This is a continuation of my discussion with Graham Pemberton on whether Jesus was historical or fictitious and on how the debate between Jesus historicists and mythicists should be assessed. See here for Pemberton’s last response and see here for my article which sparked this exchange.
The Nature of Critical History
Pemberton seems to object generally to the scientific or critical (skeptical, empirical) approach to determining history. He calls it a delusion of “Modernism.” This is clearly a deeper issue than whether there was a historical Jesus. Often, debates boil down to underlying epistemological disagreements. In fact, I’m not an ideological defender of modernity but am critical of many aspects of it, from scientism to secular humanism to hypermodern skepticism (“postmodernity”).
Currently I’m working on a series of critiques of modern values, such as of the secular faith in our progressive potential and in reason, pleasure, power, and art. So I’m not a blinkered proponent of the Age of Reason, of the Enlightenment, or of any facet of modernity including capitalism, democracy, and so on. As Pemberton points out, we may agree on the need for something that resembles esoteric or perennial spirituality (which I’d reconstruct in existentialist and cosmicist terms).
But that’s not to say I’m entirely receptive to New Thought gibberish or to freewheeling conspiracy theories. I do defend “modernity” if that means appreciating the success of scientific methods of inquiry. I do think philosophy and religion should be naturalistic in the sense of being compatible with scientific models of how the world works. (For the record, I did a Ph.D. in philosophy at an analytic philosophy department.)
I reject scientism, however, or the view that science answers all meaningful questions including normative ones. Philosophy and artistic expression have roles to play in any meritorious worldview.
Returning, then, to the question of history, I do think the critical approach to the Bible has been enormously fruitful. Just compare the medieval state of people’s understanding of how Christianity originated to the modern one. It’s like night and day. Perhaps the most stunning success of the critical-historical approach was the solution to the problem of the synoptic gospels or even the realization that there is such a problem.
Again, the critical-historical approach to the New Testament isn’t remotely my doing. I was only reporting on some of its assumptions and findings. I do subscribe to that approach rather than to a faith-oriented, dogmatic one. What’s the alternative?
Pemberton says that if I’m committed to such an approach, “it’s hard to see how this doesn’t count as personal bias.” But this evinces confusion about the approach in question. To be in favour of scientific methods is precisely the opposite of having a personal bias, since those methods are designed to circumvent all personal biases for the purpose of uncovering the objective truth.
Now modern history is a soft science at best, which is why the consensus of New Testament scholars doesn’t carry the same weight as consensus in physics or climatology. Hard sciences have methods for obtaining physical evidence that speaks for itself. For example, these are the sciences that feature experiments that can decisively falsify hypotheses.
Archeology and textual evidence can likewise settle some questions of history in straightforward fashion, but in the case of ancient history, where evidence is scarce, many narrow questions may no longer be answerable with much certainty. We can be much more confident that the Romans ruled Judea in general during a certain period than we can about whether a particular Jew existed in that period, depending on the evidence.
Besides hard evidence, historians use hermeneutical criteria to filter the textual evidence and to avoid fallacies, but those criteria are often only the best historians can do to maintain the appearance of their discipline’s scientific respectability. The criteria themselves may be only rough heuristics rather than iron-clad principles that guarantee the preservation of historical truth in reasoning.
The criterion of embarrassment, for example, is liable to be misused when historians import modern standards of respectability to the ancient context. The main criterion that matters is multiple attestations or the corroboration of sources, because that criterion is objective.
In any case, these considerations led me to say indeed that any methodological mode of inquiry will dismiss certain hypotheses on principle. The methods are made up of principles, so when empirical evidence is lacking and a hypothesis can’t be directly tested, all you can do is argue on principled grounds; certain hypotheses will be filtered out as nonstarters, by the principles. Critical-historians have a science-centered epistemology which differs greatly from a theological Christian view of how knowledge is obtained.
Pemberton isn’t entirely clear on this, since he contradicts himself when he says in the same paragraph that he agrees “that investigations should be founded on sound principles or axioms,” even while he gives the following advice: “do not decide in advance what your conclusions are going to be, or as I originally said, do not discount something on principle” (my emphases).
He seems to be equating principles with preconceptions. What he really objects to is having preconceptions, and he thinks my agreement with the critical-historical approach to the Bible amounts to a preconception.
