Vridar

2012/11/04

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ reviews continued. Chapter 10

Gospel of Mark’s Use of Literary Tropes and Myths to Create Tales of Jesus

Continuing my series of posts on ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus I look here at Thomas L. Thompson‘s chapter ten, ” “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”.

Thompson (TLT) is asking readers to become more savvy to the literary tropes of the ancient world and to understand the biblical literature, including the Gospel narratives of Jesus, within these literary conventions. One might compare the way the unflattering realities of America’s Wild West have been romanticized through the literary visions of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The white knight, or cowboy in the white hat, is a literary construct that exists as a tool that authors apply either to characters entirely of their own imagination or to historical persons which they recreate as myths.

The point is that once we recognize these literary tools for what they are, we will not read the ancient literature — gospels included — naively. We will learn to recognize the cultural myths or ideologies underlying the words we are reading. (more…)

2012/09/02

Why Historical Knowledge of Jesus is Impossible: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 5

Emanuel Pfoh‘s chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ raises the questions that I think get to the very heart of what the “historicist-mythicist” divide over Christian origins is really all about. It’s a favourite of mine, and once again like another favourite that I’ll mention again in this post, comes from an anthropological perspective. The title of his chapter is “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem“.

His chapter concludes the first of the three divisions into which the book is divided:

1. These first five chapters — by Jim West, Roland Boer, Lester L. Grabbe, Niels Peter Lemche and Emmanuel Pfoh — tackle “some problems and issues of past scholarship regarding the historical Jesus”.

2. The next section of three chapters (Robert M. Price, Morgens Müller, Thomas S. Verenna) raises “fresh perspectives regarding the figure of Paul and his epistles as our ‘earliest testimony’ of the figure of Jesus”. (I finally have come to appreciate the reference to “the figure of” Jesus as opposed to (simply) “Jesus”: the “figure of Jesus” is an umbrella term that can cover imaginary, mythical, historical-conceptual, or literal-physical-DNA Jesuses.)

3. The final section of the book consists of four chapters (James G. Crossley, Thomas L. Thompson, Ingrid Hjelm, Joshua Sabith) on the “intertextual literary reading and the significance of the function of a rewritten Bible for literary composition”, and a fifth and final chapter by K. L. Noll as a theoretical discussion of “the history of Christian origins without a historical Jesus.”

Emanuel Pfoh

In this chapter Pfoh examines the current research into the historical Jesus in the context of the “historical milieu of previous scholarship”. He draws lessons from the past — how social, political, ideological and intellectual contexts of past studies have influenced the results produced by that scholarship — and makes some incisive observations about the real nature of current historical Jesus studies as a result.

“But he’s not a New Testament scholar”

Emanuel Pfoh begins by clarifying his “outsider” status to the field of New Testament studies. His special interest is in “historical anthropology of Syria-Palestine/the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. That would seem to immediately disqualify him from any contribution to the discussion of Jesus according to Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and James McGrath. (These have each rejected statements by Thomas L. Thompson on those grounds.)

What his chapter is about

Pfoh explains that he offers

only general statements and thoughts . . . regarding epistemological and methodological issues for the history-writing of the Near Eastern world, in which the figure of Jesus together with the whole of biblical traditions should be understood.

My main aim is to reflect, from strictly historical knowledge and what is to be deemed myth or mythic creation by ancient writers. (my emphases and formatting throughout)

That is, his chapter can be seen as

reflections of the methodological problems of the search for a historical Jesus in New Testament studies that should be acknowledged, addressed and responded to by scholars, but also as a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual worlds supporting such.

What I believe Pfoh’s discussion does — though this is not something he directly addresses — is undermine the validity of the application of “historical criteria” to uncover a “historical Jesus” beneath the Gospels. Quite apart from the logical validity of the criteria themselves (criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, etc) Pfoh’s reflections argue that it is no more reasonable to think they can uncover a “historical core” beneath the Gospels than they might uncover an historical Achilles or Odysseus if applied to Homer.

Some will immediately fault such an approach as “sceptical” as if scepticism is a bad word in academia. Pfoh will later point out

All this is not a matter of scepticism, but of an awareness of the conditions of our knowledge and of an attempt to treat the extant and available data critically. (p. 85, my emphasis — ironic that a scholar appears to sense a need to defend against a potential charge of scepticism)

.

The Figure of Jesus and the Mythic Mind

The main reason for holding to the historicity of the figure of Jesus . . . resides not primarily in historical evidence but derives instead from a modern theological necessity.

Pfoh writes that “the presence of the mythic mind in the intellectual world of antiquity” is not always taken seriously by “biblical scholars”. (more…)

2012/08/30

Did Jesus exist for minimalist and Jesus Process member Philip Davies?

Emeritus Professor Philip Davies has not been able to “resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus” in an opinion piece titled Did Jesus Exist? on The Bible and Interpretation website. It is a question that he says “has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally”, though the occasion of his essay appears to be the recent set of exchanges over the views of Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and Thomas L. Thompson on that website along with some thoughts on the recently released ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’.

