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.

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.”

March 23, 2015

Daniel Gulotta did an interview with Miami Valley Skeptics about mythicism. Not only has he shared links to the recording, but on his blog he has also offered detailed typed responses to questions that he was asked. Here is a sample:

First and foremost, does the evidence indicate a historical Jesus Christ existed? 

Yes. Next question? Okay, I don’t think you will let me off that easily so let me be brief. From studying the letters of Paul, the Gospels, and some other ancient sources, I think it is absolutely clear that Jesus existed. We told from the earliest material that he was executed by Roman officials via crucifixion, the Apostle Paul talks about his brother James and indicates he had other brothers, and Paul also references Jesus’s teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10. From very early tradition we can see a profile of Jesus emerging that places him within 1st century Palestine among historic locations like Capernaum, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. So I think it is obvious that Jesus existed. Really Jesus’s existence isn’t the issue… It’s how much we can know about him that is the issue! But let me explain the question of the historicity of Jesus another way: The man Gaius Octavius, who was born from Atia and later adopted by Julius Caesar, who defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony, was crowned Emperor and changed his name to Augustus Caesar existed. The Augustus Caesar whose father was the god Apollo, who saw the heavens open to welcome the spirit of Julius Caesar joining the ranks of the gods, whose wars and battles were blessed for victory by Mars, and who was a god on earth, did not exist.  As a secular historian and as a non-Christian, I believe the same goes for Jesus. As Bart D. Ehrman puts it, “the Jesus of your Sunday school or stained glasses windows may have not existed, but Jesus did exist. Whether we like it or not.”

Click through to read and/or listen to the rest.

I meant to post on something related to this a while ago, but unfortunately it got neglected as a draft post until now, and so I will include it below. I was dismayed by the fact that Raphael Lataster had the audacity to take his poor online article and make it seem worse. In comments on Facebook, left on my posting of Mike Bird’s response to him, Lataster wrote the following:

Michael Bird’s piece is shockingly bad, such as his defending Ehrman’s and Casey’s recent books on the matter. Those books were rubbish and I have published about that, just not in my 800-page Washington Post ‘article’.

And so I responded:

When one writes an article that isn’t even clearly worded, never mind cogently argued, and then tries to pretend that it is an “800-page” article, it really undermines what little impact one’s vague and insubstantial claim that the work of mainstream scholars is “shockingly bad” and “rubbish.” If you could not tell that your own article fit those categories, why should anyone trust you to accurately apply it to what others have written?

One may disagree with the conclusions of Ehrman or Casey or any other scholar, if one is well-informed enough to do so. But I know that, as an undergraduate student and a conservative Evangelical at the time, I felt justified in dismissing and speaking insultingly about scholars I disagreed with. That is apologetics, and not scholarship. It is an emotional response to the drawing of conclusions that one does not like. Having studied the same fields in greater depth, I may still find some of the conclusions that I dismissed unpersuasive, but I now understand them well enough to know that none of them is “shockingly bad” or “rubbish,” and indeed, some works that I turned to in the interest of supporting my own ideology in that time period are more aptly so labeled.

Lataster wasn’t done yet, and so he asked me this:

James McGrath, do you, like Ehrman and Casey, derive your certainty over Jesus’ historical existence from sources that do not exist?

And here is what I wrote in response:

Raphael Lataster, if you were well-informed and/or serious about history, you would not speak as apologists do about “certainty,” but about probability. The extant sources persuade me that it is likely that there was a historical Jesus. And when mythicists engage in standard tactics of apologists and denialists, distorting the evidence and calling mainstream scholars insulting names, it reinforces one’s sense that the conclusions of mainstream historians and scholars are on target, since if mythicists had a serious case to make, they would not be resorting to such tactics.

If you look into the subject online, you will find that Lataster used to adamantly reject mainstream scholarship in advocating the primacy of the Syriac Peshitta. Now he has shifted his allegiances, but has not moved from fringe denialism to an embracing of the mainstream. It is quite sad to see.

Of related interest, Brandon Smith has an Evangelical response to the latest list of supposed pre-Christian Jesuses that has been circulating.

July 10, 2012

There are several posts around the blogosphere related to topics of conversation here, some of which interact directly with things I’ve written.

First, Fred Clark offers a helpful response to the “anatomically-correct porpoise fetish” objection to the sufficiency of the Golden Rule as a moral principle. The key is to understand it not in a legalistic fashion – which of course is antithetical to the whole spirit of the principle !- but as inviting us not merely to inflict on others what we enjoy, but to ask what they enjoy just as we hope others would do in our own case.

Over at Only a Game, Chris Batemann addresses marriage, unmarriage, and same-sex relationships. Here is a sample:

Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.

Click through to read the whole thing.

On the subject of mythicism, Thomas L. Thompson and I have managed to get a conversation started in the comments section of his recent Bible and Interpretation article.

Craig Keener wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the existence of the historical Jesus. Several other bloggers have mentioned it, including John Byron at slightly more length that others.

Joseph Hoffmann responded to Neil Godfrey about Paul’s language about Jesus having been “born of a woman.” The simplest explanation is still that Paul was merely saying about Jesus something that could be said about any human being.

See too the discussion of Paul-mythicism at Otagosh. UPDATE: See what happens, including a well-placed sci-fi metaphor, when Gavin read further into Detering’s book!

Stuff Fundies Like pointed out that fundamentalism can survive without many things, but not without a cause – an enemy to focus its ire on. This led to some comments by Fred Clark. Fred also notes that there is a glaring anachronism in Genesis 4, where Tubal-Cain is said to have originated the technology of working with bronze and iron. Of course, the transition to the iron age only comes about after Israel has emerged in the land of Canaan. And so this story in its present form is not more ancient than that.


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