As I said, this is a flimsy inference, since any preconceived preference for science is going to be a self-effacing preconception. If the preconception is for an objective, rational, and empirical consideration of the evidence, that’s hardly a dubious or dangerous kind of preconception. An objectionable kind of preconception or personal bias is one that puts arbitrary limits on how a question can be answered, and that ignores evidence and doesn’t reliably track the facts. In short, such a preconception is known as a dogmatic delusion.
The faith-based, dogmatic Christian take on the Bible was practiced for centuries and for eminent reasons this way of approaching the texts was surpassed by the critical-historical method. If you want to learn the objective facts, apply a scientific or at least a halfway rational approach to the issues. If you prefer to defend tradition against all apparent contrary evidence, because you’re laboring under a self-reinforcing delusion, you’ll obviously be opposed to empirical criticism.
Indeed, if there’s an unreliable preconception on the table here, it’s obviously being supplied by Christians who approach the nature of their religion through faith. This emphatically includes the many Christians who are New Testament scholars and who, for all their scientific training, can still only pose as genuine historians when assessing what the NT says about Jesus. These scholars have dual loyalties, so their contribution to the consensus on biblical matters is suspect.
Again, if historiography were a stronger science, these scholars’ religious preconceptions wouldn’t matter — as comparable ones don’t matter in physics, chemistry, or biology. That’s because in a stronger science, observation and experiment would carry the day. But because that’s often not possible in investigations of ancient history, these preconceptions can easily distort the scholar’s thinking and even pervert the entire enterprise.
History and Methodological Naturalism
Regarding methodological naturalism, Pemberton say that if you subscribe to that principle, “you will always find a naturalistic explanation rather than resort to a supernatural one,” and he thinks that’s obviously problematic.
But this strikes me as a pseudoproblem. The methodological naturalist doesn’t say there are no miracles or that they’re impossible. That would be metaphysical naturalism. Rather, the methodological naturalist says only that miracle claims aren’t scientifically justified or established by the institutions of science. There may be other grounds for believing that a miracle has occurred, namely religious experience and faith.
So saying that a critical-historian should be open to miracle claims in her professional capacity is like saying a biologist should be open to a Bible-based account of how species are related, in the science classroom. The problem here is solved by a simple division of labour. There’s a theological way of reading the Bible and there’s a scientific, “critical” or neutral and objective way.
The latter branched off from the former as part of the fallout from the historic upheavals that created the modern world, so the two approaches aren’t likely to find much common ground, notwithstanding the efforts of impostors like the Evangelical scholars who pretend they’re objective about the history of their religion when in fact they’re anti-scientific religious propagandists.
(See the debate between Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig on whether Jesus was resurrected, in which Ehrman hammers home the point that historians exclude appeals to miracles, on methodological grounds.)
Pemberton says that the historical and the theological questions can’t be so easily separated, and that if you start off thinking there are no miracles, you’re more likely to side with Christ mythicists than with the historicists.
I agree that those questions aren’t easily separated. That’s why I say history is a soft science and why we shouldn’t credit the consensus of experts in the field of NT studies as carrying the same weight as consensus in a hard or pure science.
But I think the second point is a non sequitur. There’s no naturalistic reason whatever to deny that a cult could have a human founder (who performs no actual miracles). Indeed, Pemberton’s account of a wily historical Jesus who faked his death to trigger the end of the world and whose family members tried to carry on his message is far more plausible than any theological view of Christian origins. (That goes without saying, on Humean grounds.)
It’s not even the case that all Jesus mythicists are metaphysical naturalists. Look at Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Tom Harpur, Acharya S, and Freke and Gandy, not to mention the early-modern mythicists who were liberal Protestants. As I pointed out, you can easily be motivated to accept Jesus mythicism based on woolly New Age or Theosophical thinking, not just on atheistic naturalism.
No, the best reason for Jesus mythicism follows from the mixed nature of the historical evidence. You have the NT documents and Christian tradition on the one hand, and on the other you have the unreliable, propagandistic nature of those documents and of the Church leaders, plus the Hellenistic and syncretistic context of the period, complete with the dying-and-rising saviour god craze.
Historicists say the evidence is best explained by positing a historical founder, but the evidence is weak and equivocal: it can be explained in mythicist terms right down to the Greek of every relevant passage of the NT — and without much in the way of twisting or ad hoc inferences.
