Saturday, January 03, 2015

Fringe Outliers or Pioneering Trailblazers?

In an article titled It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas ... Mythicism's in the Air published by on 24 Dec. 2014, Australian author and lecturer John Dickson takes a former student of his to the woodshed for not towing the standard Christian party line about the alleged historicity of the Jesus of the gospel narratives. Who is John Dickson? According to Wikipedia page about him, Dickson is:
an Australian writer, historian, minister and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University. He is co-founder and director of the Centre for Public Christianity, a media company which seeks to "promote the public understanding of the Christian faith".
Also, in addition to his lecturing at Macquarie University, Dickson finds time to serve as the senior minister of an Anglican church in Roseville, Australia. Dickson has also published a number of books, with such titles as The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips, Promoting the Gospel: the Whole of Life for the Cause of Christ and A Spectator's Guide to Jesus: An Introduction to the Man from Nazaret to name but a few.

It seems safe to say, then, that Dickson, as a committed Christian believer and minister, has a confessional investment to protect here. Now in pointing this out, I may be accused of poisoning the well. But in fact, I’m simply pointing out the facts here. And when citing facts is considered fallacious, this tells us something about those who raise objections to citing facts.

The article to which Dickson is reacting was written by Raphael Lataster, who, according to his Washington Post article Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up, is “a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Sydney” in addition to being Dickson’s own former student.

Now, it seems that Dickson should be proud that one of his own former students has been published in such a major newspaper, and in an article relevant to his own field of study, namely history. But one gets the impression that Dickson is a little miffed by the audacity of Lataster’s skepticism about the “historical Jesus.”

Of his former student, Dickson writes:
As his former lecturer, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that Raphael's 1000 words on Jesus would not receive a pass mark in any history class I can imagine, even if it were meant to be a mere "personal reflection" on contemporary Jesus scholarship. Lataster is a better student than his piece suggests. But the rigours of academia in general - and the discipline of history, in particular - demand that his numerous misrepresentations of scholarship would leave a marker little choice but to fail him.
Somehow I don’t get the impression that Lataster was intending to write a term paper for a college history class when he penned his Washington Post article. It’s a newspaper article, not a master’s thesis. Lataster clearly was not intending to present an in-depth, detailed analysis of the matter – something that would require multiple volumes given the fact that the literature devoted to the subject of Christianity’s origins is so extensive. Indeed, can Dickson show us any 1000-word newspaper article that would, in his view, receive top marks in his course on ancient history?

In fact, I find myself rather sympathetic to the view expressed by one of the commenters responding to Dickson’s article, who wrote:
I am a university lecturer myself, and cannot imagine publishing a piece of writing that contains such lofty disdain for a (former) student. Smug professorial contempt oozes from this piece. Clearly Raphael Lataster came to reject your bias in favour of Christian doctrine and sought his own path. Good for him. Reflections on whether or not Jesus existed in history are perfectly legitimate and many a respectable historian has approached this topic. There is a knowledge gap wide enough to drive a truckload of scepticism through, and perhaps it is time that more people investigated that knowledge gap instead of just accepting the received "wisdom" of their lecturers.
Dickson seems to find every sentence of Lataster’s article controversial if not personally offensive. Even passing statements raise Dickson’s ire. For example, Lataster opens his article:
Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.
In journalism this paragraph is known as a “grabber” – its very purpose is to arrest readers’ attention and draw them into reading the rest of the article. Even academic essays need a way to secure a reader’s attention. But Dickson chooses to read Lataster’s figurative provocation all too literally. Dickson writes:
no student - let alone an aspiring scholar - could get away with suggesting that Christians "ought not to get involved" in the study of the historical Jesus. This is intellectual bigotry and has no place in academia, or journalism. I would likewise fail any Christian student who suggested that atheists should not research Jesus because they have an agenda.
I guess I’m just reading Lataster differently here. Dickson interprets Lataster as insisting that faithful Christians not be interested in a serious investigation of the alleged historicity of the gospel Jesus. By contrast, I sense a hint of just sarcasm in Lataster’s statement, to the effect that those believers who do not want their faith challenged should not get involved in “discussions” where their faith could very well come into violent collision with facts. But such an interpretation seems to fly right past Dickson.

