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.