Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dialogue with Dr. James McGrath, part II

Last post I responded to Butler University's Dr. James McGrath's critique of my talk on the Jesus Myth position at Skepticon. Today I was delighted to find a very thoughtful second response from him on his blog, which I'm happy to respond to below:

Dr. McGrath:

First of all, sincere thanks again for your kind words and timely response, both much appreciated. I was delighted to read your post this a.m. I also appreciate and completely agree with what you say here:

“Let me end by saying that you do indeed touch on a lot of points that are simply mainstream scholarship, and I am glad that you are seeking to bring that sort of information to a wider audience. But as someone who also has dedicated a lot of time to arguing against creationists, I can say that having individual details correct is not ultimately enough. It is possible to deal correctly and honestly with many details, and yet nevertheless incorporate them into a misleading or unpersuasive theoretical framework. I remain convinced that that is what you are doing with the matter of the historical figure of Jesus.”

As an Evolution advocate myself, I totally hear you. I’m the first to complain that much of what passes for Mythicist theory is completely baseless, based on outdated scholarship (or no scholarship!), honestly mistaken, and more often than not, just crackpot crap. And I have little respect for amateur historians - even speaking as one myself - because although I have a degree in history and consider myself fairly well-read on the subject, I’m all too aware of all the mistaken ideas and just plain wrong approaches that I made before I began running my ideas by professional historians like yourself. I’ve buried a graveyard’s worth of mistaken ideas, flawed assumptions, and unsupported facts that failed to make it into the book. But that said, what survived that crucible so far has endured subsequent critiques from historians. So I still maintain that the best points of the Mythicist position hold up under examination and at the very least deserves a second look from most historians. I hope a read through my book will at the very least provide you with good reasons to reconsider the strength of the theoretical framework, and perhaps expose some weaknesses of the traditional position, such as explaining not just the plurality of early, competing forms of Christianity, but the plurality of competing Christs, repeatedly attested to both in Paul’s epistles (2 Cor. 11:4, 13-15, 19-20, 22-23; Gal. 1:6-9, 2:4) and in the Gospels (Matt. 7:21-23, Mark 9:38, Luke: 9:49).

First of all, I want to stress that I don’t feel I’m completely bucking mainstream historical opinion, even if my ultimate point seems radical. I didn’t start out as a Mythicist, and it wasn’t until after coming across the arguments of many different historians that I became one. None (well, maybe three out of dozens and dozens) of the ideas I put forth in the book are original to me, but all have been made and accepted by recognized scholars across the theological spectrum. I would even say that most of the points raised are non-controversial, many even among evangelical apologists. For example, in addition to the scholars you mention, Bart Ehrman in particular is staunchly against the Mythicist position. But I find that his excellent work supports what I, and others in the Mythicist camp, argue at least as well (if not more so) as his own position that Jesus was merely a failed apocalyptic prophet. And if I come across as suggesting the entire historical mainstream is foolish for not seeing the same conclusions, I will temper that accordingly in future talks, because I certainly do not feel that way at all. I do want to lambast most apologists for the many foolish things they claim, deny, and try to weasel out of, but that’s a different matter...

I’m pleased to see you and I agree on more than I originally expected, which was nice surprise. But let’s discuss those points we don’t a little further.

* I’m with you that Luke-Acts is historical fiction (even though the author wants us to think it is 100% genuine history). But even when Acts seems to incorporate some genuine historical sources, such as the letter of Claudius Lysias to Governor Felix in 23:26-27, in ch. 6 of my book I discuss still more instances where anachronisms or historical impossibilities make it clear that he is fabricating events. And “Luke” has no qualms about completely altering even the events Paul corroborates (e.g. whitewashing over the antagonism between Paul and the church leaders at the Jerusalem Council); and Paul’s own account blatantly contradicts much of Luke outright. Several scholars have also noted Luke’s dependence on FJ’s Antiquities for myriad little historical touches (see esp. Steve Mason’s "Josephus and Luke-Acts," in Josephus and the New Testament (1992), pp. 185-229) and Luke’s general unreliability, even by ancient standards (cf. the citations of Richard Pervo and Richard Carrier on p.101 of my book).

