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Which Is More Absurd?

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The right side of this window is unbounded

Over at Vridar, Tim Widowfield made an observation about the Overton Window as applied to NT scholarship, which all came about as a result of James McGrath comparing Jesus Mythicism to Creationism. Here, I’ll let Tim speak for himself:

The band of acceptable thought in the areas of social studies, politics, history, etc. can be quite narrow. If you stray too far from the norm, you may find yourself labeled as a nutjob. The Overton Window in politics, for example, may drift to the left or right, but its width remains essentially the same, which explains why certain policies in the U.S. that used to be considered within the bounds of normal, polite discussion are now considered “too radical,” and vice versa.

However, the boundaries in biblical studies are unique. In fact, we would be mistaken if we used the word “boundaries,” since the boundary on the right does not exist. Within the guild a scholar can still be considered competent and highly respected even though he or she believes all the books in the NT are authentic and the inspired Word of God. You can watch a debate between a mainline scholar and an evangelical scholar about whether half of Paul’s epistles or all of Paul’s epistles are authentic. But you’ll never hear from a scholar who thinks they’re all late and spurious.

McGrath and his crew would explain that an electrified fence that seals off all “unsafe” ideas on the left simply doesn’t exist. They would argue, simply, that no scholars in academia believe in those extreme, radical, silly ideas. In a way, they’re correct. Self-censorship and self-selection are much more effective (and cheaper) than relying on thought police. The advantage of unwritten rules is that scholars, aspiring scholars, and students internalize them. Of course, nobody argues for those “crazy” things, because anybody who would have done so has already opted out, and anyone remaining who privately thinks that way is smart enough to keep her dangerous thoughts to herself.

So we arrive at the question proposed as the title of this post. Which is more absurd: That a personal god exists, incarnated (one third of) himself in the form of Jesus the Nazarene, and that the NT is at least 90% accurate in recounting the origins of Christianity; is literally the (inspired) word of god? Or that a pretty pedestrian nobody who more secular scholars claim to be the founder of Christianity didn’t actually exist?

A better way of framing it: Which is more mundane? More boring? More “every day” ho-hum? A nobody was such a nobody that he didn’t actually exist, or the NT is basically a CNN-like report of the beginnings of Christianity?

Which should require more evidence to convince you of: A normal, boring, everyday event? Or something extraordinary like god himself walking among us mortals in the flesh for a few years?

As one should know by now from reading this blog, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; that’s not just some pithy saying or thought-terminating aphorism. It is an inexorable mathematical conclusion. I personally waver around 45% – 55% likelihood that Jesus existed (I have yet to read Richard Carrier’s and Rafael Lataster’s books on the subject; I’ll probably get to them once I finish this semester of grad school). But the entire orthodox Christian interpretation of Christianity’s genesis? That is exceedingly extraordinary, and would require much more evidence to convince me of than the evidence necessary to show that Jesus didn’t exist.

The fact of the matter is that conservative/literalist biblical NT scholars (who are also much more likely to be actual Creationists!) are welcome in the guild while scholars who go about questioning the existence of Jesus are beyond the pale. This is evidence, to me, that something too far removed from just scholarship is going on to explain the disparity. Indeed, it seems more like basic tribalism. To the more liberal NT scholars, biblical literalist NT scholars are fellow Christians. While Jesus Mythicism is overflowing with atheists and agnostics.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in historical jesus, jesus myth

 

Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

The parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field.

http://vridar.org/2014/09/02/jesus-did-not-speak-in-parables-the-evidence/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=jesus-did-not-speak-in-parables-the-evidence

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in early Christianity, historical jesus

 

Richard Carrier Takes On Maurice Casey

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Truth be told, I haven’t been keeping up with the historical/mythical Jesus hypothesis all that intently. I’ve been reading about it tangentially, but it hasn’t been at the forefront of my thoughts on religion and early Christianity.

