Mythicism, Docetism, and the James Ossuary

Hector Avalos published a news article on the historical Jesus, which illustrates the danger of trying to interpret evidence in a field outside one’s own area of specialty. Avalos wonders how anyone could have doubted that Jesus came in the flesh, as 1 John mentions, if the historicity of Jesus was well established. This misses completely the nature and rationale of docetism, a known phenomenon which most scholars think was in view in the passage in question. Far from arguing that no Jesus appeared in human history, as Earl Doherty does, the proponent of this view claimed that the Jesus who appeared in history was not a fleshly mortal being, but a divine one. What we see in these developments is the impact of the increasingly exalted status attributed to Jesus, hitting up against the deep-rooted presupposition that gods are by definition not mortal and do not die, as Jesus had.

Given that Avalos mentions the James Ossuary, I should also direct readers to an article (HT Ben Witherington) which claims that a geological reanalysis of the artifact and the patina on the inscription confirms its authenticity. I will leave it to those with expertise in the relevant modes of analysis to discuss and evaluate this.

 

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

    I don’t see where Avalos is missing the nature or rationale of docetism. I think that he is merely suggesting that the evidence is insufficient to establish that it resulted from the increasingly exalted status attributed to Jesus as time went by rather than from an understanding of Jesus’ exalted status that was there from the beginning.

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

      I don’t see that he articulates anything of the sort. He doesn’t mention docetism as the established explanation of the relevant texts, nor that it appears subsequent to our earliest sources and seems to be a development out of them. He also seems to treat the relevant texts as about whether there was a Jesus who appeared in history, as per the mythicists, when in fact the proto-orthodox and docetist texts are both about the nature of a Jesus encountered in history, not a figure who existed purely in the celestial realm.

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

        I don’t think it matters whether he uses the word “docetism” or not. The point is that whether Jesus had come in the flesh was an issue that the author of 1 John needed to address. You have suggested that it was because Jesus’ status had been exalted over time and Avalos is not sure whether there weren’t questions about his status from the beginning. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand docetism. It means he doesn’t think the the evidence is sufficient to establish the development of questions about whether Jesus had come in the flesh.

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

          He does not spell out any of that, and he doesn’t offer any mention of the relevant primary sources, much less a suggestion on how they might all be reinterpreted to allow for something like first-century mythicism.

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

            Since he doesn’t profess to be a mythicist, I cannot imagine why he would. I also cannot see how getting into that kind of detail would have been appropriate for a column in a newspaper.

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

              Well, if all he did was to leave out detail, he left out so much as to not make it clear that he is aware of the issue or what makes him think the alternative reading he offers is compatible with the relevant evidence.

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

                What is the relevant evidence establishing that 1 John was responding to docetism?

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

                  I have in mind sources like the Gospel of Peter, which moves in the direction of Jesus seeming to feel no pain, and other texts even more explicit than that one. We also have the mention by Irenaeus of Cerinthus having overlapped with the time of John, and having said that the celestial Son who was united with the human Jesus departed prior to Jesus’ death and thus avoided suffering. We don’t have any evidence from this period (or any other before the modern era, for that matter, as far as I know) that anyone suggested that Jesus existed only in a celestial realm. And so I think that interpreting a text in relation to the data we have, rather than constructing a hypothetical background for which we have no evidence, is preferable.

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

                    Weren’t there also docetists who claimed that Jesus’ physical existence was entirely an illusion and who denied that he was ever really born? I don’t see that the Gospel of Peter or Irenaeous really answer the question of how these beliefs originated.

                    I think interpreting a a text in relation to the data we have is all well and good, but I think acknowledging the gaps in the data is a good thing, too, and I don’t see that Avalos is doing any more than that.

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

                      There were a range of views, including that Jesus was born but had no need of care and could talk as a newborn. But none of them represent the mythicist view that Jesus appeared in a celestial realm rather than in human history. The disagreements were about the nature of the Jesus who had appeared in history, and never about whether he had appeared there.

