Sunday, January 25, 2009

A response to James McGrath

If you don't remember, James McGrath and I had been debating the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Anyway, here is my response to one of his latest comments (his comments are in italics):

I have to be honest, I think that the parallels you point to are a slim basis for concluding that Jesus was a purely invented figure. Were the birth narratives invented? Sure. But it wasn't just mythical figures that had such stories made up about them (one thinks, for instance, of Alexander the Great).

I think I need to be a little more clear about my position on the pagan parallels: Pagan parallels don't mean that Jesus was definitely a myth, but, so long as there is no corroborating evidence for Jesus, it does place the burden of proof on the one who claims Jesus was a real person. If we have no need to posit a historical Jesus, and if he's cut from the same cloth as other mythical characters, it makes sense to presume he is just as mythical as Heracles or Dionysus unless there is a good reason to think otherwise. Still, there very well could have been a Jesus who had these stories (surviving death as an infant) grafted on to him, but, as I said before, we don't need that hypothesis. No one ever posits that Dionysus was a real person whose legend became drenched in myth over time.

Descending into Hades was presumably something most people who died were thought to have done, and so once again an examination of the details doesn't demonstrate direct borrowing. Indeed, in many instances you seem to be guilty of what Samuel Sandmel famously dubbed "parallelomania". Religions regularly come up with similar ideas, perhaps for reasons rooted in the human psyche, but often we find similarities even where direct borrowing is unlikely, if not indeed impossible.I'm just curious whether you think that the story of Moses borrowed from the story of Romulus, or vice versa, given the similarities one finds there as well.

Descending into Hades was something that most people who died were thought to have done. Exactly. This was a part of the zeitgeist of the time and culture, just as I believe that many of the other parallels were.

Now, as for the parallels: They may be due to influence/borrowing, or from some common feature of the human psyche. But I don't think this helps your case: If Jesus looks exactly like the type of Saviour God a human being would invent, that hurts your case! Let's go back to the criterion of embarrassment: You are arguing that a crucified messiah (or Savior/Son of God) would be unlikely to be invented by human beings because crucifixion was embarrassing and shameful. But the ancient Sumerians worshipped a goddess named Inanna who was said to have been stripped naked, killed, and hung from a hook for three days. Who would argue that this event was historical? It obviously wasn't (it took place in the underworld). Perhaps there is something about the human psyche which desires a humiliated god to worship. In that the case the crucifixion does not mean that Jesus must have been historical.

I believe Dr. McGrath agrees with me that Jesus was viewed in a way similar to the way in which other Savior figures were viewed. Jesus filled a void inside of his followers similar to the void filled by the followers of other savior deities. This is why we see the similarities we do between the birth narratives and such: Jesus played the same role that the other pagan gods played in the minds of their followers.

I'm going to close with some questions for Dr. McGrath: Do you agree with me that Inanna's death was humiliating, and, if so, do you think that this refutes your argument that the crucifixion was too shameful to have been an invention?


P.S. On the similarities between Romulus and Moses: I think its likely that both stories share a "common ancestor" - Both stories are influenced by a much older story (or maybe even heavily modified versions of the same story).

22 comments:

James F. McGrath said...

I really do think you are misunderstanding how the 'criterion of embarassment' works in historical investigation. All it can be used to demonstrate is the unlikelihood of the person/group recording something having invented it. If one is dealing with material that has been passed down for centuries, something could well become embarassing over the years that had not been initially. But I don't see any evidence that the origins of Christianity should be dated centuries before Paul wrote his letters.

I also think you are failing to note the key background of most other dying and rising gods, namely their connection with either lunar or fertility cults, with the dying and rising of the deity paralleling the waxing and waning of the moon, or the cycle of the seasons.

