Friday, June 08, 2012

How would Jesus have proved his own existence?

I like to dabble in the discussions on Jesus' existence from time to time, all the more so since I had a stab at putting together my own thoughts in NT Pod 47: Did Jesus Exist? last year.  James McGrath continues to keep the issue alive in his blog and his latest post Mythicism Around the Blogosphere provides links to recent activity.  I particularly enjoyed Loren Rosson's post on The Existence of Jesus and Doug Chaplin's Inventing the Mythical Jesus. Of course a lot of the discussion comes on the back of the new book by Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, which I was lucky enough to read and comment on in manuscript.

If I were in facetious mood, I would say: If only people were as interested in things that really matter, like the existence of Q!   I must admit that the question of the existence of Jesus strikes me as an extraordinary one.  Are there any other ancient figures about whom we torture ourselves in this way?  In my podcast on the topic, I said that in some respects it is a good question because it can keep us honest.  It pushes us to wrestle with the primary sources and to reflect on the nature of ancient history.  These are good things.  But good academic study is often a matter of asking good academic questions and it is not clear that the question "Did Jesus exist?" always produces the best academic discussions.

I am tempted to say that the problem with the question "Did Jesus exist?" is that it depends what we mean by "Jesus".  Where mythicism has popular appeal is in providing an antidote to fundamentalist Christianity and a particular version of a wonder-working superman. Most scholars don't believe in the fundamentalists' Jesus, practically by definition.  For those who do not know a lot about New Testament scholarship, mythicism can provide a refreshing one-stop shop for dealing with something they find problematic on other grounds.  I am not here talking about those who publish on mythicism as much as those who find their works appealing.

Even if we refine the question to "Did the historical Jesus exist?", we still don't have an easy time of it.  There are so many different reconstructions of the historical Jesus, each one only an approximation of what the historian can know on the basis of the extant sources.  There are lots of historical Jesuses that I do not believe in.  I don't believe in Crossan's historical Jesus because I don't believe in his sources.  I don't believe in Wright's historical Jesus because he believes all his sources.  I don't believe in Morton Smith's historical Jesus because he composed one of his sources.

And in this context, the word "exist" means what?  There's a kind of absurd reductionism in trying to load complex historical analysis of ancient source material into one natty little question.  I don't have any doubt whatsoever that the primary sources are, ultimately, witnessing to traditions some of which emerged in connection with Jesus of Nazareth but the really interesting work is not going to emerge from asking the question "Did Jesus exist?"

I wonder what Jesus would have made of the question?  How would he have established his own existence?  Herod the Tetrarch was rumoured to have worried that the figure they were calling Jesus might actually be John the Baptist risen from the dead.  John the Baptist is reported to have worried about who Jesus was too -- was he the coming one, or should they expect somebody else?  And according to the accounts of Jesus' arrest, they needed Judas to identify which one was Jesus, like Spartacus, or Brian.  

There is a delightful Roman joke that Mary Beard tells in her fantastic recent series Meet the Romans, here reported in The Guardian,
Beard tells me a Roman joke. "A guy meets another in the street and says: 'I thought you were dead.' The bloke says: 'Can't you see I'm alive?' The first replies: 'But the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you.'" It slayed them in 4BC Rome. Beard takes the joke to have a serious point: "You realise that in Roman society, where there were no ID cards or passports, proving your existence required different criteria. The evidence of a reliable person was perhaps the strongest you had. It was very different from our society, but who's to say it was worse?"
I love this joke, and I like the lesson that Beard draws from it.  And it reminds us once again, as if we needed it, that doing ancient history is not like doing modern history.  The vast majority of ordinary punters made no impact on the archaeological record from antiquity.  Their impact, their "existence", if you like, can only be measured in so far as they influenced the memories of those who told their stories, and only in so far as those embellished, interpreted, creative memories ultimately found their way into the texts that managed to survive.

85 comments:

VinnyJH57 said...

Are there any other ancient figures about whom we torture ourselves in this way?

My question would be "Are there any other ancient figures who are remembered primarily as a result of supernatural events that occurred after they died?"

Supernatural tales about Alexander the Great arose as a result of the things he accomplished during his life. If you scrape away the supernatural elements concerning Alexander, you still have a substantial historical footprint.

With Jesus, the only reason anyone transmitted or preserved stories about him is because a belief arose that he had been exalted to heaven after his death. If you scrape away the supernatural elements concerning Jesus, you scrape away the only reason he was remembered in the first place. There is little reason to think that Jesus would have left a discernible trace in the record had it not been for belief in his postmortem supernatural accomplishments.

It seems to me that Jesus of Nazareth really does pose unique problems for the historian.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Vinny. Agreed that there are special problems for the historian with Jesus of Nazareth -- and that's why Historical Jesus study is a kind of industry all its own.

But the issue about "supernatural events that occurred after [he] died" begs the question. After all, what was it about his life and people's interactions with him / memories of him / traditions told etc. that gave birth to those beliefs about his post-mortem life?

theologyarchaeology said...

The life, death and ressurrection of Jesus is to be taken by faith not scholarly study or large amounts of evidence. That is what the Bible is also about--faith.

If a modern person dies, you would be hard pressed to prove that he or she actually existed. Even with all the scientific and technological equipment available all the supposed evidenced could be legitimately challenged.

You are to use faith when it comes to the Bible, even Jesus' life for that pleases God. You make a choice to believe or not believe--it is that simple. All the scholarly discussion cannot change the rules.

VinnyJH57 said...

Dr. Goodacre,

I remain agnostic about a historical Jesus because when I look at our earliest source, I don't see much evidence that it was anything "about his life and people's interactions with him / memories of him / traditions told etc. that gave birth to those beliefs about his post-mortem life." It is not clear to me that anything in Paul's writings stems from such interactions or memories or memories rather than his own visions and understanding of scripture. I don't find the evidence sufficient to eliminate the possibility that it was the visions and revelations about his postmortem existence that gave birth to the traditions about his natural life rather than the other way around.