When we get to his gospel, Luke shows his dependence on Mark (although again, he wants us to believe that his is the only real gospel out of all the many others) - and Mark’s original gospel has many indications that it is an allegory.

* Your quote from Augustine’s City of God is precisely that one I have in mind when I discuss Seneca the Younger. You’ll see Augustine notes that Judaism is one of other theological “superstitions” Seneca criticizes, but then tries unconvincingly to explain why Seneca “did not dare to mention” the Christians. It’s also odd that De Superstitio is one of the only works of Seneca’s that was not preserved out of over a hundred of his others.

* I take your point regarding Origen's mention of Josephus, though I still respectfully disagree for the reasons I mentioned previously. And I should add that there are many more reasons I cite that throw both of Josephus’s alleged mentions of Christ into question. Whatever one thinks of the overall thesis, I think the cases against both the Testimonium and James Reference (as I try to lay out in ch. 3) are entirely convincing.

* I do find (as have others before me) that 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 appears to contradict the Gospels:

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Paul says here that his crucified Christ provided no miraculous signs, and that this was a stumbling block to the Jews. But all four of the canonical Gospels not only have him doing many miraculous signs, but make it clear that his crucifixion and resurrection were powerful signs as well. John evens numbers them for us. And though Paul is not above bragging about his own miracles (Rom.15:19), and 2 Cor. 12:12 tells us they are the signs of legitimate apostles, Paul never makes mention of all the miracles Jesus did. Instead, he

strangely declares in the opening of the Kenosis Hymn (Phil. 2:7) that his Jesus “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (And there are other aspects of the Kenosis Hymn that are in more striking divergence from the Gospels’ Jesuses).

And even in this same passage from 1 Cor., we see remarks that imply that no one would have known about Jesus before he began to be proclaimed by preachers like Paul:

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:21)

I spend ch. 8 discussing many such passages, and again, it is not just Paul who talks like this, but every pre-gospel Christian writing we have. No matter whether Paul and his generation thought that their Jesus had lived and died on earth some time in the past as an unknown figure (in order to fool the demonic archons of our world) or thought that he was a figure born in the shape of a man and crucified on a higher level of heaven (like the Jesus of the Ascension of Isaiah), or even from pure allegory or mythology, it seems very clear that the early believers got all their information about him from scriptural exegesis - since they are constantly telling us that Jesus performed everything according to the scriptures. When they talk about their early Jesus, they are describing a mythological figure. Even those rare points that could be interpreted easily as referring to a human Jesus are problematic when examined (as I discuss in ch. 8).

But when we come to the Gospels and Acts, this is completely reversed - everyone starts by preaching the human Jesus. And it’s important to note that we don’t have several different authors composing the earthly life of Jesus within a few decades - we have one author, Mark, who is writing a gospel, not a biography, packed with symbolism and allegory, and proclaiming Jesus like a mystery faith - just as Paul does. “Mark” writes his gospel sometime after the War with Rome, and we know that the later gospel writers build their gospels on his, putting their own theological spin upon it. By the time Docetism and other Gnostic ideas arrive, the Gospel story has already been mutating for years, if not decades.


From the get go, I grant that on the face of it, the Mythicist position can be a hard sell. But having honestly spent the last ten years reading all the perspectives I could on the Historicity question, when I look at not only the lack of contemporary evidence for Jesus, but the seeming explosion of both rival Christian movements and rival Christs, the fundamental differences between the Jesuses of the earliest generation of Christianity and those of the Post-Gospels, the myriad historical difficulties, implausibilities and impossibilities entailed in all of our Jesus stories and still more serious considerations, it becomes very difficult for me to accept that there even could have been a historical figure behind Jesus of Nazareth.

So that’s where I’m coming from.

This letter is already way too long, and yet still way too short to make the case I’d like you to consider. So, I’d just like to end by saying how much it would mean to me if you would reconsider giving the book a read and sharing your impression with me. I don’t think it’s the last word on the Mythicist position; indeed, I feel all its shortcomings very acutely, and I think the subject will covered much more ably defended by others in the future. But for all that, I think it has some important points to make, and at the very least perhaps you could help me argue them better, discard any that are flawed, and perhaps even change my mind on the whole thing. Or vice versa, even...

