Jesus, The Mirror

I often try to notice the way people view Jesus: who he was and what he stood for.

My observation is that Jesus is a kind of reverse fun-house mirror. When we look at him we see ourselves, but a slightly better version of ourselves. Maybe ourselves as we’d like to be, or as we aspire to be.

I’ve heard conservative evangelicals describe (with ample citations) how Jesus was an economic and social conservative, whose agenda was to bring a radical moral code to a world that had slipped into liberal degradation. I’ve heard those with sympathies for liberation theology describe (with many citations) how Jesus’s message was a powerful challenge for social justice, focussing on the poor, the vulnerable and the despised. I’ve heard those who long to be taken out of the world evoke a Jesus (again, with lots of citations) who teaches political detachment, eagerness for the life to come and a neglect for earthly duties. I’ve seen people sport pictures of Jesus as Che, soldiers wearing “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets, and unmarried women with wedding rings from their Holy bridegroom.

And I’ve been amused for the last couple of weeks as Jim McGrath walked into a flamewar on the subject of Mythicism (the idea that there was no historical Jesus), and it occurs to me that when some atheists look at Jesus they conveniently see nothing there*.

I suspect this happens whenever you have a set of texts as rich, complex and theologically diverse as the new testament. No matter what you want Jesus to be, you can read along and the things that resonate will stand out, and the things that stand out will be what you remember. We pay more attention to views that support ours, and so, by a natural process, Jesus becomes more like us.

I think there was a historical Jesus, around who’s core reality was built the various tales, doctrines and theologies we see today. I think we can have some confidence that certain things he is reported to say, he did. I think some of those are odious, some deeply profound and moving. I think he died a failure, was not resurrected and spawned a most fantastically interesting cultural and sociological phenomena.

I have very good reason to believe each of these things. I can provide numerous citations…

* Okay, so the mirror metaphor breaks down here – but you see the point. Jesus is whatever you want him to be.

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36 Comments

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36 responses to “Jesus, The Mirror

  1. Always think that the ways that Jesus’ disciples died speaks to what they witnessed – especially the resurrection.

    Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethopia, killed by a sword wound.

    Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead.

    Luke was hanged in Greece as a result of his tremendous preaching to the lost.

    John was boiled in a huge basin of boiling oil during a wave of persecution in Rome. However, he was miraculously delivered from death. John was then sentenced to the mines on the prison island of Patmos where he wrote his prophetic Book of Revelation. The Apostle John was later freed and returned to serve as a bishop in modern Turkey. He died an old man, the only Apostle to die peacefully.

    Peter,was crucified upside down on an x-shaped cross, according to Church tradition, because he told his tormentors that he felt unworthy to die the same way that Jesus Christ had died.

    James the Just, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and brother of Jesus, was thrown down more than a hundred feet from the southeast pinnacle of the Temple when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. When they discovered that he survived the fall, his enemies beat James to death with a fuller’s club. This was the same pinnacle where Satan had taken Jesus during the Temptation.

    James the Greater, a son of Zebedee, was a fisherman by trade when Jesus called him to a lifetime of ministry. As a strong leader of the Church, James was ultimately beheaded at Jerusalem. The Roman soldier who guarded James watched amazed as James defended his faith at his trial. Later, the officer walked beside James to the place of execution. Overcome by conviction, he declared his new faith to the judge and knelt beside James to accept beheading as a Christian.

    Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael, was a missionary to Asia. He witnessed about our Lord in present day Turkey. He was whipped to death for his preaching in Armenia.

    Thomas was speared and died on one of his missionary trips to establish the Church in India.

    Jude, another brother of Jesus, was killed with arrows after refusing to deny his faith in Christ.

    Matthias, the Apostle chosen to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot, was stoned and beheaded.

    Barnabas, one of the group of seventy disciples, was stoned to death at Salonica.

    Paul was tortured and then beheaded by the evil Emperor Nero at Rome in A.D. 67. Paul endured a lengthy imprisonment which allowed him to write his many epistles to the Churches he had formed throughout the Roman Empire. These letters, which taught many of the foundational doctrines of Christianity, from a large portion of the New Testament.

  2. @ Bob
    Not sure what you are trying to imply. But to supplement your teaching, may a list of Mormon martyrs, Muslim martyrs and German martyrs would help. People will die for lots of things.
    [not to mention, I curious of the veracity of the martyr stories — not that it changes my point]

    @ Ian
    I love the fun house mirror image! And very nice how you tied it the the mythisist’s flurry ! It made me think I should have expanded my Tofu analogy (don’t know if you have read it). So I guess a new post should read: “Jesus, The Tofu”

  3. Ian

    @Bob – Yes, those are fascinating tales of martyrdom. The legends themselves don’t hold much water (they are later traditions, sometimes many centuries later, and only some with any possible grains of truth – we actually have no direct evidence on anything from the original disciples of Jesus). Regardless of the specifics, it seems clear that the church underwent a whole raft of local persecutions under Nero and Domitian, and a steady stream of early Christian evangelists and notable bishops was martyred for the next 300 years.

    The Romans had some pretty awful ways of killing people. And, as Sabio alluded to, it wasn’t limited to Christians, all sorts of religious and cultural unsavories got the same treatment.

