Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 4

I want to go back to a point that I made earlier in this series which I said that I would take up later. The point is this. When we begin really evaluating our methods, we discover that in case after case we are using them to try to conclude things that the methods cannot tell us. In other words, the multiple independent attestation criterion cannot tell us that Jesus said something, or that he more likely said something because multiply-attested material suggests that our authors were drawing on earlier sources for the material. It can, however, point us to material that did not originate with our authors, yet was popular enough to be transmitted, and salient enough to be preserved by two or more authors. So this principle, while it cannot tell us what the historical Jesus said, is certainly useful for helping us figure out the tradition history of early Christianity.

The same can be said about the myther position, the position that says that Jesus was not an historical person, but a mythic construct of the ancient people. Tom Verenna has responded that the myther position has moved beyond parallalmania which focused on comparing Jesus' story with pagan myths. The mythers have been employing other better methods to make their point. He writes HERE:
More recent mythicist arguments deal with exegesis, Gospel genre (if the Gospels weren’t written for the purpose of “telling what happened” but rather “telling a good story” there clearly is reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus Christ), intertextuality (the models used by the authors of the Gospels to create narrative—and how much of the Gospel can be traced back to models), Jewish socio-cultural studies in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (did the Jews of the original “Christian” sect expect a historical savior or a spiritual one?), religious-meme change (how quickly did religious trends change and how much could they have changed over that period of time—for example, euhemerizing a legendary figure of Jesus into a historical setting), and proto-Christian origins (was there a “Christianity” before the first-century CE and where did it originate?) .
But isn't this the same pitfall that the Jesus Seminar fell into? The same argument, though turned around? Aren't the mythers drawing from their methods conclusions that force the methods beyond what they can actually tell us? Let me take Tom's points one-by-one:

1. The gospel narratives were written "to tell a good story" not to record "history", so isn't there reason to doubt Jesus' historicity? Well, the short answer is NO. The mere fact that the story is constructed is not evidence for the non-existence of Jesus. Everything we write, speak, and even think is constructed. But that doesn't mean it is constructed with no ground in the historical reality that we experience. The long answer is that the ancient people did not have the concept of history that we do today, and none of them wrote factual accounts, even those who claimed to be writing histories. An "empirical" accounting of our history wasn't actually understood until the Enlightment when people like Leopold van Ranke began to argue that maybe we should be committed to writing history as it actually happened, and that it should not be the historian's duty "[…] to judge the past, nor to instruct one's contemporaries with an eye to the future, but rather merely to show how it actually was."

2. The authors of the gospels used narrative models to construct their stories. True. But this is not evidence for the non-existence of Jesus. All it can tell us is that the early Christians were part of the Greco-Roman educational system, and used models known to them to write Jesus' story. Would we expect otherwise?

3. The original Christian sect expected a spiritual savior. It doesn't matter a hoot whether the early Christians thought Jesus to be a real human being or an angel or a god. They in fact thought all these things, and what these represent are theological interpretations. They may be interpretations laid on an historical figure just as well as not. This argument cannot tell us whether or not Jesus existed.

4. Religious trends change quickly over time. So what. Some do. Some don't. And in each case, these should be tracked and evaluated. This tracking would tell us a lot about early Christian construction of their religion, but Jesus' existence? Come on.

The long and short of this post gets at the heart of TJP in my mind. Does an intentioned constructed story about somebody consequently imply that that person didn't exist? No. In fact, I don't know of a method that would actually tell us whether or not Jesus existed. So this is a non-issue for me. It can't be known. So if all TJP is going to be is a bunch of scholars arguing over whether or not Jesus existed, using methods to conclude things that are beyond the scope of the methods, then I don't want to participate in the Project. I don't have time or patience for this conversation. The question cannot be resolved. And TJP will fall into the same trap that TJS fell into - concluding things that our scholarly methods cannot actually tell us.

However, if the Project wishes to get serious about methods, and commits to using them only to gain what can be gained from them, then I think TJP has something to offer. I think that we need to allow our methods to do what they can, and stop forcing them to do what they can't. Perhaps we might set aside the obsession of historical existence or non-existence of Jesus (which are both faith positions from opposite camps), and instead try to come to a better understanding of how, when, and why the early Christians constructed the story of Jesus in the manner that they did. If this is our goal, then I'm interested in being a part of TJP because this I think is possible to accomplish.


Leon said...