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

                      It may well be that they were disagreements about a Jesus who was believed to have appeared in history rather than a Jesus who was believed to have appeared only in a celestial realm, but I agree with Avalos that they are odd disagreements to have if Jesus’ flesh-and-blood existence was well established.

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

                      Then I can only assume that you haven’t understood the nature of the claims or the explanations about what led to them.

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

                      No. I understand both the claims and the explanations perfectly well. The problem is that I don’t see enough evidence to get from possibility to probability.

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

                      I realize that is your standard response to everything, but I fail to see how it fits. When someone is increasingly ascribed a divine status, it raises issues about things that were previously taken for granted as part of the story of a human being, but which were assumed to be incompatible with divinity. We see exactly that in our sources – that Jesus was crucified is assumed in the earliest texts, however awkward that is for the claim that he is the Messiah. We find other scenarios, such as that he switched places with Judas or someone else and laughed at the foolish humans, in later sources.

                      What is not clear about the evidence?

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

                      That’s not exactly what we see in our sources, is it? Don’t we see someone with a fully ascribed divine status in our earliest source? In fact, all the epistles seem to know a fully divine being with no hint of any progression in status.

                      Moreover, I don’t think that we have any real basis for talking about what generally happens “[w]hen someone is increasingly ascribed a divine status,” because we don’t have enough examples of the phenomenon to draw any rules of general applicability.

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

                      I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. The status that Jesus has in our earliest sources is always one that is bestowed upon him by God, who exalts him to the right hand of God and even gives him the divine name.

                      We certainly have enough information to indicate what sorts of things people considered it appropriate to say about humans but not deities and vice versa.

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

                      My point had nothing to do with whether the exalted status was bestowed or not, but whether it was increasing over time. We may see a pattern of Jesus’ status increasing in successive gospels, but we also see Jesus with a status that is fully exalted in our earliest epistles.

                      So where is the evidence that 1 John is responding to questions that arose as a result of a status that became exalted over time rather than a status that was exalted from the beginning? If it was the latter, it is reasonable to suppose that questions about Jesus physical reality could have been there from the beginning as well.

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

                      In the epistles of Paul, Jesus gets the divine name after the crucifixion, when God exalts him above all else. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is viewed as the incarnation of one who existed with the Father and had been given his name before the foundation of the world. We can still trace a development. And connecting the letters of John with the Gospel of John and the developments and innovations found in it is based on shared outlook, style, and vocabulary. Those epistles appear to be dealing with the impact of those very distinctive innovations, not found in earlier Christian literature.

  • Gary

    I find it interesting, “Misquoting Jesus”, Bart Ehrman,
    “As a final example of a variant of this kind, made in order to counter a separationist Christology, we might consider a passage that occurs in the Epistle of 1John. In the oldest form of the text of 4:2-3…
    (To much to write)
    To condense, …”an interesting textual variant…instead of “that does not confess Jesus”…”that looses Jesus”.
    “Marginal note indicates …”looses Jesus” was known to…Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen. …was popular during the time in which proto-orthodox Christians were debating with Gnostics over matters of Christology.”

    Anyway, 1John 4:3 with added “that looses Jesus” from a scribe, is pretty anti-Gnostic, calling them anti-Christ.

  • Gary

    Plus from the same book, interesting,
    “apocryphal Gospel of Peter…”My power, O power, you have left me!”
    “Gospel of Philip…”My God, my God, why O Lord have you forsaken me?” For it was on the cross that he said these words, for it was there that he was divided.”
    “Proto-orthodox Christians knew of both these Gospels and their interpretations…no great surprise …text of Mark’s Gospel was changed by some scribes”
    “Why have you forsaken me?” To “why have you mocked me?”
    Too much info to paraphrase. But texts seem to be moving targets based upon swing toward the orthodox.

  • ncovington89

    “This misses completely the nature and rationale of docetism, a known
    phenomenon which most scholars think was in view in the passage in
    question.”