If you want to make a case for Christianity having arisen among adherents of fertility or lunar deities, I await your evidence. If one moves closer to the apparent context of earliest Christianity, and looks at sources like the Psalms of Solomon or the Similitudes of Enoch, one finds depictions of kingly Messiah figures who conquer and who rule over the enemies of the Jews. It is in that context that it seems problematic to imagine anyone adopting a dying deity from whatever source, and attaching the label "Messiah" to the newly-created deity, and then going out to attract Jews to their new religion.

SirMoogie said...

Dr. McGrath,

I asked this in the other thread, but it appears that this is the new place to discuss the issue at hand.

Being an expert in biblical history I thought I'd ask a question AIGBusted was unable to answer the other day. Has any historical figure, except Jesus, been established as existing among historians using the criterion of embarrassment alone? Is the criterion of embarrassment the only justification you have for a historical Jesus, if not, what else do you use to justify a historical Jesus? Finally, what do you mean by the term "historical Jesus" (i.e., who was this person, was his/her name "Jesus", where were they born, what did they do)?

Mike L. said...

I think we can be certain there were Jewish messiah figures in the 1st century and we can be certain there were Roman crucifixions of Jews by the thousands (including many of those same messiah figures).

In my view, what we have with Jesus is a story about real historical people and events based on one messiah figure or possibly the consolidation of several such figures into one literary figure. The story is then told through the lens of later mythologizing in the following decades.

So if the question is, Was there a historical person behind the myths? My answer is certainly there was. We can be confident there were many such rabbis, messiah figures, and teachers. Any one of them could be the basis for such stories.

If the question is, Are all 4 canonical gospels word for word accurate historical versions of reality? My answer is no. I don't think any serious scholar from even moderate theological camps would suggest so. It is just as silly to refute that as it is to claim it. Of course the people at AIG are not "serious scholars", so you are right to blast them with both barrels of reason.

James F. McGrath said...

SirMoogie,

The short answer is that historians use all the tools of historical and critical investigation, as and when they are applicable. The criterion of embarrassment is but one sort of argument, which obviously is not useful in relation to all the material. But if one is approaching the material from a standpoint of extreme skepticism, asking not merely whether stories were invented about a figure but whether the figure himself was made up, then it turns out to be particularly helpful in this specific case.

As for what I mean by the historical figure of Jesus, I mean the figure that lies behind the Gospels and other early Christian literature, inasmuch as one can draw conclusions about him based on available evidence. In my book The Burial of Jesus I compare historical investigation to an American court of law. The "historical Jesus" is not Jesus as he "really was", nor Jesus as depicted in later sources, but what we can say about him "beyond reasonable doubt" based on the evidence.

Does that help clarify things at all?

AIGBusted said...

Hi James,

I agree with you that Christianity started in the early first century and with essentially everything else (when Paul wrote his letters) that modern scholarship has determined.

I do not think that Christianity was based on any lunar/fertility/solar deity. To be clear, there *may have* been some influences, but Jesus most certainly is not a sun deity (or any other form of nature god).

However, Romulus, as far as I know, is not a solar/nature deity either.

As for your last comment: I think first century Jews would have lots of reason to create a messiah who was not an earthly king. For one thing, you can't make up an earthly king and expect people not to notice. Besides, on the mythicist position which I argue, Christ is a heavenly figure, and prophecies about him are interpreted allegorically, and so it would not make sense under this theory to postulate an earhtly king.

Just so you know that I'm not begging the question, I think that the way the OT scriptures were interpreted, in light of this messiah, was heavily influenced by platonism and by the mystery cults (Which, by the way, sometimes had allegorical themes rather than agricultural themes). I'm about to have to leave my local school library, but if you want details on why I believe that these Old Testament scriptures were interpreted allegorically/figuratively I can provide that later (or you can just read Galatians 4).

Also, Daniel 9:26 says that the Anointed one will be cut off and will have nothing. I think that this is very easily seen as indicating that messiah would not have so good after all. This, along with Isaiah 53, which I argue was a very strong influence on the passion narrative, explains things perfectly.

