Paul, the Historicity of the Gospel Jesus, and Early Non-Christian Testimony

by Dawson Bethrick

 

 

 

The following comments are outtakes of my portion of a prolonged discussion I waged with a Christian (who calls himself Tim) regarding the legend theory of Christian origins and the challenge which early non-Christian testimony supposedly brings against it. This discussion began in response to Bart Willruth’s blog Where is the 800 pound gorilla? on Debunking Christianity.

 

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Harvey Burnett wrote: Bart, as I said before, your whole argument of Markaian Priori is unfounded and ONLY speculative and mythical at best. Because of that essential flaw, you fail to truly examine the life and historical narrative of Paul and the Pauline epistles, which more than adequately describe and convey the aspects of Jesus as found in the Gospels.

What "aspects of Jesus as found in the Gospels" do you have in mind here? In his blog entry, Bart presented an A-Z list of significant elements found in the gospel narratives that are completely absent from the Pauline epistles. I have presented an even longer list of Pauline silences on gospel details in one of my blog entries. (I didn't restrict my list to an alphabet...;)

That the gospel of Mark predates the other three canonical gospels is quite difficult to deny. Also, that the epistles of Paul were written before the gospel of Mark is widely accepted, and for many good reasons. Paul's letters clearly antedate the canonical gospels. But what "aspects of Jesus as found in the Gospels" do those letters give us?

Take for example the aspect of Jesus' miraculous birth. According to Christianity, Jesus' virgin birth is a very important aspect of Jesus. But where does Paul even hint at it? According to the gospels, Jesus amassed to himself a group of 12 disciples who traveled around with him in his missionary work. Where does Paul even hint at this? According to the gospels, Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot. Where does Paul "adequately describe and convey" this? How about Jesus' miracles, his sermon on the mount, his parables, his temptation in the wilderness, his exorcisms, his hesitation at Gethsemane, Peter's denials, the two malefactors who were crucified next to Jesus, his words from the cross, the spear thrust into his side, the earthquake, the unnumbered and unamed saints who came crawling out of their graves upon Jesus' death, Joseph of Arimathaea, the female witnesses, an empty tomb, etc.? Where do these "aspects of Jesus as found in the Gospels" show up in any of Paul's letters?

These details are legendary developments which most likely post-date Paul's letters and were finally accepted by the Christian community at large well after he was on the scene. What Bart has called the Pauline Problem is in fact a smoking gun. The problem is easily missed by Christians because the ready Paul's letters through gospel-colored goggles, as Doherty puts it. Entire congregations assume that the order of the books of the New Testament is the order in which they were written, when in fact that is simply not the case.

Regards,
Dawson

 

10:52 AM, March 06, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Bart,

In your blog, you wrote:

Was the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols really more fundamental than the claim that God had been recently incarnated? A war had recently been fought over that very claim. To claim that anyone or anything in the material realm could have ontological correspondence with the Most High was anathema.

Your points here, in the context of the Maccabean rebellion, are very significant. In the Acts of the Apostles, we find Peter converting thousands of Jerusalem Jews to Christianity through a series of speeches (which, incidentally, quote the Septuagint's misrendering of the OT). Of this, Wells writes:

 

Peter's speeches in the early chapters of Acts go down extraordinarily well. He declares that "God foreshewed by the mouth of all the prophets that his Christ should suffer" (3:18). One might expect Jews to regard this as stretching their scriptures more than a bit. But no, Peter's audience accepted it in their thousands (4:4). This speech, and his previous one at Pentecost, have sufficed to Christianize what has been calculated as one fifth of the then population of Jerusalem. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, pp. 90-91)

 

This scenario all seems so wholly unlikely, given the issues prompting the rebellion of the Maccabean Jews. If equating a man with God constituted such a violent flash point among the Jews, how could they be so easily persuaded by the speeches which the book of Acts put into Peter's mouth? And what independent testimony corroborates that such mass conversions of Jerusalem's Jewish population were taking place at this time? The stories we find in Acts seem at the very least quite exaggerated, if not wholly fictitious.

Regards,
Dawson

 

11:38 AM, March 06, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Harvey,

Thanks for the number counts. However, you should realize that the case for Markan priority does not rest on statistical percentages of verbatim linquistic recurrences. But feel free to wave your flags; in fact, that's precisely what I would expect from someone who has a most insecure confessional investment to protect. So you're right on schedule.

Regards,
Dawson

 

2:12 PM, March 06, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Jessy wrote: i think why Banshen doesn't bye your argument as valid is because it doesnt matter, that fact does not validate the Bible as the word of god because that little truthy nugget is dime a dozen in myth-stories.

Whether or not the gospel of Mark holds priority over the other synoptics is ultimately of little value to my overall view. Where Doherty may be regarded as a "mythicist," I can be regarded as a "legendist" - I think it's clearly the case that the stories we read in the gospels and the book of Acts are the product of legendary developments, regardless of whether or not Mark came first, regardless of whether or not there was ultimately a human being named Jesus which initially inspired sacred stories messianic heroism. So Harvey's claim to victory is in vain if he think he's making a major dent in my view.

Regards,
Dawson

 

3:11 PM, March 06, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Harvey,

Thanks again, this time for the long list of quotes. In fact, they help seal the case for legendary development. You quote statements attributed to Jesus in the gospels and similar statements found in Paul's letters side by side. But don't you see what's missing? When Paul gives his teachings, he does not indicate that Jesus had ever taught them - particularly in the situations in which the gospels cast Jesus teaching them. What happened is that later writers took these teachings from Paul's letters and put them in Jesus' mouth in narrative form, which we know today as the gospels.

You yourself quoted Romans 15.7: "For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision"

Paul tells us explicitly that it is his own teaching that he gives here.

The gospel writers borrowed from other sources, such as Paul's letters, to inform the theology they put into Jesus' mouth.

