The Vanishing Jesus: Reality Checks

reality checkI know considerably less about Jesus and early Christianity than I did 20 years ago. Here are five reasons why.

1. Ted Weeden: “Kenneth Bailey’s Theory of Oral Tradition: A Theory Contested by its Evidence”, JSHJ 7 (2009): 3-43. As my first major reality check this essay places at the top. It was published in 2009, but I saw the arguments gestating on the Crosstalk mailing list years before. Weeden proved — the word is not too strong — that we cannot rely on oral models to show that Jesus’ words (or even their “gist”) have been fairly preserved in the gospels. Anecdotal evidence of Mediterranean village life doesn’t reflect an “informally controlled oral tradition” in the way Kenneth Bailey thinks. Communities keep their stories alive not to preserve facts but to validate their values and social identities which are always in flux. It’s true that such stories show patterns of oral tradition, but that tradition has vast amounts of flexibility, variation, and mutation.

2. Mark Goodacre: The Case Against Q, 2002. I was hostile to this book until I allowed myself to process it on a second pass. I always liked Q, or the idea of it — a hidden gospel hinting at more primitive ideas — and Goodacre was an unwelcome intrusion to say the least. But I’d had nagging doubts too. As an undergrad back in ’91 I remember being taught the way Luke faithfully preserved Q’s social concerns whereas Matthew spiritualized them away (“blessed are the poor” –> “blessed are the poor in spirit”) while being told in same breath that Luke had a social agenda for the poor and outcasts. Today in retrospect it actually stuns me how flimsy the basis for Q is. Its defenders have manufactured problems where none exist. For me, giving up Q was painful. It made the criterion of multiple attestation much harder to satisfy, and it removed what I thought was a reliable window into the years before 70 AD.

3. William Arnal: The Symbolic Jesus, 2005. This reality check is different. It’s not about what we can know about Jesus, rather what we should be aware of in ourselves. You would think that Jesus’ “Jewishness” is a trivial fact, but it’s become something of a scholarly holy symbol. In the hands of evangelicals it can reinforce supersessionism in the name of fighting it. (Tom Wright thinks that Christianity’s DNA is so Jewish that it can’t possibly be supersessionist, yet his readings of the NT are often precisely that.) Even in more benign hands, Jesus’ Jewishness is a talisman — brandished to make us feel good about ourselves and ascribe badness to others. I admit I used to be guilty of this in criticizing members of the Jesus Seminar. While Crossan and his ilk are hard to take seriously, it’s cheap to imply (as I did) that they operate out of an implied anti-Jewish framework. The days of Nazi scholarship are long past, and we don’t need to push Jewishness as a hot-button item. As I see it, Arnal extends Schweitzer’s lesson: even as an apocalyptic alien, Jesus can say a lot about us without our knowing it. We use his Jewishness to mask Christian superiority and fabricate offense in others.

4. John Meier: A Marginal Jew (Vol 5): Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 2016. For me this was The Case Against Q all over again. For years I’d been nursing doubts about parable authenticity, and Meier shows (with astonishing ease) that there is no warrant for treating them as the guaranteed “voice” of Jesus. Many of the stories probably don’t originate with him. Perhaps a meager four: the Mustard Seed, the Great Supper, the Talents, and the Wicked Tenants. All others — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. The dominant view is a house of cards: only circular reasoning and wishful thinking justifies the pride of place which has been given to the parables.

5. Richard Carrier: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, 2014. Mythicists take a pounding for good reason, but here at last is a decent argument that Jesus didn’t exist. I’m not ultimately persuaded by it; I still think a historical Jesus best explains the early Christian movement. But Carrier at least demolishes the confidence we might have in a historical Jesus. He shows how embarrassingly limited, if not useless, the classic criteria are, and refutes many bad arguments for a historical Jesus (the Josephus passage being one, as an obvious forgery). By Carrier’s weighing of the evidence, the likelihood of Jesus having existed is at worst .008%, and at best 32%. The way he arrives at these numbers can be disputed, but he makes a reasonable case that Jesus began as a heavenly wish-fantasy and was later historicized in the gospels.