Now, I suppose you could argue that this platonic midrash which was going on was not very common and was not to be expected from a first century Jew. But the influence of platonism was there, and Jews did lured into mystery cults and the like. It may not have been the norm, but it was there.

SirMoogie said...

Dr. McGrath,

"The short answer is that historians use all the tools of historical and critical investigation, as and when they are applicable."

This is good, what others besides the criterion of embarrassment do you use to justify the existence of Jesus?

"The criterion of embarrassment is but one sort of argument, which obviously is not useful in relation to all the material. But if one is approaching the material from a standpoint of extreme skepticism, asking not merely whether stories were invented about a figure but whether the figure himself was made up, then it turns out to be particularly helpful in this specific case."

Are there any other cases where some historians are skeptical of the existence of a figure that has been written about in which this criterion has been used to justify the existence of that figure?

James F. McGrath said...

I'm honestly not sure whether this argument has been used in the case of other figures whose existence has been doubted - I've never examined the debates over the existence of Shakespeare and others. I suppose I've been too busy with Jesus! :)

SirMoogie said...

I suspect it might not be, but I was hoping a historian, like yourself, could have pointed me to a book on historical methodology that includes the criterion, or a high impact journal article published where, say Shakespeare*, was argued to exist using the criterion. Given that I'm also ignorant to the methods of historians, I suppose I should try to investigate the matter further before drawing some conclusions.
That said, would you agree you were in error when you claimed this is an argument used by historians? Would you also agree that if it's only used by Biblical scholars, and not historians, that it runs afoul of special pleading?

* - Really, Shakespeare? What other historical figures are in doubt that are taught in grade school as if there was no controversy? I was well aware of the myths surrounding Columbus' voyage, but this one is new.

James F. McGrath said...

Well, I can say that the term "criterion of embarassment" I've only encountered in the context of the quest of the historical Jesus. The principle, however, I've encountered elsewhere, such as in Jan Vansina's work on oral tradition and history in an African context.

Biblical studies is a "field" rather than a "discipline", and so rather than being exposed - in the way someone might who did a degree in history - to disciplinary tools and a range of texts, periods and problems to which they might be applied, scholars in my area tend to get a range of disciplinary tools (historical, literary, social-scientific, linguistic) related to a narrower area.

I think Socrates might be an interesting figure to use for the purpose of comparison (if you or I had the time). He didn't write anything himself, and others wrote about him in significantly different styles.

Let me add one more general point. One reason the appeal to dying and rising deities as a source for the creation of a mythical Jesus seems problematic to me is that, in the earliest Christian sources, Jesus isn't a deity, and doesn't seem to even be a pre-existent heavenly figure (although some, e.g. Simon Gathercole, might dispute this).

SirMoogie said...

Dr. McGrath,

Is the book you are citing called, "Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology", Jan Vansina? Do you have a chapter or page numbers?

You said,

"Biblical studies is a "field" rather than a "discipline", and so rather than being exposed - in the way someone might who did a degree in history - to disciplinary tools and a range of texts, periods and problems to which they might be applied, scholars in my area tend to get a range of disciplinary tools (historical, literary, social-scientific, linguistic) related to a narrower area."

Yet, and correct me if I'm wrong, none of these disciplines employ a methodology that includes the criterion you're utilizing to justify Jesus' existence? If I'm incorrect, which of these areas did your field co-opt the method from?

James F. McGrath said...

The "criteria" that some Biblical scholars and historians of a previous generation formulated are simply an attempt to delineate some key principles for assessing evidence. It seems to me, when one gets down to it, simply a logical inference to deduce that, all other things being equal, a person who passes on information that he personally doesn't like or agree with probably didn't make that information up.

In the long term, I think it would be interesting to investigate the wider usage of this 'criterion' by historians, but that will involve significant research on my part. In the short term, I suppose the best we can hope to do is discuss whether this principle works or not, using hypothetical examples.

SirMoogie said...

Dr. McGrath,

Your first citation defines the criterion of embarrassment as follows:

"The criterion of 'embarrassment' or 'contradiction' focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents." (My emphasis.)

