Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Doubts About the Consensus of New Testament Scholars

I am entirely open to the possibility that it is objectively more probable than not that Jesus was a historical person.  However, when a scholar claims that he can be almost certain about specific things that Jesus said or did, I think that he is badly overestimating the weight that the evidence will bear.   As a result, when he urges me to trust the consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars like himself concerning the certainty of Jesus' historicity, I cannot help but wonder whether the weight the evidence will bear isn't being overestimated again.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Steven Bollinger's Take on Historical Jesus Agnosticism

In a story in which so much was obviously made [up] and the dates don't fit more firmly-established history, how is it at all unreasonable to ask if the man's very existence is more than one more fictional detail of the story?
Steven Bollinger Why I have doubts about Jesus' existence.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Aslan's Zealot: A Theoretically Possible Jesus

I've just started reading Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, in which Reza Aslan portrays Jesus as a political revolutionary opposed both to Romans occupying Palestine and the Jewish elite who cooperated with them, rather than the peace loving rabbi that so many see in the gospels.  Aslan had been criticized on the grounds that he is not an expert in the field, he arbitrarily declares those passages in the gospels that support his position authentic and those which do not invented, he states his conclusions with an unwarranted degree or certainty.  All those criticism may be justified, although the latter two are true of so many historical Jesus scholars that it is hard for me to judge Aslan too harshly for them.  Nevertheless, I think that there is some logic in his approach.

If as it is often claimed, the most indisputable fact known about the historical Jesus is that he was crucified by the Romans, doesn't it make sense to start by looking at other people who were crucified and the kinds of things that led to their crucifixion?  Everything in the gospels was written after his death for the purpose of proclaiming him as God's anointed one who was exalted by resurrection from the dead.  Many stories like the birth narratives were clearly invented for that purpose and any story might have been invented for that purpose.  If any parts of the gospels are actual events in the life of the historical Jesus, I can certainly see an argument that they are most likely to be the ones that are consistent with what we know about other first century messianic claimants who were executed by the Romans for sedition.

In any case, Aslan is an entertaining writer and I am learning a lot about the political turmoil in first century Palestine that eventually led the Romans to destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  When Aslan writes about Jesus, it smacks more of historical fiction rather than history, but I think that a person can learn a lot from well researched historical fiction.  I suspect that Aslan's historical Jesus is as objectively probable as most of the others.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Historical Jesus Agnosticism

A commenter on another blog challenged me to explain the reasons why I think it reasonable to be agnostic about the existence of a historical Jesus. As the blogger didn’t want to get into the substantive issues, I decided to make my response a post here even though these are all points I have made in previous posts.

Most historical figures from the ancient are known to us today because they were literate or prominent people or they did things during their lives that had an impact on their literate or prominent contemporaries. It was the impact of their lives that caused information about them to be preserved. Information about Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, was preserved because some person or persons claimed to have encountered him after he was dead. Had it not been for a belief that arose in supernatural events occurring after his death, we cannot be certain that Jesus would have left any mark in the historical record that would be discernible two thousand years later.

There is nothing out of the ordinary in supernatural events being associated with historical figures in the ancient world. Fantastic supernatural stories about Alexander the Great spread after his death, but it was a result of the impact of the things he accomplished during his natural life. Stories about Jesus’ natural life, on the other hand, were preserved and perpetuated as a result of the belief that arose in the things he accomplished supernaturally after his death. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Alexander the Great, you still have a significant historical footprint. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the reason that any information about him was preserved in the first place.

None of this constitutes evidence that Jesus didn’t exist or that the mythicism is likely true. However, I do think it creates unique problems for the historian insofar as historians reason by analogy. If a historian wishes to evaluate data concerning a poorly documented general or king from the ancient world, he can compare it to the data for many other generals and kings, some of whom will be much better documented. On the other hand, the reason a first century itinerant preacher like Jesus couldn’t be expected to leave much of a historical footprint is because no first century itinerant preachers left much of a historical footprint. As a result, it becomes very hard to reason by analogy.

I don’t think that I have seen any historical Jesus scholar adequately address these issues, but what troubles me even more is how often they will compare doubting the existence of a historical Jesus to doubting the Holocaust or the moon landing on the grounds that the consensus of scholars on all these issues is so strong that to doubt any of them is to engage in nihilistic skepticism. This strikes me as ridiculous as little that happened in the ancient world is as certain as anything that happened in the twentieth century.

History is about establishing what probably happened and probability is determined by the quantity and quality of evidence, not by the number of scholars who look at the evidence. Doubting that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest is not comparable to doubting that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address regardless of how strong the consensus of scholars might be on the former. It is perfectly sensible to be more certain about the latter.

