Vridar

2012/04/18

Selective, One-Eyed Responses from Scholars Against Mythicism (SAMs)

The problem with mythicists such as Doherty, Salm, Zindler, Wells, Ellegard, Price is that they engage with the mainstream scholarly literature devoted to studies of Christian origins and the historical Jesus. This poses a problem for anti-mythicist scholars such as Ehrman and McGrath. It forces them to do two things:

  1. Accuse the mythicists of dishonesty because they dare cite works that are not written by mythicists when they find in those works some point that they believe supports their case;
  2. Argue against mythicism by means of just one particular argument as if the many opposing viewpoints of their own peers simply do not exist. That is, they must suppress the fact that there are mainstream scholars who do support some particular details found in mythicist arguments.

The fallacious charge of dishonesty

I addressed #1 only recently at Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman so won’t repeat myself here. I will add a brief note from Richard Carrier’s list of axioms of historical method:

Axiom 12: When one of us cites a scholar, it should only be assumed we agree with what they say is essential to the point we cite them for. (p. 34 of Proving History)

What happens is that when, say, Earl Doherty cites scholarly works supporting his view that 1 Corinthians 2:8 was originally understood by Paul to mean demons were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, hostile critics retort that those same scholars also argue that they crucified Jesus by proxy, that is, through the Romans. They certainly do, and it is well understood that they do since it is well understood that Doherty is arguing a position against the views of the general scholarly community. It is clear and obvious to everyone that those scholars are not also mythicists. In their attempts to disallow Doherty the right to use scholarly views to support any point at all he is making in his argument for mythicism they accuse him of being dishonest by quoting scholars who do not agree with his larger point. (See Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman for details.)

There’s a converse to this. Carrier expands on this axiom from that converse position. One might call it the fallacious charge of gullibility, but Carrier calls it the baggage fallacy:

This kind of ‘baggage’ fallacy (often deployed as a variety of the text-book fallacy of “poisoning the well”) is common enough to warrant particular condemnation. In fact, I see this fallacy committed so regularly, so widely, by accomplished scholars who ought to know better, that I feel the need to call particular attention to it now, in the hopes it will forestall a repeat performance. If you cite a scholar as proving point A, and that same scholar also argues B, but B is not necessary to A, then it is a fallacy for anyone to assume you agree with B, and a fallacy to employ this assumption to argue that if B is not credible then A is not credible. I call this the ‘baggage’ fallacy because it amounts to saddling an author with all the ‘baggage’ attached to the scholar he cites or the views he defends, when such attachment is neither entailed nor warranted. Just because I take certain positions or arrive at certain conclusions is no excuse to impute to me all the baggage that is usually supposed to come along with those positions or conclusions.

For example, when I argue a point (such as that distinct elements of Osiris cult can be seen in early Jesus cult), it might be assumed I agree with something else that supposedly goes along with this (such as that all elements of Osiris cult were present in early Jesus cult, or that Jesus is merely Osiris under another name, of that Christians just “borrowed” and “revamped” an Egyptian religion). That would be mistaken. . . . The same fallacy also results when I agree with something a particular book said, or cite it as a reference of importance on a specific subject, and then it’s assumed I agree with everything that book said or its author elsewhere defends. (p. 35)

Selective rebuttals (more…)

2012/03/17

Leap of Faith or Failure of Reason?

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Tim Widowfield @ 1:33 am
English: Jump from Nevis Bungee Platform near ...

Image via Wikipedia

Accommodating the unaccommodatable

I was taken aback when I saw that the pingback on my previous post, Miracles and Historical Method, was from the Doctor of Whoville. Since we know McGrath doesn’t read Vridar, somebody must have told him about it.

I kid. We love the good doctor. Salt of the earth and all that. So what’s happening over on the Matrix? Sure, he’s peddling his latest book, but the subtitle is “What Does History Have to Do with Faith?” so I guess the pingback is legit. In yesterday’s post, Demolishing and Reconstructing the Burial of Jesus (and Christianity Itself), McG asks: “What, in short, should Christianity look like in the aftermath of historical study?”

This subject marginally interests me. I’m curious about religions and what people believe, but the ways in which people accommodate ancient superstition with modern reality makes me uncomfortable. Not that there’s anything wrong with accommodation, it’s just that the part of my life where I tried to salvage the good parts of Christianity in light of — well, in light of reality — is over. The mental gymnastics involved just weren’t worth the effort. It felt too much like keeping two sets of ledgers: one set of books with cooked numbers that add up to God and another set that actually make sense.

Honk if you’re a skeptic

The paragraph that linked to my post reads as follows: (more…)

2012/02/21

Appeal to Vridar readers re Dr McGrath

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 9:23 am

Dr McGrath has a bee in his bonnet about mythicism and says a lot of crazy things about it and anyone who presents an argument for it or (in my own case) even presents an argument that leaves room for it as a valid possibility.

This sort of response to my views took me a bit of getting used to and I look back and see there are some things I said or ways I said things that I have come to regret.

It is clear that Dr McGrath relies upon ad hominem, personal attacks and innuendo, to make his case. I cannot say I have always remained patient in all of my responses. Sometimes I have expressed even the mildest sarcasm on his blog and have been met with pounding of reprimand from Dr McGrath for my tone. (Meanwhile, of course, others will stoop to foul language and crude insults against me without a blink from him.)

I think it is important to stand up to Dr McGrath’s fallacies and hold him accountable for his assertions. It is important to have it on record that his claims do not go without a response.

But what I would ask is that, even if it is against our clearest judgement and the facts of the evidence before us, that we refrain from giving Dr McGrath the sort of material that he is eagerly looking for from us — that is, insults in kind, abusive remarks, character attacks. He has said, for example, that he cannot post on this blog because people abuse him. Well, I don’t think that was the case at all, nor is it the real reason.

Let the records and the evidence speak for themselves. We need do nothing more than argue the case, present the evidence, and let others draw their own conclusions about his character and integrity.

The main reason is not so much for the benefit of any exchanges with Dr McGrath — he will never change his spots no matter what. But to me it is important that this blog be seen as a reasonable and professional sounding voice in the debate in the wider community.

I don’t, however, reject any good-natured humour or satire. Dr McGrath is not averse to  having a laugh at mythicists from time to time and I am sure he is big enough to laugh at his own side of the fence with good natured comedy, too.

I know I have said things I regret and cannot make promises for the future. But I’d like to try anyway.

And I’m glad that there has been very little personal attack on Dr McGrath on this blog. I’m sure we can keep it that way.

Thanks.

2012/02/20

Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Guest Posts — Tim Widowfield @ 2:11 pm
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“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”

Ring Toss

Ring Toss (Photo credit: burakiewicz)

Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?

Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.

Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”

If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table. (more…)

2012/02/19

I ask the following directly to Dr. McGrath in all sincerity

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Tim Widowfield — Neil Godfrey @ 10:08 am

I am copying Tim’s comment on a recent post here as a post in its own right.

Some interesting backpedaling today on Exploring Our Matrix . . .

McGrath:

“But as yet, the Vridar crowd have not pointed out any errors. What they have pointed out is that I did not adopt the view of the Documentary Hypothesis advocated by either Wellhausen or Friedman, which of course is typical of the crowd that gathers on that blog: they read at most a few scholars, and treat the ones they like as normative and anyone else as making mistakes or having misunderstood because they disagree with or view things differently than those few scholars the Vridar crowd has read or approves of.