Dickson’s primary objection to Lataster’s article is its overt “mythicist” bent. Dickson defines this as follows:
the view that Jesus started out as a purely celestial figure revealed in dreams and visions to prophetic figures like the apostle Paul and only later written into history-sounding texts like the Gospels. There is a potential model for this theory, of course. Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, were somewhat historicised over the course of about 300 years. But somehow this is meant to have happened to Jesus in the space of 10-20 years: from celestial deity to crucified Palestinian peasant in half a generation!
Notice that Dickson puts a time-stamp here according to which any evaluation of a proposed explanation (“mythicist” or otherwise) for Christianity’s origins must conform: “the space of 10-20 years.” Where does Dickson get this time range if not by taking the gospel narratives at face value, the very point in question? That he is engaging in crass question-begging here never seems to cross Dickson’s mind.

Dickson mentions the apostle Paul. Lataster mentions that the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament were “written earlier than the Gospels,” and Dickson nowhere challenges this point in his reaction to Lataster’s article. In fact, if there is anything scholars on both sides of the issue are in agreement on, it is that Paul’s letters antedate the gospel narratives, in some cases by decades. This is significant for many reasons, but for the present matter it is important to point out that Paul’s letters nowhere indicate – even implicitly – either a place or time of Jesus’ crucifixion, even though crucifixion is a topic of paramount importance to Paul. One would never get from Paul the view – promulgated later in the gospel narratives – that Jesus was crucified in recent times. He mentions no trial before Pilate, nor does he suggest that Jesus was crucified anywhere near Jerusalem. Nor does he suggest that Jesus’ crucifixion was sanctioned by local religious leaders. On this point, Lataster rightly cites I Cor. 2:6-10, which attributes Jesus’ crucifixion to “the rulers of this age” – clearly a supernatural rather than human reference – to whom Jesus’ true identity was hidden, “for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." In fact, for Paul, much was “hidden” which was later characterized as widely famous throughout the lands in the gospels. The contrasts between the early epistolary layer of the New Testament and the gospel accounts are enormous. But, like so many confessionally invested defenders of Christianity, Dickson quietly ignores this fact.

Dickson writes:
Raphael's claim that the letters of Paul "overwhelmingly support the 'celestial Jesus' theory" is an indefensible exaggeration. It would have been valid to point out that a case for a mythical Jesus in Paul's letters has recently been offered by atheist apologist and historian Richard Carrier. But one cannot talk of "overwhelming support" for this idea. It would be akin to some Christian declaring that biological studies "overwhelmingly support Intelligent Design," when all that is really meant is that some guy with a PhD recently published something to that effect. No marker could pass such nonsense.
So Dickson has a problem with Lataster’s choice of words here. He doesn’t approve of Lataster’s use of the word “overwhelmingly.” But setting such trifling aside, I think there’s more truth to what Lataster does state than Dickson seems willing to allow. The “support” that Lataster has in mind is the Pauline epistolary corpus. And what do we find there? In fact, perhaps an even better question might be: What don’t we find there?

On this question, I refer readers to my 2005 blog entry Reckless Apologetic Presumptuousness in which I present a list of forty – yes, forty - significant details found in the gospel narratives that are nowhere found in the early NT epistles (including but not limited to those which can plausibly be attributed to Paul). For example, Paul nowhere mentions a virgin birth; he nowhere names Jesus’ parents; he nowhere mentions either Bethlehem or Nazareth; John the Baptist; Jesus’ baptism; Jesus’ teaching in parables; Jesus’ miracles; a trial before Pilate; Golgotha; the female witnesses; even an empty tomb!

And indeed, Paul speaks repeatedly of “Christ resurrected,” characterizing Jesus as “sitting on the right hand of God” (cf. Romans 8:34). For Paul, Jesus was exalted through the resurrection, teaching that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Paul nowhere suggests that Jesus had any followers traipsing around the Palestine countryside with him in itinerant fashion. And if the “rulers of this age” who, according to Paul, were responsible for crucifying Jesus were understood by Paul to be supernatural agents residing in some spirit world, and if Paul understood the resurrection to be spiritual rather than of “flesh and blood” (which “cannot inherit the kingdom of God” – cf. I Cor. 15:50), then we must concede that the “mythicist” view has at least this much, which is enormously significant, in its favor.

Defenders of Christianity clearly perceive “mythicists” and other critics of Christianity to be a threat to the livelihood of their faith. And as has always been the case when some aspect of religious faith comes under scrutiny – such as the belief that the Jesus of the gospel narratives actually existed, the faithful find the need to marginalize anyone who raises potent questions both gnawing and irresistible. Thus we have the following from Dickson:
"Mythicists" are the historical equivalent of the anti-vaccination crowd in medical science. They are controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of "plausible deniability." But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete "outliers," the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry "Conspiracy!" This is precisely what Raphael does when with a wave of his hand he dismisses the apparently "atrocious methods" of historians of Jesus. It is as if he thinks he wins the game by declaring all its rules stupid and inventing his own path. No, that is how you get yourself disqualified.
While Dickson may have well-honed skills at polemically maligning his opponents, I found little substance here, certainly none that cinches the matter against Lataster’s viewpoint. Like so many Christian apologists, Dickson seems to think that appealing to the numbers one side has against another is somehow significant or impressive. I suppose that if Dickson had anything more substantial than the notion that critics of the historical Jesus view are a tiny “fringe” minority, he’d be presenting that instead of going on about how insignificant a voice the “mythicists” have on the matter supposedly is. Then again, if it were the case that the “mythicist” view is so far out of bounds, why would Dickson trouble himself to respond to it?