The principles of even the critical-historical approach to the question can’t rescue us from uncertainty, since they too are weak. There are serious problems with both the intra- and extra-biblical evidence and with the softness of this soft science, especially in the American academy which is unduly influenced by the prominence of Christianity in that country. The result is reasonable doubt about whether Jesus was historical.
How to Avoid Embarrassment about the Second Coming’s Delay
Pemberton read my article on the Jesus Myth theory as being defective because it didn’t consider enough of the evidence for Jesus’s historicity. This was only a misunderstanding, though, because that article wasn’t intended as a straightforward argument against historicity. As I said, the article addresses the meta-question of how we should think of the debate between mythicists and historicists. At the time I was interested more in the epistemological and sociological issues than in the surface-level ones.
It seems that because I couldn’t help myself and did wade into the question whether Jesus was historical, and because I did indeed side with the mythicists, Pemberton inferred that the article should have been a stronger defense of mythicism. There’s only so much that can be done in a single article, though. Moreover, I didn’t want to make a comprehensive case for mythicism, because I’d mainly be repeating other people’s arguments (because I’m not a historian). So I only gave some examples and made what I thought was a useful contribution to the debate. In any case, I agree with Pemberton that a complete defense of mythicism itself would need to consider historicist arguments in more depth than I did in that article.
Perhaps the main reason Pemberton thinks Jesus was likely historical is, as he says, that “the gospels seem to leave various tantalising clues” about Jesus’s life. Applying the criteria of difference or embarrassment makes historicism the best explanation, since how else to explain such clues when the Church authorities could have eliminated them? As Pemberton says, “if there remain certain passages which seem to have slipped under the radar of these ideologues, perhaps because they failed to understand the implications, again such passages are more likely to be authentic.”
Authenticity isn’t the issue, mind you; what we’re after is historical reliability. All the NT passages are authentic expressions of the communities’ religious beliefs. The question is whether the texts contain historical information as opposed to being pure fictions, allegories, coded midrashic commentaries, or myths.
In any case, Pemberton says, “In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, however, passages remain where he is portrayed as a failed eschatological prophet, someone who believed in the imminent end of the world which, as we all know, never happened.” That error on Jesus’s part contradicts the Christian belief “that Jesus was divine, the incarnation of God on Earth,” and that Jesus was infallible and omniscient. Why, then, did the later scribes leave in those passages?
To understand why, we first need to be clear on how the deification of Jesus in the gospel tradition took time. Jesus becomes more and more divine as the decades passed from the writing of Mark, to Luke and Matthew, and finally to John. At the very least, there was greater uncertainty about Jesus’s divine status in the earlier communities. Was Jesus equal to the Father or to the Logos? What was the nature of a spiritual as opposed to a political messiah? There was hardly consensus on such matters in the first century CE; the answers hadn’t yet been codified, nor had the canon been determined.
Note that we have the opposite problem with the earlier, Pauline tradition in which Jesus was divine but not historical. At the very least, the Pauline Christians were more certain about Jesus’s divinity than about his historicity, since they cared more about abstract, philosophical theology than about Jesus’s historical teachings and deeds. Indeed, for them Paul replaced Jesus, in that they understood the risen Jesus to be speaking through Paul. So the historicity of Paul is what mattered to them, not that of Jesus.
Why, then, did the scribes leave in the prophecies that the world was about to end? I don’t think that’s so hard to answer. First of all, because the deification increased over time, the prophecies would have been kept early on when they still could have been strictly fulfilled. The more time passed, though, the more revered the texts became, which would have dissuaded wholesale tampering with the texts.
Luckily and more importantly, the prophecies were unfalsifiable (as is any use of theological language), so as the years piled up with no divine judgment of humanity, the prophecies could have been kept also based on reinterpretations of their meaning.
The main reason they were reinterpreted rather than deleted is clear, since such prophecies pressured people to convert to Christianity, by stoking fear. That’s one way in which the Christian ranks swelled, by scaring credulous people into believing the moment of divine judgment was near. The prophecies could always be read as poetic or allegorical, so there was no threat of them being falsified as time marched on.
Finally, the Catholics addressed any problem of falsification once and for all by forging 2 Peter, which answers the growing doubts with this handy reassurance: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (3:8).