There’s a lot here to unpack. But before I analyze the insults, I will at his insistence enumerate the good doctor’s errors:

McG’s Error 1:

For me, the strongest support for the Documentary Hypothesis’ distinction between sources based on different ways of referring to God comes from the Psalms, specifically Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. If you read them both side by side, you’ll see that they are both essentially the same psalm, the only major difference being that one addresses God using the divine name YHWH, and the other does not.

This is clearly wrong, because neither E nor P has an enduring preference for Elohim over Yahweh. As I’ve said at least three times now, the importance of the divine name in the Pentateuch is when it becomes known to humankind. For example, after the revelation of the divine name, the E source switches over comfortably to YHWH. For example in Exodus 4:11 (from the E source), God is angered that Moses offers the feeble excuse that he can’t speak in public because of his “heavy tongue”:

11. And the LORD [YHWH] said unto him, Who has made man’s mouth? or who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD [YHWH]? (KJV)

According to the DH, the community that produced the Elohist tradition believed in YHWH, worshiped YHWH, and called God YHWH. However, they believed that the name “Yahweh” was unknown until it was revealed to Moses.

McG’s Error 2:

I don’t see any way of accounting plausibly for these two psalms being part of this collection other than in terms of there being different groups, or regions, or kingdoms, which had different preferences regarding how to refer to and address God. And that makes it seem plausible to account for the different passages in the Pentateuch which refer to God in different ways in terms of those same distinct traditions or groups.

Again, within the Pentateuch both P and E use Elohim from the Creation until the Burning Bush. So there are great chunks of the patriarchal narrative in which Elohim is used. The group that copied and saved Psalm 53 appears to have changed YHWH to Elohim, but this very likely happened well after the United Monarchy but before the collection of the Ketuvim.

According to Eerdmans Commentary (p. 376):

“The variations [between Psalm 14 and Psalm 53] indicate different transmission processes and different traditions, which have resulted in the two psalms being included in different collections of the psalter.”

The evidence, then, indicates that some particular group at some undefined time preferred to use Elohim liturgically vs. Adonai (YHWH). But this redaction likely occurred in the exilic or post-exilic period, not in the fictional time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact at least one commentator (W.O.E. Oesterley) thinks Psalm 53 comes from the later Greek period.

Incidentally, the first commenter on Exploring Our Matrix brought up the Elohistic Psalter. It’s unfortunate that nobody seemed to pick up on that term. Without going too far down the rabbit hole here, it’s interesting to read the different theories on the explanations of the variations in the different collections. But I think we’re far from seeing any kind of consensus that explains all the related phenomena. I’ve only recently come upon Goulder’s books on the Psalms, and they’re really fascinating.

McG’s Error 3:

What is significant about these two psalms (which are put to notirious [sic] use nowadays by some Christians) is that they provide corroboration external to the Pentateuch for differing traditions which resemble and presumably bear some relation to the traditions that produced and passed on the different Pentateuchal sources.

This is the same error as Error 1, but repeated for effect. Even if we were to accept Goulder’s theory that Psalm 53 is older than Psalm 14, it’s the process of textual transmission to a later period that accounts for the change to YHWH. For by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the use of Yahweh was clearly dominant.

McG’s Error 4:

I think some may be forgetting that the P source, which is generally dated late, perhaps exilic or postexilic, had a preference for the use of Elohim, i.e. referring to God rather than using the name Yahweh.

The P source had no preference for the use of Elohim. It merely carried on the conceit that the name YHWH was unknown until the revelation to Moses in Exodus 3. After the revelation, YHWH is used freely. You needn’t take my word for it; you can read it for yourself. Try to count how many times in Leviticus the P source says certain laws must be followed because, “I am YHWH.”

————–

Now to the question of verbal abuse

Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament, and Eminent Blogger has some choice words for anyone who posts on Vridar. I suppose that would include me. (more…)

2012/01/19

Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

Reproduction of a coloured copperplate engraving of the Czech edition of a book by German theologian and historian Heinrich Bünting

From Czech Parliament: I can forgive a historian cum theologian who makes Prague the centre of the world

Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.

This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.

Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.

Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).

The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.

Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.

Two caveats to the above, though.

  1. An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
  2. Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.

Certain Basic Matters

Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)

What are some of these basic matters? They explain: (more…)

2012/01/18

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...

Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: (more…)

2012/01/16

Confessions of a Theologian — Bible scholars really do do history differently

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Historiography,Vansina: Oral tradition — Neil Godfrey @ 8:56 pm

Recently a theologian helpfully advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work generally in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles as applied by historians generally. So I did. I shared what I read there about the basics of how historians ought to approach their documents in How Historians Work – Lessons for historical Jesus scholars.

The same theologian was even kind enough to subsequently recommend that I read a work by oral historian Jan Vansina in order to understand that historians “adapt” or “refine” standard principles in order to make them fit the special requirements where, say, written sources are very scarce. The point of this exercise was for me to learn that if I see theologians using something not exactly the same as I see in other history books, then I was to understand that if historians do not have a rich abundance of written materials they do indeed “refine” or “adapt” principles so that they can work with that scarcity of evidence.

So I did that, too. I chose Jan Vansina’s “Oral Tradition as History” (1985) and his earlier “Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology”.

Before I continue I should say that the idea that any historian “refines” basic methods such as “external attestation” or the need to establish provenance before knowing how to interpret a text for certain types of historical information quite confused me.  My own understanding has always been that historians merely limit and change the questions they can ask so that the tried and true tools they use can still be used validly. They don’t “refine” their tools to enable them to get more answers than the sources would otherwise allow. That has certainly been my understanding as a student of both ancient and modern history. From my experience there is nothing different in principle at all — no refinements or adaptations of what are really basic logical “tools” — but only the fact that historians of ancient times can never hope to know the sorts of details about events or people as they can know for the well-documented recent past.

But the theologian insisted I was in the wrong and that if I read Vansina I would see that historians do indeed “refine” and “adapt” their methods to fit their “needs”. They are applied differently, he has said.

So I approached Vansina with interest to see if there was something I had missed and needed to learn. Here are a few excerpts from what I read. (more…)

2012/01/14

How Historians Work — Lessons for historical Jesus scholars

Recently a theologian kindly advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work (specifically to read chapter one of From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods by Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier) in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles that all other historians generally use.

As I recall, after the last time you claimed . . . that New Testament scholars working on historical questions use different methods than other historians, or that I had failed to adequately articulate my methods and those of the guild, I referred you to Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources. Chapter One would serve you well, and get you clued in on the basics that seem to still elude you. (Comment by Dr James McGrath)

But chapter one addresses only the nature of what is widely called “primary sources” by historians (archaeological remains and direct testimonies, including oral reports. This chapter focusses

exclusively on the type of resources that most other research guides call primary sources. (From Review by Ronald H. Fritze in The Sixteenth Century Journal XXXIII/4 (2002), p. 1248)

This is the very evidence we lack for historical Jesus studies.

But chapter two does indeed address in detail how historians should approach the written sources (in this case “secondary sources”) we do have for Jesus.

Misunderstood lesson from Chapter One

Unfortunately my theologian advisor had not read chapter two and insisted that it really was chapter one that I needed to read because, he explained, it mentioned “oral traditions”. Sorry, sir, but that chapter does not as far as I can see use the phrase “oral traditions”, though it does speak of orality as a primary source — that is, it refers to genuinely oral communication as heard by the researcher in the here and now. The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”.  HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary. If there had been any oral reports relaying the narratives of Christianity before the Gospels appeared they are all lost now and researchers must rely upon secondary written evidence alone. They may attempt to uncover what they believe are “oral traditions” behind that secondary written source but that is not the type of primary “oral source” that Howell and Prevenier (H&P) are discussing in chapter one. The only sources available are written and secondary.