    But I’m not entirely sure what you are trying to say. What kind of person do you think Jesus was? And is your opinion of him radically different from the kind of person you’d like to be?

    @sabio – I’d missed the Tofu post, sorry. Very similar idea though. A friend of mine just came back from a month in India, completely into doing the I Ching. In a kindof knowing, cultural, isn’t this cute kind of way.

  4. @ Ian
    “India” is a rather odd place to have learned the I Ching unless he spent his days with foreigners who brought their New Age I Ching with them. Smile.

  5. Ian

    Yes, I think you hit it. Verrrry New Agey.

    Though I’m not sure it has to be foreigners! There are plenty of Indian ‘gurus’ who can smell US Dollars a mile off 😀

  6. Boz

    nice post, Ian.

    I find some atheists to be biased in this area – they (rightly) defer to the professional consensus in the fields of history, physics, biology, etc etc. But on this particular historic question, they inappropriately abandon this principle.

    Personally, I accept that consensus that there was a historical jesus, who was an apocalyptic preacher, who died by crucifixion under pilate.

    On what basis do you claim “I think we can have some confidence that certain things he is reported to say, he did”? And how much confidence do you have? Do you follow this principle for similar historical figures? can you give examples?

  7. Boz

    Bob, what do we do when there are martyrs for groups with opposing truth-claims?

    Who ever has the most martyrs wins?

  8. Leon

    Ian, I gather from your post that you’re a complex and layered person with a faulty memory and without a great deal of self-knowledge. You have some extremely odious personal traits, but also occasional moments of great profundity. Also, you will die a failure. 😉

  9. Ian

    @Leon – love it, genuine laugh out loud moment.

    @Boz – I am reasonably convinced by the kinds of methodology used in historical Jesus research. The criteria for authenticity seem reasonable to me, and the findings they come to appear to be relatively consistent. There are large error bars involved, however.

    So, by way of illustration, here are two comments that seem reasonably likely to be Jesus, by the criteria of historical Jesus research:

    “The Kingdom is like a certain woman. She took a little leaven, concealed it in some dough, and made it into large loaves.”

    and

    “Whoever does not hate his father and mother cannot become a disciple to me. And whoever does not hate his brothers and sisters cannot become a disciple to me.”

    The first I find inspiring (and causes me to think of Gandhi, in particular) and the second odious.

    So my level of confidence is reasonable, given the scarcity of information and evidence. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see evidence that they weren’t Jesus sayings, for example, but such evidence would be very exciting and novel.

    And I think we can definitely follow the same pattern for other historical figures. In fact in early church history (and I assume all history) we often do the same for others who are only ever quoted in secondary sources.

  10. Thanks for the push back guys.

    @Sabio – Are you saying that people who personally knew Mohammed or Joseph Smith died rather than renounce what Mohammed or Smith did? My point is that the disciples knew Jesus, saw the things He did and witnessed His resurrection. The same people who ran when Jesus was crucified became different people after Jesus’ resurrection.

    @Ian – Interesting questions. My first thought is that Jesus was Compassion Incarnate.. and yes I would like to be a person of compassion.

  11. Boz

    thanks for the response, ian

  12. Good post Ian, looks like you have accomplished a more diverse readership ! Congratulations.

  13. “when we look at the carpenter from Nazareth, how do we know that we are seeing something more than the reflection of our own hopes and fears.” -Ludwig Feuerbach

    I have this taped to my monitor. it is there anytime i blog, anytime i write a paper or sermon. in Christology we recently watched the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and i remembered the line “Aslan is not a tame lion.” that is said throughout the series. all this to say that simplistic understandings of Christ leave much to be desired, even if i agree with them! like Jesus the radical social justice guy, who threw ppl out of the temple, was a jerk to the religious authorities of the day, and was radically inclusive of the outcast of his society. yet there’s still Jesus the rockstar who couldn’t get time to himself (as seen in Mark). Jesus the contemplative out in the desert for 40 days and nights. Jesus the human who is corrected by the syro-phonecian woman and who withers the fig tree. and Jesus the healer. oh, and Jesus the sacrificial lamb.

    lots of images, lots of Jesi. each of the four gospels present a variety of images and metaphors for understanding Christ, many are contradictory to one another. Then there’s Paul, James, Hebrews, and Peter, all of which claim a different Christ, it seems. personally, i know that i often fall under the judgment of Christ, not the affirmation and thus i must get off my duff and do something. or sometimes, i know that i’m so radically loved that i can rest easy and greet others with that same radical willingness to listen. so Jesus as a fun-house mirror, maybe sometimes. i can locate myself in the story… but it’s not always in the best place to be.

  14. Ian

    @Luke – Brilliant response, thanks! You’re clearly more adept at holding loosely to these things that most (myself definitely included).

  15. @ Luke
    But compared to Yahweh, Jesus was very tame in the NT. Jesus it the god of most Christians. Most have no idea about Yahweh.

    If Lewis meant “God is not tame” — he is right. He is horrible in the OT in many places.
    So, Luke, do you find yourself tempted to fall into the Marcionian heresy occasionally?