It is quite possible for historians to change their views over time on various matters. When I was growing up, I recall how widely the assumption was held that Franklin Roosevelt rescued the United States from the Great Depression. Even when I was a youngster, this view seemed on its face quite wrongheaded. If Roosevelt’s New Deal were indeed the perfect antidote to the Great Depression, why did it last as long as it did? Speaking of myth-busting, consider for example the points which Dr. Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs makes in a brief video titled Top Three Myths about the Great Depression and the New Deal. In this video, Davies states (0:42 – 1:23):
The second myth is that the New Deal saved American capitalism and brought the Great Depression to an end. The historians generally do not believe this anymore. The fact is that in most parts of the world, the Great Depression began to end much, much earlier and much more quickly than it did in the United States. In Great Britain, the Great Depression was over by 1933 and Britain in fact enjoyed very rapid economic growth from 1931 onwards. In the United States, by contrast, not only does the Great Depression go on for more than a decade, it in fact actually gets worse. And by 1937, the level of unemployment is as high as it had been in 1932, but in addition the federal government has built up an enormous debt.
Notice how Davies points out that “historians generally do not believe this anymore” – confirming my own memory of a time when in fact a wide cross-section of the population casually believed that Roosevelt’s New Deal policies ended the Great Depression when in fact they had precisely the opposite effect, both worsening and prolonging the problem.

Dickson gives the impression that the mainstream “scholarly community” is some unchanging, monolithic force which has final say on what actually happened 2,000 years ago. But is this accurate? Are historians so locked into a specific viewpoint on a matter – akin perhaps to a religious commitment – that they cannot reconsider the steps they took in arriving at their views? If historians’ views on something as relatively recent as the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s policies can experience a drastic about-face, why suppose that a similar reassessment of the New Testament stories cannot happen at some point? It may be, as Dickson points out, that “mythicists” are “outliers” now; I have not taken any surveys on this myself, but it doesn’t matter either way: the truth of a position is not determined by its popularity. It certainly does not follow from Dickson’s insistence that the “mythicist” view is currently a fringe position that historians in the future will not come to see matters differently.

Also, if his own statements on present matters in his article serve as any indication of the quality of scholarship we can expect to find among mainstream historians, Dickson – himself a historian – may find it useful to reconsider his methods. This is not to say that they are “atrocious” – it’s one thing to say that one’s methods are atrocious, another to say that he does not use his methods consistently. But we will find below several indications of just how complacent Dickson himself seems to be when it comes to evaluating what we find in the Pauline epistles.

In fact, the first time I read through Dickson’s reaction to Lataster’s article, I asked myself:
What tangible counter-evidence does Dickson cite against the “mythicist” view and – even more to the point – in favor of the Christian literalist view that the Jesus of the gospels actually existed?
If we strip away from Dickson’s piece his smug scoffing and appeal to mainstream tradition, what’s left? We’ve already seen the dependence of Dickson’s reaction on the question-begging assumption of the timeline suggested in the gospel narratives (but nowhere suggested in the earliest epistolary layers of the NT). Dickson also cites a few crumbs from Paul’s epistles which he apparently thinks seal the case against the “mythicists.” But do they?

Let’s check.

Dickson writes:
Lataster surely knows what every historical Jesus course makes plain: Paul's evidence for the historical figure of Jesus is widely regarded as particularly early and significant. His letters weren't written to defend a historical personage, and yet Paul refers in passing to Jesus as "born of a woman," being a descendant of King David "according to the flesh," having Twelve apostles, eating a final meal, being betrayed, and being crucified and buried. There is a mountain of data standing in the way of any claim of "overwhelming support" for the celestial Jesus theory.
Let’s take these one at a time.