Again observe Wells on this very topic:

 

Paul gives it as his own view (Rom. 13:8-10) that the law can be summed up in the one Old Testament injunction "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." According to Lk. 10:25-8, Jesus himself taught that love of neighbor (together with love of God) ensures salvation; but one could never gather from Paul that Jesus had expressed himself on the matter. In 1 Thess. 4:9 it is not Jesus but God who is said to have taught Christians to love one another. And in the injunction not to repay evil for evil but always to do good to all is given in the same epistle (5:15) without any suggestion that Jesus had taught it (as according to the gospels he did in the Sermon on the Mount). In his letter to Christians at Rome Paul says "bless those that persecute you" (12:14 and 17) and "judge not" (14:13). Surely in such instances he might reasonably be expected to have invoked the authority of Jesus, had he known that Jesus had taught the very same doctrines. (The former doctrine is ascribed to him at Mt. 5:44 and Lk. 6:28, and the latter at Mt. 7:1 and Lk. 6:37.) In the same epistle he urges Christians to "pay taxes" (13:6), but does not suggest that Jesus had given such a ruling (Mk. 12:17). It is much more likely that certain precepts concerning forgiveness and civil obedience were originally were originally urged independently of Jesus, and only later put into his mouth and thereby stamped with supreme authority, than that he gave such rulings and was not credited with having done so by Paul and… by other early Christian writers. (The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 33.)

 

You wrote: But not only did Paul know (and repeat) Jesus' teaching--often almost verbatim!--he constantly pointed his readers to the life of Christ as an example to follow.

Where does Paul attribute the teachings he gives to Jesus? He either quotes the OT, attributes the teachings to heavenly God (not to an earthly incarnated Jesus) or states the teaching as his own.

So, Harvey, unwittingly, you've pointed to yet another smoking gun here.

I'm glad these aren't my problems.

Regards,
Dawson

 

12:48 AM, March 07, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Tim wrote: Simple answer: he doesn't have to, since everyone he is writing to already knows who he's talking about.

How can we know what details the immediately intended audiences of Paul’s letters (e.g., the congregation at the Corinthian church, etc.) knew about Jesus? Are we to just assume that they knew Paul’s Jesus to hail from Nazareth, for instance, or that his Jesus was born of a virgin? What would justify such assumptions when Paul himself nowhere refers to either Nazareth or a virgin birth?

Keep in mind that Paul warned his churches of competing views of Jesus. In II Cor. 11:4 Paul wrote:

 

For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.

 

Similarly, in Gal. 1:6 he wrote:

 

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel

 

These passages indicate that there were different gospels and different theologies circulating at the time. It is clear from Paul’s letters that he was weary of these competing traditions and that he wanted his congregations to be weary of them too. So today’s Christians should resist the reckless expedience of simply assuming his congregants knew certain details about the Jesus Paul was preaching, especially when those details are completely absent from Paul’s own letters. It is entirely possible that the Jesus traditions which later found their way into the gospels we find in our bibles today numbered among those traditions which Paul rejected.


Tim wrote: Paul was converted within just a few years of Jesus' crucifixion.

Does Paul say this? Or, are you simply reading Paul with gospel-colored glasses – thus begging the question? Show us where Paul – in his letters – puts a date or place to Jesus’ crucifixion and to his own conversion.


Tim wrote: Looks like he missed the part about Mark 14 and 1 Cor 11. It is a piece of luck for us that the Corinthian church was so screwed up on this point that Paul decided to remind them of the historical origin of the Lord's Supper, thereby demonstrating his familiarity with the details of the life of Jesus.

Is this the only parallel that you can find which suggests that the Jesus tradition which Paul preached was the same Jesus tradition we find in the gospels? Christians are so ready to assume that Paul was reciting from the same gospel tradition we find in Mark, when in fact it is more likely the case that the author of Mark cribbed his Lord’s Supper idea from Paul’s letters.

Doherty points to I Cor. 11:23-26 as

 

the sole Gospel-like scene to be found in all of Paul’s letters.... Here Paul attributes words to Jesus at what he calls “the Lord’s Supper,” words identifying the bread and wine of the thanksgiving meal with Jesus’ body and blood. But is Paul recounting an historical event here? There are several arguments to be made that this is not the case, that Paul is instead describing something which lay in the realm of myth, just as the cult of the savior god Mithras had a myth about the establishment of its own sacred meal. In fact, the opening phrase of the passage points to Paul’s reception of this information through revelation, not through an account of others who were supposedly participants at such an event. (The Jesus Puzzle, p. 15)

 

Look at the opening statement of the passage again. I Cor 11:23 states: "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;”

Paul is telling us that he did not get his story of a supper from other human beings, such as the disciples which the gospels seat around Jesus in their version of the supper scene. So we would be entirely mistaken to assume that Paul is quoting from a tradition of men here. What would keep a later writer from using Paul’s description of a supper scene involving Jesus from inserting such a scene into the context of his fictional narrative of Jesus? What would keep a later writer from using the very words which Paul attributes to Jesus in his description of such a supper scene in his own invented version of the same? Paul provided the raw material which later writers interpolated into their narratives. Nothing in either I Cor. or the gospels necessitates that we suppose Paul was quoting from Mark (the gospel of Mark hadn't even been written yet!), and nothing in Paul’s rendition of the supper scene necessitates that we suppose he had “familiarity with the details of the life of Jesus” as found in the canonical gospel narratives (again, they hadn't been written yet!). To suggest that the supper scene in Paul’s letter demonstrates that Paul has familiarity with, say, the gospel of Mark, is as naïve as it is tenuous, and borders on apologetic desperation.

