SocraticGadfly: Jesus mythicism and better ideas

March 17, 2016

Jesus mythicism and better ideas

I'm on record at this blog and my main blog as challenging the thought processes and intellectual level of the leading current crop of Jesus mythicists, or Jesus denialists, as I've called them.

Even the best of them are but second-rate in terms of actual biblical scholarship, and those below the level of the best aren't actual biblical scholars.

That said, I've also said that, while I reject the Jesus denialists — in part because for most of them, their pseudointellectual claims are part of broader Gnu Atheism — I don't reject Jesus mythicism in general tout court.

First, I should note that there's mythicism in the narrow sense, and there's mythicism in a broader sense.

The narrow sense is that the "protagonist" of the New Testament is entirely fictional.

The broader sense is that the Jesus of the Christian New Testament is a somewhat "true to life" character; that is, no such person existed with the alleged historic framework we are presented, but one (or more) people did exist upon whom the Jesus character was based. (I've also said that issues with mythicist claims need to be separated from issues with Gnu Atheism; not all mythicists are Gnus.)

I myself have wondered if Jesus wasn't based on one of the 800 Pharisees crucified by Alexander Jannaeus. That gives the Jesus story an extra century of development time. Combine that with just a 10-15 percent growth rate per decade, far less than what Christianist (sic) sociologist Rodney Stark has postulated — a 40 percent growth rate — and Christianity could be one-quarter of the Roman Empire, setting aside extra-Imperial growth in the Sassanid lands, Armenia, Georgia, and elsewhere, by the time of Constantine. That would be enough to make it influential, yet leave large swaths of the Empire pagan then, and fair amounts still that way a century later.

Said Jesus the Pharisee could have founded a school, like Hillel or Shammai, but perhaps more syncretistic or something.

Or, even a Jesus who lived just half a century before the actual — rather than being born shortly before Herod died, being killed at Herod's hands at about that time.

Now, as far as supporting something like this, rather than making arguments from silence that backfire because they could be used against all sorts of figures of antiquity, or other nonsense, just a couple of passages from Paul suffice to make some sort of mythicism at least plausible.

The first is Galatians 4:4, which reads:
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law...

Before going down the exegetical road, several points must be laid out.

For the totally unaware, that is that Paul was writing some 20 years ahead of Mark, and at least 35, in my opinion, or more, ahead of Matthew, and probably 45 or more ahead of Luke. Galatians was either Paul's first letter, or his second, after 1 Thessalonians, written just after 50 CE.

So, we can't assume that Paul meant Jesus was born of Mary.

That verse above is the only thing in either the genuine OR pseudepigraphal Pauline letters where we hear about a detail of a physical Jesus, other than "you proclaim the Lord's death until he returns" in 1 Corinthians at the end of Paul establishing the Eucharist.

Even many liberal, critical New Testament scholars seem not to fully grasp that, just like they fail to translate the Greek "apodidomi" in the Eucharist as "arrested" rather than "betrayed," and thus read Judas into 1 Corinthians when Paul actually says nothing about him.

As for companions of Jesus, Paul mentions but two: James (the brother of the Lord) and Cephas. (Not Peter, except for in Galatians 1:18, where some manuscripts have Cephas, which I think is to be preferred as a reading.)

So, we have James, nowhere mentioned as a disciple in the four canonical Gospels (unless you think James the brother of John in the same person) and a Cephas, which yes, does mean the same in Aramaic as Peter does in Greek, but may, or may not, be the same person. (Angle three, since we're into mythicism, is that a "Cephas" was himself, like any "Jesus," radically reworked by the time we're into the Gospels.)

And, no, this is not some radical wild hare of my own; a distinction between Peter and Cephas as two different people goes back to some early Church Fathers (albeit not recognizing they were sowing tares among their wheat).

Anyway, there you have it.

Paul tells us nothing about Jesus himself other than he was a human being, and that itself may just be an anti-Gnostic or anti-Docetist statement. 

As for Jesus' life history, contra conventional readings of 1 Corinthians and Cephas passages, he tells us nothing about Jesus' life story that squares with the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. (Per the link above, John does use the Aramaic "Cephas."

That said, I disagree with the final thrust of the linked piece, which is an attempt to "save" Peter for papal authority and primacy. 

