Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mythicism v. Historicism in a Nutshell

(1)  Did visions of a resurrected Messiah lead to men inventing stories about Jesus of Nazareth?


(2) Was it something about Jesus of  Nazareth that led to men having visions of him as a resurrected Messiah?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why the Consensus of Historical Jesus Scholars Fails to Impress Me

When I express my doubts about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, I am frequently confronted with arguments based on the consensus of scholars. If the overwhelming majority of scholars trained in the field have reached the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical human being, isn't it rational to think that there is probably some good evidence for his existence?

My answer is no, not when well respected scholars like N.T. Wright offer stupid reasons for believing Jesus worked miracles. "Jesus attracted large crowds. A thousand little features of the stories put this beyond doubt. When we ask why, the gospels all say it was because he was healing people. The link between healing and crowds is made in all the sources."  Simply Jesus, A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. Slightly circular I would say.

From what I can tell, Wright has the appropriate training and credentials and some of his work would be considered mainstream even though he is known to engage in conservative apologetics from time to time.  That he makes arguments like the one above makes me wonder whether the training and peer review in the field of New Testament studies isn't doing it's job.   It would be like a tenured professor of history arguing "We know that the Yellow Brick Road was real because all the sources tell us that Dorothy used it to get to the Emerald City."

One of my problems with appeals to scholarly consensus is that I am never certain about just who that consensus includes.  Just how many of them are willing to forsake logic when necessary to preserve the tenets of their?  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Discussing Parallels with an Apologist

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton has been doing a series titled Top 5 Resurrection Myths.  Naturally a myth is any explanation other than "Jesus really rose from the dead."  Yesterday he posted #3 The Resurrection Was Borrowed from Ancient Myths.

I'm wary of these kinds of discussions because it can be very difficult to prove direct borrowing.  Just because a sports movie ends with the underdog making a last second comeback doesn't mean that it was borrowed directly from Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Hidalgo, The Karate Kid, The Fighter, Breaking Away, or any of who knows how many other movies.  Nevertheless, I can still recognize the lack of originality, so I couldn't resist commenting on Patton's claim that
The primary reason why the idea that Christianity borrowed from the ancient mystery religions [fails] is that upon examination the parallels are simply not there. Of course there is always some borrowing from the culture of the day for liturgical or cultural reasons, but when it comes to the key doctrines of Christianity–especially the death, burial, and Resurrection of Christ—the so-called parallels are not very striking.
Now what is or is not "very striking" may be somewhat subjective, but the fact that early Christians thought it necessary to address the parallels would seem to me to preclude the claim that they aren't there at all.  In Dialogue with Trypho, ch 69, Justin Martyr wrote
For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by (Jupiter’s) intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that (the devil) has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?
Clearly Justin Martyr saw some similarities between pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs.  So I pointed out to Patton that I thought that Justin Martyr's comments pretty well settled the question of whether the parallels existed although I conceded that their existence was not proof of borrowing.

Any good politician knows that the best way to conduct a press conference is to answer the question that you wanted the reporter to ask rather than the one he actually asked.  Similarly, a standard tactic of internet apologists is to respond to the argument they wanted the skeptic to make rather than the one he did make.  Patton came up with a new twist though.  Rather than respond to the argument that he wanted me to make, he demanded that I make the argument he wanted me to make.
Please make an argument for them [the parallels]. Make sure that you argue how Christianity borrowed from them and give the text.
Although I told him again that I was merely addressing the question of whether the parallels existed, he kept insisting that the burden was on me to prove that borrowing had occurred. After some pointless back and forth, I finally wrote

Why is there a burden on me to defend a claim that I haven’t made rather than a burden on you to defend one that you have?

You asserted that the parallels are “simply not there” and “not very striking.” I’ve suggested that your assertions are belied by the fact that an early church father–who was surely in a much better position than you to judge the existence and the significance of the parallels–felt compelled to attribute the parallels to demons.

