I have finally caught up with the comments by Dr Mark Goodacre [MG] and Dr Richard Carrier [RC] since their radio discussion on the view that Jesus did not exist.
While RC, without the burden of having to mark student papers, is able to add around 7,000 words of recap and elaboration to the case he made on his blog, MG is confined to making only a few brief comments, at least one of which is no better than the disappointment we found in Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?
A horrible thought occurs to me. What if it’s never going to get any better? Is this the best we will ever hear from the historicists?
No-one is faulting MG for doing his job. What is disappointing for many, I think, is that it is just at the point where his input is most urgently needed that he is too busy to respond. Will there ever come a time when he (or anyone) will engage with the questions his claims have left hanging?
He himself has rightly said:
– Sorry to those who were disappointed with the show, or my part in it. Please bear in mind that this is just a show, a conversation, a chat, a debate even; it’s not a “case”. I must admit that I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with Richard, who is clever and lively and whose discussion of method repays reflection. However, any such conversation is only going to be partial, frustrating, incomplete.
I am sure most of us enjoyed also listening to MG’s calm and pleasant manner in the way he engaged with RC. I am sure we all appreciated MG taking the time to be a part of this program. But unless there is some follow up from the historicist side even slightly comparable to the extent of RC’s followup, I think most of us will remain frustrated that one side of the debate is going to be forever partial, incomplete.
Maybe we have to face up to the reality that the historicist case is always going to be like that — that it will always lack the ability (including ability to find time) to advance a complete response to mythicism.
Interpolation: the same old . . .
Take this point for starters. MG in his latest response wrote:
– I think it’s worth underlining that the idea that 1 Thess. 2.14-17 [in which Paul appears to be saying that the Jews in Judea crucified Jesus] is an interpolation is made without any manuscript / textual evidence. Conjectural emendations are always possible, especially in weakly attested works, but should be avoided in cases like this where the impetus appears to be to eliminate a key piece of evidence, the apparent location of Jesus’ death in Judea.
Such a statement
(1) sidesteps the point I made about this passage and which (presumably) was partly the prompt for MG’s response here,
(2) misrepresents the actual argument for interpolation.
On (1) –
My point was very specific. It was that 1 Thess 2:14-17 must inevitably be a very thin reed upon which to lean (even partly) a case for the historicity of Jesus given that this passage is — among mainstream scholars who have no interest in mythicism — of questionable authenticity.
On (2) –
It is surely misleading for MG to say that “the impetus [for claiming the passage is an interpolation] appears to be to eliminate a key piece of evidence, the apparent location of Jesus’ death in Judea”. MG knows that this is not the impetus for the argument for interpolation at all, but that the argument arose and continues in mainstream scholarly circles and it is clearly not motivated by a desire to remove a piece of evidence against mythicism.
Rather, mythicism exists because the evidence for historicity is so tenuous to begin with, and any evidence that appears to be strong turns out to be controversial among mainstream scholars themselves.
I also pointed to a series of posts where I discuss in detail the history of mainstream scholarly publications that became the basis of the highly respectable mainstream scholarly view that there are very cogent arguments (not “conjecture” as MG says) for these verses being a post 70 CE insertion.
In fact, what MG is doing here is exactly what Larry Hurtado is doing with Geza Vermes’ argument for the “Philippian hymn” being an interpolation. Regardless of the scholarly merits of Vermes’ argument, he surely has a point when he calls upon Hurtado to respond responsibly as a professional scholar:
Would it not be more appropriate, not to say polite, for Professor Hurtado to refute my argument against the Pauline authenticity of Philippians 2:6-11 than high-handedly reject it with the snide remark: “Well, I guess if you can’t accommodate evidence, you simply try to eliminate it”?
