June 28, 2012

Commenter Admiral Mattbar shared a link to a site, “The Beatles Never Existed.” I got a glimpse of it, but the next time I tried to reload it, it was as though it was not there. I began to wonder if perhaps I should become a “The Beatles Never Existed” web site mythicist… But then there it was again.


The argument on the web site seems as though it could have been inspired by – or an intentional parody of – the line of argument used by some mythicists. It is not as though there was no one at the core of the mythos. It is just that there were many people who played the roles, or parts of them, and thus contributed to a legend about four figures, or one, when in fact there were more than that.

Loren Rosson chimed in to declare Thom Stark the winner in his recent debates with Richard Carrier. He also offers a helpful assessment of the nature and usefulness of the criterion of embarrassment.

Tom Verenna shared the following image, commenting that it is 80% wrong, adding:

This image represents precisely the sort of misinformation and false arguments commonly made within the mythicist community.  This is why serious scholars don’t take you seriously.  This is why you are like creationists–because you continue to fabricate data to support your flawed conclusions.

If you don’t know what’s wrong with it, feel free to ask – or better yet, sharpen your critical thinking skills by fact-checking its claims. Which of them are supported by the relevant primary sources? Which are found widely online but, no matter how hard you try, the web pages in question never seem to lead you to primary sources?

R. Joseph Hoffmann offers a wonderfully satirical commentary on the activity of mythicist apologist Kenneth Humphries.

And finally, Ricky Carvel wrestles with the fact that, even for those who accept that a historical figure of Jesus is more likely, separating history from myth with certainty is impossible much of the time.

August 13, 2011

Neil Godfrey posted on this topic over at Vridar, and it seems that the post may go some way towards explaining the puzzling tension between his affirmations of mainstream historical scholarship on the one hand, and his positive view of mythicism on the other.

Godfrey writes:

But what if historians (whose careers are in history faculties that have nothing to do with biblical studies) who write about the Roman empire mention Jesus as the founder of the Christian religion. Do they make such a statement on the basis of their independent or even collective scholarly research into whether Jesus really did exist or not? I think we can be confident in answering, No. I think we can further say that, if really pushed, many would say that for the purposes of what they wrote, they would not care if he existed or not. What they are addressing is not the historicity of Jesus, but the historical fact that Christianity had its beginnings in the first century in the Eastern part of the empire. What they are addressing is the fact of the appeal and reasons for the spread of Christianity.

He then goes on to say that even a historian like Michael Grant, who took a closer look, merely relied on the Gospels and on Biblical scholarship.

I find this most remarkable, and utterly implausible. In essence, Godfrey is either suggesting that those historians who have mentioned Jesus as a historical figure were guilty of dereliction of duty with respect to their role as historians, or they did not really mean what they wrote.

But to suggest that historians who are concerned professionally with reconstructing the past either didn’t care whether Jesus actually existed, or were unable to see that Biblical scholars were not engaging in appropriate historical research, is not just beyond belief. It is an insult to historians, which I hope some may actually respond to, if they happen to notice that this internet crusader has paid them this disrespect.

It also leads to the seemingly self-contradictory stance that it is wrong to rely on authorities and experts, while suggesting that all historians of ancient Rome or ancient Judaism who mention Jesus have done just that.

Godfrey continues to use the term “Biblical historian,” which doesn’t seem to actually mean anything, other than being an expression of his belief that there are such creatures, who supposedly do not do the sort of critical history that other historians do. But obviously his attribution to mainstream historians who mention Jesus of a failure to adequately check on the state of our knowledge calls the consistency of such a view into question.

I don’t know how many historians read this blog, but I will encourage any who do, and anyone who knows a professional historian who can spare to waste a few minutes of their time that could be better spent doing something else, to chime in on this, and tell Neil Godfrey that they are neither so incompetent nor so uncritical that they would be unable to recognize were it true that “Biblical historians” (presumably meaning Biblical scholars working on historical questions?) don’t do history the way they do.

Biblical scholars regularly interact with historians of the Ancient Near East, of the Greco-Roman period, and of ancient Judaism. We present at the same conferences and participate in seminars together. We contribute to multi-author academic books together. We have conversations at our universities. And we read one another’s books out of interest from time to time, to say nothing of when we read them for the purpose of our own research.

Neil Godfrey is wrong on his main claim. But he does have a point when he writes the following:

But it is ONLY in the field of historical Jesus studies, as far as I am aware, that biblical historians cannot agree on a substantive body of historical facts about the person they are studying, and must accordingly resort to criteriology in order to construct “probabilities” of what may be factual — with all such reconstructions open to debate. The only detail on which I believe all HJ scholars agree is that Jesus was crucified. I know of no other undisputed “fact” of his life.

The truth is that, precisely because there are so many people who care so much about what Jesus said and did, there has indeed been an attempt to not merely reconstruct the broad strokes or describe what our sources say, but to atomistically sift through each saying and even every word in a hope of achieving certainty.

This was, nevertheless, part of a broader positivistic approach to history which prevailed in the field of history more generally, believing that history could be objective and scientific, and by developing and refining the right tools, it could achieve certainty.

And so it is certainly true that the combination of mainstream historical trends and the distinctive level and kind of interest that many people bring to the figure of Jesus has produced some anomalies. But accepting him as likely to be historical when he was more likely invented is not one of them.

In concluding this post, let me try once more to see if I can explain what I meant when I said recently that there is room for doubt about the existence of the historical Jesus, even while I believe it is unreasonable to conclude that he was thought of in the way some mythicists claim, as a purely celestial entity or a fabrication from earlier Scripture. Godfrey mentions toward the end of his post the figures of Hillel and Socrates. Both have had their historicity challenged on occasion, and both are treated as likely to be historical figures by modern historians, who would acknowledge that apart from perhaps a few principal ideas, we cannot be certain about the details of what they said. They thus provide relatively close analogies to the figure of Jesus. On the one hand, one has to acknowledge that there is room for doubt, that figures like this are not accompanied by inscriptions and physical evidence of a sort that emperors leave behind. Yet this does not mean that it becomes more probable that they were invented, or were originally thought of as mythical celestial entities and later historicized, simply because the historical evidence available, and the tools of historical study, cannot deliver certainty.

And so it is certainly true that work on the historical Jesus has featured problematic claims and anomalous methods. Those developments have been challenged, not in the first instance by internet crusaders, but from with the field itself, and the conversations about method and conclusions have consistently been part of a broader conversation encompassing the rest of the discipline of history. Historical study itself has changed significantly over the last century, in many different ways.

None of this changes the fact that the most anomalous development in connection with the quest for the historical Jesus is still mythicism. In the realm of the study of ancient Judaism, if someone proceeds under the assumption that Hillel likely existed, he is not insulted by internet critics for being a fool. If a historian tries to develop tools and criteria to try to make the investigation of sources more rigorous, even if the attempt is unsuccessful, the effort is likely to be appreciated rather than mocked, since seeking to refine old tools and develop new ones is a regular scholarly undertaking, and scholarship is all about floating thousands of new suggestions in the knowledge that only a few will prove worth the test of time. And no one in their right mind would claim to be able to know that what really happened is that Hillel was an angelic teacher who was only later historicized and turned into a human rabbi.

If it were not for the level of interest in Jesus, both love and hatred, historians would be able to say quite a bit about him without much difficulty. There would be no real doubt that he thought himself to be the Messiah, and believed that the kingdom of God would dawn in the near future, and would feature his disciples sitting on thrones judging the tribes of Israel. There would be no doubt that he was wrong about this. There would be no doubt that he was crucified by the Romans, the ones normally responsible when someone was crucified in Jerusalem in those days. Much would be uncertain, but the gist would be uncontroversial. But precisely because being dispassionate and objective about Jesus is so challenging, scholars have tried to find ways of bringing more objectivity to the investigation. If they have been unsuccessful, that does not change the fact that there are some things about which historians across the board feel confident. And rightly so.

May 11, 2011

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man - The Case for a Mythical JesusChapter 4 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man focuses on the subject of disciples and apostles. Doherty begins by asserting that “In the rough and tumble world of religious proselytizing, the appeal to Jesus’ own words and actions, the urge to claim a direct link back to Jesus himself in order to confer authority and reliability on each apostle’s preaching of the Christ, would have been an inevitable and indispensable mark of the early missionary movement. There would also have been an appeal to the apostles who had been chosen by Jesus and heard the words he spoke” (p.41). Doherty then proceeds to note that “such a picture is completely missing in all the non-Gospel evidence of almost the first hundred years.”

Several points are perhaps worth noting from the outset. First, the only early Christian letters we can attribute to named authors with any degree of certainty are Paul’s authentic ones, and reasons why Paul would not appeal to the authority of other apostles with whom he was sometimes in competition, and with whom he could not compete in terms of a comparable direct connection to Jesus, can be found in Paul’s own letters. Once again, we have an attempt to find a more complicated solution when a straightforward one is available.

Second, it is worth noting that the tendency to date the Gospels relatively late in the first century is an expression of caution on the part of scholars, not an indication that we are certain that they are not earlier. James Crossley has made the case for dating the Gospel of Mark to a time when the Caligula crisis was still ongoing, and so around 40 CE. Whatever one makes of his arguments, in the present context what is important is that it is not impossible that Mark’s Gospel dates from a time before Paul wrote, while the whole mythicist scenario Doherty requires a date for the Gospels that is significantly later. We cannot be certain that the earliest Gospel is as early as Crossley suggests, but we cannot be certain that it is late enough for Doherty’s hypothesis to work either.

