Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Historical Jesus Update (Sorry, Still Haven't Found Him)

This won't actually be much of an update for people actively following academic and extra-academic discussion of the Historical Jesus. So far as I can tell, there haven't been any bombshells on that front lately. (The Gospel of Jesus' Wife recently presented by Mary L King, prematurely rejected as a phony by the normally over-credulous public, is a bombshell, but, as Prof King pointed out to the mostly-not-listening public, it's a bombshell about a 2nd-century Christian sect and not about the HJ.)

The academic mainstream continues to convince me that most (not all!) mythicists are ill-informed amateurs at best. On the other hand, I continue not to be able to see their reasons for so confidently assuming that there was an Historical Jesus. Also on the other hand, surely there will eventually, finally, be significant numbers of academic specialists in the New Testament willing, eager, to discuss the question of Jesus' historicity, so that at last that discussion will take place among those best qualified to investigate it. Can't happen soon enough. (They, the mainstream, say it's already happened. They don't say when and where.)

Well, actually, it's worse than my not being able to see the academics' reasons for being certain that Jesus existed: I think those reason are becoming more and more clear to me, and they're flimsy.

For the moment let's take what appears to me to be an especially egregious example of flimsiness, which I will call the Unexpected Suffering Messiah Postulate: the academic mainstream, the historicists, say that the core story of the Gospels couldn't have been made up because the very idea of a suffering Messiah would have been very unexpected to 1st-century Jews.

If you just did a spit-take and shouted "WHAT?" at your computer screen: I'm right there with you. Either I'm a drooling pinhead, or mainstream New Testament Studies has taken the position that the unexpected, in myth, is somewhere between extremely improbable and impossible. I'm surprised that full-time mythicists don't call the tenured guys out more often and emphatically over this one. It's almost like saying that there's never been anything like originality in the history of the writing of myths, that only nonfiction is capable of surprising us. I'd say that nonfiction often surprises, and that myths do also, the originality and the ability to surprise, to come up with the unexpected, are in fact essential factors in almost all myths.

But hey, that's just me.

If unexpectedness were as rare as this historicist tentpole suggests, then the word "unexpected" would be fairly rare. I'd have to explain to you what it meant. but of course I don't, because we encounter the unexpected all the time, in myths among so many other places. If we don't encounter it in myths we tend to fall asleep. And not in a good way.

Christianity was full of the unexpected when it was new. If the only way you can explain that is by maintaining that it was full of truth, you can go play with Benny Hinn. Or James McGrath. I don't want to hang out with you. One of us is a drooling pinhead.

Attentive readers may have noticed that I haven't even gotten around to the point that some 1st-century Jews may indeed have expected a suffering Messiah.

New to me, although not necessarily to those interested in the inquiry into the Historical Jesus, is Dennis R McDonald's book The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. MacDonald's thesis, somewhat startling in academia when this book was published in 2000, and perhaps somewhat less startling now, is that Mark borrows very heavily from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The parallels he points out are really quite striking, and number in the low three figures. MacDonald, who is currently John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University, mentions in passing that he takes for granted that although Mark borrowed very extensively from Homer, Jesus actually existed. Disappointingly, he does not mention why he takes this for granted. He doesn't seem to feel the need to explain why he takes it for granted.

I've said it many times before: I, and many other people who strike me as being quite intelligent and reasonable, even if none of us holds an advanced degree in "one of the relevant fields," just want to see the topic being discussed. They, the mainstream, say it's been discussed and laid to rest. Where? When?

As I said at the beginning of this post: nothing new on this front.


  1. I have never found the notion that there was an historical Jesus particularly dubious. Though poorly documented and obviously substantially mythologized (which one can readily acknowledge without embracing mythicism), the idea that there really was an historical Jesus is simply a better, more parsimonious explanation for the origin of Christianity than even the best crafted mythicist theories.

    Could someone have created a suffering messiah myth? Sure. When people like Bart Ehrman (who I highly respect, btw) say things like "no one would ever do that!" I agree it's kind if ridiculous.