Yes, it’s true that Paul refers to Jesus as “born of a woman” (cf. Gal. 4:4; some translations have “made of a woman”). And yes, this does seem to put Jesus on earth – where or when is anyone’s guess given what Paul says (and does not say) on the matter. But what’s striking here is that Paul does not in any way suggest that the woman from which Jesus allegedly came was a virgin. This curious detail is found only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and nowhere else in the entire New Testament. Could Paul have had a virginal mother in mind and yet failed for some reason to include this amazing detail? Indeed, what evidence can anyone present to support the view that Paul believed Jesus was born of a virgin? Certainly not Galatians 4:4, one of the only passages from his letters where he even broaches the topic of Jesus’ birth!

The next detail which Dickson cites is the claim that Jesus was a descendant of King David “according to the flesh.” And yes, this detail is affirmed in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and thus seems to locate Jesus on earth some place – at least in the region. So I think Dickson makes a good point here. This comes from Romans 1:1-3, which reads as follows:
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh
But this raises a problem for the historical Jesus crowd, who insist that the gospel narratives are historically accurate. For if Jesus were a descendent from King David “according to the flesh,” this would rule out a virgin birth. If Mary were a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, then Jesus would not be a descendent of King David “according to the flesh.” One might be able to say Jesus was a descendent of David according to adoption, but certainly not “according to the flesh.” Descent “according to the flesh” can only mean biological descent. But this is in complete conflict with the very notion of a virgin birth. So Dickson may have scored a point here, but in doing so he loses the entire game.

Dickson then tells us that Paul characterized Jesus as “having Twelve apostles.” This is, to put it mildly, utterly misleading, and to the degree that Dickson believes this only indicates how engrained his habit of reading gospel details into the Pauline text really is. (Is this an example of highly refined scholarly methods of doing history?) I Cor. 15:5 does mention “the twelve” (small 't' per the NASB) – curiously as an audience to one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (after Judas had defected, according to the gospel narratives, which would leave only eleven). But this passage – the only one of its kind in all the epistolary corpus – does not in any way suggest that the individuals denoted here were fellow travelers of an earthly Jesus as we find so famously in the gospel narratives. This “Twelve” may have been nothing more than a council of appointees in the central church, so designated by their station or function within the Jesus cult rather than as personal companions of a traveling preacher named Jesus. Nothing in I Cor. 15 suggests that they had any association with an earthly, pre-crucifixion Jesus.

Dickson also lists Jesus “eating a final meal,” and with this he means the Eucharist. We find this in I Cor. 11:23-34. Again, very few details are given here. Certainly there are no details of time or place. Paul does not tell us where or when this sacred meal allegedly occurred. A sacred meal may indeed imply an earthly Jesus, assuming that the event in question was imagined to have taken place on earth. Unfortunately Paul nowhere suggests where he understood it to have taken place. Indeed, if we are at liberty to imagine supernatural beings and supernatural locales, why are we not similarly at liberty to imagine sacred meals happening in some celestial venue? Dickson does not explain why we must - necessarily - interpret the Eucharist in the way he has used it – i.e., as evidence for an earthly Jesus. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that Paul (assuming he wrote I Cor. 11) opens the passage about the sacred meal with the following words (v. 23):
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread…
In other words, Paul is saying here that he did not learn of this sacred meal tradition by word of mouth from other human beings, but rather that he learned of it directly from “the Lord Jesus” – i.e., from the heavenly or “celestial” Jesus. Had Paul stated that he learned about it from folks who actually sat with an earthly Jesus and ate with him, that would be one thing – surely more securely in line with what Dickson wants to get from this. But that Paul says he got this directly from a supernatural agent and gives no details on the when and where, things get murkier as to what he might have had in mind. Does this mean the “mythicist” case is home free? No, I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s not a slam-dunk for the Christian literalist side of the debate by any means.

However, there may be more to the sacred meal tradition that is in peril of being overlooked. Many cults thriving in 1st century Palestine and earlier had their own sacred meal traditions. The cultic practices of worshipers of Mithras, Dionysus, et al. Writing ca. 45 BC, Cicreo (106-43 BC) asked rhetorically: “do you think that any one is so senseless as to believe that what he is eating is the divine substance?” (On the Nature of the Gods) Even at this point – some 85-90 years before the institution of the eucharist by Jesus according to the gospels, Cicero was commenting on how absurd such an idea was. Why? Because the notion of consuming one’s own object of worship in a sacred meal was nothing new.