As you might have noticed, I’ve been blogging about the psychological reasons why people are religious more recently. Quite honestly, the historical/mythical Jesus argument looks hopelessly theoretical without anything concrete to explore so I maintain my agnosticism. Really, all of the evidence that we currently have regarding Jesus is probably all of the evidence that we’re ever going to have about Jesus so the only thing that can change at this point is probably something more political/psychological/cultural.

But anyway, Carrier has a lengthy rebuttal to Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?. I have to get this disclaimer out of the way: I haven’t read Casey’s book, so I’m in no position to comment on the accuracy of Carrier’s portrayal of Casey’s arguments. But Carrier has always been good about not strawmanning opponents and his works are always well evidenced so my prior probability that it faithfully reports Casey’s arguments is pretty high.

What was really interesting about this review — as I mentioned above, from the context of why people are religious — is that Carrier points out a host of cognitive biases that points to the idea that Casey identifies too strongly with being a “Jesus historicist” to even allow for the possibility that Jesus mythicists can actually have good arguments. Take a look at this:

Deficit of Hypothetical-Categorical Reasoning

Casey is often incapable of understanding his own critics. So bizarrely, in fact, that it suggests a genuine cognitive deficit usually characterizing persons with an abnormally low IQ. I caught several examples of Stephanie Fisher exhibiting exactly the same cognitive deficits, where she could not think in abstract, hypothetical terms, but only in concrete, literal terms, resulting in bizarre misunderstandings of rather basic explanations of things (she had an extremely hard time understanding conditional “if, then” statements, or thought experiments, or even the purpose of counterfactual reasoning).

To understand how Casey shows the same cognitive deficiency, you need to first read an unrelated example of what I am talking about, based on a study of such reasoning. Once upon a time some researchers tested subjects in remote and previously largely illiterate villages of Uzbekistan and neighboring areas, as follows:

In a typical exchange the questioner asks: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there?” One peasant answers: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear, I’ve never seen any others. … We don’t talk about what we haven’t seen.” Exchanges of this sort could be repeated at length. In essence, the peasants refused, or were unable, to reason hypothetically. Similarly, when asked about similarities between objects, they tended to group them by similar use rather than by similar abstract categories. For them, a saw and a hatchet go together because they are both needed to make firewood, not because they are both tools (and, moreover, a log needs to be included in the group for utilitarian completeness).

The people tested had adequate vocabularies and detailed knowledge about their world. The exchanges with the testers revealed that they were often quick-witted, clear thinkers. They were, however, not comfortable with abstract or hypothetical thinking and found such thinking to be alien. In their world, abstract categories and hypothetical thinking were, frankly, not perceived to be very useful, and even faintly preposterous. Sometimes their answers implicitly said as much. Even if such habits of thought had been potentially useful, no one was disadvantaged because no one else in the community thought in such ways either. Not having such habits of thought, they did not develop expertise in dealing with problems involving abstract categorical and hypothetical (ACH) thinking assessed by the Raven’s and Wechsler Similarities tests.

Historically, neither peasants, nor laborers, nor tradespeople nor, indeed, practically anyone anywhere had much use for such skills prior to the 20th Century, except philosophers, scientists, and perhaps a few others.

James Allan Cheyne, “Atheism Rising: Intelligence, Science, and the Decline of Belief,”

Skeptic 15.2 (2009), pp. 33-37; see also James Flynn, What Is Intelligence? (2007)

You might not think this could possibly be relevant.

Just wait.

A stark example of this is when Casey repeatedly says no one else ever talks about crucifixions in heaven, therefore it’s impossible that anyone would imagine crucifixions occurring in heaven (6-5013, 5126, etc.). This is just like claiming not to know if bears in the north are white because you haven’t seen one. It’s hyper-concrete thinking.