    But it is nevertheless more probable that there actually was a guy named Jesus who was crucified. It also seems to me that if Jesus was indeed a made up suffering messiah it become more difficult to explain the rapid growth of Christianity. Possible? Sure. Likely? No.

    However, while I am not bothered by the notion of an historical Jesus, I do think a lot of mainstream New Testament scholars (such as Ehrman) do tend to overstate the degree we can be certain of this. I'm bothered by the way, for example, Ehrman seems to dismiss the fact that there is no direct evidence of Jesus' existence (i.e. no first hand sources, archeological evidence, etc.) by saying "almost nobody from his era left a trace of their existence behind!"

    All this does is explain the absence of more direct evidence, it does nothing to mitigate the reasonable doubts that the absence of such evidence gives rise to. He talks as though we have the man's diaries and skeleton for crisakes (pun intended).

    That said however, I think there is something of a cognitive bias at work in the minds of some skeptics when it comes to this issue to the effect that they tend to give more weight to the 'evidence' for the mythicist position. It seems obvious to me that what is driving this is not the weight of the evidence for mythicism, which is considerably weaker and more speculative than the evidence for an historical Jesus, but rather an ideological attraction for the possibility that Jesus never actually existed.

    It seems to me, though the evidence is limited and indirect and we can't be 100% certain there was an historical Jesus, at the end of the day, either there was an historical Jesus or there wasn't, and the weight of the evidence that does exist tips the scales decisively in favor of the position that there was an historical Jesus. However, the evidence is so weak and contradictory and interwoven with myth and legend that we will likely never know much about what Jesus and his movement were really about. I think the view of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher who fell into disfavor with both his fellow Jews and the Roman authorities and was eventually crucified for seditious activity is the most likely. But it's like trying to reconstruct an extinct dinosaur known for a fragment of one tooth.

  2. "I, and many other people... just want to see the topic being discussed. They, the mainstream, say it's been discussed and laid to rest. Where? When?"

    I don't think there is any lack of discussion. But you need to appreciate the fact that the mythicist position is the radical and less evidenced position of the two. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to suggest that mythicism is in a position to historicism analogous to that of creationism to evolutionary biology, but it's not that far off. There simply is no compelling evidence for mythicism. It's at best an interesting, plausible speculation.

    Of the mythicists I've read, I'd say Richard Carrier probably makes the best case, but even he is ultimately not convincing. He does provide a nice counterpoint to writers like Ehrman however; it's a good way to hear what reasonable challenges to mainstream position do exist. But the historicist position isn't the mainstream view due to unfair censorship or repression of dissenting mythicist views; the historicist position is the mainstream position because it it is clearly favored by what evidence does exist.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that many mythicists are biased. Two popular mythicist websites are jesusneverexisted.com and jesusneverexisted.org. Nomen est omen. Actually, it seems to me that most people who've taken either the mythicist or the historicist position are biased to some degree in their approach. And perhaps I am too. I try very hard not to be, and not to come to premature conclusions.

      My favorite writer on the subject is G A Wells, I wonder if you're familiar with his work. Actually it's an understatement to say that he's my favorite writer on the subject of Jesus' historicity -- he's the ONLY one who's written something on the subject which I like. He's classified as a mythicist because he's not certain Jesus existed.

      I like Ehrman's Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Forgery and Counterforgery. I didn't care for Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?

      I don't think it's necessarily true that we will never be 100% certain about Jesus' historicity. I'm not at all resigned to never knowing. Ancient Middle Eastern artifacts are being found in great numbers, including manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospels are the most famous examples but far from the only ones. The Oxyrhynchus site may be the most spectacular one from the point of view of the ancient history of the Eastern Roman Empire generally, although it's much less famous than Qumran and Nag Hammadi. More and more evidence relevant to the case of Jesus keeps coming in, and also we keep getting better at interpreting the evidence. One bombshell piece of evidence could solve the case, or more likely, many tiny pieces could continue to round out the picture.