Mark Goodacre said...

theologyarchaeology -- this is exactly the kind of nonsense that drives scholars of ancient history nuts. We don't lump everything together and talk about "the Bible" and "faith" and making choices in this way when we are doing academic study.

Mark Goodacre said...

Vinny: Paul is regularly underestimated as a historical source for Jesus. There are lots of traditions about Jesus in 1 Corinthians in particular. But in any case, "postmortem" presupposes premortem, right?

VinnyJH57 said...

But in any case, "postmortem" presupposes premortem, right?

I'm not sure that it does. If I thought I saw the ghost of Robin Hood or King Arthur, that wouldn't really be any evidence that they had ever actually existed, would it?

I can see the traditions in 1 Corinthians that might have stemmed from an actual historical person, but the evidence doesn't seem strong enough to me to compel the conclusion that they did.

Mark Goodacre said...

If you saw a ghost of Robin Hood or King Arthur, that would be useless. But if someone reported such a vision within a generation of the life of the person in question, then that might be pretty interesting -- it would have to be analyzed alongside other traditions of the person in question.

VinnyJH57 said...

Dr. Goodacre,

I quite agree. The proximity in time between the death of the person and the sighting of his ghost seems significant. However, I would feel a lot better if the person who said he saw the ghost had known the person when he was alive as well.

Mark Goodacre said...

And that's the case with everyone in 1 Cor. 15 bar the "untimely born" Paul, right?

VinnyJH57 said...

And that's the case with everyone in 1 Cor. 15 bar the "untimely born" Paul, right?

Well . . . . I'm just not sure.

Paul never really says much of anything that indicates that any of them had any memories or traditions or interactions involving Jesus prior to the crucifixion. If I had never read the gospels, I'm not sure that I would have much reason to think that Paul believed that any of them had had encounters any different than his own, i.e., Paul might have thought that they only saw the ghost, too.

tomverenna said...

Everyone talks about proximity, but this is a point I make in my response to Ehrman on B&I. If no one was challenging the sun going dark or the dead rising from the graves in the Gospel account--no one--even though it clearly didn't happen, that tells us a lot about exactly how useful that proximity is. That is to say, it is worthless. People living during the period who were contemporaries of the events didn't bother correcting the Gospel accounts about such an absurdity. If they didn't bother challenging such events as the dead rising and walking all over Jerusalem, I'm pretty sure that it might also be that they wouldn't challenge the existence of a peasant preacher. This is the problem with traditions. Traditions, whether invented completely or mythologized later, were not challenged. Within a few decades, or within a generation or more, it seems that people just (a) believed the traditions regardless or (b) just didn't bother or weren't able to fact-check. So again, proximity is not valuable. Proximity is a criteria based upon wishful thinking.

Mark Goodacre said...

What do you think Peter and Paul talked about for two weeks when Paul went to Jerusalem three years after his call?

tomverenna said...

Absolutely Vinny. Paul goes on and on about how everyone experienced the same sort of appearance tradition that Paul did. Unfortunately, Paul does not go into details about this visitation, but he includes himself with the whole lot of others (the 500, the 12, the pillars, etc...) and we know from Galatians that Paul never met Jesus, but experienced his appearance via revelation. I make this point in my forthcoming collection of essays. In my opinion, and I might be wrong (but at this point I remained most convinced this is the case), Paul does not place these traditions on earth. Instead he recounts these stories as if a part of visions. I have been periodically working on a blog post discussing this. The problem is that I just lack the time. But definitely read my paper if you can, when it becomes available.

Mark Goodacre said...

On challenging the tradition, Tom, isn't that the very thing that is going on intra-synoptically? Or between the Synoptics and John? And proximity is important when it gives us contact with the tradents, as it does in the case of Paul.

Tom Verenna said...

'What do you think Peter and Paul talked about for two weeks when Paul went to Jerusalem three years after his call?'

According to Paul, we have no information about what they said or even if they talked. Paul says he saw them, and he probably spoke with them, but I think creating weak links to speculative claims is not useful to the conversation.

Mark Goodacre said...

The difficulty there, Tom, is that Paul clearly differentiates himself from the others who claimed to have seen Jesus ("as to one untimely born") and this is a constant cause of concern to him.

Mark Goodacre said...

"Or even if they talked": I like the idea that Paul and Peter just stared at one another for two weeks! Seriously, of course Paul and Peter talked about Jesus at that time and on future occasions. Notice also how others who travelled with Paul had links with Jerusalem, Barnabas, Silas, etc. It's nuts to think that they did not talk about Jesus, don't you think?

Tom Verenna said...

'On challenging the tradition, Tom, isn't that the very thing that is going on intra-synoptically? Or between the Synoptics and John? And proximity is important when it gives us contact with the tradents, as it does in the case of Paul.'

I am sorry if I'm being too Cartesian for you, but simply because Paul records a tradition doesn't mean that tradition is based in factual historical events. It may be tradition that Paul went to the third heaven but that doesn't mean he experienced such a thing.

And frankly, I'm not entirely convinced that we can say that proximity is even a factor here. Our earliest mention of Jesus, Paul, doesn't place Jesus' death and resurrection to any particular time. And we do not know if the Gospels were presenting the death and resurrection for a very theological or political purpose. We take them at face value, that they give us an accurate timeline of the tradition. But I don't think the Gospels...or the New Testament, for that matter...tells us anything valuable about Christian origins. I think that it is a good way to judge traditions in the communities at the time, but can we be sure that their record of a death of a prophet in the 30's CE is even factually reliable? I am not so sure.

Tom Verenna said...

'The difficulty there, Tom, is that Paul clearly differentiates himself from the others who claimed to have seen Jesus ("as to one untimely born") and this is a constant cause of concern to him'

I read that quite clearly as a metaphorical theological point. Not a chronological separation (i.e., I don't think Paul is saying he wasn't alive when the event occurred with the others). Are you reading that literally? I'm not sure how you are reading that as Paul separating himself from the group. Can you explain more?