(Since Davies was also announced as a member of The Jesus Process (c) (TJP), it is encouraging to see someone from that august body addressing the tactic of the gutter rhetoric that we have endured recently from other TJP members Joseph Hoffmann, Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. It would be nice to hope that Davies’ article can mark a turn for the better from that quarter at least.)

Philip Davies is (in)famous for his 1992 publication In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (partly outlined on vridar.info) that is reputed to have brought “minimalist” arguments on the Old Testament to a wider scholarly (and public) awareness. In Did Jesus Exist? Davies says he has “often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’”, and infers that the collection of articles in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is an appropriate way to open the question.

(I don’t think it is all that difficult to apply a “minimalist” approach to the New Testament: it’s a simple matter of approaching the data with the same logical validity and consistency — the avoidance of circularity [and circularity of method is confessed by several historical Jesus/NT scholars] in particular. The hard part is in acknowledging the circularity given our cultural conditioning.)

.

NT studies “not a normal case”, ad hominem rhetoric, and hope

He points out that what is uncontroversial in any other field of ancient history runs into trouble when suggested in the field of New Testament studies (my emphasis): (more…)

2012/08/11

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ — Introduction

Filed under: Thompson: Not the Carpenter? — Neil Godfrey @ 1:20 pm
Tags: , ,

What is the significance of the title of this book edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna. The subtitle is “The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus” — “of the Figure of”, not “of Jesus”. Perhaps that helps guard the book from being seen as too bluntly opening up the Christ Myth question. The main title comes from Mark 6:1-6 —

And he went out from thence; and he cometh into his own country; and his disciples follow him.

2 And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, Whence hath this man these things? and, What is the wisdom that is given unto this man, and what mean such mighty works wrought by his hands?

3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him.

4 And Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

5 And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages teaching.  (ASV)

Now the themes latent in this passage and that are drawn out in this introduction are the same ones that led me to launch one of my very first diffident attempts to explore questions of historicity in an academic forum in 1998: Re: Jesus the Carpenter? in Crosstalk. Fourteen years later I am reading the same question, with the same implications for the historicity of the exchange between Jesus and his neighbours, being raised not by an amateur outsider in an open scholarly forum but by scholars in a book so prohibitively expensive that it is beyond the reach of the general reader — and with a clear warning that I am not to reproduce any of it for wider sharing, without even the usual allowance of short passages for reviews.

Nonetheless, this Introduction chapter has been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation — even complete with its annoying “itinerate” typo.  (And given that it is already online I trust I have a right to quote passages from it here.) So you can go there and read what Thompson and Verenna write for themselves or stay here and read what I say they write, with some of my own commentary. ;-) (more…)

2012/07/19

A model history lesson (or, Why Does Rabbi Akiba Proclaim Bar Kokhba the Messiah?)

Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua...

Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua Haggadah) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My recent encounter with Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs has led me to a few other publications of his and one of them I found particularly surprising and interesting: Why Does R. Akiba Acclaim Bar Kokhba as Messiah? that appeared in a 2009 Journal for the Study of Judaism (40). (Bar Kokhba was the leader of the second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 130s CE. The Jewish Talmudic record preserves a tradition that the leading Rabbi of the time, Akiba, declared Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. Unfortunately for Akiba’s hopes Bar Kokhba’s rebellion failed.)

What grabbed my attention was the way Novenson analysed the documentary evidence to understand its nature before accepting its narrative content at face value — something that should strike as such an obvious thing to do but also something that very few historical Jesus scholars seem to follow through seriously. Note the present tense in the title of Novenson’s article: “Why does R. Akikba . . .” — that is significant in that it tells us Novenson will be addressing the literary Akiba in the narrative. A rationale for this might be that the literary Akiba is all we have today to analyse. Or as Thomas L. Thompson might say, we need first to deal with the Akiba we do have (the figure in literary texts) before we can move on to knowing how we might understand a historical Akiba behind the texts.)

A significant feature of Novenson’s method of argumentation is that it touches on a few criteria and methods frequently used in historical Jesus studies. We will see that he applies them not as rhetorical questions with “obvious” answers but as real questions requiring genuine investigation:

  • Why would any Jew make up a story embarrassing to a great rabbi of history?
  • Why would anyone make any of it up at all?
  • The characters are historical, the setting is historical, and the narrative is plausible and coherent. Why should we not believe the narrative is historical?

Now in historical Jesus studies these sorts of questions are raised less as gateways to inquiry than as rhetorical affirmations. There seems to be something about Jesus as a subject of historical inquiry that shuts down imaginations and brings out The Fossil’s Creed in NT scholars. “Why of course this or that story must be based on a true event! Why would anyone make it up? Why would anyone make up a story embarrassing to a respected rabbi? Of course it cannot be made up! It has to be true!”

