to be pretty small that it is correct.   (One of the reasons that I remain agnostic about a historical Jesus is that it does seem to me that mythicists are frequently guilty of this.)  On the other hand, if positing a single interpolation would dramatically change our overall understanding of the text, then perhaps our understanding is too fragile.  Perhaps we shouldn't be proposing any interpretation of the text that would be vulnerable to an interpolation or two.

I often see it claimed that allowing for more interpolation based arguments would throw all ancient texts into question, but I don't see that either.  With texts like Plato and Aristotle, we don't worry as much about the autographs.  What  matters is what has come down to us as Plato and Aristotle and the influence those ideas have had on western thought throughout the ages. Very little depends on whether any specific word or passage came from the actual pen of the author to whom it is attributed. With texts like Herodotus, everything he writes is taken with the appropriate grain of salt anyway. Historians are always looking for corroboration from other ancient writings or from archaeology.  In the reading I have done,  historians of the ancient world don't seem to claim significant degrees of certainty on the kind of issues that depend on a single passage being the original writing of an ancient author.

It is only with the Bible that it becomes important to assert that we have the originals.  If you believe that God inspired certain men to deliver his inerrant truths to the world, then it is very important to be able to say whether the specific words were written by those specific men.  If someone unknown philosopher reworked a passage twenty-five years after Plato died in order to insert his own ideas, those ideas hold the exact same significance in the development of western thought as if Plato wrote them himself.  However, if someone reworked a passage in Galatians twenty-five years after Paul died, the ideas lose any authority they had by virtue of inspiration.  We cannot know that the changes were sanctioned by the Holy Spirit.

I suspect that the presumption in favor of originality is ultimately driven by concerns that are more theological than historical.  To many of the scholars working with the texts of the New Testament, it is very important to have some method that enables them to determine the original words of the New Testament because the original words have theological authority.  It is not enough for these scholars  to determine the words of the earliest extant manuscripts.  Therefore they have adopted a presumption in favor of originality based on the earliest manuscripts that is not logically justified.  It seems to me that this is scholarship of convenience.

For Ehrman the agnostic, the words don't carry any extra-historical authority by virtue of being written by Paul in 50 A.D rather than inserted by some unknown scribe in 125 A.D.  Nevertheless, even a secular historian can draw much stronger conclusions if he knows that he has the words of an early witness to events so it would be nice to think we can know that we do. However, as Ehrman clearly seemed to understand in his 2008 debate with Dan Wallace, wanting to know what Paul wrote and knowing what he wrote are two different things.
Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.
. . . .
What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.

Friday, May 4, 2012

DJE? (11): When Did Jesus Become the Messiah?

One of the things that frustrated me so much about Did Jesus Exist? was Ehrman’s failure to discuss the mythicist implications of many of the issues he raised. For example, at one point he discusses how the the point at which Jesus was thought to have become the messiah changed from his baptism by John to his conception to the Gospel of John's doctrine that he had been the Son of God from the beginning of the universe.According to Ehrman,
There were yet earlier traditions about Jesus that did not speak of him as the son of God from eternity past or from his miraculous birth or from the time he began his ministry. In these, probably the oldest, Christian traditions, Jesus became the Son of God when God raised him from dead. It was then that God showered special favor on the man Jesus, calling him the son, the messiah, the Lord. Even though this view is not precisely that of Paul, it is found in an ancient creed (that is, a preliterary tradition) that Paul quotes a the beginning of his letter to the Romans, where he speaks of Christ as God's "son who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection. . . . It is, in other words, a very ancient tradition that predates Paul's writings. (p.111)
Ehrman raises this point as part of an argument assigning an early date to the traditions underlying Acts, but it seems to me that its mythicist implications are fairly obvious and might have been addressed.

Why would the earliest Christians, presumably the ones that Paul persecuted before his conversion, believe that Jesus became the messiah only upon his resurrection if they understood him to have been anything like the wonder working messianic claimant that we find in the gospels?  Had their been any known traditions concerning a Galilean teacher and healer, wouldn't the early Christians have believed that Jesus was the messiah and the Son of God throughout his entire earthly ministry?   Doesn't the fact that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as becoming the anointed one only upon his resurrection at least suggest that the stories about the activities of the earthly Jesus were added sometime later.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cool Jesus

As I've said, many times, if somebody can offer me a better explanation for Christian origins than "A guy called Jesus lived a couple of thousand years ago and some people thought he was pretty cool" I would be happy to listen to it.  
Paul Regnier commenting at Exploring Our Matrix.