In actual fact, in Jewish cosmology, all sorts of things that exist or occur on earth also do so in heaven: fighting, writing, scrolls, temples, chairs, trees, gardens. The Revelation of Moses has Adam buried in heaven (in the Garden he was made from, the very Garden Paul says was in the “third heaven” in 2 Cor. 12, just as the Rev. Mos. also says, in which Adam’s fall is described literally: a fall from the heavenly Garden to the earth below). So there’s even dirt in heaven, and corpses, and graves (Eve is also buried there, along with others). And indeed as the Ascension of Isaiah and the book of Hebrews both say: in general things on earth have correlates in heaven (Asc. Is. 7.10; Heb. 9.22-24; Philo provides an elaborate explanation; many Jewish cosmological texts elaborate on the objects and occurrences in heaven that have counterparts on earth).

If people can be buried in heaven, and fight battles in heaven, and visit temples in heaven, then they can be crucified in heaven. But to grasp that requires abstract-categorical-hypothetical reasoning: you have to be able to infer from the abstract hypothesis “ancient Jews imagined all kinds of things happening in heaven” to “crucifixion can be one of those things,” just as one has to be able to infer from “it snows in the north and bears in snowy places are white” to “bears in the north are white.” Saying bears in the north can’t be white until you literally see one yourself exhibits a major deficit in ACHR. And here, though we’re even explicitly told that the things and activities on earth have correlates in heaven (and have countless examples of this belief), Casey can’t imagine any unless he can find a specific text specifically saying so. That is a cognitive defect. And it greatly impairs his ability to reason.

Now Casey (and his student, Stephanie Fisher) is obviously a high IQ individual, or he probably wouldn’t have become an expert in Aramaic. And he also, ironically, must be able to work with abstractions since his fringe hypothesis that Mark is based on a previous Aramaic work is, well, hypothetical. No such text exists, so Casey is manipulating a document in the abstract to arrive at his conclusions. Therefore it seems highly likely that Casey must be suffering from an extreme cognitive bias that prevents him from analyzing mythicist arguments dispassionately.

This, again, fits my experience with this whole debate. A lot of bad blood has been seething between historicists and mythicists over the past four or five years I’ve been reading about it. It’s definitely leaning towards becoming a full on Green vs. Blue issue. What’s more, which is also pretty sad IMO, is that a historical Jesus has very little to nothing to do with the emergence of Christianity. At least, from a secular perspective. The vast majority, if not the entirety, of the Gospel narratives are myths. None of the epistle writers in the NT met Jesus nor do they seem to care about any of his teachings. So Jesus the man has almost no relevance to why Christianity became the religion that it did. Whether Jesus was real or a myth seems more like a MacGuffin.

But, yeah. Carrier’s review of Casey’s book is pretty brutal. I’m looking forward to reading Carrier’s actual mythicist book, On The Historicity of Jesus when it comes out in the next few months.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2014 in historical jesus, jesus myth

 

Was Jesus A Carpenter?

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Neil Godfrey is reviewing Thomas Brodie’s memoir Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery which is Thomas Brodie’s journey from a historical Jesus to an ahistorical Jesus. Brodie points out an interesting bit of evidence concerning Mark’s use of the word “carpenter”; which is the popular English translation of the Greek τέκτων::tekton (where we get the word architecture). Neil quotes from chapter 17:

Mark 6:1-6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him.

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

[…]

Brodie begins with the context. It is the reported miracles of Jesus that are the critical concern of the people. (Brodie identifies these miracles in particular as related to themes of “creation, life and death (Mk 4.35-5.43).”) Moreover, he identifies this section of Mark as having a

significant literary dependence on the (Septuagintal) book of Wisdom. Beginning in Wisdom 10, several chapters of the book of Wisdom speak of both God’s role as creator and life-giver and of the failure of many people to recognize God as the true technites, the supreme craftsman (Wis. 13:1; cf. Wis. 13.22, Wisdom is technites panton, ‘the worker of all things’).