    Interpreting texts in terms of known phenomena is excellent advice, and is a method fully supported by Occam’s razor. I understand that docetism was a real belief among some early Christians, but is there evidence that docetism was a belief people had around roughly the same time 1 John was written?

    If Wikipedia is accurate (and it may not be) 1 John was written around 100 AD, whereas the earliest mention of docetism is around 100 years later. So we can’t be sure if docetism existed when 1 John was written. That leaves us with this: is it more credible to hypothesize docetism existed in 100 AD under the Jesus myth framework or to hypothesize that some believed “Jesus came in the flesh” by 100 AD under the mythicist framework?

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

      I am not sure where the Wikipedia contributors got their information. The Gospel of Peter may not be much later than 1 John. But it depends how one is defining docetism, as that work may reflect a view related to but perhaps distinguishable from docetism. The specific wording of 1 John may suggest the same. It emphasizes that the Son came not by water only, but by water and blood. That sounds like the view, not that Jesus was a phantasm entirely, but that the celestial being associated with him was only temporarily present, and departed before he died since a celestial being cannot die.

      Irenaeus tells a story about Polycarp and John in connection with Cerinthus, who is supposed to have had precisely this sort of view of Jesus. Even if the latter story is not based on actual events, it certainly indicates how the Johannine literature was understood by subsequent Christians in a not much later period.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    James, am I understanding your first sentence correctly: Are you saying that Hector Avalos is an OLD Testament scholar, so he is bound to make mistakes when talking about the NEW Testament (where You are an expert)?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5MUUP4l6l4#t=699

    I just watched the above excellent video by Richard Carrier – he has a Ph.D. in Ancient History (Columbia) — not in NT studies, of course, but your Ph.D. is in Philosophy, right (Univ. of Durham)? Anyway, Carrier believes the author of 2 Peter was arguing against Christians who believed in a Mythical or Celestial or Non-literal Jesus. Now, you may disagree with Richard, but you can’t dismiss him with your Genetic Fallacy opening line, could you? Or did I misunderstand you?

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

      My doctoral work was on the Gospel of John. I am clearly in favor of branching out beyond one’s own field into others, as I have done with Mandaean literature and religion in science fiction. And so I know first hand that initially when doing so, one will get all sorts of exciting ideas passing through one’s head, most of which come to seem implausible or mundane as one’s acquaintance with the primary and secondary literature grows.

      Did you miss where I recently blogged through that video?

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/03/richard-carrier-on-acts-as-historical-fiction.html

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Oh, thanx. I look forward to reading it. You only wrote one post on it right?

        But you do see my point that Carrier has the training you demand and still disagrees with you. So using the genetic fallacy to open your argument against Avalos seems a bit cheap.

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

          Well, actually I have the impression that Carrier has informed himself less well than Avalos. Carrier makes selective use of Jewish sources, but often uses terminology or discusses things in a way that suggests an inadequate acquaintance.

          I say this, not as a jibe, but as someone who would expect scholars working primarily in the field of Mandaean studies to indicate when I, as a relative newcomer and latecomer, have proposed something that simply does not fit evidence that they know inside and out but which I may have overlooked.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            So, attack the facts, James.
            Stop with the cheap moves of attacking the source.
            Such tactics really distract from your message — well, with folks like me. This argumentative style makes it seem like you are hiding stuff. Stick to the points, not credentials — a ploy you over employ.

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

              Just as it is relevant that most scientists who reject evolution are not in biology, it is relevant that most scholars who are mythicists do not specialize in New Testament or early Jewish history. If it were the only argument, it would indeed be dubious. But as part of the picture, it is not at all irrelevant.

              • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

                Yet you begin with it. Enough — we know where each other stand on the issue.

      • redpill99

        what are your views on GJohn, its historicity, its dependence on the synoptics, its date, provenance, etc? Was GJohn community in contact with say GThomas as Elaine Pagels argued?