I think that Cool Jesus is a very reasonable explanation for Christian origins, and I can't claim to have a better one.  Moreover, I like Cool Jesus.  I like the guy who hung out with the peasants, the prostitutes and the tax-gatherers and said to them "You guys are every bit as important in God's eyes as any rich prick sitting in the front pew at the temple."  I even like that Cool Jesus may have been just deluded enough to think that he had some special role in God's plan to bring about a just and righteous world.  What I really like is that Cool Jesus inspired his followers to form communities in which they treated each other well enough that outsiders sat up and took notice.

I'm just not so sure that the evidence is strong enough to say that Cool Jesus wasn't invented.  When I look at the earliest sources, I don't see much evidence that Paul knew anything about Cool Jesus.  In the earliest sources, I only find Mystic Christ who appears to certain select individuals and reveals deep spiritual truths.  Mystic Christ is the heavenly being through whom God Almighty is going to bring about His grand scheme of reconciling the world to Himself.  Mystic Christ inspires admirable behavior in his followers, too, but he doesn't do it by the personal example he sets because he doesn't have much personality.  It's kind of hard to relate to Mystic Christ.   So maybe it's almost inevitable that someone would invent Cool Jesus just to make Mystic Christ more accessible.

The ferocity of the debate over Did Jesus Exist?  seems to have surprised a lot of atheists and agnostics who didn't realize that anyone cared about the question so much.  One of the most frequent comments I have seen is "Who cares?  The important thing is that we all know that Magic Jesus didn't exist."    However, it does seem like a lot of people care about whether Cool Jesus existed while others think that debunking Cool Jesus is just as important as debunking Magic Jesus.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DJE? (10): It's Not What Ehrman Read, It's How He Read It

In his review of Did Jesus Exist?, Richard Carrier suggests that Bart Ehrman didn't read Pliny and hadn't understood Plutarch. Ehrman responded that he has read Pliny many times and that he has taught seminars on Plutarch.

While I have no reason to doubt that Ehrman has read all the things he says he has read, I wonder whether the problem is that he has never tried to think about them from a mythicist perspective.  As a former fundamentalist, Ehrman has no trouble recognizing the fundamentalist implications of anything he reads in Pliny or Plutarch or Tacitus.  He knows how any source might be used by someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. Ehrman has never been a mythicist though so I don't think that he is as adept at spotting the mythicist implications.

In a comment to a post titled The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant?, I asked Erhman the question I posed in a previous post here, i.e., how can our certainty about Paul thinking that James was Jesus' biological brother be any greater than our certainty about the textual integrity of Galatians? Ehrman answered that all of our manuscripts include the reference to James as "the brother of the Lord" and that "we know from other sources that the James who headed the church in Jerusalem was in fact known to be the brother of Jesus." This prompted  the following exchange between Steven Carr and Dr. Ehrman:
Carr:      Out of curiosity, which sources would they be? Luke/Acts, the Epistle of James, Jude? Does Josephus ever claim James was the head of the church?"

Ehrman:  In the NT, just Acts. But later traditions of the second century are uniform in making this claim, I believe. And they got the idea from *somewhere*!

Carr:      Acts claims that James the brother of Jesus was a church leader. Where does it say that?

Ehrman:  Ah good point. Acts does indicate that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and it does differentiate this James from the disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly says he was Jesus’ brother.

I was rather taken aback by this as was Steven.  How can Ehrman cite Paul knowing the biological brother of Jesus as one of the key points that shows "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt" that there was a historical Jesus and not even notice that the only other New Testament book that talks about this James doesn't identify him as Jesus' brother?   I have no doubt that Ehrman has read Luke and Acts countless times, but apparently he never thought about the fact that while Mark 6:31 explicitly gives James as the name of one of Jesus' biological brothers, the author of Luke drops that reference.  Luke knows that Jesus has brothers, but he never tells us any of their names.

