More Mythicist Misrepresentation

I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.

A case in point is Neil Godfrey’s recent posts about how historians work and the specific case of Jan Vansina. I will ignore Godfrey’s decision to misrepresent what I was saying in a blog post in spite of my having pointed out this misrepresentation to him on my own blog (you can click through and read that if you are interested).

But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.

First, Godfrey quotes Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources and their discussion of Vansina’s work in oral history: “Historians can place trust in oral sources only to the extent that they can be verified by means of external evidence of another kind, such as archaeological, linguistic, or cultural” (p. 26). He then ignores the question of what sort of linguistic and cultural evidence is being referred to and proceeds as though these points had not even been mentioned. He seems to think that his readers are foolish and gullible, and perhaps some are, but not all.

Godfrey then writes, “The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”. HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary.” At this point, Godfrey is either being obtuse or deceptive, or has not actually read Vansina’s books (the fact that they are books but he placed their titles in quotation marks, even though Godfrey is a librarian and should know better, is indeed suspicious). Vansina studies the oral histories of African tribes including for periods before the living memory of those he interviewed. In such cases, the same situation exists as in the Gospels, except that the Gospels can be shown to be closer in time to the events they purport to record than some of the African oral traditions discussed in Vansina’s book. What exactly are the external controls of the sort Godfrey thinks are needed? How does he know that the stories being told by a tribe’s storyteller to Vansina were not originally about celestial rather than terrestrial figures? How does he know that they were not concocted in a conspiracy to rewrite history at some earlier date?

He doesn’t. And since he rejects the sorts of criteria that historical Jesus scholars and Vansina use, assessing whether a tradition embarrassing to the tribe or group is likely to have been invented, presumably Godfrey ought to reject Vansina’s claim to be a historian – and Howell’s and Prevenier’s too, since they view Vansina’s work favorably. But he doesn’t do that – either because he genuinely cannot comprehend what he is reading, or because he wishes to deceive readers into thinking that he is accurately discussing what historians write and do. But he is no more doing that than he is accurately representing what other bloggers say with whom he disagrees.

Vansina – like historical Jesus scholars – recognizes that the traditions of a community are not infinitely flexible. Mythicists, on the other hand, seem to think that communities provide no controls on innovation and deviation from tradition, and that probability matters little, at least where the historical Jesus and early Christianity are concerned.

Since I am gearing up to begin the semester, teaching on among other things the historical Jesus, I can’t help but relate this to the experiences educators sometimes have with students. Mythicists clearly would fail at courses that required careful reading and accurate representation of what they have read, the critical interpretation of texts, or the use of historical methods in a consistent fashion. Perhaps the interesting question to ask is whether mythicists are like those sorts of students who, try as they might, can’t manage to do well in a subject area, and if so, whether it is because of innate inability, dogmatic adherence to their presuppositions, or failure to understand how a given field’s methods and tools differ from those in other areas they have studied and are more familiar with.

Or are they like the students who don’t care, or who think they already know all the answers?

That mythicists either fail to grasp what historians and scholars write, or deliberately misrepresent them, is clear. So perhaps the interesting question is to ask why.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=644159096 Jim West

    nice work.  must share

  • Geoff Hudson

    But what I grasp is that some historians and scholars write rubbish about Jesus.  For example, I would say that Kilty and Elliott present a tortuous, complicated argument for any reasonable person to understand.  History cannot be that complicated.  

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  • http://twitter.com/Xcntrik Xcntrik

    Mind if I ask a question?  It is understood that there is no contemporary evidence to prove the existence of Jesus and that legends were developed about him beginning in the first century CE.  Is the default position then that he did not exist?  That is the flaw that I see with the mythicist position.

    However, I will admit that I haven’t spent any time seriously entertaining mythicists.  I’m not a fan of the show, Ancient Aliens, either.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I would distinguish between Jesus agnosticism – the view that Jesus, Socrates, John the Baptist, Hillel, and anyone for whom we do not have certain kinds of non-textual evidence should be viewed as uncertain to have existed or not existed – from Jesus mythicism, which is folks like Earl Doherty and D. M. Murdoch who claim that the New Testament texts support their view that Jesus was initially considered a purely celestial or symbolic figure.

      • http://twitter.com/Xcntrik Xcntrik

        Thanks. I am not sure how early writings would support that view, while later texts could certainly be interpreted in that way.  GoMark’s Jesus was just a man, chosen by the deity.  To me, what is important is how those views change through time.

        I don’t have any interest in entertaining pseudo-scholarship.  Life is confusing enough.

      • Geoff Hudson

        I would say that to begin with Jesus did not exist.  

        The early christian movement was Jewish, a prophetic movement of the Spirit. 

        The Spirit was changed to the Christ who was still a spirit.  

        The Christ was developed into the human Jesus.    

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  • Geoff Hudson

    Then there are those historians who believe that pharisees existed at the time Jesus was supposed to have existed.  Never mind that the mention of them are obvious interpolations in the writings attributed to Josephus where they have have all the appearance of being invented, along with sadducees and essenes.  They are not mentioned in the scrolls found in the Dead Sea area, which do mention priests and prophets. The scrolls were dumped in the Judean desert by priests who fought the Romans. So where do the ‘historians’ stand on pharisees, saducees and essenes.  They don’t have a leg to stand-on. 
    It isn’t just Jesus who is mythical. 

  • Vinnyjh

    So what sort of linguistic and cultural evidence is being referred to by Vansina? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      Vinny, Vasina cites the travel tales of 16th century European explorers.Vasina thinks that anthroplogicasl studies centuries later in the same general area could constitute external control. The idea isn’t that we are trying to prove that everything that the exp[lores said is true, but if the travel tale and the anthropology seem to match up, we have some basis for believing the Europeans were doing some accurate observing. AN example I would give is the report that the Aztecs sacrifieced some of Cortez’s men. I cannot prove what was reported is true, but we know from other sources that the Aztecs did do this to enemies so the account isn’t implausible (on of those criteria Neil thinks are so silly), while Neil might argue, if he were consistent, that Cortez was lying or borrowing from literature or what ever, a real historian would be justified as citing this as evidence for what took place even if it cannot be proven.  

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      It’s a shame Dr McGrath did not elaborate on this because he could have really supported his personal attack with evidence.

      Dr McGrath, would you like me to answer this question or should I leave it to you?

      • Stevencarrwork

        Neil, McGrath did supply evidence. He pointed out that you placed a title in quotes. (I admit I had to sit down to recover when I saw that Neil had quoted a book title by putting it in quote marks.)

        It is not as though McGrath really had to stretch to find anything, no matter how utterly petty it made him took, to throw at you.

        Remember, James is too much of a gentleman to embarrass you by providing  actual quotes from the book which refute you and let his readers know his gripe was over something more serious than quoting a book title in book marks. 

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        For Neil: Vansina, Oral Tradition pp.83-84. And thank you for spotting the typo (I’ll fix it).

        Steven Carr: Apologies for not including a reference to a book that I do not have on my shelf at home on a holiday. I didn’t realize that would surprise anyone in quite the way it did you.

        • Stevencarrwork

          Wow. Did McGrath really say that?

          He doesn’t have the book to hand, feels no need to quote any of it, but is able to slam Neil for misrepresentation , while McGrath can’t , won’t and sees no reason, to quote anything from the book as support for his position.

          Somebody tell me McGrath is not doing this.   

          • Stevencarrwork

             Gosh, if McGrath was able to smack down Neil for misrepresenting a book at this moment in time, while on holiday, just think how much more devastating McGrath’s article would have been if he had been able to see the book while writing the article, and read some of its contents before posting.

        • Anonymous

          Dr. McGrath,

          I’m not sure whether I am surprised in quite the way that Steven is, but I am a little surprised that you would write a post like this without being able to consult the book in question.   There are few, if any, issues upon which I consider myself so well versed that I would venture accusing someone of misrepresentation without being able to verify my sources.

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. (No worries about spotting the typo — was merely returning the favour since your typos were in your same comment in which you reproved me for a misspelling.)

          You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

          This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

          But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. (No worries about spotting the typo — was merely returning the favour since your typos were in your same comment in which you reproved me for a misspelling.)

          You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

          This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

          But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

          • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Would you care to explain how, and in what sense, we do not know ”
            the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition” in the Gospels?  Or how our comprehension of the context of the Gospels is any less clear, in your view, than the context of an oral tradition for which we only have a contemporary oral performance? It seems that if anything, an ancient recording of an oral tradition provides a serious advantage for the historian – it was fixed in writing much closer to the point of origin than many of the examples that Vansina and others studying contemporary orality consider.

            • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey
              • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                Thank you for sharing that link. It is good to see you admit that there are historians whose view you say is defensible who use the criterion of embarassment. We seem to be making progress.

                Perhaps the key next step is to figure out how to persuade you that we do not know so little about the provenance of the Gospel of Mark as you seem to think (you surely don’t mean that we must be able to trace the provenance of an orally-transmitted story, since such prior oral performances are by definition inaccessible to the historian). It has often seemed to me that some mythicists treat the Gospel of Mark as though it might have been a work of fiction for sale at a bookseller, which someone read and turned into a religion. Clearly no mythicist has defended such a scenario or is likely to be able to. There is no serious room for doubt that the Gospel of Mark is a product of what with hindsight we call the Christian movement, the religious phenomenon that Paul, James, Peter and others were a part of before this Gospel was written. Or would you disagree? How much does one need to know about the provenance of a work before a mythicist ought to renounce treating it as a text written in code and relate it to the phenomenon we know as early Christianity instead?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I think Neil’s problem (among many) here is that he isn’t really interested in ancient history; he is interested in demonstrating the Bible is fiction. Neil apparently studied history in a traditional Von Ranke setting, where, as one historian put it, history begins with the Peace of Westphalia. I’ve noticed this myself and Vansina and Howell & Prevenier are no exception, that text on the study of history don’t adequately address the study of ancient history. If Neil wanted to argue that the findings of historians of the ancient world are only so many hypotheses and no facts, I wouldn’t be able to disagree. Unfortunately Neil doesn’t want to make that statement because; A. he would like to promote the notion that the historians he disagrees with are only doing apologetics for biblical literalist B. he wants to establish as a fact that the biblical accounts are fiction without historical referents. Note this gem from (http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/confessions-of-a-theologian-bible-scholars-really-do-do-history-differently/#more-23801 ) “One does wonder why if there were as much evidence for Jesus as for any other figure of ancient times (e.g. Socrates, Mohammed) the question of Jesus’ historicity would have arisen in the first place.” Neil acts oblivious even though it has been pointed out to him that both Socrates and Mohammed have had their historicity questioned and those scholars don’t give Jesus myth theories anymore credibility than they do Socrates or Mohammed myth theories.