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4 thoughts on “The Vanishing Jesus: Reality Checks

  1. I felt like this post was mostly assertive conclusions and short on the juicy details of evidence needed for audience folk like myself to adjudicate a proper conclusion.

    //For me, giving up Q was painful. It made the criterion of multiple attestation much harder to satisfy//

    Perhaps an entirely different angle at sources for the Traditional Gospels should be made. We could presume a Q-community instead of a single document or even a single set of documents. We could loosen the restrictions of what we believe that Q-community might have known. We could also then use implications from Undesigned Coincidence argumentation (cue Dr. Timothy Joel McGrew) to rescue the notion that, at least in some instances, the Gospels record genuine memories of more than one source (or rather, at least three if not more sources total). (Technically, however, I should note that McGrew does not hold Undesigned Coincidence argumentation to be a source-criticism theory. Tangential conclusions, however, can be inferred nonetheless.) We could then ask ourselves, “If we take the content data of the Four Traditional Gospels at face value, how many is the minimum sources needed?” Our number in this case would likely end up north of a half dozen, though I am not going to wager a precise number.

    I recognize that sources for the Traditional Gospels are not necessarily what is meant by multiple independent attestation, as the “sources” are inferred, whereas the literary documents leave behind tangibles, but if one desires to get at the ultimate issue of sources, one needs to of course get at it at the most fundamental level, and the recognition as per proper Undesigned Coincidence argumentation that we have at least 2 or 3 independent sources for a few events (e.g., the setting behind the feeding of the 5000 story and the trial of Jesus before Pilate) may increase our confidence a bit.

    //Weeden proved — the word is not too strong — that we cannot rely on oral models to show that Jesus’ words (or even their “gist”) have been fairly preserved in the gospels. Anecdotal evidence of Mediterranean village life doesn’t reflect an “informally controlled oral tradition” in the way Kenneth Bailey thinks.//

    What precisely is being assumed here? Even without a rigorous oral tradition, mere Jesus-historicism entails that Jesus was an itinerant preacher in the 1st century C.E. (plausibly in Palestine). So given this and given that some of the disciples followed Jesus around for more than a year, what is the likelihood that Jesus’ words would be remembered? Itinerant preachers repeat their messages quite a bit, to the point where those who travel with them can often tell just about what they are going to say in a sermon next as the preacher is doing his sermon. So it would be plausible that repeated sermons, including repeated sermon illustrations (cue the short parables), would be accurately remembered.

    Compound on top of that perhaps even a dedicated core following of people who desired to keep sacred words sacredly remembered, and we may start to see a case for accuracy of preservation.

    And then compound on top of that the use of memorable figurative language by Jesus in communicating as well as perhaps even by the writers of the Gospels for summary/memory jogging purposes….

    //All others — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate//

    Care to explain a bit about how he came to that conclusion? I am not familiar with this obviously new work of literature. Do we have manuscript evidence from manuscripts dated prior to the 1st century C.E. in which these parables are included? Could it be better to conclude that Jesus’ parables as recorded by the Gospels were really Jesus’ parables but that Jesus got the basic storylines from earlier accounts?

    // Mythicists take a pounding for good reason, but here at last is a decent argument that Jesus didn’t exist. I’m not ultimately persuaded by it//

    While Carrier makes one of the top two cases for Jesus-mythicism that I have encountered thus far, I also find mythicism less than convincing. The case for historicism is just too strong, even though many of its defenders have done less than a wholly admirable job of defending it.