But even here in this discussion of primary sources a critical principle is stressed: (more…)

2011/11/26

A rational foundation for investigating the mythicist (and Christian origins) question

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 4:36 pm

I have been attempting to engage a biblical scholar in a discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of how historians can know if an event or person in ancient times were truly historical or a mere fiction.

Here was my initial proposition:

The theoretical underpinning of the historicity or factness of the contents of any report, document or narrative is that those contents can at some level be independently corroborated. This is a truism we learned as children: don’t believe everything you hear. This theoretical principle operates in our legal systems, in our media reporting culture, in our research investigations, in our everyday lives.

Let’s take a birth certificate as a case study. This contains information about the parents and birth time and place of a person, but also official seals or stamps and logos and names of the issuing authority in order to establish its authenticity. People who invented birth certificates recognized the need for independent corroboration of the contents contained in it, so they decided to add all this sort of information to it to make it more than just a blank piece of paper (that anyone could have written) saying so and so was born to x and y at this place here, etc.

Now let’s take the Romance of Alexander as another example. (more…)

2011/09/04

“Rulers of this age” and the incompetence of the historicist case against mythicist arguments

It is a sad thing to see scholars who are doctors and associate professors and holders of chairs demonstrate a complete muddleheadedness and inability to grasp the simplest of logical arguments when attempting to gainsay mythicist challenges to the historical Jesus paradigm.

One such scholar continues to insist that Earl Doherty has constructed an argument from a false antithesis: t0 the best of my understanding — and I have asked the scholar many times to clarify his position — Doherty is said to argue that 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 must mean

  1. EITHER that earthly rulers killed Christ
  2. OR that demons themselves directly killed Christ
  3. so the possibility that the verse means demons influenced human rulers to do the dirty deed must be excluded. (more…)

2011/08/25

Doherty’s responses to McGrath’s ch.10 (pt.1) review

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 8:22 pm
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Dr McGrath’s review of the first part of Doherty’s chapter 10 is here. My response is here and between that post and this I have posted a number of McGrath’s defences against my criticisms. Earl Doherty has today posted his response(s) on McGrath’s blog and I copy them here. There are two. The first is what Doherty initially attempted to post but was unable to do so because of tech issues. I have bolded some of the text for quick reference.

The areas addressed by Doherty are:

Post 1

  1. McGrath’s and some other NT scholar’s mind-reading abilities
  2. McGrath’s criticism surrounding Doherty’s supposed doubts about his own theory occasioned by placing the word blood in quotation marks
  3. The validity of Doherty’s quote from Morna Hooker

Post 2

  1. McGrath’s claim that Doherty contradicts himself over the heavenly-earthly parallel in ancient thought in relation to 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 (the rulers of this age crucifying Christ)
  2. The question of Origen’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 2:8 – being the first to introduce the idea that the heavenly rulers worked through the earthly ones to crucify Christ
  3. The question of the Gospels — and their contradictory view of the crucifixion against the epistles: one earthly, the other non-earthly

(more…)

My take on the “heavenly paradigm” apparent contradiction in Doherty’s argument

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 1:26 pm
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This is my take on one part of Earl Doherty’s argument that when Paul spoke of  “rulers of this age” ignorantly crucifying Christ he was not suggesting that the spirit powers were working through earthly potentates to do their will. Dr McGrath believes that Doherty is contradicting himself here because Doherty also notes that it was commonly believed by the ancients that “heavenly  events determine earthly realities.”

Unfortunately I do realize that nothing I can say will change Dr McGrath’s mind at all in relation to his belief that Doherty’s argument is “a self-contradictory mess” since he made it very plain that “no one with sense will believe” Doherty and that any attempt of mine to explain it will at best be “entertaining”. He does not ask whether or not Doherty’s argument is self-contradictory so any attempt to point out that it is not will not be accepted by him. (Further, since McGrath has online access to Doherty online it is to be noted that he has not chosen to raise this with Doherty himself.)

When I responded that I would be happy to explain it and that the perception of a contradiction was partly the consequence of continuing to read Gospel presuppositions into Paul, McGrath responded that he believed I would be objecting to the “methods [he shares] with those who work in the discipline of history”. (I have publicized theologians’ ground-breaking contributions to the field of history at NT scholars are pioneers and contrasted the way nonbiblical historians handle mythical and legendary sources at Can Hobsbawm recover the historical Robin Hood?)

I can’t argue with a mind closed. So this is not for McGrath’s benefit, but for any innocent but curious bystander. (more…)

2011/08/24

McGrath’s further defence of his review and responses to my criticisms

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 6:25 pm
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Dr James McGrath has written another defence of his review in response to my discussion of it and I think it would be useful to post it here so it can sit beside my criticisms. I am still trying to understand the hostility towards mythicism as well as the apparent inability of even some of the most educated among us to minimally comprehend what they read in its defence.

At least it must count in Dr McGrath’s favour that he is willing to even look at mythicist works outside his normal scholarly exchanges. At least one other blogger is not even interested in doing that much though he is at the same time quite prepared to denigrate the character and works of authors he has never met or read simply because they are not published in the scholarly arena. And this blogger sometimes murmurs sympathetic noises towards mythicism. It looks like he needs to protect his standing with the scholarly community by denouncing the “unclean” outsiders. Compared with one like that one has to appreciate Dr McGrath’s willingness to at least read Doherty’s book.

But I am coming to believe that there is nothing I can say, or that any mythicist can say, that will in the present circumstances make any dent in Dr McGrath’s beliefs, attitudes, and inability to comprehend what he reads of mythicist arguments. I wonder now if his mind is made up and whatever he reads or hears will only confirm what he believes because that he cannot read or hear a mythicist point any other way. I might be quite wrong since I am trying to reach back into my own experience and nature to understand his. I once read a book that I found myself disagreeing with totally. I wrote indignant notes in the margins declaiming the author’s ignorance and shallow understanding of the issues, etc etc. Years later I looked again and saw how I agreed with everything the author wrote and how incapable I was of comprehending and accepting what he said the first time I read his book. The reason was simple. The book was addressing something that I was still very close to, that had been a core part of my identity for many years. It took me a long time before I could gradually wean myself off my past allegiance to that old self and accept how utterly wrong I had been about something once so important to my identity. The funny thing was that at the time I first read this book I knew I had been wrong, but I did not want someone else telling me just how wrong, or that I was wrong-er even than I could believe. It’s like family. I am free to argue with a close family member, but don’t you dare say a word against them!

Anyway, enough of that. What I write is written for those not trapped in one way of thinking but who are open to exploring new idea and who do not hold to any belief about Jesus (mythicist or historicist) with the arrogance of the ignorant. One thing most people who learn most know is that the more they learn the more they know how little they know.

McGrath’s criticisms and defence (more…)

Why I don’t trust a scholar’s review of Doherty’s book

I don’t mean “scholar” generically, but one scholar and his reviews in particular. The reason is, not to put too fine a point on it, that he blatantly misrepresents and suppresses what Doherty actually says. I even wonder if he bothers to read Doherty and merely skims, sees a few words that feed his prejudice, and sets to writing outright falsehoods.