    For more, http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=268&action=edit&message=1

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    And since he rejects the sorts of criteria that historical
    Jesus scholars and Vansina use, assessing whether a tradition
    embarrassing to the tribe or group is likely to have been invended (sic)

    Dr McGrath, would you kindly direct me to a page or chapter reference in something by Vansina where he makes such an argument for the authenticity of a an oral tradition, please? I am by no means implying he has not said such a thing, but I would be interested in the context of any such argument given that this assertion does certainly not sit with what I have read in the earlier or later editions of the book I cited.

    As for misrepresenting you yourself, I am surprised you should say so. You insisted repeatedly that what you wrote was clear enough to all and that my interpretation of it was nonsense. So I simply quoted you in full and I am sure if my interpretation of it is invalid people will see that for themselves.

    I would be interested if you would quote me anything from any of the works I discussed — or simply offer a page reference — that undermines what I have, well, directly quoted from them.

    If my quotations were selective and misleading then show me up by quoting a passage that demonstrates as much.

    But do please give me a reference to Vansina’s use of the criterion of embarrassment. Thankyou.

  • Stevencarrwork

    I was rather astonished by McGrath’s smackdown as he was unable to support his accusations with actual evidence.

    The only quote he gives from Vansina is one Neil gave.

    He must have hunted high and low, more than once, for something to quote-mine against Godfrey and drawn a total blank.

    But how? How could Vansina’s work have supported Neil so thoroughly that McGrath could not even find an out-of-context passage to support his claim that Neil mispresented it?

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  • Stevencarrwork

    Page 17 of Vansina’s book ‘When accounts of events have been told for a generation or so, the messages then current may represent the tenor of the original message. but…..There is no possibility of reconstructing an original or even to assume that there was but one original.’

    ‘No possibility of reconstructing an original.’? Has Vansina never opened a history book and seen the pioneering work of New Testament scholars, whose criteria of authenticity are accepted everywhere by scholars in other fields as breakthroughs in historical methodology,( although there is a book coming out which questions  these criteria.)

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      Steven, be careful not to misrepresent Vansina or you will get yourself into trouble. To be absolutely clear, note that on page 17 he is only referring to the originality of the message itself and has not yet come to discuss the historicity or factness of the content of the message. Later he will repeatedly stress that a tradition is only relayed IF it has relevance to storyteller and audience. & its meaning can only be understood by a full grasp of so many factors about the society in which the telling takes place. And if a recorder like Matthew looks like he might want to write a message down then the story-teller will as a rule pull back and may even change a lot of the original accordingly. And meanings can change so much with retellings according to the needs or interests of each generation. Who knows, a myth might even come to be interpreted as a reality! But I am sure Dr McGrath can explain all of this much better than an amateur such as myself.

  • Geoff Hudson

    Was there an oral tradition in Judaism that has been suppressed by emperors and their historians and by rabbis who have laid claim to an oral tradition?  It could have dated back as far as Moses.  Was the oral tradition to do with prophets and the Spirit?  Such a tradition would place little value on the Hebrew bible which only appeared in the second century BCE. 

  • Geoff Hudson

    Was the Hebrew bible a priest’s bible, developed and written by priests for priests?  And did the priests develop what was supposed to be an ‘oral’ tradition to add to their Hebrew bible?  This was surely to counter what they perceived as opposition from the prophets who rejected the law and sacrifice. 

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It is something I’ve researched, written about and published on in the past, and so I was confident that I was not misremembering. Some of you may find my chapter on the Gospels as “Written Island in an Oral Stream” of interest.

  • Anonymous

    I do not think that link leads to where you think it does, Dr. McGrath.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks. Fixed it. VERY strange that the link embedded in the text didn’t work, since it was the same link.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I think the most relevant thing for this discussion is that Vansina defends the criterion of dissimilarity (or embarrassment). Neil has been swearing up and down that NT scholars are using methods that other historians won’t, and has mentioned this one in particular. Neil’s statement, “Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence”, is true, but as usual his need to quote mine in order to prop up his ideas has led him to ignore the authors true meaning. Vansina follows the passage Neil mentions with “Nevertheless, the events recorded are intrinsically incompatible with the interest the traditions in question are supposed to defend.” And he closes the section with “One may take it that traditions such as these can be relied upon, and fortunately they are to be met with, it would appear, in a large number of societies.” Neil is free to disagree, but his disagreement is not with HJ scholars as he likes to claim but historians in general.
    On the details and provenance, I don’t think Vansina would argue we know as much as we might like to know about the world that originated the oral tradition (of which we know little, as there are no written records), but that doesn’t seem to stop him from considering the oral traditions as evidence. Again Neil may disagree, but his problem is the Vansina, not HJ scholarship. We probably know more about the world that produced the Gospels than we do the oral history of Rwanda or Bushongo, because we have written documents from the same period (that means approximately contemporaneous, not as Neil seems to imagine, written the same year, otherwise why would he feel documents written centuries before Paul’s letters are relevant to explain Paul, but material a generation later from his own community are irrelevant?). Vansina hardly had the original composition of the traditions he relates since the original story tellers were long dead. For all he knew, the storytellers he knew made up the whole story, though reason would argue against this being likely as it would argue against Mark composing his gospels out of thin air.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I think the most relevant thing for this discussion is that Vansina defends the criterion of dissimilarity (or embarrassment). Neil has been swearing up and down that NT scholars are using methods that other historians won’t, and has mentioned this one in particular. Neil’s statement, “Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence”, is true, but as usual his need to quote mine in order to prop up his ideas has led him to ignore the authors true meaning. Vansina follows the passage Neil mentions with “Nevertheless, the events recorded are intrinsically incompatible with the interest the traditions in question are supposed to defend.” And he closes the section with “One may take it that traditions such as these can be relied upon, and fortunately they are to be met with, it would appear, in a large number of societies.” Neil is free to disagree, but his disagreement is not with HJ scholars as he likes to claim but historians in general.
    On the details and provenance, I don’t think Vansina would argue we know as much as we might like to know about the world that originated the oral tradition (of which we know little, as there are no written records), but that doesn’t seem to stop him from considering the oral traditions as evidence. Again Neil may disagree, but his problem is the Vansina, not HJ scholarship. We probably know more about the world that produced the Gospels than we do the oral history of Rwanda or Bushongo, because we have written documents from the same period (that means approximately contemporaneous, not as Neil seems to imagine, written the same year, otherwise why would he feel documents written centuries before Paul’s letters are relevant to explain Paul, but material a generation later from his own community are irrelevant?). Vansina hardly had the original composition of the traditions he relates since the original story tellers were long dead. For all he knew, the storytellers he knew made up the whole story, though reason would argue against this being likely as it would argue against Mark composing his gospels out of thin air.

  • Anonymous

    I think the most relevant thing for this discussion is that Vansina defends the criterion of dissimilarity (or embarrassment).
    To me, it is not enough merely that he defends it.  I would like to see some specific examples of cases where he believes it can and cannot successfully be applied.  I have no abstract problems with the criteria of embarrassment, but it does seem to me that historical Jesus scholars ask it to bear an awful lot of weight.  I think the baptism of Jesus is an good example.   Would Vansina say we have sufficient understanding of Mark’s motivations to know that he would have found that embarrassing? 

    • Geoff Hudson

      In the baptism of Jesus we see an allusion to the idea that Jesus was taking over from a movement of prophets supposedly led by John the Baptist.  Given that Jesus was invented, it would appear that at the time, the prophets were far from being of old or special.  John is said to have baptised many people who would have all been regarded as prophets. Now I don’t believe John existed or baptised anyone.  I believe that the writer was alluding (not deliberately) to the fact that there were many prophets.  The writer put into the mouth of a woman these word:, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet”.  Well how did the writer expect the woman to know what a prophet looked like?   The Jewish leaders (the priests in my opinion) were afraid of prophets in general. 

    • Geoff Hudson

      In the baptism of Jesus we see an allusion to the idea that Jesus was taking over from a movement of prophets supposedly led by John the Baptist.  Given that Jesus was invented, it would appear that at the time, the prophets were far from being of old or special.  John is said to have baptised many people who would have all been regarded as prophets. Now I don’t believe John existed or baptised anyone.  I believe that the writer was alluding (not deliberately) to the fact that there were many prophets.  The writer put into the mouth of a woman these word:, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet”.  Well how did the writer expect the woman to know what a prophet looked like?   The Jewish leaders (the priests in my opinion) were afraid of prophets in general. 

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Geoff, can you write in such a way as to make a case for your views, if you are determined to share them? At present you write in such a way that no one will be able to understand the reasoning behind your views or find them persuasive. You seem to think that everyone shares your assumption, approach, and conclusions, but that is not the case.

  • Anonymous

    There is no serious room for doubt that the Gospel of Mark is a product of what with hindsight we call the Christian movement, the religious phenomenon that Paul, James, Peter and others were a part of before this Gospel was written.

    Why not?  Aren’t the early epistles the only evidence for the movement at the time of the composition of Mark (assuming consensus dating)?   Do they provide us with sufficient evidence to establish that Mark’s stories were a product of the same movement rather than his own invention?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I’m not sure what you have in mind from this short comment. Someone else comes up with a crucified Messiah named Jesus completely independently by coincidence? I’d appreciate more detail, as I’m not sure what to make of your comment, or even whether it is flippant or serious.

      • Anonymous

        Dr. McGrath,

        I don’t think I am being flippant.

