Mythicism and Mysticism

Mythicism has done a pretty good job of spreading the idea that all the information Paul and others had about Jesus was gleaned from visions.

That claim doesn’t fit the evidence.

We certainly do have evidence that the genre of the apocalyptic vision was popular among Christians as among other Jews. But that is a literary genre, and we should not envisage the authors of these literary works, most of whom wrote in someone else’s name, actually had the visions they attribute to the purported authors of the works.

Paul makes reference to a heavenly vision that he had in 2 Corinthians 12. But there he says precisely the kinds of things that people who claimed to have experienced heavenly journeys often said, namely that he could not tell the things he saw there. That is markedly different from the way Paul talks about things that – in the eyes of everyone but the mythicists – he knew from mundane sources.

That ancient people had dreams, as do modern people, is not surprising, nor is the fact that they gave these experiences a religious interpretation, as many people today still do. None of this helps make the case for mythicism.

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  • John MacDonald

    A crucified messiah was clearly a “stumbling block” for most Jews (1 Cor 1:23), but at least some Jews, like Paul, believed Jesus’ atoning death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled Jewish scripture (1 Cor 15: 3-4). The scriptures Paul is referring to here are probably Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and following Matthew 12:40, the account of Jonas and the big fish. In any case, following accepted hermeneutic protocol, since the account of the passion, burial, and resurrection of Christ serves a theological function as scripture fulfillment for the original Christians, there is no reason to think there is any historical core to any of these three reported events, since the original Christians would have had reasons to invent them. So, the crucifixion does not meet the criterion of embarrassment. Just as the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may have invented a story about Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on top of the mountain so that their laws would appear to have impressive authority, so too might the original Christians may have invented stories about Jesus’ divinity because they wanted to lend authority to Jesus’ ethical message. Clearly, in the ancient world, people were willing to lay down their lives in support of an ethical cause (e.g., Socrates). That’s not to say we have reason to think the passion/burial/resurrection narratives were “noble lies,” just that the criterion of embarrassment can’t be used here to rescue an historical core.

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

      You seem to misunderstand the criterion of embarrassment, as though engaging in damage control, or making a virtue out of a necessity, somehow undermined the argument. You also seem not to notice that the texts Christians appealed to as foreshadowing or interpreting the crucifixion do not naturally mean anything close to that, and so seem like texts appealed to in order to make sense of a difficult-to-explain event, not the source thereof.

      • John MacDonald

        Hi James. Sorry it took so long to respond, but my health isn’t well and I don’t get to the computer as much as I would like. Regarding your points: It is more parsimonious to suppose the first Christians invented the atoning death of Jesus by extrapolating from scripture rather than the wildly implausible scenario you prefer of the first Christians experiencing a traumatic event and then going back to scripture to find a precursor for it. To take one example, does it make sense to say that Jesus suffered an atoning death, and then the first Christians were just magically able to flesh it out by discovering in Isaiah 53 that “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed..” An allegorical reading of Isaiah 53 is the source of Christ’s atoning death, not that Christ suffered an atoning death and the first Christians luckily found a precursor for that in Isaiah 53. Mythicists are correct when they say every salient detail of the crucifixion narrative is prefigured in the Hebrew scriptures, so that Occam’s Razor demands that we need not posit an historical core for any of it. As to your other point, Paul says very clearly that the death of Jesus, in terms of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, was to be understood in relation to the Hebrew scriptures that (for Paul) prophesized the events of Jesus death and resurrection. We read “3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, 4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THJE SCRIPTURES,… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).” You may not see the clear link between the New Testament narrative and the Hebrew scriptures here, but some of the Jews of Paul’s time, including Paul, certainly did.

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

          I am sorry you have been ill. I will just say that I don’t think you realize how little Isaiah 53 looks like Jesus, unless you already have him in mind and go looking for possible connections. Isaiah 53 may have helped helped Christians made sense of the significance of Jesus’ death, but it does not sound like it is describing the crucifixion scene. You might find Morna Hooker’s work interesting, on just how little reference is made to Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, and how little of what there is focuses on the atoning significance of Jesus’ death.

          • John MacDonald

            Then the problem for your interpretation is, if not Isaiah 53, what Hebrew scriptures are Paul referring to when he says “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3)?” Even if you are right and the reference Paul is making is not to Isaiah 53, the point still stands that Paul understands Jesus’ atoning death as profoundly related to “some” Hebrew Scriptures.