This is what leads me to believe that Ehrman has never thought about the mythicist implications of the things he has read.  Perhaps he simply assumed that there weren't any, but plainly if the question of Jesus' existence turns on whether the leader in Jerusalem named James was the biological brother of Jesus, it matters that the only two references in the New Testament don't say the same thing.   If you are going to rely heavily on Galatians 1:19, you need to have some explanation for why Acts doesn't corroborate.

As I pointed out to Dr. Ehrman, the simplest reading is that the James in Acts 15 and 21 is James the son of Alphaeus mentioned in Acts 1 and Luke 6, and that the author doesn't bother to mention his father in the later chapters because James the son of Zebedee had been killed off in Acts 12.  With only one James left in the story, there was no need to identify his father in order to distinguish him.  Occam's Razor would suggest that this is a simpler solution than positing that the author is introducing a third James into the narrative without bothering to distinguish him from the ones who had been mentioned earlier in the story.  This interpretation is not mandatory, but it seems to be the most natural.

Dr. Ehrman responded to this with the well known "everybody knew it" defense:
Well, if everyone knew who James was, there may in fact be no reason to identify him — especially if it is his custom to identify some other James (son of Alphaeus) with an identifying marker precisely becuase he wsa *not* well known.
I have never thought that the "everybody knew it" defense was a particularly convincing argument when used to explain why Paul is so silent about the historical Jesus, but I think it is even weaker with respect to Luke/Acts. At the beginning of his gospel, Luke says that he is writing his gospel because earlier works were unsatisfactory. I have to think that he expected his work to be the definitive account. When Luke/Acts departs from Mark, I think we have to assume that the author thought that Mark had gotten something wrong.

My good friend Dagoods is also less than impressed with the argument
“Everyone knew it” is a failed methodology. The Acts author narrows the “James” in 12:2 as “James, brother of John” and the “James” of 1:13 as “James of Alphaeus.” But this method alleges the author did NOT list “James” of 21:18 as “James, brother of Jesus” because everyone knew it? It would seem to follow, that meant no one knew who James, brother of John was. Or who James, son of Alphaeus was.

Don’t forget, Luke/Acts knew Jesus had brothers, but does not list their names. Even though his source (Mark) DOES indicate there is a brother to Jesus named James. Under a straight reading of Acts, the better argument is that James of 21:18 is James, son of Alphaeus—NOT the unknown “brother of Jesus” who never is identified by Luke/Acts.

See Also the author’s treatment of “Philip” in distinguishing between “Philip the Disciple” and “Philip the Evangelist” that equally shows a tendency to make distinctions for intended recipients.

I’ve been on the fence regarding Ehrman’s scholarship in reading these reviews, but if he really did use the method “everyone knew it” for arguing the silence on James in Acts; I find this devastating to his credibility. This is Mythical Skepticism 101 stuff.
Well, Ehrman really did use the "everyone knew it" defense and it leads me to think that he really didn't put enough effort into thinking about about the mythicists' arguments.  He shouldn't have been surprised when someone pointed out that Acts does not corroborate a biological relationship between James and Jesus, and he should have been ready with a stronger reason for discarding Acts.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mythicism vs. Agnosticism

If you think it more likely than not that Jesus was purely mythical, you are viewed as a mythicist who has “drunk the Kool Aid” in the eyes of most of those who affirm the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.  This tends to be true even if you acknowledge the possibility of a historical Jesus. In my experience, there are only a few historicists who frequent these discussions who will acknowledge mythicism as intellectually defensible in any form.

If you think that the evidence is insufficient to establish that either a historical Jesus or a mythical Jesus is more likely than not, “historical Jesus agnostic” is probably the most generally accepted term and it is how I describe myself.  If you profess agnosticism about a historical Jesus, you will get varying reactions from those who affirm historicity. Some historicists seem to accept agnosticism as an intellectually defensible position. Others think that agnostics may not have yet drunk the Kool Aid, but that they are definitely sniffing the fumes. Others make no distinction between people who decline to affirm historicity and they view agnostics and mythicists as equally nutty.