Doherty then goes on to point out that the term “disciple” is not used in the epistles. This is true – although it is perhaps worth noting that the verb from the same root is used, e.g. in Ephesians 4:20. And another term for discipleship, namely following, is used in the way that we would expect if Jesus was viewed as a human being – for instance, in 1 Corinthians 1:12, 1 Corinthians 11:1, and 1 Peter 2:21.

Doherty suggests that Paul’s claim to have seen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1), offered as a defense of his authority viz-a-viz the other apostles, requires us to conclude that other apostles had only seen Jesus in the same way that Paul had – as a vision (p.42). It is not at all obvious why this must be the case, and Doherty seems at times to expect Paul to offer an impartial assessment of his own qualifications, rather than a polemical one that emphasizes what was in his favor and downplays or omits what could be counted against him.

Doherty discusses the Didache (p.44), which reflects a period/context in which itinerant prophets were still active. He seems to be treating prophets as though they should be links in a chain to apostolic authority, which is puzzling.

Next, Doherty seems to attribute to Paul an actual miraculous revelation. He notes that Paul claims to have received his Gospel by divine revelation (Galatians 1:11-12), and takes this to be the Gospel which Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. That Gospel, Paul emphasizes, was the same one that other apostles preached (1 Cor. 15:9-11). And so if Paul had the same exact Gospel as them, without learning it from them, would that not suggest that Paul did indeed receive a divine revelation? However, since I am approaching this using the methods of history, which is skeptical of claims to have received revelation, I am forced to consider a more mundane explanation, namely that Paul did indeed know things via human contacts, and his claim to not depend on any human being is apologetics rather than factual reporting. Indeed, he may well have persecuted the Christian movement because he already had some information about what it was proclaiming. If Doherty wishes to posit miracles, that is his business, but it will be yet another hurdle that will prevent his treatment being taken seriously by historians and mainstream scholars.

In the process of discussing Paul’s summary of the Gospel, Doherty is forced to say something about Paul’s reference to Jesus’ burial (pp.46-47). He mentions baptism, he mentions Osiris, but offers no account of what the words might actually mean in reference to events that supposedly occur in the celestial realm. Instead, we are told that “Paul could conceive of a burial of Christ to complement the burial of the believer (both being a symbolic mystical idea rather than a literal one), each before ascending to new life” (p.47). Even if this statement made sense (which I’m not persuaded it does), one gets the impression that Doherty feels that saying “it is symbolic” is an adequate way of dealing with evidence that seems to undermine his interpretation.

On pp.48-49, Doherty argues that Paul’s “tradition” about the Lord’s Supper which he handed on to the Corinthians was something he received by divine revelation and referred to a supernatural/celestial rather than a historical event. It supposedly then gets from him to Mark and from Mark to Matthew and Luke. Doherty’s remark is telling: “If Paul knows of this ‘Supper’ not through human reportage but by personal revelation, this removes the whole scene from any necessity of having taken place in history. It can be assigned to the realm of myth, where similar scenes in the mystery cults were located” (p.49). Doherty has already emphasized that in many instances a historical Jesus is read into texts in the epistles rather than found there. It is not clear to me that Doherty in any way shows that reading a purely mythical and purely celestial Christ into the epistles does not involve the same process. If one draws the conclusion that a historical Jesus likely existed and that Paul had reason to believe this was the case, then one interprets the epistles as a whole in light of this. If one draws a different conclusion, one interprets the epistles as a whole in light of those different premises. But this issue clearly should not be decided on the basis of whether it is possible to read texts both ways. The existence of mainstream scholarship and of mythicism indicates that there are people who find themselves able to read passages through both lenses and find them to make sense. The only way to avoid a deadlock is to actually take seriously those passages that Doherty dismisses with hand-waving and references to symbolism: mentions of birth, Davidic descent. taking bread, bleeding, dying, and being buried. It is certainly the case that puzzles remain in the early Christian literature even when one does so. But if anyone thinks that Doherty’s view is not creating puzzles of its own, and leaving some evidence in the epistles unsatisfactorily accounted for, then they haven’t been paying close attention.

The chapter ends with a discussion of Paul’s statement in Romans 10:14, which is taken to indicate that Jews required a preacher to tell them the good news. I have encountered this argument before from mythicists. Even apart from the fact that all Jews did not live in places where they might have encountered Jesus during his public activity, Doherty seems to miss entirely that a key element of the Gospel which Paul proclaimed was the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And as Acts also suggests, Christians seem to have believed that it was necessary to proclaim that message to Jews, even in places where Jesus himself had at some point been present. And so this is a very poor and thoroughly unpersuasive argument, although I fully expect that as I keep reading, I may encounter worse.

April 9, 2011

Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the GospelsAs promised, I’m sharing some thoughts I prepared for the review panel at the 2011 Stone Campbell Journal Conference. The book being reviewed was Jesus Among Friends and Enemies, forthcoming from Baker. Multi-author books are particularly hard to review, and so I will focus here, as I did at the conference, on the final chapter which seeks to point in new directions regarding historical methodology. And here, unlike at the conference, I won’t run out of time, and so some of the thoughts I share here go beyond things I actually mentioned in my panel presentation.

Chapter 12 is an epilogue by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado. It focuses on how the narrative portraits of Jesus in the Gospels relate to the historical Jesus – here meaning Jesus as he really was, not merely historians’ reconstructions. But the key aspect of the quest for the historical Jesus, as outlined here, is skepticism about the extent to which the Jesus of the Gospels is Jesus as he really was (pp. 442-443).
This is, in one sense, the climax of the book, and a major focus is an exploration of dissatisfaction with the criteria of authenticity used in historical Jesus studies (pp.450-451). For instance, one major objection to the criterion of multiple attestation is uncertainty about which sources are independent (p.452).

I found the criticisms of the criteria of authenticity less than powerful or persuasive. The objection that the criterion of dissimilarity results in a historically absurd Jesus results from the attempt to misuse the criterion for negative rather than positive ends: it seems to have a legitimate use in identifying a small number of sayings the authenticity of which is very highly probable – but this should not lead either to those sayings being regarded as typical or central importance; nor should the criterion itself become a tool by which to make a case that Jesus was completely discontinuous from both his Jewish context and his later followers, as numerous scholars have emphasized. The suggestion that it requires exhaustive knowledge of what went before and what came after likewise seems at best a statement that is true of all matters of history: to know with complete certainty, we need comprehensive information. And since a major assumption of the critique is that the modern quest for certainty and for authenticity was and is misguided, there is something ironic about using our inability to be certain to critique a methodological principle.

If one is seeking certainty in the real world of partial historical evidence, then one seeks in vain (as Tony Le Donne has emphasized in his recent book Historical Jesus). But the historian is charged with the task of making as much sense as possible of the piecemeal evidence we have, and not merely wishing idly that we had more, or indeed that we had it all. And Le Donne’s book which I just mentioned illustrates well that one can integrate the new insights of postmodernism, psychology of memory and other relevant perspectives, without abandoning the tools that historians have developed and used up until now.

The question asked on p.456, about why discontinuity or continuity should matter in an evaluation of authenticity, likewise has an answer. It should not be treated as obvious that anything that coheres with Christian belief was invented. But as in a criminal investigation, there is motive. All crime dramas feature multiple people with motives, and except in Murder on the Orient Express, they are not all guilty. Motive raises suspicion. In the absence of other considerations, material that supported Christian aims and beliefs are things about which we will have a lesser degree of confidence that they were not invented, or perhaps we’ll even suspect that they most likely were invented. Dissimilar material removes the motive, and while removing motive doesn’t prove innocence, it certainly lessens the case for guilt. Historical study deals in probabilities, although they are human judgments about likelihood rather than some sort of logical calculus that is easily quantifiable as a percentage.

Mention of enemies is also relevant in connection with the criteria of authenticity. It is sometimes asked why Christians would preserve material at all which was either embarrassing or discontinuous with their emphases. In response, it bears saying that Christians did not write nor proclaim their message in a vacuum. Opponents would gladly have reminded them of things they would just as soon have forgotten. That is why the criterion of embarrassment carries some weight. The things it recalls are presumably ones well-known enough that they could not, at least within the lifetime of the first generation, be ignored. Others remembered, and reminded, and thus explanation rather than silence was the only route.

Drawing on Theissen and Winter, Keith and Hurtado argue that historical study should explain not that some material is authentic while other is not, but how the impact of Jesus led to both kinds of material being present in the tradition (p.460). “[T]he Gospels are not Jesus tradition to be chopped and discarded or retained, but rather Jesus tradition to be explained” (p.460). This doesn’t represent a rejection of criteria such as dissimilarity, but a shift in emphasis (pp.460-461).