I quote here what this reviewer has to say about Doherty’s argument in relation to the evidence of Origen for our understanding of what Paul meant by “rulers of the age” crucifying Christ. (My own emphases throughout.)

And perhaps Neil’s point over on his blog is correct, and I should indeed have pointed out what Doherty does with Origen. He finds evidence that Origen understood the “rulers of this age” as demonic forces. So? There are interpreters today who do the same, and just like Origen, do not understand this to be evidence against a historical Jesus.

I apologize for not mentioning this example of Doherty’s willingness to engage in apologetics-style prooftexting, citing a church father whose understanding of Paul and of Jesus he actually thinks is wrong, because he believes that he can appeal to him as an authority to bolster his case.

What do others think? Do I really need to mention every single one of Doherty’s claims in order to have demonstrated that he is engaging in apologetics for a predetermined view, rather than treating the evidence in scholarly, historical-critical manner?

How is it possible for any reviewer to write the above when Doherty’s whole argument in relation to Doherty is not about Origen understanding the rulers of the age as demonic forces at all, but about his being the pioneer to lay the basis of the modern interpretation that Paul meant the demons were working through earthly princes?

Here is what Doherty writes about Origen and the early interpretations of Paul’s meaning. Would a scholar ever be so careless with truth if he were addressing works of his scholarly peers? (more…)

2011/08/21

McGrath’s review of Doherty’s chapter 10, part 1 — a response

Updated with links and headings. 

Dr James McGrath continues with his chapter by chapter review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man by posting a part one review of Doherty’s chapter 10. It will be clear from what follows that McGrath expresses much more about his own intolerant attitude towards mythicism than he does in informing readers about Doherty’s argument.

Losing the thread of the argument

McGrath writes:

Chapter 10 begins part four of the book, “A World of Myths and Savior Gods,” and the chapter itself bears the title “Who Crucified Jesus?” Doherty summarizes the interpretation of New Testament letters he has offered thus far, writing

“In the epistles, Christ’s act of salvation is not located in the present, or even in the recent past, and certainly not within the historical setting familiar to us from the Gospels. . . . “

McGrath has fallen over right at the starting line. The quotation he takes from Doherty simply does not summarize Doherty’s interpretation of the NT letters “he has offered thus far”. Here is Doherty’s explicit summary of a key argument he has offered thus far taken from the opening sentence of the chapter:

The pieces of the Jesus Puzzle in Part Three demonstrated how the New Testament epistles present Christ as a spiritual force active in the present time, functioning as a channel between God and humanity. (p. 97)

What McGrath quotes is not any summary of earlier argument but a summary or what Doherty is about to argue in Part Four of the book.

Between that opening summary sentence and the one McGrath quotes Doherty writes the following to introduce the theme of the new book Part this chapter is introducing:

But there is another, more important role, being given him. . . .

So McGrath, in doing his chapter by chapter reviews, has clearly lost the train of thought that he is addressing. This suggests that he is not bothering to read Doherty with a serious intent to understand the argument of the book he is reviewing.

(more…)

2011/08/13

Historians on Jesus

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 1:29 pm

Obviously the fact that people can speak about Jesus as if he had really existed does not mean that he really did exist.

But what if historians (whose careers are in history faculties that have nothing to do with biblical studies) who write about the Roman empire mention Jesus as the founder of the Christian religion. Do they make such a statement on the basis of their independent or even collective scholarly research into whether Jesus really did exist or not? I think we can be confident in answering, No. I think we can further say that, if really pushed, many would say that for the purposes of what they wrote, they would not care if he existed or not. What they are addressing is not the historicity of Jesus, but the historical fact that Christianity had its beginnings in the first century in the Eastern part of the empire. What they are addressing is the fact of the appeal and reasons for the spread of Christianity.

The reason they might phrase an initiating discussion with reference to Jesus himself as the founder of Christianity is because this is the commonly accepted understanding of Christian origins, and it is, at bottom, quite beside the point for their own purposes — which are explaining Christianity’s spread and influence in the empire — whether it turns out that Jesus himself really was or was not the founder of Christianity. (more…)

2011/07/20

Appeals to McGrath, Regrets and the Responsibility of Public Intellectuals

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 8:58 am

Let’s deal with the regrets first. Yes, I have expressed some regret over when, a little over a year ago, I once made an offensive play on his name.* I have also taken note of Lester Grabbe’s discussion of unscholarly standards of debates and have taken his words as a warning to myself as much as a commentary on a wider situation.  I have attempted to understand why the irrational and unprofessional hostility among some scholars towards certain views and to be careful how I do express myself. I highly respect the way others like Earl Doherty and Rene Salm maintain their civility and I am grateful to a number of readers of this blog who, after I had posted something heated, wrote to me encouraging me to keep my cool.

I have also appealed to McGrath to put the past behind us, but even since then his responses to me have been laden with hostile insinuations. I have appealed to McGrath repeatedly to acknowledge Lester Grabbe’s warnings.  Till now my appeals have done nothing to lessen his personal barbs against me. It is clear he cannot carry on an exchange without imputing sinister motives.

There is simply no place for this from one who speaks as a representative of the scholarly community. And I am a little surprised that McGrath’s manner has apparently gone without censure among his own peers. This is not a good sign. Some biblical scholars like to follow Noam Chomsky’s outspokenness on international issues. It is time they also took note of his criticisms of public intellectuals.

.

* (The accusation that I also insulted McGrath an earlier time is false. I re-wrote his name as an innocuous anagram when creating a parable to clarify through analogy a point I was trying to make about his argument at the time. It was by no means an insult.)

2011/07/19

Why McGrath Should Honourably Step Down From the Debate

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 8:48 pm

Dr James McGrath blogs as the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. That is how he identifies his blog — it is the blog of the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. So he writes as a professional, a public intellectual, and it is to the standards of professional scholarly discourse and the responsibilities of public intellectuals that he must be held to account.

If a judge or prospective jury member is known to have a conflict of interest or deep-seated prejudice that will inevitably affect their ability to approach the trial appropriately they have a duty to step aside. We like to imagine we have moved on from the days when an accused would be condemned whether they sank or swam.

So when McGrath

  • publishes an Amazon review of a book before he has read more than a small fraction of it,
  • and when he says he knows he will find an argument implausible before he even reads it,
  • and when he says he should not explain fairly or fully an argument that he detests because he fears someone might think favourably of it — thus conceding he does not respect his readers and lacks confidence in the power of reasoned arguments,
  • and when he finds himself incapable of thinking someone can present a mythicist argument with sincerity and honesty — that such a one is either incompetently deluded or a blatant liar
  • and when he refuses to respond (except with insulting barbs) to questions and posts addressing the discrepancies between what he says about Doherty’s arguments and what Doherty actually does write

then it is time he admits that he is no longer thinking of his opponents as normal, healthy, fellow creatures with whom he can have even a normal healthy human rapport. Every attempt at communication will inevitably be governed by feelings of contempt that scarcely will be hidden as innuendo and ad hominem inevitably surface.

When one reaches that point then one owes it to everyone to admit that one is biased beyond reason and incapable of engaging in a genuinely respectful and fair discussion. (more…)

2011/07/18

Doherty’s Chapter 8 in outline & Review of McGrath’s review

11 am 18th July 2011, Revised the section “What the Chapter is about”

James McGrath begins his review of chapter 8 protesting that Doherty is placing a different interpretation on some known and agreed facts in order to argue a mythicist case.