If you are careful to affirm your agnosticism, you will probably be generally treated with more respect by historicists, although you may periodically provoke their ire simply because it is hard to be agnostic without at least acknowledging the possibility that mythicism is true.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (9) Ehrman's Response to Carrier

Bart Ehrman has responded to Richard Carrier's review of Did Jesus Exist? in a couple of posts on his blog here and here. Happily he responded in the Public Forum so anyone can read them. He admits to a couple of mistakes, insists that he is right and Carrier is wrong about a couple of points, and insists that Carrier is misinterpreting his statements or taking them out of context in a couple of cases. Unfortunately I don't have the expertise to evaluate the substance of all these disagreements, but I do know what I want and expect out of a book by Ehrman.

For me the important issue is how well informed about mythicism someone will be after reading Did Jesus Exist? I knew nothing about textual criticism prior to reading Misquoting Jesus. After reading it I found that I could follow reasonably sophisticated discussions of the topic, ask intelligent questions, and generally spot the difference between someone who knew their stuff and someone who was just bluffing. I have had many debates with internet apologists using Ehrman’s works as a reference and I don’t think that I have ever been caught short due to having an inaccurate picture of the evidence and arguments on either side of a question.

My standard for evaluating all of Carrier’s criticisms and Ehrman’s defenses is whether someone who entered an argument with a mythicist using Did Jesus Exist? is likely to wind up with egg on his face if he relied on Ehrman in the way that I have relied on him in arguments with Christian apologists.

(1) Tacitus: Carrier says that Ehrman got some nitpicky details wrong about Tacitus. Ehrman says that his statements are correct.

Edge: Ehrman. The main thing is that none of this is likely to come up in an argument with a mythicist.

(2) Pliny: Carrier says that Erhman got some nitpicky details about Pliny wrong. Ehrman admits he made a mistake in citation but says that there was no need to go into the other nitpicky details.

Edge: Ehrman. Once again, none of it this is likely to matter in an argument with a mythicist.

(3) Roman records: Carrier says that Ehrman was wrong about what kind of records the Romans kept. Ehrman says Carrier is talking about records that were kept in Egypt and he was talking about what we might expect to find in Palestine.

Edge: Carrier. The general propensity of the Romans to keep records is clearly relevant to the kind of records we might expect to find regarding Jesus of Nazareth. I interpret Ehrman to be saying that Romans didn't keep the relevant type of records at all. “If Romans were careful record keepers, it is passing strange that we have no record, not of Jesus but of nearly anyone who lived in the first century.” (p. 29) I think a person could wind up looking very foolish arguing this point with a mythicist if he didn't know that there were such records kept in Egypt.

(4) The Peter priapus: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong about a penis-nosed statue of Peter in the Vatican’s collection. Ehrmans says the statue isn’t of Peter.

Edge: Carrier. It is important to know whether mythicists are misinterpreting the existing evidence or inventing evidence from whole cloth. Ehrman makes it sound like the mythicists are inventing things: “There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this which love to make things up.” (p.24) Little is more embarrassing than having someone produce a piece of evidence that you have just accused them of inventing.

(5) Earlier Jesus: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong about whether any sources ever had Jesus living in the early 1st or 2nd century BC rather than the early 1st century AD. Ehrman says that all he meant was that those sources weren’t relevant to Paul's understanding.

Edge: Carrier. Once again, it is important to know whether mythicists are misinterpreting existing sources or inventing stories from whole cloth. Ehrman wrote "[T]he logic of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection show[s] that he thought that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events. I should stress that this is the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (p. 251). I think that Ehrman is clearly saying that no such source exists rather than that no such source was available to Paul.

(6) Earl Doherty: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong to say that Earl Doherty fails to acknowledge that the scholars he cites don’t agree with his ultimate conclusion. Ehrman says that Doherty “often gives the impression that the scholars he quotes agree with him on a point when they expressly do not.”

Edge: Carrier. Ehrman is often criticized unfairly by Christian apologists for the "impression" he gives rather than for what he actually says, e.g., "Ehrman makes it sound like we can't know anything at all about the text of the New Testament." Although this wouldn't come up in a debate, it is very disappointing to see Ehrman trying to justify a misstatement about someone else on these grounds.

(7) Dying and rising gods: Carrier says Ehrman is wrong about the dying and rising Gods. Ehrman says he got it right.