What’s most likely to have happened is that early Christianity, in its initial formative stages, absorbed certain practices and traditions from other cults of the day and rebranded them so as to have significance within Christianity’s own traditions. On this, G. A. Wells plausibly surmises (The Jesus Myth, p. 41; quoting J. C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 1994, p. 175):
Paul here [I Cor. 11:23-34] represents Jesus as instituting a cultic act which existed as a regular part of Christian worship in Paul’s time. Once such a practice had been established, it would be natural to suppose that Jesus had ordained it. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that a cultic act of this kind already existed in the Jewish background to Christianity. J.C. VanderKam says of the ritual meal described in some of the scrolls that, however one interprets it, “its messianic character, the prominence of bread and wine, the fact that it was repeated regularly and its explicit eschatological associations do recall elements found in the New Testament treatments of the Lords Supper.”
Wells also points out that (op. cit., p. 20):
both Justin Martyr and Tertullian felt it necessary to explain away the resemblances of this Christian rite to the Mihraic sacred meal.
So I would suggest that, given the can of worms this issue raises, does not suit Dickson’s purposes at all well.

Dickson also cites “being betrayed, and being crucified and buried” as elements found in the epistles sealing the case for an earthly Jesus and against an exclusively “celestial Jesus.” Of course, none of these details necessarily scream out earth as their necessary place of happening to the exclusion of any and all alternatives. Again, if we are to imagine supernatural agencies acting in supernatural realms, I see no reason why we must confine Jesus’ activities to an earthly backdrop. I can imagine a betrayal in some supernatural realm just as easily as I can imagine a heaven, a hell, a divine throne room, an eternal judgment, a virgin birth, etc. Given that Paul nowhere explicitly locates any of these things on earth, we are left to our own assumptions here as to the specifics of where, when and attending circumstances. Again, I suggest that Dickson give these matters a little more critical thought than he suggests he’s given with what he’s written.

Dickson raised another objection to Lataster’s position:
Fourthly, there are numerous idiosyncratic statements throughout Lataster's article which he passes off as accepted insights of historical study. For example, the claim that the Gospels are all "anonymous" is no more accurate than insisting that a modern biography is anonymous on the grounds that the biographer's name appears only on the front and back cover of the book not in the body of the work. Of course, the Gospel writers did not begin by writing, "I, Mark, now want to write about Jesus of Nazareth ..." But wherever we have a surviving front or back page of a Gospel manuscript, we find a superscript indicating the biographer's name, and there is absolute uniformity of that name: euaggelion kata Markon, euaggelion kata Lukan and so on.
To begin with, I don’t see how the “mythicist” position depends on the gospels being anonymous. Even if one wants to say that the gospel bearing the name “Matthew” was written by a guy named Matthew, how does this change anything? That at least one person is responsible for writing each of the gospels is conceded by all sides, and we can assume with all likelihood that whoever those individuals might have been all had names at some point. So it’s not entirely clear what advantage Dickson thinks he’s gaining over Lataster’s view by focusing on this particular point of dispute.

More often than not, apologists focus on validating traditional claims of authorship of New Testament documents, including the gospels, as a way of subsequently validating their content. If the gospels were written by one of Jesus’ own traveling companions, so the general argument goes, then we have accounts which originated “too close” to the activity in question to be dismissed as legend-laden storytelling. Such arguments imply that the content of the accounts themselves is at least generally reliable from the very outset, which is what the “mythicist” perspective calls into question. We saw this fallacious tendency above when Dickson insists that an originally “celestial Jesus” would have had to have been historicized in the space of 10-20 years. Such a timeline clearly assumes that the stories contained in the gospels – specifically that Jesus was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate’s tenure as prefect of Judea (ca. AD 26-36) – are at least generally accurate historically.

Wells points out (Did Jesus Exist? p. 77) that it is widely held today by scholars:
that [the] gospels, and other writings used for reading in church, at first existed without any titles, and were supplied with them only when Christian communities acquired more than one gospel and needed some means of distinguishing between them. The canon was unable to reduce the material to a single gospel for the reason that some influential communities had long used only one and some another.
Given this (in developing this point, Wells cites F. C. Grant, F. W. Beare, E. Haenchen and W. G. Kümmel), that the gospels were initially anonymous goes without saying. And just as it would have been natural to credit Jesus with instituting the sacred meal tradition, it would have been natural for communities which found it necessary to distinguish between two or more gospels to give them non-generic names which had significance to the overall gospel tradition – e.g., “According to Mark” (we would not expect them to call one “Argo” and another “Rinse and Repeat”). Curiously, Wells points out (Cutting Jesus Down to Size, p. 24) that Mark – widely acknowledged to be the earliest of the gospels as well as a source used in writing Matthew and Luke – was written
when gentiles could become Christians without having to obey the Jewish law. Hence what Paul had to battle hard for had, by that time, become accepted without question.
Telltale clues of this sort give us an idea of how Christianity had developed from Paul’s day – where Jesus figures as primarily a “risen savior” whose activities are portrayed in a most hazy, unspecific manner – to the time when stories of an earthly Jesus began to take root. Efforts to authenticate the gospels by representing them as from the hand of persons close to an earthly Jesus or his followers completely ignore such smoking-gun details.