        Our only evidence of what the Christian movement was all about at the time Mark was written is the earliest epistles.  I cannot see any evidence in those epistles that an oral tradition concerning the sayings and deeds of the earthly Jesus and his followers was part of the Christian movement at that time.  I don’t think I can rule out the possibility, but I don’t think I have any evidence on the question.  On the other hand, I can see a lot in Mark that appears to be reworked stories from the Old Testament.

        So where does our knowledge of the provenance of Mark come from?  How do we know that Mark was recording existing tradition about a historical Jesus rather than historicizing a Christ who had only previously been encountered through appearances and revelations?  I don’t feel like I have enough evidence to corroborate or refute either possibility.

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think you are asking about the provenance of the material in the Gospel of Mark (something that one can only surmise based on its contents, as with any text that seems to incorporate earlier material when the source of that material, oral or written, is no longer extant), rather than the provenance of the Gospel of Mark itself. 

          (As anyone who has studied the isnads of Islamic hadith from a historian’s perspective can attest, having a list of the chain of transmission does not guarantee authenticity).

          The question of the provenance of Mark is a relatively simple one, as long as one does not wish to get caught up in fruitless debates about who the precise author may or may not have been. Is this a work that provides evidence about the views of the same religious phenomenon we learn of through the epistles Paul wrote a decade earlier? Does it show evidence of being involved in a radical revision of what that group believed? Or is it an expression of the same religious movement and its views – not necessarily precisely the views of Paul or anyone else, but part of a common phenomenon with identifiable shared beliefs and practices?

          • Anonymous

            Is this a work that provides evidence about the
            views of the same religious phenomenon we learn of through the epistles Paul
            wrote a decade earlier? Does it show evidence of being involved in a radical
            revision of what that group believed? Or is it an expression of the same
            religious movement and its views – not necessarily precisely the views of Paul
            or anyone else, but part of a common phenomenon with identifiable shared
            beliefs and practices?

             

            Those are certainly the questions.  It seems to me that there are identifiable shared beliefs and practices.  However,
            the focus on the pre-crucifixion life and ministry of Jesus is certainly a
            dramatic difference between Mark and Paul. 
            Couldn’t that be some evidence of
            a radical revision?  I don’t think we
            have enough pieces of the puzzle to know whether it was or not.

            • Jonathan Duran

               VinnyJH said: “It seems to me that there are identifiable shared beliefs and
              practices.  However, the focus on the pre-crucifixion life and ministry
              of Jesus is certainly a dramatic difference between Mark and Paul. 
              Couldn’t that be some evidence of a radical revision?”

              This seems reasonable to me and most folks I’ve talked to…it seems McGrath is being the unreasonable one by insisting that their is no radical revision when clearly there are some start differences among the commonalities…

              • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                I obviously wasn’t denying that there are differences, if you’ve read anything I’ve written about early Christianity. But to claim that the absence of focus in Paul’s letters on precisely the sorts of things we’d expect Christians to already know seems to me to be an argument from silence of precisely the sort that is logically fallacious. There is nothing at all in Mark that suggests that a purely celestial figure is being turned into a terrestrial one – no hint of controversy, indeed no hint that Jesus was or had been a celestial or divine figure at all. 

                • Anonymous

                  Dr. McGrath,I agree that there is no hint of a celestial figure being turned into a terrestrial figure in Mark.  By the same token, I would say that there is little to no hint in Paul that a vibrant oral tradition concerning the words and deeds of the earthly Jesus and his disciples was part of the Christian phenomenon at the time.  I’m not saying that there is no indication whatsoever in Paul that the pre-Crucifixion Jesus might have been a historical person.  However, I don’t think that there is any indication of the kind of oral tradition concerning the miracles and teachings of a historical person that is assumed to be the basis for Mark’s composition.

                  Even if I agreed that there are logical reasons why indications of that oral tradition might not have found there way into the Paul’s epistles (and in fact I don’t find the arguments on that point all that persuasive), I would still have to say that we don’t have evidence of it.   On the other hand, we do have some indication that many of stories in Mark are simply variations on Old Testament themes and stories which might or might not be consistent with such an oral tradition.  I think that leaves us without sufficient evidentiary basis to determine the extent to which Mark was reducing to writing the community’s existing understanding of the pre-Crucifixion Jesus rather than revising that understanding.  

                  I don’t think we can say that the evidence shows that Mark was engaging in radical revision, but I don’t see that the evidence is less consistent with that than with continuity.

                • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                  But to claim that the absence of focus in Paul’s letters on precisely
                  the sorts of things we’d expect Christians to already know seems to me
                  to be an argument from silence of precisely the sort that is logically
                  fallacious.

                  You can recognize circularity when you see it is pointed out to you in a
                  colourful diagram and applied to creationism but remain incredibly
                  blind to your own circularity.

                  There is nothing at all in Mark that suggests that a purely
                  celestial figure is being turned into a terrestrial one – no hint of
                  controversy, indeed no hint that Jesus was or had been a celestial or
                  divine figure at all.

                  Perhaps you should read what others actually argue — you know, refer to their actual arguments and even quote them making key points. Or are you afraid that by quoting others and demonstrating their position by attention to the specifics of their arguments you will be guilty of mispresentation?

                  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    Neil, of course you are going to protest that everyone else whom you disagree with is misrepresenting things, while you are being fair and accurate. But not everyone will find your claim persuasive.

                    I have spent a lot of time (and plan to continue doing so) blogging through Earl Doherty’s book in detail. The total discussion is much lengthier than any review a book would get in a journal. And yet you had the audacity to complain that I wasn’t giving the full picture. I understand that it is useful to at least try to claim that I am misrepresenting mythicism and ignoring the specifics of their argument. But being serious for just a second, who do you really think you’re kidding when you do so?

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      I have demonstrated my points with specific references and quotations
                      and you have only responded with unsupported assertions and sarcasm.

                      I have addressed your “reviews” of Doherty with specific reference to both your actual words and Doherty’s, quoting both and pointing to specific arguments. In response you have dismissed all of that with “Just because you say you address my points doesn’t mean you have.” You seem to equate length of your reviews with substance and when I specifically demonstrated your errors and misrepresentations (not merely claim you misrepresent, but demonstrate your misrepresentations) you call that “audacity”.

                      I have not made mere assertions but have given clear demonstrations with specific supporting references. Your response is always to poo-pooh these with generalities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Well I’m glad Neil has finally come around to admit a scholar outside HJ uses the criterion of embarrassment. While he does dress it up in a long diatribe about how HJ scholars don’t use it right, I’m not too keen to take advice on how to use a criterion from a guy who just found out it really exist. Anyhow, and I think you mentioned it, Vansina didn’t seem to bothered that he had no idea under what circumstance it his oral traditions were originally performed or what the original performance was. I guess he just used his best judgment and said “Why would anyone make it up?” I’m not sure what his issue with that is. If we can’t find a problem with someone’s solutions should we reject them because someone else might? “We won’t teach evolution in school because, while the evidence points that way, who knows what future evidence will reveal, maybe God has been testing our faith all this time.”
     
    “Others have also found plausible explanations — dramatic irony, adoptionist or separationist christologies, Jewish expectation that Elijah would “anoint” the Messiah, and others — for the pious invention of Jesus being baptized”
    Is it only for the issue of Jesus’’ baptism that this criterion comes into play? And how valuable is an explanation Neil finds plausible? The rest of his post, like this relies on Neil’s ability to judge plausible arguments and will leave for another time. Basically, if the slim minority of biblical scholars and theologians is right, then HJ was widely misused the criterion of embarrassment.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Interesting that I have been accused of misrepresenting McGrath by quoting his words in full, and misrepresenting some historians by quoting them in some detail.  Now McG and Boobs are accusing me of saying something I never said and for which they curiously provide no quotation. Would providing a quotation to prove their assertions be too much to ask?

    Here is what I have said about the logical inferences we can draw from embarrassment from the beginning, this one from a post April 2010: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/04/24/historical-facts-and-the-very-unfactual-jesus-contrasting-nonbiblical-history-with-historical-jesus-sham-methodology/

    Now I fully grant that the criterion of embarrassment, when applied to
    certain kinds of basic and public and indisputably “existential”
    evidence (e.g. the evidence for the fact of the battle of Waterloo in
    1815, including diaries or other records of those involved) can very
    well be useful for assessing the probability of a secondary or private
    fact, such as whether or not a particular soldier on a battlefield
    retreated in cowardice from the enemy or not. But it cannot be used to
    attempt to extract basic and public evidence (e.g. of whether there was a
    battle in the first place) from a source (e.g. Lord of the Rings) that speaks of an event that has absolutely no external corroboration at all.

    And that’s exactly the sort of example Vansina himself uses. I spoke of the retreat in cowardice of a soldier and he spoke of the death of a king. It also  sits exactly with Vansina’s reliance on provenance being the touchstone by which any such subjective inference can be drawn.

    But it seems that any concept that requires expression in more than a single simple sentence is beyond the ken of those who have no wish to “take a mythicist seriously” and are looking only for opportunities to scoff and ridicule. Even the concept of provenance is clearly beyond the comprehension of some here even though they read it in detail from historians I quoted. But of course when I quoted them I must have been misrepresenting them.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Now now, surely you know that one can quote someone in isolation from the original context, or with extensive commentary, and misrepresent them. If mythicists can do that with historians’ lengthy texts, how much more so with short blog posts or comments?

      You still seem not to be addressing how Vansina can be confident that the oral tradition does not go back to a tale that is more like Lord of the Rings than a biography. Either his method of doing so is a legitimate one, or it isn’t, and if it is, it can be applied to the traditions of a variety of groups. 

      You seem happy to trust a historian evaluating probablities, as long as they aren’t talking about Jesus. I still find this odd, and inconsistent.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Dr McGrath, you speak in generalities and motherhoods and half-truths and consistently refuse — even when repeatedly asked — to address the actual specifics of my argument and words. I by no means misrepresented anyone and you have not and cannot demonstrate that I have or you would have done so by now.