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

            That is a problem for your view, not that of mainstream scholarship. If Paul is starting with an actual crucified person and trying to find something in scripture to make sense of it, it is to be expected that nothing that makes a straightforward connection will be found, whereas if Isaiah 53 were the source of his beliefs, you would expect a close match.

            But it seems you are assuming that “fulfilment of prophecy” means predictions coming true. But that isn’t the way that language is used in the Gospel of Matthew, where it is clear that in no sense are the texts referred to predictions about Jesus.

          • John MacDonald

            There is no reason to think they even started with a crucified man, since that detail may have come from the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b)

            I think we have too many derived details to say there is anything but a close match.
            In terms of prophesy, likely the clearest prophecy about Jesus would seem to be the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:3-7 is especially unmistakable: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

            The only thing is, Isaiah wasn’t making a prophesy aboout Jesus. Mark was generating details from Isaiah 53. So, Mark depicts Jesus as one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. He then describes Jesus as wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The Servant in Isaiah, like Jesus in Mark, is silent before his accusers. In Isaiah it says of the servant with his stripes we are healed, which Mark turned into the story of the scourging of Jesus. This is, in part, is where atonement theology comes from.. The servant is numbered among the transgressors in Isaiah, so Jesus is crucified between two thieves. The Isaiah servant would make his grave with the rich, So Jesus is buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a person of means.

            The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 of Mark is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1).

            As for Matthew, who you mentioned, he adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew 7:43//Psalm 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which underlies the whole story anyway (Miller), “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life: for if the righteous man is God’s son he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”

            As for other details, Crossan points out that the darkness at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalm 69:21. It is remarkable that Mark does anything but call attention to the scriptural basis for the crucifixion account. There is nothing said of scripture being fulfilled here. It is all simply presented as the events of Jesus’ execution. It is we who must ferret out the real sources of the story. This is quite different, e.g., in John, where explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers 9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan)..
            My position seems perfectly reasonable. lol

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

            I know that many people today have been trained to read Isaiah 53 and think of Jesus. It may take some effort to notice how little anything in there lines up specifically with anything in the Gospels. And the few exceptions are noteworthy, since when Christians claim that Isaiah 53 talks about the piercing of hands and feet, they are not quoting any knowm Hebrew text. And so once again my point stands – this is a text into which Jesus has been read, not a text out of which Jesus has been created.

          • John MacDonald

            It is Psalm 22 that has the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b). In any case, if you don’t think Paul is referring to Isaiah 53 when he is referring to Jesus’ atoning death as being profoundly related to the Hebrew scriptures, then which of the Hebrew scriptures would you argue that Paul is citing? Recall, Paul says “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).”

          • John MacDonald

            Bart Ehrman writes about Jesus’ death that memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way – for example, because they represent episodes of Jesus’ life that Christians particularly would have wanted to say happened for their own, later benefit (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” This seems to fly in the face of Paul’s claim that Jesus’ atoning death is grounded in scripture. Recall Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).”

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

            As has been explained to you over and over and over again, Jews turned to the Scriptures to try to make sense of their experiences. That does not mean that their ability to do so made it likely that their experiences never happened, or that the stories of their experiences could have been invented on the basis of scripture. You will notice that Paul affirms this but seems unable to specify precisely what scripture this happened according to, or in what sense Jesus’ crucifixion was according to the scriptures.

            Matthew’s ability to say Jesus being from Nazareth fulfilled scripture which said “he shall be called a Nazorean” has been pointed to by some mythicists as evidence that there was no Nazareth. What they miss is that there is no such scripture, and so they don’t realize that they are putting the cart before the horse. It is very frustrating to deal with these kinds of views, which gullibly and uncritically accept Christian claims about what scripture purportedly says and how Jesus fulfilled it, without ever checking to see if those claims are plausible in light of what scripture actually says.

          • John MacDonald

            It is a perfectly reasonable interpretation to read 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 to be saying that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled Hebrew scripture. Another possibility is, as Carrier says, that 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 means Paul discovered that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised through an allegorical reading of scripture. Another possibility is that 1 Corinthians 15:3 means that, after the fact, the original Christians made sense of Jesus’ death by searching scripture. All are possible.