It may be that it is objectively more likely than not that a historical Jesus existed. However, until I encounter historical Jesus scholars who have a little better grasp of probability, I think I will remain agnostic.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Who Would Invent a Crucified Messiah?

Liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman and James McGrath argue that one of the ways we can know that Jesus was a historical person is that first century Jews had no expectations that the messiah would suffer and die.  At the time, all Jews believed that the messiah would be a conquering hero. Therefore, the only explanation for this belief arising is that someone who was believed to be the messiah by his followers actually suffered and died.

Christians claim that the prophet Isaiah predicted that the messiah would suffer for the sins of his people:
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53 3:5.  However, Ehrman says that first century Jews didn't understand this as a messianic prophecy.  Rather, the prophet is describing the past suffering of Israel during the Babylonian exile.

What I find interesting is that Christian apologists use the same logic to argue that Jesus was really resurrected from the dead.  Since no first century Jews expected the messiah to suffer and die, the only explanation for this belief arising is that Jesus of Nazareth proved he was the messiah by rising from the dead.

Personally, I don't think we really know enough about how an idea like this might have been invented to say what must have happened to cause it.  Ehrman writes "Who would make up the idea of a crucified messiah?  No Jew that we know of."  So what?  Prior to Joseph Smith, did we know of any Christians who would make up the idea of the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni?  Does that give us any reason to think that there is anything historical about Smith's stories.

I think it entirely plausible that the idea arose of a crucified messiah because the follower of an executed messianic claimant interpreted Isaiah as a prophecy in order to cling to his belief in the man he had followed.  However, I don't see how that makes it highly probable and I don't see how that is the only way it could have happened.  Given the number of devout Jews who must of been searching their scriptures in order to understand why God had not sent a messiah to deliver His people from their tribulations, I think that any number of people might have stumbled on the idea that Isaiah 53 3:5 was a prophecy.

Moreover, even if we could establish that the execution of a real messianic claimant is the most likely circumstance under which a first century Jew would come up with the idea of a suffering messiah, does that mean that it must have been one of Jesus' followers who did so?  Potential messiahs were a dime a dozen if first century Palestine.  It's equally likely that it was a follower of John the Baptist who stumbled upon the idea in an effort to understand his death or the follower of one of the many other messianic claimants of the day.

I was recently chided by Dr. McGrath for making such suggestions:
[T]he existence of sources which say things that are radically different than the ones we have is itself a mere possibility, which cannot be excluded but neither should it be assumed to be probable. And so we should and do assess historical probabilities using the evidence we have, not the evidence that we could theoretically have.
I could not help but note that the sources we have say nothing about the idea of a crucified messiah arising from someone's attempt to maintain their belief in a messianic claimant in the face of his execution.  The sources we have say that the belief in a crucified messiah arose from Jesus of Nazareth literally rising from the dead and appearing physically to his followers.  The whole enterprise of trying to determine the actual events that might have led to the development of such stories necessarily involves a great deal of speculation and conjecture.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Historical Jesus Agnosticism is Not a Slippery Slope

The fact that we can have little, if any, certainty about a first century itinerant preacher who had little impact during his life outside a small group of illiterate peasant followers doesn't mean that we can't have a reasonable degree of certainty about emperors and generals and politicians who were widely enough known during their lives that their activities were chronicled by their contemporaries.  The notion that questioning the existence of a historical Jesus necessitates tossing out all ancient history is nonsense.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Minimal Facts Needed to Explain the Growth of Christianity

(1)  People want their lives to have meaning.

(2)   People are afraid of death.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Can We Be Sure About Anything that Jesus Said?

One of the reasons I remain so skeptical about the mainstream consensus of historical Jesus scholars is their propensity to express what seems to me to be absurd degrees of certainty about things that Jesus said and did. For example, last year in a blog post titled Is Historical Jesus Research Futile?, Dr. James McGrath wrote, "The fact that one can configure things that Jesus almost certainly said in different arrangements and thus different overall portraits does not mean that there are not things that he almost certainly said."  The problem is that what things a scholar thinks Jesus really said is going to depend on the overall portrait that they draw.

