Editor’s comment: This is the 7th part in Dr. Frank Zindler’s excellent series about the lack of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus as a real person. Please seek out the previous episodes of this compelling and intriguing series here on this blog.
Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus, part 7: Paradigm Shifts and the Parable of the Cave
Frank Zindler’s blog dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.
Ever since the publication in 1962 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by the philosopher and historian Thomas S. Kuhn, science has never been the same. Indeed, Kuhn’s notion of “paradigm shifts”—the notion that practicing scientists operate in an unconscious mental framework (paradigm) that limits inquiry even while guiding their inquiries into nature—has been extended into other scholarly disciplines as well. Such extension into fields outside the hard sciences has been made possible by the realization that a paradigm is nothing more than the “common sense” with which all specialists view and interpret the raw data of their specialties.
Just as it once was “common sense” to act as though the sun really moved from east to west, so too it has been common sense for scholars studying the origins of Christianity to assume that that religion began at a specific place and time, and that that singularity in space and time can be identified as a man known as Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, this essay will deal with the extension of the paradigm-shift concept into the field of historiography as it has related to the hitherto Procrustean study of Christian origins.
But first, a digression.
For many years now, I have been addicted to the many wonderful “Great Courses” produced by The Teaching Company. These are all taught by master professors from numerous universities and cover every subject imaginable—all the arts and sciences, humanities, economics, business, mathematics, and even a fascinating course in spoken Latin! Over the years I have purchased over two hundred of these courses, both in audio format that I can listen to while otherwise wasting time traveling in my car and in video format that I can view on my laptop, iPad, or DVD player. Alas, I have bought more courses than I have had time to hear or view. (I think I’ve actually gone through about 125 of the courses to date) It has been my good fortune to become a personal friend of one of these professors, Prof. David Brakke of The Ohio State University. Brakke is a world authority on the ancient religious movement (a damnable heresy, according to Orthodox tradition) known as Gnosticism. I have had the unimaginably good further fortune to be able to interview Prof. Brakke on my YouTube channel “Through Atheist Eyes With Frank Zindler“.
(Author’s Note: This is the link to the channel itself. To find the interviews with Prof. Brakke you will need to pull down the VIDEOS menu to see all the 50-plus programs I’ve produced with the aid of my talented co-producer Danny Davis.)
About an hour ago, I returned home in my car from an errand. As usual, I was listening to an audio course. This one is about ancient Greek literature and history. For the umpteenth time in my life since high school, I was listening to a discussion of Plato’s dialogue The Republic, and the lecturer was dilating on “The Parable of the Cave.” The parable describes the condition of prisoners chained in the depths of a cave. Their shackles prevent them from ever turning their heads or bodies to see what lies behind them. They are forced perpetually to stare forward at the wall of the cave, onto which are being projected moving shadows. Unbeknownst to the prisoners, far behind them is a light-producing fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there are puppets being operated by puppet-masters (more of them anon), and the puppets are casting the shadows being seen on the wall by the prisoners. The prisoners have no idea of the reality that lies behind them. Understandably, they mistake shadows for reality. It is only “common sense” that the world is two-dimensional and colored only in shades of gray. In the parable, it is painful for the prisoners, after they have been freed from their shackles, to view the reality of the outside world: bright sunlight hurts the eyes. Reality is uncomfortable, at least at first.
It occurred to me, as I was listening to the lecture, that the prisoners were enduring the pain of a paradigm shift! Indeed, the “common sense” of their prison environment was being shattered by the reality of an outside world—a new framework—in which they now were stumbling about in order to restore balance to their lives.
It further occurred to me that the Parable of the Cave could shed light (pun intended) upon the paradigm shift in which I myself have been a participant since the 1980s: the revolution now enjoined in historiography and “Historical Jesus” studies—a revolution wherein I and many other scholars seek to exchange the “common-sense” notion that Christianity began with an historical Jesus of Nazareth for a new, more realistic, common-sense paradigm. According to our “Mythicist” view, Christianity began not with an historical, single person, but rather it “began” in the way that ancient Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, and Indian religions coalesced out of the misty past. These religions—at least the ones for which we have evidence sufficient to judge—can be seen to have evolved through time as different threads of mythic and cultic tradition were entwined to form religious and cultural braids-of-the-moment. As certain threads split, branched off, or broke, and as new threads were added to the plectic texture, those religions were continuously changing. At no single place or time had those religions begun; many of the threads in their braids of traditions trace backward into the fog of prehistory.