Tom Verenna said...

'"Or even if they talked": I like the idea that Paul and Peter just stared at one another for two weeks! Seriously, of course Paul and Peter talked about Jesus at that time and on future occasions. Notice also how others who travelled with Paul had links with Jerusalem, Barnabas, Silas, etc. It's nuts to think that they did not talk about Jesus, don't you think?'

Paul doesn't say he saw them for two weeks. He doesn't specify a timeline. But of course they talked. But you're presuming the subject of the conversation. That is to say, you are probably right, and if you don't mind a gentle nod, I just find your opinions about what they spoke of a tad irrelevant and presumptuous. This is one of those times I would rather say 'I don't know' than muddy the water with Gospel-colored conceptualizing which does not bring us any closer to the facts.

Mark Goodacre said...

On timing, Paul speaks about all the witnesses to the resurrection bar a handful as still being alive, which links him to within a generation of the traditions he is relaying. And of course he knows Peter, James et al, which also links him with that generation.

Yes, of course we judge each tradition on its merits and don't take anything at face value. Let's just take that for granted -- none of us are fundoes here.

I think it is clear that Paul is often struggling with the charge that he is not really an apostle and that he did not spend time with Jesus. Paul insists in contrast that he had seen Jesus, even though he had not done so in the same time frame as the others. If the mythicists are right, Paul's defensive stance viz a viz those who were apostles before him is very difficult to understand.

Yes, Paul says 15 days with Peter. He saw no one else except James the Lord's brother.

VinnyJH57 said...

What do you think Peter and Paul talked about for two weeks when Paul went to Jerusalem three years after his call?

I'm not sure, mostly because Paul doesn't say, but it wouldn't surprise me if Paul did most of the talking. He was well educated while Peter was an illiterate peasant. He was a dynamic preacher who had been successfully spreading his message about the region for three years while Peter was still sitting in Jerusalem. Moreover, Paul might still have had a reputation for violent intolerance towards those who disagreed with him.

I don't think that the record provides us with any certainty about which way the information flowed at that meeting. I can easily imagine Paul explaining theological ideas like substitutionary atonement that might never have occurred to Peter and Peter thinking that the smart thing would be for him to hitch his star to Paul's.

VinnyJH57 said...

If the mythicists are right, Paul's defensive stance viz a viz those who were apostles before him is very difficult to understand.

I don't think that it's that hard to come up with a plausible alternative hypothesis.

If you look at the early history of the Mormons, you find various people who came into conflict with Joseph Smith over the direction the movement should take. These people may have seen Mormonism as a vehicle for their own particular spiritual vision, but they couldn't overcome the hold that Joseph Smith had already established.

Paul saw the Christ cult as a place where he could express his theological creativity, but it already had leaders who set the group's direction. Unlike Smith's challengers, Paul was eventually successful in imposing his agenda but he would have had to deal with the fact that the revelations of others with different ideas were already accepted.

Paul's defensive stance might be explained simply by the fact that his predecessors' revelations of the risen Christ were already accepted. It need not have been that his predecessor had encountered the earthly Jesus.

Sili said...

""Or even if they talked": I like the idea that Paul and Peter just stared at one another for two weeks! Seriously, of course Paul and Peter talked about Jesus at that time and on future occasions. Notice also how others who travelled with Paul had links with Jerusalem, Barnabas, Silas, etc. It's nuts to think that they did not talk about Jesus, don't you think?"

I'm sure I could spend two weeks talking about Odysseus without too much trouble.

It seems reasonable to me that people promoting a radical new interpretation of Scripture would talk about, you know, Scripture.

"He was well educated while Peter was an illiterate peasant."

I really, really wish this meme would go away for a while. Can we talk about the historical Peter instead of the historical Jesus?

If Peter was really an illiterate fishermen, would Paul have needed to talk to him for two weeks? The rivalry between Petrine and Pauline Christianities could have been settled if Paul had stressed his superiority to Peter. Why doesn't he do that? Could it be that only later tradition dared to diminish the role of Peter, once the memory original person had started to fade?

Sili said...

"Herod the Tetrarch was rumoured to have worried that the figure they were calling Jesus might actually be John the Baptist risen from the dead."

How do we know that?

"John the Baptist is reported to have worried about who Jesus was too -- was he the coming one, or should they expect somebody else?"

How do we know that?


"And according to the accounts of Jesus' arrest, they needed Judas to identify which one was Jesus, like Spartacus, or Brian."

How do we know that?

VinnyJH57 said...

Sili,

Yes, I absolutely agree that later tradition may have diminished Peter's role. History is written by the winners and Paul's faction seems to have won. I agree that we cannot assume that the education gap between Peter and Paul was as great as the New Testament seems to indicate.

Nevertheless, we can see that kind of a dynamic playing out in early Mormonism. Joseph Smith was uneducated and possibly even illiterate while some of his rivals knew much more about theology than he did. That influenced events and relationships. So while we can't assume that there really was a big education gap between Paul and Peter, there is nothing to disprove it either and it has the potential to explain some of the conflicts and tension.

I agree that we must be open to other possibilities, but it may be a bit much to expect the meme to go away.

VinnyJH57 said...

So again, proximity is not valuable. Proximity is a criteria based upon wishful thinking.

Tom,

I think this may be too strong a statement. I think that proximity could be valuable to someone who had a genuine interest in discovering the true story. We just can’t count on there having been any such people who had any influence on the development of the stories because, as you correctly point out, people are perfectly capable of swallowing fantastic stories with no proof whatsoever despite proximity

Geoff Hudson said...

How do you know Paul and Peter were not characters in a novel?

VinnyJH57 said...

How do you know Paul and Peter were not characters in a novel?

Outside of Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and perhaps Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged I can't think of many examples of large numbers of people mistaking novels for reality. On the other hand, I think that there are many examples of people mistaking religious myths for reality.