Moving on, we now get to the paragraph which, more than any other, prompted me to write a response to Dickson’s article. He writes:
Equally eccentric is the claim that Paul in Galatians 1:12 "rules out human sources" for his knowledge of Jesus, thereby indicating that his Jesus is a celestial being not an historical one. Leaving aside the obvious non sequitur (why on earth should a divine revelation, such as Paul claims for himself in Galatians, not concern an historical person?), Raphael's idea is shipwrecked on the rock of 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, the earliest datable statement of Christian belief, in which Paul unmistakably rules in his dependence upon human sources for his knowledge of an obviously historical Jesus. This is such an obvious and widely commented upon issue that I am at a loss to explain Lataster's claim.
Two corrective points must be made here – the first a minor one. Reading what Dickson states here, one gets the impression that Lataster has presented the argument that, because in Gal. 1:12 Paul claims to have “received” his gospel directly from the risen Jesus, that Paul therefore could not have had an earthly Jesus in mind. But that’s not how I read Lataster at all. Rather, he cites Gal. 1:11-12 only circumstantially, as part of the underlying context of Paul’s understanding, not as the lynchpin of his case. Here’s what Lataster writes:
Paul’s Epistles, written earlier than the Gospels, give us no reason to dogmatically declare Jesus must have existed. Avoiding Jesus’ earthly events and teachings, even when the latter could have bolstered his own claims, Paul only describes his “Heavenly Jesus.” Even when discussing what appear to be the resurrection and the last supper, his only stated sources are his direct revelations from the Lord, and his indirect revelations from the Old Testament. In fact, Paul actually rules out human sources (see Galatians 1:11-12).
As I read this, Lataster is pointing out that, even when we get to those details which Christians typically cite in defense of the assumption that Paul was writing about the same earthly Jesus we find in the later gospel narratives, Paul himself tells us that his own source for what he tells us is not human or earthly in nature, but heavenly, that he did not “learn” about this by word of mouth or from persons claiming to have personally partaken in activities with Jesus, but that he “received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12), i.e., from a heavenly rather than an earthly source. Lataster is essentially pointing out that Paul’s own testimony about his sources is wholly consistent with the “mythicist” viewpoint; had Paul cited Peter, James and others as his sources, he would be implying that the activities in question (e.g., the Last Supper) had taken place on earth, with human participants, rather than in some “celestial” locale.

But even more alarming is Dickson’s claim that what we read in I Cor. 15:1-5 “unmistakably rules in” Paul’s “dependence upon human sources for his knowledge of an obviously historical Jesus.” I notice that Dickson does not actually quote anything from this passage to support his contention against Lataster. So let’s take a look for ourselves and see what we find (I quote the NASB):
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Where does Paul “unmistakably rule in his dependence upon human sources for his knowledge of an obviously historical Jesus”? He doesn’t. Paul reiterates that he “received” what he passed on, but he nowhere states or even implies that he received it from human sources. The passage lists people to whom the post-resurrection Jesus appeared (reading beyond this point, we learn of appearances to “more than five hundred brethren,” to James, to “all the apostles” and to Paul himself), but this does not necessitate that Paul learned of these appearances from human sources. If Paul learned about the sacred meal tradition by direct revelation from Jesus (as he insists he did in I Cor. 11:23), why can’t he have learned about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the same manner?

So I’m quite perplexed by Dickson’s statement here, especially given his expression of exasperation over Lataster’s alleged failure to “get it.” Indeed, it seems that I Cor. 15 would be the last passage Christian literalists would want to cite given the unanswered questions it raises (see for example here).

Dickson also harps on Lataster for denying the traditional view that the gospels constitute eyewitness testimony. (He provides a link to Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.) It seems odd that believers would prefer to seat their beliefs on the stepstool of human fallibility rather than – as Paul did – on the claim of direct revelation from the creator of the universe. By pouring such effort into defending the view that the gospels are eyewitness accounts (or based on testimony of eyewitnesses), apologists are essentially surrendering their faith to epistemological questions which cannot be explored with any terminal certainty given the fact that the alleged eyewitnesses are not available for interview. If, for example, the author of Mark claims to have seen Peter walking on water (cf. Mark 6), how did he determine that this is what he in fact saw? If Matthew claims that Mary was a virgin when she was found pregnant with Jesus, how did he go about discovering and confirming this? If the author of Acts claims that Ananias and Sapphira died as a result of Peters interrogation (cf. Acts 5), how did he go about authenticating this? Or did he? We will never be able to pursue such questions because the authors left no clue as to the methods they used in any of this. They just tell their stories, and we’re somehow expected to accept them as historically accurate truths on their say so. In precisely this way, bible-belief requires the abandonment of all intellectual responsibility, thus devaluing our own minds in the process – yea, as a precondition to belief, and for what purpose? Nothing can justify such self-abuse!