Thus, Christians got to have their cake and eat it too: they could keep the prophecies to scare people into accepting the Christian message, and they could exploit the poetic nature of religious language and reinterpret the prophecies, to avoid the embarrassment of following a disproven religion. Indeed, even in the twenty-first century, evangelical Christians still appeal to those prophecies and say the second coming is near, since they interpret the NT as referring directly to our very late generation. You can hit the ball anywhere when you’re playing tennis without a net.
Jesus’s Crucifixion: Conspiracy Theory or Midrash?
Pemberton also thinks the way the Gospel of John leaves hints that Jesus survived his crucifixion points to Jesus’s historicity. He cites Schonfield and some more conspiratorial accounts which find clues in the text that supposedly indicate as much.
The problem is that any such clue or strangeness in the text is ambiguous. You can read those passages as indicating an attempt to cover up a conspiracy such as that Jesus faked his death and maybe even had children to carry on his bloodline. Or you can read them as indicating that the attempt to historicize a myth is inherently dicey and bound to result in a clumsy, patchwork narrative.
Like Matthew and Luke, John is likely a reworking of Mark, although instead of adding Q to Mark, John adds Gnostic and Jewish Wisdom theologies. If Mark was written as midrash, allegory, and propaganda rather than as historical biography, the historical implausibility of any part of Mark’s account would have been irrelevant to the intended audience, since every detail would have had mainly symbolic importance. (As I said in the original article, the main bit of history that was relevant, at a minimum, was the entire experience of Jews as an oppressed people.)
See Robert Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems for the details of the gospels’ midrashic reworking of Jewish scriptures.
So, for example, why was Jesus given vinegar on the cross? You can read that as a hint at a conspiracy theory, as the outdated rationalist Schonfield does, or you can read it as midrash, noting the allusion to psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
Why weren’t Jesus’ bones broken? Is it because he actually lived and survived crucifixion? Or is it because every single detail of Mark’s original account of the crucifixion and resurrection is drawn from the Septuagint and from some Hellenistic sources? Indeed, John even quotes the Jewish scriptures that are only implicit in Mark (since Mark wants the reader to work to decode his spiritual allegories, whereas the author of John is a spoon-feeder). Thus, see Exod.12:46, “you shall not break a bone of it [the passover lamb],” and psalm 34:19–20, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.”
Why was Jesus on the cross only for a few hours rather than a few days? Is that a clue that he never actually died on the cross? Or is the shortness of his crucifixion a mere literary necessity, since what the authors cared about was the symbolism of the date of his death, not mere historical verisimilitude? As Bart Ehrman points out in his debate with Mike Lacona, Jesus dies on different days in Mark and in John, because Mark wants Jesus’s death to symbolize the Passover meal whereas John wants Jesus to symbolize the slaughtering of the lamb that takes away the world’s sins (see 45:00 to 47:35 in the video). The narrative of his death had to be compressed because of the underlying symbolism.
Why does Pilate hand over the body when that seems historically unlikely to have occurred? Because to the earliest Christians history was far less important than spiritual meaning. Pilate had to hand over the body for literary reasons, as far as Mark was concerned, since Jesus had to end up in the tomb for the tomb to be found empty, to make for Mark’s spiritual message. The empty tomb story seems drawn not from memory of historical events but from Joshua 10:16–27 (as Crossan also points out), just as much of the crucifixion scene is drawn from psalm 22.
Is Joseph of Arimathea a historically unlikely character or would that lack of verisimilitude have been irrelevant to readers of spiritual fiction? Does Joseph’s presence in the story indicate a conspiracy to protect Jesus from the Romans? Or as Robert Price says, was Joseph ‘a combination of King Priam, who courageously comes to Achilles’ camp to beg the body of his son Hector (MacDonald, p. 159) and the Patriarch Joseph who asked Pharaoh’s permission to bury the body of Jacob in the cave-tomb Jacob had hewn for himself back beyond the Jordan (Gen.50:4–5)’?
In general, the problem with rationalists like Schonfield is that they fail greatly to understand the difference between history and theology, between bean-counting attention to natural facts and a religious interpretation of meaning or a literary reworking of fictional events to arrive at deeper, existential truths. Schonfield’s literalism is thus comparable to the inerrantist’s or the fundamentalist’s; both are woefully wrongheaded, since they miss the points both of history and of religion/myth/fiction.
