Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dr. April DeConick: A Response

Dr. April DeConick, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University, wrote a blog post which I found very interesting. In it, she says

"...I have continued to learn, and I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt, as is the Jesus Seminar Jesus. This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations. I say this not because I am a myther. In fact, I think that the myther position cannot be maintained, because parallels between Jesus' myth and other ancient myths tell us nothing about whether or not he lived as a real person. It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds. Rather I say this because I have come to realize over the years that the methodology and the assumptions of the methodology that were used to construct Perrin's Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are bankrupt."

I agree with her: If pagan parallels were all that the mythicist case were based on, one could not be a mythicist. After all, Dr. Robert Price has talked about how the life Caesar Augustus included a story of him surviving death as an infant (which was a common occurance in the lives of the gods). But no one would argue that Caesar Augustus was a myth. He is intricately interwoven into the history of his time. The most credible explanation for him is that he was a real person but was perhaps admired as a god, or as the son of a god, after his death, and so his memory became encrusted with myth. Caesar Augustus was a real person, but there are a few stories about him which have to be rejected as myth. The same could be said of many other figures, such as Alexander the Great.

What bothers me is that I don't think Jesus is interwoven into the history of the early first century. We know that Jesus is the type of figure people in that time and culture made up, so in the absence of historical evidence for Jesus I think we should be agnostic, if not slightly suspicious, of Jesus' existence.

I'd like to call attention to the fact that I qualified my last statement: In the absence of historical evidence... Is there historical evidence? I don't feel like there is. There is the Testimonium Flavium, but I feel that there are problems with this; Namely the fact that it was not mentioned by Origen (who was eager to cite historical sources for John the Baptist and James). Also the fact that Josephus was not a Christian and yet seems to have nothing but good things to say about Jesus makes me suspicious, especially when Josephus seems to dismiss other messianic claimants (calling the followers of Theudas "deluded"). For more on this, see
Ken Olson, "Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61:2, April 1999, pp. 305-22

For those without access to this article, have a look at Olson's summary of his case.

There are some other extrabiblical sources for Jesus, but I don't feel like they do anything to establish that Jesus was an historical person (If anyone wants to discuss this, I'd be more than happy to, I just feel that even looking at these passages usually reveals their historical worthlessness).

Then there are the biblical sources. I don't feel like any of Paul's letters give a clear indication of an historical Jesus, although there are certain passages ("Born of a woman" Galatians 4:4) which seem to indicate otherwise. However, as I have discussed before, all of these alleged Pauline references to a historical Jesus, when read in context, seem to have a symbolic meaning.

Then there are the gospels. I feel that these are allegorical in nature, and that they are "midrash". For example, see Robert Price's commentary as well as Michael Turton's commentary.

I'm trying to provide a summary of my position, but I am more than willing to go into detail and address any questions Dr. DeConick may have.

Anyway, when we take into account the silences, especially those of the Apostle Paul, things begin to look very suspicious. They become even more suspicious when we realize that almost everything about Jesus' life seems to either have been derived from the Old Testament or to have been borrowed from Hellenistic Myths. When we realize that Paul, who authored the earliest Christian writings we have, viewed Jesus as a spiritual figure (Second in command to God, according to 1 Corinthians 15:25-28), it seems to me that the simplest explanation is that there was no historical Jesus.


Hambydammit said...

I'm still a little baffled as to why no Jesus historians are trying to offer a reasonable explanation for the combination of two very important details about Jesus:

1) There are decades of complete historical silence during and after he supposedly lived.

2) He has no necessary place in history.

That second issue is not, I know, a strong argument for Jesus mythicism, or even for Jesus a-historicity. However, it's definitely a hurdle for those who would claim a strong likelihood for his existence. As you point out, historians would have a real problem on their hands if one of the Caesars turned out to be a mythical figure. The Ceasars are necessary if lots of other historical events are to make sense in context. With Jesus, it just isn't so. If he was entirely made up, we can easily explain the rise of Christianity. If he was historical, we can easily explain the rise of Christianity.

AIGBusted said...

Hey Hamby,

I just wanted to add that I don't think silence is, in and of itself, sufficient to warrant mythicism, but it is certainly necessary in order for Jesus mythicism to be tenable.

The things that really get me is the way Paul, Hebrews, and Mark discuss jesus. The former two seem to have a sort of "cosmic christ" in mind, while the latter seems to be allegorical literature.

Hambydammit said...

Oh, definitely. I didn't mean to give the impression that silence = mythicism. Silence just demands an explanation. I see how I could have worded my comment better. Sorry about that.