According to the above, the criterion only seems applicable to sayings or actions, which presumes Jesus exists, it doesn't claim it is used to establish the existence of the figure. The second source makes similar claims, but doesn't seem to talk about the criterion of embarrassment:

"Having investigated the most commonly suggested criteria of authenticity, we need now to come to some general conclusions as to the value of these criteria. How useful are they for arriving at our hoped for goal of ascertaining authentic sayings of Jesus? it [sic.] would appear that taken alone no one criterion can "prove" that a saying in the Gospels is authentic, although
one, the criterion of dissimilarity, is sufficiently functional so as to place a heavy burden of proof upon anyone denying the authenticity of any saying which meets its standards. Only the strongest kinds of negative evidence can hope to disprove the authenticity of a saying or motif that satisfies the criterion of dissimilarity. It is nevertheless the cumulative evidence of the various criteria which serves to demonstrate a saying s [sic.] authenticity. If a particular saying or teaching of Jesus meets most (or ideally all) of the positive criteria listed above, then we can claim with reasonable certainty that this teaching is authentic." (My emphasis.)

Are the authors here being conservative, or are you utilizing the criterion to justify something it typically isn't used for in your field? Do you have any high impact journal publications discussing the criterion where it has been used to justify Jesus' existence?

SirMoogie said...

Dr. McGrath,

You said,

"It seems to me, when one gets down to it, simply a logical inference to deduce that, all other things being equal, a person who passes on information that he personally doesn't like or agree with probably didn't make that information up."

I'm not sure why you threw the phrase, "all other things being equal" without discussing what these were, especially when talking with someone not well versed in your field. However, your logical deduction presumes you know who wrote the texts, and their intentions. I suppose this would be a good time to ask who wrote the founding documents that led to the creation of the Bible* and what their intentions were? How do you know this? I understand that there are some Biblical scholars that allege that these documents were written to create a mythology or spirituality, and as such, the criterion of embarrassment would seem useless when evaluating documents intended to be mythical.

* - It's my understanding that the Bible as we know it wasn't written until several years after Jesus' alleged life and death. Is this correct?

You also said,

"In the long term, I think it would be interesting to investigate the wider usage of this 'criterion' by historians, but that will involve significant research on my part. In the short term, I suppose the best we can hope to do is discuss whether this principle works or not, using hypothetical examples."

Ok, what about AiGBusted's example?

"But the ancient Sumerians worshipped [sic.] a goddess named Inanna who was said to have been stripped naked, killed, and hung from a hook for three days. Who would argue that this event was historical? It obviously wasn't (it took place in the underworld). Perhaps there is something about the human psyche which desires a humiliated god to worship. In that the case the crucifixion does not mean that Jesus must have been historical."

Or Richard Carrier's example:

"We have no good reason to believe
there was ever an actual Attis who was castrated and it is commonly assumed the story was invented for some particular symbolic reason. The same, then, could be true of the crucifixion of Jesus. Tacitus reports that the castration of Attis was indeed embarrassing (it is grounds for his disgust at the religion), yet the castration of Attis is not a credible story, therefore the criterion of embarrassment is in some manner fallacious."

Quixie said...

James McG: But I don't see any evidence that the origins of Christianity should be dated centuries before Paul wrote his letters.

G.A. Wells' The Jesus Myth
Alvar Ellegård's Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ

James McG:It is in that context that it seems problematic to imagine anyone adopting a dying deity from whatever source, and attaching the label "Messiah" to the newly-created deity, and then going out to attract Jews to their new religion.

