No Special Treatment for Jesus

I responded to a comment on a recent post about the historical Jesus, and thought I’d share what I wrote in a separate post, to see if it generates more discussion.

There is a common misunderstanding about the plurality of “Jesuses.” This simply shows that there are a lot of people working in the field – nothing more. When a field of history is vibrant, scholars, needing to come up with something new and worthy of publication, will try to come up with new ways of configuring and interpreting evidence. But not every proposal becomes part of a scholarly consensus. To make much of this would be as mistaken as the attempt by creationists to point to exciting science headlines which contradict one another, or which did not pan out under further scrutiny, as though it invalidates those things which scientists consider to be relatively clear and agree about.

I also think that talking about “Biblical” accounts, as though the later decision to incorporate texts into something called a “Bible” makes them historically useless, is problematic. Nor does the fact that there is material in them that is judged unreliable by historians make them any less useful than other texts about which the same judgment would be passed. It is difficult, but we must strive to not give these texts special treatment – either especially favorable or especially hostile – merely on the basis of the fact that they came to be important to particular groups of people.

 

  • Mark

    I thought Bart Ehrman, who could hardly be considered an apologist for Christianity, in his book “Did Jesus Exist?” provides good reasons how and why we can have some certainty into the historical Jesus.

    • Steven Carr

      That book is not to be mentioned. It simply shows how incapable leading NT scholars are at refuting mythcists. It was touted as their best shot, but proved to be empty, so it has been forgotten and never used.

      McGrath doesn’t even try to refute mythicists, as his empty pages on Talk Wiki prove.

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

        I am so glad that Steven Carr continues to show what sort of slimy and deceitful internet trolls the promoters of mythicism are. Mythicist dismissals of Ehrman’s case (and I can tell you that they will discmiss Casey’s too, since that is what they do) is just like creationists’ dismissal of cases for evolution. That a fringe group says something is “empty” doesn’t make it so, and often suggests the opposite.

        Carr’s reference to the fact that others have not used a wiki I set up for them, and pretending that I have not addressed most mythicist claims point by point over the past decade, illustrates well the level of deceit that mythicism entails. And I offer my gratitude to him for once again providing such evidence here!

        • Steven Carr

          In other words, McGrath doesn’t use Ehrman’s book, and McGrath can’t even contribute to his own Wiki.

          If you point out how empty his rebuttal pages are that he himself set up, this is ‘deceitful’.

          ‘pretending that I have not addressed most mythicist claims point by point over the past decade’

          McGrath lives in a world where he really thinks he has addressed ‘most mythicist claims’, but neither he nor his supporters can actually string together a Wiki page which even lists them , let alone rebuts them.

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

            If I thought it would make a difference to trolls like Steven Carr, I would happily copy and paste all that I’ve produced here on this blog into a wiki. But it won’t. This despicable and obnoxious behavior would continue.

            I’ve allowed Carr’s comments even though he is a troll because he illustrates just what sort of nonsense mythicists spout. But if he just makes the same nonsensical claims over and over, that steps over the line from merely trolling into spamming. Perhaps the time has come to say that if he doesn’t interact with the substance of posts, a ban is in order? His comments are so repetitive that I literally thought he was a bot at first, and found it hard to believe that he was a real human being.

        • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

          The criticism of Ehrman’s case was hardly limited to the fringe and it’s endorsement by the mainstream has been tepid at best.

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

            Ehrman’s case seems to many in the mainstream to be a waste of time on a non-issue. I think mythicists have a mistaken sense of their own importance and impact, and perhaps the very fact that scholars are addressing this fringe viewpoint more frequently of late is contributing to that. And that is always the risk. If we fail to address fringe and pseudoscholarly viewpoints, then we do nothing to check the spread of them (not that the denialists listen to scholars anyway) and there are complaints that their views would be found persuasive if only scholars dared to examine them. When we examine them and find them unpersuasive, the denialists don’t care, they just point to the fact that a scholar interacted with their views as evidence that they are something to take seriously.

            • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

              In other words “Even if Ehrman had made strong arguments, the mythicists wouldn’t have accepted them. So who cares that he made poor ones.” That sounds a lot like the apologists who try to excuse the weak evidence for the resurrection with “The skeptic’s anti-supernatural presuppositions would cause him to deny the resurrection regardless of the evidence.”