All the best,

-David Fitzgerald

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Response to Dr. James McGrath

As many of you already know, this past November I was a speaker at Skepticon 3 in Springfield, Missouri (and btw, if you can make it to this year's, you won't regret it - it's an awesome event!). My talk there was well-received, and you can hear it on Youtube here. Dr. James F. McGrath, a New Testament scholar at Butler University in Indianapolis heard it - and really hates it. You can read his post here. In a nutshell, he claims the talk is full of blatant errors and says nothing biblical scholars don't already know. While he does make some reasonable points, for the most part I disagree completely with what he has to say, and you can find my reasons why below. Since my response is too long for the comment field on his blog (and in case these issues are brought up by other critics) I'm posting it here.

Dr. McGrath, I had a chance to read your post this morning and first wanted to thank you for taking the time to review my brief talk at Skepticon; it pleases me there are points you found entertaining. I sincerely appreciate and welcome your corrections and comments, even if they are painful to hear. However I feel the need to respond as there are several points where I disagree with your assessment, and in some places it appears you’re operating under a misapprehension or are simply mistaken.

To begin, though I did preface my talk by apologizing for it being a quick and dirty intro to the subject, it appears one of your chief complaints is that the issues discussed are not sufficiently nuanced, and you are absolutely right; in this 45+ minute talk for a popular audience they certainly are not; as you saw, even this all-too-brief introduction ran out of time, with no time for unpacking every argument of a 245 page book, let alone discussing the finer points of historical-critical methodology. My new book, NAILED: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All, does discuss them in much greater depth, and also has references to additional scholarly reading for those who desire still deeper examination of the issues. And on the whole, NAILED has received an overwhelmingly positive response both from biblical historians and general readers.

Let me address a few of the items you consider factual errors: You say I get off to a “rough start” in listing a sampling of the more spectacular gospel events that are not corroborated by contemporary historians, though it appears you don’t actually take issue with my point I’m making there: that if any of these Gospel events actually occurred, it would be reasonable to expect mention of them in contemporary sources. You do echo recent criticisms of Bart Ehrman when you imply that I treat these serious problems as “dirty little secrets that scholars are hiding.” As he makes it clear in Jesus, Interrupted, scholars might well know these things, but the news certainly hasn’t percolated to the overwhelming rank and file of the public, believers or nonbelievers alike. Besides, most believers don't read the scholars you have in mind but listen to preachers and apologists and regard them as scholars instead (which is the reason for the conflation in my talk). I certainly know that NT scholars have been aware of these issues for generations, and I often say as much often, if not this particular time. And I certainly don’t make any claims that I’m the first or only commentator to bring them up.

Besides, your complaint that all this is “common knowledge to scholars” seems weirdly irrelevant. My talk is for an audience most of whom indeed don’t know all this, so it makes little sense to carp that I’m only communicating what scholars have already said, or that a talk relaying to the public what scholars say should be derided "because it isn't news." Surely you teach classes on these subjects - do you assume your students already know all these things?

You rightly note that we do not discount the historicity of ancient events simply because miracles are associated with them, and I want to make it clear I don’t discount Jesus’ historicity on any single point alone, let alone any a priori naturalist bias against miracles. I do say that elements on the scale of a mass resurrection of venerated Jewish holy men who emerge from their tombs and wander Jerusalem, appearing to many (Matt. 27: 52-53) can be safely rejected (without taking an “all or nothing” approach) since we have no corroboration from them in sources that discuss much less interesting Judean events during the same time without a word about earthquakes, angels or supernatural darkness.

At the risk of conflating the “Jesus of Faith” with the “Jesus of History,” I wanted to start out by addressing the problems that undermine the traditional image of Jesus, which I think is still important to bring up even though not strictly relevant to the historicity issue. That said, it isn’t just these blatantly mythological elements of the Gospels that are in question. As I discuss in the book, even the most basic elements of Christ’s life are problematic: Not just the dates associated with his life and ministry, but the identity of his disciples, details of his trial and crucifixion, his relationship to John the Baptist, and discrepancies between the evolving Christologies found in pre-Pauline elements (such as the Kenosis Hymn in Philippians 2:8-11) and Paul’s generation of believers and the later Gospels. All these and still other considerations are compounded by the uncontroversial scholarly consensus on the Synoptic problem and Markan Priority.