The contrast between an older method, creating piles of inauthentic and authentic material, and a newer one that seeks to explain the whole tradition, sounds promising, but has the potential to be overplayed. Surely the older method did something of the latter, at least in the best examples of its practices. It explained some material as taking us back to a pre-Easter setting and some as created by the church to cope with some disappointments and instances of cognitive dissonance. And so for the “new approach” to seem genuinely new and genuinely better, it will have to offer not merely a slight difference of nuance, but a more persuasive historical explanation. And crucial to this is the recognition that not everything that reflects a response to Jesus incorporates memory. Some deliberately inverted what they remembered, or fabricated around its edges, either engaging in slander or magnifying the status and ability of Jesus beyond anything they witnessed, as their “memories” were shaped by ideological commitments and by their mutual polemic against one another.

The following quote from Dale Allison is offered on p.462: “Jesus is long gone, and we can never set our pale reconstructions beside the flesh-and-blood original. We should not deceive ourselves into dreaming that methodological sophistication will ever eventuate either in some sort of unimaginative scientific procedure or in academic concord. . . . Until we become literal time travelers, all attempts to find the historical Jesus will be steered by instinct and intuition. Appeals to shared criteria may, we can pray, assist us in being self-critical, but when all is said and done we look for the historical Jesus with our imaginations—and there too is where we find him, if we find him at all” (Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, p.7).

New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct. In this case, I think that Allison’s point represents New Testament study catching up with mainstream historical scholarship, and its awareness that writing history is a creative activity – constrained by available evidence, to be sure, but not for that reason something objective or purely scientific in character.

The quest for Jesus is arguably more controversial than any other matter that history investigates. A discussion of whether Socrates existed will never generate the number of blog posts that the question of Jesus’ existence is able to, and things that would simply be accepted as plausible or probable but not certain in other areas are, in the case of Jesus, questioned, cross-checked, second-guessed and doubted to an extent that goes beyond reasonable doubt. And so it doesn’t seem to me that the issues Allison and others raise are fatal for the historical Jesus enterprise, but are fatal for the misguided and futile quest for certainty that “fact fundamentalists” have brought with them into the discussion. When we recognize that our best guesses are still that, we will not have abandoned historical Jesus studies, but will have finally caught up to where mainstream historical study finds itself.

But the best guesses of the majority of scholars are not to be treated as mere hunches, and it is important to emphasize that the recognition of subjectivity must not be allowed to dissolve into a pandering to a popular form of postmodernism that suggests that because we all have presuppositions, and there is always uncertainty, anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s. The truth is that an expert’s best guess will always be far superior to that of someone not as profoundly familiar with the time period or sources in question. And when the experts fail to agree, a simple explanation is at hand – we do not have the information we need to exclude certain possibilities. But not having the evidence we need to attain consensus in one area doesn’t mean that we cannot reach consensus about others, however few in number they might be. That some things are genuinely uncertain needn’t mean that all are, or even that others are to the same extent. Each question must be answered in terms of the evidence available.

As Allison puts it, “After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even to accurate estimates of their probability” (The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, p.55). This is not an indictment against criteria, as though our reaching as much certainty as possible is misguided. It is a recognition that in the case of most questions and most evidence, we remain unsure. And a new method that sets aside criteria of authenticity will not necessarily thereby do a better job of depicting Jesus as he really was or of getting as close to him as possible.

What is important in Allison’s criticism is his suggestion that a certain subset of historical Jesus researchers – perhaps typified in particular by members of the Jesus Seminar – have expressed confidence that they can find nuggets of reliable material in Gospels which got the gist of Jesus wrong. And so perhaps the best conversation historians and scholars can now have is whether we can take the most useful of criteria and use them in conjunction with a serious consideration of how memory works and what it remembers best. How do we combine these tools – which are essentially an articulation of probabilities – with Allison’s emphasis on making gist paramount?

There is a danger that some of the newer approaches will fail to ask the critical questions of the text that have thus far defined historical Jesus study. Focusing on the text as a whole, as for instance Luke Timothy Johnson and N. T. Wright do, may usefully lead us to ask about the impact of Jesus across a broader spectrum of early Christianity. But if it leads to the treatment of details unique to one Gospel and which show strong signs of being later, apologetic developments – such as Matthew’s resurrected saints or guards at the tomb – as though a historian can accept this as material for a reconstruction of the historical Jesus, then we have ceased to do something that deserves to be called historical critical study at all, and are deceiving ourselves if we think otherwise.

As I was reflecting on this topic and reading the final pages of the book, I also had the opportunity to watch some of the BBC documentary series The Bible’s Buried Secrets (now viewable on YouTube). I was struck that even something as controversial as Israel’s polytheistic period and the existence of a divine consort seem to have left their mark on texts that sought to denounce such ideas and the worship associated with them. Is it really inconceivable that we might find traces of a Jesus who is at odds with the emphases of the Gospel authors nonetheless visible in spite of a deliberate attempt to reinterpret him? I am not suggesting that that is what happened; but if it were, it might nonetheless be possible to catch glimpses of him, although it will not be as easy as catching glimpses of Asherah, who can be known through archaeology and not textual sources alone.

In turning to the impact of a better understanding of memory on historical Jesus studies, paraphrasing the standpoint of Dunn, the authors write “criteria of authenticity are useless because one cannot strip the interpretation of the Gospels from pure history—the latter never existed in the first place” (p.467). While it is surely true that an attempt to find an uninterpreted Jesus amid the interpretation of the Gospel authors is implausible, it does not follow that criteria of authenticity are useless. What we seek to catch glimpses of are Jesus as he interpreted himself, and Jesus as his disciples interpreted him prior to the changed perspective resulting from Good Friday, and from whatever subsequent experiences and reflections persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand. It is not an uninterpreted but an “authentic” Jesus that should be sought, and the misuse of criteria or their poor application to the object of study need not necessarily count as evidence that the criteria themselves are useless.

I share many of the concerns and the desire to see a shift of emphasis in historical Jesus study. I am largely sympathetic to the program of Keith, Allison, Dunn, and many others. But I see a baby floating away in discarded bathwater, and I am troubled. [If you picture the baby that is floating away as baby Jesus, you will most likely find my argument here even more persuasive than you would otherwise]. To the extent that the classic criteria are simply an attempt to articulate our method and treatment of evidence, we ought to be asking whether the principles that there is talk of discarding are being used, refined, or discarded by historians more generally. If not, then it may be that historical Jesus studies is about to take a wrong turn, rather than be at the cutting edge.

One of the aims of the earliest moves towards questing for a historical Jesus was to get back beyond dogma and tradition to history. Even if it can be said that, ultimately, the impact of Jesus resulted in the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon, should we apply even to such a later period the statement that historians can or should do little more than “explain what type of person the historical Jesus must have been to generate such a memory” (p.470)? If we are not simply to provide a history of interpretation of Jesus, but a historical portrait of Jesus, then we still need a way of tracing developments and distinguishing later layers of interpretation from what lies beneath them.

The book Jesus Among Friends and Enemies places this new approach, it seems, among friends and enemies. At the very least, the diverse approaches of the various contributors to the relationship between narrative and history illustrates the confusion that already exists, and thus the extent of the task that lies before those who would bring innovation and fresh insight. But whatever one’s stance on the classic criteria, the point presented prominently in the book’s title and highlighted on the final pages also bears emphasizing. Whatever criteria we may use or not use, we cannot make sense of Jesus in a vacuum. “Triangulating” in relation to other figures with whom he seems to have interacted is a helpful method, and a crucial one, in seeking to locate and understand the historical figure of Jesus, as well as the figure of Jesus found in the Gospels and other early Christian literature.

These are just some of the thoughts I had after reading the volume, and for the most part they relate to just one chapter in the book. And so hopefully this will give a good indication of how stimulating I found this volume. Even though I have expressed some points of disagreement, I hope it will be clear that I think that this is a valuable and provocative book which, even though envisioned as a textbook, will stimulate discussions not only in classrooms but among scholars.

July 7, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Five ViewsThe next chapter of The Historical Jesus: Five Views is by Luke Timothy Johnson, and its main thrust is to offer a treatment of the Gospels as literature as a better way to approach the historical figure of Jesus. Johnson presents two opposing extremes, those who approach Jesus by faith through prayer and worship as the exalted Lord, and those who investigate Jesus “solely as a dead man of the past” (p.156) rather than as one living and present today. Mediating positions are referred to as “intellectually fuzzy” – among other things (p.156).

Nevertheless, historical study is important, and must treat Jesus “in precisely the same way as other human figures of the past…Historiography cannot be redefined because Jesus is its subject” (p.157) and can no more pronounce on his miracles or divinity than on similar claims made for other figures. Johnson advocates using “appropriate historiographical methods” (p.158) but rejects source criticism, which attempts to reconstruct earlier written documents and then gives these more weight than the literary sources in which they are embedded. Historical study can give some basic facts about Jesus, but it seems that the diverse portraits of Jesus in the Gospels cannot be either reconciled or circumvented to get at a unified reconstruction of what Jesus was really like. And so historical study, in Johnson’s view, is most useful as an aid to reading the Gospels “responsibly” (p.160).

In discussing the limits of history, Johnson emphasizes that “History is not simply ‘the past’ or ‘what happened in the past’ or a place that exists to which the historian has access. It is the result, rather, of a human process of critical analysis and creative imagination. Historians construct history rather than simply find it” (p.161). Historical study depends on sources, and so even at its best is dependent on what individuals in the past deemed worthy of recording, as well as what sources have survived for our use today (p.163).