Scholars in fields beyond New Testament studies (e.g. classical Greek and Roman literature) know very well that there are many strong cases for interpolation that do not require manuscript evidence. To deny sound arguments for interpolation solely on the grounds of lack of surviving manuscript variations is to argue from naivety and against the well attested literary culture of the time. See a literary culture of interpolations and a case for interpolation does not rely upon manuscript evidence.
To quote another mainstream scholar, one of whom contributed to our present understanding of the 1 Thess. 2 passage being an interpolation:
An argument against interpolation must meet the arguments for interpolation head-on; we cannot begin an argument against interpolation simply by noting lack of textual evidence, . . . (Simpson p.43, as quoted in an earlier post)
Simpson sums up the methodological argument in relation to 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 best when he writes:
The virtue of the interpolation view, as it has been developed by Pearson and Schmidt, is, as we shall see, that it seeks to solve the broadest range of problems, that is, that it draws out in a valuable way the evidence which any view of 1 Thess 2:15f. must take into account.
Embarrassment: the same old . . .
Then there is the regular repeat of the old argument from embarrassment without any acknowledgement that it makes no dent in mythicist arguments:
It’s clear that the “crucified Christ” was something that people like Paul found tough to explain to his fellow Jews, e.g. 1 Cor. 1.23.
Again MG is sweeping aside not only the mythicist responses as if he has never heard them, but he is even sweeping aside what has been written by his own mainstream scholarly peers (Morton Smith, Paula Fredriksen, Matthew Novenson) about this passage pointing out that it does not refute “the fact” that a crucified Messiah was indeed conceivable to, and even embraced by, many Jews.As RC has pointed out, the argument from embarrassment does nothing to advance the historicist case anyway, since it would apply as much to a “mythical” messiah to a “historical” one.The criterion of embarrassment is essentially an argument from ignorance, anyway. Because we cannot imagine what else Paul and his readers were thinking, they cannot have been imagining anything else.
Other unanswered questions
Thanks, Earl. Well, we disagree on the Pauline evidence. I’d draw attention in particular, though, to the problematic idea that we should allow what Paul says in one epistle (Galatians) to “govern” the interpretation of another (1 Corinthians). It’s important to read Paul’s letters in their historical context and not to extrapolate a desired meaning from one into another.
To which Earl Doherty responded:
But when the appearance of a term in one epistle is semantically ambiguous, then we are indeed entitled to search other writings by the same author to acquire a clue as to which way we ought to lean in interpreting the ambiguity. What would be much less appropriate is to go to the Gospels and interpret an epistle in light of the Gospels–which, of course, is done all the time. . . . .
And to simply say “we disagree on the Pauline evidence” tells us nothing, much less advances the debate. Nor does it indicate that you or anyone else actually has any counter-arguments against them. Why not take at least some of my points and try to rebut them in a substantive way?
Can we really expect a response to either of these points?
Historical method: something new added this time . . .
– To read some of the comments here, one would think that studying history were always black and white, a matter of truth v. fiction, the ordinary vs. the fantastic, But studying history is richer and more nuanced than these simple either / or models allow. Frankly, it’s far more interesting once one actually engages in it in all its depth. Although some commenters here appear to realize that historical Jesus scholars are not all conservative Christians, the rhetoric still works a lot of the time with that kind of model.
This is another case of avoiding the question, and worse. I am sure MG does believe the question of the existence of Jesus is indeed “a matter of truth v. fiction”. What this statement does here is to set up a smoke-screen to hide that question by turning to the problematic issues of discovering what the historical Jesus was like. Any quest for the historical Jesus necessarily begins with the conviction that a historical Jesus existed. The subtle and nuanced methods MG is referring to here are all based upon the assumption that Jesus did exist.
MG is referring here back to his concluding remarks in the radio discussion and I pointed this out in that same post where I paraphrased them:
This is the extrapolation of hypothetical data from material that is assumed to be derived from memories of the historical Jesus. It is, as far as I am aware, a form of “historiography” unique to HJ studies. James McGrath has boasted that it makes HJ scholars pioneers in the wider field of historiography.