Dickson’s own comments do nothing to overcome this problem. In fact, reading between the lines, he seems to be saying that this is unavoidable. He writes:
Leaving aside the question of whether there are eyewitness accounts in the New Testament - many think there are - such a statement overlooks the fact that virtually everything we know from ancient history comes to us from sources that are neither "contemporary" with events, nor written by eyewitnesses. What we know of Emperor Tiberius, for instance, comes mainly from the Roman chronicler Tacitus, who writes some 80 years after the emperor's death. This is typical of ancient history, and it poses no dilemma to the contemporary scholar because it is clear that authors such as Tacitus, like the Gospel writers, employed earlier sources within their works.
I doubt that Lataster has actually overlooked “the fact that virtually everything we know from ancient history comes to us from sources that are neither ‘contemporary’ with events, nor written by eyewitnesses.” What Dickson overlooks is that religious texts like the gospels and histories of bygone Roman emperors are not categorically equivalent. We are not presented with accounts about Emperor Tiberius with the same kind of axiological demands as Christians present their gospel stories. This points to one of the fundamental errors undergirding revealed religions generally, namely the assumption that historical events should inform the foundation of our philosophical understanding of reality. Christianity essentially claims, “Because X happened [in the distant past, mind you, to which we have no firsthand access], we should believe Y and do Z with our lives.” This is not rational; this can only constitute a complete surrender of rationality, especially since it requires us to conform our understanding of everything to which we do have firsthand access to something which is not available to us for firsthand investigation. Whether Julius Caesar actually crossed the Rubicon with his troops in AD 49 or not, is philosophically inert; existence still exists, things are still what they are, and man still needs to govern his choices and actions by means of reason. No “historical fact” can alter this. But religion represents a full frontal assault on the fundamentals of rational philosophy in that some alleged event in the past is supposed to serve as a substitute for those general truths which obtain independently of historical activity.

Now, it certainly may be the case, as Dickson states, that “virtually everything we know from ancient history comes to us from sources that are neither ‘contemporary’ with events, nor written by eyewitnesses.” And I have no doubt that this is true. But it does not follow from this that we should therefore surrender our rational faculties and blindly accept as historically factual any and every ancient account that historians unearth. Each document must be evaluated according to the quality of its content and its context in relation to other facts which have been validated. So Dickson’s rejoinder here is not very impressive.

Dickson also states:
to suggest that the Gospels are somehow dodgy because they are not contemporaneous accounts of Jesus indicates a basic unfamiliarity with the discipline of history.
This overlooks the fact that the gospels’ lack of contemporaneity with the events they purport to be recording is only one of many factors critics of New Testament writings cite against their claim to being historically accurate. In fact, it’s one of the more minor factors so far as I’m concerned. We’ve already seen glimpses of the vast differences between the Jesus of the early epistles and the Jesus found in the gospels. Internal variances among the gospels themselves plague apologists without end in their attempts to find, once and for all, a final solution to harmonizing the narrative portraits of Jesus.

I would like to include some words about my own position on the “mythicist” position. Even though I reject the Christian notion that the gospel narratives accurately depict actual historical events, the “mythicist” view which Dickson describes is not one that I personally hold to – not at this time anyway. The view Dickson describes holds that “Jesus started out as a purely celestial figure revealed in dreams and visions” to folks like Paul and who knows who else. It may be the case that this is how things got started, but I tend to think a more mundane alternative is more plausible. In fact, I think there are good reasons to suppose that Christianity did not begin with Paul specifically, but that there were sects of worshipers of a martyred holy person (cf. the “suffering servant” spoken of in the Wisdom literature) whose beliefs may have originated ultimately (prior to an inscrutable degree of legendizing) in actual events which likely predated Paul’s time by a factor of several generations.