              Personally, I was hoping that Ehrman would make a solid case that would push me off the fence. I am aware of how many nut jobs there are in the mythicist camp and I would much rather be on the side of the scholarly consensus.

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

                No, I’m not saying that he made poor ones. I thought he did a good job of writing in a manner that mediates scholarship to non-specialists, as I feel he has also done in his other books.

                Does the fact that he hasn’t persuaded you personally mean that he hasn’t made a solid case? At what point does it become worth considering that maybe you are approaching this differently than historians and scholars are, and that that disconnect is what is keeping you on the fence?

                • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                  I must confess that his failure to persuade me is a factor in my assessment of the solidity of Ehrman’s case. However, I read a lot of history and I grew up in a family of academics–my father and three of my siblings have PhD’s and I have a JD–so I’m reasonably comfortable with my ability to judge the quality of an argument and the evidence offered in support thereof.

                  It is of course possible that I am blinded by my biases, however, I do the best I can to challenge myself and one of my purposes in blogging is to test my own thinking on the issues. What I have found is that criticism of Ehrman’s arguments is in no way limited to mythicists. Several people I respect who hold to the idea of a historical Jesus were as disappointed in his arguments as I was. I would also say that your last comment is typical of the tepid support I have seen, i.e., you don’t claim that he made good arguments, just that he mediated scholarship well.

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

                    Yes, and that gets at the heart of the issue. If I were inclined to reject the overwhelming consensus of experts, I probably wouldn’t find Ehrman does anything to change my mind. If all the detailed studies in a field don’t persuade someone, a popularized treatment of the subject is even less likely to do so.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      It is unfortunately the case that I do not have the time to read all the detailed studies in all the fields that I would like, so I have to rely on popularized treatments to gain some understanding of how and why scholars in various fields reach the conclusions they do. Are you telling me that there are really all sorts of good arguments out there that Ehrman either didn’t know or didn’t put in his book?

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

                      What I’m saying is that the impression I get from looking at detailed studies of the evidence, arguments for and against information being historical, is that some appears historical after close scrutiny. Clearly there is no way to convey all that detailed analysis in a book for a general audience. And in the process of summarizing and eliminating detail, it seems that some of its persuasive force gets lost.

                    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                      My problems with Ehrman’s arguments were with things like failing to distinguish between evidence and conclusions drawn from the evidence; failing to apply basic principles of probability; and failing to understand the difference between an issue that is relevant and an issue that is dispositive. These strike me as very basic issues upon which any scholar should have a good handle. If he makes these kinds of mistakes at the big picture level, and mainstream scholars fail to take him to task for these mistakes but instead lash out at his critics, I don’t think I have much reason to have much confidence in the conclusions that are being reached at the level of fine detail.

                      As I have said on many occasions, we have very few pieces of the puzzle that is the origin of Christianity. Ever more scholars keep dissecting the pieces we have in to ever smaller pieces and placing them under ever more powerful microscopes, but it does not alleviate the problem of underdetermination that results from the missing pieces. In a way, I think it is very similar to what happened in economics where ever more sophisticated models were developed from data that only represented a tiny portion of economic history. You cannot solve the problem of the data you don’t have just by looking more closely at the data you do have.

                      But I will say again that the problem is exactly the same for the mythicists.

  • Michael Wilson

    I’ve made this point before, yet it never seems to soak in for people that make that argument. Jesus is the sort of figure in history every one wants to take a swing at explaining, and partisan bias comes up all the time because he is an especially meaningful figure in history. I’ve read a lot of opinion about Ronald Reagan ranging from genius saint to idiotic demon, but I don’t think that means one can never really understand Reagan.

    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

      On the other hand, if you read the introduction to a biography of George Washington, you will probably find the author talking about how difficult it is to get behind the “Father of His Country” mythology that arose even during his lifetime. The only reason historians can hope to make any progress is that extensive primary material exists that predates the mythologization. Imagine trying to say anything meaningful about who Washington really was if all we had was the hagiography of Parson Weems.

      • Michael Wilson

        Yes, and their isn’t a lot that can be meaningfully said about Jesus, however this doesn’t mean that we should then assume this guy was only a myth based on Osiris or Scriptural prophecy or whatever else you might imagine. It just means that not a lot is known.

        • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

          I agree.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    This simply shows that there are a lot of people working in the field – nothing more.