        I have addressed Vansina’s argument far more specifically and with direct reference to all he says and all you can do is scoff — or you would actually demonstrate from what he says and what I say that I am wrong. Your response is that of an immature schoolchild who has no come-back.

        I have demonstrated my points with specific references and quotations and you have only responded with unsupported assertions and sarcasm.

         

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    That’s what I’d expect you to say, but that doesn’t make it true. Anyone who wishes to is free to read what I’ve written, what Doherty wrote, and your “responses” to what I’ve written, and draw their own conclusions.

    I hope to return to Doherty’s book soon. The chapter I’m up to is particularly problematic, and so I am certain that, as always, you’ll find ways to try to spin it to make the problems seem to vanish. But most of us know that offering spin or damage control, and providing a persuasive argument, are very different things, although they may look similar to an uncritical observer.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    You never finished the last chapter you were discussing. That is the one a few of us are looking forward to your completing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Neil:
    “Interesting that I have been accused of misrepresenting McGrath by quoting his words in full, and misrepresenting some historians by quoting them in some detail.  Now McG and Boobs are accusing me of saying something I never said and for which they curiously provide no quotation. Would providing a quotation to prove their assertions be too much to ask?”

    I got the impression from your statements here http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/01/history-is-to-mythicism-and-science-is-to-creationism-as-mcdonalds-is-to.html#comments . Anyone wanting full quotations can look there.
    From the comments at that post,

    “And you  do know as well as I do, I’m also sure, that every one of the criteria used have been exposed by your peers as being at bottom circular — and that they can be used just as well to reach reverse conclusions.”
    “But if you would like I can use the methods used by other historians who for good reason shun criteriology for such purposes and avoid circularity altogether . . . . .”
    “The end result was that all you can come up with is, in effect:
    (1) The Gospels could not have got so many geographic and personal names right unless they were writing reliably sourced historical narratives;
    (2) The criterion of embarrassment.
    Well, those two arguments have been demolished well enough even by your own peers as well as by myself, with very specific and numerous case studies to demonstrate my points.
    Secondly, and this is the most important point of all — Those Two Points are NOT the keys historians (except for NT historians) use to assess the historicity of narratives. Certainly they are important, but as I said, the same sorts of details can be found in fiction and myth.”
    “You should pay more attention to my posts where I have quoted other historians demonstrating what criteria they do use — and that HJ scholars don’t use.”
    “So HJ scholars are unable to rely upon the normal standards by which historical persons are known to exist and come up with methods that are not found in any other historical discipline.”
    “But by your own admission you are saying that HJ scholars have to create their own principles to do studies — their own criteria.”
    “So HJ scholars do indeed, by your own example that you have given, use methods of their own devising because normative historical methods won’t give them the results they want. Your example demonstrates it.”
    “It is very clear that you are saying that HJ scholars have a situation unlike other historical studies and, instead of applying normative historical methods to their area, as do those historians who apply normative methods to oral history etc, HJ scholars come up with something unique.”
    “It is not a question of what one has read. It is a question of whether one can critically think about what one reads. Please try to avoid insults and abuse and simply explain to me, like the good teacher I am sure you are when not addressing me online, where I have misunderstood you when I believe you have just delivered Neil Godfrey with a confession that HJ scholars do, indeed, adopt methods alien to other historiographical studies in order to find the information, evidence, or outcomes that they wish to find”

    All this gave me the impression you thought criteria used by HJ scholars are not used by other historians to establish facts, as Vansina clearly does on page 83 of “Oral Tradition”
    “On the other hand, sometimes it is possible to provide proof that a given tradition is unlikely to have been falsified. A case in point is where tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used…In neither of these tales are the facts likely to have been falsified…” Now before I go on, I would like emphasize his use of the word “fact”. He continues;
    “…It is however possible to argue that tales of this kind do not, after all, run so very much counter to the purposes for which they are used…Nevertheless, the events recorded are intrinsically incompatible with the interest  the tradition in question are sup[posed to defend…One may take it that traditions such as these can be relied upon, and fortunately they are to be met with, it would appear, in a large number of societies.”
    Again, you may disagree with his view point, but clearly he uses the criterion of embarrassment just as NT scholars do. If you object to the criterion on the grounds that the not enough is known about the person, place and time that created the NT text, I have to ask, how “intimate” is Vansina’s  “knowledge of the people, culture and institutions” that created the oral tradition? Are our sources for 17th century Congo even as good as our records for the first and second century Roman Empire?

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      but clearly he uses the criterion of embarrassment just as NT scholars do.

      Baloney. NT scholars take a text of unknown provenance (okay, some like to say its provenance is known — it’s Christianity) and decide that its narrative details such as the baptism of Jesus and J’s rejection by his family and his crucifixion are all historical because by the “criterion of embarrassment” no-one would have invented these things. They were so well-known that no evangelist could avoid including them in the gospel despite their embarrassing nature.

      Therefore, by the criterion of embarrassment Jesus was baptized, rejected by his family, crucified, etc.

      We have no way of knowing if Mark’s account was in the least embarrassing to him. Just because later evangelists were embarrassed by his account and modified it accordingly we cannot say that Mark was likewise embarrassed by such things. It is more reasonable to think that it was Mark’s lack of embarrassment about the way he told certain things that embarrassed the later evangelists. John was so embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus he didn’t mention it at all.

      There are perfectly coherent and plausible explanations for the original story of the baptism, family rejection and crucifixion to have been invented. Paul boasted in the crucifixion — he was certainly not embarrassed by it. All of these things are in the literature that McGrath reads so he knows the arguments and I have repeated them many times.

      We have absolutely no reason to assume that poor Mark felt compelled against his wishes to write things that were embarrassing to him.

      Vansina does not have a “criterion tool” that he uses as a rule to create facts the way HJ scholars do as above. He is simply drawing an inference from his knowledge of the people he is working with. He knows what was embarrassing to them because of all the things he knows that are external to the oral tradition. He can therefore say certain things are unlikely to have been invented.

      Note that: He only knows what is unlikely to have been invented because of all he knows about the people that have nothing to do with the story itself. Notice Vansina speaks of the purpose and interests of the people. He only knows that by studying the people, not the narrative of a story. Then armed with this “external” knowledge he knows how to interpret the story.

      HJ scholars are working with nothing but an unprovenanced narrative. We do not know who Mark’s “people” were or what they thought (okay, they were “Christians”, but the evidence we have of earliest Christianity is that it is extremely diverse in beliefs — even in Paul’s time. The things that embarrassed John or Luke or Matthew clearly did not embarrass Mark.)

      (If “mythicism” were not on McG’s mind he would no doubt have no trouble accepting that this is a simple truism found in the works of many bible scholars and I suspect he would be capable of engaging in a courteous discussion without sarcasm. Yet my argument is not about mythicism here at all. It is about using the same standards historians use.)

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

        Neil, this sort of denial is all too characteristic of you. It’s like Evan and Steve, who just keep repeating the same invalid arguments.  Your argument could only appeal to someone who hasn’t read Vansina, or even just the above quoted portion and have no idea about what is known of the first and second centuries CE and knows nothing about the New Testament other than it was found in a hotel night stand.  All of your objections are already answered in the post you are responding to. Clearly this belief of yours that “Vansina does not have a “criterion tool” that he uses as a rule to create facts the way HJ scholars do as above.”, is false and any one reading this exchange can see that.

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          Woops, my gaffe. I thought from the effort you put in to your initial comment that you were attempting a serious engagement with the issue. I challenge you to paraphrase in a sentence or two what you believe is my argument.

          Responging to an argument with personal attack is James’ style. One time he finally yielded to repeated requests to actually outline in his own words what my argument was he demonstrated he had no idea. Perhaps you can do better than he and make an effort to repeat my argument in your own words before responding.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

             
            I take your argument to be that Vansina is not using the criterion of embarrassment like NT scholars do, to find facts and Vansina, unlike NT scholars, is not working with sources of unknown provenance.  Could you now give the correct statement of your position in one or two sentences?

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Dr McGrath’s visceral assumptions about mythicism prevent him from comprehending the arguments he is reading; but you do not understand what an argument is. This is as I suspected and why I asked you to sum up my argument in your own words. Your earlier response accusing me of “denial” indicated to me that you are upset that I still do not accept your point of view while failing to understand my reasons for not accepting it.

    I presented an argument to show why it is wrong to claim that Vansina uses or supports the NT scholars’ use of the criterion of embarrassment. Are you able to sum up in your own words my reasons for that view? That is, I want to know if you actually understand why I am insisting that V and NT scholars are as different as chalk and cheese.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    You should have Carr edit your long-winded prose, I’m busy.  Here are my problems with your arguments.
    “NT scholars take a text of unknown provenance (okay, some like to say its provenance is known — it’s Christianity)”
    I admit this one I don’t understand. I assume hyperbole here though you’ve taken some odd positions before. Along with being from a Christian community we know the main texts used by NT scholars (are you referring to only Mark here?) are also Hellenistic, familiar with Jewish culture in varying degrees, and date broadly from between the middle of the first and middle of the second centuries CE.  That is all known. While Vansina has a better idea of the provenance of the oral performances he studied, his information on the early links of transmission is quite a bit less, as the tradition supposedly originates in some cases centuries earlier.
            “We have no way of knowing if Mark’s account was in the least embarrassing to him.”
    But yet Vansina knows what was embarrassing to a society that has left no written record of its self? With what, an Ouija board? We at least have documents from other first century Greeks and Jews. If you know which seventeenth century Congo text Vansina is using as a control on his oral histories, let us know.
    “There are perfectly coherent and plausible explanations for the original story of the baptism, family rejection and crucifixion to have been invented.”
    See Vansina,  p.83  “It is however possible to argue that tales of this kind do not, after all, run so very much counter to the purposes for which they are used. The lost battle was supernatural punishment, and the death of Mboong aLeeng fits in well with the account given of his life, just as king Shayaams ancestry with the account given of his. Mboong is the prototype of the warrior, and Shayaam that of the magician. Nevertheless, the events recorded are intrinsically incompatible with the interest the traditions in question are supposed to defend.” Perhaps you find the explanations offered so compelling that it overrides any reasoning given for them to be based on history, but that is only your opinion not fact.
    “Vansina does not have a “criterion tool” that he uses as a rule to create facts the way HJ scholars do as above.”
    From Vansina p. 83, which you insist on ignoring,
     “…the Bunshongo tale about a battle which is lost and at which one of their kings is killed; or another which tells of the death of a king called Mboong aLeeng, who was ambushed by the enemy, and killed by a poisoned arrow. In neither of these tales are the facts likely to have been falsified.”
    The facts are confirmed to not be false because they are supported by the criterion of embarrassment. He has “created” a fact using a criterion. I don’t know how that could be any clearer. This is why I accuse you of denial, not because you don’t agree, but because you give no explanation for how this is not so, you just state he doesn’t do what he just did.
    “He knows what was embarrassing to them because of all the things he knows that are external to the oral tradition. He can therefore say certain things are unlikely to have been invented.”
    So he knows because of what he knows and NT scholars, “do not know who Mark’s “people” were or what they thought” Well I’m glad we cleared all that up. Arguments do go easier when we just accept people’s baseless assertions.
    Well enough time wasted on your nonsense, I would like to link thought to guy who has put more thought into this than me, and does a better job than I of laying your groundless claim that NT historians are out of step with non-biblical historians to rest.
    http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2010/02/is-neil-godfrey-right-about-how.html

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      Normally I don’t mind discussing things with people who have difficulty understanding. Ignorance is not a crime. But I have little patience with people who are ignorant AND rude.