Scholars generally seem to be at their best when they are not taking on Jesus. (more…)

2012/07/14

A Profession of Faith — The Historical Jesus Creed

Dr. Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

Presumably as a lead-up to the publishing of Is This Not the Carpenter? Thomas L. Thompson (as we mentioned earlier on Vridar) has published a rebuttal to Ehrman’s misleading statements in Did Jesus Exist? You’ve probably already read Thompson’s piece, “Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son? — A Response to Bart Ehrman,” but you may have missed the hilarious follow-up dialog that appeared later on.

A challenger appears

Our favorite anti-mythicist crusader, the Battling Bantam from Butler, James F. McGrath writes:

In referring to the existence of a historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth as an “assumption” rather than a historical conclusion, Thompson is either siding with the mythicists, or trying to have his cake and eat it too, or ignoring what Ehrman wrote, or some combination of the above

Thompson, says McGrath, can’t have it both ways. He’s either fer us or he’s agin’ us.

N.B.: Any discussion of the historical Jesus must be presented as a historical conclusion. You have been warned.

McGrath continues:

In writing about this topic, Thompson had a wonderful opportunity to clarify his own position and distance himself from those internet crackpots sometimes referred to as “mythicist” [sic] who comment on matters of history about which they are inadequately informed, engage in extremes of parallelomania which seem like a parody of the worst examples of scholarship from a bygone era, and in other ways do something that would be helpful in relation to this subject. That opportunity seems to me to have been squandered.

For Dr. Jimmy the thought of missing the chance to slam mythicists is a tragedy, a waste, a squandered opportunity.

Thompson replies:

(more…)

The crazy attacks on Vridar

Filed under: The Jesus Process — Neil Godfrey @ 7:10 am
Tags: , ,
Updated and slightly revised about 3 hours after original posting.

This is crazy. A couple of blokes, laymen, have a hobby. They love to engage with biblical scholarly literature and to learn and understand all they can about a book that is important to Western culture. They enjoy sharing what they read with others who have similar interests. I always understood scholars were too busy to be bothered with whatever lay people did with any of their ideas. Who cares what every Trish, Dot and Hanna think and say?

So why do a few scholars sometimes go out of their way to publicly attack this blog? Why the insults and even the curses wishing our children dead (which even their students learn to repeat*)?

Why should anyone care if we — or anyone else — think Jesus was probably not historical or if we say we can’t decide one way or the other on the question? How can we explain scholars resorting to insult because we are less certain and more questioning about some details?

I have said repeatedly that my interest is not in mythicism per se but in exploring Christian origins and understanding the nature and origins of the biblical literature. I cannot prove Jesus did not exist and have no interest in bothering to try.

I am as much, and no more, a mythicist as is Professor Thomas L. Thompson. Thompson does not argue for or against the historicity of Jesus but he does argue a case for understanding the biblical literature and the ideas within it in a certain way, and he does from time to time point to the potential implications this understanding has for the question of the historicity of Jesus.

My arguments about methodology are for most part an application of Thompson’s and other minimalist scholars logic to the New Testament.

Accordingly I have questioned the fundamental assumptions of NT scholarship that addresses the historical Jesus and Christian origins. I have also pointed out the logical fallacies riddling many of those scholarly studies.

But I have also shared much of what I have found most interesting in those learned works.

I — and even moreso Tim — have spent a good amount of time learning the fundamentals of the biblical languages, using the standard scholarly references, and attempting to keep up with current ideas as well as digging into those of the past. It’s a hobby. But we are serious about it and love to share what we learn or wonder about.


We stand outside the guild. We have not been trained in the “correct answers” and “the right questions” to ask or the “correct way” to frame the discussions.

One sometimes wonders if it’s because we have done a little homework and have a fair idea of what we are talking about when we apply critical analysis to certain modern scholarly ideas that some scholars find our views threatening. We stand outside the guild. We have not been trained in the “correct thoughts” and “the right questions to ask”. It has not escaped our notice the way some scholars seem incapable of breaking away from stock phrases and concepts in their arguments and appear to be most uncomfortable with criticisms that undermine those taken-for-granted ways of expressing the arguments and framing the debates.

Enter mythicism

If we question the foundational assumptions and standard “logic” of some NT scholarship, what is left? What would replace it? (more…)

2012/07/06

Thomas L. Thompson responds to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

It’s good to see Professor Thomas L. Thompson come out and respond to Bart Ehrman’s crude dismissal of his scholarly contribution to the origin of the Christ myth.

Here is what Ehrman had written of Thomas L. Thompson’s work:

A different sort of support for a mythicist position comes in the work of Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots o f Jesus and David, Thompson is trained in biblical studies, but he does not have degrees in New Testament or early Christianity. He is, instead, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In his own field of expertise he is convinced that figures from the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David never existed. He transfers these views to the New Testament and argues that Jesus too did not exist but was invented by Christians who wanted to create a savior figure out of stories found in the Jewish scriptures.

and again (more…)

2012/05/14

Ehrman Confesses: Scholars Never Have Tried to Prove Jesus Existed

Thomas L. Thompson, Professor of Theology, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and editor of biblical studies journals, wrote in 2005 that historical Jesus scholars have always just assumed that Jesus existed:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Now Professor Bart Ehrman has said the same thing. He even says he believes he is the first scholar ever to set out a sustained argument to prove Jesus existed!