Instead the people’s vision is limited to the kind of vision found in the woodcutter (the tekton, Wis. 13.11); that is all they can see

[…]

“The mindless people in Wis. 13:1-9 do not recognize the technites, the supreme craftsman, and turn their minds instead to lifeless things such as the tekton produces (Wis. 13:10-14:4). And the audience at Nazareth do not recognize the presence of the Creator in Jesus the miracle-worker but can focus only on the world of woodcutting, and so they call him a tekton.”


Brodie draws the conclusion that should be obvious. Wisdom 13, especially its account of the failure of the people to discern the works of the Creator, seeing only the works of a tekton,

“provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tekton; it accounts fully for Mark’s data. In essence: once the literary connection is seen, the historical explanation is unnecessary; it goes beyond what is needed to explain the data.”

This reads like a pretty solid conclusion. Of course, resting the entire argument that Mark is using other writings and not oral tradition/historical memory on this one instance is fallacious. But under the assumption that Mark is using other literature — e.g. the Wisdom literature — in the construction of his narrative this observation seems to fit like a glove. Under an alternative assumption, e.g. a historical one, it either adds too many hypotheses (this pericope is a result of Wisdom literature plus history) which is a worse explanation than one that leaves the plus out of it.

Which side of the argument you land on at this juncture depends on your prior probability that Mark is using historical memory, oral tradition, or some other non-historical source.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in early Christianity, historical jesus, jesus myth

 

An… Interesting Interview With Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan has a new book out called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In this book he argues that the historical Jesus was a Zealot. Like I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m agnostic about the existence of Jesus. But the reconstruction that I feel makes the most sense of his crucifixion is if he were himself a Zealot (owing to the strange translation between “Canaanite” and “Zealot”) or if he had really strong ties to the Zealot party (as opposed to the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes) . For example, I wrote:

Simon the Zealot in the gospel narratives is the same Simon the Zealot in Josephus. Josephus’ Simon was executed (along with his brother James [the Zealot]) sometime in the mid 40s CE.

It’s telling that two of Jesus’ disciples share the same names as these two sons of Judas [the Zealot]. Not only that, but these two are also among the “pillars”. While I think that part is coincidence, I do think there’s significance that Simon the Zealot was listed as one of Jesus’ disciples in Mark and the other two Synoptics. I don’t see any reason for Simon the Zealot’s inclusion, either from a wholly literary point of view or from the traditional peace preaching Jesus historical view.

What if Jesus on the other hand was the disciple of Simon the Zealot and not the other way around?

This would mean that not only is Mark’s narrative theology; that Mark’s Jesus is mythical, but that Mark’s narrative is also apology. I think this makes sense of the silence in early Christian writings about the teachings of Jesus – because there were none. This makes sense of why no one talked about any of the Earthly activities of Jesus – because he was a revolutionary, and his actions were disreputable. That’s why they used to think of “christ” from a human point of view (2 Cor 5:16) but no longer. This might mean that Jesus was executed along with the brothers James and Simon, hence the two other criminals on the crosses with Jesus.

So I’m partial to Aslan’s thesis that Jesus was a Zealot.

As for the interview itself, the Fox News correspondent comes across as obtuse and unable to think outside of a very narrowly defined box. She actually sounds eerily like how some NT scholars react to the Jesus Myth hypothesis. Her objections to Aslan being a Muslim writing about Christianity — even though he has the relevant expertise — sound a lot like Bart Ehrman’s objection to anyone writing about the historical Jesus unless they had super-duper specific qualifications. And the fact that the Fox News’ correspondent’s questions were answered right in the book reminds me of how James McGrath doesn’t read books he reviews. It’s interesting how bias always looks the same, no matter the medium.

 

Comparing Jesus To Alexander The Great

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Hector Avalos has a great post over at Debunking Christianity where he takes down the fallacious comparison of the historicity of Jesus and events in his life with the historicity of Alexander and events in his life:

Despite these problems with the sources, the existence of Alexander is a reasonable belief because he has wide and independent attestation from all types of sources, and not just those of his own followers.