Now, Tim, you may still want to believe that Paul had “familiarity with the details of the life of Jesus” as we find it described in the gospel narratives. That’s fine and dandy. But here’s a friendly little challenge for you. Below is a list of details taken from the portrait of Jesus’ life as it is described in the gospels:

 

- Bethlehem (Jesus' supposed birthplace)
- a place called 'Nazareth' (as in "t;JJesus of Nazareth")
- a Roman census
- parents named Mary and Joseph
- angelic visitations to both Mary and JJosseph
- the Virgin Birth
- the Slaughter of the Innocents
- the Magi (they were magically summonedd tto meet the baby Jesus)
- John the Baptist
- Jesus' baptism
- Jesus' career as a carpenter
- Galilee
- Jesus' itinerant preaching ministry inn JJudea (didn't the apostle know about this?!)
- that Jesus was a teacher of morals - that Jesus taught in parables
- Jesus' prayers
- Jesus' many miracles (Paul nowhere hass hhis Jesus turn water into wine, stilling storms, feeding 5,000 or walking on lakes)
- Jesus' healings and cures (no mention off the blind receiving their sight, for example, after Jesus spits into dysfunctional eyes)
- Jesus' exorcisms
- Jesus' temptation in the wilderness - Mary Magdalene
- Nicodemus (mentioned only in the gospeel of John)
- Judas Iscariot (a key player in the leeadd-up to the passion story)
- Gethsemane (and Jesus' hesitation therre))
- a trial before Pilate
- Peter's repeated denials
- Jesus' flogging
- Jesus' crucifixion outside the walls oof Jerusalem
- a place called "Calvary" (meenttioned only in Luke 23:33)
- the two malefactors condemned with Jessuss
- Jesus' words from the cross
- the spear thrust in Jesus' side
- the darkness over the earth
- the earthquake
- the rising of the saints mentioned onlly in Matthew 27:52-53
- Joseph of Arimathaeea<
- Golgotha
- female witnesses
- an empty tomb (Paul never even mentionns an empty tomb!)
- Doubting Thomas

 

Clearly many of these details were thought by the gospel writers to be significant, for they appear in more than one gospel. But can you find any of these details in any of Paul’s letters? The gospels are very clear in putting a time and place setting to Jesus’ crucifixion, for instance. But can you find where Paul even hints at a time and place for his Jesus’ crucifixion? Many Christians are prone to respond that Paul would not have needed to “repeat” any of these details in his letters. But this retort implies that the gospel stories were written and circulating before Paul wrote his letters, which is certainly not the case. Had Paul mentioned that Jesus’ crucifixion took place outside the walls of Jerusalem, for instance, he would not have been “repeating” something that had already been written! And the argument that Paul would not have needed to "repeat" something already widely known also indicates a lack of familiarity with the texts in question: scripture is chock full of repetitions.

Paul warned in his letters that different gospels and different Jesus traditions were circulating in his day. He says quite little about what informed those competing gospels and Jesus traditions. When Paul characterizes his Jesus as having “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), are we to suppose that he thought his Jesus was going around performing miracles, as the gospels portray him? For Paul, Jesus’ life from incarnation to crucifixion represented base humiliation. But the gospel portraits characterize him as this powerful miracle-worker who earned a reputation as a teacher, a healer, a leader of a movement who amassed followers, etc. There’s no doubt that the Jesus we find in Paul’s letters is markedly different from the Jesus we find in the gospel stories. But just as this does not keep today’s believers from assuming they were one and the same, it did not keep the gospel writers from using Paul’s letters as a source for their portraits of Jesus.

Regards,
Dawson

 

4:10 AM, March 08, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Tim: So you concede that there is an event from Jesus' life recounted in one of the unquestioned Pauline epistles that corresponds in meticulous detail with the account in the gospels.

You’re overstating things here quite a bit, Tim. I do not “concede” that Jesus had a life to begin with. There's simply too many problems that Christians cannot successfully untangle. My position on the supper scene as it is described in Paul’s letter is wholly compatible with the *possibility* that Paul’s Jesus was in fact mythical, or at the very least that the supper scene he describes is legendary. It could easily be a motif that Paul borrowed from mystery religions of the day which featured sacred meals representing communion with a savior-deity. There were plenty around, and Paul was very probably greatly influenced by a wide range of different traditions.

Tim: That's a good start.

Good start? Toward what?

Tim: Note also that this event, with details both great and small, makes nonsense out of the idea that Jesus was a mythic person

How so? If a Harry Potter book describes Harry Potter eating a meal with his friends, does that mean Harry Potter is a genuinely historical personality?

Tim: -- and would do so even if we did not have the gospel accounts to corroborate it.

Please explain.

Tim: Of course, that will not stop the mythers.

So far, I’ve seen nothing from you, Tim, or from Harvey, or from the professional apologists I've read, which calls the mythicist theory into grave question. I know you want to believe Jesus was real, and as I said before, that’s fine and dandy with me. But what you believe is not necessarily an indication of actual history.

Tim: But this is the point at which they really do have to go down the rabbit hole and wind up in conspiracy theory territory in order to maintain their position.

I've never thought of this to be – nor have I asserted it as – a product of a concerted conspiracy. It may have been, but I think it was largely more innocent than what such characterizations implicate.

I asked: How can we know what details the immediately intended audiences of Paul’s letters (e.g., the congregation at the Corinthian church, etc.) knew about Jesus?

Tim: One good way is by looking at all of places where he makes allusions that they could not have understood unless they already knew the outlines of the story of the life of Jesus.

So, in other words, by inference from what Paul writes. That’s fine. Indeed, you’re essentially saying this is all we have to go on here. I agree – it is all we have to go on, and it’s not much at all. Were the congregants of the Corinthian church taught that Jesus was born of a virgin? How could we infer this from anything Paul writes? Were they taught that Jesus was crucified right outside Jerusalem? What in Paul’s letters suggests that they were taught this? Were they taught that Jesus traveled about Palestine performing miracles and healing the blind, lame and sick? What in Paul’s letters would substantiate the inference that they were?

What’s interesting is that you think there are things (“allusions”) in Paul’s letters that his immediately intended audience could not have fully understood if they did not know more about “the story of the life of Jesus.” That’s quite an admission, Tim. It makes me wonder why Paul didn’t include those details in his letters if in fact they were so important to his “allusions,” as you call them. You say below that he was not “writing memoirs of Jesus,” and yet you admit here that there were points in Paul’s letters that could not have been fully understood without knowledge of details which he fails to include in his own letters! Yikes, Tim! You’re all over the place.