I've never been completely sure which things Dr. McGrath is almost certain Jesus said, but he provided one example in a recent comment.  "And given the evidence, I certainly do think that there are a small number of things which it is very probable that Jesus said - the use of abba in reference to God being a good example."  "Abba" is an Aramaic word meaning "father" that appears three times in the New Testament at Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, and Galatians 4:6.  It is only the first passage that attributes use of the word to Jesus while he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I found the explanation for McGrath's confidence in a 2008 post titled What Jesus Said and Did: 1) Prayer in Gethsemane
Paul already seems to have associated the address of God as Father in Aramaic with Jesus’ relationship to God as son. The only appearances of this Aramaic word in the New Testament are in the earliest Gospel and in Paul’s letters. And there is no reason Paul would have used the term in writing to non-Aramaic-speaking Christians other than that the term already had some significance for them, presumably in connection with Jesus, the object of their faith and devotion.
That's a pretty big leap there.  It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that Christian use of the word "Abba" predates Paul's letters, but that doesn't give us any reason to suppose that it was Jesus who first used it.  It could have been Peter or James or any other Aramaic speaker who introduced the word into the Church's vocabulary.  It might even have been Paul himself at some time prior to writing the epistles.  There is nothing in Paul's letters that gives us a clue as to how the word "Abba" came to have significance for Greek speaking Christians.

The only thing pointing to Jesus as the responsible party is Mark 16:36, where Jesus prays “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”  However, this could just be Mark attributing to Jesus a usage that was already common among Christians.  I find it interesting that Jesus' only use of the word comes in the Garden of Gethsemane when there would have been no witnesses as he was praying alone while his disciples slept.  Had tradition preserved some genuine memory of Jesus using the word, I might expect Mark to put the word on his lips in some more public setting.

Is it possible that Jesus actually used the word "Abba" to describe his relationship with God?  Sure.  Is it "very probable" based on the available evidence?  Not a chance.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tapestry or Jigsaw Puzzle?

Try to imagine the picture of the historical Jesus that emerges from a rigorously, historical, critical examination of our surviving sources as a large tapestry. The individual threads make up the overall portrait. There are a few threads here and there that appear out of place at first glance. But you can’t take these few threads and claim that they represent the overall portrait of the tapestry. The tapestry has to be understood as a whole, looking for the major features of its portrayal (and of course the stray threads need to be fit into it somehow).
Bart Ehrman.

The quote above comes from a blog post Ehrman wrote discussing Reza Aslan's book Zealot, which argues that Jesus was actually a political revolutionary who advocated violent resistance to the Romans.  Ehrman finds Aslan's thesis unpersuasive.
The data that do seem to support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary are very, very few and far between. They do not comprise the majority, or even a significant minority, of the data we can establish as going back to the historical Jesus.
I can imagine the picture of the historical Jesus as a large tapestry, but I think that the analogy is terrible. I think that a better analogy is a large jigsaw puzzle for which we only have a handful of pieces--say a 5,000 piece puzzle where we only have about seventy-five of the pieces.

Now suppose that of our seventy-five pieces, sixty are green.   We might be inclined to conclude that the picture is some sort of landscape, perhaps a forest.  However, in order to justify this conclusion, we would need to know how we got those pieces.  If someone simply reached into the box and grabbed a handful of pieces, it might be reasonable to think that they are a representative sample and that 80% of the entire picture is green.  On the other hand, if someone grabbed the pieces from a single area of a completed puzzle, there would be less reason to think that green predominates in the whole.

Even if we could establish that some data goes back to the historical Jesus (which I doubt), Ehrman's argument presupposes that such data constitutes a representative sample of Jesus' words and deeds.  I cannot see  how such a presupposition can be justified.  The data we have is the data preserved by people who came to believe that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah who God had raised from the dead. They would have no reason to preserve anything about him that did not support that picture.  Had Jesus been a revolutionary Zealot, data that portrayed him as an apocalyptic preacher might still have been the only data that was preserved.  In fact, if you subscribe to the criteria of dissimilarity, those few data points that support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary may be the points that are most likely to be authentic as no one would have any reason to invent those.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul as Evidence for a Historical Jesus: HJA (29)

When my earliest extant source for Alexander the Great tells me that he is relying on contemporary biographers of Alexander, I take that as some evidence that information about a historical person was remembered and passed on. I may need to consider the possibility of invention or falsehood, but it is at least some evidence.

On the other hand, when my earliest extant source for Jesus tells me that he is relying on divine revelation, supernatural appearances, and centuries-old holy writings, I do not think that I can take that as any evidence that information about a historical person was remembered and passed on. I can consider the possibility that this occurred, but I cannot say that he has given me any evidence that it did. Moreover, I may even need to ask whether he hasn't given me some evidence that the opposite is the case.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Can We Be Sure that Jesus Died on a Cross?

