This is the second in a triology of pieces, which started with “Without the History, What are the Torah and Christian Bible?” where I detailed the dismissal of the more problematic portions of the Bible in favour of a more abstract and modern approach. I’ve been involved in a conversation with some friends of mine on Facebook who are essentially Christians. They have taken variously interesting positions countering both my previous two books (The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK] and is The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK]) without having read them and taking a pop at the reasoning for my forthcoming book in this trilogy, The Exodus: A Critical Examination of the Moses Story.
I detailed a friend, J, who dismissed the Torah but maintains a strong Christianity, attacking my approach:
Start by accepting that most intelligent people don’t believe that Genesis is a historical record (although as a historical document it is far superior to anything that was created at the time), and they don’t believe that God is a sky fairy. Honestly, you’ll have a lot more fun out of the paddling pool and in the deep end…
Another theistic friend has more recently been attacking me for my comments on the Torah, most notably concerning Moses and the Exodus as being a-historical. This appears not to be a problem for his belief either.
Let me try and lay out my position.
- The two bookends of Jesus’ life – his birth and resurrection – are fraught with historical issue (see my books for justification).
- They did not happen as the Gospels claim.
- If, with the only times Jesus’ action intersect with known history, the claims fail epistemological, then what epistemic right does the Christian have to believe the mere assertions in between? The miracles, the ministry etc?
- Furthermore, how can one maintain a meaningful theology if there is no historical foundation upon which to build it? In many ways, the Gospels are genius. They are brilliantly written with a lot of thought. But they are completely disingenuous.
- Moreover, the Exodus (and Genesis) has absolutely no evidence to support it happening (I do not accept 2non-disconfirming data” as positive evidence). Moses either did not exist all, or the kernel of truth behind him (much like Jesus) is so far removed from the claims in the Torah as to render the Torah effectively myth. See my forthcoming book. (Also, recently. “Jesus as the New Moses and Theology Historicised“.) Jesus is a reconstructed Moses who supersedes Moses – the Gospels are Jesus propaganda.
- If Jesus is as reinvention (pesher, midrash) of Moses – if he really is the new Moses – and we can categorically show that neither OT Moses existed, nor did any of the things he supposedly did happen, what does this say of Jesus?
- The claim that Jesus both is God (Yahweh) in some meaningful sense, and that he is the fulfilment of Mosaic Law is thus thoroughly problematic is Moses did not exist and the Mosaic Law (Covenant Code, Decalogue) was dependent on the Code of Hammurabi (and Ur-Nammu).
- Given that The Tower of Babel, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Floods, aspects of Moses and Joseph were derived from contextual Mesopotamian culture, and given that Yahweh was a construction that assimilated aspects of the other gods of the area, we can safely deconstruct Yahweh and the historical claims surrounding him.
- It’s about probabilities. The “evidence” does not justify the theological belief; thus the belief is unjustified.
Now, for the sake of argument, please accept the above. I don’t care if you disagree with my claims, because that is not the point of this piece. It appears that my two interlocutors above, both Christians, accept the above.
Here is a snapshot of a number of my friend R’s claims. I am going to lay them out and see what you think before commenting on this in the next post excuse typos etc. as this was taken from Facebook):
It’s doing its morality in myth. That is the most effective way. The stories are intertextual frameworks whether there’s 0% or 20% historical truth in them.
So, for me, my search is leading me to a kind of philosophical coherentism. I am happy to be historically informed but I think historical contingencies make it messy starting solely from there. I cannot help but see in the figure of Christ a powerful crux to the human divine quest. I would also see the Buddha in somewhat similar ways. Again, the historical Buddha is hard (harder even) to arrive at from a historical-only foundation. So, it’s interesting that the miraculous is your keystone. Mine is more around his character.
So let’s say you, on philosphical grounds, are persuaded of theism. You then read the works of Rumi, Buddhist scholars, Platonist, Jewish, Christian, Shakespeare and you find tranches that seem so poignant that they grasp you. Is it that these things were just things you already believed or would they also allow you to discover ? So I would say I read things that in hindsight I buy into that I wouldn’t have realised without them. The Good, the True and the Beautiful is always active and inspiring. I look at Christ, and maybe aspects of other figures and see a particular strong revelation. You mentioned secular morality– my view is that modern morality is an extension (sometimes an over-extension) of Christian morality. It had grown in Christian soil. Tom Holland, an atheist, draws this out apparently in his best selling Dominion. There arose a profound moral shift, slow and uneven, even faltering at times, in Western morality through the coming of Christianity. That is the point. Atheism will, i guarantee you, never touch that level of inspiration.