I wrote: Look at the opening statement of the passage again. I Cor 11:23 states: "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;” Paul is telling us that he did not get his story of a supper from other human beings, such as the disciples which the gospels seat around Jesus in their version of the supper scene.

Tim: This is completely unpersuasive.

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. Are you supposing, contrary to what Paul himself writes in I Cor. 11:23, that he got his supper scene from Jesus’ disciples? That would make Paul a liar.

Tim: It is also characteristic of the sort of exegetical bullying in which the mythers routinely engage.

“...bullying...”?

Tim: Paul is pointing out that the solemnity of the Lord's Supper, which the Corinthians were abusing, has warrant from Jesus himself and is not Paul's own invention. There is nothing more here, certainly no grist for the mythers' mill.

The way I read it, Paul is explicitly claiming that he got his supper scene from “the Lord” – that is, from the risen Jesus – not from other human beings. It does not rule out the possibility that Paul invented it, or that he revised a tradition he borrowed from non-Christian religions to fit his own theology.

I asked: Are we to just assume that they knew Paul’s Jesus to hail from Nazareth, for instance, ...

Tim: Probably, since the coordination between the epistles and Acts leaves no doubt that both are substantially authentic records, and Paul refers to Nazareth in Acts 26:9.

For one thing, Acts was not written by Paul. It is, at the very best, a secondhand source insofar as Paul’s views are concerned, and at several points it contradicts what Paul himself writes in his letters. (See for instance Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, pp. 145-165.) So bringing Acts into the mix will only amplify the problems here. Acts is clearly a late document, one that a later writer wrote in an obvious effort to show a harmony between the Pauline camp and the Jerusalem elders which, according to Paul’s own letters, did not exist. Its stories of mass conversions of Jerusalem Jews upon hearing speeches attributed to Peter which quote from the Septuagint’s mistranslations of Hebrew texts is enough to call it into question. Acts’ story of Jesus’ ascension does not even agree with the finale in the gospel of Luke: the gospel of Luke has its Jesus ascend on the day of his resurrection, while Acts has Jesus linger around for some 40 days before ascending up in a cloud. But if “coordination between [Paul’s] epistles and Acts” is the strongest you have to go on, you must have a lot of faith to compensate for the damning shortcomings here.

I asked: ... or that his Jesus was born of a virgin?

Tim: That is uncertain.

Ah, is that because Acts – the only thing that could bail you out on the last point – is of no help here, and you’ve run out of reserves?

Tim: However, Paul refers to him as having been born of a woman (Galatians 4:4)

Indeed, which means: had Paul believed that his Jesus had a virgin birth, he had ample opportunity to affirm it in his letters. Indeed, while you maintain that Paul was “not writing memoirs of Jesus,” he still included scant details here and there that pertained to his incarnated life, whenever and wherever that may have taken place. See? Paul didn’t need to be “writing memoirs” to include the kinds of details I listed in my challenge to you.

Tim: and made of the seed of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3), which again forces the mythers to play exegetical Twister to evade the obvious fact that Paul considers him to have been an historic personage.

Paul does affirm Jesus as having come from “the seed of David according to the flesh,” but what’s remarkable here is that Paul himself indicates that he gets this view from the “prophets in the holy scriptures,” not from any contemporary tradition or narrative about Jesus’ life. There’s no game of “exegetical Twister” being played here – it’s quite plainly stated in the very book and chapter you cite. And as I understand the mythicist case, its proponents do not deny the view that Paul considered Jesus “to have been an historic personage,” rather they see Paul placing his Jesus in a non-earthly realm, contrary to the gospels.

I wrote: Nothing in either I Cor. or the gospels necessitates that we suppose Paul was quoting from Mark ...

Tim: And I never said he was.

That’s a good start! ;)

Tim: In fact, this was the very point I was waiting for Bart to clarify, when I pointed out to him that on one possible reading his "challenge" was unreasonable.

“...on one possibly reading his ‘challenge’ was unreasonable”? That doesn’t say very much. It allows for the possibility that on other readings his challenge is not unreasonable.

Tim wrote: Paul was converted within just a few years of Jesus' crucifixion.

I asked: Does Paul say this? Or, are you simply reading Paul with gospel-colored glasses – thus begging the question? Show us where Paul – in his letters – puts a date or place to Jesus’ crucifixion and to his own conversion.

Tim: He doesn't,

Right, he doesn’t.

Tim: but

I knew this was coming...

Tim: that is (a) irrelevant, since he is not writing memoirs of Jesus but rather epistles occasioned by doctrinal and behavioral problems in the various churches,

Paul did not need to be “writing memoirs of Jesus” to mention his crucifixion, did he? By your own acknowledgement, obviously not. As you say below, “Paul repeatedly refers to the crucifixion,” but nowhere once even hints at where it took place, when it took place, or any of the circumstances that we find in the gospel narratives. You want to dismiss this by saying Paul was “not writing memoirs of Jesus,” but one does not need to be writing memoirs to include such details.

Tim: and (b) unnecessary, as the coordination between the epistles, Acts, and Luke suffices to fix the dates within a few years

Where do Paul’s epistles do this? Where? You yourself have gone on record saying that Paul was not “writing memoirs.”

Tim: and that is all the precision necessary to support my statement.

What “precision” do you have in mind here? Can you fix a single date to any event described anywhere in the New Testament with any certainty at all?

Tim: This is not controversial.

Whether or not it’s controversial is hardly the point. If I were a Christian and I realized the breadth of Paul’s silences vis-à-vis the gospel narratives, I’d be pretty concerned about this. But then again, I’m not a Christian. To me, it’s a fascinating curiosity how Christians are so eager to ignore the problem. But even you cannot explain it away.