Among the rocks it crashes against are the literary studies of those scholars who demonstrate that the texts are not sourced from memories at all, but from other texts.
I understand MG’s primary objection to mythicism is that it makes giant leaps of assumption or is simply not credible. It seems to be commonplace for NT scholars to resort to dismissing arguments with off-hand remarks along these lines: “I don’t find the case plausible”, “So and so did not make a persuasive case”, “I remain unconvinced”, etc.
Such lines are not rebuttals. They are not arguments. If I want to persuade someone whom I think is leaning towards “crazy” ideas like the myth of Atlantis or healing through manipulating auras, I take a bit of time to put together an evidence-based case. This is what several sceptic websites attempt to do.
One day an historicist is going to have to take the time to explain why specific claims of mythicisms are “not convincing.”
On the other side
But RC’s case is not without flaws, either.
He begins by acknowledging his debt to Earl Doherty’s Christ Myth argument. But he then dismisses Doherty for supposedly falling over the edge with mere speculations in his later book — though he offers no specific citation to support this charge. Indeed, the entire core argument of RC is in fact Earl Doherty’s. Where RC goes beyond Earl’s case — as in his point about Philo providing evidence that there were pre-Christian Jews who believed in a heavenly messiah named Jesus — it might be said that RC himself is stepping into the realm of speculation. There can be little doubt that Philo did think of the high priest and “Branch” Jesus figure in the Book of Zechariah represented the heavenly Logos, but we need something more to argue a link here to an established belief among Jews who fed the idea into what became early Christianity.
I think here the weight of circumstantial evidence can be marshalled by drawing upon a cluster of such ideas among Second Temple Jews. As I recently wrote in response to a comment here:
Margaret Barker in The Great Angel pointed to Philo’s identification of the Logos with the Branch of Zechariah 6:12 — whom we all know is the high priest Joshua/Jesus standing alongside Zerubbabel as one of the two anointed ones in the newly resettled province of Jehud.
It’s one of many indicators that Second Temple Jewish beliefs were precursors to what emerged as Christianity.
I have posted here a series on Jewish scholar Levenson’s work, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, in which he traces the threads of a Jewish belief that Isaac was actually sacrificed by Abraham and restored to life again and that his blood was believed to be an atonement for the sins of all Jews for all generations. (The term “Beloved Son”, well known in the Gospels, turns out to be a virtual technical term for one destined to be sacrificed — it was used of Isaac and others who suffered this fate.) Levenson also sees some evidence that elements of this interpretation found their way into Paul’s writings. (I don’t know if Carrier is even aware of Levonson’s study.)
Another Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarin, sees 1 Enoch as containing some core beliefs of Christianity: he sees in it evidence that some Jews came to believe that Enoch himself was, though entering the world as a human, really the pre-existent Son of Man and was eventually restored to his former glory when “God took him”. He sees here the earliest evidence of the belief that one of the two beings in the god-head (Son of Man and Ancient of Days) could become a man and return to his celestial status.
(Incidentally, Larry Hurtado expresses a strong dislike of Boyarin’s case and scoffs at his interpretation on the grounds that the Ethiopic version of 1 Enoch on which it rests has variant terms for the “Son of Man” so it’s not a fixed title; but Hurtado failed to notice that Boyarin is actually referring to other scholarly arguments to the contrary, especially those of Colpe in volume VIII of The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, who argues — on the basis of context — that these Ethiopic variants were translations of a fixed Greek term. Nickelsburg has since argued the same point, but Nickelsburg is a good mainstream scholar in Hurtado’s eyes, it seems, so Hurtado is much more respectful when addressing this view when it comes from him.)
The point is that we need to know a lot more about Second Temple Jewish beliefs. Christian scholars have done a good job for most part of explaining why they are mostly irrelevant to Christianity. It is ironic that it seems to be the Jewish scholars are are the ones noticing what their Christian counterparts have tended to obscure.