Johnson then proceeds to offer a brief summary of how Jesus and his followers are depicted in the canonical Gospels. Once he has done so, he notes that a narrative account of someone’s life can get the individual’s character right even if it gets some particular facts and events wrong. And on this basis, Johnson emphasizes that the wide array of early Christian sources agree in presenting a Jesus who is characterized by self-sacrificing love (pp.174-176).

In conclusion, Johnson returns to an older distinction to summarize his stance: his interest is in the historic Christ of the Gospels and of the Christian faith, rather than a reconstructed  historical portrait of Jesus. And his final sentence strikes me with the irony with respect to his choice for its first word: “Historically, Christianity has never been renewed or reformed by a historical Jesus, but it has always been renewed and reformed by closer attention to the Jesus of the Gospels” (p.177).

Robert Price is the first respondent, and here his views seem even more bizarre than they did in his own chapter. He writes “I think it quite likely that Jesus is an offshoot of an ancient version of Yahve depicted along the lines of Baal, Osiris, Dionysius or Attis: a heavenly hero or king who won his divine throne by defeating a dragon who initially devoured him, but then yielded to the resurrected savior” (p.179). The evidence for such a claim? Obviously there is none. Price proceeds to then posit the earliest devotees of this cult having no connection with Judaism. The evidence for such a claim? Obviously there is none, and far worse for Price, our earliest source, Paul’s letters, indicate that the central figure of his religious system bore the Jewish name Jesus, was already referred to as the Christ/Messiah/Anointed One, and Paul was having to argue that Gentiles could be included in this Jewish Messianic movement. And so Price helpfully illustrates what mythicism is; it is what one can imagine the origins of Christianity to have been when one is totally unconcerned with evidence, and one’s only constraints are the limits of one’s own imagination.

 Crossan’s response challenges the rhetoric of Johnson’s stance, while Dunn’s response challenges Johnson on his dismissiveness, his rejection of source criticism, and his treatment of John as thought it were of equal historical value to the Synoptics. In contrast, Bock leans the other way, feeling that the divergences between the Gospels are even less than Johnson suggests. For Bock Jesus is to be known by faith, and the “living Jesus is just as real and as historical as anything humans can prove through corroborative means, as hard as that is to believe for many whose lives operate at a more material, naturalistic level” (p.193). And so Bock’s response already raises concerns that he may blur important distinctions and attempt to short-circuit or bypass  historical method by introducing debates about metaphysical naturalism vs. supernaturalism. But in the interest of fairness it seems appropriate to wait until Bock has had a chance to present his own substantive chapter before discussing his views.

It is hard to offer substantive criticisms of Johnson’s chapter, since it is less about how he views the historical Jesus than about why and how he opts for a historic, literary Christ instead. Given the uncertainties of historical study, I can understand Johnson’s choice. I would simply add that, to the extent that one is not making the effort to investigate Jesus as a historical figure, it would be inappropriate to talk as though the figure one is talking about is Jesus as he probably actually existed in the past. I think that in some Christian contexts, scholars opt for a literary approach because it allows them to speak about Jesus as he is depicted in the Gospels, with hearers in churches assuming that the narrative under discussion is “what really happened” while the speaker discusses a literary depiction that may or may not correspond to anything in history. But to the extent that Johnson honestly addresses the limitations of historical investigation, the nature of its methods and the uncertainty of its conclusions, he is to be commended. But the rigors of historical investigation, including attempts at source criticism, are worth the effort, even if they provide relatively little that is reasonably certain and highlight how much we do not know. Figuring out what is certain or reasonably certain, however little it may be, is important. And being aware of and honestly acknowledging what is uncertain can likewise be a significant accomplishment.

August 2, 2007

Anyone who has ever visited an atheist discussion forum will know that there are plenty of atheists and “freethinkers” who take it as a given that Jesus didn’t really exist, that he is a composite figure created from a patchwork of earlier mythology, and so on. If you ask a professional historian whether Jesus existed, however, you will never receive an answer other than “yes”.

Given that history is all about probabilities, how can historians be so certain? The answer lies in a simple fact that casts all serious doubt aside: the crucifixion. There was nothing that more automatically disqualified someone from consideration as God’s appointed savior than being tortured and executed by the foreign overlords who were ruling over his people and their land. It is simply unimaginable that someone would start with the idea of the Messiah and then, in attempting to invent one from scratch, would come up with the crucified Jesus.

This is not to say that we do not have serious uncertainties about what precisely Jesus said and did, or that we are not sure beyond reasonable doubt that he did not say and do certain things attributed to him in the Gospels, or that the possibility is not a real one that his earliest followers either miunderstood or deliberately miscontrued him in places. But it is to say that, in historical study, where certainty is all but impossible, this is a delightful instance where something is as certain as one could ever hope for. To deny Jesus’ existence would be to deny certainty about everything in the past.

Fundamentalist Christians are ready to assume that Jesus said and did everything the Gospels said he did (even, as Ned Flanders famously said on an episode of The Simpsons, “the stuff that contradicts the other stuff”). Atheist fundamentalists are happy to dismiss his existence altogether. The mainstream of serious historical investigation, as well as of faith, recognizes that our knowledge of the past cannot be obtained in such leaps. Each piece of evidence must be examined on its own merits, and whereas ‘picking and choosing’ what to believe from the Gospels on the basis of personal preference is questionable from most standpoints, recognizing that historians will inevitably be persuaded by the evidence for some things and against others is crucial to any attempt to treat the Gospels and other early Christian sources seriously from a historical standpoint.

March 28, 2022

If you are at all interested in astronomy you have undoubtedly come across reference to the possibility of a “Planet X” that lies beyond Pluto, a 10th planet (assuming one counts Pluto as has traditionally been the case). Attempts to spot a planet in our solar system beyond the orbit of Pluto have thus far been unsuccessful. One possible explanation for this is that there is no such planet. Yet the behavior of other planets, and even more so of smaller objects in the Kuiper Belt, suggests to some that it most likely is there. Our failure to see it is because it is so far and faint. The search continues.

The discussion of Q among New Testament scholars is not dissimilar. Q, as most readers undoubtedly know, is a hypothetical document that many New Testament scholars believe was used independently by Matthew and Luke, accounting for the material they share in common that is not derived from Mark. This too is a quest to detect an object we cannot see by observing the behavior of objects we can see. From the latter we can potentially deduce the influence of the former, if it is there. The challenge, to continue the astronomical analogy, is that Matthew and Luke exert such strong gravitational pulls that it is not inconceivable that their movements are influenced by one another without a third entity being required.

If Q existed (and I am still inclined to believe it did) it would be incomprehensible if it was only known to two individuals, the authors of Matthew and Luke. We should thus expect its influence to be detectable in the manner that we perceive knowledge on the part of a scribe of another Gospel besides the one they are copying (such as when scribes have added to Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer the “missing” parts they knew from usage and/or Matthew’s version). We should expect to see behavior similar to what we see in those instances where Matthew appears to be aware of Markan redaction (such as when Matthew drops Mark’s parenthetical assertion that Jesus “declared all foods clean”).

I am not sure whether there has ever been a study of how the Q material varies across manuscripts when compared with other material. If such a study were to be undertaken, it might provide evidence of other versions. In some instances we might detect evidence of knowledge of a Q version that neither Matthew nor Luke reproduced precisely, if both those canonical Gospels seem to be conformed by some scribes to a third version that does not originally stem from either of them. In other instances we might detect awareness of a saying or story as it first circulated before it was written down in redacted form in Q.

I don’t have a good clear case that seems like it is likely to be an example of this. I am sharing this idea pretty much immediately after it occurred to me. However, since I have been thinking about Jesus’ sayings concerning John the Baptist in conjunction with my big upcoming project, it seems an appropriate place to start, and I have come across an interesting textual variant that at the very least represents the sort of thing I am talking about. The 13th or 14th century manuscript minuscule 5 (manuscript Grec 106 in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) has an interesting reading in Luke 7:28, leaving out the qualification on the greatness of John the Baptist which adds that “the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than him.” (I will include a screenshot of the relevant part of the manuscript below.) In this it seems to be unique (although the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew are at least similar). Other features of the manuscript at this point, however, ones that differ from the version found in English Bibles and in critical editions of the Greek New Testament, begin to appear at least as early as Codex Bezae which is from the 4th-5th century. Bezae (digitized and transcribed courtesy of the University of Cambridge Digital Library) reads:

ουδεις μειζων εν γεννητοις γυναικων προφητης ϊωανου του βαπτιστου ουτος εστιν περι ου γεγραπται ϊδου αποστελλω τον αγγελον μου προ προσωπου ος κατασκευασει την οδον σου οαλεγω δε ϋμειν οτι ο μεικροτερος αυτου εν τη βασιλεια του θυ · μειζων αυτου εστιν

It separates the qualification from the assertion of John’s greatness but eventually includes it. It also qualifies “none greater” by making it “no greater prophet.” (The Latin that stands opposite the Greek text in Codex Bezae renders this “major inter natos mulierum propheta Joanne Baptista nemo est.”)

Could Q (or some other text such as one of the Jewish-Christian Gospels for that matter) have been remembered to have been different? Could scribes have been aware that there was a version of the saying different from what both Matthew and Luke wrote and “fixed” them? It would take a much more extensive study of all the relevant evidence to make a case for Q on this basis, but whatever emerged would surely be useful.