…so far it was about JPs methodology. He takes his cue from those that focus on the resurrection as proof using the gospels for historical search. I don’t think that could work because the gospel writers are largely writing for those who already believe. I don’t like the book ends approach where it’s all about the nativity and resurrection. To me, the interesting stuff is in between….
Some truths are not arrived through your modernist approach. Mark’s gospel is prior to Matthew’s anyway. For me, it coheres in terms of spiritual power, beauty, profundity and ontology. I can’t look at this and not see the profundity. I’m coming to see it more and more clearly as a deep revolution. The reason it spread so powerfully isn’t the physical proofs, it’s the potency of the moral teachings and example and the crazy, foolish idea that the almighty ground of all being was participating in creations pain. You said to me once that i could write a better gospel. I remember an assembly at school about a man who suggested setting up his own religion to which, in the story, his interlocutor replied, “maybe, if you can do better than this (see cross).” It is, in Paul’s words, scandalous to the Jew and utter folly to Greek but it is the wisdom of God. I don’t try to argue it. Like the beauty of a stained glass window, it’s only obvious from the inside….
Whether or not the evangelists realised it, I think there’s a radical repudiation of many OT ideas….or, maybe better, in Christ, you find the ultimate reversal of expectation. A theme that crops up repeatedly in OT. The whole sacrificial system is upended. The OT saw very darkly and in confused ways…as Paul again says the mystery hidden. But the theme does build to this crescendo reversal. The disciples in the Gospel want to call down fire from heaven on non believers. Christ rebukes them ‘you don’t know of what spirit you are’….
I would say. Jesus suffered in and with us in the brokenness….
It does make me laugh. All the parallels on new moses etc have been known throughout church history. Hence the emphasis on reading the OT in this light allegorically….
“Moses” as a term, served as a figurehead-point for a corpus of Torah. Now, I’m sure they thought he existed, but the standing in agreement or counterpoint with Moses is to do so with regard to the corpus. If you said you were the new Aristotle we wouldn’t need to work out whether he existed or not. We would know you were seeing yourself in relation to an understood Aristotelian corpus….
So the key question has to be, and this is fascinating, what was Jesus up to as interpreter of those trads? Is Matthew stressing his Jewish credentials because he was in tension with them? Why the need to otherwise? And when Jesus acts or speaks often he’s clashing with existing use of the Torah. He seems to reinterpret on the basis of the higher principles within it arguing, for example, when he heals and ‘works’ on the sabbath that the greater principle is love of God and neighbour and that the ‘whole Torah hangs on these two commandments’. If he felt Moses was adequate why be a new Moses?
So, with the above, i see Jesus as walking a line: he’s replacing Torah from within Torah and the prophets. NB the expression ‘the law *and prophets* hang on these two commands’ He’s in a line of progressive prophets extracting a new emphasis….
You’re rushing to conclude “Jesus stuff is all myth”. Allison says, no, we can’t historical prove x or y was said exactly like this but it’s likely the broad brush picture goes back to the historical Jesus. You can even have theological overlay, indeed as you say, the evangelists are interpreters of Jesus. But you certainly seem to have a figure that necessitated a need for the overlay. Take the sermon on the mount: you, i presume, can count that this had no basis in the teaching of the Galilean?…
The difference is I’m looking at what can be built. Your looking at what can be torn down. That is a problem. Simply being a deconstructor doesn’t enlighten humanity and is based on a nihilistic conclusion. It’s a philosophy of death.
My broad points are this: If the bookends (and indeed Exodus upon which the entire Jesus story is built as an edifice) are found to be historically false, then on what epistemic grounds do you believe all the claims between these two bookends that do not intersect with known history? Indeed, they just become mere assertions. You can’t really believe something actually happened because it sounds nice and that is your only argument. There has to be some historical pedigree to believing historical claims. If, indeed, all you are taking from this is abstract moral learning, then this is merely abstract moral lessons that are effectively secular in nature. It is also case of cherry-picking the bits that you like and conveniently forgetting the bits that you don’t – on what basis is this done?
I will express my further comments in the very next post tomorrow morning so as not to make this too long.
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