Edge: Too close to call (for me). This is obviously a very important issue for the mythicist argument and it comes up many times in the book. I don’t understand the issue well enough to say who’s right, but it doesn’t look to me like Ehrman is as dogmatic as Carrier implies so I don’t think that I would make any blanket statements based on Did Jesus Exist?, and hence I would not wind up with egg on my face when arguing with a mythicist.

(8) Carrier's credentials: Carrier says Ehrman is wrong about the degrees he holds. Ehrman admits the mistake and says he doesn't know where he got the erroneous information.

Edge: Carrier. Although this is never going to matter in a debate, I cannot see any excuse for Ehrman not checking this and the information is easy to find on the internet.

Overall, I have to agree with the substance of many of Carrier's criticisms, although I think that the tone of his review probably left something to be desired.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (21): Why It's Hard to Know Whether a Historical Jesus Existed

Historicists are fond of point out that supernatural stories were told about many people in the ancient world about whose existence historians are confident such as Alexander the Great.  Therefore, the fact that supernatural stories arose around Jesus of Nazareth isn't any reason to think that he did not exist.

Nevertheless, I think that there is a crucial difference: the supernatural stories arose around Alexander the Great as a result of historical events that occurred within the natural world, not the other way around.  When we strip away the legendary tales that grew around Alexander, we still find a significant mark in the historical record as a result of the things he accomplished during his life.

Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, first enters the historical record through the writings of Paul, a man who never knew him.  Our best guess is that he was relatively unnoticed during his own life by all but a small group of illiterate peasants.  He enters the record because Paul and others claimed to have encountered him after his death in the person of the risen Christ whose coming was the beginning of the end times.  This is not the type of event which can be considered subject to historical investigation.

Some time after Paul, stories were written about an earthly Jesus who tramped about Galilee teaching about the coming kingdom of God before reaching an unfortunate end in Jerusalem.  These stories were written in order to serve the propagation of the belief in the risen Christ who ushered in the end times.  The stories of the earthly man are transmitted as a result of the belief in the supernatural event, unlike with Alexander the Great where the supernatural stories arise as a result of the accomplishments of the earthly man.

Historicists say that they use standard historical tools in order to strip away the supernatural embellishments surrounding Jesus of Nazareth in the same way that such embellishments are stripped away from the story of any ancient person.  The problem is that when you strip away the embellishments surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the reason that any stories were told about him in the first place.  When you strip away the embellishments surrounding Alexander the Great, you still have a significant mark in the historical record that was achieved independently of the legends and myths.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Atheist Cat

Out of more that 500 posts over 4 1/2 years, the one that has gotten the most hits is Hitler Cat. Let's see how Atheist Cat does.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (7): Carrier's Review

Dr. Richard Carrier has posted a scathing review of Did Jesus Exist? titled Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic.  Interestingly, it doesn't overlap all that much with the posts that I have been writing.  While I have been concentrating on weaknesses in arguments that any layman might appreciate,  Carrier goes after Ehrman for his shortcomings in the field of ancient history and religion.

One of the things I have always appreciated about Ehrman is how careful he is to present the evidence accurately and to deal with counter argument fairly.  I have argued with many internet apologists using Ehrman as my primary reference and I don't think that I have ever been caught short by arguments or evidence that I couldn't have reasonably anticipated after reading Ehrman.  Even if I didn't agree with Ehrman's conclusion, I always felt that I had a clear picture of the evidence upon which it was based and the counter-arguments that might be offered against it.

According to Carrier, Did Jesus Exists? consistently misstates the evidence and fails to inform the reader of the diversity of scholarly opinion on the issues it addresses.  I don't have the expertise or knowledge to critique Carrier, but I can say that I have always found him reliable in the past and that no internet apologist has ever managed to trip me up when I relied on Carrier either.