      Read again what I have quoted by V as well as H&P. McGrath might want you to think I am misrepresenting them (but he won’t quote evidence that I do) but you need to understand that provenance for our purpose does not mean “somewhere within a hundred years or so” and of “Hellenistic culture” or “Christianity” etc. Stop swallowing McGrath’s ignorance and study up for yourself. McG hasn’t read H&P yet wants you to think I misrepresent their arguments. Read H&P. And read all of V – not just selected pages — if you want to understand where he is coming from. McG published an article in which he cited a couple of pages of V and thinks that settles the matter but it doesn’t. The inferences he took from those pages are contradictory to V’s broader position as I demonstrate — and as McG will not refute with any evidence.

      Provenance means knowing the values and interests of the group or person responsible for a document. Just saying it was some group within a 100 years and with Christian beliefs is so vague and general it tells us nothing of any specific use at all.

      I’ve said this now several times and all you do is call it long winded. Well if you read it you will have your answer to your second question. Vansina knows what was embarrasing to a society because he lived with, visited, got to know personally, that society. He wasn’t sitting back in his office listening to recordings of oral performers and thinking without any knowledge of who they were etc. He didn’t need written records about them. He talked to them. He lived with them. Haven’t you read anything more than two pages of Vansina? You should know that. Stop being rude and abusive to me at every chance you get and actually try to understand what someone says for a change.

      THAT is how V knew what was embarrassing to them. He saw them, talked with them, lived with them.

      But the community who was responsible for Mark is now lost. All we can say is that it was from some place in a Christian context give or take 50 or more years from point X. That tells us nothing. There were scores of communities in that same general “provenance” who wrote all sorts of things and often contradictory things. Some hated Paul, some changed Paul, some loved Paul. Can’t you see the problem here? All this is way too vague to be said to be a provenance for any particular document.

      All we can do is compare these Christian texts, many of which make allusions to one another, and try to study them for their ideas etc. A priori we have absolutely no way — zilch — for knowing if a story they tell is rooted in external reality or is simply a belief from some other source.

      I won’t say anymore or address the rest of your questions yet. I will see if what I have said makes any sense to you or if you are simply going to insult me again for my efforts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Thank you for your comments Neil.  I have in fact read H&P and Vansina, this is my second time reading H&P and Vansina is a favorite of mine, I use his methods when doing my own work. Perhaps that is why you don’t understand what he is saying; you don’t actually do any work in ancient history. Before determining the how scholars in HJ are different than other scholars in other fields of history, you should familiarize yourself with studies in ancient history (and try to do so with an open mind and little more critical thinking, not just scour for quotes to take out of context for your Jesus Myth nonsense) you have a lot to learn. And who determined what provenance means for our purpose, you?  There really isn’t anything in your resume that would lead me to think that I should ignore the rest of the historical community and rely on your opinions for how historians study history.
    You also seem unaware that many of Vansina’s oral traditions are not about contemporary events and in the cases we are discussing he is making judgments about what is embarrassing hundreds of years before his story tellers were born. While you accuse me of not reading your post, it is you who are clearly not engaging with what I said. I’m not sure why you are behaving this way, I don’t think anyone is fooled; your “effort” is insulting to the intelligence of anyone reading these comments.

    • Anonymous

      This doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.  Let’s try this:

      Michael,

      How about some examples of the kinds of oral traditions that Vansina examines and how the information he extracts from them is like the kinds of things that historical Jesus scholars extract from the oral tradition upon which they assume Mark relied.  You mentioned the story about the Aztec sacrifice but I don’t quite see any useful parallels there.

      Neil,

      Are there any examples of comparable oral traditions where Vansina declares that the lack of information about provenance renders the historian unable to draw any conclusions?

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Vinny, you asked: “Are there any examples of comparable oral traditions where Vansina
        declares that the lack of information about provenance renders the
        historian unable to draw any conclusions?”

        Vansina is clear: “the questions of authenticity, originality, authorship, and place and time of composition must be asked at each of these stage.” (p. 34, Oral Tradition As History). — those stages are (1) the recording of the oral performance (2) the oral performance itself (3) the relationship of the oral performance to the larger tradition.

        I regret having responded to Mike Wilson in the first place. He has proven himself to be an obnoxious troll on my own blog but once in a while I get suckered in to thinking he just might be trying to seriously address the issue or trying to understand and grapple seriously with what I have said. Those times I unfortunately push to the back of my mind the outrageous insults he has directed to me in the past. I have regretted falling into that mistake before and regret having fallen into it again here.

        • James F. McGrath

          Vinny, I trust you will not let Neil off the hook until he actually answers your question.

          • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

            The answer is No. Vansina has no examples comparable to what we have for early Christian records. Vansina is clear that there are many times we simply cannot know the truth of an oral tradition. I quoted the passages.

            • Anonymous

              Neil,

              If Vansina doesn’t give us any examples of the types of situations in which he thinks we cannot know the truth of an oral tradition, then I’m not sure we can be certain where he would come down on the hypothetical oral traditions behind the gospel.  Perhaps he would be like those New Testament scholars who explain in detail the problems with the criteria of embarrassment and then turn around and use it to establish that Jesus was from Nazareth.

              • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                This is all hypothetical. Vansina simply does not address the sort of situation HJ scholars are faced with. So I don’t see the point of bringing him in to the discussion on the HJ. The HJ oral trad is entirely hypothetical; V is dealing with real research.

                I think he does give some examples or at least makes the point that there are many things we simply will never know about the truth of oral reports (I don’t have the books with me at the moment to check the details — I am sure Dr McGrath can correct me if I am mistaken). He makes judgments like anyone does about the likelihood of someone lying or passing on inventions in certain situations — we all do that all the time, and I have always said there is a place for consideration of “embarrassment” just as there is a place for consideration of any other basic human emotion or intent (personal interest, pride, scheming, entertainment, etc) to help us make judgements about the “mind” behind words oral or written. But that’s a fluid thing and not a rigorous rule or “set of criteria” we go by.

                Of course there are things that will be embarrassing to a person or a group and knowing this will give us some deeper ability to potentially come to some probability of truth or otherwise behind reports. But that’s just an everyday truism that historians or detectives or juries or friends can “use”.

                The reason it works is because of what we know about the people we are making judgements about. That is, provenance.

                The reason the “criterion of embarrassment” is said to be fallacious — and I do believe Dr McGrath knows the argument very well — is that we have no way of knowing what was embarrassing to the author of the first Gospel.

                And even if we could know what was embarrassing because we did somehow learn the provenance, then we would not be able to simply call down an ironclad rule and say X is therefore a true historical fact. (If there were any such iron-clad rules in life then, once it was known, no-one would ever be deceived and no-one could ever get away with a lie.) As I said, such judgments are fluid and depend on a whole host of things about the culture, the people, the environment, etc etc etc. In the case of oral traditions of pre-literate people, from what V knows of the peoples, the broader traditions and cultures and histories, etc, he can see no viable alternative to doubting the historicity of the death of a king told in a particular performance.

                V also acknowledges that some anthropologists would dispute this and say we cannot even go that far and assume the king’s death really happened. So there is room for controversy, doubt, in the eyes of some.

                This is consistent with HJ scholars saying that the criteria they use can only lead to probabilities and not certainties. But whenever one (at least one outside their guild — members can get away with it) raises reasons for doubting the conclusion of what the HJ scholars have concluded are “indisputable facts” about Jesus then they quickly enough lose sight of their earlier caveats about probabilities.

                Added afterwards:

                But it only leads to probabilities if we have the provenance as some sort of anchor. Without that we cannot even approach the question of probability.

              • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                I posted extracts from Vansima in another thread: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/01/history-is-to-mythicism-and-science-is-to-creationism-as-mcdonalds-is-to.html#comment-400995900

                In addition to what V says there, let me add that he explains that oral traditions are always being interpreted afresh with each new performance — Encoding follows encoding follows encoding until they reach the historian, the decoder. That’s bad enough, but the biggest danger to getting the whole message wrong (as in variance from actual historical fact) is not with each of these new encodings/interpretations, but with the initial report itself. There is no way to check this with oral traditions as a rule. With written records and external evidence we can make such checks. So if we read of some religious monuments being found in a dig over and over in the literature until they become “common knowledge”, others can go and check and V cites an example where these objects turned out to be granary pots I think, or something similar.

                Orality relies a lot on mnemonics and these, too, can corrupt the tradition itself.

                One only needs to stop and think about all the possible variants of an original tale that could well be misinterpreted or simply re-encoded by one who misunderstands, was not part of the inner group, or was listening to one not qualified to tell, etc etc etc and that “encoder” becomes the sole agency by which a tradition is relayed down through the many tellings.