The evidence (Pauline) shows that the Jews in fact were NOT attracted to this new thing. Read the epistles; they are replete with stories of Paul being mocked, insulted, reviled, lashed, and even stoned whenever he came near any "real" Jews (even if we can't say with any certainty whatever that might have been in the first century, we know that they were not keen on Paul) and started trying to sell his gospel. Paul was not attracting Jews, he was repelling them. Who he WAS attracting though were the god-fearers, those that even Philo and Josephus attest were always hanging around. Whatever Jews Paul was conscripting into his communities, they were FAR surpassed by gentile converts That's what I see from my reading of the epistles. So arguing that the purveyors of early Christianity were targeting Jews is not really supported by the texts, I'm afraid. To argue the above you'd have to show Paul actually suceeding with the Jews most of the time.
The Jews simply weren't having it.

Instead, the purveyors were trying to sell a new tailor-made version of messiah for the god-fearers.

James F. McGrath said...

I'll try to respond to the various comments over the course of the day. I'll start with Quixie's simply because I think I can give a short answer.

On the first point, I should have said I don't know of any evidence that appears convincing. :)

On the second point, Paul states that there were other Christians, "those reputed to be pillars", individuals more widely recognized as leaders than he was (they seem to have already been leaders when Paul was still persecuting the church), whose work was aimed at a Jewish audience. And so it seems problematic to treat those elements that Paul and his circle introduced as the original characteristics and defining features of the movement.

James F. McGrath said...

Is there any way to assess the historicity of Jesus apart from assessing the historicity of the information about him found in sources? Ultimately, what we need is to find is one or more details that are best explained by the figure having existed, and then we can proceed from there. I don't see that there is any other way to proceed in such a historical investigation, yet the question posed seems to suggest that "the existence of Jesus" and "information about things he supposedly said and did" can somehow be assessed independently of one another. Have I misunderstood?

I think one particular reason I find the appeals to dying and rising gods unpersuasive is that Jesus was not a deity as far as the earliest Christians were concerned. We have three Gospels and Acts from which notions like incarnation and pre-existence are entirely absent, and in Paul's letters it is possible to read the texts without pre-existence, and when we have reference to Jesus bearing the divine name (Philippians 2:6-11), it is connected with his exaltation by God to a status that he did not previously have.

Historical critical scholarship has not simply investigated what we can know about Jesus and early Christianity. It has raised serious challenges to the reading back into the New Testament of the later church's doctrines and dogmas. That too needs to be part of a critical approach to these questions.

Quixie said...

James McG:I started a response here, but it had to be longer and I don't wish to clutter up another's space, so I posted it up in mine.

AIGBusted said...

Even if Jesus was not viewed as a god, he was certainly viewed as second in command (See 1 Cor. 15:27). It's hard for me to believe that Jesus was viewed as just a man when he clearly occupies the same space that a demigod would to the Greeks.

First of all, the mythicist theory would not entail that the gospel of Mark was to be taken literally. All of the things in Jesus' life would have had symbolic meaning. All the scriptures which the Christians interpreted as referring to Jesus usually have spiritual meaning. Jesus is a spiritual king, not an earthly one. It also must be stressed that I DO NOT THINK THE CHRISTIANS WERE CONSPIRING TO INVENT A HISTORICAL MAN OF FLESH AND BLOOD. If the mythicisit theory is true, the most likely option is that the gospel was misinterpreted. Just as the first chapter of Genesis was originally written as poetry and later misinterpreted by fundamentalist Christians, so the allegorical tale of spiritual Christ was lost and Christians began to take the story literally. Things like this have happened before, and in one of my newer posts I quote Robert Price talking ab out how Hercules (originally a solar deity) later evolved into an anthropomorphic figure and the Greeks seem to have "forgotten" what he originally stood for.

Secondly, NO ONE IS ARGUING THAT THE FIRST CHRISTIANS HELD TO EXACTLY THE SAME INTERPRETATIONS OF SCRIPTURE THAT ORTHODOX JEWS DID. This point cannot be stressed enough. Early Christians were the fringe, not the mainstream. They took a lot of OT passages to be referring to Jesus (such as Isaiah 53) which obviously were not (The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was the nation of Israel). The Christians' view of the messiah must have been different. We can also notice that many things which were probably interpreted literally by the Jews (ie that the messiah was to come from the seed of Abraham) seem to have been interpreted figuratively by the early Christians. Here's something I wrote about that:

Jesus descended from Abraham (Gal. 3:16);

Let’s look at the passage:

“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.”