Some of these sources date from his own time, and are attested archaeologically, not just from later accounts. So, we don’t just have to depend on later historians such as Plutarch and Arrian.
For example, reliefs at the Shrine of the Bark at Luxor in Egypt mention Alexander by name, and depict him artistically during his lifetime (ca. 330-325 BCE). That would confirm his presence in Egypt mentioned by all major ancient sources.

We also have a Mesopotamian tablet, now at the British Museum and designated as BM 36761, which mentions Alexander by name, and refers to his entry into Babylon (See Mesopotamian evidence):

-Akkadian (BM 36761, Reverse, line 11): A-lek-sa-an-dar-ri-is LUGAL ŠÚ ana E.KI K[U4

-English: “Alexander, the king of the world, entered Babylon

Of course, Alexander is also mentioned or referenced in the Bible itself (1 Maccabees 1:1-7; Daniel 8:4-8, 21) [link to my blog post on the subject].

The claim found in Plutarch and Arrian that Alexander conquered Babylon is paralleled by this Mesopotamian source, which is not a Greek source or dependent on a Greek source or cannot be said to have been written by a Greek follower of Alexander.

When Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources, which are not otherwise dependent on each other, say the equivalent of “Alexander was here” during his lifetime, then it is reasonable to believe that there existed a man named Alexander who was present at those places.

That is why it is unfair to compare Jesus to Alexander in terms of historical evidence for their existence. There is nothing outside of later Christian sources saying Jesus was anywhere in his lifetime. Nothing in the New Testament is fully contemporary with Jesus.

There also are no Roman or Greek sources saying that there was even a group who believed that Jesus lived or did anything the Gospels allege about him. There is no archaeological evidence of his activities or of the activities of his group from Jesus’ supposed lifetime.

That absence of evidence is curious because, when speaking of Christianity, Acts 28:22 (RSV) says “everywhere it is spoken against.” More traces should remain in the first century of a group that everyone was speaking against.

In the case of Alexander, his fame was present in wide range of sources as is expected of someone who was said to have conquered the known world. Alexander was closer to someone “everywhere spoken about” and there is independent corroborating evidence to confirm that.

It’s a long post, but it’s well worth reading. The point being is that not everyone in antiquity has the same amount of evidence for their actions/existence, and being skeptical of one doesn’t necessitate throwing out the entirety of historiography.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in historical jesus, historicity, historiography

 

Criterology Was Born From Form Criticism; Form Criticism Was Never About Historicity

Therefore, criteriology was never about historicity.

Neil Godfrey reviews the recent bookJesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity:

So the form critic’s task is to separate the various strata in the Gospels. Some details belong to “the original historical tradition” and other strata belong to the author. How to separate these is the aim of form-criticism.

But why should their be a difference between the “original historical tradition” and the overlay from the author?

The form critic answers this by pointing to another assumption: that the gospels were composed by “Hellenistic Christians” who were removed from the original Palestinian Christians who were responsible for creating the earliest traditions about Jesus. The Palestinian Christians initially created oral traditions, not literary ones. It is these oral traditions that were taken by the later literary Christians and reshaped into written narratives expressing a particular theological point of view.

The form critic’s job was to break apart the units of early Jesus tradition from the theologically influenced narrative of the Gospels.

Once this was done the form critic would use these “free-standing units” to reconstruct the earlier oral tradition of the Palestinian church. […]

Form criticism was meant to discover the pre-literary oral tradition.

From the 1950s on scholars sought to discover something else: they sought to find the authentic Jesus traditions — the historical Jesus with the tools that had been designed to find the pre-Gospel tradition.

So for instance, the Criterion of Embarrassment was never meant to find out what the historical Jesus did. It was meant to separate what served the interests of “the Church”  from oral traditions that (might) have gone before it. Current historical Jesus scholars have taken an extra step: assuming that “oral tradition” meant “historical Jesus”.

Over time, the “oral tradition” part is completely ignored and criteriology is assumed to uncover information about the historical Jesus full stop.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in historical jesus, historicity, historiography

 
 
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