It seems clear, though, that per that link and the use of James with the modifier "the brother of the Lord" as a leader of the early Jesus movement again goes directly against the Gospels, where Jesus himself is recorded as saying, "who is my mother and brothers and sisters," and elsewhere allegedly being described as crazy by his own family.

Let's put this all on hold for a minute.

The verse in Galatians is just one of two Pauline passages for consideration.

The other is his Christological hymn in Philippians 2:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
 Again, critical Christian scholars seem to have their hands on something but they don't fully grasp it.

They recognize that this is a relatively "high" Christology.

But, they don't connect this with Philippians being written just a couple of years after Galatians, or really talk about how this elevated a Christology appeared so quickly. That issue is in more pressing need of explanation if you follow critical scholarship, as I do, in noting that Paul is using pre-existing material here.

So, we know Paul never met Jesus. Did he even have an idea of a historical Jesus he was hanging his hat on? Maybe, similar to Metatron of some of the Enoch literature, Paul's working with an archetype that he's trying to humanize.

And, while most "non-canonical" gospels are derivative, the Gospel of Peter reflects some traditions that are seemingly as old as those of Mark, but yet independent. An earlier floruit for a 'core historic Jesus" allows more time for a wider stream of tradition to have developed.

At the same time, other non-canonical documents further show the development of independent traditions early in Christian life, like the Didache's take on what has come to be called the Eucharist.

And per that plurality of traditions, that's another good argument, per this debate, also linked here, against mythicism in its narrow sense, at a minimum. Unfortunately, the author/framer of the debate either doesn't know New Testament scholarship that well or is engaging in some big cherry-picking. Dykstra misrepresents Q, claims that Lucan source "L" must represent only a written source (even if Ehrman claims that, which I've not heard, it's not true) and more. (Dykstra, per his blog, is not a biblical scholar, and per what I've said elsewhere about the academic qualifications, or lack thereof, of leading horseman of Jesus mythicism, probably is less a biblical semi-scholar than I am.) As for claiming L, and M, have no manuscript evidence, that's the old "argument from silence" that's a petard of sorts, even a potential hand grenade, for mythicism. We still have new manuscripts being discovered today, and even if a manuscript isn't discovered, that doesn't mean it never existed.

That said, Dykstra is right about "oral tradition" being a thin reed. Despite someone like John Lord on Balkan bards (a New Testament prof of mine leaned heavily on him) and the stress on orality in Vedic religion, they both make clear that oral transmission is based most strongly on formulaic materials, usually structurally formulaic like poems and hymns. Certainly, something like the Philippians 2 hymn fits this. But, while noting that L and M could have been more than one document each, the idea that they could be oral doesn't stand up well.

That said, Dykstra then goes on to set up seeming straw men. Ehrman nowhere refers to the "Jesus interpolation" in Josephus as an argument against mythicism. I don't know off the top of my head if he appeals to Tacitus or not; I don't myself, I can tell Dykstra that.

As for the Thomas Brodie he cites as a new light in mythicism? His riff on why Mark used the word "tekton" in referring to Jesus is, to put it charitably, stretching things.

To put it uncharitably, it's laughable.

Acts 14:17 DOES refer to the architect or shaper, and without connecting this to Jesus at all. Given that it was likely written 30 years later than Mark, one would have thought that it would have picked up on that idea. Rather, the other Synoptics "softening" Mark make clear they thought he was calling Jesus an actual carpenter.

From there, Dykstra clearly grasps at straws, with something like this:
As another biblical scholar, Joel Willitts, observes, "Over-confidence in what the tools of the historical-critical method can satisfactorily produce pervades Jesus research.” An article Willitts published in 2005 carefully examined the historical criteria used by six different Jesus scholars. ...
What Dykstra doesn't tell the reader is that Willits teaches at a conservative evangelical college and can hardly be called a bible scholar.

Dykstra does raise other good points, at the same time. If there was a historic Jesus as recounted by the gospels, and a historic James who was the non-Catholic blood brother of Jesus, how did he go from rejecting his brother, per the Synoptics, to being a key witness of his, per both Paul and Acts? (That seems even more problematic for David Tabor, Robert Eisenman and his ilk. And, it can't be interpreted a Pauline-based anti-Jamesian tradition in the Synoptics, as Paul himself calls James a leader of the church in Galatians, and refers again to this in 1 Corinthians 3. Or can it? By 1 Corinthians, if there ever was an Apostolic council in Jerusalem as reported in Acts, even if it did temporarily paper over differences, Paul had rejected Jacobean ideas on such things like requiring Gentiles to only eat kosher-slaughtered meat and food devoted to pagan idols.)