The chapter gets several things right and mentions important information about the context of earliest Christianity – and yet consistently manages to interpret those details as leading to mythicism.

It sounds as if McGrath simply does not want Doherty reinterpreting anything at all in a way that can present a mythicist argument. But that is hardly a sound objection to what Doherty’s actual interpretations and arguments are.

Unfortunately McGrath does not specify which arguments or interpretations Doherty uses are faulty. In fact, as we have come to expect in these reviews, Doherty’s arguments are sidestepped. In their place McGrath reverts to pulling out arguments he has used against mythicism time and again even before reading Doherty’s book. Sometimes he claims to be informing readers of what Doherty argues, but in the following response I will quote passages from Doherty that belie McGrath’s portrayals of Doherty’s lines of reasoning. (more…)

2011/06/04

Doherty’s chapter 7 (2): reviewing McGrath’s review

Continuing from the previous post, addressing McGrath’s comments on Doherty’s chapter 7.

I have so often heard scholars repeat, as if it were a truism, that in pre-modern cultures that relied more on oral traditions and story-telling than on stick-it notes people had trained themselves to have remarkable memories. But I was obviously mistaken. McGrath informs us that if the news of the assassination of Kennedy (or let’s say Julius Caesar) were spread as “a tradition”, then by the time anyone came to write it down as a story, they would be obliged to invent a host of imaginary characters and variable settings simply to tell it as “a story”. Maybe some would say the assassination happened in Rome, others in Actium or Athens (or Dallas, or San Francisco). Such basic detail is not likely to have been included in the original oral transmission of the news, so McGrath would have us believe.

Or if we think of tales involving resurrections/reappearances after death, imagine the tales of the death and reappearance of Romulus. He was murdered in the environs of Rome and reappeared there after his assassination according to accounts, but presumably other accounts could well have had him reappear in northern Italy or Syracuse instead. We have no record that oral transmission did leave such details as the geographic setting of the event open to imaginative recreation, but then the absence of such details is most likely evidence that they were all well-known and no-one needed to put such things in writing. (This line of reasoning works for explaining the epistles’ silences about Jesus’ earthly life, so it can surely work here, too.)

McGrath actually equates the recovery of a fundamental geographic setting with the problems a story-teller would have in trying to imaginatively reconstruct story dialogue! (more…)

2011/06/03

Doherty’s chapter 7 (1): McGrath’s attack of transient global amnesia

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 7:53 pm
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Reviewing James McGrath’s “review” of Doherty’s chapter 7. McGrath begins:

Chapter 7 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man turns attention to other characters in the Gospels and events that are not mentioned about them (sic) in the epistles: Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, for starters.

Presumably the first thing to note it that the latter completely undermines Doherty’s argument. Paul refers to encounters with Peter – a real historical individual – and thus if he can be a real individual without stories from the later Gospels appearing in the epistles, then clearly so can Jesus.

This makes no sense. Even the Gospels themselves refer to undoubtedly real people such as Pilate. They also refer to real cities, like Jerusalem. Ancient fiction is also known to include real people and places. The historical Persian King Artaxerxes and his wife Statira appear in Chariton‘s Chaireas and Callihroe, as does the historical general Hermocrates.

So even if we do accept Peter as a historical person known to Paul, this simply does not inevitably force us to conclude that a later narrative that includes Peter must be historical in all its details or other characters.

McGrath continues: (more…)

2011/05/31

A mythical Jesus, or a “nobody” Jesus

Filed under: Earl Doherty,Exchanges with McGrath — Earl Doherty @ 1:42 pm
Tags: , ,

A mythical Jesus, or a “nobody” Jesus.

I would like to know why the second would be so much preferable and acceptable to so many here than the first. I would like to have someone who so prefers to present us with the actual evidence for the second which is so much superior to the actual evidence for the first.

I would like to know just how one defines a “nobody” Jesus. Obviously, such a Jesus can be assigned virtually nothing that is portrayed of him in the Gospels, not just because it is now recognized that there is no history remembered in the Gospels, but if he were assigned anything remotely like we find in the Gospels, he wouldn’t be a “nobody.” If he is a “nobody” then he does not constitute the Jesus of Christianity, and would serve no purpose for it.

So why does everyone seem to get all warm and fuzzy for a “nobody” Jesus (at least, that’s what they convey), and foaming at the mouth against those who would postulate a mythical Jesus?

Or is this all a smokescreen? Will James McGrath tells us openly whether he subscribes to and finds acceptable the idea of a “nobody” Jesus? Will Mike Wilson? Tim O’Neill? Anyone else who regularly craps all over mythicism?

Earl Doherty

And by way of rejoinder to McGrath who wrote: (more…)

2011/05/29

Doherty answers McGrath and others (continuation of ch. 6 criticisms)

Earl Doherty has responded in detail to criticisms by James McGrath and others over chapter 6 of Jesus Neither God Nor Man. I have collated them in this post, and may add any future ones here, too. (Compare comments on my outline of chapter 6)


Updated 31st May 2011

Brother of the Lord

By now we are all familiar with how much historicists rely on Galatians 1:19 and its “brother of the Lord” to find an historical Jesus within the epistles. It’s one of a small handful of life preservers thrown into the waters to try to rescue Paul from drowning in a mythical sea. I would like to put an additional emphasis on one of the arguments I have used to poke holes in this particular preserver. I have pointed out that Philippians 1:14 uses a similar phrase to Galatians 1:19, namely “brothers in the Lord” (ton adelphon en kurio). This can hardly be taken any other way than meaning “fellow-believers in the Lord” and indicates the usage of a phrase to describe a group of sectarians Paul is acquainted with. The very fact that it is so similar to the Galatians phrase should be a strong argument that the latter is likely to have the same meaning. (more…)

2011/05/25

James Brother of the Lord, Porky Pies and Problems for the Historical Jesus Hypothesis

A good reason to accept the theory of evolution is that it predicts what we will find in the fossil record and its predictions have not yet failed. No one has found a rabbit fossil in pre-Cambrian rocks.

If James had been a sibling of Jesus and a leader in the Jerusalem church (along with Peter and John), then we can expect to find certain indicators of this in certain kinds of evidence. If our reasonable expectations (predictions) fail, then we have an obligation to reconsider our earlier conclusions that led to our expectations.

Dr James McGrath demonstrates an unfortunate oversight of this fundamental principle (and also shows a taste for porky pies) when he writes:

It is entertaining to watch mythicists, who claim to be guided by the principle that the epistles are earlier and more reliable, while the later Gospels essentially turned a mythical Christ into a historical figure, jettison that supposed principle whenever it becomes inconvenient. When evidence of a historical Jesus is highlighted in the epistles, they will appeal to Acts, or epistles likely to be later forgeries, in an attempt to avoid the clear meaning of Paul’s reference to James as Jesus’ brother.

Mainstream historical scholarship can be discussed in terms of whether it’s conclusions are justified upon the basis of its methods. Or one can discuss whether the methods themselves are valid. In the case of mythicism, neither is possible, because it has no consistent methods and no conclusions, just foreordained outcomes and the use of any tools selectively that will allow one to reach them.

Or to put it simpler still, why do you trust Acts to indicate what Paul meant by “James” yet reject it when it comes to what Paul meant by “Jesus”?