Apologist Michael Licona answers this question in the affirmative:
First, Jesus' execution is reported in a number of ancient sources: Christian and non-Christian. In addition to the four Gospels and a number of letters contained in the New Testament, all of which were written in the first century, Jesus' execution is even reported by a number of ancient non-Christian sources. Josephus (late first century), Tacitus (early second century), Lucian (early to mid second century), and Mara bar Serapion (second to third centuries) all report the event. The fact that these non-Christians mentioned Jesus in their writings shows that Jesus' death was known outside of Christian circles and was not something the Christians invented.
Regarding the non-Christian sources, Licona is plainly mistaken.  The fact that the story of Jesus' crucifixion became known outside Christian circles sixty years later does not in any way show that Christians didn't invent it.

Regarding the Christian sources, I am struck by a comment Licona made about Matthew 28:16 in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.   In that passage, the disciples go to Galilee to meet the resurrected Jesus and "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."  Licona suggests that one possibility is that it was not any of the disciples who doubted, but outsiders who just happened to be present:
In the back of the crowd one man says to another, "What is all the excitement about? We have heard Jesus before. What is so special this time?" The other answers, "Didn't you hear? Jesus was crucified last Friday in Jerusalem and he has risen from the dead!" The first is skeptical of the report and says, "Someone got things wrong. The Romans must have crucified someone else."
This strikes me as an eminently sensible analysis. The very fact that Jesus is walking around and talking is an excellent reason for doubting that he had been crucified. I can easily imagine that same skeptical fellow asking "Did any of you see Jesus being crucified?" The disciples might have honestly replied "No. After Jesus was arrested, we went into hiding," after which, the skeptical fellow would have been fully justified in remaining skeptical.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Did Paul Go to Jerusalem for an Endorsement or a Sit Down?

I've been wondering recently why Paul's Christian communities in Galatia didn't break away from the apostles in Jerusalem.  After all, in the first two chapters of Galatians Paul speaks of the Jerusalem gang as false brothers and hypocrites who taught him nothing and added nothing to his message.  One possibility that occurs to me is that the Jerusalem gang had a connection with the actual historical Jesus of Nazareth that Paul identified with the risen Christ of his visions.

I ran this theory past Richard Carrier in a recent comment on his blog and he didn't buy it.  He suggested other reasons why Paul wouldn't and couldn't have split off on his own
Paul’s communities were probably supporting Jerusalem because he didn’t form them. Paul doesn’t ever explicitly say he did (neither does Acts, incidentally: it mentions making converts, but never being the first to have done so, or having established communities; Paul’s letters, meanwhile, were written twenty years after Jesus is supposed to have died, and thus the churches he is writing to could well have existed half a generation before Paul came and expanded them with new converts). Thus Paul may well have just come to already-existing congregations, teaching a new gospel (just as Apollos then did, which Paul then has to accommodate, Paul then being in the same position Peter and gang were with respect to Paul).
According to Carrier, Paul needed both the support of the entire church network and the endorsement of the apostles in Jerusalem.

Although I appreciate Carrier's insights and look forward to his book outlining his theories on mythicism, I am doubtful that I will be persuaded that mythicism is more than one of a number of possible explanations for the origin of Christianity.  It may well be that rather than forming communities, Paul brought his message to existing communities, but I don't see any way to be sure.  For every "it may well be," there is an equal and opposite "it may well not be" (or at least a comparable one).

Paul may well have needed the endorsement of the Jerusalem gang to carry on his work among the gentiles, but there is a key point that makes me question that whether that was so.  Jerusalem called for the circumcision of converts and Paul didn't.   I cannot help but think that this would have given Paul a tremendous amount of leverage.  In any conflict between Paul and the gang in Jerusalem, the Galatians would have a strong motivation to take Paul's side.

Carrier imagines a relationship in which Paul is like the loan shark who seeks permission to operate within the local mob boss's territory, in return for which the mob boss gets a cut of the profits.  While that may well be, I think it is just as easy to imagine a relationship in which Paul is one mob boss having a sit down with another mob boss in order to establish that one of them gets Brooklyn and the other gets Queens. When Paul writes "they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. . . . James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me," (Gal. 2:7,9) I hear Tony Soprano and Carmine Lupertazzi divvying up turf.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Doubting the Resurrection

One of the best parts of Kris Komarnitsky's book Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box? is his discussion of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.  He provides several examples of religious movements that were faced with evidence that seemingly disconfirmed their belief irrefutably.  In each case, the believers found a way to reinterpret and reinvent their beliefs in order to keep the movement going.