David Shepherd said...
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David Shepherd said...

The assumption here is that if we were confronted with incontrovertible evidence, it would be human nature to accept it. We can question the historicity of the apostolic record, but we do very little to question our own motives in doing so, e.g. moral inertia.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, at least, rings true with what we know of human nature. 'Neither will they believe, though one should rise from the dead'

1. We know what goodness is, especially because we can and have been the recipients of it. Our consciences are challenged to demonstrate it through our own means full-time.
2. We fall short of that full-time commitment to which we should aspire. We continually miss the mark.
3. We try to exonerate our partiality in neighbourly kindness with the question 'and who is my neighbour?'
4. If we were desperate to improve, we would give greater effort to finding a cure.
5. Actually, it's to relieve ourselves of obligation by impugning the authority of Christ.
6. Christ did not demand that the Jewish lawyer accept His messianic claims. He simply challenged him to a level of goodness that transcended popular prejudices. 'Go thou and do likewise'.
7. Of course, it's easier to dismiss any belief that would make our moral inertia inexcusable. So, we demand a higher level of historical proof than required of testimony in a murder trial.

As Paul said, 'we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater'. Too true!

VinnyJH57 said...

David,

It is entirely possible that I wouldn't believe even if the evidence were much better than it is. However, I don't think that this possibility justifies believing based on evidence that is weak.

informadordeopiniao said...

I can't believe in the difficulty of seeing that Matthew's account, about the dead rising from the tomb and entering in the "holy city " is more an evocation of a apocalyptic tradition in the community, put together with the tradition of death on the cross to bring together the “in-the-time” with the “out-of-the-time”. Do not be purposed as a historical account just like the crucifixion. That's why the audience did not question , it is a apart of the narrative . If this is about what the mystics are supported, they are really in bad shape . So why can't explain why the enemies of the Christians at that time also eluded that Jesus existed, including the priestly class... :/

informadordeopiniao said...

If the tale about the resurrected into the " Holy City " - Heavenly Jerusalem - had been taken as part of the body of historical narrative, different traditions have developed it.

Mark Goodacre said...

It's interesting to watch how the conversation has developed, not least because it does not resemble the way that ancient historians talk but rather the way that conspiracy theorists work. For scholars of ancient history, the primary texts are studied in the light of their broader knowledge of the field, with consensus positions understood and only challenged with self-conscious realization that that is what is happening. In this kind of discussion, though, the data is simply tortured to fit the extraordinary hypothesis with no serious engagement with the scholarly literature, and certainly no self-conscious realization of where the perceived difficulties might be.

Mark Goodacre said...

Sili: the hyper-sceptical nature of your thrice repeated "How do we know that?" ignores the carefully worded nature of my comments, "was rumoured . . . is reported . . . according to the accounts". My advice would be to avoid knee-jerk reactions and to temper the hyper-scepticism with a more sympathetic reading -- it will help improve the way that you engage with the scholarship.

Jim Deardorff said...

Below is an intermediate view: “Jesus” did not exist until Paul renamed the man as such, and until subsequent disagreements about the name change had been worked out in favor of Paul’s views – by the end of the first century. The man had originally been named ”Immanuel.”

1. Isaiah’s prophecy about Immanuel, the root of Jesse, was well known to Paul (Rom 15:12) and accepted by him. Yet in his epistles he never mentioned “Immanuel,” who had been his hated enemy before his conversion.

2. The prophecy was well known and believed also by John the Baptist, and also by the writer of Matthew (Matt 1:23). Hence, they along with Paul did not believe it was a near-term prophecy to be fulfilled during the reign of King Ahaz. It’s their belief that counts, not that of certain scholars millennia later.

3. Paul called him only by the name “Jesus” in better support of his main theme of salvation, and because he had detested the name “Immanuel” during his years of persecuting Immanuel’s followers. Hence he avoided direct mention of Isa 7:14 and total mention of Immanuel.

4. All writings that argued over the name change, or even mentioned the name ”Immanuel,” were later blotted out, until finally Irenaeus could mention it. This explains the dearth of writings about “Jesus” until around A.D. 94, and any mention of “Immanuel” until around 190. The Jewish clergy also would not have wished to mention the name of the blasphemous Immanuel.

5. Some other strong clues have survived, however, from certain Gnostic gospels that Christ’s true name was not to be mentioned: Acts of Thomas, Ascension of Isaiah, Interpretation of Knowledge, and perhaps the Gospel of Philip (search under “name”). Possibly also Hebrews 1:4.

Sili said...

Sorry for the knee jerkiness.

My point - was that these rumours, reports and accounts seem to be few and late. Given how much of the gospels we know to be embellishment - for lack of a better word - I do think it's reasonable to be skeptical of the rest of the claims therein as well.

I know absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, but the gospel writers to have form, when it comes to making stuff up.

My point - if I had one ... - was that rumours, reports and accounts are not corroborated by our first witness, Paul. Nor is the identification by Judas which you also mentioned.

I really do appreciate your excellent blog, and for what it's worth I'm not yet wedded to the idea that there was never a historical Jesus. It would be interesting if there weren't, certainly, but no less interesting if there were-

Sili said...

"I agree that we must be open to other possibilities, but it may be a bit much to expect the meme to go away."

I didn't mean go away for good without examination, of course. I just annoys me that the role of Peter is always dismissed out of hand, when we only have evidence given to us by his intellectual enemies. Or so it appears to this layman, at least.

Sili said...

"I think it is clear that Paul is often struggling with the charge that he is not really an apostle and that he did not spend time with Jesus. Paul insists in contrast that he had seen Jesus, even though he had not done so in the same time frame as the others. If the mythicists are right, Paul's defensive stance viz a viz those who were apostles before him is very difficult to understand."

Thank you. That sounds like a great point.

"Yes, Paul says 15 days with Peter. He saw no one else except James the Lord's brother."