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me. (Did Jesus Exist as Part One, accessed 14th May, 2012, my bolding and italics)

Can you imagine a biologist or paleontologist posting on a blog “no-one has ever tried to prove evolution”? Or a physicist saying “no-one has ever tried to prove the laws of physics”?

And note, further, the way Ehrman implies he went about this novel exercise of actually, for the first time in his life, trying to set out “a sustained argument” that Jesus existed. No references are made to historical methodologies. He simply sat down and thought it all up off the top of his erudite head. That he had never thought this through before, his neglect of historical methodology, even elementary logic, shows through when he writes some excruciatingly embarrassing pages in chapter two of his book Did Jesus Exist? (more…)

2012/03/22

Bart Ehrman’s Huffing and Posting Against Mythicism

Bart Ehrman

Cover of Bart Ehrman

Dr Bart Ehrman has written for the Huffington Post a quite a curious article attacking mythicism and advertising his new book which promises more of the same. It is a curious article because it leaves a reader who knows anything about mythicist arguments and historical Jesus scholarship with the impression that Ehrman knows very little about either, but of course that cannot be true. Probably most of us who know Ehrman’s reputation have personally benefited from at least one of his many books bringing New Testament scholarship to a wider audience. What the article does do above all else is portray a scholar who has been so immersed in his field with all its deepest and millennia old assumptions that he simply cannot believe there is any other way of validly questioning the evidence outside the cave. Any rumours of such activity have to be denounced. There can be no other truth apart from what one sees in the cave where only right-thinking guild members have always worked.

I cannot improve upon Richard Carrier’s detailed exposure of the intellectual and scholarly failings of Ehrman’s article. Still, I have been asked for my own thoughts, so here they are.

Ehrman has unwittingly demonstrated that so much of his work on the historical Jesus is built on a foundation of sand. Of course he needs to come out fighting. Attack may be the best hope for defence when the rationale for one’s life’s work is at stake.

Ehrman’s rhetorical message

And his article is a rhetorical attack. It has precious little valid argument to it. Compare the terms he uses to portray those who espouse mythicism with the terms he uses for his “right-thinking” society and scholars said to be opposed by this “movement”: (more…)

2012/02/28

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? — Part 2

Filed under: Thompson: Mythic Past — Neil Godfrey @ 8:29 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Cover of "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archa...

Cover via Amazon

Over a week ago I posted Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1 — a discussion drawn principally from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past: Biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel. That first post covered the evidence that “Jewishness” originated as a religious rather than an ethnic label:

  1. the origin myth of Israel being unlike any other national or ethnic origin myth in that it is an etiology of a religious cult
  2. the fact that there has been far more continuity of the population of Palestine than commonly understood
  3. the worship of Yahweh was not unique to any one people in the ancient Near East, nor was Yahweh the sort of god often depicted in the Bible
  4. Jewishness was not a concept that was limited to a particular ethnic group or even “the Jerusalem cult” exclusively, as witnessed by the surviving evidence from diaspora groups
  5. the concept of Israel in the Bible’s narrative is theological and not political or ethnic (prohibitions on mixed marriages were a safeguard for the preservation of the religious cult rather than an ethnic group)

Thompson argues that modern readers have tended to overlook the literary character of the biblical stories and traditions, and the fact that Israel in these stories is a theological (not historical) construct or metaphor. The same misreading applies to the New Testament, too.

This post addresses the second part of Thompson’s argument, the evidence from Josephus and to a lesser extent from Philo.

In book 12 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an etiology of the Jews of Egypt from deportations under Ptolemy ‘from the mountains of Judea and from the places about Jerusalem, Samaria and near Mount Gerizim.‘ These he describes as ‘two groups’ — nevertheless Jews all — who dispute about whether they should send their tribute to Jerusalem of to Samaria (Ant. 12.1.1). (p. 259-60, The Mythic Past, my emphasis)

What is the significance of this? It shows that in Josephus’ mind it was quite acceptable to think of a single functioning Jewish community in the diaspora that was made up of Jews of disparate origins and loyalties. (Thompson, p. 260) (more…)

2012/02/16

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1

Kurdistan  .Yazidis  .Judaism . Christianity ....

Kurdistan .Yazidis .Judaism . Christianity .Islam (Photo credit: Kurdistan Photo كوردستان)

This post is based primarily on a few pages in The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson. It is slightly supplemented by fewer notes from a different but complementary discussion on the biblical meanings of “the people of God” in The Israelites in History and Tradition by Niels Peter Lemche. (All bold fonts for emphasis or highlighting key points for ease of reading are mine.)