We notice right off the bat that the connection between Jesus and Abraham is probably not a literal, flesh and blood relationship, at least in this context: There was something about Jesus which made him a successor to Abraham, something which was beyond DNA (Since the Jewish people were not also considered to be Abraham’s “seed” in the same sense that Jesus was). We also need to pay attention to the metaphor in use here, which I will discuss shortly: In Galatians 4 Paul also discusses how Sarah and Hagar, the wife and concubine of Abraham, should be thought of figuratively and how the Christians are the sons of Sarah, the free woman.

Jared said...

very interesting. i'm wondering if anyone here has looked into the origins of the cross. from what i've found, the earliest references to that symbol are directly related to a n actual cross placed in the nile river for the purposes of having a visible marker for water levels. it became a symbol for life, fertility and regeneration as it was a direct visual connection to measure the source of life, the river water. the only tales of embarrassment i've heard regarding the cross are in this specific example given by mcgrath. i hardly think that this brief period in history would have completely revolutionized the way that people looked at the that symbol and then subsequently have that new perspective disappear at the supposed triumph of this new religion. historically, the cross has consistently been a positive symbol and as horrific a way as it was used for that period, it seems very illogical to assume that it would be viewed as an embarassment, especially if the accused was innocent. this all depends, of course, on if the cross in question was even the type commonly associated with the story today.

Jared said...

very interesting. i'm wondering if anyone here has looked into the origins of the cross. from what i've found, the earliest references to that symbol are directly related to a n actual cross placed in the nile river for the purposes of having a visible marker for water levels. it became a symbol for life, fertility and regeneration as it was a direct visual connection to measure the source of life, the river water. the only tales of embarrassment i've heard regarding the cross are in this specific example given by mcgrath. i hardly think that this brief period in history would have completely revolutionized the way that people looked at the that symbol and then subsequently have that new perspective disappear at the supposed triumph of this new religion. historically, the cross has consistently been a positive symbol and as horrific a way as it was used for that period, it seems very illogical to assume that it would be viewed as an embarassment, especially if the accused was innocent. this all depends, of course, on if the cross in question was even the type commonly associated with the story today.

James F. McGrath said...

AIG, I think it is interesting to consider that a very large number of heavenly figures were invented during this period. In particular, angelic figures proliferated in astonishingly large numbers (not only in apocalyptic works but even more so in magical texts like the Sefer ha-Razim). So there is nothing at all implausible about that. But I still wonder how one gets from the creation of such a figure, or even a pre-existent Messiah like the "one like a son of man" in the Similitudes of Enoch, to a belief that that figure had lived in history and been crucified by Romans.

Jared, since I'm interested in plausible historical scenarios, perhaps you'd be so kind as to clarify. Do you think Christianity arose in Egypt? Or do you have evidence of the use of "water level crosses" or their symbolism in Jewish Palestine? Or is there something that I missed, to explain why you are ignoring the specific sort of cross mentioned in early Christian sources and focusing on something from another place and context? Why not just say that Christianity arose among drunken sailors who mistook the mast and mainframe? :)

AIGBusted said...

Hi James,

Here would be the most likely scenario for a heavenly figure to evolve into an historical person:

Myths and stories are told about this person to convey a symbolic/spiritual truth. For instance, he may turn water into wine to symbolize how God can take the ordinary and transform it into something special. When he dies the temple curtain tears in two. If you read Leviticus (I believe chapters 15 and 16) the area behind the temple curtain is the place where God dwells. So this story would symbolize how Jesus bridged the barrier between God and man.

Anyway, the mythicist position would maintain that all of the first gospel (Mark) is a symbolic myth, which was later misinterpreted as being a history. Things like this often happened in antiquity.