Well, he presumably means for the purpose of discussing theology. He can hardly have stayed a fortnight in Jerusalem and seen only two people. Or was he smuggled in and out by night while Peter brought him his meals?

Bob MacDonald said...
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Bob MacDonald said...

What did Peter and Paul talk about? How about the Gospel to 'the Gentiles' or to 'all Israel'?

Geoff Hudson said...

'But the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you.'

Doesn't this sum up the kind of manuscript that we get from the ancient Roman period? One has to read it with a very sceptical view, as all the scholars tell us. In fact one could say that might was right. Inscriptions on tombstones, particularly from ordinary folk, seem to be more telling, as Mary Beard demonstrates. But dealing with manuscripts written by the mighty is an entirely different story.

theologyarchaeology said...

this is exactly the kind of nonsense that drives scholars of ancient history nuts. We don't lump everything together and talk about "the Bible" and "faith" and making choices in this way when we are doing academic study.

You will not find one word in scriptures that says to use academic studies when discussing God's word.
You will find many passages of scripture rewarding those who obeyed God and used 'faith' and believed. Jesus said it to Thomas when Thomas wanted evidence of Jesus ress.
Your comment seems to be saying that both Jesus and God are nonsense because they require faith not academic studies to determine Jesus' historical existence on earth.
One thing you should be aware of it is God's rules that matter not a scholar's.

ccryderer7 said...

The NT writers for sure were not the high and mighty.

I take issue with the expressed view that there were not attempts to dialectically destroy the Gospel accounts by ancient people in proximity to the era.

They most certainly did, Jews and pagans. The ancient Jews wrote lots of disrespectful trash about Jesus and inadvertently corroborated several Gospel threads:

1) That Jesus claimed to be Yahweh

2) That Jesus did miracles

3) That His mother's name was Miriam

4) That He was executed on Passover eve

5) That Isaiah 54:3 and the 4 canonical Gospels have it right when they said the ancient Jewish leaders considered the execution of Jesus a just act of God's.

The fact they didn't challenge other information is evidence to me they couldn't. We know they murdered Jesus and James, so they would have stopped at nothing.

http://answering-islam.org/Shamoun/talmud_jesus.htm

http://fortheloveoftruth.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/kabbalah-talmud-toldoth-and-the-shem-tov/

VinnyJH57 said...

I didn't mean go away for good without examination, of course. I just annoys me that the role of Peter is always dismissed out of hand, when we only have evidence given to us by his intellectual enemies. Or so it appears to this layman, at least.

Sili,

I think that your annoyance is justified. It is wrong to take something like that at face value, but of course, when it fits a particular argument that I like, I don't qualify my statements in the way that I should.

CJ Schmidt said...

Gosh, many of these comments were torturous to read.

Great post, Dr Goodacre! I particularly liked your comment about disbelieving the Historical Jesuses of Crossan, Wright, and Smith.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, CJ! Eventually it gets to the point where I just can't cope with the quality of the comments coming in.

Paul D. said...

Goodacre writes: "There are lots of historical Jesuses that I do not believe in.  I don't believe in Crossan's historical Jesus because I don't believe in his sources.  I don't believe in Wright's historical Jesus because he believes all his sources."

There seems to be something disingenuous going on among many Jesus scholars.

I am a good scholar if I reject Crossan's historical Jesus and Wright's historical Jesus but accept Ehrman's. I am a good scholar if I reject Ehrman's Jesus and Wright's Jesus but accept Crossan's. I am a good scholar if I accept Wright's Jesus but reject those of Ehrman and Crossan's. Yet, if I reject all of these mutually incompatible historical Jesuses, I am labelled a mythicist and a conspiracy theorist.

What is the assumption here? If I cannot find a paradigm of the historical Jesus that adequately explains Christian origins and the writings of the New Testament, am I not trying hard enough? Or am I just supposed to keep my mouth shut? Either way, this smacks to me of dogma and apologetics, both of which out to be kept out of academia.

Steven Carr said...

'Are there any other ancient figures about whom we torture ourselves in this way? '

Moses? Abraham?

As for your joke, didn't some people claim Nero was still alive after he had been reported dead, and considerable effort went into trying to show that Nero wasn't alive?

Steven Carr said...

MARK
There are lots of traditions about Jesus in 1 Corinthians in particular

CARR
Yes.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul explains how the early Christians symbolically ate the body of Jesus and symbolically drank his blood.

That doesn't happen to real people, does it?

Geoff Hudson said...

A Roman joke. "A guy meets another in the street and says: 'I thought you were dead.' The bloke says: 'Can't you see I'm alive?' The first replies: 'But the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you.'"

I don't know where Mary Beard got this joke from, probably the graffiti of an ordinary Roman. It says what an ordinary bloke thought of the establishment. They were con artists right from the top. They were people who created their own version of history and they had the power to recruit anyone to assist their cause. They recruited some Jewish ex-priests to assist in the creation of the writings attributed to Josephus, and most of the NT extant texts. The trade-off for the Jews was that they could write their version of Jewish history provided it didn't interfere with Rome. So the Rabbis gave-up on animal sacrifice, the source of their troubles, and created modern Judaism. The Christianos of Italy and the prophets of Judea, who obeyed the Spirit, not the law, and rejected animal sacrifice, were sandwiched in between and annihilated.

Sili said...

"Thanks, CJ! Eventually it gets to the point where I just can't cope with the quality of the comments coming in."

Sorry. I really do appreciate your hard work trying to keep the public informed. I honestly do ask out of curiosity, not for the sole sake of being confrontational.

Loren Rosson III said...

[Goodacre's excellent comment]

There are lots of historical Jesuses that I do not believe in. I don't believe in Crossan's historical Jesus because I don't believe in his sources. I don't believe in Wright's historical Jesus because he believes all his sources. I don't believe in Morton Smith's historical Jesus because he composed one of his sources.

[Paul D.]