I conclude with my own thoughts on what all of this means for the first of our Gospels.

The biblical tradition informs us of the meaning and understanding that the biblical authors’ contemporaries attributed to the past. Archaeological evidence points to a different reality of the past.

The religious understanding of Israel’s origin myth

The primary biblical referent for Israel’s ethnic and family identification is found in the stories and metaphors of “exodus”, “wilderness”, “exile” and “return”. Even in the Books of Kings the narrative is couched in the suspense of threats and promises of exile from the land. These themes centre on the motif of the children of Israel as the “people of God”, as Jahweh’s “first-born” and God’s “inheritance”.

These stories all are solidly rooted in the self-defining, grand epochal line of a God without a home or a people [and who was] searching for a people without a home or a God. It is in this metaphor that we find the foundation and matrix for the ethnographic metaphor of all Israel. This metaphor gives voice to the ‘new Israel’ with its centre in Yahweh’s temple of the ‘new Jerusalem’. This is an identity that is formed from the perspective of the sectarian theology of the way. (pp. 255-56, Our Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson)

Compare Niels Peter Lemche’s observation of the nature of Israel’s origin myth: (more…)

2012/01/27

Confusing stories with historical evidence

Filed under: Historiography,Thompson: Mythic Past — Neil Godfrey @ 3:00 am
Tags: , ,
Cover of "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archa...

Cover via Amazon

It’s worth quoting a few passages from Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Mythic Past (aka The Bible in History). I believe they have a relevance that extends beyond the Old Testament.

Naively realistic questions about historicity have always been most out of place when it has come to Israel’s origins — if only for the fact that the genre of origin stories that fills so much of the Bible relates hardly at all to historical events, to anything that might have happened. It rather reflects constitutional questions of identity. (pp. 34-35, my emphasis)

The genre of origin stories hardly relates at all to historical events? Now one sees the pressing need for Historical Jesus scholars to bypass standard scientific methods of dating documents in order to date the Gospels as close as they reasonably can to the presumed events contained in their narratives. How can an origin story not relate to history if the story is composed within living memory of the events? The circularity of this is never addressed as far as I am aware.

We know the events really happened. No-one would have made them up. How do we know?

Because the narrative is a historical record, more or less.

How do we know the narrative is a historical record?

Because it is about events we know really happened — no-one would have made them up.

And all the subsequent scholarly apparatus thought to bring us closer to the historical Jesus is built upon this logic.

(more…)

2012/01/08

Who wrote the Bible? (2) Challenging the Documentary Hypothesis

Русский: Распределение документов Йахвист, Эло...

Image via Wikipedia

This post continues from my post some weeks ago in which I covered primarily Philippe Wajdenbaum’s account of the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. At that time in one of the comments I explained I had paused to take stock of how best to address the challenge that has arisen against the Documentary Hypothesis. This is a study I undertook some years ago and so thoroughly enjoyed that it is easy for me to cover way too much detail. Maybe I will have to return to address some of the specifics in separate posts later. Once this is out of the way I would like to post another explaining how political anthropology offers a cogent explanation for the character of the biblical books as Hellenistic productions.

First, to recap the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea that the Old Testament was essentially a result of four separate sources that were originally written over a span of some centuries:

  • a Jahwist/Yahwist (J) written in the southern kingdom of Judah around the time of Solomon – 10th century bce / later shifted to the Babylonian Exile period:
    • Gerhard von Rad in 1944 “considers the time of Solomonic enlightenment to contain all the prerequisites for literary production, including history writing. It was first of all a time of political stability and economic prosperity. On top of this came the need of a new state to provide a history of its past. Finally the creative impetus following in the wake of the establishment of an Israelite state created this new literature.”
    • Subsequent scholarship revised this, arguing that “External circumstances were thought to provide the most likely background for this kind of literature.” (pp. 158-9 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)
  • an Elohist (E) composed in the northern kingdom of Israel – 9th or 8th century bce
  • a Deuteronomist (D) in the southern kingdom of Judah at time of Josiah – late 7th century bce
  • a Priestly source (P) during the Babylonian Exile – 6th century bce

The dating of the sources is central to the hypothesis:

Essential to the history of scholarship expressed in Wellhausen’s synthesis [the DH is the result of W’s synthesis of two generations of OT historical-critical scholarship] was that these four discrete sources of the pentateuch were to be understood as literary documents created at the time of their written composition, and hence as compositions reflecting the understanding and knowledge of their authors and their world. (p. 2 of Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, by Thomas L. Thompson.)

This meant, for example, that the Pentateuch was not a reliable source for the events it narrates, such as the Patriarchal period and Exodus.

But in recent decades biblical scholars are not so united in their acceptance of this explanation for the Bible or “Old Testament” portion of it.