To briefly restate what I said on your last post 3 in this series: The obsession that has to be gotten rid of is this scholarly obsession with creating a personal vision of Jesus by erasing ancient Jewish culture. Christian scholars still tell lies about who the Pharisees were and what they accomplished. I gave the details in my response to your Post 3 below. Scholars create a ficitonal Judaism to act as a foil for a fictional Jesus. Jesus in harmony with his Pharisaic/rabbinic culture is the one Jesus that no one wants to see. There has been absolutely no attention to Jesus' true Jewish context. Everyone who erases that context cannot be called a historical scholar. I will continue to point out how offensive it is for Christian scholars to lie about ancient Judaism. They give us their obsessions with rituals, etc., and not what the Pharisees really achieved with due process, justice, peace, open debate with God, and constitutional government. This is offensive to Jews, and, I would venture to add, to Jesus himself.

Leon Zitzer

J. K. Gayle said...

I think that we need to allow our methods to do what they can, and stop forcing them to do what they can't.

Great series, and great post here! Would there be any reason for TJP to look to the historiographic work of feminists in rhetoric? Before the last quarter of the twentieth century, historians of rhetoric presumed that no female rhetors and rhetoricians existed in the Roman empire or the Greek city states. But feminist historians began their work of recovery, turning to and beyond the methods of men. For example, a number of feminist historians have uncovered Aspasia of Miletus as an early contributor to Greek theory and practice in rhetoric. Cheryl Glenn's Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance is a work that not only uses the certain methods of men to recover women rhetoricians but also theorizes and uses a variety of feminist methods as well. Similarly, Patricia Bizzell's “Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric: What Difference Do They Make” gets at just how methods can and do recover the lost histories of definite, and sometimes even mythic, persons. As a result of the methods and the recovery using them, at the turn of the twenty-first century, no one teaching or writing the early (and even later) histories of rhetoric can easily exclude women, real and mythic.

April DeConick said...


Very interesting comment. Where is Bizzell published?

Steven Carr said...

What is the difference between your position and somebody who says that it is more than 50% likely that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth who had disciples?

The fact that people construct photographs of the Loch Ness Monster is not evidence that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist.

How does that perfectly valid argument refute the mythicist stance on the existence of Nessie?

Frank McCoy said...

I am now 67 years old and I began a personal quest for the historical Jesus when I was about 25 years old and have continued it since as an avocation, being a layperson and working in the business world until retiring at 65.
One of the first things I did was to buy 6 volumes of Philo's works. At a cost of $5.00 a volume, it was all I could afford. Then, for the next several years, I tried to average at least an hour a day reading Philo. This is because, I believed, unless I could learn to think like a first century CE Jew, I had no chance of finding the historical Jesus.
Another thing I believed at the time, and still believe, is that scholars had not been able to find the historical Jesus because something was (and is) horribly wrong with their basic assumptions and methodologies. So I made a decision to not enter a theology/early Christian academic program because, I figured, all that I would learn would be how not to go about finding the historical Jesus.
I am re-evaluating this position since, being retired, I have the time to pursue an academic program in a local seminary and I hopefully now have enough maturity and experience now to avoid being "brainwashed" in the process.
I belong to Westar and support it solely because my quest has been their quest. I do not like them because they treat laypeople like myself as second class members--our status being that of "associate" members.
Like you, I have come to conclude that many of their rules of evidence are unsound.
Further, I think that what is unsound in their world-perspective runs much deeper than just many of their rules of evidence.
An example is their fifth "pillar" of scholarly wisdom, i.e., the reality of Q. There is not a shred of tangible evidence that it ever existed. Further, why even posit it when the material common to Lk and Mt is explicable with the hypothesis that Luke used Mt as one of his sources? There is a whole industry over this purely hypothetical gospel (or two gospels, a QMt and a QLk)and this strikes me as being akin to a whole industry devoted to the Easter bunny.
Another example is their assumption that Jesus was a Galilean peasant. Neither in Paul's works nor in James or Jude is their any indication that Jesus was a Galilean and/or a peasant. Th gives no indications that Jesus was a Galilean or a peasant. That Jesus primarily operated in Galilee is inherently implausible because the first known community of his followers was located at Jerusalem, in the heart of Judea. Both Paul and Josephus place James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem and neither speaks of him being a Galilean. Also, my researches have led me to the conclusion that Jn 6:1-7:14 and Jn 21 are late additions to Jn designed to falsely make it appear that Jesus made his headquarters in Galilee and and that the Beloved Disciple had been John (rather than, as actually the case, James, the brother of Jesus). Once this is realized and one further takes into account Jn 4:43-45, one recognizes that, in the original Jn, while it is admitted that Jesus was born in Galilee, Jesus is pictured as not being a citizen of Galilee and as only making a few short
forays into Galilee during his ministry period. The bottom line: I strongly suspect that the portrait of a Galilean peasant Jesus is a false invention of Mark--a false invention perpetuated in Mt and Lk.
Another example: I deem it inherently implausible to posit, as does the Jesus Seminar, that there was an early version of Th by c. 60 CE and that Luke didn't write Acts (and, I presume, Lk) until the second century CE and, yet, Luke didn't use Th as one of his sources for Lk. My own researches have led me to the conclusion that there really was a pre-Markan version of Th, but that the Markan parallels in Th were added to it after the Thomas group obtained a copy of Mk and that both Matthew and Luke used Th as a source--with, more fully, Matthew using Mk and Th as sources and Luke using Mk, Mt and Th as sources.
I wish the TJP well. New avenues of research are needed. But, from what I've seen so far, I think it will produce no breakthough in finding the historical Jesus (or, conversely, in finding that there never was a historical Jesus).