In the Foreword to Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? I wrote:
“The struggle here engaged is not just another scholarly quarrel. It is a contest between scholars who see the world through the lens of science and those who cannot yet cut themselves free from the anchors of religious and traditional authority… an old scholarly paradigm is giving way to one that is new and not yet fully formed.”
To return to the audio course that triggered the composition of this essay, I was both amused and challenged by a question posed by the lecturer as a homework exercise for students to work out: “In ‘The Parable of the Cave,’ who are the puppet masters?” It seems clear enough to me that the puppet masters are those who profit from the “common sense” of the status quo, and I am reminded of the famous quotation from Nicolò Macchiavelli (1469–1527):
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order.”
The Copernican Revolution in astronomy was opposed—some times with lethal force—by those whose fortunes and power required the earth-centered “common sense” of the Christian scriptures. The Darwinian Revolution is still being opposed by those whose aggregate fortune (probably totaling in the billions of dollars) still depend upon a biblical scientific framework—a system so out of date that it probably predates all but the very first scientific revolution! Indeed, probably the only principle of that Neolithic “common sense” that has survived the various scientific revolutions is the truism that flint knives (needed for circumcision, you remember) don’t float on water.
The paradigm shift in Jesus studies for which I labor and contend is not the first such revolution in which I have taken an active role. Back in the 1960s, as I was completing a Masters in Geology, I found myself in a course in tectonics. The course was being taught by a professor who did not agree with me that South America and Africa had once been conjoined.
I argued not only on the basis of paleontological evidence, but also from the goodness of fit that I had established way back in eighth grade. Noticing the apparent complementarity of the continental outlines on an earth globe, I proceeded to moisten tissue paper and I placed it over South America and Africa. When the paper had dried, I traced with pencil the continental outlines on the tissue paper. Then I removed the paper from the globe and cut out the continents. By sliding the resulting convex pieces of tissue-papier-mâché over the globe, I could see that the two continents fit together quite well indeed.
Of course, my tectonics professor was not impressed at all by an exercise done by a twelve-year-old child! But then, before the course ended, the famous issue of Science appeared, the issue with the cover showing the crucial zebra-striped map of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, revealing a series of reversals of the earth’s magnetic field and demonstrating the existence of sea-floor spreading. That was the mechanism needed to move continents! In a trice, what I was calling “Continental Drift” became “Plate Tectonics.” Even so, it took several years before my professor became a “drifter.”
But he did. A paradigm had shifted, and geological science has experienced incredible progress as a result—progress that has had enormous value not only in economic geology but in such socially significant areas as earthquake prediction.
It is my expectation that the Mythicist revolution in Historical Jesus studies will be of even greater benefit to humanity than the revolution in geology. Christianity will have lost its raison d’être. People will be able to use their erstwhile tithes to pay for more important needs. No longer will a bloated army of clerical drones be able to sap the strength of a sane society. Televangelists, priests, and preachers will be forced to seek productive employment; if they won’t work, they won’t eat.
Those clergymen and women who presently are working and striving to help humanity—and there are many of them—will be both a welcome and crucial part of a new society. Their dignity can only increase when they no longer must feel shame for helping their fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth without casuistic theological justification, but rather out of genuine humanistic and humanitarian motivation. We must never forget, however, that every pope, every preacher—indeed, every televangelist—is a potential Atheist, a potential ally in the fight for reason.
One closing thought to ponder: What if the present pope—the guy who named himself after me—didn’t have to oppose birth control and abortion for theological reasons? What if he could take the lead in combatting the runaway population growth that is fueling not only global warming but underlying the increasingly violent clash of cultures now threatening the survival of Homo sapiens? Wouldn’t that be something?!
(Photo Credit: James Shepard, https://www.flickr.com/photos/biblevector/5264271568/)