Basically, the old consensus that had developed around the Documentary Hypothesis has gone, though there is nothing to take its place (Rendtorff 1997; Whybray 1987). Some still accept the Documentary Hypothesis in much its original form, but many accept only aspects of it or at least put a question mark by it. There has also been much debate around the J source (Rendtorff 1997: 53-5) and the P source (Grabbe 1997). It seems clear that the Pentateuch was put together in the Persian period (Grabbe 2004:331-43; 2006). (p. 44 of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester L. Grabbe)

So where have the cracks appeared? (more…)

2011/11/04

Bart Ehrman’s failed attempt to address mythicism

Uppsala, Sweden -- from my visit in 2008

In Jesus Interrupted Bart Ehrman describes his first encounter with people who believed Jesus never existed. Some people from Sweden had emailed him to ask if it were true that he thought Jesus was a myth. Ehrman describes his reaction:

I thought this was an odd question. (p. 140)

Bart Ehrman then comes very close to opening the door on something of utmost significance:

This view may seem strange to an American audience, where the majority of people think not only that Jesus existed but that he was, and is, the Son of God. But in parts of Scandinavia the majority of people thinks that Jesus is a completely fabricated figure, that he never actually existed but was invented by a group of people intent on starting a new religion. (p. 140)

But he does not go through with what, I would have thought, a question that cries out for an explanation: the cultural matrix of belief in Jesus and Jesus scholarship. Sometimes the best way to recognize one’s own assumptions and biases is to view one’s position from the perspective of another culture entirely. I don’t think there is anything “universal” (in the sense of being independent of cultures) about the study of Jesus.

So having begun with the question of historicity I was looking forward to Ehrman’s discussion of that very point. But he didn’t. There is a conceptual disconnect between the theme he introduces in his opening two paragraphs and the rest of the chapter. (more…)

2011/10/07

The Dying Messiah (refrain)

Filed under: Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 8:23 pm
Tags: , , ,

Richard Carrier has posted a fascinating artticle on the pre-Christian Jewish concept of a dying Messiah and showing the nonsense so thoughtlessly repeated even by scholars the originality of Christianity’s idea that a messiah must die in order to offer saving atonement to his people.

Richard’s post is beautifully lengthy exploring much detail from the evidence.

I can’t resist taking this opportunity to refer to the many posts I have also made on this same theme, although they do not explore the same details as Carrier does — listed below.

My posts are for most part based on other scholars who have advanced the same idea, including a Jewish one who sees certain sectarian Second Temple Jewish ideas about Isaac’s offering (apparently thought by some to have been a literal blood sacrifice that atoned for the Jewish people) overlapping with messianism in the time of the Maccabean martyrs — whose blood also had atoning power.

Other posts are based in some measure on the considerable work of Thomas L. Thompson who has written quite a bit on the concept of pre-Christian messianism.

Of significance is the death of the messianic (anointed high priest) having the power to forgive and atone; and the Davidic messiah himself was very often depicted as a figure of suffering and even ultimate rescue from death or near-death.

Carrier refers to Daniel’s messiah being killed. Saul, another messiah, was also killed. The concept of a messiah per se dying — whether the messiah was humanly fallible or a righteous martyr — was very much a part of the thought world of sectors of Judaism at the time of Christianity’s birth.

Carrier sees the history of messianic pretenders arising in the pre-war period as a possible outcome of the Daniel prophecy. Maybe, but I will have to think that through some more. Till now I have tended to argue that there were no such popular messianic expectations until from the time of the Roman war of 66-70 in a series of posts I have yet to complete. (Carriers post might end up prompting me to finish that now so I can think through his arguments some more.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is a list of posts of mine on the same theme — that the idea of a dying messiah was by no means novel to the Jews or original to the Christians. (more…)

2011/07/08

The (Literary) Servant in Isaiah and (the Literary) Jesus in the Gospels

Filed under: Isaiah — Neil Godfrey @ 8:07 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – – –

One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.

Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.

One sees an overlap between Jesus as an epitome of Israel at the opening of the Gospel of Mark (going along with the majority view of this Gospel being the first written of the canonical Gospels) and Jesus as a unique person, too. (more…)

2011/06/21

The fallacy that invalidates historical Jesus studies, conspiracy theories and creationism

“You aren’t allowed to make up your own facts.”

That’s a brilliant piece of wisdom that is lost on many of us from time to time because a certain familiarity with habitual ways of thinking prevents us from seeing that we sometimes really do just make up our own facts — or at least just accept “facts” that others have simply made up for us.

The words come from The Uncensored Bibe by Kaltner, McKenzie and Kilpatrick after they have presented an original argument that explains that bizarre episode in Exodus where God is said to meet Moses on his return to Egypt and tries to kill him, following which his wife Zipporah circumcises her infant son, tosses the foreskin at Moses and accuses him of being a bloody husband — after which God leaves him alone. This, at least, is one way the passage is translated for us. But as the authors explain, the original is riddled with so many unlinked pronouns no one can be really sure how to translate the passage, let along make any sense of the story.