There seems to be something disingenuous going on... If I cannot find a paradigm of the historical Jesus that adequately explains Christian origins and the writings of the New Testament, am I not trying hard enough? This smacks to me of dogma and apologetics, both of which out to be kept out of academia.

Mark is right that comments like these feel like a waste of time, but since I have some time to waste this morning...

There is nothing remotely disingenuous or apologetic about Mark's comment. All he is saying is that some scholarly treatments merit more respect than others, and he gives his explicit reasons for rejecting those of Crossan/Wright/Smith. I would add that it's no accident that the Schweitzerian figure of Sanders, Allison, Fredriksen, etc. has stood the test of time pretty well, while other reconstructions seem more like either passing fads or apologetic Christologies.

No one is being branded a conspiracy theorist for holding to the mythicist position itself. As Mark said in another comment, it's the knee-jerk reactions and/or unprofessional reasoning (by historian standards) mounting in this thread which point to the conspiracy mindset. And to call someone apologetic just because they see clearly why some HJ portraits are more suspect than others is as absurd as anything I've seen in a long time.

Steven Carr said...

LOREN
No one is being branded a conspiracy theorist for holding to the mythicist position itself.

CARR
SO have you read Ehrman's book where he starts comparing mythicists to Holocaust-deniers or his Huffington Post article which also played the Holocaust card?

Steven Carr said...

To change the subject totally from about appalling historical standards, Bart Ehrman writes 'With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.'

I had no idea we had such sources, or such precise datings of them.

I just wish I was able to see them.

Paul D. said...

Loren Rosson III:

I was careful not to call anyone specifically an apologist.

My point is rather that I agree when Goodacre and others when they observe that a particular HJ hypothesis is implausible or untenable. My problem is this: how is it any way academically rigorous or even simply honest to consider the Jesus of, say, NT Wright, whose dead body literally came back to life (in accordance with which of the conflicting Gospel accounts, who can tell) and then "ascended" by disappearing into a parallel nonphysical reality, as a valid historical hypothesis, while those who hypothesize about mythical origins for Christianity are mocked and vilified? Again, I don't apply this to Goodacre specifically, but there is a good lot of this irony going around in the blogosphere of late.

Or to put it another way, I can profess support for a historical Jesus hypothesis I know has no solid historical evidence, and be accepted as having a proper opinion, or profess agnosticism and skepticism about evidence for Jesus, and be smeared a mythicist kook.

Speaking as someone who didn't even think it remotely possible for Jesus to be non-historical until the rantings of McGrath and others finally got my attention and I began looking at the arguments, I see quite plainly that there is a heck of a lot of apologetics going on. Perhaps you should take a step back if you do not.

Loren Rosson III said...

LOREN
No one is being branded a conspiracy theorist for holding to the mythicist position itself.

CARR
SO have you read Ehrman's book where he starts comparing mythicists to Holocaust-deniers or his Huffington Post article which also played the Holocaust card?


Hi Stevie. Where have you been hiding out? I miss you pestering me on my blog.

But let me rephrase. I don't deny that rhetoric can get of hand in dismissing the mythicists, only that that is not what's going on here. And I would furthermore like to commend VinnyJH57 for his more helpful comments at the beginning of this thread, which demonstrate that fruitful dialogue with mythicists is possible.

David Shepherd said...
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David Shepherd said...

Let me re-iterate that resolving the historicity issue is not the central challenge of Christianity, it's overcoming moral inertia. That is not to say that historicity isn't a worthwhile discussion.

We could equally challenge the historicity of the Ten Commandments, when the real issues are:
1. whether any of them agree with your/my conscience and;
2. whether any of us consistently follow the agreement of conscience when it does.

'Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them'.

If the dictates of your conscience agree with the impartial, disinterested benevolence towards others and you have always lived up to that, your conscience will excuse you. If not, it will accuse you.

By this means, the law of your conscience has accomplished its work. The gospels only drive home that point.

Now, are you desperate to change when your conscience accuses, or is historicity just another excuse for moral inertia?

VinnyJH57 said...

Loren,

Thank you for the kind words, although I do profess to agnosticism rather than mythicism.

informadordeopiniao said...
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informadordeopiniao said...

Misticistas aren't like Holocaust deniers (Jewish Holocaust, Armeninan Holocaust, Syrian Holocaust, or otherwise). They are like the deniers of man going to the moon, or creationists, etc..
They need to say they are't taken seriously in the intellectual world due to a conspiação sinister, though unable to engage in publishing his level.
And they're just like what they are, because are attached to a in a predetermined unconditionally due to principle's petitions of philosophical and existential feelings, that precondicionam close to what they should not accept in the reality, since it is at stake for them a kind of "cultural cause" in addition to the historical study in itself .

Geoff Hudson said...

According to Mary Beard, we can disregard what Tacitus wrote about Nero killing early christianos. Tacitus was under Vespasian's influence to write propaganda. This hid Vespasian's responsibility for the violence.

Sabio Lantz said...

I made a diagram to try and capture the varieties of "Mythical Jesus" positions. See if you like it.
Love you podcasts!!

Dave said...

Many of these mythicist positions seem unwittingly to repristinate the historical pyrrhonism of the 16-17th centuries. In part, these objections to history as such necessitated or provoked the foundation of modern, wissenschaftlich historiography, as (to take but one example) Frederick Beiser has recently shown in his The German Historicist Tradition (OUP 2011). It would be interesting to revisit the so-called 'rehabilitation of history' in the 18th and 19th centuries and see how much of this debate has already been played out.

Geoff Hudson said...

Who built the Colosseum? With whose money did he build it? What did he exhibit in there? Was Nero alive then? I have to wonder what really happened to Nero. In a fanciful tale, he was helped to commit suicide by one Epaphroditus. Committing suicide seems a very Roman thing to do, that is according to Roman historians. About the same time Seneca committed suicide. Was that another fanciful tale told by Roman historians. And what happened to Nero's mother? Were all these christianos murdered by Vespasian's thugs.