One of his examples is the 19th century Millerites:
The Millerite movement began in 1818 with a man named William Miller and by the 1840s had membership in the thousands across many cities. Miller believed that the Bible predicted Jesus’ second coming would be sometime between March 21st 1843 and March 21st 1844. When the later date came and went without incident, the movement did not crumble. Instead, despite heavy ridicule, the group’s founder and his apostles rationalized that there must have been some minor error in calculating the exact time, but the end was nevertheless still near. A corrected date came from a follower within the movement by the name of Reverend Samuel Snow. Despite the objections of the group’s leaders that the exact date could not be known, Snow declared October 22nd 1844 as the new date for Jesus’ second coming.
Not surprisingly, Jesus failed to show again
This second disconfirmation almost killed the movement, but still, yet another and this time much more complex rationalization emerged – the date had been correct, but Jesus’ second coming had occurred in heaven not on earth, Jesus had begun an investigative judgment of the world, and when he is done he will return to earth, but no one knows exactly when.18 This rationalization was sustained and continues to this day with membership in the millions. It is known as the Church of Seventh-day Adventists.
Komarnitsky suggests a similar thinking process among the apostles.
Like the earlier examples of cognitive dissonance reduction, a sustaining rationalization for Jesus’ death would most likely have emerged very quickly and in the presence of others who could offer mutual encouragement. . . .The rationalization did not need to be perfect, but it did need to adequately answer what would to them have been the two most natural and pressing questions: Why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah? I suggest that these two pressing questions resulted in the following initial two-part rationalization among some of Jesus’ followers: 1) Jesus died for our sins and 2) Jesus will be back soon to reign as the Messiah should.

According to Komarnitsky's hypothesis, the apostles rationalized the death of Jesus as a necessary atonement for the sins of Israel and comforted each other with the notion that God would restore him to life very shortly in order to finish the task of ushering in the kingdom of God.  It was only after they had reached these conclusions that the appearances began.  Some of the experiences might have been visual hallucinations while others may simply have been simply strong feelings of Jesus' presence.  Once the precedent had been set, every dream, hunch, and tingle would have been interpreted as Jesus' making his presence felt.  Paul never says that it was the appearances that led the apostles (nor himself for that matter) to believe that Jesus had been resurrected.   Komarnitsky suggests that the belief in the resurrection came first and that the gospel stories were later embellishments.  I think that his hypothesis is entirely plausible.

One quibble that I do have with Komarnitsky is his tendency overstate the strength of some apologetic arguments before offering his own hypothesis as the only convincing counter.  For example, he quotes N.T. Wright's argument that mere hallucinations couldn't have caused the apostles to believe that Jesus had been resurrected: "Precisely because such encounters [visions of a recently dead person] were reasonably well known, they could not possibly, by themselves, have given rise to the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead…." Komarnitsky explains:
In other words, if a regular post-mortem hallucination of a recently deceased loved one gave birth to the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, then we should see beliefs in resurrected loved ones scattered throughout Jewish history. But we do not see that. The only explanation that seems to me to be capable of explaining the nearly instantaneous rise of such radical beliefs is the just as radical human phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.
While I agree that Komarnitsky's hypothesis makes a lot of sense, I don't quite buy the idea that the apostles' understanding of hallucinations was so sophisticated that they couldn't have misinterpreted one as a resurrection without first believing in the resurrection.  While they may have understood the idea of a hallucination of someone who wasn't really there, they also believed in genuine encounters with heavenly beings that might be phsyical such as the Transfiguration or non-physical such as the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream.  I don't find Wright persuasive at all.

Another point where I think he gives to much credit to the apologists is in answering William Lane Craig's assertion that "[i]t is unlikely that women would have been selected to find the empty tomb if it was a legend."  Writes Komarnitsky:
I would agree with this if it were not for the last sentence in the Gospel of Mark: “[The women] fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). As argued in Chapter One of this book (pg. 14-18), this ending makes perfect sense if, in this first version of the discovered empty tomb legend, the women’s fear-induced silence gave an answer to the question why the women’s story of the empty tomb remained unknown for so long. The use of women makes perfect sense in this case – all women could do was react in fear and terror; they were so scared that they never passed the message on.
While I agree that this is a valid reason for rejecting Craig's claim, I think there are plenty of other reasons to disagree as well, i,e., the women were not being called to testify in a Jewish court; Mark was writing to Christian converts living in communities where women enjoyed a higher status than they did under Jewish law, Mark's audience is hearing the story from Mark, not the women, and they will believe it because they believe him, not the women; a major theme in Mark's story is that the apostles don't understand who Jesus is.   Using the women to provide cover for Mark's invention is far from the only plausible explanation.