This particular example being so late might be due to another influence, which could nonetheless illustrate the phenomenon if not the impact of Q. I am referring to music. The text sung for feast days marking moments in John’s life included the words of praise without the qualification (here is an example from 15th century Poland – I’ve spotted examples going back at least as far as the 11th century in the Cantus database). This illustrates the complexity of the situation which scholars often need to simplify to make progress, but risk oversimplifying. As far back as we can trace, there have been other written documents, and there has been singing, alongside and around the texts that have reached us across the centuries. Can we ever hope to detect and delineate this lost context of the literature we study? The short answer is of course no if the question is whether we can do so in a manner that provides a high degree of certainty. Yet the impossibility of ascertaining certainty should not prevent us from asking important questions, nor from seeking to answer them as best we can. What I propose here is thus in keeping with the overall ethos of the quest to detect Q, and merely offers some methodological suggestions for how to approach it in a fresh way that expands the possible evidentiary base.

What do readers of this blog think? Anyone inclined to pursue this project (in a way that I won’t have time to anytime soon)? Have their been studies along these lines that I may have missed? What do you think of this line of investigation and argument? Please share your thoughts and perspectives!

As promised, here is Luke 7:28 in miniscule 5 (BnF MS Grec 106):

Of related interest to John the Baptist (who gets a mention in the video) here is an Iraqi news segment on the Mandaeans:

James Tabor on the Dead Sea Scrolls:

The Dead Sea Scrolls After 75 Years–How Do They Relate to Earliest Christianity?

Tim O’Neill on the historical Jesus and mythicism.

On Christian Baptism:

“The Frightening Side of Baptism” in Christian Century

Bob Cornwall reviews Living Under Water

Finally, for any Q skeptics who nonetheless patiently read this:

The Many Things That Don’t Exist

January 13, 2021

These are my notes from and thoughts about the second day of the Enoch Seminar conference on John the Baptist. Enoch Seminar meetings tend to begin with a recap session each subsequent day. They provide a helpful opportunity to remind ourselves about things that were said and to draw attention to points that were felt to be significant. For me, one particularly significant point was the highlighting of the puzzling idea that John could be Elijah and that Jesus could be John or one of the prophets from Israel’s history, and the possibility that this might have something to do with the idea in mystical traditions that one might have a celestial Doppelganger or counterpart.

Gabriele Boccaccini started things off by restating questions that we covered yesterday, which can be summarized thus: how important are Jewish and Christian sources for the understanding of the historical John? He mentioned my blog post summing up the first day.

Joan Taylor was not present yet due to the time difference between the United States and New Zealand, but sent a message with some thoughts. She highlighted the way any missing piece of evidence changes the picture, and also emphasized that Josephus’ testimony appears to be independent of the Gospels. One result of having the conference online is that the global attendance has been improved. Scholars from parts of the world that are underrepresented when travel is necessary. We had some 120 present on Zoom and thousands who viewed the introduction session livestreamed on Facebook.

Al Baumgarten asked what we know with the highest degree of certainty, and what happens if we start with those things. He also asked whether John is special with the evidence being worse than for other historical figures, and if so how and why. Joel Marcuss emphasized that we have more to work with in the case of Jesus. John and Jesus are similar to one another (and to Socrates) in that they did not leave us writings of their own. As for what is most certain, Marcus suggested: that John baptized Jesus, that he was executed by Antipas, and of course his water rite. Boccaccini emphasized the importance of stating another thing that we know for certain–that John was a Jew–but also the importance of asking what kind of Jew John was since second temple Judaism was diverse. Larry Schiffman suggested that Jesus must be placed in the framework of common Judaism, including things like attending synagogue. He also said that we don’t know whether there was a “Baptist sect of John” although positing that may help explain some things and some groups we see later. When Schiffman made reference to the recent events in Washington DC it led me to wonder whether John or Jesus created or shared things that we might categorize as “conspiracy theories.”

Edmondo Lupieri said that a difference is that we have texts from Jesus’ followers but not, apparently, directly from followers of John. He also emphasized that we are all looking at the same evidence and yet draw different conclusions because we have different minds and different assumptions. The same would of course have been true in the time of John and Jesus. Johannes Tromp said that we do not know much more than these four things: he existed, baptized, was executed, and called people to change their ways. Eric Noffke suggested that apocalypticism could also be added to the list. Federico Adinolfi picked up Steve Mason’s point that John was known as “the Drencher” but was really about justice. He also highlighted Daniele Minisini’s point that apocalypticism is less certain than we often assume, this perhaps all stemming from one source, Q, and subsequent writing that knew it. He also raised the matter of the Enochic matrix of John. Enoch has an interest in justice but not in Torah or ritual purity. Thus Adinolfi suggests that, even while most likely not having been an Essene, he was closer to them and their combination of Enochic emphases with purity concerns. Rafael Rodriguez said he is shocked that anyone would say we know much about John, given how little there is in all the sources available to us. Do those provide us with enough to conclude what was important to John? Whatever we think we know, we have to keep coming back to the fact that we do not know very much. How long was his ministry? Where did he carry it out? How old was he? Even when it comes to John and Antipas, Josephus provides a different slant that does not focus on Antipas’ marriage. Steve Mason returned to Baumgarten’s question, asking about historical methods and what is possible. He used the example of failing to understand his own teenage children even when they lived in the same house with him. Who is the historical anyone? What does it mean for a human being to be captured historically? History does not give us a divine omniscient perspective on anyone, much less a figure about whom our sources tell us so little. We should thus recognize that it is the exploration and discussion by historians that we should focus on and value, recognizing that an alleged certain foundation is not a legitimate pursuit. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky suggested that we should seek John’s halakhah, his teaching and interpretation of Torah, as likely to help us make progress. Because Josephus’ John is not Christian, that helps since he is independent of Christian efforts to make John into a Christian and a forerunner. We also need to relate what Josephus says about John to what he says about ritual washing and related matters more generally. Gabriele Boccaccini suggested that halakhic and eschatological elements were present throughout Judaism, albeit with distinctive emphases. There was no non-halakhic Judaism, one that had no interest in matters of ethics and judgment. An interesting question is whether that is compatible with John being an Enochic Jew, since the Enochic tradition does not focus on Torah. Daniele Minisini suggested that Jubilees might give us a sense of how apocalyptic and halakhic concerns could sometimes coexist and relate to one another. Paul Anderson suggested that we know John had a high degree of appeal, which should lead us to ask why. I thought this was a great point! Gabriele Boccaccini clarified that he considers Enochic Judaism not to have a direct halakhic engagement with Torah, because they believed that the problem of evil could not be resolved through Torah. Al Baumgarten mentioned his experience of writing a biography of a modern figure. As he said in that book, we are not just narrators of the lives of figures. We are authors. If we work with Legos, for ancient figures we do not have a full picture from the box nor a full set of pieces. We try to assemble them into something that at least convinces us, relating them to the ancient context. Thus we construct so many different portraits.

He was referring to the introduction of his biography of Elias Bickerman in which he wrote:”L’art du biographe consiste justement dans le choix…De patients démiurges ont assemblé pour le biographe des idées, des mouvements de physionomie, des événements. Leur œuvre se trouve dans les chroniques, les mémoires, les correspondances et les scolies. Au milieu de cette grossière réunion le biographe trie de quoi composer une forme qui ne ressemble à aucune autre.” He translated this in the chat as follows: ” The essence of the biographer’s craft is making choices. The biographer’s industrious assistants have collected ideas, physical characteristics, and events. Their work is found in chronicles, memoirs, correspondence, and commentaries. From among this rough collection of materials, the biographer picks the sources on the basis of which to draw a figure that is absolutely unique.”

In the next session (in which I also presented) Giovanni Bazzana started us off, looking at the Pseudo-Clementine literature. Two recent studies have drawn attention to key questions about history and ritual in this literature. Bazzana offered a visual diagram of how he understands the development of the Pseudo-Clementine literary tradition. The Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions features disciples of John who claim that he is the Christ rather than Jesus. The Homilies make John a member of the “daily baptists” (hemerobaptists). Dositheus and Simon are said to have been heretics who emerged from among John’s followers. He explained how the Pseudo-Clementine literature views history as a series of syzygys, pairs in which an evil figure appears followed by a good one who challenges and corrects them. Bazzana argued that this idea comes from the Grundschrift which the Recognitions and Homilies used as a source. In the Testimony of Truth from Nag Hammadi, studied by Edmondo Lupieri and Pamela Reeves, relates to this tradition. Note that John is said to be a daily baptizer, making him more like the Mandaeans as well as those who engaged in Jewish ritual washing, and less like what became Christian baptism. We need to update our project, taking into account the breadth of evidentiary base as well as ideological blind spots previously neglected.

Alberto Camplani presented next on John the Baptist in Gnostic texts and Marcion. He also brought Manichaeism into the picture, where John the Baptist appears and is viewed negatively. I was intrigued by the use of the term “miscarriage” in a Turfan fragment in Middle Persian, since a pun on a term for miscarriage is used in Mandaean sources, since the Mandaic word sounds like their words for “Jews” and “Judaism.” Marcion’s Gospel seems to have lacked not only the birth narratives from Luke but also other opening events prior to his move to Capernaum (Judith Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic, p.197). This raises the possibility of an early Christian tradition that did not connect John and Jesus or feature the latter being baptized by the former.