Update:  Carrier does address one point that I covered in an earlier post, which is the problem with the "nobody would/could have invented it" argument.  Not surprisingly, he does it better.
[T]here is a logical fail here as well, since he bases his conclusion that no Jews would develop a belief in a dying messiah on the premise that no Jews had a belief in a dying messiah, which apart from being a circular argument (all novel beliefs start somewhere; you can’t argue that x would not arise because x hasn’t arisen), and apart from the fact that the inference is refuted by the fact that Jews later did develop such a belief (independently of Christianity, as I also demonstrate in the preceding link) so clearly there was no ideological barrier to doing so, but besides all that, his premise requires knowing what all Jews, of all sects, everywhere, believed or imagined, which knowledge Ehrman doesn’t have (not even close: see my discussion of what I and other scholars have said about such preposterous claims to omniscience in Proving History, pp. 129-34). He even knows his own inference is illogical, because he makes the exact same argument I just did (on p. 193): “how would we know this about ‘every’ early Christian, unless all of them left us writings and told us everything they knew and did?”* Substitute “Jew” for “Christian” and Ehrman just refuted himself.
*  In the quoted passage, Ehrman is addressing Rene Salm's argument that we can infer the non-existence of Nazareth from the fact that early Christians didn't bother to look for it and seemed not to know where it was.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (6): Is Corruption in Transmission Relevant?

I have been a fan of Bart Ehrman ever since reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in which he describes how errors occurred when scribes copied the New Testament texts and how scholars go about trying to identify those errors.  This was the book that first gained Ehrman widespread attention and aroused the ire of conservative Christian apologists. However, when it comes to Jesus' existence, Ehrman dismisses this as a cause of concern:
I do not need to explicate all these problems here, as I have written about them in more detail elsewhere.  My point in this context is the for the question of whether or not Jesus existed, these problems are mostly irrelevant.  The evidence for Jesus' existence does not depend on having a manuscript tradition of his life and teachings that is perfectly in line with what the authors of the New Testament gospels really wrote. (p.180)
He goes on to say,
If we had no clue what was originally in the writings of Paul or in the Gospels, this objection might carry more weight. But there is not a textual critic on the planet who thinks this, since not a shred of evidence leads in this direction. (p.109)
This sounds pretty reasonable, but I have a hard time squaring this with what he said in a 2008 debate with Dan Wallace at the Greer-Heard Forums:
Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.
. . . .
What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.
Recall that it is in Galatians 1:19 where Paul says that he saw James "the brother of the Lord," which Ehrman says proves that Jesus was a historical person "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt." (p.144) How can we possibly have that kind of certainty if "[w]e can’t know for certain that the text is reliable"?   If it's possible that someone changed a lot of words in Galatians, then it has to be possible that "the brother of the Lord" was added by some scribe to identify which James Paul was talking about and that it wasn't written by Paul himself.

I cannot help but think that there is a bit of inconsistency here.  When debating a conservative Christian apologist, Ehrman insists that everything in Galatians is subject to at least some degree of doubt due to uncertainties about its transmission.  However, when arguing against mythicism, Ehrman insists that we can be certain "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt."

It's very disappointing to see Ehrman argue that way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist? (5): Nazareth

Another concern I have with Did Jesus is Exist? is how quick Ehrman is to label an argument irrelevant to whether Jesus existed when the worst that can be said about it is that it's not dispositive of whether Jesus existed.  One of the most frustrating examples of this is his discussion of the argument that Nazareth did not exist at the time Jesus is claimed to have lived there (an argument about which I have no strong feeling).  Ehrman writes: 
I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely comes from somewhere else.  (p.191)
This sounds quite logical except for one thing: Nazareth is frequently cited as one of those things that can be known with relative certainty about the historical Jesus.  Ehrman makes this very point a couple of pages earlier:
Nazareth was a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, as far as we can tell before Christianity.  The savious of the world came from there?  Not from Bethlehem?  Or Jerusalem? Or Rome?  How likely is that?  And so we have a multiply attested tradition that passes the criterion of dissimilarity.  Conclusion:  Jesus probably came from Nazareth. (p.189)
Now technically I suppose that Ehrman isn't claiming in this passage that Nazareth constitutes evidence Jesus existed.  If he were, his earlier quoted claim would boil down to the self-refuting "If Jesus existed, as the existence of Nazareth suggests, but Nazareth did not, the he merely comes from somewhere else."   Nevertheless, he is citing it as something that we can know about the historical Jesus.  It seems like more than a little smoke and mirrors to claim that the validity of the things that we think we can know about Jesus are irrelevant to whether we can know that he existed.