Friday, February 7, 2014

More on Michael Licona's Apologetics

It's not often that you can engage with a big time apologist about his book, but I had the opportunity to do so on a post at Crux Sola which discussed a recent interview with Michael Licona.  After I criticized his claim that "Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels," he replied
You obviously have not read my large volume on the topic, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” (IVP Academic, 2010). In that volume, I’m very clear that I’m not using the Gospels.
Which gave me the opportunity to say
I have read your book and it explicitly appeals to the gospels repeatedly. Among other things, you use the gospels to “support the conclusion that the reports of Jesus’ resurrection place it in a significantly charged religious context,” which you claim is one of the criteria by which a historian can judge that a miracle took place. Your discussion of the nature of the appearance experiences necessarily depends almost entirely on the gospels as Paul gives us no details about them.
Whereupon he responded
You’re correct about that, Vinny. However, it’s not at all a major portion of my historical argument as I thought you were suggesting. Of course, I also use the Gospels to discuss the empty tomb, the conversion of Jesus’s brother James, and Jesus’s predictions pertaining to his imminent death and resurrection. However, I distinguish all of these as tier two facts. And I state that I would only use tier two facts in my process should two or more hypotheses end up in a draw after only considering tier one facts. My final case for Jesus’s resurrection only appeals to tier one facts. So, I would not put it as you did that my book “depends heavily on the portrait of Jesus painted by the Gospels.”
So let's take a look at Licona's tier one facts and see whether or not they depend on an appeal to the Gospels:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
Now I suppose that Licona might claim that he can establish that Jesus was crucified without appealing to the gospels, but in fact he cites them as a source for this.  However, I can't see any way he can get his second fact without appealing to the gospels, because Paul doesn't provide us enough information to do so in his only discussion of the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Let's note the elements of Licona's second fact that Paul doesn't corroborate:
  • Paul doesn't say that the appearances occurred "very shortly" after Jesus' death. In fact, Bart Ehrman has written that it may have been weeks or months later.
  • Paul doesn't say that the appearances led to the belief that Jesus had been resurrected. One of the points Kris Komarnitsky makes in his book is that the process of cognitive dissonance reduction might have led the apostles to rationalize the seeming failure of their movement by inventing the idea that God had returned Jesus to life before they had any visions and that it was in fact the rationalization that primed them to have the visions.  For all we can say from Paul, the belief in the resurrection could have led to the appearances.  Interestingly, Paul never says whether Jesus' appeared to him before or after he came to believe in the resurrection.  Perhaps the appearances were similar to the Mormon's Twelve Witnesses, who believed in the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni before they saw them.
  • The only appearance that Paul explicitly identifies as a group experience is the appearance to the five hundred.  Although the occurrence of group appearances is not expressly a part of Licona's second fact, he does refer several times to the appearances occurring to individuals and groups, but Paul doesn't say that the appearances to the Twelve or the appearances to all the apostles were simultaneous.
  • Paul also doesn't say much about anybody's proclamation but his own.
So I'll be interested to see whether Licona responds to my follow up comment:
Do you really suppose that there would be any consensus among scholars on your first tier facts were it not for the Gospels? Don’t you cite them yourself as evidence that Jesus was crucified? How would any scholar be certain that the appearances occurred “very shortly” after Jesus’ death without the Gospels? Paul never says so (and in fact Ehrman thinks it might have been weeks or months). Nor does Paul tell us it was the appearances that convinced the apostles that Jesus had been resurrected rather than simply confirming a revelation that was received in some other way. Without the Gospels, you have no basis for claiming that your first tier facts constitute “historical bedrock.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review of Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box?

"How do you explain Jesus' appearances to the apostles?" is a standard gambit of Christian apologists.

Their next move is "Since all naturalistic explanations are inadequate, the only logical explanation is that Jesus actually rose from the dead."

Lately, I have been inclined to simply decline the gambit.   As I explained in a  recent post, given the available sources,  I don't expect to be able to explain their experiences. All I have are fantastic stories written decades after the fact by true believers. If all my information about 1947 Roswell, New Mexico came from the books written by UFO nuts decades after the fact, I would have little chance of figuring out what really happened. What possible chance do I have of figuring out what really happened to the followers of a 1st century Galilean peasant using anonymous religious propaganda based on unknown sources which are removed an unknown number of times from the eyewitnesses in an oral tradition spanning decades?

However, for anyone who cares to accept the apologists' gambit, Kris Komarnitsky's book, Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box? is an excellent resource.  Using mainstream scholarship in the fields of psychology, sociology, and New Testament studies, he offers an entirely plausible and thoroughly researched naturalistic hypothesis for the resurrection accounts found in the New Testament. All you need is a cup or two of grief-induced hallucination and a couple of tablespoons of cognitive dissonance reduction combined with a dusting of common human foibles like ignorance, exaggeration, superstition, prevarication, gullibility, and wishful thinking. Komarnitsky doesn't claim that we can establish his theory as historical fact, but he shows that natural processes are more than sufficient to explain the data.