I obviously don’t take notes during my own talk, which you can read on the Enoch Seminar website, except in relation to discussion and feedback afterwards. My main aim was to make a case that the Mandaean sources are worth focusing attention on by those interested in the historical John the Baptist. The harvest of insights is plentiful but the laborers are few. Even if some or many of the avenues that have yet to be studied prove to be dead ends, we will not know unless the studies are done. In the same way that we understand Jesus better as a result even of misguided avenues of pursuit from the past, the same will undoubtedly prove true in the case of the study of the Mandaeans.

Caroline Lemmens presented next about John the Baptist in Islam, beginning with the Qur’an (suras 3, 19, and 21 being the most important). She also brought in Christian sources such as John of Damascus and his De Haeresibus. That work claims that Muhammad “chanced upon the Old and New Testaments” and created a false teaching from it. In the Qur’an Zechariah takes the initiative in seeking a child, rather than as happens in Luke. Zechariah’s inability to speak is a sign not a punishment. These are prophets who are fully human and not divine. The name Yahya (John) is said never to have been given to anyone before, although some interpreters have tried to interpret that as a statement that no one of that name has been given this level of distinction before. Lemmens mentioned the presence of the name Yahya in Mandaean sources, often in a double Arabic and Mandaic/Aramaic form Yahya-Yuhanna. A hadith says that Jesus recognized John’s superiority, although each tried in that tradition to defer to the other. Baptism does not appear. Bishop John of Marde in the 12th century is said to have issued a canon to baptize Muslim children only with the “baptism of John” using “normal water.” They also have a story of John’s talking head.

Pamela Reaves served as respondent to get the discussion started. Her work has focused on John in Nag Hammadi texts. Key threads ran through the papers, such as the polemical reworking of earlier tradition. Reaves turned to my paper and Bazzana’s with out focus on matters of historicity. The ways they revise and rewrite does not necessarily make them not useful for historians, but it does make using them more complicated. Reaves appreciated my case for how Nag Hammadi texts might be historically useful, but also pointed out that the presence of Jewish scriptures does not necessarily cause embarrassment for Gnostics who tended to believe that those sources did indeed provide useful information if interpreted correctly.

John Kampen asked about how Mandaean sources and rituals relate to the Qumran texts and Essenes. That is a topic that is worthy of significant investigation. It hasn’t received the attention it needs, just like most matters related to the Mandaeans.

Edmondo Lupieri also participated in the discussion, noting the connection between the Pseudo-Clementine idea of syzygys and his point about the John-Jesus polarizing interaction. He emphasized the dichotomizing Christology that separated the divine/heavenly Christ from the earthly Jesus, as possibly related to the positive lightworld figures but negative Jesus in Mandaean sources.

Kampen asked whether in the Gnostic and Mandaean sources we see the continuing history of Jewish sectarianism, and is it related to John the Baptist. Boccaccini asked about how the evidence in this session relates to the question of ongoing groups with competing allegiance to John and Jesus. Marcus asked about the Ps-Clem Grundshrift and its negativity about John, and how that relates to the question of that tradition being in contact with followers of John. Bazzana and Camplani shared some responses, the latter pointing out the fact that some Gnostic sources take a negative view of baptism.

I mentioned the way Theodore bar Koni refers to the Mandaeans as Dostheans, i.e. Dositheans. The key question is how Gnostic ideas relate to Jewish sectarian ideas from the second temple period. There seems to be at the very least a close relationship to apocalypticism, but it solves the problem of evil by making the world not merely a place ruled over by evil forces at odds with the supreme God, but created by those evil forces. The question is when that idea first finds articulation in that form, and which comes first. Is apocalypticism a form of Gnosticism that is brought more in line with the mainstream of Judaism, or the reverse, or do both reflect a shared context and heritage that neither fully perpetuates? The John and Jesus movements certainly reflect the ongoing persistence of Jewish sectarianism, often evolving into separate traditions. I’ve made the case elsewhere that Mandaeism emerged from a Jewish context much as Christianity does. If we are triangulating on John, does the claim that he was a hemerobaptist, Mandaean practice, and the connection of his rite with forgiveness of sin as at least an alternative to sacrifice all converge on John’s baptism being a repeated rite? I observed that, to use Baumgarten’s analogy, we are all “playing” with a small set of Legos in our separate corners, and what we might be able to build with them will be enhanced if we combine all our pieces. We would still disagree about what the end result should look like, but having more pieces will expand all of our possibilities.

Lupieri brought us back to the question of the persistence of followers of John. I would say that they do persist but that does not mean that they maintain the precise views John taught, and more than Gnostic or even orthodox Christians maintained precisely what Jesus taught, although in the case of the Mandaeans I think the difference is greater, more comparable to Nag Hammadi texts’ relationship to the historical Jesus.

The first afternoon session focused on John and the priesthood. Paul Anderson started off by noting the connection of Jesus’ temple action with John the Baptist. He suggested that one reason for the criticism of the temple was the fact that sacrifice was expensive for the ordinary “people of the land.” Anderson suggests that the challenge to ritual purity by John and Jesus might be a “fifth philosophy” alongside the four Josephus mentioned. When we put John’s message and Jesus’ action in the Gospel of John together we get an impression of a reform movement seeking to get their Jewish contemporaries to be their “best selves.”

Eric Noffke noticed the many details about Judaism that the Gospel of John gets correct. When we add that it is an “aristocratic” Gospel (the wedding at Cana is not a poor one, Jesus and his disciples interact with and are known to leaders) it seems the author was from a priestly milieu and perhaps a priest himself. The way the author inserted John the Baptist into the Logos hymn indicates his positive view of John. The evidence points towards John’s Gospel being more reliable than the Synoptics in certain respects, including some that pertain to John the Baptist. The connection of the Johannine school with Ephesus converges in an interesting way with the depiction in Acts of a group there that only knew John’s baptism. Purification is a priestly concern and so the fact that it comes up in John 3 also suggests a priestly background of the author, and thus perhaps also of John the Baptist (as Luke explicitly indicates, with John confirming that claim indirectly). The way John the Baptist died could have generated the idea of John as the “Lamb of God.” Christians might have claimed it then instead for Jesus. The Mandaean Book of John also presents Zechariah as a priest.

Ian Werrett discussed the traditions about John the Baptist as child of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Jean Danielou pushed the material too far in terms of presuming its historicity, but nonetheless shows how one can make the case that John had an upbringing that was priestly but more Essene than Sadducean. Joan Taylor has pointed out that priests were to be found in all the major Jewish sects, and so there is no straightforward way to get from a priestly background for John to an Essene connection. Werrett discussed the possibility that Luke might have gotten his infancy traditions from a Baptist source. Richard Dillon has argued for a connection between the post-70 situation of the narrator of the Lukan account and John’s failure to go into the priesthood as was the expectation for the son of a priest. Werrett asks conversely why a non-priestly John would have been turned into a priestly one if Luke was responsible for the idea. Luke is distinctive in giving John a social justice message and in having John criticize Antipas for a wider array of wrongdoing rather than only his marriage. Luke also lacks John’s death scene. I had not noticed this omission, and so given the fact that the Mandaeans disagree with the account of John’s death in Mark and Josephus, this is something I’ll want to dig into further.

Edmondo Lupieri started by mentioning a number of things, including . He talked about John’s diet, which he views as not a full description (as though John only ate grasshoppers and wild honey and nothing else) but illustrative. Some held the view that grasshoppers have no blood, like fish (the latter point was contested by the Qumran group), meaning it was impossible to slaughter them in appropriate ritual manner. Honey also raised issues of purity due to the potential for bees to die in the honey they produce. He also discussed camel hair and purity. He pointed out that we don’t know how John baptized, whether those baptized were naked and whether John went into the water with them.

Al Baumgarten asked about Paul Anderson’s use of Mary Douglas’ work. Anderson indicated that he was largely building on John Riches’ use of Douglas’ work. Michael Daise asked about some details in the Gospel of John and how they relate to one another. Larry Schiffman noted the problems entailed in using polemical texts for historical purposes, as well as the lack of parallel to someone immersing someone else. He also mentioned that rabbinic kosher rules in his experience would not prevent one from eating kosher grasshoppers or honey. He also noted that John the Baptist is the first person that we are told was named at his circumcision ceremony, a practice widely attested in Judaism in later times. Joel Marcus pushed back on the idea that the inclusion of the Baptist in the Logos hymn elevates him, given the emphasis on him not being the light but only a witness. Marcus also thinks that some are distancing John too much from Qumran.

Adinolfi suggests (following James Kelhoffer) thinks that John ate dead locusts he found, rather than “hunting” them. But a John who was too far removed from human society would not fit the depiction of his influence. He was a friend of sinners, and there is no evidence that he tried to persuade those who came to him in repentance to eat what he did. He also argued that John did not refrain from the occasional priestly service in the temple that was expected of him, nor did he argue against regular ritual immersion using mikva’ot located all around the land. Imagining followers of John traveling from far and wide to him at the Jordan after having sex is simply implausible. I would add that this seems a strong indication that John’s baptism was simply not a variant of purity immersions.