Geoff Hudson said...

I suppose he would get a Roman historian to write the Testimonium Flavianus. But he wouldn't need to exist if a Roman historian wrote it.

Of greater interest to me, is the horrible garbled mess that follows. This must be more significant. Something about four 'Jews' who couldn't go to Jerusalem because they had broken the law, and taught people to believe in the 'wisdom' of 'the laws of Moses'. And a woman from the Roman elite who adopted this new form of belief. And why did Tiberias get involved?

Geoff Hudson said...

Was this woman from the elite the first believer in the new movement to come from Rome? Was her image to be found in the Catacombs of Rome? Was she the woman holding a child? And was that child Nero?

A favourite hobby of Roman historians (all post Nero), was to cast Agrippina as having many lovers. So was Mundus just another invented lover?

Had Agrippina been invited to a synagogue when it was "the hour"
of prayer (the fanciful hour to go to sleep). Did she believe that God had spoken to her.

Agrippina (Paulina) told her husband and friends about her experience. Her friends were amazed. Were these the women with Agrippina on the catacomb walls in worship?

Her husband who approved of what Agrippina had done, told his friend Tiberias. Tiberias questioned the synagogue leaders to find out about this Jewish movement and make sure they were harmless. These people were teaching something slightly different from some of those back in Judea. "They professed to instruct men in the 'wisdom' of the 'laws of Moses'" (Ant.18.3.5), not in the law. I think Tiberias liked this movement.

Geoff Hudson said...

Beard's Roman joke.

"A guy meets another in the street and says: 'I thought you were dead.' The bloke says: 'Can't you see I'm alive?' The first replies: 'But the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you.'"

Mary Beard and Mark have missed the point. This is a confession by someone in the know, someone from the uppercrust, who was used to manipulating lesser mortals, a liar.

radius said...
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radius said...

I am tempted to say that the problem with the question "Did Jesus exist?" is that it depends what we mean by "Jesus".

There must indeed be almost as many Jesuses as there are NT scholars - many of whom are barely recognisable as the Jesus of the canonical gospels. Hoffmann's bare-bones HJ seems to consist of a man called Jesus who was executed by the Romans (is this a unique individual? is this so different from a 'mythicist' position?) - yet he's also het-up enough about 'mythicists' to say that "there comes a point where Jesus denial borders on Holocaust denial".

Perhaps the crux of the matter is one of direction in time: for example, did this executed person gather mythical moss as time rolled on, or did belief based on mystical experience and scripture reach back to a figure that had a general archetypal rather than individual 'existence' to (again, for example only) flesh out a parousia that didn't happen?

radius said...

For scholars of ancient history, the primary texts are studied in the light of their broader knowledge of the field, with consensus positions understood and only challenged with self-conscious realization that that is what is happening. In this kind of discussion, though, the data is simply tortured to fit the extraordinary hypothesis with no serious engagement with the scholarly literature, and certainly no self-conscious realization of where the perceived difficulties might be.

The primary texts and scholarly literature are diverse (as you have noted) and extensive. You mention a few scholars and issues in your OP, but the tone set for the discussion was relatively general. I am not sure that in following that tone, the conversation has ended up resembling the way conspiracy theorists work.

I would be happy to discuss primary texts (in Greek anyway), ancient history, and what scholarly work I've read...where to start?

Geoff Hudson said...

The scholarly work has long been the product of believers.

As we have seen the relevant ancient history is heavily flawed.

Geoff Hudson said...

The total myth theory is ridiculous. We don't have all we do have from myth.

Geoff Hudson said...

Mark wrote:"After all, what was it about his life and people's interactions with him / memories of him / traditions told etc. that gave birth to those beliefs about his post-mortem life?"

This assumes that he existed and that he interacted with people who had memories of him, and thus puts the cart before the horse. It also assumes that the NT is a true record, which given that writers of the period are not exactly known for telling the truth, is too much of a stretch.

kilo papa said...

Vridar has an interesting post discussing some of the possible meanings of the word that is translated as "untimely born" in 1 Cor. 15:8.

Scholars seem far from certain as to the correct translation or meaning, contrary to Mr. Goodacre.

Geoff Hudson said...

Vridar tortures himself.

GoForIT said...

Dr. Mark Goodacre said:
"I don't believe in Crossan's historical Jesus because I don't believe in his sources. I don't believe in Wright's historical Jesus because he believes all his sources. I don't believe in Morton Smith's historical Jesus because he composed one of his sources."
I belong to those people here appreciating very much your site - an impressive work you are doing for us.
I also happen to belong to them who appreciate Crossan's work as well. Therefore, after reading your blogpost I acknowledge that I am a bit confused about your statement on him, that you do not believe in “his sources”. I guess you are meaning the so called source Q, even if that is neither a source invented by Crossan nor implemented only by him, as far as I know. But what else of Crossan's sources are you not believing in (I can't imagine that you mean all of them)? And for what reasons?
A scholar, as far as I see it, should not talk just about belief but give arguments for his position. Thus it would be great to get at least some arguments for your position versus Crossan or at least a link where to go to find out something about it oneself.
Thanks again for a really great site!
Greetings from Sweden.

GoForIT said...

Dr. Mark Goodacre said:
"I don't believe in Crossan's historical Jesus because I don't believe in his sources. I don't believe in Wright's historical Jesus because he believes all his sources. I don't believe in Morton Smith's historical Jesus because he composed one of his sources."
I belong to the people here appreciating very much your site - an impressive work you are doing to the gain for all of us.
I also happen to belong to them who appreciate Crossan's work as well. Therefore, after reading this blogpost I acknowledge that I am a bit confused about your statement on him, the hint that you do not believe in “his sources”.
I guess you are meaning the so called source Q, even if that is neither a source particularly invented by Crossan nor implemented only by him, as far as I know. But what else of Crossan's sources are you not believing in (I can't imagine that you mean all of them)? And for what reason(s)?
A scholar, as far as I see it, should not talk just about belief but give arguments for his position. Thus it would be great to get at least some arguments for your position versus Crossan or at least a link where to go to find out something about it oneself. I would appreciate that.
Thanks again for a really great site!
Greetings from Sweden.

gbarrett said...