Rather than address the argument that I’ve actually made by defending the statement that you actually made, you keep insisting that I make some other argument (a typical apologist’s diversion I might add).
That comment got deleted and in its place Michael wrote
Vinny. Which parallel do you want to deal with?

And, have you actually read these parallels yourself?

Brother, in my worldview there is a concept of a sinful waste of time. I am done here until you give me examples. My post has some examples. The burden is yours. But I do think you have demonstrates the point of my post well.

To the rest, just ask people to give you examples. It works.

To which I responded
If by “works” you mean "avoids responding to the argument that the skeptic is actually making and avoids defending the apologist's misstatements," then yes, it works quite well.
Not surprisingly, that comment didn't make it through either. I'm not sure whether Michael has banned me permanently, but we'll see. If so, one less website to waste my time at.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Paul or Jesus?

Even if you are correct that religions typically begin with some sort of religious experience, why would you make that Paul's, rather than that of say Jesus of Nazareth? Dr. James McGrath

Sometimes a good question brings things into focus.

My reluctance to give Jesus's religious experience primacy over Paul's is that I have a very difficult time figuring out what, if any, credible information I have about Jesus's experience.  Paul is my earliest source and he doesn't give me any indication that Jesus of Nazareth ever had any religious experiences that were of any consequence to the early Christian movement or even that he had any religious experiences at all.  Paul writes a number of letters in which he explains the meaning and significance of his own religious experiences, which he seemed to view as some sort of divine revelation from a heavenly being. Paul never indicates, however, that this revelation was informed by anything that the man Jesus of Nazareth said or did or experienced prior to his death.

The fact that Paul is the earliest source doesn't necessarily make his experience the one that gave rise to  Christian belief and practice, but I don't see any clear way to get back to anyone's earlier experiences.   Paul certainly doesn't help much in this endeavor as he claims that his message was revealed to him directly by God and that other men neither taught it to him or added to it.  He indicates that others had some sort of experience with the heavenly being before he did, and that he was a persecutor of such people before he joined them, but he never says what it was about his predecessors that he found particularly offensive.  About the only thing he says about the Christian movement before he came on the scene is that there were some people who believed that a crucified guy had risen from the dead. What led to that belief he does not say.

So Paul doesn't give me any information about the crucified guy's religious experiences, but the gospels tell me some things about Jesus.  Mainstream scholars think it most likely that something about the things Jesus said and did during his life caused his followers later to have experiences that convinced them that he had been raised from the dead.  Paul's writings do not preclude this scenario, but neither do they corroborate it.   What bothers me is how much reading between the lines of the gospels is required to support it.  After all, the gospels tell us that the things Jesus did and the experiences his followers had were miracles. As the skeptic in me thinks that miracles are highly unlikely, I have to figure out some way to parse the gospels to get at what Jesus's experiences might really have been and that's where I run into problems.

My first problem is determining the nature of the experiences that led to the belief that the crucified guy had risen from the dead.  Were they dreams?  Were they visions?  Were they hallucinations?  Were they hoaxes?  Were they cases of mistaken identity?  Were they merely some sort of intellectual insight as John Shelby Spong has suggested.  Frankly, I cannot see any basis for declaring any of the possibilities as being the most likely seed out of which the legends of gospels grew.

My next problem is figuring out how Jesus made such an impression on his followers that they had experiences after his crucifixion that convinced them he had returned from the dead.  Obviously this is made more difficult by the fact that I'm not sure what those experiences were, but even if  I knew that they were dreams or hallucinations, I doubt that I could say what kinds of things it would take to induce someone to have such dreams or hallucinations. It's just not the kind of thing about which I have any data to make comparisons.  I suspect that is part of the reason why every scholar can come up with his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Everyone has there own idea of what Jesus must have been like to have had the effect he had on his followers and there is no way to choose among the various pictures.

The final problem then is to figure out what experiences it was that Jesus might have had that led him to do whatever it was that he might have done to so impress his followers that they had whatever experiences it was that they which convinced them that he had risen from the dead.  It seems like a dead end to me.  Aren't I better off just accepting that Paul is the earliest experience that I have to work with?