    -There are a lot of people working in biology. Neo-Darwinism remains the consensus position. Is there even a consensus in NT scholarship on Jesus besides points 1-6 and 13?

    To make much of this would be as mistaken as the attempt by
    creationists to point to exciting science headlines which contradict one
    another, or which did not pan out under further scrutiny, as though it
    invalidates those things which scientists consider to be relatively
    clear and agree about.

    -Press releases are one thing. Vast and not-so-vast monographs which attract significant scholarly attention and respect are something else. Either way, it’s clear that we do not know a whole lot about the origin of Christianity.

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

      None of the items on the list seemed to me at all historically controversial. And there are other things that were not even included, like the use of abba.

      Biology and history remain different disciplines and particularly in our time, when thanks to genetics there are no more gaps in our knowledge of the interrelatedness of living things. But it is a useful comparison that there are some things that are clear cut – the interrelatedness of all things – while the specific details are clear to varying degrees, and few so clear that no doctoral student can earn a degree trying to mount a challenge, even if it proves unsuccessful.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    I dispute “nothing more”. I’ve made the point you make here myself, that JesusBooks Industries’ threshold for publishable treatments pretty much ensures that some novel and hopefully controversial aspect of the historical Jesus will be stressed. (Note that Aslan appears to have reached “controversial” without even clearing “novel,” a feat in itself.)

    But this is the impetus for authors seeking these aspects, not the reason that they are so easy to find and in turn so productive of diverse, compelling portraits. That reason is that the subject is underdetermined by the available evidence. It hardly needs be said that this is exactly the state of affairs we would expect if there was no such figure. But that’s just one more way in which mythicism remains a live alternative; it does nothing to argue for its probability. Because that’s also the state of affairs we would expect if dozens of “biographies” were being written every year about some other near-invisible marginal historical figure like Boudica about whom little to nothing is known from sources not betraying crippling biases.

    The list is bunk, regardless of your efforts to draw attention to the demands on the Emperor’s tailors. None of those things are known. There are numerous other ways each one of the items could have made it into our –literary, remember– sources other than their historical reality.

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

      I think you will find that the ability to recast and reinterpret figures in a large number of ways, not all of them equally plausible, is not unique to Jesus nor indicative of ahistorical as opposed to historical figures. It is only when evidence ceases to matter that such infinite flexibility becomes possible.

  • Matthew Richardson

    I don’t see the plurality of historical Jesus models as a problem at all, since not all of them have equal merit. Some mythicists like to use this argument, but it really cuts both ways. Here are a few mythicist models I’ve encountered, and I’m sure there are more:

    Jesus as historicized Suffering Servant (Carrier)
    Jesus as historicized Osiris/Attis/dying-and-rising Yahweh (Price)
    Jesus as historicized Gnostic Redeemer (Price)
    Jesus as the Sun (Acharya S)
    Jesus as the Buddha (Lindtner)
    Jesus as Caesar (Carotta)
    Jesus as Josephan propaganda (Atwill)

    Clearly some historical and mythical models are better argued than others. The sheer number of models doesn’t seem relevant to me.

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      Again, models are one thing, models strongly argued in peer-reviewed journals and scholarly books are another.

      • Matthew Richardson

        You’ll get no disagreement from me on that point.

  • Mike Kok

    Is there much of a difference of the plural reconstructions of Jesus with the plurality of reconstructions of Paul, both ancient (the Paul of Acts, the apocryphal Acts, Marcion, Gnostics, proto-orthodox or Pseudo-Clementines under the guise of Simon Magus) and modern (the Lutheran Paul, the New Perspective Paul, the radical New Perspective Paul, etc)? Even with his letters, scholars still have many debates on Paul’s views on his call/conversion, Torah, Israel, Christology and so on, which may more reflect the fact that NT scholars deal with a relatively small corpus of literature and seek to write something new on a subject.

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

      I think that is a really useful analogy on this point!

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      But at least Paul wrote at least seven epistles that we have!

    • arcseconds

      You could pick any famous philosopher from much more recently when we’ve got plenty of biographical detail and much more clarity surrounding the culture of the time, and we still see the same thing.