                Hence each oral tradition must be treated as a hypothesis as I quoted in the section I linked above.

                Vansina does not say oral reports are useless, but he does say they will not yield information about history in the same way written texts will. (p. 199) There goes the HJ so-called Vansina criteria applied to Mark right there! V says that orality is of less reliability than written sources ” WHEN THERE ARE NO INDEPENDENT SOURCES TO CROSS-CHECK” (p. 199). (Sorry, the caps were not for you but for someone else who might be looking over your shoulder.)

                So the problem for the oral historian is that it can take a lot longer to verify the traditions as real events — for the simple reason that it can take a long time to get the external corroborating evidence.

                Curiously he never refers to “embarrassment” as some rule of thumb that can get around this problem.

                But I’ve said all this from the outset. I am surprised Dr McGrath has not continued to interject that I am misrepresenting Vansina.

                • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Neil, since you did not hesitate to misrepresent me despite my repeated protestations that you were construing me to have meant the opposite of what I said, I presumed that doing the same on Vansina’s behalf was likely to fall on deaf ears.

                  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                    Rather than repeat your accusations I asked you to demonstrate that I did indeed misrepresent you. This you curiously walk away from doing. Your comment is, moreover, a tacit admission that I have at no point misrepeesented Vansina or Howell and Prevenier. Could you do so you would not care a whit for how well my ears can hear. You could expose to all your readers a clear demonstration – the cold hard evidence – that you would surely love to have to undermine my credibility. So I ask you to provide the clear demonstrations to support your accusations.

                  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                    One might further think that had I misrepresented you on my blog you would have posted there the evidence of my dishonesty as well as here. But of course traffic competitions are a more important consideration than defending your name I suppose – especially when you have no evidence to substantiate your claims.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Neil, that you consider my pointing out once again that you misrepresented me to somehow be a “tacit admission” that you did not represent others illustrates well why I don’t feel the need to “defend my name” – your tactics speak for themselves.

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      Dr McGrath, I am surprised you only make excuses for walking away from my request that you substantiate your scurrilous character attack against me. Will you be big enough to withdraw you unsubstantiated slander now?

                • Anonymous

                  I have read your posts and your interpretation of what Vansina has written seems perfectly reasonable to me.  However, what you have quoted seems to be statements of principles on historiography which are often unhelpful without specific examples of their application.  I would note that neither Michael Wilson nor Dr. McGrath has offered any specific comparable examples from  Vansina’s work with oral traditions so I do not think they have adequately supported their accusations of misrepresentation and misunderstanding. 

                  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                    Most of what I quoted are concluding statements from larger discussions that address a series of issues specific to oral historians. The conclusions are drawing together the case studies of several chapters that are focussed on those specifics. It is in a concluding section that Vansina draws together implications for oral sources’ value as historical sources.

                    My point was to bring attention to the inadequacy of McGrath’s specific claim that V supports HJ criteriology. In fact what I have since seen in McGrath’s own publication is a decontextualized exploitation of a few words of V the validity of which is undermined by V’s words on the preceding pages. One almost thinks of “quote mining.”

                    I take your larger point, however, and think it would be interesting to discuss in detail a number of case studies in future blog posts.

                  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

                    Vinny could you clarify what you mean by a “specific comparable examples from  Vansina’s work with oral traditions” The passage where Vansina deals with “the criterion of embarassment” has been quoted pretty much in full here and none of the Vansina material neil mentions says “ignore what I said on p. 83″ though that seems to be what neil got from it.

                    • Anonymous

                      Michael,

                      Do you think that those examples are the best illustrations of Vansina applying the criterion of embarrassment to an oral tradition in a similar fashion to the way that historical Jesus scholars apply it to the oral traditions that are assumed to lie behind the gospels?  Are there any examples on Vansina declining to apply the criterion because the necessary background cannot be established?

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      Vansina cites about 4 instances of traditions that he believes may be relied upon because — though he adds evidence to the contrary — the content of the tales are said to be contradictory to the purposes they are meant to fulfil. But no details are discussed to give us any idea of the research details and criteria used. I suspect this will be best served by reading some of Vansina’s works in which he explores in depth various tribes and in particular the 4 or so we are interested in that he cites in Oral Tradition, 2009.

                      One of these I have access to has a list of criteria he establishes before he set out his task: For each observation he needs to note the number of authors who pass on a tradition, their eventual relationships with each other (master/disciple; superior/inferior; colleagues); the diversity of their backgrounds, their professional competence, their gender, their linguistic competence, . . . . p. 29 of “Paths in the Rainforests”. So that’s the sort of information he collects before he starts recording the oral traditions.

                      It should be kept in mind, too, that oral tradition is not oral history. Vansina defines oral traditions as what is carried on over more than a generation or two. By definition eye-witnesses to events are excluded. (p. 12 of the 1985 version I have access to.) Of interviews with eye-witnesses (something V does not address except here) he says:

                      “Interviews of this nature are always compared to available written or printed information and, if available also information from radio and television.” p. 13

                      So by Vansina’s opening definitions in his 1985 work he has nothing to say about “traditions” that are said to be relayed to evangelists by eyewitnesses as per Bauckham. What he does say supports the fundamental principle expressed elsewhere by historians and as I cited from Howell and Prevenier etc — independent controls.

                    • Anonymous

                      Michael,

                      Here’s my point.  I suspect that we have quite a bit of data on African tribal cultures and the reasons why they preserve stories about warriors and battles.  Since many African tribes have interacted with written cultures of for a considerable period of time, we may be able to independently verify some of the battle stories that they have preserved in oral tradition.  This would give us an empirical basis to think it unlikely that a tribe would not invent and preserve stories about battles it lost. 

                      On the other hand, I doubt that there is much we can say about the oral tradition that is thought to be the basis for the gospels.  Who were the people preserving it?  Were they culturally homogenous?  Was most of the transmission done by Jews or pagans?  How does an oral tradition whose purpose is to persuade the listener of a theological position different from one whose purpose is to build tribal identity?  How many examples of the former do we have?  Can any of them be corroborated by independent evidence?

                      In other words, I can think of lots of reasons why those examples from Vansina might not be very strong precedents for applying the criterion of embarrassment to something like the baptism of Jesus.

                    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

                      Vinny, we do know a lot about African tribal cultures, and specially the Congo tribes Vansina studied. Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about them when these stories supposedly took place. I’m no expert on African history, but according to the link provided (http://gsuvisualartsgallery.blogspot.com/2008/12/kuba-people.html ) , Europeans did not know about the Kuba until 1880 and the Kuba kept no written records. In fact, I suspect there is no proof that the kings mentioned on page 83 of “Oral Tradition” existed, Vansina feels he can verify facts about them using the criteria of embarrassment.  This may wildly optimistic to a skeptic, and certainly we don’t “know”, but the purpose of this discussion is not whether this is a valid criteria for determining accuracy, but whether only NT scholars use it as they do. This shows other feel they can use this criteria to make judgments on the historicity of events outside the possibility of independent corroboration. Now, while  archeology and anthropology can tell us that the Kuba inhabited this area at the time their legends say, and neighboring peoples stories can also corroborate their presence, am afraid such detailed events cannot be independently confirmed in this was,  which is why he fell back on the criterion. Also, we know that peoples attitudes change over time, so understanding what Africans now think is no garuntee to our understanding what they thought 300 years ago. Vansina is, like NT scholars making inferences from the available evidence.

                      Regarding the Gospels, the inferences historians make are based on the body of literature that we have for that period and location, while not as extensive as our knowledge of modern Africa, is one of the better detailed societies in pre modern history.  Had Mark been set in Roman Britain we would have far less to work with.  Along with the array of non-Christian pagan and Jewish literature we have to compare with the world presented by the gospels, we also have documents that can be reasonably assumed to be close to the gospel communities, such as Paul’s letters, other epistles, and the second century Christian writers.  Concerning differences between tribal and theological traditions, keep in mind that the Kuba recognize no separation of sacred and secular, as Vansina notes in the selection I quoted from. The Kuba traditions are theological.  If you would like a more religious tradition preserved orally but recorded in modernity, I would suggest looking into the gurus of India. This page has quite a few, I wouldn’t consider the site scholarly, but it would give an idea about how people told stories about holy men.   http://www.indiayogi.com/content/indiangurus/default.aspx 

                      I would like to add, on page 8 of Vansina’s “Oral Tradtion”, Vansina list a number of deiffernt positions historians have taken on the reliability of oral tradtions. These range from they are never reliable to all oral tradtions contain a kernal of truth. The later reflect the views of those working with Native American and African oral histories and show that if historians outside of HJ studies can adopt such an unskeptical stance toward oral tradtions, then it is not surprising some HJ scholars have follwed them.

                    • Anonymous

                      Michael,

                      Thank you for that response.

                      I am not sure whether I think Vansina is being overly optimistic or not.  Even if we can’t corroborate these particular Kuba stories for this particular period, if we have sufficient data about the oral tradition of similar tribes to enable us to say what kinds of things they were able to preserve accurately and what kinds of things were subject to distortion or invention, I can see how it might be perfectly reasonable to say that we can be reasonably confident about the historicity of some event.  For example, if we can verify that another tribe’s oral tradition accurately preserved information about kings or battles that had occurred fifty years in the past, then I think we have some ground for thinking that the Kuba did it.   

                      This is what I think we are lacking for early Christianity.  Do we have any evidence for 1st century Palestinian oral traditions accurately preserving information like the baptism of a Messianic claimant?  What is the most similar type of event that we can corroborate in the most similar oral tradition?    Can we draw a distinction between the types of events in such oral traditions that are likely to be accurate and those that are more vulnerable to distortion or invention?  What historical Jesus scholars try to do with the gospels seems to me to be much more speculative than what Vansina seems to be describing. 

                      The other problem for me is our lack of knowledge about the oral tradition behind gospels.   The tribes that Vansina is discussing are established homogenous cultural units that have been orally transmitting their histories for centuries and I’m guessing that we can be confident that stories they preserved come from the tribes’ traditions.  On the other hand, the stories about Jesus were transmitted by an unknown hodgepodge of pagans and Jews whose connection was both recent and tenuous and who may or may not have had any consensus about the purpose that any particular story served within the community.   In addition it is impossible to know how much borrowing was done from surrounding communities and cultures.