One doesn't need to believe in a "betrayal" of Judas to accept something like a literal Passion story. As I've noted elsewhere, this appears to be likely due to Mark getting "apodidomi" in the Pauline account of the Eucharist wrong, interpreting it as a passive voice rather than a middle voice verb.

As for citing Brodie as a worthy opponent to Ehrman, the fact that Brodie apparently thinks Paul as well as Jesus were mythical makes this, and Brodie's book, a head-scratcher. I mean, the mythicism of Paul is even more laughable than the mythicism of Jesus.

As for the book Dykstra briefly cites, "Is Not This the Carpenter," no, most of the "scholars" in it are not "well-known and well-respected," and from what I saw at Amazon, those who are, are at best for Dykstra's cause, agnostic, if that, on Jesus mythicism. That said, the scholars who do fit that are connected with a more-respected actual academic school of Biblical interpretation, Copenhagen, than Brodie, let alone American mythicists. (I agree with the "mainstream" within the Copenhagen school on a lot of its Old Testament/Tanakh findings. I think a historical David likely did not exist. I certainly think the size of any Davidic or Solomonic kingdom was not that large. And, I think it's possible no historic Solomon existed.)

And, Dykstra does note well that, in the likes of Thomas Thompson of Copenhagen, Ehrman does sometimes draw his "New Testament specialist" net too tightly. However, even without that, if Wiki is accurate, Thompson is on the "far fringe" of Copenhagen, and not just the far fringe of Old Testament/Tanakh scholarship, if he believes almost all the Tanakh was composed between the fifth-second centuries BCE. Thus, I find him less than fully credible for that reason alone, and as noted, I don't think the majority of the Copenhagen school goes as far as he does.

Conventional scholarship still stands behind the "documentary hypothesis" for the Torah, with the JED strands all in written form before the Exile; if's specious if Thompson calls the Torah post-exilic just because the P strand and final editing came into written form after the Exile. (In fact, per that link, Thompson allegedly dates the final redaction of the Torah to the Hasmonean era!) And, I still stand by some, if modified, version of the documentary hypothesis. Even if the fragmentary hypothesis is a modifier, I don't see an extreme version of it as being "controlling." Also, proponents of such an extreme version seem to laten the date of writing in Palestine. And, it seems like critics of the documentary hypothesis want to impose modern book-publishing editing ideas and mechanisms on authors of 2,500-3,000 years ago.

Conventional scholarship also considers the whole of the "deuteronomic history" to be Exilic, not post-Exilic, as internal indicators such as the end of 2 Kings and citations of earlier, seemingly written, sources, show.

As for the claim that Ehrman is an amateur in the area of intertextuality, I highly doubt that. And, Dykstra seems to think there's some special magic to not being an amateur in this area, as though intertextuality is a magic wand.

As for the idea that fear makes some scholars reticent? Might be true at religious universities, but not in the secular world. Some type of fallacy there by Dykstra.

That said, some modern minimalist critics appear to project ideas behind new literary criticism back on biblical writers without any proof. Yes, from Dykstra's piece, some people in antiquity may have thought of Jesus the way he does himself and the way he thinks they did.

We call such people "Gnostics."


Unknown said...

For a long time, I was partial to the position that Jesus never existed. It seemed suspect, even in a time when so few were able to read and write, that there were NO contemporary secular accounts of him.

He seemes like a character that could be a sort of hodge podge of other zealots.

I no longer think that. And the reason is that we know that the Apostles of early Christianity are historical. When they wandered off to talk about him and ended up martyred, that's documented in ways Jesus isn't.

I'm not sure they would die for a character they made up. People might die for a fictional character they mistanekly believe was real, but for one they made up a couple decades up back home?

That doesn't mean the Gospels are... um, accurate (I was going to say "Gospel"). My faith insists that Jesus existed but was a prophet and was not crucified.

On the other hand, my favorite version of busting the Jesus myth came from Philip K. Dick, who hypothesizes a copy of "Q" (a theoretical document of Jesus quotes that was used as a common source for Matthew and Luke) getting found - and being dated to 400 BC.

Gadfly said...

Now, that's an interesting twist. That said my idea, if he was a historic character but a century or so earlier, would allow time for various traditions & schools of thought to develop.