Hambydammit said...

I'm puzzled by your post. I'm not sure you're responding to what Tom was saying. In the first place, Richard Carrier was quoted on TJP blog recently as saying that one of the possible conclusions of the project might be that it is impossible to say authoritatively whether there was a historical Jesus or not. Isn't this evidence enough that TJP isn't going in trying to prove mythicism?

By the way, is "mythers" a word? Maybe I'm being too touchy about this, but I can't help but associate "mythers" with things like "9/11 Truthers." Is it possible that you're using a bit of subtle rhetoric to undermine TJP without having to make an actual argument? If so, shame on you.

As far as the quote from Tom's blog, I guess I get what you're saying -- establishing strong arguments for a particular exegesis doesn't necessarily prove or disprove a historical Jesus, but all the historians I've read rest most, if not all, of their arguments on exegesis. So, perhaps you and Carrier are right -- there is not enough evidence one way or another to address the question of Jesus' historicity.

If that's the case, then doesn't it follow that you've just demolished every Jesus historian's argument with one fell swoop? I don't see any way around this conclusion.

Are you really arguing that all the Jesus Historians' arguments for historicity are invalid?

If you are, isn't that equivalent to saying that anyone who claims Jesus was likely to have lived is wrong?

J. K. Gayle said...

Bizzell's essay was first given as the keynote address of the Rhetoric Society of America biennial national conference, Washington D.C., May 2000 and was subsequently revised & published in the Rhetoric Society Quarterly 30 (Fall 2000): 5-18.

It's been republished in: Feminisms and Composition: A Critical Sourcebook.

Quixie said...

April:"I think that we need to allow our methods to do what they can, and stop forcing them to do what they can't."

This is the kernel point of your case; and it's very well taken.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts like this.

A comment re: point #1:

Yes, it's one thing to enforce a post-enlightenment historiography on an ancient people, but when I survey the writing of pre-moderns like Herodotus or Livy or Josephus, I have no trouble seeing some attempt to keep it at least as factual as their sources will allow. Even by their archaic means, their work is still distinguishable as "history."
The gospels (with the possible exception of Luke, which is arguably a late corrective reaction to this dearth of history in either GMark and GMatt) don't read like the history even of its own day.
That's why genre is such a crucial issue.

thanks again


Ishmael said...

You shouldn't legitimize the likes of Rook Hawkins on your blog.

Geoff Hudson said...

April has yet to face-up to the issue of Judas possibly being the source character for Jesus, and the character who is the focus of the writings attributed to Josephus. Has she even read the writings attributed to Josephus? Or is she, like most scholars, in the game of simply quoting them literalistically as though they were accurate history? The truth is in the lies in the records. As a basic principle, the NT and the writings attributed to Josephus should be interpreted as if they have been subjected to propagandist inversion, particularly of a Flavian variety. Robert Eisenman knows all about it.

Geoff Hudson said...

With regard to Jesus coming from and travelling to Galilee, Frank, this is typical propagandist inversion following the myth that Vespasian began his war against the Jews in Galilee, fighting his way down into Judea.