                    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

                      Vinny, we do know a lot about African tribal cultures, and specially the Congo tribes Vansina studied. Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about them when these stories supposedly took place. I’m no expert on African history, but according to the link provided (http://gsuvisualartsgallery.blogspot.com/2008/12/kuba-people.html ) , Europeans did not know about the Kuba until 1880 and the Kuba kept no written records. In fact, I suspect there is no proof that the kings mentioned on page 83 of “Oral Tradition” existed, Vansina feels he can verify facts about them using the criteria of embarrassment.  This may wildly optimistic to a skeptic, and certainly we don’t “know”, but the purpose of this discussion is not whether this is a valid criteria for determining accuracy, but whether only NT scholars use it as they do. This shows other feel they can use this criteria to make judgments on the historicity of events outside the possibility of independent corroboration. Now, while  archeology and anthropology can tell us that the Kuba inhabited this area at the time their legends say, and neighboring peoples stories can also corroborate their presence, am afraid such detailed events cannot be independently confirmed in this was,  which is why he fell back on the criterion. Also, we know that peoples attitudes change over time, so understanding what Africans now think is no garuntee to our understanding what they thought 300 years ago. Vansina is, like NT scholars making inferences from the available evidence.
                      Regarding the Gospels, the inferences historians make are based on the body of literature that we have for that period and location, while not as extensive as our knowledge of modern Africa, is one of the better detailed societies in pre modern history.  Had Mark been set in Roman Britain we would have far less to work with.  Along with the array of non-Christian pagan and Jewish literature we have to compare with the world presented by the gospels, we also have documents that can be reasonably assumed to be close to the gospel communities, such as Paul’s letters, other epistles, and the second century Christian writers.  Concerning differences between tribal and theological traditions, keep in mind that the Kuba recognize no separation of sacred and secular, as Vansina notes in the selection I quoted from. The Kuba traditions are theological.  If you would like a more religious tradition preserved orally but recorded in modernity, I would suggest looking into the gurus of India. This page has quite a few, I wouldn’t consider the site scholarly, but it would give an idea about how people told stories about holy men.   http://www.indiayogi.com/content/indiangurus/default.aspx 

          • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

            Dr McGrath, I have asked you to demonstrate that I have misrepresented both you and H&P and V and you have simply walked away. Will you now not just repeat your claims but actually demonstrate that I have indeed misrepresented anyone?

          • Anonymous

            Dr.  McGrath,

            I don’t know whether you can trust me on that or not.  I hope that the questions I ask are penetrating enough that people feel obliged to answer them, but if they don’t, I generally wait for another opportunity to ask a similar question rather than simply repeating myself.  

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      I fully acknowledge that V is referring to events long before the oral performance. That was my point or my argument would not have made sense. It clearly does not make sense to you because you are bizarrely imputing all sorts of nonsense into what you think I am thinking. Like McG you simply say I have taken quotes out of context but of course all you or McG has to do to prove that is provide a quote or reference that overturns what I say. I in fact studied ancient history at advanced levels for 4 years and taught it to senior students for many more years.

      I leave you to carry on with your little tirades against your own imaginations about what you’d like me to be saying or thinking.  Christiancadre? So that’s where you are coming from! No wonder I have put your posts down as trolls on my blog.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

        I have shown where you have taken quotes out of context. The arguments from Layman stand on their own merits, dimising them because they are from a Christian group is a symptom of your bigotry. You marked me as a troll because I say what has been proven true, you are dishonest, disrespectful, and bigoted. If anyone questions this they can read your blog. Frequent readers here already know.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Let me first offer a quote that I think substantiates my understanding of Vansina over against Neil’s (italics mine): 

    “Hearsay is the fountainhead of most tradition or most written documents. Eyewitness accounts in both categories of sources are in fact rare. Very often, one can no longer ascertain whether the rumor derives from an eyewitness account or not. In most cases internal evidence itself will have to guide us as it did the Kuba informant who commented about the story of the first man: “How could he know about his own creation, it not by hearsay?”” (Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, p.6).

    Now, one example of the sort of evidence that study of oral tradition provides when it is possible to check both later oral retelling and earlier records of eyewitness testimony. On p.19 of the aforementioned book, there is an account of an attack on a party of ten Hopi by a group of Navajos. Two testimonies were recorded in 1892 (the event took place sometime between 1853-1856), when there were still eyewitnesses alive. Then another account was recorded as non-eyewitness oral tradition in 1936. It includes the basic historical core as well as not only elaborations and transformations, but also the depiction of one participant in the even so that he not only became the hero but “His role was slightly idealized so that it recalled the little Twin War Gods of mythology” (p.20). That is precisely the sort of depiction of a historical figure through the lens of earlier mythical ones that mythicists claim is evidence of wholescale invention.

    Vansina also discusses other principles related to or overlapping with the “criteria of authenticity.” On p.31, for instance, he discusses the flow of information from multiple sources to multiple recipients. He also discusses the uses to which traditions are put in a manner that parallels what Biblical scholars usually call “form criticism.”

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      Dr McGrath, you have not been reading what you think you are arguing against or you would have known I already have pointed out Vansina’s support for form-criticism: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/oral-history-does-not-support-criterion-of-embarrassment/

      So where do you yourself stand on the use of form-criticism now?

      And can you explain how evidence for modifications of a tradition through generations to meet each generation’s needs establishes that the content of a tradition’s narrative had a historical beginning?

      The first part of your response contradicts nothing I have quoted from Vansina or said about Vansina’s arguments — so you have not established I misrepresented him at all. (Merely saying you do X does not mean you really do do X, as you and teasing schoolchildren like to say.)

      Rather, all you have done is gloriously scored a point against genuine crackpots who do argue so glibly that any comparison of Jesus with a myth proves Jesus is a derivative of that myth. Despite your own misrepresentations you will not find anything like that in any of my arguments. I have pointed out many times our examples of Hadrian and Alexander and others whose lives are all re-told with mythical trappings.

      So what is your point, exactly?

      You wouldn’t be arguing that because something might have happened it therefore did happen, would you?

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        You have the remarkable ability to make even a mention of a point of agreement sound like a quarrel.

        I think the Hopi example I gave offers a comparable time frame to the situation in the case of the Gospels, approximately.

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          James:

          You have the remarkable ability to make even a mention of a point of agreement sound like a quarrel.

          Silly me. For a moment there I actually thought you were trying to justify your accusation that I misrepresented Vansina. So you were agreeing with what I wrote all along. Good to have agreement. Would it be too much to ask you to withdraw your accusation now?

          But you still seem to be walking away from my other questions.

          • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Wow, your ability to imagine people are saying all sorts of things they obviously never intended is remarkable!

            • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

              Well do we have agreement as you said we did or do we have a case of my misrepresentation as you said we did? I do keep asking you to clarify your claims and offer evidence — it really would help if you didn’t walk away from those requests.

              • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                Neil, your behavior is as bizarre as ever. You wrote, in an antagonistic tone, that you agreed that Vansina offered an analysis akin to that of form criticism in places. I commented that you have a remarkable ability to make even a point of agreement sound like a quarrel. Now you are trying to construe it as though I said I now agree with everything you have said on this subject.

                You seem to need more practice in communicating with other human beings, because your claims and your entire attitude are bafflingly odd.

                • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                  James, try to take a deep breath and smile. Do lighten up a little. I think you are hearing hostility in your own mind — further mind-reading on your part. But do forgive me if I do sound a little indignant if I am accused of misrepresentation and my accuser makes excuses for not backing up his claims with evidence.

                  So instead of writing about how you “hear” me and what you somehow can perceive is my attitude, how about actually addressing the content? Try to avoid ad hominem.

                  How about actually addressing my questions I put to you instead of walking away most of the time?

                  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    Neil, I would love to know where and when I have “walked away.”

                    Why do you assume that the earliest Gospel must have been written only after all possible eyewitnesses were dead? And on your view of things, is there anything that anyone could have eyewitnessed? :-)

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      I suggest you go back over all the many questions and requests for clarifications you have left ignored.

                      I am assuming nothing. I am merely pointing out to you that the example you gave of the Hopi contradicts NT understanding of the nature of the gospels. If the gospel was a mere 40 years after the events then by the case study you referred to we would expect a straight historical narrative with no mythological embellishment.

                      Is that not correct?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I find your attempt to treat the Hopi example as though it provided an absolute timeline whereby certain developments occur rather strange. If the Gospels reflect an oral tradition that circulated away from the location of eyewitnesses for decades, why should comparable developments and transformations not be evidenced in a shorter period of time?

                      Or to put it another way, why do you choose to absolutize one example in this way?

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      McGrath:

                      I think the Hopi example I gave offers a comparable time frame to the situation in the case of the Gospels, approximately.

                      I am merely responding to your own suggestion that the Hopi example offers a comparable time-frame to the situation in the case of the Gospels, approximately.

                      Vansina sees approximately 40 years. And he says there is a qualitative leap between lets say, around 40 years, and let’s say, around 80 years.

                      You are sidestepping completely what Vansina himself says about oral reports (NOT “oral traditions”) in the life-time of eye-witnesses. I even explained what he said about that but presumably you thought I was misrepresenting him by quoting and citing him. So I suggest you read what he himself says is the difference between oral reports in the life-time of eyewitnesses — and how they are to be assessed for historicity — in contrast to oral traditions.

                      Now can you — oh no, here we go again, I know you won’t — answer directly the point of my argument. I am not absolutizing anything.

                      HJ scholars say the first gospel was around 40 years after the events of Jesus; Vansina says the first oral recordings of the Hopi’s event was around 40 years later.

                      Vansina also says it was long after the eye-witnesses were all gone that we see the first trickles of mythical trappings entering what had only long after the eye-witnesses become the oral tradition.

                      Is this not so?