      We’ve got Hegel the spiritualist, the demythologized Hegel (a perfectly sensible analytic philosopher), the politically radical Hegel, the conservative Hegel, etc.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        That is a somewhat better analogy, but at least we can work out the details of Hegel’s life better than we can those of Jesus’s.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, many of the finest minds in the field of finance and economics thought that they knew a lot more about how things worked than it turned out that they actually knew. Sadly, many of them still think they do. One of the problems was that the portion of known economic history for which testable data exists is really quite small. So you had lots and lots of experts combing over the same forty to fifty years worth of data and extrapolating all sorts of models and predictions. This created an echo chamber effect which convinced the experts that they understood a lot more than they really did.

    I think that there is a similar problem in New Testament studies. We only have a handful of pieces to the puzzle that is the origin of Christianity and no matter how many scholars comb over those pieces nor how many times they do it nor how finely they comb over them, there is no way to overcome the problem of the missing pieces. However, I suspect that they have succeeded in convincing themselves that they know more than they really do. Happily, if they are wrong, it probably won’t lead to the collapse of the international banking system.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “There is a common misunderstanding about the plurality of “Jesuses.” This simply shows that there are a lot of people working in the field – nothing more.”
    Yep I agree. But for antitheists like Dr. Richard Carrier, this means the field is hopelessly confused. Fortunately, he has volunteered for bringing his extraordinary, unparalleled rigor and objectivity to the field, within a Bayesian framework.

    “”When a field of history is vibrant, scholars, needing to come up with something new and worthy of publication, will try to come up with new ways of configuring and interpreting evidence. But not every proposal becomes part of a scholarly consensus. To make much of this would be as mistaken as the attempt by creationists to point to exciting science headlines which contradict one another, or which did not pan out under further scrutiny, as though it invalidates those things which scientists consider to be relatively clear and agree about.”"
    Yes but… I’m under the impression that both liberal and conservative scholars draw conclusions about the life of Jesus which are not warranted by the evidence. I believe we should more often suspend judgement.

    “I also think that talking about “Biblical” accounts, as though the later decision to incorporate texts into something called a “Bible” makes them historically useless, is problematic. Nor does the fact that there is material in them that is judged unreliable by historians make them any less useful than other texts about which the same judgment would be passed. It is difficult, but we must strive to not give these texts special treatment – either especially favorable or especially hostile – merely on the basis of the fact that they came to be important to particular groups of people.”

    To my mind, distinction between the Canon and the non-Canon are illusory in their very nature.
    That said, I’m open that God inspired certain things in the same way He inspired C.S Lewis or John Wesley.

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • R. G. Price

    Like VinnyJH said, there are a lot of nut jobs in the mythicist camp, which aggravates me to no end, however I am now absolutely convinced by my own research that “Jesus didn’t exist”.

    I’m also convinced that the vast majority of “Jesus myth” claims are completely bogus and just undermine the field.

    I’m currently working on my final piece on the historicity of Jesus, “Fictional Jesus and the Origins of Christianity”, in which I lay out not only the case against the existence of Jesus, but also a timeline of what I think happened and how the belief in a real Jesus came to be.

    But I do believe at this point that a very positive case can be made not only that “there is no proof for the existence of Jesus”, but rather that there is strong evidence that he didn’t exist, or that at the very least the Gospels were not based, in any way, on the life of a real person.

    I’ve actually tried to get Ehrman to address my works, I sent him some of my books, but he refused to read them. My work is actually pretty conservative and based largely on scriptural analysis of the Gospels and other Biblical writings. I worked with Richard Carrier on it and shared all of my work with him, some of which he has gone on to use in his own work.

    While I make many arguments, I think the most important is the case I make that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional allegory about the destruction of Jerusalem in the Roman Jewish War, in which all the scenes are based on literary allusions, and that all other accounts of the life of Jesus stem from this single story.

    In my self-published book Jesus – A Very Jewish Myth, I basically go out of my way to pour cold water on most of the “Mythicist” claims, but then go on to show that a very solid case can be made without resorting to absurd “astrotheology” and conspiracy theories, etc.

    My writings on the subject:

    The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory:
    http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

    Jesus Myth – The Case Against Historical Christ:
    http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm

    Jesus a Very Jewish Myth:
    http://www.lulu.com/shop/rg-price/jesus-a-very-jewish-myth/paperback/product-2079912.html;jsessionid=7D074DF2D0F53BA402F4D46BA4170900


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