Firstly, James McGrath knows very well that Earl Doherty at no point based his interpretation of Galatians 1:19 on the evidence of later epistles or Acts. Some readers might even be excused for suspecting McGrath is being a bald-faced friar, so he might like to write a clarification of this comment to dispel any suggestion that he is telling an outright porky about Doherty’s argument. (more…)

2011/05/24

McGrath does not read what he claims to be reviewing

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 5:38 pm
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What else am I to conclude? The evidence McGrath provides for his claim to have read chapter 6 of Doherty’s book is that he can cite names and topics that Doherty uses in that chapter. But at the same time McGrath strongly indicates that he merely glanced at those references and never bothered to read what Doherty was actually arguing. This is surely a kinder criticism than to suggest that McGrath cannot comprehend what he reads or deliberately suppresses what he reads.

(References in this post can be followed from McGrath’s pseudo-review of chapter 6 here, and from my outline of Doherty’s argument in chapter 6 here.)

Example. McGrath writes:

Doherty proceeds to consider details from the Gospels that he considers it (sic) surprising Paul and other epistle writers never mention in their letters. Often his response to the material borders on the bizarre. Why is it surprising that the later and clearly legendary details in the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke are not reflected in earlier literature? It is unsurprising to mainstream historical scholarship, which is familiar with countless examples of the same phenomenon, namely the development of mythologized birth stories around a historical figure.

I would have expected an honest reviewer to at least give a nod to Doherty’s argument. But not McGrath. (more…)

McGrath’s suppression of Doherty’s arguments: Ignatius

I had half hoped that by posting an outline of Doherty’s arguments in chapter 6 ahead of James McGrath’s review of that chapter I would be encouraging him to be honest with the content he claims to be reviewing. Unfortunately, it appears I have misjudged him. For example, the first specific criticism refers to Doherty’s reference to Ignatius. Here is McGrath’s criticism:

Doherty also [sic] notes that Ignatius knows biographical details about Jesus, even though he does not show clear signs of knowing written Gospels such as those that made it into the New Testament (pp.57-58). That these considerations might themselves provide reasons for drawing a conclusion different than the one Doherty is heading for is never considered. (“Also”? McGrath has not stated any earlier argument or point Doherty makes about Ignatius at all, but has only given his own irrelevant argument that Ignatius’s attack on Docetism does not necessarily mean a rejection of historicity.)

All McGrath can bring himself to argue here is that Doherty fails to consider that Ignatius’ reference to biographical details of Jesus might be an argument for historicity! Well, when Ignatius speaks of Jesus’ biographical details, it is understood he thinks Jesus is historical. Doherty is addressing the contrary evidence that McGrath complains Doherty does not address, but faults him for not using it in a way that would support McGrath’s beliefs.

What McGrath actually wants Doherty to say here is left unsaid. McGrath’s own rebuttal of Doherty’s point is nonexistent. The bottom line is that McGrath faults Doherty for arguing mythicism and for not using Ignatius to argue for historical Jesus. But how McGrath would use the evidence of Ignatius to overturn Doherty’s argument is left a mystery. (more…)

Earl Doherty responds: “It’s too bad Jim did not actually refute the arguments . . .”

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Earl Doherty,Exchanges with McGrath — Earl Doherty @ 11:42 am

Well, since he couldn’t cope with me in the exchanges over his review of my book on his own blog (responses to chapter 1; to chapter 2; to chapter 3; to chapter 4; to chapter 5), Jim regrettably has had to have recourse to a garbage review on Amazon. The following was the result of his reading 5% of the book, addressing none of the key chapters or issues involving my case, and ignoring the feedback arguments I gave him on the five chapters he did review. He also ignored all of the negative reactions from others on his blog who were less than sympathetic to his rabidly hostile, and usually irrational, treatment of mythicists and mythicism. What he wrote on Amazon he could have written—and would have—even before opening Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Instead of anything approaching a substantive criticism of my book or parts of my case, which might have given pause to those in doubt, this thoroughly condemnatory and arrogant dismissal has actually demonstrated where is coming from (his resume attached to the review helps make that clear) and the untrustworthiness of any review at his hands or others like him. I ought to thank him for making my point.

This self-published book contains nothing that someone well-informed about the tools of historical scholarship, ancient Judaism, and/or the New Testament will be able to take seriously. Evidence that runs counter to Doherty’s predetermined conclusion is dismissed or dealt with unpersuasively, in much the manner that conservative Christian apologists deal with evidence that disagrees with their assumptions. Mythicism is to historical scholarship what young-earth creationism is to biology, and this volume is just one disappointing example of it.”

It’s too bad that Jim did not use his “well-informed” knowledge of the tools of historical scholarship to actually refute the arguments I made throughout the book. What he gave us for the first five chapters was simply laughable. (Paul’s readers already knew everything! was a good example. Talk about your “well-informed knowledge”!) Unfortunately, Amazon readers will assume that he read the entire thing, and that he could show that the totality of all the evidence is indeed “dismissed or dealt with unpersuasively.” (In fact, Amazon allows a thousand words, sometimes more, for a review; too bad he didn’t use some to actually demonstrate what he claims.) Jim ought to be ashamed of his own lack of honesty, but he’s in good company, and none of it ever shows any shame. Regrettably, authors don’t have the opportunity to comment or rebut on Amazon itself.

Earl

2011/05/16

Correcting some of James McGrath’s misunderstandings

Added more detail to my "advice" a the end of post: 21:11 pm -- 4 hours after original post.

I have left some corrections to Dr James McGrath’s recent post Overview of Part One of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (with Baloney Detection) on his site, and repeat them here along with a few other points. (A short response by Doherty is also found here on McGrath’s blog.) I conclude with some advice that McGrath has openly requested.

McGrath’s first point that needs several corrections is this:

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

Neil Godfrey appeals frequently to a seemingly favorable statement by Stevan Davies, but elsewhere in the same discussion forum Davies indicates that he had not read Doherty’s book and describes it as equally nonsense viz-a-viz the dominant scholarly paradigm. And so the favorable statement is about what Davies had been told about Doherty’s stance, not about the actual articulation of it in detail in his book. While Doherty should not be blamed for what one of his supporters has done, this still serves as a cautionary reminder that quotes in favor of a fringe view sometimes are not what they initially appear to be. (more…)

2011/05/15

Doherty’s argument in chapter 5, and correcting falsehoods in a certain “review”

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 11:19 am
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"Apocalypse" or "Apocalypse in ...

Image via Wikipedia

Updated to include link to Doherty's own comments: 1:20 pm, 15th May 2011.

Doherty’s chapter five is titled “Apocalyptic Expectations” and that, indeed, is what the chapter is about.

Firstly, I will address an unprofessional falsehood published by McGrath in a comment added to his review. McGrath in his review cited Hebrews, 1 Timothy and 1 John in a context that suggested he was using them as evidence for what Paul himself wrote. A commenter picked him up on this error, and McGrath then accused Doherty of being the one to lump all the epistles together indiscriminately. The point of such an accusation is to lead readers to think that Doherty’s arguments are sloppy.

Yes, I should have explained that Doherty lumps all the epistles together, for the most part, whereas my instinct is to focus on the authentic Pauline letters as our earliest evidence.

McGrath then excused himself from his own error by saying he wrote the post late at night. But that does not excuse him from his accusation that it is Doherty who “for the most part lumps all the epistles together”.

Fact:

Doherty refers to passages of Paul in 1 Thessalonians (p. 51) , 1 Corinthians (p. 53, 56), Romans (pp. 55-6) and 2 Corinthians (p. 56) and in each case associates these with Paul’s name.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 . . . Paul informs his readers . . . A few verses later Paul warns . . . .

