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?”