The war began in Judea, and ended in Judea within a few months. The Roman's main battle camp was Masada, the first fortress to be taken in the war, not the last - yet another propagandist inversion. And the troops were led by Nero, not Vespasian - almost the ultimate propagandist inversion. See

Ishmael said...

This is an interesting conversation on the historical Jesus, TJP, etc., and I don't want to disrupt it too much. But I do want to point out that Tom Verenna is "Rook Hawkins" from the Rational Response Squad (

He has a long history of presenting himself as an "expert" with regard to these subjects, despite the fact he is not. Additionally, he has a long history of not being able to take any sort criticism without responding with incredible, whiny, run-on blog posts that shouldn't be responded to. Note the following response to this piece:

April DeConick was goodly enough to continue this conversation on her blog (and we’re all thankful she did). But I want to start out by making it clear that April has not represented my position correctly. Even when she quotes it in block-quote format, she seems to have missed my words completely. This is a serious problem because we will continue to talk past each other.

She derives another ad hoc [sic] argument from thin air and talks past me. My original point was thus:...

Mythicists examine religious-meme change (how quickly did religious trends change and how much could they have changed over that period of time—for example, euhemerizing a legendary figure of Jesus into a historical setting).”...

If April is going to continually ignore vital questions, misrepresent valid points of investigation, this project will never get on its feet. Instead, we will be grid-locked in a never ending blogersation talking past each other in an ad hoc [sic] war
I have to ask April to carefully read the articles she wants to openly discuss publicly. If she is going to attack a position, she should at least know more about it first.

This is of course insulting to suggest that Dr. DeConick doesn't understand his argument and is Rook's modus operandi in his on-going pursuit to present himself as something he is not.

Matt said...

Rook doesn't have any sort of degree - and we aren't sure he even graduated high school.

Fat Jew said...

Since we don't know when Jesus was born or died, and there were no video cameras with good sound available to "capture" him, it is IMPOSSIBLE to know who he was or what he thought. All the gospels are utter failures in depicting Jesus and his Judaism. Scholars have the unenviable task of trying to make sense of him. If Jesus believed God spoke to him, many would conclude he was mentally unbalanced and that further complicates a search for history.

Judaism and Christianity are paths to the Divine but I really doubt having lived the faiths that either will, can, or want to understand the other. I've never met a Christian in my 60 plus years who understands Judaism.

Leon said...

There really isn't any serious interest in recovering the historical, Jewish Jesus. It is still a purely theological field. Scholars make up their own ideas about Jesus and then fabricate a Judaism that they can contrast him to. To claim that Jesus ran counter to his religious or social milieu is a theological idea. It has nothing to do with history. There is no evidence to justify it. There is an incredible arrogance in the scholarly world. They believe they have the right to make up their own evidence to support their theological ideas about Jesus. By no stretch of the imagination can this be called historical research.

The historical, Jewish Jesus is easily recoverable. All you have to do is pay attention to the evidence in the Gospels. It all comports with the context of the Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism that was his natural home. Future generations will consider it a scandal that scholars expended so much energy to block any attempts to conduct rational historical inquiry into Jesus' historical context. It is one of the great tragedies that an academic field violated every rule of science to promote a conintuing old theology that is still very hateful towards ancient Jewish culture — and no one objected. How is this still tolerated?

Leon Zitzer

J. K. Gayle said...

"Fat Jew" says:

"All the gospels are utter failures in depicting Jesus and his Judaism."

Possibly, it's Christian translations of the gospels that account for many of the failures you rightly see. Have you looked at Willis Barnstone's (Jewish, not Christian) work? See, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice and The New Covenant

Marmalade said...

I think the whole search for a historical Jesus is problematic. Carrier points out in his blog that New Testament scholars don't adhere to the same standards as historians in other fields. NT scholars want to find certainty where none can be found.

Mythicism is a whole other subject. Ideally, it should be considered separately from the historical debate. Mythicism can't disprove a historical Jesus nor would proof of a historical Jesus disprove mythicism. They're simply two different issues. Still, the increase of evidence for mythicism does bring strong doubt to historicist arguments.

In order to understand mythicism one has to look beyond New Testament studies. Relevant areas would include fields such as comparative mythology especially in terms of ethnographic studies such as folkloristics and ethnoastronomy.

Also, it would be helpful for both mythicists and historicists to consider further methodologies of determining knowledge and coming to consensus. Both Carrier and Price have discussed this.