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

            Relatively few things are impossible. But not all are equally probable.

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

            Yes, you are right, that is what I meant to write – that Psalm 22 is quoted as though it says that hands and feet will be pierced, but no extant text of Psalm 22 actually says that.

          • John MacDonald

            Psalm 22:16 New International Version (NIV)

            16 Dogs surround me,
            a pack of villains encircles me;
            they pierce my hands and my feet.

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

            And the NIV has “virgin” Isaiah 7:14. Are you actually surprised that conservative Christian translations allow NT use of the Jewish Scriptures to influence their renderings thereof?

          • John MacDonald

            The Septuagint , a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek made before the Common Era, and which the New Testament writers use , has ωρυξαν χειράς μου και πόδας (“they have dug my hands and feet”), which some commentators argue could be understood in the general sense as “pierced”. The proper way to render the phrase remains disputed, but given the extensive parallels between Psalm 22 and the crucifixion, which I outlined, I have no problem with rendering it as “pierced.”

          • John MacDonald

            Beyond this, The New Testament uses the word “tree” five times to refer to Christ’s execution (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24). One of the five appearances of “tree” occurs in Galatians. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” wrote Paul, “for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Paul was quoting a phrase found in Deuteronomy 21:23. Since Christ’s death here in Paul fulfilled scripture (Deuteronomy 21:23), it served a theological purpose for Paul, and so there is no reason to think it actually happened, because Paul had reason to invent it. As Paul wrote, “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Cor 15:3).”

            Paul was referring to the Torah’s prescribed form of execution by stoning for blasphemy and idolatry. After being stoned to death, the person’s body was hung on a tree to show that the individual was under God’s curse. To the Jews, hanging on a tree had become a metaphor for an apostate, a blasphemer or a person under God’s curse. That’s how the Jews viewed Jesus (John 5:18; 10:33; Matthew 26:63-65).

            Their attitude would explain why Peter and Paul sometimes used the Greek word for “tree” (xylon) to describe Jesus’ execution. Three times in the book of Acts the word tree is used to refer to Jesus’ crucifixion. In these cases, it appears in a Jewish context as well.

          • Mark

            You go around and around repeating obvious facts affirmed by everyone, that the gospels decorate their story with all sorts of scriptural associations – and presumably make up, or infer, that facts were thus and so, to get good resonance with the Septuagint. What does this have to do with the question whether Jesus existed, and was executed, and whether Paul, in particular, is talking about this?

          • John MacDonald

            Occam’s razor suggests if we can account for the New Testament perfectly well without requiring the added assumption that Jesus actually existed, then there is no reason to suppose that he did. It’s really Jesus agnosticism rather than Jesus mythicism.

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

            Trying to apply Occam’s razor to history at all is problematic, but the way you are using it is particularly dubious. Reasoning that if the story of the Jewish War against the Romans could have been invented by someone based on the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, then it might just as well never have happened, is dubious reasoning indeed. Anything could conceivably have been invented, and something that can explain everything explains nothing.

          • Mark

            We are already stuck with an immense pile of people killed by the Romans. Corpses happened. So the ‘historicist’ view doesn’t posit anything we aren’t positing anyway, and thus Ockham’s razor doesn’t have anything to say against it.

            By contrast, the mythicist interpretation of Paul inevitably ends up imputing to Paul something like a Celestial Christ theory. How else to explain that the crucifixion he is talking about /has already happened/?

            Mythicisms thus inevitably find a completely new and unattested principle operating in some second temple period Jewish minds, and thus ‘violate’ Ockham’s razor if anything does. In particular, they always and everywhere turn on special-casing Jesus and making exceptions to the laws of history to account for talk about him – rather as orthodox Christians do.

        • Mark

          I wonder why Nathan of Gaza didn’t tell Sabbatai to convert to Islam as soon as he realized that Sabbatai was the messiah, given how important this crucial fact was in the later development of the Sabbatean theology and in the doctrine of the Dönmeh people. Scripture and kabbalah /of course/ make it a no-brainer that the Davidic messiah will become a Muslim; how else could it be?

    • Mark

      Even if were true that there had been a pre-existing audience for crucified messiahs, or crucified messiahs named ‘Jesus’, why wouldn’t pious adherents of this expectation have waited for a real crucifixion rather than making one up? Crucifixions were a dime a dozen under the Romans. In general one waits for a messiah, or follows a concrete person one imagines is a messiah, but doesn’t makes up a past failed messiah, except perhaps as a parody of Christianity.

      • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

        In various gnostic systems, including the Ophites, Ialdabaoth and the other princes of the Hebdomad, sought to have Jesus crucified (“Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects…” by Smith, et al). In the Valentinian system, the Cross was the Stauros – the barrier under which Sophia was trapped – where The Logos rescued her. This isn’t happening on Earth – it’s happening around the equivalent of the SubLunar/SupraLunar.

        My suspicion (and this is all speculation) is that this came first, and the Euhemerization came later. Who knows though? Maybe there was some guy who got crucified, and the (pre-)gnostics said “hey – that’s our guy who began as an aeon and rescued Sophia”…I don’t think so, but I can’t prove it.

        • Mark

          ‘cross’ translates ‘stauros’, so you are saying that ‘In the Valentinian system, the cross was the cross – the barrier …’ So there is the question, why someone should link wisdom and ignorance up with a cross/post/stake/stauros … of all things. Since you are referring to Christian documents, the answer is clear; they are imputing cosmic significance to a particular Roman death-penalty case with a particular victim and a particular corpse. Which is what Christians indeed do. You might reflect that any writer who uses upper-casing for transliterated Greek words is attempting to induce hypnosis to begin with. You might in particular take a gander at a Greek manuscript from the period and see if you can figure out a way to get the hashish-like effect of the capitals in “The Cross was the Stauros – the barrier under which Sophia was trapped – where the Logos rescued her” Then try to see if you can get it by translating the proposition into German, where all the nouns are capitalized, and non-personal pronouns are gendered.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “why someone should link wisdom and ignorance up with a cross/post/stake/stauros … of all things. Since you are referring to Christian documents, the answer is clear; they are imputing cosmic significance to a particular Roman death-penalty case with a particular victim and a particular corpse.”

            I think it goes back to the Platonic idea of the barrier separating the land of forms from the cosmos – in the Platonic view, the cross from the land of forms over that barrier caused us to lose our conception of the ideal, and we were only left with “shadows” of the ideal concept.

            Aristotle rejected the land of forms, and simply posited the sublunar and supralunar; my understanding was that middle Platonists of the day (C 1st century) synthesized Plato and Aristotle to get forms, sublunar, and supralunar, which is analogous to the Gnostic system of Pleroma, Kenoma, and Cosmos.

            So the fact that Sophia was trapped under a cross seems to me a borrowing of that Platonic idea of diminished wisdom via the crossing.

            It seems to me that Sophia’s emanation of Yaldabaoth (and the demiurge concept in general) was also a gnostic solution to the problem of evil – why would god create an imperfect world and allow bad things to happen? Because it wasn’t that god…it was a lower god who obscures our wisdom.

            So the very idea that the Logos was coming to rescue humanity was simply the recognition of a bridge between the high god and the cosmos.

            It seems to me the Johannine system (In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god and the word was god) is simply a truncating of the more robust middle-man/demiurge that their predecessors (the Gnostics) formulated.

  • Grimlock

    I might misunderstand something – well, you probably think I do since I am something of a mythicist, or more accurately agnhistoricist (which is a word I just made up).

    Anyhow. My impression is that the claim is that Paul claims to have received his information directly from Jesus in a vision. I think most mythicists consider this to be a deceit or an exaggeration on Paul’s part.

    Did I perhaps misunderstand the point you were making?

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

      I cannot tell whether you understood my point, since you did not mention or address it.

      But since you brought up the mythicist views that I was responding to, I would be interested to know why you think that Paul was claiming anything other than to have had a dream about Jesus as others had, whether you think that means that Paul knew about Jesus only by that means, and if so, how that is compatible with Paul having previously opposed the Christian movement, and his ending up agreeing with other Christian leaders.

      • Grimlock

        First of all, thank you for taking the time to respond!

        I cannot tell whether you understood my point, since you did not mention or address it.

        In that case, I think we can safely assume that I misunderstood your point!

        After a second read it seems that what I thought you point, or one of them, was that mythicists claim that Paul got all his information from visions, and not from any, y’know, humans. I now see that you also mention other people, and hence my misconception is clear (at least to me). Thus my first post can be ignored, comfortable in the knowledge that it’s basically nonsense.