I wrote: Clearly many of these details were thought by the gospel writers to be significant, for they appear in more than one gospel. But can you find any of these details in any of Paul’s letters?

Tim: Paul repeatedly refers to the crucifixion, of course.

No one is contesting this, Tim. What is curious is that, unlike the gospels, Paul nowhere puts a setting to his Jesus’ crucifixion. He nowhere states where or when it happened. If we read Paul alone (as his initially intended audiences probably did), one could easily suppose that Paul’s Jesus lived centuries earlier in a completely different region of the earth – if in fact Paul thought he lived on earth.

Tim: He also refers to the burial and the resurrection -- two items you cleverly left off of your list.

I gather that you didn’t understand my list very well. My list itemizes elements found in the gospels which are *absent* in Paul’s letters. I grant that Paul mentions the resurrection and a burial. So there would be no reason for to have included them on my list.

Tim: As for the empty tomb, this is clearly implied (though not expressly stated) in 1 Cor 15.

How is an empty tomb “clearly imply” in I Cor. 15? Please, if nothing else, explain this one. If one were reading I Cor. 15 and had no knowledge of what the gospels say, how does one get any suggestion that a tomb was left empty from what Paul writes there? One does not need to be entombed in order to be buried. I suspect you’re reading details into Paul’s letters that are simply not there. This kind of carelessness is typical among the converted.

Tim: And he repeatedly uses language that parallel's Jesus' own sayings; some of that is documented in Harvey's list, above.

And I responded to this. If you read what I had stated, you would have seen my following statement: Paul provided the raw material which later writers interpolated into their narratives. Parallel expressions between Paul’s letters and the statements which the gospels put into Jesus’ mouth in no way seals the case for gospel authenticity. Remember that when Paul was writing his letters, the gospels were not written yet. So Paul could not have been quoting from them. Since the gospels were written well after the time of Paul, his letters may have been available for later writers to draw from. Statements in Paul’s letters thus inspired certain teachings we find in the gospels, which would explain the similarities. What’s telling, however, is that when Paul gives those teachings – as I showed above – he did not attribute them to an incarnated Jesus. So there are several factors here which come together quite nicely to buttress my position, none of which you’ve been able to explain.

Tim: Why should we expect anything more from an author of occasional letters to different people prompted by concrete situations? Do we find this, or require it, in the letters of Pliny?

I’m not an expert on Pliny, nor do I really care what Pliny’s habits were. Christians certainly do not hold Pliny to be divinely inspired. But they do hold Paul to be divinely inspired. Paul claimed this for himself. If that’s the case, why does his Jesus differ so markedly from the Jesus we find in the gospels? What did the competing traditions which Paul rejected teach about Jesus? We know from his letters (cf. II Cor. 11:4, Gal. 1:6) that rival views about Jesus were circulating at the time. If Paul taught the truth, how do we know that certain traditions which wound up in the gospel narratives weren’t among these traditions which Paul rejected? I marvel, Tim, that you are so willingly removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel.

Tim: Honestly, Dawson, you need to do some reading in secular history in order to get a better grip on the way that documents written independently and for different purposes coordinate with each other.

I’m not sure what this statement is supposed to accomplish. It does nothing to overcome the gaping silences in Paul’s letters. And I see that you have not taken up my challenge. Should I consider this a closed matter, then, that you concede my point?

Regards,
Dawson

 

9:47 PM, March 08, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Harvey: FACT:First, we have an unbroken line from the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, through Paul and the other apostles, into the early second century with Papias, Polycarp, Ignatius, and the Didache (an early apostolic teaching document). Even Doherty agreeS that some of Pauls letters were written well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Christ, including his testimony of the bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Can you give us a quote from Doherty? What specifically does Doherty say, and where does he say it? Where does Doherty characterize the risen Jesus mentioned in I Cor. 15 as a “bodily resurrection”? Is this a “bodily resurrection” here on earth, according to Doherty? Please, quote and cite your sources.

Harvey: FACT: The apostle Peter, himself an eyewitness, commended Pauls letters and includes them with other Scripture (the Old Testament) as Gods Word:

"our Lords patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:15-16)


II Peter is largely acknowledged to be both late and pseudonymous. That it was written by an unlearned Jewish fisherman is more than a stretch. Of the passage you quote, Wells writes:

 

The writer... places himself on a level with Paul, whom he designates as his “beloved brother” (3:15) [“dear brother” in the version which Harvey quotes]. This indicates a time when Peter and Paul were regarded, from a later date, as the chief apostles of the church – as in Acts or the letters of Ignatius – a time when the church had become aware of its distance from the first Christian generation and had no idea of how sharp the conflicts between the leading personalities of that generation had been. That the author of 2 Peter was in fact no contemporary of Paul is revealed from his knowledge of a collection of Pauline epistles which he designates as “scriptures” (3:15-16), a word writers of the first century had reserved for the Old Testament and its Apocrypha, and which they never used for the books of the New Testament. (The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 86)

 

Harvey: FACT: In his Acts of the Apostles, the evangelist Luke affirmed that the teachings of Paul agree with the teachings of the apostles, who were eyewitnesses of Christs ministry, miracles, and resurrection.

And this conflicts with what Paul himself writes in his letters, where he documents deep-ranging conflicts with the Jerusalem leadership (particularly with Peter). Acts is a late document attempting to portray the earliest generation of Christians in a kind of “golden age” retrospective. It doesn’t work.

Harvey: FACT: Paul himself acknowledged in his letter to the Romans that there were Christians whose conversions predated his. He pointed out that they agreed that the Gospel he preached is the same Gospel they believed from the same Christ they saw resurrected. There is a continuity of teaching and testimony from the eyewitnesses through Paul and the other apostles.

Who saw Christ resurrected? Even the gospels do not put an eyewitness to Jesus being resurrected. According to the gospel narratives, Jesus was resurrected in a sealed tomb.

