Sunday, January 13, 2013

Jesus -- A Parable, Perhaps

Contemporary Biblical scholars, many of them anyway, seem to agree that the amount of biography of Jesus we currently possess can be contained in a sentence not much longer than this sentence, if that long. Doesn't stop them writing book-length biographies of Him, though, does it? Yes, that's a bit unfair on my part. R Joseph Hoffmann's upcoming book on Jesus will not be a biography, strictly speaking, but a book-length argument for the case of Jesus' historicity. But Hoffmann is still not a strict historicist. Unlike many Biblical scholars, he still does not say that it is "certain" that Jesus existed. In his latest blog post, he again characterizes the case for the historical Jesus as "plausible."

And I agree that an historical Jesus is a plausible explanation for how Christianity began, a plausible way of accounting for its existence. Indeed, I think it's the single most plausible explanation. But all other possible explanations put together may outweigh the historical Jesus. And the smaller the amount of information about Him which is thought to be historical, the easier it is to plausibly account for Christianity without relying on the existence of Jesus.

I'm as weary as just about anyone is of inept mythicist analogies between Jesus and Hercules or Dionysis or Attis or Mithras, and as impatient as anyone with mythicists who tirelessly talk about ancient history without first having seriously studied it. And seriousness means, among other things, examining the primary texts, ideally untranslated, and at least translated and with more than a passing thought to the accuracy of the translations and more than a passing knowledge of the transmission of those primary texts.

But another analogy to the story of Jesus has just occurred to me: to the parable of the prodigal son. (See Luke 15:11-32.) Did the prodigal son really exist? Was Jesus -- assuming, of course, that Jesus existed and actually told this story -- talking about someone he knew, or about someone known to someone else who had told him the story? It's certainly possible. Can we say that the historical, flesh-and-blood existence of the prodigal son is certain? Of course we cannot. Is there cause to give the possibility of the historical existence of Jesus more weight than that of the prodigal son? Yes. A lot more weight? In my opinion -- no. Perhaps I simply don't understand what the Biblical scholars are talking about when they go on and on about what they consider to be good reasons to give credence to the notion of Jesus as an actual flesh-and-blood man and not a fictional character.

Or perhaps what lies behind their arguments is not so much logic as habit. As habit more than logic lay behind the arguments of scholars who a century ago were still convinced of the historical existence of Moses. (Not that I'm convinced that there was no Moses and no Exodus. But certainly -- "certain" is a term I feel is much over-used, but here comes an exception -- if there really was a Moses and an exodus, it involved far fewer than the six hundred thousand families mentioned in the Bible, and very probably lasted much less than the Biblical forty years.)

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