The first six chapters of the book are terrific. Komarnitsky offers a plausible explanation for the origin of the stories of the empty tomb and the honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea. (I particularly appreciated his distillation of what scholars know about what kind of burial might have been likely for a crucifixion victim in 1st century Palestine.) He gives excellent examples of cognitive dissonance reduction in religious movements that coped with failed expectations by reinterpreting and reinventing their beliefs. The detail may be a little overwhelming for anyone who is new to these topics, but the thoroughness will be appreciated by anyone who frequents the dark corners of the internet where these issues are debated.

I was less impressed with seventh chapter which compares his hypothesis with the "minimal facts" defense of the resurrection offered by Michael Licona and William Lane Craig.  It is the only completely new chapter in the 2nd edition of the book, and while it contains some useful information, I found it somewhat muddled. I think the problem is that the "minimal facts" approach is apologetic smoke and mirrors and Komranitsky tries to engage it as if it were legitimate historiography. The first six chapters of the book refute the apologists' gambit using well-established scholarship, but in the seventh chapter, he chooses to play a game in which the apologists are allowed to make up their own rules as they go along.

In the eighth chapter, Komarnitsky engages with another standard apologists' gambit, "How do you explain the rapid spread of Christianity if Jesus didn't really rise from the dead?"  His explanation is lies in the transformative power of the concept of equality before God.  While I think it is a reasonable hypothesis and I would like to believe it, I'm not sure whether it is really true, and I don't think the case for it can be made in a single chapter.

Some skeptics may be disappointed that Komarnitsky isn't as hard as he might be on the apologists and their double talk.  I know I was a few times.  However, he is not out to bash religion in general or Christianity in particular. He just wants to show that the origin of Christianity can be explained naturally and I think that he does so very well.

As time allows, I hope to discuss the book in more detail.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who Do I Need to Read to Understand the Flaws in Mythicism?

I am often told that the reason I don't understand why New Testament scholars are so convinced of the historicity of Jesus is because I have not been steeped in the scholarship the way they are. One of the people who has told me this is a protege of Maurice Casey, so I was rather interested in a comment Jim West quoted from Casey's latest book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths.
Casey then makes mention of [Emmanuel] Pfoh’s rather playful if not sardonic remark (in his essay in the Thompson/ Verenna ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son’ volume) that he has never ‘read NT Wright’. At this point I think Casey has simply exaggerated the importance of that toss off remark. Casey writes that this remark ‘… puts the determined ignorance of mythicists in a nutshell‘ (emphasis Casey’s).
West disagreed with Casey's allegation that Pfoh is a mythicist, but I was more interested in Casey's apparent endorsement of N.T. Wright.

The only things I have read by N.T. Wright are arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, which make me wonder why he should be taken seriously as a historian at all.  I know that he is seen as a great expert on Paul, but I can't see why I should expect his conclusions there to be any less driven by his apologetic agenda.   I have very little interest in reading anything else by him.

If Casey is saying that one cannot be adequately informed about the question of Jesus' historicity without reading Wright (and I realize that I don't have enough context to be sure that this is what Casey is saying), it might be like someone saying that it would be impossible to understand World War II without reading the work of a Holocaust denier.  It is not that I think that there is the slightest moral equivalency between affirming the resurrection and denying the Holocaust, but as a matter of responsible historiography, both positions are pretty far out there.

From what I know of Casey, I wouldn't expect him to  find Wright's arguments on the resurrection any more persuasive than I do, but I still feel like there is something wrong in a field where the works of such an unabashed apologist can be considered essential reading.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Remembering Jesus

On page 384 of Jesus Remembered, James Dunn writes
The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ occurs regularly in the Evangelists’ recollection of Jesus’ words—thirteen times in Mark, another nine times in the material shared by Matthew and Luke (q/Q), a further twenty-eight times in tradition distinctive of Matthew, and a further twelve times in tradition attested only by Luke. It is hardly possible to explain such data other than on the assumption that Jesus was remembered as speaking often on the subject.
I wonder if this is really so. Wouldn’t anyone who believed that Christ had risen have interpreted that event as a sign that the kingdom of God had drawn near? Isn’t it an obvious possibility that this phrase was used by the earliest believers to explain the meaning of the visions that some of them were having and that its use was later ascribed to Jesus.