A suicidal Moses

The occasion of the opening passage — “You aren’t allowed to make up your own facts” — is the explanation of Pamela Tamarkin Reis. She suggests the confusing phrases are not intended to be understood literally but are idiomatic expressions. They indicated, Reis says, that Moses was contemplating suicide. He had presented himself until this moment as an Egyptian fugitive of high standing, but on his return to Egypt after being called by a voice out of a burning bush, he had to face up to his being a Hebrew and one with a slave people. His wife, Zipporah, mocked him by performing a circumcision on their son in contempt. (more…)

2011/06/19

Jesus: Myth of the Rebel Leader or Myth of a Saviour God — it’s all the same myth

Some scholars (e.g. S.G.F. Brandon) have opined that Jesus was something of a revolutionary or rebel leader; others (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) that he was “a messiah myth” (the link is to an earlier post of mine listing the mythical traits of gods and kings of the Middle East).

Other scholars (e.g. Robert M. Price) have compared the Gospel narrative elements of Jesus against the various functional components of folk tales as extracted by Vladimir Propp.

One nonbiblical historian who, to my knowledge, has never written a word about Jesus, has written about a certain type of rebel leader, however, and compared the realities with the myth or legend that has universally attached itself to these sorts of people. Eric Hobsbawm has researched the phenomenon of social banditry (from China through Europe to Peru), or the Robin Hood types of figures. His list of characteristics of the “noble image” that attaches itself to these figures is interesting.

It bears a striking resemblance to the qualities of the kings and gods of Thompson’s messiah myth traits as much as to the heroic human outlaw. If the same qualities attach themselves to both the human outcast and a mighty god or king of another, much earlier, era, then one is entitled to suspect we are looking at some deeper psychological need/attraction at work here.

Here’s Hobsbawm’s list of characteristics (p. 47f of Bandits, 2000). (more…)

2011/04/10

Gaddafi: the millennia old Messiah figure is still with us

Filed under: Libya,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:45 am
Tags: , , , ,
Cover of "The Messiah Myth: The Near East...

Cover via Amazon

The messiah myth, millennia old across north Africa and the Middle East, is still alive in Libya today. Words recently spoken by Gaddafi were scripted long ago by the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Kings of Mesopotamia, and are found in the Psalms of David and in the proclamations of Jesus Christ. I repeat a few of them here, then place Gaddafi’s perception of his messianic role beside them.

Interesting also is the motif of family relationships Gaddafi ascribes between himself and Nasser of Egypt and even the U.S. President Obama. All this is, one might truly say, “so iron age”. It is the stuff one reads on monuments of ancient kings.

More extracts are found in my earlier post, Jesus A Saviour Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon, which are in turn extracted from Thomas L. Thompson’s book The Messiah Myth. This work demonstrates that biblical motifs attached to David and Jesus were part and parcel of the expected “messianic” salvation functions of kings and gods embedded in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian culture. (more…)

2011/03/27

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

Execution of John the Baptist

Image via Wikipedia

The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.

There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent of to prison to be executed. (Antiquites 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. (more…)

2010/12/23

“Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus. Pa...

See the introduction linked in this post for the relevance of this image. Image via Wikipedia

The introduction of Thomas L. Thompson’s and Thomas Verenna’s edited volume, Is This Not the Carpenter?A Question of Historicity has been published on The Bible and Interpretation.

The first essential step in any historical inquiry

This is a heartening introduction to the essential basics of valid historical methodology that has been very fudgy in the field of historical Jesus studies. The first thing any historian needs to grapple with when undertaking any inquiry is the nature of his or her sources. While probably most biblical scholars have acknowledged that the Gospels are theological narratives that depict a “Christ of faith” rather than a “Jesus of history”, there has at the same time been an assumption that that theological layer has been created to portray what the “historical Jesus” meant to the authors and their readers. Given this assumption, it has been believed that it might be possible to uncover some facts about the historical Jesus nonetheless. Historical Jesus studies have in this way been confused with the question of Christian origins.

The contributions in this book are from a diverse range of scholars. The introduction explains the purpose of the volume:

 

The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.

This sounds a little like an approach I have been suggesting on this blog and elsewhere for some time, so I find such a statement personally encouraging.

Historicity is an assumption (more…)

2010/11/26

The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
Tags: ,

It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history. (p. 1 of Judaisms and Their Messiahs, my emphasis)

But there is little, if any, evidence for this “axiom of western history”!

The opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, though over 20 years old, appears not to have been read or accepted among theological and other scholars who even now still argue that the generation of Jesus was possessed by expectations of a messianic deliverer. Many such scholars still argue strenuously that some of that generation reinterpreted the life, execution and post mortem psychic experiences of their renowned rabbi, Jesus, as the life, death and resurrection of the long awaited (but spiritual) Messiah. Sometimes even professorial insults will be directed at less learned individuals who dare question, and persist in asking to be shown, the hard evidence for this model.