We don’t need to save the Bible’s miracle claims by interpreting them as bizarre natural events. They’re symbols that express the subjective power of the charismatic leader or “miracle-worker” and of what it would be like to be in the presence of such a “fisher of men.”
Some Further Clarifications
Regarding the diminishment of Jesus’s biological family in Mark 3:32–35, Pemberton moves the goalposts and says that that passage doesn’t indicate Jesus had no family. But that’s irrelevant. Of course by the time of the gospels, when Jesus was being historicized, he’s referred to as having a human brother — and also a human mother and human disciples and human executioners. The question is whether the gospels are historical records or fictions.
My point was that Eisenmann was wrong in saying that “no embarrassment whatsoever is evinced about this relationship with Jesus” and that there was no attempt “to depreciate or diminish this relationship.” Obviously the passage in Mark is just such an attempt. There’s a difference between depreciating and diminishing something, on the one hand, and denying outright its existence, on the other. Mark does the former, not the latter, contrary to the wording of Eisenmann’s claim.
And it’s hardly “speculation” to say early Christians were often expected to leave their families, to form new families with their spiritual brothers and sisters (their fellow Christians). The gospels were written largely as myths to explain the origin of later Christian practices. If only one family member converts to Christianity, that Christian is supposed to leave his biological family, just as in a cult. That’s how apocalyptic movements work: relatively mundane matters like biological ties get pushed to the wayside, since God was coming.
That’s exactly the point of Mark 3:32–35. So Mark isn’t really talking about Jesus’s brother or his mother. He’s using the symbolism of Jesus’ lack of interest in his biological family as a tool for teaching later Christians that their spiritual family matters more than their biological one.
Regarding whether the gospel writers were Pauline Christians, Pemberton thinks that Matthew, which emphasizes the Jewishness of Christians wouldn’t likely have been canonized by later Christians unless that gospel were “authentic.”
Again, authenticity is a red herring; what matters here is historical reliability. Matthew actually became the most popular gospel because of its length and its focus on Jesus’s teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount. Moreover, all the four gospels were favoured by the Catholics as responses to Marcionite Gnosticism which excluded Judaism. The Catholics wanted to emphasize Christianity’s fulfillment of Judaism, so naturally they would have favoured Matthew. They kept John despite its Gnostic overtones, because they also eventually wanted to affirm Jesus’s divinity, which John does at great length.
Pemberton also speaks of “the conventional Christian understanding.” I take it he’s referring to what he says above in his response, that “Christian belief is that Jesus was divine, the incarnation of God on Earth.” But that’s anachronistic. As I said, Christology developed over time and it developed differently in different Christian communities. So there was no such thing in the first century as “conventional Christian understanding.” That’s as simplistic as speaking of “the Jewish view of God at that time,” since we know the Jews too were divided.
The question, then, of why certain passages were kept by later scribes has a different answer, depending on the time in question. Once Catholic convention was established in the fourth century, the passages were kept because they’d been sufficiently interpolated and combined with forgeries to make for a defensible canon. Long prior to that point there was no such overbearing orthodoxy to enforce, so different scribes would have had different, perhaps idiosyncratic purposes behind their alterations of the text.
Pemberton then argues strangely that because Matthew has a supernatural view of Jesus, therefore he has a Pauline one. Pauline Christianity is hardly the only form of supernaturalism. Indeed, there’s plenty of supernaturalism in Judaism; Jesus’s miracles, for example, were taken from the stories of Elijah and Elisha (more midrash).
There’s also an enormous difference between Paul’s extension of Christianity to non-Jews, and the very mixed view of Judaism in Matthew, since Matthew was written after 70 CE, when Christians had to distance themselves from Jews to preserve Christianity from Roman wrath, and when Jews were more and more rejecting Christianity. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’s Jewishness while also including some strong anti-Jewish language, such as the infamous blood guilt passage (27:25).
Paul’s political aspirations differed since he was focused on the opportunity to sell a synthesis of Judaism and Hellenistic savior-god religions to pagans. He also wanted to distinguish Christianity from Judaism to prevent this new faith from being absorbed by Judaism, as might have happened in the Jerusalem church. Paul wasn’t so focused on the terror of being eradicated by Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem (since Paul wrote in the 50s), nor was he preoccupied with the many decades of being rejected by Jews, since that too hadn’t happened yet.