It interests me that when scholars get challenged they usually retreat. The rest of us may just be uninformed ignoramuses, I don't know. But I see many good points made against several presumptions that Dr. Goodacre made and in his follow-up responses. His response? These mythicists are too unscholarly to even interact with. But, hey, didn't your write the post to start with?

Here are points that seem to have withstood Goodacre's reposte:

1. In 1 Cor 15, there is no link between those who first have visions of Jesus and an earthly Jesus. Paul seems to be stating that they had their visions first and he admits to that. He was a late comer to the party. That seems to me what he means by "untimely born," which wouldn't make sense if there had been an earthly Jesus because Paul would have been alive at that time. It does make sense if Paul means he was "born" into Christ (a term he does use elsewhere).

2. The reliability of using the Gospels for background facts on the historical Jesus: Dr. Goodacre protects himself with his qualifying tags, too, but that barely disguises his appeal to unreliable sources.

3. (This is my own observation) A conspiracy theory requires claims that there is a conspiracy. What is the conspiracy here? NO ONE (that I am aware of) is claiming that a cabal of NT scholars meets behind closed doors to purposely mislead the general population regarding the actual historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. (I am aware that there is at least one myth theory that the entire thing was made up, but even within mythicist circles, that position is fringe.) The argument mostly concerns the existence of a defended paradigm, something that Dr. Goodacre has written insightful posts about on this very blog.

4) We do not know what Paul and Peter talked about. The HJ proponent imagines that Peter shared the teachings of Jesus or whatnot. Paul, himself, denies that he received his information from humans and later says that the pillars "added nothing to his message." Paul only says he "stayed with" Peter for 15 days. That they talked about an earthly Jesus is begging the question. As another poster pointed out, correctly, they could have discussed their differing theological views regarding an entirely heavenly Jesus. Or just logistics regarding the mission itself. We don't know. To assume we do is presumptuous.

Having said all this, Dr. Goodacre is a fine scholar. I have not quite accepted his position on Q, having read Kloppenborg's response, but it sure raises questions that I did not have before. Thanks for your fine work, Dr. Goodacre. I disagree with you only in that I think the proposition that Jesus did not exist as a human being is worthy of consideration, an interesting question to explore, and possibly helpful in broadening our understanding of Christian origins.

gbarrett said...

Dr. Goodacre, I apologize for the double post. Here you say:

"I think it is clear that Paul is often struggling with the charge that he is not really an apostle and that he did not spend time with Jesus."

I think that the first part of this is clearly true. Paul was, as he states, a late-comer to the movement. He has honed in, though, and trying to carve his own niche and has to compete with those who came before him. I agree completely with that.

I am struggling to find support for the idea that being "really an apostle" entails spending time with the earthly Jesus. Where does Paul find it important to argue against the position that one must have spent time with the earthly Jesus in order to be "really an apostle?" Where does Paul say that anyone spent time with Jesus?

Don't you think you might be begging the question?

Jim Deardorff said...

gbarrett,

Why do you (and most others) assume that Paul (then Saul) had not actually seen and interacted with the earthly Jesus? His being the arch persecutor of the disciples (if not of Jesus himself before the crucifixion) certainly imlies that he had met up with Jesus and did not at all like what he heard. This is fully consistent with his having been a Pharisee, and with the Pharisees' opposition to Jesus. Paul certainly could not say he had been an apostle in his pre-conversion days!

Where does Paul ever write that he had NOT met up with Jesus before the crucifixion? From 1 Cor 9:1 he says he had (indeed) seen Jesus; this could not have referred to his post-crucifixion conversion event, since he had been blinded by the light and could not have seen Jesus then. So it must refer to a time before or during the crucifixion.

And if you can trust the embarrassing admission of 1 Tim 1:13 that Saul had "formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted" Jesus, the evidence clearly favors that Saul the persecutor had spent time with Jesus.

Dominick said...

Mark.

I am not a professional scholar. I cannot read New Testament Greek and have never studied the earliest Gospels. I am also a Christian. Yet for me Jesus Christ is the personification of divine reason. This is the Jesus Christ that I read in the gospel of Mark, not an historical figure but one who is crafted by a brilliant craftsman. I have to confess that I do find it astonishing that scholars such as yourself persist in believing that an historical Jesus Christ did exist when an alternative explanation is much more credible.

As you will know the writings of Josephus tell us of Judas the Galilean, a figure in early first century Judaea who during the time of the census of 6 CE encouraged the people to refuse to pay taxes

These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.
They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord.


Josephus was not fond of Judas and blamed his "philosophy" for many of the troubles in Judaea. Judas seems something of an anarchist and it is philosophy of anarchists to reject external authority, to reject an external Messiah or Christ and encourage people to look for Christ within their own hearts.

The early Christians were anarchists. Of course, anarchy eventually leads to chaos because human nature is untrustworthy but James creates Jesus Christ by adding Joshua, the disciple of Moses. As Moses took the Law to the chosen people, Joshua took the Law to the Gentiles.

This Jesus Christ was philosophically brilliant but too abstract for most Gentiles who were also turned off by some of the more ludicrous requirements of the Torah. The uprisings in Rome in 49 CE caused Claudius to expel most of the Jews was of great concern to Jews of influence.

In 50 CE at the council of Jerusalem, those of influence asked for a flesh and blood mythical Christ (like Horus or Attis or Adonis and Tammuz) with whom people could identify.

This is something that Paul provided.

Time for a plug. All this is explained in my book - Interpreting Mark - Christianity without an Historical Christ, as well as the brilliant moral teachings within the gospel itself.

Regards

Dominick Gardeb