        But since you brought up the mythicist views that I was responding to, I would be interested to know why you think that Paul was claiming anything other than to have had a dream about Jesus as others had, whether you think that means that Paul knew about Jesus only by that means, and if so, how that is compatible with Paul having previously opposed the Christian movement, and his ending up agreeing with other Christian leaders.

        My understanding is the Paul claims to have had a vision while on the road to Damascus, and also that he claimed at some point to have received his knowledge of Jesus, or his revelation if you will, directly from Jesus in this vision. I do, however, believe that many of his beliefs and ideas came from other, human, sources. But my impression is that it was beneficial in the early (and late!) church to claim to have received visions.

        Then the question becomes where the other humans received their information.

        I should probably also elaborate somewhat on my (current) position. I am a mythicist in the sense that the evidence of which I am familiar does not convince me that there existed a recognizable historical Jesus at the core of the New Testament. My opinion is that if there existed an historical Jesus, the evidence in our possession does not allow us to say anything with a satisfactory degree of certainty.

        As some caveats I should mention that,
        a) I am not in any sense a competent historian in my own right, and don’t actually know that much when compared to amateurs either,
        b) my interest in New Testament history started out, and is still primarily, a counter-apologetics thing, and as such I am probably vulnerable to overcompensating against the usual apologetic nonsense, and
        c) I don’t have a significant emotional interested in the subject.

        EDIT: and d) I realize that my opinion goes against the vast majority of those with expert knowledge on the subject. Thus my opinion is probably wrong, but that doesn’t really change the fact that I personally don’t find the evidence convincing.

        • Mark

          “My opinion is that if there existed an historical Jesus, the evidence in our possession does not allow us to say anything with a satisfactory degree of certainty.”

          Not even that he was killed by the Romans? That he was a Jew? That his name was ‘Jesus’? That he was male? That he had followers of some sort? That some sort of messianic expectations were attached to him by at least some of his followers?

          It’s a good question how far the material in any of the so-called Gospels is needed to explain the existence of … e.g. those Gospels, for example. All sorts of positions are reputable among historically minded people. But the above facts are certainly needed to explain the existence of the Gospels. Nonsense needs to be explained just as much sense does. Jewish messianic movements need Jews and charismatic figures and so on.

          “c) I don’t have a significant emotional [interest] in the subject.”

          Mythicism is like the view that all living things arose from evolution – except human beings: /they/ came from a special divine intervention. Mythicism is an attempt to violate the laws of history to get a particular person out of the picture. No one adopts such theories without a significant emotional interest.

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

            If there was a historical Jesus, I think that it’s a pretty safe bet that he was a Jewish male. That the person who came to be viewed as the savior was actually named “Savior” doesn’t seem like one to me. Since our earliest source doesn’t say anything about him having followers, it is hard for me to see that as being beyond question. Given that there are claims that people saw him alive after he was supposed to have been killed by the Romans, I think that there is probably room for uncertainty there as well.

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

            And who precisely suggests that the person viewed as the savior was named “Savior”? Or are you referring to the fact that most Jewish names, like most names, had meanings? Should I be skeptical that you are really called Vincent, and assume that it just symbolizes your desire to be victorious in these debates?

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

            You shouldn’t assume anything. The question is whether it’s a safe bet that my name is really Vincent. It happens to be, but I don’t think the mere fact that I use that name to identify myself in blog comments would make anyone want to risk any money on it.

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

            But your argument is not that Jesus’ name is provided in a blog comment. It is that the symbolism of the name, which was a common name and a common symbolism across names, makes it unlikely that he actually was named that.

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

            That is most certainly not my argument, and the the reason “I can’t have certainty” merits saying is that you think that it is.

            I can’t say that it is unlikely that he was named that because it was a common name. On the other hand, neither do I think I can say that it is unlikely that someone like Paul first referred to him as “Jesus” in a titular or descriptive sense just as he was referred to as “Christ.” I think either explanation plausible. There may be some persuasive argument why one is more likely than the other, but I suspect that they both need to be acknowledged as reasonable possibilities.

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

            Joshua was not a title. It was a name.

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

            Did I say it was a title?

            The Bible recounts a number of instances where someone received a new name that was not a title, but could be considered titular in a sense, e.g., Abram–Abraham; Sarai–Sarah; Jacob–Israel; Simon–Peter.