As for eyewitnesses, who were those eyewitnesses, what specifically did they see, where did they see it, and when did they see it? If you’re going to claim eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus, we need to look at these details. If you’re going by what Paul wrote (such as in I Cor. 15), you won’t find any details; he mentions these things in passing, and most of his claimed eyewitnesses are left anonymous (cf. the 500 unnamed brethren).

Harvey: FACT: Papias, Polycarp, and the other earliest church fathers claimed either to have known the apostles themselves or to have known those who knew the apostles

Okay, so what? People can claim a lot of things. Oral Roberts claimed to have seen a 900-foot-tall Jesus. Should we believe everything people claim?

Harvey: FACT: To discount the testimony of the earliest fathers, who affirmed the apostles, who affirmed Paul, who themselves are affirmed by the liberal critics, is to discount the very critics to whom Doherty appeals!

Can you cite some specific instances of this?

You mentioned that we “buy hook line and sinker” all of “stupid Doherty and his argument,” but you’ve not established either that either Doherty or his argument is stupid, or that we “buy” his argument “hook line and sinker.” One can be skeptical of Doherty’s grand conclusion and yet recognize that he uncovers many damning facts in the process. As for buying a position hook, line and sinker, that seems to be what Christians themselves do, and what they want us to do. So, you’re a fine one to charge others with hypocrisy.

Harvey: QUESTION: Should we believe the eyewitnesses who affirmed Paul, HIS MESSAGE AND WHO HE WAS SPEAKING ABOUT AND who was affirmed by the other apostles, who were affirmed by their immediate successors, whose words are preserved in our earliest church writings;

What eyewitnesses do you have in mind here? Who were they, what are their writings, how do you document that the writings you cite are actually from the hands of contemporaries of Paul, and what specifically were they claiming?

Harvey: or should we believe "DOODLE DUMB WRITE A STUPID BOOK SO HE CAN GET RICH" Doherty, the NUT who undercuts HIS OWN ARGUMENT?

Doherty is just one man. It is amazing how much venom believers generate against him. He has only two books. Look at how many Christians are pumping out books by the dozens. Are they doing it just so they can get rich? This is amazing!

Anyway, Harvey, you’ve provided enough entertainment for now. I really find very little substance to vouch for your wild castigations.

Regards,
Dawson

 

11:18 PM, March 08, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

I wrote (regarding the historicity of Jesus): There's simply too many problems that Christians cannot successfully untangle.

Tim: I haven’t seen any yet that would cause an educated Christian – or an educated non-Christian – to break a sweat.

This is a personal admission, Tim. Try opening your eyes and broadening your horizons. What do you take as proof that the Jesus of the New Testament actually existed?

I wrote: My position on the supper scene as it is described in Paul’s letter is wholly compatible with the *possibility* that Paul’s Jesus was in fact mythical, or at the very least that the supper scene he describes is legendary.

Tim responded: It’s also compatible with the *possibility* that Tinky-Winky invented time travel to go back and plant the story in 1st century documents. Bare possibilities are non-starters in this sort of discussion.

Not in my book. There is plenty of evidence throughout human history for invention of myth, legend and fiction. There is no evidence that Tinky-Winky built a time machine.

I wrote: It could easily be a motif that Paul borrowed from mystery religions of the day which featured sacred meals representing communion with a savior-deity. There were plenty around, and Paul was very probably greatly influenced by a wide range of different traditions.

Tim responded: This is nonsense on stilts. There are so many problems with the suggestion that Paul borrowed that scene from the mystery religions that it is a complete non-starter.

Care to name a few of those problems for us, Tim? How is it so outlandish to suppose that Paul could have taken ideas from other religious traditions? People do this all the time. There’s much evidence to suggest that the early Christians were influenced by other religious ideas. Rash dismissals will not make that evidence go away.

I wrote: If a Harry Potter book describes Harry Potter eating a meal with his friends, does that mean Harry Potter is a genuinely historical personality?

Tim responded: Of course not. But the fact that you think this is pertinent to the actual recounting of the story of the institution of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians shows that you do not have the faintest idea what it takes to do history.

Then go back to your own statement on this point. Recall what you had stated:

Note also that this event, with details both great and small, makes nonsense out of the idea that Jesus was a mythic person

You seem to have been saying that the mere presence of “details both great and small” somehow substantiates the claim that the supper scene we find in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was a real event.

As for having “the faintest idea what it takes to do history,” an important step in securing a historical claim is to distinguish it from a fictional account. I’m asking you to do this in the case of the supper scene we find in Paul’s letter. If you are so adept at “doing history” yourself, this should be easy for you to do. Paul doesn’t even give a time or place for his supper scene. He does indicate that it took place at night, but this would be expected if the scene was intended to have allegorical value. But Paul doesn’t give any indication of a setting beyond this. So if it was a real event, where and when did it take place? Later Christians would try to give it a setting by incorporating it into their gospel narratives. But once we get to the gospels, there is so much evidence of invention and legend-building that they are pretty much worthless as history.

Tim: -- and would do so even if we did not have the gospel accounts to corroborate it.

[Dawson:] Please explain.

Tim responded: Mythical people do not have real suppers. Paul is obviously recounting a real event that served to institute a ritual being practiced in Corinth in the 50s.

You assume precisely that which you’ve been called to substantiate. It’s true that mythical persons do not have real suppers. But how do you show that the supper scene that Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthian church actually took place? Was Paul there? Remember that Paul says he got his gospel directly from the Lord. He writes in Gal. 1:11-12:

But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

And as I pointed out, Paul repeats this very point when he introduces the supper scene in I Cor. 11.

So if Paul wasn’t there (he doesn’t even claim that he was), and he didn’t get this tradition from other Christians (such as the disciples that the gospels seat around Jesus in their versions of the supper scene), it could have been a vision for Paul, one which was actually influenced by other religious traditions which were common at the time. It would have been very easy for Paul to attribute such a vision to a revelation from his Jesus. How would Paul be able to distinguish between what he called a revelation of Jesus and what he might have merely been imagining, for instance? I’ve seen many believers do this in church. They swear that Jesus is standing right there next to them as they pray and tarry. How do I know they’re not imagining?