But professorial insults notwithstanding, William Scott Green (the author of that opening chapter) is several times quoted in relatively recent publications by the renowned Thomas L. Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Green continues: (more…)

2010/10/06

Bible: Story or History? Art or Real Life?

Dionysos mask, found in Myrina (now in Turkey)...
Image via Wikipedia

One New Testament scholar has written that Jesus’ real life was lived out just like a real Greek tragedy. Jesus’ travels, works and sayings, all his life, just happened to all follow a sequence and specific eventfulness that had all the appearance, to anyone who was observing, of working out just like a drama on a Greek tragic stage! I will return to this otherwise interesting NT scholar.

Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham is recognized as having been the wedge that dislodged the dominance of Albright‘s influence on Old Testament studies. Albright had argued that the Bible was basically true history from the Patriarchs through to the Babylonian captivity. Thompson’s critique went beyond the specific archaeological evidence itself, however. He went to the heart of the way (Albrightian) biblical historians gratuitously assumed that the biblical text was essentially a historical record of Israel. The Bible is first and foremost literature, and it is as literature that it must be first understood. A little basic literary analysis is enough to explain many of the details of the Bible stories.

In a recent post discussing a book by Sheffield scholar David Clines I quoted the same core historical principle:

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. . . . But [in the case study of Nehemiah] the literary and historical have been so closely bound up, historical questions being raised — and sometimes answered — in the very process of asking the literary questions. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163)

So to the point of this post: (more…)

2009/11/15

Origins of the Israel of the Bible’s narrative (1)

After a couple or more years I’m finally completing the formatting of my notes from Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel, the book that is said to have sparked the public debate between “minimalists” and “maximalists”. The earlier chapters are outlined on my In Search of Ancient Israel web page.

The first section, The Exile, is a bit of a recap of an earlier section that was dealt with more fully in the web page above. I’m pushing myself to get this completed and sense that I have clung too closely to Davies’ words and outline in too many places and not taken the time to stand back and find the most appropriate ways of both framing and expressing the ideas so their essences can be grasped quickly. I also need to give more time to smoothing its connections to the earlier sections. Have decided to post it here as a draft and with a view to editing it after a time before adding it where it will belong as the next chapter on my webpage notes.

The point of this post may not be clear unless one knows a little of the background, which is to be found in the earlier chapters (see the vridar.info page). The basic theme it is addressing is that the conditions — economic, social, political, ethnic, linguistic, cultic, geopolitical, cultural and literary — were never to be found in Palestine right up to the time of the exile of the kingdom of Judah. Davies argues that the requisite conditions to produce the biblical literature — indeed, the idea of “biblical Israel” itself — did not exist until the time of the Persian empire. (Some other background posts on this theme are also kept in my Jerusalem and Samaria and Old Testament Archaeology and Literature archives.)

The Exile

We do not know if the Babylonians deported from Judah only the ruling classes and their servants or also some of the peasants.

Although we cannot estimate the numbers deported, “the reduction of population [from deportation, refugees, deaths] may have been as much as fifty percent immediately.” (Davies, 1995: p. 75)

Deportation was a long-established custom, made an instrument of imperial control by Assyrians (though not at all monopolized by them), and used, as well as to punish, deter and pacify, also to import much-needed labour into the Mesopotamian heartland. (p. 76)

The custom was to remove temple furniture, including images of the gods.

Official archives would have either been confiscated and taken to Babylon, or, more likely, have been left behind in Judah which still had to be administered.

What is fairly certain is that the Judaean deportees will have had no further access to these administrative documents, and it is not easy to imagine that they were allowed to take with them privately any other scrolls (assuming such literature existed), since the point of deportation is to alienate people from their homeland. (p. 76)

The deportees, as displaced peoples normally do, quite likely established themselves as ethnic communities in their new lands. We need not assume that they had to gather literary documents from their homeland to reconstitute their national identity.

Of the life of the deportees, of refugees or of those remaining in Judah we actually know virtually nothing. . . . [I]t is biblical scholarship which has painted an entirely fanciful portrait of religious fervour and furious literary creativity among Judaeans in Babylonia. (p. 77)

The Return

The Persian empire replaced the Babylonian and the area of the old kingdom of Judah became the province of Yehud. Yehud province was part of the satrap “Beyond the River” that extended from Babylon and the Euphrates River to Egypt.

Perhaps significantly, this is the one historical period in which the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18 exists as a political unit. (p. 77)

(more…)

2007/10/19

The Meaning of Biblical Chronology

From Genesis through to 2 Kings and the prophet Ezekiel are many nice round numbers tying together the world’s and Israel’s major events. And when they are added up they point to the rededication of the Temple under Judas Maccabeus.

They therefore imply a prophecy that this event, from which the Jewish nation could be said to be reborn, was ordained from the beginning of time. Creation itself could be inferred to have had its fulfilment in this rebirth of Israel.

The figures also mean that the editing (if not composition) of some of the biblical books happened as late as 164 b.c.e. (more…)

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.