On top of this, there is the fact, ably demonstrated by numerous historians, including Arnold Ehrhardt, Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Randel Helms, Dennis MacDonald, Jennifer Maclean and more, that Mark’s entire Gospel is a treasure trove of symbolic, rather than historical, meaning. Even the anonymous author of Mark tells us what he is doing right from the outset: he is writing a gospel, not a history or a biography (Mark 1:1). What’s more, he makes it clear that he is passing on the secret, sacred truths of a new mystery faith, the Mystery of the Kingdom of God:

“The Mystery of the Kingdom of God is given to you, but to those who are outside everything is produced in parables, so that when they watch they may see but not know, and when they listen they may hear but not understand, for otherwise they might turn themselves around and be forgiven.”

(Mark 4:11)

I am certainly not the first or only commentator to note that the first century is a particularly well-documented period. There is a wealth of extant writings from first century writers, and some mythicists (particularly John Remsberg) have gone overboard citing plenty of them without regard for motive. I was very careful to not include any who did not have good reason to mention Christ; even so there are many Roman and Jewish writers that meet the criteria. I list them along with the reasons they could have been expected to mention Christ, including Philo of Alexandria. For example, Seneca the Younger’s book On Superstition lambasts every known religion - including Judaism. But strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever of Christ or Christianity. This uncomfortable fact later made Augustine squirm in City of God (6.11) as he struggled to explain away Seneca’s glaring omission.

You rightly note that his older brother, Gallio, never mentions Jesus or Paul. That silence is remarkable, too - compounded by the fact that Gallio appears in Acts (18:12-17) as the magistrate who heard Paul's case and threw it out of court. If this were true, it’s curious that even in Acts, Gallio has never heard of Jesus. This makes no sense at all if Jesus was a recently executed famous miracle worker (let alone one who had returned from the dead and remained in Jerusalem for forty days, as Acts also says).

While I take your point about Justus of Tiberius (and incidentally, I do note in the book that only fragments of his writings survive, and that Photius complained about him in the 9th century) and do appreciate the caveat, I am not so quick to dismiss Photius’ comments entirely based solely on the hypothetical scenario you suggest. For one reason, we know that the early Church Fathers were eager for any trace of historical support for Jesus (even hostile), yet neither such an account from Justus or the Testimonium Flavianum appear in the writings of more than a dozen of these early Christian writers, including Justin Martyr, Theophilus Antiochenus, Melito of Sardis, Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Pseudo-Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Methodius and Lactantius. And in any case, he is far from the only historian I cite in the book.

You claim I make several errors re: Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum and the James Reference. This is another point which would be better served by you reading my book. In fact I spend an entire chapter discussing both of the passages in detail, also citing several historians, including Josephus scholar Michael Hardwick. As I point out, there is no debate that the Testimonium is a forgery; the only issue is over how much of it is a forgery. I give the relevant factors that point to it being a complete, not a partial, interpolation (Agapius’ 10th century Arabic Testimonium, and for that matter, the medieval Syriac Testimonium, notwithstanding), and even why the evidence points to Eusebius of Caesarea as the forger.

And with all respect, it is you who are mistaken about Origen. It is very clear that Origen had never heard of the Testimonium; in response to Celsus asking what miracles Jesus performed, Origen answers that Jesus’ life was indeed full of striking and miraculous events, “but from what other source can we can furnish an answer than from the Gospel narratives?” (Contra Celsum, 2.33) In the same book (in fact, the very same passage you allude to - 1.47), Origen even quotes from Antiquities of the Jews in order to prove the historical existence of John the Baptist, and after adding that Josephus didn’t believe in Jesus, does indeed criticize him for failing to mention Jesus in that book, saying that “he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people.” And the simple fact that Josephus was a Jew is sufficient to account for the fact that he did not believe in Jesus; it’s unnecessary to go further and posit some veiled reference to the Testimonium.