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

            Are you saying that you have evidence that Jesus changed his name?

            Are you saying that people who change their name call their own historicity into question?

            You wrote:

            On the other hand, neither do I think I can say that it is unlikely that someone like Paul first referred to him as “Jesus” in a titular or descriptive sense just as he was referred to as “Christ.”

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

            No. I am not saying either of those things, and I don’t know why you would think I was.

          • Grimlock

            Not even that he was killed by the Romans? That he was a Jew? That his name was ‘Jesus’? That he was male? That he had followers of some sort? That some sort of messianic expectations were attached to him by at least some of his followers?

            Fair questions. If I showed you a male jew named Jesus who was executed by the Romans, would you then recognize him and go “Oh! That’s Jesus from the Bible!”?

            It’s a good question how far the material in any of the so-called Gospels is needed to explain the existence of … e.g. those Gospels, for example. All sorts of positions are reputable among historically minded people. But the above facts are certainly needed to explain the existence of the Gospels. Nonsense needs to be explained just as much sense does. Jewish messianic movements need Jews and charismatic figures and so on.

            The emphazised part is very quotable!

            I see what you mean. However, I don’t see how those above points are needed (necessary?) to explain the mere existence of the Gospels. Would you mind elaborating?

            Mythicism is like the view that all living things arose from evolution – except human beings: /they/ came from a special divine intervention. Mythicism is an attempt to violate the laws of history to get a particular person out of the picture. No one adopts such theories without a significant emotional interest.

            While it’s been a while (my apologies for the late answer – I have no excuse), I think the word my head was thinking was “investment”, or some such. Oh well – I typo’d anyhow.

            I’m not sure what I can say to convince you that I don’t have a significant emotional investment/interest in whether the Gospel stories have a recognizable historical core. Would it help if I repeated what I said above about not knowing all that much about this subject to begin with (i.e. given that I’m wrong, my position might just be due to ignorance), and that I live in largely secular country (Norway), where religion is mostly just a vague background noise?

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

          The Damascus Road story comes from Acts, and is not something that Paul himself says. This is a common problem with mythicism. Instead of evaluating early and later sources using the methods of historical investigation, they pick and choose to put together a scenario that seems plausible to them, regardless whether details are early or late, and likely or unlikely to be historical.

          The fact that Paul persecuted the movement that would later come to be called Christianity suggests that he had some knowledge about its beliefs and practices, even if they may have been partial and incorrect in some respects. And his points of agreement with other Christians, with whom he disagreed about the basis for inclusion of Gentiles in the community, are best explained in terms of mundane methods of communication. Visions only lead people to the same conclusions if one is willing to posit the miraculous, and secular historical study does not and cannot do that.

          I’m curious what mainstream historians and scholars you’ve read on this topic, and have found unconvincing.

          • Grimlock

            My apologies for the horribly late response.

            First of all, I had always taken it for granted that the story about the Damascus Road came from Paul himself. I guess I was wrong about that, and I’ll have to think about how that impacts my view (which it certainly should, to some extent).

            Your paragraph about Paul persecuting proto-Christianity and such seems perfectly reasonable to me. And I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone claiming that there were not a lot of communication between early Christians before the Gospels were written, nor that Paul did not receive information about Christianity (and Christ) from other humans.

            As I mentioned above, I’m by all means an amateur. Embarrassingly enough I’ve started on both Ehrman and Casey’s books arguing against Mythicism on a popular science level. I, uh, didn’t finish either. I got bored, partly due to what I felt was a rather annoyingly testy tone in both books. On the other hand, I started on Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and got bored of that one as well. As a side note, I might mention that the three bloggers writing about the New Testament that I read on a regular basis are Ehrman, Matthew Ferguson, and Keith Reich, neither of whom are mythicists.

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

            No need to apologize – just yesterday I finally responded to some comments that it took me MUCH longer to respond to… :-)

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

      I think that Paul wants his readers to believe that everything came to him by revelation. I suspect that he had some visions, but I also suspect that he attributed to revelation some things he was told and some things that he came up with himself. I wouldn’t consider it deceit, however, as I don’t doubt that Paul could have convinced himself that he did get everything straight from God.