  16. Ian: thanks! i definitely have an opinion on which images i prefer, but it’s a humble one.

    Sabio: I don’t find myself tempted to fall into the Marcionian Heresy in the least. i do find myself struggling to fight supersessionism. the classic view of atonement and the Gospel of John are not kind to Judaism to put it mildly. how can i as a Christian seek to affirm another faith, even one that Christianity came out of? i ask myself that every day. historical criticism helps, since most of the horrible YHWH moments like in Joshua, never historically happened. that was a book written in the babylonian exile to show how awesome Israel once was and how hard it fell (in a nutshell, of course, the longer argument would fill up books! like Frank Frick’s Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures for one..).

    plus there’s every “believer’s” struggle on how to deal with nonbelievers like yourself. and Ian for that matter. i mean, why bother with you awful hellbound heathens who heard and rejected the TRUTH? well, cause 1. you’re my neighbor and as a Christian i am called to love and serve you. 2. you help me find flaws and unChristlike thinking in my own belief system. 3. we have wonderful discussions like this.

    which brings me to another reason why I accept a lot of views on Christ but not the Marcionian view. while i find the substitutionary atonement model really hard to deal with and chocked full of plot-holes, i can accept it more readily than Marconian as he exaggrates the Pauline conceptions of the law and rejects it in toto. now i don’t like dualism which the patristic faith is filled with but it is dualistic, not purely dualism like Marcon sets up with his good God (Jesus) and bad god YHWH. Jesus frequently mentions the “Great I Am” in the synoptics and even calls God “Papa.” Marcon doesn’t like this and feels free to throw it out so he’s totally free to hate the jews and unbelievers. i can’t go down that route, even if the later proponents of Orthodoxy did as well and fell into the same trap Marcon did.

    clear as mud?

  17. Ian

    So I was thinking about you this morning Luke, and it occurred to me you’re quite a multifaceted person – spiritual, rational, scientific, mystical, radical, conventional.

    And then, at the risk of a *really* cheap shot: that’s pretty much your view of Jesus, isn’t it 😉

    Seriously, thinking about this post some more, it is a little too easy to fit anything into this hypothesis, I guess.

  18. @ Luke:
    Ah, then maybe I would call you a Neo-Marcionite ! smile

  19. Ian: that sounds pretty much accurate about me and about my view of Jesus; an amalgamation of opposites.

    Sabio: ummm…. okay? 😉

  20. Gingerbaker

    “…it occurs to me that when some atheists look at Jesus they conveniently see nothing there*.”

    I am one of those atheists. I don’t see anything there. Nor do I see Allah, Buddha, Zeus… etc 10,000 times. Generally, this whole god business is a zero sum game. Christians, Jews and Muslims can’t all be right – so which one of you are wrong?

    We atheists are skeptics. We want good evidence before we believe in things, and we want extraordinary evidence on order to believe that outrageous claims are vaild.

    As far as not seeing a historical core to JC – exactly what is there to see? We have a mythology which claims he resurrected the dead, was followed by thousands to hear him orate, fed thousands of people with a loaf of bread, and that of the time of his resurrection, hundreds of corpses reanimated and walked around town for at least one day.

    Yet, not a single mention of this “man” by any contemporary historian which survives scrutiny, unless one counts contemporary Roman missives which decry the foolishness of the baseless cult. Even the early Canon materials don’t seem to support a flesh-and-blood human. Not a single relic of the historic JC has been found. There is no history of his childhood to be found anywhere, there is no record of anyone preserving his possessions, enshrining places he visited. There is no record of his family being honored – in fact they disappear completely from the record, as if they were mere inventions to flesh out a history. There is no record or relic anywhere to indicate that this was a human being until a hundred years after he supposedly died.

    And what record there is in the Gospels is incoherent. Was he a carpenter, or was it his father? Who are is brothers, sisters? Where did he even live – there are seven (?) possibilities.

    Much of the Canon reads as pretty obvious fiction, is rife with incoherences, multiple contradictory events, obvious redactions and insertions. We know the Church eradicated competing materials. There is very little to trust here.

    Even the myth is incoherent – this is somehow contrived to be a godhead of infinite love and forgiveness, yet he allows children to suffer horrible deaths, coerces obeisance and for some reason demands full-throated devotion on pain of everlasting agony in pits of fire, yet never shows himself.

    Just like the ten thousand gods – many of whom share multiple mythical story lines as JC – havre always done. They never actually appear plainly and openly to humanity.

    When Zeus or Jesus or Yahweh or Isis comes down , and hangs out at City Hall for three days a week, and actually does something tangible for the human race and our planet, I will be the first on my knees genuflecting. Until then: There. Is. Nothing. I. Can. See. Sorry.

    And there is nothing particularly compelling about ‘his’ philosophy, much of which is taken from previous scripture and none of which offers something truly novel from secular ethical systems of either ancient or modern derivation.

    Sorry to rain on everyone’s parade, but I wanted to give my honest opinion. I predict you may well see a lot more about the Mythicist viewpoint being discussed in future.

  21. Ian

    @gingerbaker

    Thanks so much for stopping by and composing that long comment.

    I haven’t decided whether I’ll tackle mythicism in a post or not. I’m not going to respond to your specific points here. But I will tell you why not. 🙂

    I have a lot of sympathy for the mythicist point of view. Really. But my reluctance to engage on it is methodological.