I wrote: So far, I’ve seen nothing from you, Tim, or from Harvey, or from the professional apologists I've read, which calls the mythicist theory into grave question.

Tim responded: From what I’ve seen, Dawson, you do not have the equipment that would be necessary to tell whether the mythicist theory is viable.

Empty statements like this are plentiful in your comments, Tim. What kind of “equipment” would I have to possess and demonstrate to you in order to show that I have what is required “to tell whether the mythicist theory is viable”? And how do you know what kind of “equipment” I have? You’ve not been able to answer any of the points I’ve presented so far. You do realize that, don’t you?

I wrote: I know you want to believe Jesus was real, and as I said before, that’s fine and dandy with me. But what you believe is not necessarily an indication of actual history.

Tim responded: What I want has nothing to do with it: it’s a matter of the overwhelming evidence in its favor.

Okay, then let’s see what you consider to constitute overwhelming evidence. Don’t just assert that overwhelming evidence is out there. Identify it. Show some confidence in your position.

I had asked Tim how we can know what details the immediately intended audiences of Paul’s letters, such as the Corinthian church, knew about Jesus. He suggested that “one good way is by looking at all of the places where he makes allusions of the story of the life of Jesus,” which I take to mean that we can infer what the church congregations knew from clues from Paul’s own writing. Tim insists that there’s more than just mere inference of this nature, however. When I suggested that such inference is essentially all we have to go on, he retorts:

Not at all; there are many more lines of evidence. We have the gospels, which encapsulate the story as it was likely told at the time; we have the book of Acts, which gives us more information that ties together the sources behind some of the gospels with the founding of the church; we have the history of the heretics, who by their very deviations from the traditional position help to show us what that position was.

Over and over again, Tim demonstrates that he can’t keep up with the issues that have been brought forward. The gospels and the book of Acts were not around in Paul’s day. Paul nowhere cites them, nor does his portrait of Jesus at all resemble the Jesus described in the gospels. If Tim thinks there’s something in addition to inference from Paul’s letters to determine what his church congregations may have known about Jesus, he needs to find something contemporary with Paul to point to. Curiously, Tim mentions heretics. But how do we know what constituted heresy at the time in question? Paul repeatedly warned his churches of rival traditions of Jesus, of competing gospels that threatened to rob them of their salvation. Tim seems quite selective about which allusions in Paul’s letters he’s willing to take seriously. If we take his allusions about “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (cf. II Cor. 11:4) seriously, then we should be more careful about the issues in question than simply assuming that Paul’s churches had been nursed on narratives like the gospels and the book of Acts. The gospels say nothing about churches outside of Palestine, and the book of Acts is literary invention. So neither of these sources help Tim’s case.

I wrote: I agree – it is all we have to go on, and it’s not much at all. Were the congregants of the Corinthian church taught that Jesus was born of a virgin? How could we infer this from anything Paul writes?

Tim responded: As I said, this is uncertain, though on the whole I think it is likely that at some point before A.D. 70 the virgin birth was known at least among the Jewish Christians. But what of it?

To say that it is “uncertain” whether or not the members of Paul’s church missions were taught that Jesus was born of a virgin, suggests that you might think they had been taught this, but simply cannot substantiate it with anything explicit. Is that the case? If so, what do you think suggests that Paul’s churches were taught that Jesus was born of a virgin? Also, why do you suppose that “it is likely that at some point before A.D. 70 the virgin birth was known at least among the Jewish Christians”?

You ask “what of it?” If the detail about Jesus being born of a virgin were a later Christological development, it can safely be classed as an element of legend. And the gospel record supports this: the gospel of Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ birth, whether virginal or otherwise. If he believed Jesus was born of a virgin, it would be very hard to explain why he deliberately left this detail out of his gospel. The gospels of Matthew and Luke wanted to give their Jesus a miraculous beginning, so they gave him a virgin birth. Curiously their accounts differ greatly with each other at this point. The gospel of John completely ignores the virgin birth, and puts its Jesus’ beginning in the heavenly realm. You can trace the development of the portrait of Jesus through the texts of the New Testament: the legend of Jesus grows with each retelling.

I wrote: Were they taught that Jesus was crucified right outside Jerusalem?

Tim: They wouldn’t have needed to be: this was the event at the founding of Christianity. It was common knowledge.

How do you substantiate this? What indicates to you that it was “common knowledge” that Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem during the time of Paul’s missionary work? Again, you fail to grasp the nature of the challenge that has been proposed: you continue to look at Paul’s letters through gospel-colored glasses.

I asked: What in Paul’s letters suggests that they were taught this?

Tim: Misdirection: there is no need for Paul to discuss it.

This card can be played both ways: there was no need for Paul to tell us in his letters that his Jesus was crucified in a supernatural realm – everyone was already taught this. That would explain why Paul never puts the crucifixion in the locale of Jerusalem’s environs.

I asked: Were they taught that Jesus traveled about Palestine performing miracles and healing the blind, lame and sick?

Tim responded: Very likely, as these are themes in early sermons from Pentecost onwards.

Again, you’re appealing to traditions that post-date Paul by decades. This only tells me that your explanation of how we can determine what Paul’s churches knew of Jesus – namely inference from what Paul wrote in his letters – is insufficient to support your own position. That’s a big give-away, Tim.

I asked: What in Paul’s letters would substantiate the inference that they were?

Tim: Allusions.

Please list some. What allusions in Paul’s letters substantiates that Paul’s churches were taught that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he was crucified outside Jerusalem? Come on, Tim, stop pretending.

I wrote: What’s interesting is that you think there are things (“allusions”) in Paul’s letters that his immediately intended audience could not have fully understood if they did not know more about “the story of the life of Jesus.”

Tim agreed: Yup.

I wrote: That’s quite an admission, Tim.