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

          Why not read a book, or at least a good reference article, on this subject, if it interests you? I may at some point write up all of my views on the Gospel of John. But a blog comment seems like an inappropriate place to do so.

          • redpill99

            i’ve read Bart Ehrmans book on GJohn, and Elaine Pagel’s book on the Gospel of Thomas. I’m familiar with arguments that GJohn is mostly not historical. I’ve not seen the issue of whether GJohn knew the synoptic as settled. I know of the born again/born from above and I’ve wondered though why Jesus and Nicodemus couldn’t have also spoken Greek bilingually

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

              I agree that the issue of whether John knew the Synoptics is not settled. I do think its author knew traditions or sources which were not derived from those Gospels. But at does not preclude the possibility that he knew them as well. This is the main reason I tried to ensure that my arguments in John’s Apologetic Christology didn’t depend on one view or the other for their persuasiveness.

              • redpill99

                I’m familiar with 2 putative sources for GJohn – the signs gospel and possibly a pre-markan passion narrative aka cross gospel. Im aware of the “high” Christology of GJohn as opposed to the messianic secrecy of Mark.

                The high Christology Christology of GJohn seems to bear some resemblance to the pre-Pauline hymn in
                Philippians 2:5-11.

                I’ve wondered in contra to Bart Ehrman and others whether Jesus did in fact speak of himself as Christ, GJohn is a witness as is Philippians 2:5-11

    • Ignorantia Nescia

      I can only disagree on the quality of Carrier’s video, but I rather take on something else, namely your claim that a genetic fallacy was used.

      The opening line is: “Hector Avalos published a news article
      on the historical Jesus, which illustrates the danger of trying to
      interpret evidence in a field outside one’s own area of specialty.”

      A genetic fallacy is an invalid argument that tries to discredit a view by appealing to its origins. That is, one attempts to conclude from its origin the falsehood of an opinion.

      Where does an appeal to the origins appear in the opening line? Moreover, where in that line is the falsehood of the theory concluded? It simply reads as a statement of fact.

      I know I’m nitpicking now, but I dislike it when fallacies are called when there are none.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        I hear James saying:
        “Avalos is outside his own speciality, so no wonder he is wrong ['the danger'].”
        Sounds like genetic fallacy to me, Nescia. Not sure why you can’t see it. The origins is “an untrained person”. The ‘wrong’ is “the danger” — implied.

        It would be nitpicking if you were right — and even then a waste of blogging — but you aren’t even right, so I am not sure what to call it. Pickin’ back at you.

        This is a position James often takes, if I am not mistaken.
        To open a post with this position, is bold.

        • Ignorantia Nescia

          I can’t argue with what you are hearing, but I’ll focus on the writing. :P I don’t see how there is an argument made in the opening line, let alone a fallacy. I’d say the argument is this:

          This misses completely the nature and rationale of docetism, a known phenomenon which most scholars think was in view in the passage in question. Far from arguing that no Jesus appeared in human history, as Earl Doherty does, the proponent of this view claimed that the Jesus who appeared in history was not a fleshly mortal being, but a divine one. What we see in these developments is the impact of the increasingly exalted status attributed to Jesus, hitting up against the eep-rooted presupposition that gods are by definition not mortal and do not die, as Jesus had.

          That is supposed to demonstrate Avalos is wrong (which seems a reasonable argument). Not the opening line.

          Now I do think the opening line implies “Avalos’ views are incorrect” and “those wrong views originate from 1 John not being within his speciality”, but I do not think the conclusion “because his views originate from 1 John not being part of his field, Avalos’ views are wrong” can be inferred. And the statement would have to be of such a logical form to qualify as a genetic fallacy.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            I think I was right from the get-go, and still do.
            No more time for you, sorry.

            • Ignorantia Nescia

              It’s your party, but I hope you’ll understand that

              a. it’s not establishing your view as more than a very personal interpretation;

              b. it isn’t a very unconvincing response after an evidence-based comment;
              c. it also is a bit underwhelming after you accused somebody of committing a fallacy.


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