As I make clear in the book, the phrase tou legomenou Christou in the James reference is quite problematic, and I list several solid reasons why the passage makes no sense if Josephus is talking about the James who was head of the Jerusalem church, but makes perfect sense if he is talking about James, the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus - the Jesus who is actually mentioned in the paragraph. At any rate, this argument is hardly original to me: several prominent scholars have already argued the very same thing, and James Carleton Paget, one of the leading experts on the issue declares it unresolved on present evidence: I refer you to his "Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity," Journal of Theological Studies 52.2 (October 2001): 539-624 (pp. 546-54 treats the scholarship on this passage). Incidentally, as it turns out, it is also incorrect to say Origen provided evidence for the James Reference in the copy of Antiquities he knew (though several scholars besides you also maintain this). Richard Carrier has a paper in submission status proving this point, which I can forward to you if you wish to see it.

You are not quite correct when you say I turn to Colossians for what Paul thought about Jesus; those passages come from several NT writers, not just those of Paul (and/or the DeuteroPaulines, if one accepts them as such). And I strongly disagree that one needs to dismiss significant amounts of evidence to say that Paul’s Christ is not a historical figure. Nor does the suggestion that Paul’s epistles are only occasional writings, or writing to those who already know everything about Jesus explain the curious lapses - or the places where he outright contradicts all the various contradictory Gospel Jesuses, such as when he denies his Jesus performed any miracles (1 Cor. 1:22-23).

The “Silence of Paul” concerning basic aspects of Jesus’ life has long puzzled biblical scholars, and those few curious points where Paul could be interpreted as speaking about an earthly Jesus only make the contradictions between Paul’s Christ and the Gospels’ Jesus of Nazareth stand out - passages like his revelation of the Lord’s Supper and his list of “witnesses” to the risen Christ in 1 Corinthians, his uncharacteristic and anachronistic gloat in 1 Thess. 15-16, and his strange conflicts in Galatians with men we think of as Jesus’ family and disciples (but whom he dismisses as nobodies!) - again, I discuss all these in the book.

If I gave the impression that Gnosticism predates Christianity, I do need to temper that, though in certain parts of the Roman Empire, Gnostic, Marcionite and other forms of early Christian movements were in place before their orthodox counterparts took hold.

But like you, I don’t necessarily believe that Christian Gnosticism was the very earliest form of Christianity; I only discuss them to give a sense of the diverse spectrum of Christian thought in antiquity. Personally, I suspect we may never tease out just how complicated the interplay was between them. (I do find it fascinating to see how the Nag Hammadi’s pagan text Eugnostos the Blessed was preserved in the process of being turned into a Christian text, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, hinting at a very intermeshed and long-term relationship with Gnosticism)

Your contention that I (and others) “misuse Midrash" is curious; you seem to be objecting that Jews didn't create new figures from old stories at all, when of course the Talmud is full of midrashic aggadah (e.g. The Book of Tobit). On the other hand, if you’re arguing that the Gospels don’t contain aggadic midrash, then I have to disagree with you, and would refer you to Randel Helms’ Gospel Fictions or Thomas Brodie’s Birthing of the New Testament; cf. Richard Pervo’s Mystery of Acts, which demonstrates that even Acts at times slips into aggadic midrash of the Gospels themselves. (Or are you merely advising that the NT usage is not midrash per se, but should be termed aggadic midrash or midrashic aggadah to distinguish it from halakha midrashim? If so, point granted)

Lastly, the quick and dirty intro talk is just that - all the weightier historical considerations such as various forms of historical criteria, redaction criticism (particularly in the case of the Synoptics, John’s Gospel, and Acts), the state of the manuscript evidence, evolving Christologies, textual analysis, etc. all had to wait for the book. And none of this book was created in a vacuum; As noted in the book, I did research from all across the theological spectrum for years, and the final product has been discussed, debated and peer-reviewed by several historians, both classical and biblical. Though my ultimate conclusion may strike many as radical, much of what I argue is not especially controversial and is accepted general historical consensus. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like the book or its conclusions any better than my talk, but I do hold out hope, and in any case, again, I would sincerely welcome further input from you.

All the best,

David Fitzgerald