    So far the mythicist thesis has been woefully under-argued in scholarly discussion. It has a vibrant life on the web and in the occasional polemical book. But then so does every other conspiracy theory and marginal viewpoint.

    I can imagine the mythicist viewpoint gaining a lot of web traction, as you suggest. It is an appealing position, particularly for atheists. But until there are a cadre of good new testament scholars who can really unpack the idea, get beyond the “no evidence for Jesus” bombast, and deal directly with the texts and their sitz, the idea will be just as peripheral and ideological.

    It doesn’t matter, you see, whether a million non-specialist ideologues light up the internet and the blogs with rhetoric. Unless real engagement is made with the scholarly status quo nothing will be moved. Unfortunately, academic hegemonies don’t get broken down by blogs and polemical websites, no matter how forcefully they articulate their message. And the historical critical consensus on Jesus that has been forged over the last 200 years is most definitely a hegemony!

    Even if the core of the mythicist position is true, the claims of the average lay-supporter of mythicism are riddled with inconsistencies, missing evidence, misunderstandings and naiveté. How could that be otherwise? Its no different than trying to take on the status quo in operating system design if you can only program a bit of visual basic. Unfortunately if you can only program in visual basic, its hard to tell the difference between a guru and a crackpot.

    I agree with Jim McGrath in that there are similarities otherwise between creationist debates and mythicist debates. I strongly disagree that the mythicist position is absurd (as the creationist position clearly is). But debates with ‘true believers’ are difficult because there is *so* much groundwork to go over, and so much background knowledge lacking. Very few lay-people have actually read the texts, most don’t have appropriate linguistic skills, almost none are aware of other contemporary writings and or have no experience doing ancient history. And worse, most have been fed a bunch of talking points from the usual websites which allow them to *think* they do have all the relevant information on those topics.

    But in my experience, trying to point that out, trying to *help* someone really educate themselves on the context of what they are saying, fails. It comes over as disagreement and is seen as attack. Or else you get the patronizing kind of response “come on then, tell me this so-called background knowledge,” as if you can communicate the interconnections and depth in a complex area of study in a few sentences or blog posts. Or else you get a kind of arrogant backlash “I don’t need to do a PhD in this to know its crap.” There’s simply no possible way to make progress then.

    I’ve tried, on numerous occasions, to debate creationists, and it is very difficult to help them with the basic biological knowledge they lack. Because they really aren’t willing to switch off their focus on that single central dogma to learn and immerse themselves in the field. It takes a massive detachment to approach the field on its own terms, leaving what you *thought* you knew behind. And biology is taught in high school, the average person has at least been exposed to several *years* of science education.

    On the one occasion I’ve talked at length to a mythicist I’ve had exactly the same experience, and it has made we wary of even trying to get to the bottom of the issues. I would, if whoever I was talking to was passionate about the NT and early Christian history – passionate enough to find out stuff and to go to primary evidence rather than the theological equivalent of the discovery institute.

    Maybe you’re different, maybe you hold your beliefs lightly enough to be humble about what you don’t know. Maybe you’re actually interested in the subject, aside from just being right about it. I don’t know. Stick around. We might get into some of this kind of territory. I’d like to post on the mythicist debate, but I’m genuinely worried that anything I post will be simply useless and do nothing other than attract waves of dogmatic mythicists with no desire for real dialectic.

  22. @Ian – Enjoyed that response to Ginger. Just a curious inquiry – do you hold to a Prime Mover idea of the origins of the universe? If not where do you think the universe comes from? Okay if you say it is unknowable or if the question is off-topic.

  23. @ Ian
    This is an example where your layout of how to approach knowledge is far more valuable than any particular knowledge you could declare.
    Method is everything !
    Thanx, well done. (loved the code analogy)

  24. Ian

    @Bob,

    Yes and no. My intuition and passing knowledge of physics suggests to me that there was some cause of the universe. But even if that were the case I find no reason to believe that it was some agent, some will, desire, creativity, or intelligence.

    But the problem is that I think intuition is probably a poor tool in this case. We know from models of physics that in the earliest moments of the universe the physical patterns we’ve based our intuitions on would not hold. I posted a while back on the form of the cosmological argument (the argument usually given for a first-cause):

    http://irrco.org/2010/01/the-form-of-the-cosmological-argument/

    The argument is sound, watertight even, but the assumptions are most definitely not clear to me.

  25. Gingerbaker

    Ian

    Wow. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. 🙂

    “It doesn’t matter, you see, whether a million non-specialist ideologues light up the internet and the blogs with rhetoric. Unless real engagement is made with the scholarly status quo nothing will be moved. Unfortunately, academic hegemonies don’t get broken down by blogs and polemical websites, no matter how forcefully they articulate their message. And the historical critical consensus on Jesus that has been forged over the last 200 years is most definitely a hegemony!”

    Well, this is very true. One needs only to look at the Jesus Project to see that the vested interests have no incentive whatsoever to rock the boat. To their detriment, I should think, because, at its heart, what the Mythicist case is doing is examining first premises, which is always a healthy idea, intellectually. And from what I can gather, precious little of this has ever been done.