      I think Paul’s claim makes it very difficult to identify which things he was told, which things he saw in visions, and which things he made up. The big problem I see is that there isn’t much that had to have an outside source. If Paul believed that the visionary risen Christ had once been a man, no one would have needed to tell him that the man had been born of a woman. If he believed that the visionary being was the promised messiah, no one would need to tell him that the man had been born under the law from the line of David. The only thing I can see in Paul that necessarily must have had a human source is that others had visions before he did.

      I feel that I am forced to treat Paul as the founder of Christianity for all practical purposes simply because I don’t see any way to trace anything in Paul further back. I can’t have any certainty which things, if any, went back to Paul’s predecessors, much less to an earthly Jesus.

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

        I would be interested to know why you think what you think, and I am still trying to figure out why you think “I can’t have certainty” is something that even merits saying when it comes to the probabilistic conclusions of historical inquiry, and why you consider it appropriate to be dogmatically agnostic even when one conclusion has good evidence in its favor and the major alternative has only weak speculation to offer.

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

          Given the propensity of New Testament scholars to make claims to being “almost certain” or certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” about matters where the evidence is problematic, I suspect that “we cannot be certain” needs to be expressed more frequently rather than less.

          When I say that I cannot be certain which things Paul saw in visions, which he was told, and which he came up with on his own, I mean that I do not see any persuasive argument for assigning a meaningfully higher probability to one possibility than another.

          I am not dogmatically agnostic; I am provisionally agnostic. I am provisionally agnostic because the evidence isn’t good; it’s extremely problematic, mostly because we have so few pieces of the puzzle. Even if I were convinced that those few pieces only pointed in one direction, that would not obviate the uncertainty inherent in having so few pieces. Nor is the uncertainty obviated by virtue of the number of scholars who comb over those few pieces or the number of times they do so.

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

            When someone refuses to accept the arguments which persuade historians and scholars to uniformly draw certain conclusions, I’m not sure what else one can call it other than dogmatic.

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

            If the arguments are those which Ehrman identified as being the ones that persuade scholars “beyond a reasonable doubt,” I would call it reasonable skepticism.

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

            No, I was not referring to scaled-down presentations of this academic field for a general audience.

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

            Are there a different set of arguments that scholars use when conversing among themselves? Where might I find those?

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

            In the scholarly literature.

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

            Could you cite me a couple? Ehrman couldn’t seem to find them when he wrote his book.

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

            Do you want studies that relate to any particular pieces of evidence? Or do you want studies that work through a wide array of details. For the former, the obvious place to look is in academic monograph series. For the latter, works like John P. Meier’s series A Marginal Jew, or Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz’ The Historical Jesus, are obvious places for the less well acquainted to begin to become familiar with the relevant arguments. But even then, you still want to move on eventually to monograph-length treatments of specific pieces of evidence.

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

            I want studies that lay out the kind of basic case for historicity that Ehrman tried to lay out in Did Jesus Exist?

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

            The historicity of which detail? Or are you actually looking for something that is to historical Jesus studies what a popular audience book by Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins is to evolution? The case for large-scale conclusions is always based on detailed work on specific pieces of evidence. Unfortunately the result tends to be that denialists read the study of specific chromosomes and fossils, or details in the accounts about Jesus, and say that one detail does’t prove the theory as a whole. Then they read the summary of the field and complain that it does not provide enough detail to be persuasive. And so I am trying to figure out what you are looking for, and whether it is more of the same sort of thing I have encountered in the past from those who reject the conclusions of this or that field of academic study.

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

            I am looking for whatever arguments it is that you are accusing me of refusing to accept. I am looking for the argument that puts the details together to establish that large scale conclusion which is uniformly drawn by scholars.

            Sometimes what happens is that scholars in a field assume a large scale conclusion as a premise without ever satisfactorily establishing it. Economists do lots of detail work that invokes the efficient market hypothesis, but they cannot prove it. Without it though, they would probably have to admit that they don’t know nearly as much as they would like us to think they know.

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

            You can start with the very obvious – Hengel on the crucifixion, Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah on the narratives both as stories and from the perspective of history, and Rivkin’s What Crucified Jesus? on the political context that makes sense of the events as historians reconstruct them based on the Gospels. There are many useful shorter studies in Bammel and Moule, Jesus and the Politics of his Day. Those are a few of the major classic studies which anyone wanting to have a well-informed discussion about the crucifixion ought to have read.