Joan Taylor argued that John was focused on preparing for the eschaton, which was not a replacement for the temple but merely something else. She emphasized that John’s point about the need for inner attitude and reform for ritual to work was widely accepted in Judaism in that time and did not originate with John, nor was it unique to him. Boccaccini made a comparison with what Paul of Tarsus wrote: salvation apart from the Law was not therefore “anti-Law.” Paul Anderson clarified that he doesn’t view the Logos hymn as having been supplemented through the addition of John the Baptist. Lupieri said that no Jewish teacher could avoid having to expound on halakhah and behavior. He also pointed out that ancient “vegetarians” such as Banus appears to have been were not “vegetarians” in the modern sense of that term. Baumgarten pointed out that Apollonius of Tyana was a vegetarian but allowed his followers to eat meat. In ancient times as now someone could live a very ascetic life personally and yet also have followers who did not live thus. Benjamin Snyder mentioned the allowance for those with disabilities to be immersed by others and whether that is relevant. He also asked whether Leviticus 8:6 might not have served as a model, which would mean essentially making everyone priests or preparing everyone to be in the presence of God. Larry Schiffman countered that he did not see those as likely parallels, but that they make clear that John’s work was not about ritual purity in the everyday sense if any.

The day’s final session focused on John the Baptist and the Essenes. Joel Marcus shared his experience of being profoundly impressed by shared conceptualities between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Mark’s Gospel. When he turned his attention to John the Baptist, however, there seemed to be more than that, a likelihood of direct influence. He acknowledged that he wanted there to be a connection, since that would allow for increased resources to work with when researching John. But the similarities are there. In addition to the water rite conveying forgiveness, there is the terminology of “brood of vipers.” On the other hand he expected to find more reference to Isaiah 40:3. Yet the references that there are are more frequent at Qumran than elsewhere, and the use is also significantly similar, suggesting direct influence. Marcus views the Qumran group as the celibate branch of the Essenes, and he is persuaded that John was celibate. He thus finds there to be more in common between John and the Essenes than can be explained in terms of “common Judaism.” He quoted E. P. Sanders who wrote:

Voluntary groups necessarily have a good number of the characteristics of the surrounding society: they cannot be entirely unique. Even when they are deliberately counter-cultural societies, they still share characteristics with the larger whole of which they are a part. American hippies were, and American militia are, strongly American. No matter how radical they intend to be, people cannot escape the circumstances that fashion them.

It follows that in the Graeco-Roman period Jewish sub-groups were Jewish. They shared enough of the common Jewish identity markers . . .that a learned and perceptive student in the ancient world, had he or she found the writings of a Jewish sub-group, would have been able to recognize it as Jewish.

He also quoted Joseph Blenkinsopp, “A sect is not only a minority, and not only characterized by opposition to the norms accepted by the parent-body, but also claims in a more or less exclusive way to be what the parent-body claims to be.” John and Qumran shared an us vs. them outlook, warning those not aligned with him that they will be judged. Yet John also broke away from the Qumran group.

Al Baumgarten presented next, beginning with an anecdote about being on an El-Al flight. They messed up food on that flight and so a particular individual who asked for one type of kosher meal but received another. They drank the water and ate the apple but wouldn’t eat the rest. From there he turned to focus on John’s food and his “sectarian past.” He would prefer to sidestep this issue, but the Essenes were adamant in trying to avoid “knock offs” of their own rules and lifestyle. Adapting a description of Puritans, Baumgarten said that sectarians “loved the Lord with all their heart and hated their neighbor with all their soul.” He also shared another flight meal mix up in which his wife was told she had ordered one of the “special kosher” meals and she insisted that she wanted the regular kosher food. This, he realized, was an example of food serving as a means of division and exclusion. He also said (mentioning 2 Macc 5:27) that raw food represents nature, cooked food represents culture. That verse deserves to be mentioned more frequently in discussions of John’s diet (Matthew 3:4; Luke 7:33). The latter indicates that John’s eating habits were viewed by others as unusual, to say the least.

Carrado Martone discussed Barbara Thiering’s proposal that the Teacher of Righteousness was John the Baptist. Her book was more of a fictional novel than anything else, and while it was a bestseller, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are from and reflect a time before that of John, and so her “untenable speculations” do not deserve credence. Nonetheless similarities between the two should be examined in detail. He also discussed the use of Isaiah 40 in 1QS 8:12-16 and in the New Testament. 1QS 5:13-14 says that it is impossible to be purified by waters without first repenting of evil. There are also differences, such as the emphasis in CD 11:3-4 on purifying clothing (see also 1QM 7:9-11).

Cecilia Wassen noted the importance in the thinking of many, including for instance Joel Marcus, of the connection of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the location of Qumran. Yet at least a number of those texts circulated more widely. Even members of the Yahad lived in different places (1QS 6:1-4). 1QS was probably not composed specifically with the community that lived at Qumran in mind. 1QS 4:20-25 follows the famous section about two spirits, predicting God’s end-times purification through sprinkling with the Spirit of Truth “like waters of purification.” Differences between manuscripts of 1QS must also be done justice to.

Kenneth Atkinson started the discussion segment by emphasizing that no one in the ancient world lived in genuine isolation. They may have been relatively secluded, but there was reliance on nearby civilization nevertheless. Exodus symbolism was probably the main aim. He also emphasized the archaeological evidence that suggests sacrifice was practiced at Qumran.

Claude Cohen-Matlofsky mentioned a conference on the wilderness, as well as connections with things like hekhalot and merkabah mysticism. She also emphasized the possibility of Qumran being a pilgrimage site and evidence for trade around the Dead Sea. The mikva’ot at Qumran may be connected with activities such as winemaking and not strictly related to purity.

Boccaccini emphasized the issue of defining the Essenes. Joan Taylor appreciated the analogy with today, noting that the Qumran scrolls reflect the view of people who thought they should be in control of the temple and society, yet were not. Lupieri mentioned the potential for people to have multiple affiliations, whether simultaneously or in succession, with Josephus as a famous example. Joel Marcus said that J. Louis Martyn added reference to the birkat ha-minim fairly late in his famous project, and in view of how that became a focus of critique he sometimes subsequently wished he hadn’t mentioned it. Marcus felt a bit the same about some of what he said about John’s connection to the Essenes. Cohen-Matlofsky emphasized how problematic the Banus passage and what Josephus claims there is. He claims to have gone to the desert for 3 years at a young age. Baumgarten brought the distinction between “lumpers” and “splitters” into the discussion. Blaise Brankatelli asked about John’s diet, and Adinolfi replied by emphasizing that the Dead Sea Scrolls advocate not only separating from food eaten by others, but separating from sinners “in all things.” Marcus suggested that John kept some customs from Qumran but not others, and it is worth asking why. Cecilia Wassen mentioned the idea of Qumran as a scribal school where people came to study for a while.

Another rich and rewarding day. I found the feedback on my paper extremely helpful, as well as everything others presented. So much that will inform and inspire my work on my book about John the Baptist. And there’s still more to come tomorrow and Thursday! Stay tuned for more here, and tune in live to the introductory sessions on Facebook in the Enoch Seminar group. Tomorrow morning we’ll turn to the topic of sectarianism.

May 17, 2019

In response to a question about appeal to consensus on Facebook, and the suggestion that “an appeal to consensus isn’t an argument,” I wrote the following:

It is a summarized reference to conclusions drawn by the majority of experts after engaging in arguments spanning decades and often longer. Those arguments cannot be repeated every time a subject comes up, and should not need to be, although it is a common internet debate tactic to pretend that this is the same thing as either an appeal to authority or argumentum ad populum. It is neither. The former refers to treating one expert as though they must be right, the latter to popular opinion which is not the same as expert opinion.

The experts can of course be wrong. But it is less likely that they are wrong and a poorly-informed googler is right, than that they are right. And if the majority of experts are wrong, it is more likely that the right conclusion will emerge as a result of ongoing investigation and debate by those experts or their successors.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts on this?

Of related interest, Christoph Heilig has been trying to engage with mythicism, and specifically Richard Carrier’s misuses of Bayes’ Theorem, over on the Vridar blog. Since I avoid getting caught up in that morass over there, having learned from past experience, let me share here what Christoph wrote, beginning with his explanation of his use of Bayes’ Theorem in his recent book Hidden Criticism?, and about which he blogged in March in response to a review of that book:

When writing the whole section, I did not have Carrier in my mind as a potential opponent. I was pre-emptively dealing with some objections I anticipated from some of my colleagues – objections I had already encountered when presenting earlier stages of my assessment. I had noticed a certain defensive attitude towards my argument, which was in part entirely understandable to me. For every once and a while, someone in our discipline comes along and introduces a new “method” from another discipline, claiming that it will – finally – result in objective interpretation and that all other scholars have to follow him or her, with this approach being outdated the next year or so (e.g. Greimas’s structural analysis of stories). To those colleagues I wanted to say: ‘Don’t reject my proposal because you assume it makes such an assumption. I am not claiming that traditional historical work is wholly subjective and thus worthless and that it now has to replaced by an objective calculus. Familiarity with historical sources, their languages, and contexts, will always remain necessary, even if one adopts a Bayesian approach.’ So when speaking of “the historian” and “the mathematician” I was simply referring to our roles as scholars: we would not be just sitting their with our calculators, we’d still have to do detailed historical work in order for our calculations to work. (Plus, I don’t think that it makes sense to use actual numbers so often, but that’s another matter that I discussed elsewhere.)