    Because of this understandable reluctance of the entrenched, I must disagree with your position that the subject is not worth your investigations until, for some reason, academic scholars will pick up on it. Most will not.

    But Richard Carrier and Robert Price are starting to make the case, and Earl Doherty, while not credentialed, has put forward a very cogent case, as well-documented and argued as much of what emerges from behind ivied walls. His latest and most comprehensive book is out – have you read it? ( I have not done so yet)

    “Maybe you’re different, maybe you hold your beliefs lightly enough to be humble about what you don’t know. Maybe you’re actually interested in the subject, aside from just being right about it. I don’t know. Stick around.”

    I am certainly humble about what I don’t know – which is just about everything about the field. I have a science background, and would love to be as objective as possible. It is very difficult to know where to begin – the area is enormous and it seems to me that one can not really understand the subtleties without learning the original languages. Alas, I am likely too old and worn out to complete such an endeavor. While I find the whole topic fascinating, I must admit that I come to it from a militant atheist perspective – I would love to know if there is NOT an historical JC to be found because I DO have an animosity to organized religions. However, I am not willing to discard my scientific integrity by jumping to conclusions.

    The only thing I have expressed vehemence about on the intertubes regarding this subject is that based on what I know about evidence and the scientific method, the historical JC is a failed hypothesis- there is not enough evidence outside of the scriptures (which propose him) to justify his existence as the proper default position. It must be, IMO, regarded as unknown. Which, of course, makes an investigation into the MJ proposition that much more justified. The upside is that the MJ is an interesting journey.

    Also, I would encourage you to avoid the creationist analogy. It is far more needlessly derogatory than polemically useful it seems to me, and besides, there is enough dogma on each side of the argument to justify the creationist label! McGrath has not exactly enhanced his reputation by his brandishing of that analogy.

    Finally, I wonder if you might offer me your opinion of the best basic primer on the whole field. Something that would go through the various original source materials, major players and their works and philosophies, terminologies of the scriptures, timelines etc. A good wide view is actually hard to find on the net! Thanks.

    Best regards,

    GB

  26. Ian

    One needs only to look at the Jesus Project to see that the vested interests have no incentive whatsoever to rock the boat.

    I know a couple of the people who resigned from the project and helped precipitate its stalling. I don’t think its fair to characterise their objections as vested interests.

    what the Mythicist case is doing is examining first premises, which is always a healthy idea, intellectually. And from what I can gather, precious little of this has ever been done.

    Again, I’m not sure that’s fair at all. Most historical Jesus research does that. I think you may be misunderstanding what historical Jesus research is about.

    The first premise in all of this is the text. How did the text come about? Beyond that is nothing. On the scholarly side, it isn’t an ontological debate.

    But Richard Carrier and Robert Price are starting to make the case

    Yes, but unfortunately as far as scholarly argument goes, both are disappointingly weak. That’s what I was alluding to in my previous post.

    I must disagree with your position that the subject is not worth your investigations until, for some reason, academic scholars will pick up on it.

    The problem is that the MJ thesis is shallow. There isn’t anything to investigate, because (in the way it is currently put forward) it is only defined by its opposition. The ‘investigate’ normally means (when addressed to practising Christians, for example) – did you know your beliefs are based on a pile of sand. But HJ research knows that. We don’t need to ‘investigate’ how similar the myth of Horus is to the myth of Christ. It is bread and butter stuff.

    I could imagine an MJ position that was different. But the lack of a historical Jesus figure wouldn’t be its focus. It would focus on a new understanding of the process of myth-construction that explains the Jesus phenomena, plus unifies other threads of evidence from the time and region that have been previous puzzling. It would take our understanding of mythicism further. It would explain new stuff. It would be a better hypothesis.

    At the moment the only operational function of mythicism is to be anti-historical Jesus. That’s not how any scholarly discipline works.

    to justify his existence as the proper default position

    I think this is important, and is a common misunderstanding among people coming at the field from a scientific background (I should add here that I also trained in science – bioinformatics). Here’s how I see the epistemic differences:

    Study of ancient religion is inherently more credulous than science. Debates are settled by the balance of evidence, rather than conclusivity. Research is constantly pushing at the wall where signal is indistinguishable from noise.

    That credulity makes us much more likely to raise false-positives. But it also means we are less likely to miss false-negatives. And since our knowledge of this period is so hard to come by, we set the balance there.

    As long as everyone plays by the same rules and understands the game, that is fine. Because there are really no great human consequences for false-positives. Its fine to treat things as provisionally true, to work with them to see if that understanding unlocks more.

    In a scientific field that’s not true. If you’re going to build a drug based on a discovery, you better be pretty damn sure you haven’t got a false-positive. You’ll take the false-negatives to ensure that.