At the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul makes an urgent plea . . .

But the revealing passages are those in which Paul expresses his eschatological (End-time) expectations. The first to look at is Romans 8:22-23 . . . . Here Paul’s orientation is squarely on the future. . . . Go on to Romans 13:11-12 . . . .

After quoting 2 Corinthians 6:2 Doherty immediately comments: Paul’s quote is Isaiah 49:8. . . It is one thing for Paul to ignore Jesus’ career . . . .

On page 53 Doherty lists 4 scriptures in a row — Philippians 1:6 and 3:20, 2 Thessalonians 1:7 and 1 Peter 1:7 — and introduces this collection with the explanation that they present passages from epistle writers from Paul on . . . .

Doherty is clear throughout his book on clearly distinguishing the different epistles, and sets this out in black and white as early as pages 16-17 of chapter 1. On those pages Doherty spells out which epistles are generally considered authentic to Paul and the various date ranges assigned to each of the NT epistles.

McGrath’s accusation that Doherty “lumps all the epistles together, for the most part”, is clear evidence that he has failed to honestly present Doherty’s arguments.

But what is the chapter about? (more…)

2011/05/13

What Doherty really said in chapter 4 (not what he “seemed” to say according to McGrath)

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 8:56 pm
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Seventy Apostles

Image via Wikipedia

In my recent post I criticized McGrath’s review of chapter 4 of Doherty’s book (Jesus Neither God Nor Man) for suppressing Doherty’s arguments and replacing them with a series of “Doherty seems to be saying . . . ” phrases.

My understanding of a scholarly review is that it should present the argument of the text reviewed, and then include any critical comment or discussion about that presented argument.

So I offer the remainder of this post as a template to help Dr James McGrath write a revised review of chapter 4 of Doherty’s book. He can incorporate what follows — the argument of Doherty in chapter 4 — and then add his own critique in response to these specific arguments. This will mean having to erase his earlier “Doherty seems to say” paragraphs, and to replace them with pertinent arguments that address the details of what Doherty actually says.

Chapter 4: Apostles and Ministries

Earl Doherty’s chapter 4 discusses what we can know about the nature of the earliest Christian preaching activities primarily from the evidence of the New Testament epistles, and whether the picture that emerges of these ministries is best explained by the historical or mythical Jesus hypothesis.

He begins by suggesting what we should expect to find on the basis of the historical Jesus hypothesis. With a historical Jesus we should expect evidence of unified point of origin or set of doctrines. We would expect to find: (more…)

2011/05/11

Is McGrath facing front or back in his review of Doherty’s chapter 3?

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 5:35 pm
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Doherty laid out the evidence that all knowledge of a Jesus in the historical past was said to have come to the NT epistle authors by revelation. (So much for the “oral tradition” hypothesis!)

McGrath responds in his review of chapter 3 of Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man that Doherty’s argument falls flat because Jewish literature speaks of future (mythical?) events as coming by revelation!

What does it take to become a professor at Butler University?

See also my comment in response to Steven Carr on the What McGrath Forgot post.

Incidentally, I have been preparing for some time a post on a book by Robert G. Hall, Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography (1991). Hint for what is to be included — even “historical events” in the Odes of Solomon and Ascension of Isaiah, such as Jesus walking on water and descending from heaven, are “revealed”.

Where genuine past events are written about, the revelation is exclusively in the “correct interpretation” or “meaning” of those events. But in the New Testament epistles it is the event itself that, as Doherty makes clear, is revealed.

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2011/04/26

Earl Doherty’s concluding responses to James McGrath’s Menu of Answers for Mythicists

This is the final installment of Earl Doherty’s responses to James McGrath’s Menu of Answers for Mythicists. The previous two posts in this series are at

  1. Earl Doherty’s Antidotes for a James McGrath Menu
  2. Continuing Earl Doherty’s Antidotes . . . 7 to 12

This post completes Earl’s responses up to McGrath’s menu item #23.

Menu Entrée #13:

“If, as Earl Doherty suggests, the ‘life’ and ‘death’ of Jesus occurred completely in a celestial realm, is the same true of the recipients of Ephesians?”

Something went awry in the preparation of this dish. Has there been any implication that the recipients of Ephesians are said to operate in a celestial realm? In any case, the comparison seems a pointless one. Locating the Ephesians and their struggle with the demons (6:12) as taking place on earth does nothing to prove the location of their Christ’s redeeming death, since the demons operated both on earth and in the heavens. And Ephesians is one of those documents which shows not the slightest sign of an historical Jesus in the background of the writer’s thought, not even in regard to traditions about healing miracles performed by Jesus on earth which would have demonstrated his power over the demons, an issue which would have been of key significance to the Ephesians community. (more…)

2011/04/25

“Brother of the Lord” – Doherty versus McGrath

I am copying a comment by Earl Doherty here as a post in its own right. Doherty apparently attempted to post it on McGrath’s blog in response to McGrath’s post, James the Brother of the Lord and Mythicism, but was confronted with word-length issues. James was responding to Earl’s Menu Entree #3 in his Antidotes post.

For ease of referencing I copy James McGrath’s post below, followed by Earl Doherty’s response:

Neil Godfrey has posted a “response” from Earl Doherty that nicely illustrates, as usual, why mythicism is not taken seriously by most people, but more importantly pretty much anyone with actual expertise in history and a genuine interest in applying historical methods to learn about the past.

The post is in fact intended to provide an “antidote” some brief responses to mythicist claims that I offered in a post a while back. My own view is that it fails miserably, but I am not exactly an impartial observer. But since brief responses are only persuasive if one is familiar with the wealth of evidence behind them, presumably it may be useful for me to say a little more. Rather than trying to say something about each of Doherty’s points, let me focus on one in this post: how he, as a mythicist, treats the references by Paul to “James the brother of the Lord.” (more…)

2011/04/24

Continuing Earl Doherty’s antidotes for James McGrath’s Menu Items 7 to 12

This post is a continuation of Earl Doherty’s responses to James McGrath’s Menu of Answers to Mythicists. The first installment, items 1 to 6, was posted here. Earl Doherty continues with menu item #7, preceding each of his responses with McGrath’s description in bold italics.

Menu Entrée #7:

“Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed means showing there are good reasons to think that he did, not that it is impossible for anyone to construct a scenario in which it might have been otherwise. Historical study offers probabilities, not absolute certainties.”

Let’s break down this entrée and do a taste test on its ingredients:

(1) Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed requires showing that there are good reasons for thinking so.

(2) Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed does not require showing that no scenarios are possible which could suggest that he did not.

(3) The implication is that this particular historical study is able to demonstrate that No. 1 can be shown to be more probable than any counter scenario envisioned in No. 2. (more…)

2011/04/23

Earl Doherty’s Antidotes for a James McGrath Menu.

Alka Seltzer Plus packaging and tablet

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Earl Doherty has visited James McGrath’s Matrix Restaurant and sampled for himself all 23 items offered on his Menu of Answers for Mythicists. Here is the first part of Earl’s complete culinary report on his experience along with tips for other prospective diners.

Herewith a response to Jim McGrath’s blog feature A Menu of Answers to Mythicists

Dr. Jim McGrath has kindly offered historicists who visit his Matrix restaurant a handy “Menu of Answers” to arguments and claims put forward by mythicists. With his white napkin of pre-washed orthodoxy draped securely over his forearm, waiter McGrath hands diners his menu and wishes them “bon appetit.” The problem is, the entrées on this menu as often as not produce indigestion, since they have not been properly cooked with reason at fallacy-killing temperatures, seasoned with critical acumen or sautéed in clarity, and the accompanying beverage list offers only the cheaper vintages of biased brews. So I would like to offer a selection of antidotes, guaranteed to restore equilibrium to the digestive system and a measure of rationality to the world outside his establishment, since at the end of the day we all have to return to it.