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      But isn’t all this beside the point anyway? Haven’t HJ historians moved on from boring old positivism and pioneered the brave new world of postmodernist history?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Once you show willingness to read what I wrote carefully and show evidence of comprehending it, we can try taking another step in the conversation. Presumably trying to do so sooner would not lead anywhere fruitful.

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      James, instead of this vague non-response (walking away from responding) why not actually respond to the content of my argument. Instead of saying I don’t understand your point why not actually explain to me what you do mean and why and where I am wrong — specifically. Can you do that? Apparently not or I am sure you would have.

                      Here is my point again. You seem to have missed it. Can you point to me any specific error in my understanding of either your or Vansina’s position or any error in my argument?

                      I am merely responding to your own suggestion that the Hopi example
                      offers a comparable time-frame to the situation in the case of the Gospels, approximately.

                      Vansina sees approximately 40 years. And he says there is a qualitative leap between lets say, around 40 years, and let’s say, around 80 years.

                      You are sidestepping completely what Vansina himself says about oral reports (NOT “oral traditions”) in the life-time of eye-witnesses. I even explained what he said about that but presumably you thought I was misrepresenting him by quoting and citing him. So I suggest you read what he himself says is the difference between oral reports in the life-time of eyewitnesses — and how they are to be assessed for historicity — in contrast to oral traditions.

                      Now can you — oh no, here we go again, I know you won’t — answer directly the point of my argument. I am not absolutizing anything.

                      HJ scholars say the first gospel was around 40 years after the events of Jesus; Vansina says the first oral recordings of the Hopi’s event was around 40 years later.

                      Vansina also says it was long after the eye-witnesses were all gone that we see the first trickles of mythical trappings entering what had only long after the eye-witnesses become the oral tradition.

                      Is this not so?

                      If it is, then Vansina’s case study of the Hopi should lead NT scholars to expect the first gospel around 40 years after Jesus would be a straight unadorned historical narrative and that we should not expect the first signs of mythological embellishment until long after all eyewitnesses are dead — in the order of lets say approx 80 years later?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Neil, it doesn’t seem to me fair that I should have to waste large amounts of time repeating myself simply because you refuse to discuss things with me in the manner of normal human conversation. The only way it is possible to construe me as having meant what you claimed I meant is either to have ignored everything I have ever written on this topic before now, or to not care about accurately representing what I write.

                      As for the Hopi example, what do you think would happen in a case in which the report spread quickly to an area where the eyewitnesses were not present, and similar samplings were made in that new locale?

                      But even if one were to treat the Hopi case as being focused on time rather than distance of any sort from the controls provided by eyewitnesses, it still provides a better analogy for what we find in the Gospels (history distorted by retelling and depicted through the lens of epic and mythological types), than the sorts of things mythicists imagine are in them.

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      So it appears that you are saying that if a scenario unattested in historical research COULD have happened it therefore for purposes of HJ studies must have happened that way. The reporters just hid in the next village where no-one knew about the eye-witnesses.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Would you care to explain how you got from not in this particular case to not historically attested?

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      Don’t mind at all. By the same process I get from your question to the very same conclusion. I know you and other HJ scholars are very motivated to find any evidence in other fields that would lend the slightest weight to any HJ hypothesis, so if there were a case study to the contrary you would surely know about it and present it as counter-evidence to the one you initially advanced mistakenly thinking it supported your hypothesis.

                      Of course I might be wrong and there might well be other case studies. But till I see them I can only go by the ones that I know of.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      How odd, Neil, that you claim to have read Vansina and yet when it suits you, your selective memory only recalls one example that I introduced into the discussion.

                      But even if you remembered or acknowledged our previous conversations, you would have seen the folly of your stance even without Vansina’s help. Rumors about Plato’s divine parentage, conforming him to a mythological type, began to circulate while he was still alive. Your attempt to turn one example into an absolute chronological pattern is clutching at straws.

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      James, if you yourself recalled the contents of our conversations and my arguments you will remember I have always addressed the questions of people like Alexander and Hadrian who were attributed mythological trappings in their own lifetimes.

                      With Vansina we are talking about oral traditions as sources for historical research.

                      The case study of the Hopi contradicts the hypothesis that mythological trappings intruded into oral reports in the life-time of oral witnesses to the historical events. It is the argument of many HJ scholars that these mythological trappings were introduced over time after the events.

                      We are not talkng about situations where a historical figure presented himself as a mythical or divine person or where his immediate followers believed he was god. Nearly all the HJ scholarship I read suggests quite the contrary.

                    • arcseconds

                       But James… Plato really was a son of Apollo.  If you consider the matter, it’s the only hypothesis that covers the facts.

                      Similarly, Leibniz was definitely an alien, although from which planet is unclear.

                    • Anonymous

                      Dr. McGrath,

                      To me, the difference is that the Hopi case is a type of event for which we have many examples and lots of data as well as a type of transmission for which we have lots of data and examples.  With the gospels, not so much. Of course, I think that also hinders us concluding that a particular story is most likely to be completely unhistorical.

                    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

                        Vinny, I think it could be problematic to speculate on how different the conditions that produced the Christian traditions could have been when they were produced, but to be “guessing that we can be confident that stories they preserved come from the tribes’ traditions”. When Vansina (referring to the Hopi discussion Neil and James are having) used the experience of the Hopi to develop data for the reliability of oral transmission, he doesn’t seem overly worried that the American west is vastly different than the Congo. I think it may be overly skeptical to assume people there may be completely different than people here. 
                       
                      I would like to close with some thoughts Vansina shares on p.184-185
                      “…every historian is obliged to interpret the sources he is dealing with. He does not and cannot have an unlimited knowledge of history, and there is usually more than one interpretation possible of the facts at his disposal. …Interpretation is a choice between several possible hypotheses, and the good historian is one who chooses the hypotheses that is most likely to be true. In practice it can never have more than a likelihood of truth, because the past has gone for good and all, and the possibility of first hand observation of past events is forever excluded. History is no more than a calculation of probabilities… How shall one decide whether a statement is an error, or a lie, or is ‘veracious’? Each of the three hypotheses has a varying degree of probability and the historian will choose the most probable. Or is comparing two text, resemblances are between them are found. The historian must judge whether the resemblances imply the text have a common origin or not. Here again what he does is to assess the possibilities and weigh probabilities. Historical science is a science of probabilities. Nor is it the only science of this kind. A large number of present-day scientific disciplines make use of the concepts of chance and probability.”

                    • Anonymous

                      Michael,

                      If one takes agnosticism as the default position, then the historian should have positive reasons for thinking that two oral traditions are sufficiently similar that the ability to corroborate historicity in one justifies the inference of historicity in the other.   I can’t see anything problematic in asking whether we have such reasons for the gospel traditions.  It is a matter of requiring evidence of similarities rather than assuming differences.  I can appreciate that history is not an exact science, but I still think that the historian must justify his probability assessments by analogies to events that can be known with more certainty.  

                    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

                      That’s an acceptable position, but it has to be applied consitently so one cannot make the argument that HJ scholars are engaged in vodoo but people confirming the truthfulness of legendary african kings must have their reasons. The reason for this discussion is Neil’s belief that HJ scholars are not simply wrong, or not skeptical enough, but that this sort of wrongness and lack of skepticim isn’t present in historical work out side of HJ, that they aren’t really doing history.  

                    • Vinnyjh

                      Michael,

                      I haven’t read Vansina so I cannot say for certain whether I would think that his reasons for affirming the historicity of African kings is sufficient or not.  I know what kinds of reasons I would consider sufficient however, and the kinds of things Vansina is affirming seem to be consistent with those kinds of reasons, however, I don’t see those kinds of reasons for the gospel traditions.  As a result, at present I am still inclined to think that HJ scholars are going beyond Vansina.  On the other hand, I acknowledge the possibility that other types of reasons of which I am presently unaware could be shown to be sufficient as well and that those types or reasons might also work for the gospel traditions.  

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          McGrath:

          I think the Hopi example I gave offers a comparable time frame to the situation in the case of the Gospels, approximately.

          Vansina: the historical events took place around 1853 – 1856.

          Two oral versions of the event were recorded in 1892.

          Vansina: “So almost forty years after the events there was still an eyewitness in the town.”

          A third version — NOW a “clearly oral TRADITION” (not “oral history” — see Vansina’s definitions of the two as I pointed out earlier) — was published by a Hopi in 1936.

          Vansina: “The tradition from personal narrative to collective narrative is completed. The differences with the previous versions [those 40 years after the events] consisted mainly of the addition of elements that altered the whole character of the story. . . . His role was slightly idealized so that it recalled the little Twin War of mythology.” (p. 20)

          So let’s see, 40 years after the crucifixion we should, if Vansina’s example is a valid comparison, see a recording that is pretty much a straight factual account of Jesus without any mythological trappings.

          It would be more like 80 years — again on Vansina’s example, if it is valid (and McGrath appears to think it has some relevance) — before we can expect to see mythological elements incorporated into the tradition.

          Does this mean we should date the first of the canonical gospels to 110 now?

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Dr McGrath, seeing that you are clearly willing to make an effort to “expose” my misrepresentations if you think you have the means to do so, I do not want to let you walk away without substantiating your accusations I misrepresented H&P or you (I thank you for explaining the basis of what you think my V misrepresentation was based upon) — so do follow up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

     
     
    Neil writes,
     
     
    “But at the same time historical Jesus scholars give the impression they feel like they are the ugly ducklings in the wider field of historical studies and must still justify their methods by appeals to the “real historians” who know next to nix about what biblical scholars are saying to each other.”
     I find it odd he would castigate historical Jesus scholars for using methods other scholars don’t and then when this is shown to not be the case you castigate them for showing this.
     
    “who know next to nix about what biblical scholars are saying to each other.”
     
    I’m not sure if Neil conducted a poll or just assumed this. I’m not sure what percentage of historians follow the work of biblical scholars and I’m not sure how relevant it is. How much do historians as a whole know about what historians of modern Peru are saying to each other? We should check on those guys. Perhaps Neil’s mad cap (and already proven false) assertion would have more credibility if made by a “real historian” and not an internet crank? We have already produced non-biblical historians that have addressed the issue of Jesus and the dreaded criteria.

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