    The evidential threshold for what constitutes ‘knowledge’ within the two academic communities is different. And after 20 years with a foot in both camps, I don’t even think about that any more, I just switch naturally.

    there is not enough evidence outside of the scriptures (which propose him)

    The ‘scriptures’ (which is a value laden term, of course) is a collection of some ancient texts that were grouped together later. When you talk about HJ research there’s no use thinking in terms of the new testament as ‘scripture’ because that is a later invention. At this point in time ‘scripture’ means only the Hebrew bible (and even then not quite the same as we have now). You can talk about the range of early Christian texts though. In HJ research it is wise to get out of the habit of thinking canonically. No reasonable HJ scholar will privilege the NT texts, except for good historiographical reasons (such as the fact that, because they later were adopted as ‘sacred’ we have many more copies of them, so we can do better textual criticism on them).

    As for the second part of your statement, about ‘evidence’. The texts that form our NT are very important pieces of evidence. They are crucial, in fact, though not the whole story. It would be distinctly anti-historiographical to reject the texts because of the theological value they came to have. They are good evidence, the question is just, evidence for what?

    Also, I would encourage you to avoid the creationist analogy. It is far more needlessly derogatory than polemically

    Yes. This is true. Sorry if it came across derogatory. I would stress I think the intellectual merits of the two are night and day. Its just the method of popular promotion and anti-scholastic bent is very similar in my experience.

    Finally, I wonder if you might offer me your opinion of the best basic primer on the whole field.

    I always say that I’m pretty crap at recommending books to start out, because I don’t keep up to date with them or review them.

    Having said that, the NT course at Yale on-line is pretty good. Bear in mind that (as everywhere) most people who are motivated to take a course on the NT do so because of their faith in Christianity. A lot of what you do when you teach Christian origins is to try to work from that position; effectively dismantling it, but doing so in a way that doesn’t mean you come across antagonistic to your listeners because then they close down and won’t engage. So if you listen to the Yale course, he’ll start out from there. But his content is a good overview of the NT with methodological forays into related fields.

    I’ve heard good things said about some of Ehrman’s books. Given that he’s trying to introduce the historical critical method to a general readership.

    The best book on the mechanics of HJ research is Crossan’s Historical Jesus. Not really introductory, but pretty good. Its the last in a series of historical Jesus ‘reconstructions’ going back to Schweitzer in 1900. But be aware that HJ research has moved away from such reconstructions in the last 20 years, as it has engaged more with the limits of what we can know.

    For a really good detailed analysis of how HJ research models and understands myth-building, Ray Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah” is an excellent (but long) analysis of the sources of the two infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Neither Crossan or Brown assume linguistic ability.

  27. Thanks for the link Ian. Enjoyed the read. Guess I like the idea of the origin of the universe being a mystery. So much of life is like that. Maybe it is why I embrace a mysterious Intelligence in the universe?

  28. Gingerbaker

    “Again, I’m not sure that’s fair at all. Most historical Jesus research does that. I think you may be misunderstanding what historical Jesus research is about.

    The first premise in all of this is the text. How did the text come about? Beyond that is nothing. On the scholarly side, it isn’t an ontological debate.”

    Are you saying that most historical Jesus research does not assume a historical Jesus? From what I have read, this is not the case. Rather, as I understand it, mainstream research tries to build a picture of the man and the myth based on the available materials, but it assumes that there was a flesh and blood person hidden beneath the miracles and myths, and uses that premise to try to tease conclusions from the texts. But that is a very different proposition from the Mythicist viewpoint that the actual historicity needs to be verified as a first premise.

    Again, this is what I read – how in the world would I know what the actual field is like? 😀 However, it seems to me that if most historical research does actually NOT assume the historicity of the man, then we would see the nonhistoricity of JC as an active topic of research. Do we see this?

    “The problem is that the MJ thesis is shallow. There isn’t anything to investigate, because (in the way it is currently put forward) it is only defined by its opposition. The ‘investigate’ normally means (when addressed to practising Christians, for example) – did you know your beliefs are based on a pile of sand. But HJ research knows that. We don’t need to ‘investigate’ how similar the myth of Horus is to the myth of Christ. It is bread and butter stuff.

    I could imagine an MJ position that was different. But the lack of a historical Jesus figure wouldn’t be its focus. It would focus on a new understanding of the process of myth-construction that explains the Jesus phenomena, plus unifies other threads of evidence from the time and region that have been previous puzzling. It would take our understanding of mythicism further. It would explain new stuff. It would be a better hypothesis.”

    But this is exactly what Doherty does with his research. It appears to be very interesting in that respect. It really looks like you have not read his (new) work?

    “As long as everyone plays by the same rules and understands the game, that is fine. Because there are really no great human consequences for false-positives. Its fine to treat things as provisionally true, to work with them to see if that understanding unlocks more.”

    I agree this would would be pragmatic, but I think you are undermining your case for the track record of modern historical Jesus research as not assuming a historical Jesus here. It seems to me that everyone has blithely treated the HJ as provisionally true (otherwise where to start?) , but forgotten to get back around to questioning why it was properly provisional in the first place! 😀 Think of it as doing an experiment without a control. If one is not also looking at the texts through the lens of a non HJ’er, what has been missed?

    “As for the second part of your statement, about ‘evidence’. The texts that form our NT are very important pieces of evidence. They are crucial, in fact, though not the whole story. It would be distinctly anti-historiographical to reject the texts because of the theological value they came to have. They are good evidence, the question is just, evidence for what?’