As a potential candidate for such events, Josephus records the savage brutality of one Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea from 103 to 76 BC. Jannaeus had political conflicts with the Pharisees of his day which culminated in a most heinous act: in one day Jannaeus had 800 Pharisees crucified alive while their wives and children were murdered before their eyes as they hung dying on crosses. These events are recorded in Josephus’ Jewish War, Book 1 (further details can be found here). No doubt such events had a lasting impact on the descendants of the Pharisees, among whom Paul identifies himself as a member (cf. Phil. 3:5). Could it be that stories about the purgation of Pharisee opponents under Jannaeus were passed down to Paul’s time some several generations later? Could it be that among those stories were accounts of those who were so martyred? And could not these martyrs have been glorified as having been righteous servants suffering on behalf of their cause, on behalf of their steadfast faith? As a young man being schooled in the Pharisee tradition, Paul would most likely have heard tales of Pharisees of bygone eras. That the mass crucifixions under Jannaeus would have colored those tales is not only possible, but probably very likely. The distant past of these mass crucifixions of Pharisees fits too neatly with Paul’s treatment of Jesus – with no mention of time, place, circumstances or even witnesses – to be a mere coincidence.

G. A. Wells remarks (The Jesus Myth, p. 57):
Paul’s silence about the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’s death is sometimes explained by supposing that, since Jesus was ‘the risen Lord’, such historical data were of very subordinate interest. But from Paul’s premiss of the supreme importance of knowing “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23 and 2:2) one would expect him to be explicit about the Passion and at least specify the when and the where. He is so imprecise about it that he may well have thought that it occurred one or two centuries before his time of writing. We know from Josephus that at these earlier dates holy men had been crucified alive in Palestine and not, as was the usual Jewish custom, only after they had been executed by other means.
Couple the tales of agony suffered by Jewish priests that were no doubt handed down to later generations of Pharisees with the Wisdom literature and the Jewish messianism of Paul’s day, and we have the ideal laboratory for a personality cult to take root and begin to flourish as an offshoot from mainstream Judaism. This would provide more than enough time for legends surrounding actual historical figures to develop, and it would not require us to jettison anything we do find out from Paul about the Jesus he describes, especially since he nowhere locates his Jesus in any specific historical setting. Moreover, the development of a biographical account – à la the gospel narratives that we find in our bibles today – would represent a logical continuation of the legend-building that most likely began before Paul even became interested in the Jesus cult. Faithful congregants in budding churches throughout the missionized region would no doubt have been hungry for more details about the object of their faith, and as with any commodity, where there’s demand, there’s usually someone who comes along intending to supply it.

Is this plausible? Based on what I have learned over the years, it seems as plausible as the “mythicist” view which Dickson describes. Is this compatible with the “mythicist” view? I suppose that depends on how hard a line one tows.

For a long time, G.A. Wells was a proponent of the “mythicist” view. He has since come to modify his view of Christian beginnings, stating that “it is not all mythical” and allowing that an actual person – “not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles” – most likely lies behind the Q material of Matthew and Luke, representing one of several streams that have been woven into a complex tapestry that is the New Testament (Can We Trust the New Testament? p. 50).

In an interview with Neil Godfrey, Earl Doherty – a proponent of the “mythicist” view – makes the following statement regarding G. A. Wells’ modified stance. Doherty states:
Wells still regards the Pauline Christ as non-existent, even if Paul supposedly believed he had once lived on earth. (Wells subscribes to the latter apparently on the basis of certain pieces of human-sounding language sometimes encountered in the epistles, missing the possibility that such language can be understood within the Platonic conceptions of the time.) Wells does not link Paul’s Christ to any known historical figure, certainly not any figure portrayed in the Gospels. His ‘reversal’ has to do entirely with the so-called Q Jesus. He seems to have been persuaded by research like that of the Jesus Seminar who felt that a genuine Jewish sage could be unearthed at the root of the Galilean Q tradition. I disagree, and believe I have demonstrated that the Q Jesus was a later invented figure whose development can be traced through the various strata of the Q document, one who cannot be located at the movement’s inception.
As opposed to “outliers” who should be marginalized for daring to have independent views, I regard both Doherty and Wells as heroic pioneers who have embarked on a long overdue expedition into a territory which has been very wrongly charted by previous travelers. Is Wells right on each point? Is Doherty right on each point? I don’t think that’s the focus here. Rather, look at the dazzling discoveries they have made!

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Thanks for another fine entry, Dawson, and for the humorous use of "Argo" and "Rinse and Repeat."


johzek said...

Isn't it true that most Biblical scholars are believers to begin with and that a significant percentage of them are affiliated with Christian institutions that require the signing of some sort of statement of faith? It seems to me that Dickson in explicitly using the word 'secular' when he refers to "thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus" is intentionally misrepresenting the makeup of this so called scholarly community.

samonedo said...

Isn't it suspicious that these people end up confirming through "unbiased" studies what they've already acepted as truth? Lucky strike