Menu Entrée #1:

Jesus and Entrées at other Establishments (more…)

2011/04/17

Multiple Attestation and the usual straw man polemics from a certain blogger

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 1:54 pm
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Completely ignoring all I have said in our past exchanges about the problem with multiple attestation, and completely ignoring all that his own biblical scholar peers have said about the fatal flaw at the heart of this criteria when applied to historical Jesus studies, and completely ignoring two of three of my analogies that made the message very clear, the usual suspect goes to town with the third analogy and writes a lot of truism as if it were a legitimate critique of what I said. Sorry, Dr McGrath, but it may disappoint you to know I agree with everything you said with reference to the UFO analogy, and that your “critique” actually supports the point I was making — which is not original but merely a repeat of what your own peers have written often enough:

If one person says they saw a UFO, we may well dismiss it. If a group of people unrelated to one another all saw something, we will take it far more seriously. It will remain an Unidentified Flying Object and does not by virtue of multiple witnesses become an alien spacecraft. But we will take the claim to have seen something seriously because of the multiple attestation.

Exactly! (more…)

2011/04/05

A James McGrath–Earl Doherty Exchange

James McGrath blogged with reference to the recent interview with and follow up comments by Earl Doherty here, and Earl Doherty has replied here.

For ease of reference I bring the two — McGrath’s post and Doherty’s response — together in this post.

James McGrath’s post

Earl Doherty Believes Paul Existed…For Much the Same Reasons Historians Believe Jesus Existed

Neil Godfrey has kindly posted an interview with Earl Doherty and then Doherty’s response to a question from Evan, who also frequently comments here at Exploring Our Matrix. The question relates to whether and why Doherty accepts the existence of a historical Paul, but not a historical Jesus.

It is a fantastic question.

If mythicism emerges out of a principled stance that literary documents alone, or in particular literary documents all from a particular religious tradition, cannot serve as historical evidence for the existence of persons, then there ought to be no difference in how the two are viewed. The difference of genre between letters claiming to be written by Paul and Gospels claiming to be about Jesus is for all intents and purposes irrelevant when it comes to this question, since there is no more difficulty forging letters from a fictional person than in “forging characters” in a fictional narrative.

Doherty, in fact, believes that a historical Paul makes better sense of the evidence. That is, of course, precisely the stance of historians when it comes to the question of the existence of a historical Jesus.

I am curious whether Neil Godfrey, Evan, and others will criticize Doherty for this or will be pleased with his answer. Either way it should make for interesting discussion.

Posted by James F. McGrath at 10:58 PM

And Earl Doherty’s response:

First let me comment on Jim McGrath’s remarks posted on his blog.

If Jim really believes that there is no difference between the evidence for Paul and the evidence for Jesus (regardless of how they are to be ranked), if he believes that accepting one figure requires that we must accept the other, he has very little understanding about the arguments for mythicism. And he is ignoring the very differences I pointed out in the posting he has quoted from this blog.

I’m not sure what Jim is so excited about, or what point he thinks he has scored. He claims that

“Earl Doherty Believes Paul Existed…For Much the Same Reasons Historians Believe Jesus Existed.

Doherty, in fact, believes that a historical Paul makes better sense of the evidence. That is, of course, precisely the stance of historians when it comes to the question of the existence of a historical Jesus.”

Yes, it may be their stance, but that does not make the two positions necessarily equal in merit, and certainly not for the same “reasons.” Every field of research, or some segment of it, will make a similar claim, that its current conclusion makes the best sense of the evidence. Until, that is, some other research comes along and demonstrates otherwise. And one case of such a claim can hardly be used to prove the legitimacy of some other case. This is a peculiar type of fallacy.

There is no question that historicists claim that the existence of an HJ makes better sense of the evidence. But are they justified in so claiming? Are they being unbiased and free from predisposition? Are they immune from reading one set of documents into another? Are their arguments coherent and free of fallacy? The mythicist position is that they are not.

The fact that we hold respective convictions that we’ve made the best sense of the evidence is not dramatic in itself and hardly proves anything. Jim seems to be suggesting that my acceptance of the likelihood of an historical Paul and my rejection of the likelihood of an historical Jesus is some kind of arbitrary eenie-meenie-minee-moe. Rather, it is a matter of subjecting each case to its own careful and unbiased examination.

One of the major differences I put forward was the nature of the evidence. We have writings purporting to be by Paul, but none by Jesus. Much of the ‘genuine’ Pauline letters have the sound of a real person with all its human emotions and weaknesses, its personal experiences and reactions to real-life situations. The “sound” of Jesus in the Gospels, on the other hand, is a bunch of set-pieces and mirrorings of scripture, almost nothing in the way of an identifiable personality. Even his third-person-related deeds are midrashic rewrites of passages from scripture. On the cross, Mark can give him nothing more to say than a line from Psalm 22. As for the epistles, they ‘recount’ Jesus’ life by paraphrasing lines from passages like Isaiah 53, as in 1 Peter 2:22. This is just one example of the differences between the two ‘records’ and why a conviction of reality in regard to Paul has its own reasons which are quite distinct from the reasons historicists may have for their conviction of reality for the Gospel figure. If Jim cannot recognize those differences and their quality, or chooses to ignore them, it is no wonder he finds the mythicist case so easy to dismiss.

Earl Doherty

Comment by Earl Doherty — 2011/04/05 @ 3:17 am

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2011/03/05

Credulity, insecurity and sophistry in the “Did Jesus Exist?” debate

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 7:52 am
Tags:

James McGrath links to a very straightforward article in The National Post that challenges head-on the inability of some people to even acknowledge the legitimacy of any serious case for the nonhistoricity of Jesus. It is Should Jesus Be Exempt From Historical Scrutiny?

The author, Jackson Doughart, indicates he is not a mythicist, since he writes that he believes there is not enough evidence to definitely determine if Jesus was a real person, and that the nature of the evidence that does exist at least suggests his existence is debatable.

He also points out why comparing the denial of the historicity of Jesus to denying the existence of Hannibal is “an illigitimate and absurd comparison”.

Doughart makes an interesting comparison of the evidence for Jesus with the evidence for Socrates. He notes, as I have also done, that the question of Socrates’ existence is immaterial to the bigger question of the rise of Greek philosophy, while the existence of Jesus is of paramount significance for believers.

A few excerpts (more…)

2011/02/11

Response to McGrath’s circularity and avoidance of the methodological argument

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 8:41 pm
Tags: , ,
Logarithmic spiral

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In a “response” to a recent post of mine about historical method, James McGrath illustrates well the very problem and question begging that my post was intended to highlight.

McGrath’s opening statement affirms that he simply fails to grasp the argument I am presenting.

[Neil Godfrey’s] post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my [McGrath’s] post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”

Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.

That second paragraph that I have highlighted demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of the words of mine he has just quoted. McGrath says the “context” of the Gospels consists of the early epistles of Paul and their reception history, but this “context” is not the same thing at all as providing external corroboration or controls that can testify to the historicity of the narrative of the gospels. They may indeed provide “context”. But that misses the point. (more…)

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