    Certainly they are a valuable resource, and Doherty’s work primarily relies on them as evidence for his case, BTW. But their evidential value to inform us about this question of the historical core of Jesus is problematic, for we know that the NT is a redacted work, yes? And surely everyone would agree that much of it is fiction. The question is just how much of it is fiction, and what is trustworthy. One can not use a Harry Potter first-draft to argue for the historicity of Harry Potter in the finished manuscript with much success.

    And it is at this point, of course, that we would like to have confirmation from external sources for the HJ. But, we find little joy here, yes? And this is why the use of the creationist analogy is illustrated to be rather ….uncharitable.

    For the creationists are trying to deny that an enormous amount of objective scientific evidence is not valid. But the Mythicist, on the other hand, is not facing a mountain of contrary objective evidence – there is a decided lack of independent outside evidence giving validity to the flesh and bone.

    “The ‘scriptures’ (which is a value laden term, of course) is a collection of some ancient texts that were grouped together later. When you talk about HJ research there’s no use thinking in terms of the new testament as ‘scripture’ because that is a later invention.”

    Arrgghh! This is why it so frustrating to be ignorant – I simply do not have a clue to the proper terminology to say nothing of the material itself. Thank you for the instruction, and also for the primer recommendations. 🙂

    Best regards,

    GB

  29. Ian

    Are you saying that most historical Jesus research does not assume a historical Jesus?

    What’s the aim of biblical scholarship? It is to understand the texts. The basic role of the scholar, then, is to look at how and why that text came to be written in the form we see it.

    The conventional approach to NT scholarship was, for centuries, theological. It came to be written that way because God wanted it to be. There was an increasing degree of sophistication in that, but basically that was the viewpoint. It sucks. Its a plain old bad way to do historical work.

    The historical critical method rejects that and says that the text cannot be treated as theologically special. And part of that means treating the texts in the NT as just normal, separate texts alongside the hundreds of others we have from the early Jesus movement.

    So how do we understand it? Well we can tease apart the strata of the text and the viewpoints it puts forward. Methodologically we do that by positing ‘sources’, or ‘communities’, by positing the existence of sets of people who authored, collected, rewrote, embellished or inspired prior traditions or texts to fit their needs.

    We then try to move back and do the same with their sources, and so on. Though there are a lot of difficulties in going back more than one step, obviously.

    Historical Jesus research is about analysing a subset of those sources. Sources that describe a semitic preacher, who was killed in a very normal, run of the mill, political execution. We call that bloke Jesus (although actually several scholars tend not to, because it is too easy to link it with the stuff that was added in the mind of the hearer) we could call him J, or Yeshua, to distinguish him from the Jesus of traditional Christian theology. It seems likely he had a name cognate with Yeshua, since no sources disagree with that naming.

    The question of whether or not that bloke actually existed, at that point, is a bit bizarre. It isn’t actually an argument about ontology at all, just about the size of the source. For example, one might say that the apocalyptic preaching doesn’t belong in that source (as some have argued). Therefore there may have been two ‘Jesuses’. Or a ‘Jesus’ and an apocalyptic editor.

    The consensus is that the ‘Jesus’ source is pretty extensive, and consists of both sayings and actions. There are few good reasons to split it further. If you read Crossan he tries to collect the sayings from that source. That’s not to say it couldn’t be split further, just that there doesn’t seem to be a great reason to.

    But to argue that nothing in that source is based on any real person? That seems like special pleading, and certainly is beyond the standards of historical evidence used anywhere else.

    So the debate has to be about the text. What came from where, what was invented by whom and why. Is this saying part of the ‘Jesus’ source, is that one? What other traditions were bundled with those sayings from the outset?

    And that is absolutely bread and butter. That’s what I mean by historical Jesus research not presupposing the existence of Jesus. I.e. it might assume that the origin of the ‘Jesus’ source existed, but it doesn’t make any presuppositions about who he was, what he said or did, how many of him existed, and so on.

    confirmation from external sources for the HJ

    What would constitute an external source? Everything is just another text. 🙂

    Again I think you’re thinking of the new testament as one thing. It really isn’t. It isn’t consistent, doesn’t have the same purpose, tells different stories. Add to that early Christian writings and we have a good body of diverse opinion. The NT needs to be treated as a library rather than a book.

    So we can play one part off against another to check up on the authors. We can get some way to working out what are common threads, what prior resources were being drawn on, when certain ideas came into being, and so on.

    And when we do that we get a picture of a relatively believable semitic preacher. Who, for the sake of convention we call Jesus. What we also get is a picture of a person who is absolutely not notable enough to be remarked on by outside observers, at least until his cult starts to grow.

    There is no doubt in historical critical scholarship that this bloke isn’t the Jesus Christ of Sunday School. In that sense the whole field are Mythers.

    But so far there has been nobody who’s wanted to make a scholarly argument for why that source is intrinsically unreliable. More unreliable than the tens of thousands of other such sources we use in reconstructions of ancient history. And this, unfortunately, is why many scholars were concerned with the Jesus Project. Because its aim seemed to be to single out this source for special treatment and subject it to questions that it absolutely couldn’t answer. And the reason for that special treatment seemed ideological, not historiographical.