Moreover, suppose that Jesus had been a revolutionary Zealot preaching armed rebellion rather than an apocalyptic preacher and that he referred only very rarely to the kingdom of God.  After his crucifixion, some of his followers experienced visions and interpreted their meaning theologically.  They would naturally try to remember anything that Jesus had said that related--even tangentially-- to the theological interpretation of his life and death.  Those few occasions when Jesus had spoken of the coming kingdom of God would have been discussed thoroughly and would become the focus of the movement's message regardless of how much it figured in Jesus' preaching.

In short, regardless of whether the historical Jesus spoke of "the kingdom of God," a lot, a little, or not at all, we shouldn't be surprised to find it becoming a big part of the traditions concerning his life, because those traditions existed in order to preach the meaning of his death.   I think that is very easy to explain the frequency with which the Evangelists used "kingdom of God" regardless of how often Jesus actually did.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why I See No Need to Explain the Apostles' Experiences

Imagine that the only record of a key moment in a football game is a still photograph that seems to show a defensive back committing pass interference on a receiver.  However, the referee didn't throw a flag on the play. Is it possible to be confident that the referee blew the call?

One reason not to put too much weight on the photograph is that anyone who regularly watches televised sports knows that different camera angles provide different information.  A call that appears terrible on first viewing is often confirmed as correct when the play is seen from a different angle or a seemingly good call turns out to have been bad.  A different angle might show much more space between the defender and the receiver than the photograph shows.  It might show that the pass was in fact uncatchable. Moreover, a video might show that the receiver's motion and momentum were unimpeded despite the proximity of the defender so that he still had a fair opportunity to catch the pass.
It might help somewhat to get the opinion of football experts on the photograph, but probably not as much as one might like.  The problem is that the photograph lacks the information that might provide greater certainty.  No matter how many people agree that it appears to be pass interference, there is no way to be sure that they would reach the same conclusion if they saw the play from better angles.

What might be useful is to find similar photographs of plays where video is available from several angles.  Then it would be possible to determine how frequently the impression given by the photograph is confirmed and how often it is contradicted.  If it turns out that the referee's call is confirmed as often as it is undermined, then the best that could be said is that such photographs only raise the possibility that the referee erred.  However, if it turns out that the referee's call was confirmed nine out of ten times, then such photographs would have to treated as providing little or no evidence of a missed call.

I am frequently asked by Christian apologists "How do you explain the experiences that led the apostles to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead?"  My usual response is "Why should I expect to explain them?"  The evidence I have is simply not sufficient to give me any certainty about what really happened.  I can think of any number of possible scenarios that, having been passed along an unknown number of times in an oral tradition, might have led to the stories found in the gospels.

The problem I have is similar to the one of the still photograph of the football play.  The angle I have on the events doesn't contain the information I need to reach a conclusion.  What I have is mostly the anonymous accounts of fantastic events based on unknown sources removed an unknown number of times from the original events.  I only have a single first person account, but that account is vague and lacking in details.  All of these accounts are written from the perspective of true believers in those fantastic events .  What I would need to have any confidence in any conclusion about what happened would be sources closer to the events including sources with a skeptical perspective.

In fact, I have good reason to think that the kind of evidence I have is particularly unlikely to be accurate.  Just as I might find photographs of similar football plays where video replays are available, I can find fantastic stories told by true believers years after the events where information closer to the events is available.  I can compare the stories about aliens written in the 1980's to the primary source material concerning the events in Roswell in 1947.  I can compare the stories that the Mormon Church tells today about its early years to the accounts that non-Mormons gave of their dealings with Joseph Smith. I can compare the stories that the nuns told me in the 1960's about the miracles witnessed by thousands at Fatima in 1917 to the much smaller number of vague and inconsistent accounts that were actually given at the time.  I can observe that the fantastic accounts are invariably undermined when better information is examined and I can conclude that they are unreliable as evidence, just as I would conclude that the photograph was unreliable evidence if the video replay invariably confirmed the referee's call.

Of course comparing the New Testament accounts of the apostles' experiences to still photographs is far too generous to the former.  They are more like stick figure drawings of the play by people who heard about it years later.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On the Multiplicity of Historical Jesuses

One of the ways I know that astrology and feng shui are bullshit is that different “experts” analyzing the same data reach widely different conclusions. The fact that New Testament scholars differ so dramatically in their portraits of the historical Jesus certainly doesn’t prove that he didn’t exist, but it seems like adequate reason to question whether their methodology is sufficient to tell us much of anything about him. That being the case, it is reasonable to take their absolute certainty about his existence with a grain of salt.