I then adduced Carrier in a footnote because I was afraid that somebody might have taken a look at his work, disliked it, and might now think that he or she also had to reject my approach. To them I wanted to signal that I do not think that Carrier’s argument is compelling at all and that his adaptation of Bayes’s theorem should not be taken as an indicator of what could and couldn’t be done with Bayesian reasoning.

By the way, of course it is entirely appropriate to use Bayesian reasoning to ask questions about the historicity of a certain figure – be that Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, Homer, Brutus, etc. To the contrary: my most basic claim defended towards my colleagues was that as soon as you say things like “evidence X confirms hypothesis Y, which is thus the most probable explanation,” etc. you automatically have to follow Bayes’s theorem in updating your subjective beliefs, whether you do so intentionally or not.

I should probably not made the comment on Carrier’s “horrible” analysis, because I completely understand that this automatically causes the wish for further elaboration, something I have consciously not offered so far in my writing. I will mention, but not discuss in detail, a single example that everybody who’s interested in the matter can look at for him- or herself. Carrier translates Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου as “a certain ‘brother James.’” To say that this wording might actually “favor” the myth-hypothesis must be very surprising to anybody who has a working knowledge of Greek and knows the texts in question. (Again, it’s not that I would not “permit” the hypothesis to be considered – discussions about the identity of people with the same names in antiquity are common, also among biblical scholars, btw.) It is in any case completely beyond me how anybody who’s familiar with Bayes’s theorem might come up with the likelihoods he suggests. There is absolutely no other context, in which Bayesian reasoning is used, where anybody would be willing to use a data set of 2 (!) items to give a likelihood without specifying the uncertainty. If Carrier actually wanted to use actual numbers, fine. Just go through the early Christian literature and see how often the phrase is used for physical relatives on the one hand and believers on the other – and how often other formulations are used for both concepts! It’s just completely wrong to make any claim about how “expected” a certain word choice for a given meaning is if alternative lexical realisations of that meaning are not even taken into account. To say: “So my most sceptical estimate is that this is just what we’d expect on mythicism (for Paul to occasionally, and in contexts most demanding it, refers to other Christians as ‘brothers of the Lord’).” How often Paul used this phrase or not for other Christians unfortunately does not tell one at all whether you’d “expect” this wording if the author wanted to refer to other/another Christian/s. That’s just not how we estimate likelihoods. Period. I don’t know what else to say about that. It’s demonstrably wrong and I actually still can’t really believe that Carrier is serious about that. Plus, the whole discussion of course displays astonishing ignorance concerning the secondary literature – Carrier even seems to assume that since/if James of 1:19 is the same as the one in chapter 2, he must be the brother of the apostle John (who, of course, had been executed in 44 CE), etc. There’s just so much wrong in this short discussion, such a disregard for Greek syntax and semantics, relevant secondary literature, even very foundational historical information that can be found in every encyclopaedia, and of course an utter misunderstand of how likelihoods are to be determined that I don’t think the work deserved to be taken seriously at all. In any case, I didn’t feel comfortable that what I was trying to establish – paying attention to Bayes’s theorem – might have been discredited among some of my colleagues, who by any chance might have come across Carrier’s strange meanderings.

That’s not the entirety of his earliest comments, but the part that seems most straightforward to excerpt.

I’ll provide more of his comments from there on separate pages here, for those who may be interested in reading further.

April 21, 2019

The key question of Easter is not one that historians can answer. Did God vindicate Jesus beyond death? But that doesn’t mean historical research is irrelevant to everything to do with Easter. As one example, Phillip Jenkins blogged about the ending of the Gospel of Mark, drawing much the same conclusion as I do about connections between a lost ending, the Gospel of Peter, and chapter 21 of the Gospel of John. See my book The Burial of Jesus for my views on resurrection and the limits of history.

Recognizing that history cannot answer all questions doesn’t require adopting the view that historians cannot tell us anything, with varying degrees of certainty appropriate to the evidence available.

The question of whether there was ever a historical Jesus, for instance, is most certainly susceptible to an answer by historians, who have been absolutely clear about what they conclude and why. Yet somehow atheist “skeptics” manage to reject the perspective of secular historians in the same way they reject theological claims. Once one has gotten into the habit of trusting one’s own insight and debunking skills in response to church “experts,” those skills prove remarkably easy to transfer to other realms, leading inevitably to the embrace of one or more additional conspiracy theories.

Here is what I wrote in seeking to reach a self-proclaimed “fence-sitter” about the historicity of Jesus, in response to a request for a brief presentation of the case:

I am happy to try to offer what you are looking for, and would like to at least begin conversationally, if that is OK with you, to address the question of which figures are appropriate comparisons.

First, can we agree that figure such as Roman empersors and Alexander the Great are inherently likely to leave behind more evidence, and of a different sort, than an itinerant rabbi, exorcist, and/or messianic claimant?

If so, would you agree that, even if we do not have the same sort of evidence for figures like Hillel or Akiba (two famous Jewish rabbis of the period), though that will make their historicity less certain than the minters of coins and inscribers of monuments, that does not make it inherently unlikely that they existed in and of itself? In other words, that the evidence will inevitably vary and our certainty should span a spectrum, with room for high degrees of certainty towards the ends but also varying shared throughout im between?

Could we then perhaps also agree that figures like King Arthur and Ned Ludd (and Robin Hood and John Frum and Prester John and many others) are often simply of uncertain hiistorical basis? No historian would deny that the Arthurian legends are legends, fictions plain and simple. But do we know with a high degree of confidence that they are not fictions that used a name that people recalled as that if an actual person? In other words, that the question of whether all, most, some, or little of our information about a person is even attempting to be accurate and factual, never mind succeeding, may not tell us whether or not there is a historical figure faintly visible, or obscured in all but name, from a historian’s view?

You may be detecting a pattern in this. This is all about aiming at nuance that tends to get lost not just in discussions of mythicism, but any kind of apologetics. It may seem to score points in internet debates if someone gets someone else to admit that they are not completely certain about something. But uncertainty is par for the course in historical study, and tackling this seems a necessary step before proceeding further.

What if anything would you have said differently? I continued later, once we got past some of these preliminaries:

Do you just want to dive into one of the pieces of evidence? If so, we certainly can. But it obviously requires assuming familiarity with the relevant sources.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, mentions a James that he refers to as “the brother of the Lord.” He obviously doesn’t mean “the brother of God!” Paul’s most frequent use of “Lord” is in reference to Jesus. And he cannot simply mean “James the Christian,” because even if one were to adopt the view that, like “brothers,” “brothers of the Lord” could denote Christians in general, it still would not make sense in that context, since in both places (also in the Corinthian correspondence) where Paul mentions brothers of the Lord, it is in distinction from other Christians. Is there a more likely meaning, then, than that he meant the literal siblings of Jesus in these instances? And if there were individuals in the early Jesus movement (not yet even called “Christianity” at this stage) who were known as the brothers of Jesus, and this claim was accepted even by people like Paul who disagreed with them, is it not more probable than not that these were in fact siblings of Jesus? Is the alternative not to pose some kind of conspiracy of a family to concoct a fictitious sibling?

Even if one were inclined to do that, then we’d have the character of the claims made about this Jesus. The Davidic anointed one was the awaited king that it was hoped would restore his dynasty to the throne and usher in a golden age of one sort or another. Being crucified pretty much disqualified you from being the person in question. Is it probable that a group that was concocting a message about the long-awaited king, which they planned to proclaim to others in order to persuade them to believe, would also invent that this individual was executed and thus at least apparently a failure and a thoroughly implausible candidate for the role?

All of these pieces and others fit together, just as the evidence for evolution does. I’m sure you know, if you’ve ever debated with an antievolutionist of some sort, that although there are individual pieces of evidence that are extremely compelling, it is really the overall picture that emerged from the evidence considered in totality that makes the conclusion so solid. I will also add that I am in no sense making this comparison so as to suggest that conclusions about biological processes that we can observe today and which have left lots of evidence are comparable in probability to conclusions historians draw about ancient people. On the contrary! Indeed, it is that very point that I sometimes find lies at the core of some people’s adherence to mythicism. They simply don’t realize that, whether we’re dealing with Socrates or Jesus, our evidence is texts, and in both cases texts that contain stories that we judge largely fictional. They can still provide a reason for judging these figures’ historicity to be more probable than not.

The conversation continued. Again, I have questions – in particular, how effective can an appeal of this sort be when someone is not well-informed not only about early Christian literature (except as Christian scripture) and not familiar with the broad historical and literary context in which Christianity appeared? The fact that the blog in question has lots of commenters who are mythicists and use popular internet “debate” tactics didn’t help.

Of related interest, see Bob Cargill on the problems of the census in Luke’s Gospel. We can tell (or indeed presume) infancy narratives are not historical without even investigating in detail. We find comparable infancy stories for historical figures throughout ancient literature. See too Chris Keith’s lecture about the Gospels and their historical accuracy or otherwise.

My analogy with the Dissent from Darwin list also came up in the discussion on that other blog about consensus. On that topic, see this meme I made some time ago:

And finally, for those who had the patience to read this far, a mythicist claimed to comment on “the state of scholarly mythicism.”

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