    But this is where my sympathies with MJ-ers lies. Because I think what they are *really* saying I agree with. That is – “Jesus Christ” never existed. But that really isn’t news, at least not to me.

  30. Boz

    Ian and Ginger, thanks for the great discussion, especially the state of study of the situation (MJ bloggers vs professional scholars), and the level of credulity required. History being more credulous than medicine, for example.

    Would it be fair to say that “If you place your level of evidence required to accept that a person existed at such a high level that jesus does not exist, almost no-one from ancient history exists”?

    or, put another way, “the evidence for the existence of a historical jesus is stronger than that of almost every figure from ancient history”

  31. Ian

    Thanks Boz.

    “the evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus is stronger than that of almost every figure from ancient history”

    I would say that isn’t true, no. The fact is that we don’t have any primary source evidence for a historical Jesus, in the way we do for, say Julius Caesar, or Origen, or even Paul. We have far more sources and texts *about* Jesus, than any of those three. But they are (at least) secondary sources, we believe. Probably because the Jesus movement was far more significant than Jesus himself.

    But if we had to discount all early Christian writings out of hand, certainly it would decimate what we think we do know about those other people. Large swathes of the information we have about Julius, for example, come from single sources. Those data can’t be verified. So we’d have to discount them. The writer might have reasons unknown for making them up. So they go, even if they’re believable and self-consistent. We lose a lot of details about Julius’s military strategies, therefore, some of his political dealings, lots of the detail we have about Roman life under his rule, and so on.

    I’m not an expert on ancient history, by any means, other than to the extent that its method is shared with early church history. But there are certainly tens or hundreds of historical characters in early church history that are less well attested than Jesus. So we would lose a lot of them. They aren’t the big names, however.

    I think it would be fair to say that if you set your bar so high that Jesus doesn’t exist it really smashes up a lot of ancient history, because it changes the way you have to deal with sources. You can’t, for example, assume that somebody telling you something is likely to have some foundation that is broadly accurate, all other things being equal. And loosing that means that every text you study has to be verified independently. And that in turn means you’re never going to be able to work with 99% of the texts we have, which will never be independently verified.

    And it is those kinds of implications, imho, that a good MJ thesis would have to grapple with.

  32. I copied this from another site.. not original with me but thought it might add to the conversation:

    “Comparing Caesar to Christ when looking for historical documentation is a bit lopsided. Caesar was born into and came to dominate the most powerful culture in the West, and was probably taught to read and write in a culture that had things like libraries. Jesus Christ was a Galilean peasant carpenter, or an Essene or something. Maybe He could read, maybe not. Anyway, comparing a peasant to a de facto Emperor when looking for historical records is misleading. Especially when you consider that not many of the peasant’s followers could read either, and all of Caesar’s peers were educated.

    The strongest evidence for the existence of Jesus is that His early followers did not assimilate back into Judaism, but remained distinct and carried on His teachings. This despite persecution from Rome and the Jews. I think that you would balk at dying for your spaghetti monster, but if the early followers of Christ made him up they certainly had the stomach to suffer for their imaginary Messiah.”

  33. Ian

    Bob, thanks. The first paragraph of that quote I agree with 100%.

    The lack of direct primary source material of the historical Jesus scholars have pieced together isn’t surprising, no.

    The second always puzzles me somewhat. I don’t think that anyone would die for a view they cynically hold, no. But I think it would be relatively easy to die for an unfounded belief you hold sincerely. And I think sincere beliefs can be held in the absence of actual evidence. Absolutely. I think of Heaven’s Gate here. Why, when at least one of them knew full well they’d never received supernatural messages from aliens, would they kill themselves for no better reason that to hitch a ride on a made-up spaceship?

    And I’m not sure about the “they did not assimilate with Judaism … despite persecution from the Jews”. Why ‘despite’ here? Why not ‘because’?

    I think the second paragraph is trying to give reasons for the resurrection, rather than the historical Jesus. In historical critical scholarship you simply cannot posit a resurrection. By definition people don’t rise from the dead (that’s the definition of dead). So *any* other explanation must be more likely than resurrection, if you are not willing to privilege the text. This is, of course, why a significant number of Christian bible scholars do not accept the historical critical method. Because it starts with the assumption that there’s nothing special about the bible. If there were, if it really were the sacred communication of the creator of the universe to his creation… then historical critical scholarship is pretty much worthless.

    But generally, yes, I think the quote is pretty sound. The question of literacy among the disciples is an important one. There are several major passages that we can discount as being later sources, because they contain puns or jokes or nuances that could only have made sense to highly literate people and/or good (in the sense of linguistically sophisticated) greek speakers.

  34. Boz

    thanks for the reply, ian

  35. Pingback: break up with Jesus « a time to rend

  36. great conversation here. i really liked KB’s “Comparing Caesar to Christ” metaphor but like Ian, the metaphor doesn’t fit when compared to modern aged stuff. ppl are willing to die for the stupidest things. but to LIVE for something… well that’s a different story. to LIVE and to invite others into that living yet allow them to fit it to their own needs, views, and context… well, that just makes the whole ‘dying-for-my-beliefs’ thing seem like the better, easier choice.

    this has been great. i’m grateful for history nerds such as Ian and Gingerbaker. good insights and considerations y’all!

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