I will concede that the non-existence of Nazareth would not be dispositive of Jesus' existence, but surely it is relevant.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (4): Does Paul Quote a Historical Jesus?

There are three passages that are usually cited as proof that Paul knew the teachings of a historical Jesus of Nazareth and they all come from his first letter to the Corinthians.
Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. 1 Cor. 9:13-14.
This teaching is reputed to be based on a passage in Luke
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. Luke 10:5-7
Next is Paul's teaching about divorce.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.  To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 1 Cor 7:10-12
This is thought to be based on a teaching found in Mark.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”      “What did Moses command you?” he replied. They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”  “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.  “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.  He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:2-12
Finally Paul's description of the institution of the Eucharistic meal:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Cor 11:23-26
The parallel passage is found in Luke:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.  Luke 22:19-20  
The first one strikes me as particularly unimpressive.  I think that almost any preacher can independently come to the conclusion that his congregation should support him and that it is the God's will that they do so.  I don't think that Paul needed to have heard an actual saying of a historical person to think that this was what the Lord was commanding.  The second one is more interesting because Paul attributes some of the teaching to the Lord and takes credit for some of it himself.  This suggests that there was some independent tradition concerning divorce that was already known to the Corinthians.

I question whether the tradition Paul knows concerning divorce is necessarily the same one attributed to Jesus in Mark.  Paul's teaching is driven by a couple of elements that aren't found in Mark.  First, he thinks that believers would be better off not marrying at all since the time is short and they should be focusing on the Lord "[f]or this world in its present form is passing away." 1 Cor. 7:30.  He is also addressing the question of whether believers should remain married to unbelievers which isn't found found in Jesus' teaching.   It is certainly possible that Paul's teaching is in some way dependent upon Jesus', but it doesn't seem obviously to be so.

Ehrman also mentions the possibility that someone within one of Paul's communities may have claimed to have received a divine revelation or prophecy which Paul and the community accepted as a valid commandment from the Lord.  Ehrman thinks that this is a reasonable hypothesis for the rapture passage in the first letter to the Thessalonians.
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 1 Thes. 4:15-18.
However, Ehrman rejects this as an explanation for the teachings on divorce and support of religious leaders for a very curious reason.  "When Paul claims that the Lord said something, and we have a record of Jesus saying exactly that, it is surely most reasonable to conclude that Paul is referring to something that he believed Jesus actually said."  (p. 129)  This seems very circular to me.  Isn't this only the most reasonable conclusion if we have first concluded that Paul actually believed that he knew things the historical Jesus said?  Isn't that what we are trying to figure out here?  Surely we cannot use the assumption that Paul knew the sayings of a historical Jesus in order to prove that Paul knew the sayings of a historical Jesus.

One of the reasons the revelation explanation makes sense to me on the divorce teaching is that Paul ends the discussion with "and I think that I too have the Spirit of God."  I'm just spit-balling here but that sounds to me like the kind of thing you might write if someone else in the community was claiming to receive prophecies or revelations.

With the description of the Last Supper, there can be little doubt that Paul and Luke are part of the same tradition, but there is still a question of which way that tradition flows.  If Paul indicated that he heard about this event from someone who was there, there would be little doubt that he understood himself to be quoting the words of a historical person.  Unfortunately, that's not what Paul says.  Paul says that this was "received from the Lord," i.e., Paul knows this by divine revelation.  While we cannot take such a statement at face value, I think we at least have to allow for the possibility that Paul sincerely believed it to be true.  If the Christian cult practiced some sort of ritual communal meal before Paul came along, he might have believed that its true meaning had been revealed to him and he could have added elements to the tradition that were later picked up by Luke when he wrote his gospel.

In sum then, I don't think that there is any conclusive reason to think that Paul viewed the teachings on divorce or supporting religious leaders as the words of the itinerant preacher described in the gospels.  He does seem to think that is was an actual historical person who instituted the Eucharistic meal, but I think some uncertainty is created by the fact that he claims not to have come by his knowledge of the event in the way that we think people normally come by their knowledge of actual historical events.  I think it's possible that Paul all three passages reflect actual memories of a historical person, but I also think that it's far from the slam dunk that Ehrman makes it out to be.