    //Carrier… refutes many bad arguments for a historical Jesus (the Josephus passage being one, as an obvious forgery). ///

    Even the Testimonium passage in Josephus, btw, is not a total forgery. We *do* have at least one manuscript with *lacks* the Christian emendations. Shlomo Pines and Alice Whealey (writer of the “Josephus on Jesus” dissertation and other articles) are notable names to remember concerning the Testimonium passage. And that passage which lacks the emendations still speaks of a historical Jesus, though not in as glowing terms (as could well be expected).

    At the end of the day, it seems like a more straightforward approach to the Gospels may be necessary, taking into account some of the old methods as well as others (e.g., Undesigned Coincidences) not often used.

    Cheers.
    –Zack

  2. Zach wrote:

    I felt like this post was mostly assertive conclusions and short on the juicy details of evidence needed for audience folk like myself to adjudicate a proper conclusion.

    That’s the way you should feel. It was intended as a summary post looking back. For the juicy details click on the links of the titles which point to my lengthy reviews. They should answer most of your questions. I will say in passing that the Testimonium passage is in all probability a complete forgery, even the supposed non-Christian core text, and that Ken Olson’s Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium is required reading on the subject.

    Also, I realize I don’t have a link for (1), but your comments about the reliable memory of “dedicated” followers are problematic. On the one hand, scholars can reasonably argue that the gist behind frequently attested themes and ideas in the gospels point to a kernel of reliable memory (Allison, Le Donne, etc.). But there is also increased appreciation for the way collective memory is often manufactured wholesale. Memory can be reliable, yes, but it can also just as easily be wildly creative, either accidentally or deliberately, even (or especially) amongst the devout. Zeba Crook’s Collective Memory Distortion and the Quest for the Historical Jesus is a welcome word of caution here.

    Best wishes,
    Loren

  3. “But Carrier at least demolishes the confidence we might have in a historical Jesus.”

    That is for historians and scholars who study and publish on the source material to decide, not a blogger.

    The naked assertion above qualifies as an AFA (argument from authority). The same would apply if we were having a discussion on a climate change and someone trotted out an authority on a topic outside his or her area of expertise.

    Wrt mythicism, look, Carrier’s book certainly presents the strongest case to date, which is not the same thing as saying it makes a strong case for mythicism. (This also isn’t saying much.) He touches up the arguments he’s made in public and brushes off old ones from yesteryear, but his thesis still falls prey to the same set of considerations that lead the vast majority of historians present and past to reject it with confidence. At any rate, we shouldn’t pretend that Carrier’s work has made any kind of headway in the field. It simply hasn’t. He is one individual with a radical and highly problematic thesis.

    I understand this doesn’t apply to you since you, like me, are unpersuaded by Carrier’s work, but what I have found is that those who are quick to reject the consensus of scholarship (on any question, not just the historical Jesus question) do so because it is ideologically convenient to do so.

  4. Daniel, consensus on something like climate change isn’t analogous. You can’t strictly compare the library to the lab. Consensus on Q or the historical Jesus means considerably less than agreement in fields like nuclear physics. (There’s a reason for the adage, “In the natural sciences specialists are remembered for their best ideas, while in the social sciences they are remembered for their worst.”) Obviously I’m not saying that credentials don’t matter, only that independent scholars and amateurs can get a handle on these things with enough care and diligence. The Secret Mark hoax was debunked by two amateurs (Carlson and Jeffery), one of whom has since become a scholar and has seen no reason to retract anything he said as an amateur.

    You’re right that many people do reject consensus (whether in the natural or social sciences) out of ideology, and I’ve been leery of mythicists for that reason. In any case, Carrier’s book, while failing to convince me, aligns with a strong trend among professionals in the field (such as the other four on my list) who are less and less confident about what we can say about Jesus, and that’s really the point here. I believe Carrier’s work fares better than you’re allowing, and frankly, when you say “the vast majority of historians present and past reject him with confidence”, that’s not an argument. Those rejections don’t always contain the best arguments (like Ehrman’s, unfortunately). There are good and bad arguments for a historical Jesus, and what I have to admit, regretfully, is that there more bad ones than many of us think.

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