Tim responded: Not really: it’s a commonplace among those who have studied the epistles.

Specifically what is “commonplace among those who have studied the epistles”? Admissions like the one you just tried to downplay? At one point you try to explain away Paul’s deafening silences by saying he wasn’t “writing memoirs,” while on the other hand you suggest that his letters are full of “allusions” (none of which you specify) that substantiate the assumption that his churches were taught things such as the virgin birth, a crucifixion outside Jerusalem, etc.

I remarked: It makes me wonder why Paul didn’t include those details in his letters if in fact they were so important to his “allusions,” as you call them.

Tim responded: If Paul was trying to communicate with his audiences, he would not allude to things that he did not expect them to understand. He did allude to them; he was trying to communicate; therefore he expected them to understand them.

This doesn’t speak to the issue before us at hand. You say that “allusions” to Jesus’ life as the gospels portray it were necessary for Paul’s immediately intended readers to understand certain things he was trying to communicate, and yet you specify no examples of this. Why is that?

I wrote: You say below that he was not “writing memoirs of Jesus,” and yet you admit here that there were points in Paul’s letters that could not have been fully understood without knowledge of details which he fails to include in his own letters!

Tim: Right. You think there is a problem with this?

So far, the problem is that you don’t come through with any examples to help buttress your point.

I wrote: Yikes, Tim! You’re all over the place.

Tim responded: Actually, the problem here is entirely inside your own head, Dawson. People do write letters to other people and, in the course of those letters, mention events that are common knowledge without also writing out histories.

Exactly, Tim! Paul didn’t need to be “writing out histories” in order to include details like those which I included in my list. So the “he wasn’t writing memoirs” line is insufficient to explain these silences. Preachers and pastors do this all the time today: they will pepper their sermons with details pulled from the gospels when speaking to Christian audiences to make their points concrete and thus easier for the congregant to remember so that they can be applied in their daily lives in the world outside the church. Your pop flies aren’t even reaching the outfield, Tim. You’re out before you even make it halfway to base!

I had written: Look at the opening statement of the passage again. I Cor 11:23 states: "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;” Paul is telling us that he did not get his story of a supper from other human beings, such as the disciples which the gospels seat around Jesus in their version of the supper scene.

Tim responded: This is completely unpersuasive.

I then asked: I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. Are you supposing, contrary to what Paul himself writes in I Cor. 11:23, that he got his supper scene from Jesus’ disciples? That would make Paul a liar.

Tim now writes: No. I am supposing, contrary to what you wrote, that Paul is not saying that the entire supper scene in its details was directly revealed to him by Jesus, since this reading of εγω γαρ παρελαβον απο του κυριου, though possible, does not seem to me to be the most plausible way to understand the expression in this context. But I would not insist on this point; nothing important rides on it in any event.

What is the alternative reading that you find “most plausible” here, and why? You don’t even suggest what that alternative reading might be. You simply say that the plain reading of the text isn’t the most plausible way to understand it. Do you think that Paul got his supper scene from other human beings? If so, why? If not, then what’s the fuss with the way I’m understanding what Paul writes here?

I had asked: Are we to just assume that they knew Paul’s Jesus to hail from Nazareth, for instance, ...

Tim responded: Probably, since the coordination between the epistles and Acts leaves no doubt that both are substantially authentic records, and Paul refers to Nazareth in Acts 26:9.

I then wrote: For one thing, Acts was not written by Paul. It is, at the very best, a secondhand source insofar as Paul’s views are concerned, ...

Tim now writes: You say that like it’s a bad thing.

“Bad”? It depends on your goal. If your goal is to point to Acts as documentation of the assumption that Paul believed Jesus to hail from Nazareth, I’d say it’s pretty bad. Obviously you cannot point to anything in Paul’s own letters to support such an assumption. Pointing to Acts, with all its problems, is admittedly the best you have for your position, which wouldn’t give me much comfort.

I wrote: ... and at several points it contradicts what Paul himself writes in his letters. (See for instance Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, pp. 145-165.)

Tim responded: I don’t think this would matter much as far as its general reliability, but having read Wells’s books quite closely years ago I am inclined to think that Wells is probably wrong about most of his claims of conflict between Paul’s epistles and the rest of the NT. However, I do not have access to that one right now.

So contradictions between the record of Acts and Paul’s letters wouldn’t “matter much as far as [Acts’] general reliability”? Your faith serves very well as a pair of blinders, Tim. You say you’ve read Wells’ books “years ago,” which I have no reason to dispute. But you now say he “is probably wrong about most of his claims of conflict between Paul’s epistles and the rest of the NT.” Can you give us some specific examples of where Wells is wrong on this matter? Can it be that you would simply prefer to *believe* Wells is wrong here? By the way, Tim, Wells is not the only one to point out major discrepancies between Acts’ record and the Pauline epistles. Wells is very careful to cite numerous authorities not only to support his case, but to inform many of his points of contention.

I wrote: So bringing Acts into the mix will only amplify the problems here. Acts is clearly a late document,

Tim responded: Sorry, I think this claim is insupportable.

Can you give some reasons why? It is generally agreed to have been written after Luke’s gospel, and Luke’s gospel is certainly no early document. Have you really studied these things, Tim?

I wrote: ] ... one that a later writer wrote in an obvious effort to show a harmony between the Pauline camp and the Jerusalem elders which, according to Paul’s own letters, did not exist.

Tim responded: I’ve heard that one too; not impressed with the arguments that this was the purpose of Acts.

The purpose of Acts was to paint the story of the spread of Christianity after the point where Luke’s gospel ends. By this point in time, Paul’s theology had already become widespread – even Acts agrees with this. Paul’s own letters document several points of doctrinal contention with the Jerusalem church. Acts glosses over these disputes in order to paint a picture where all the early Christians were “with one accord,” happily professing and preaching the same thing everywhere they went. It is obvious literary invention.

I wrote: Its stories of mass conversions of Jerusalem Jews upon hearing speeches attributed to Peter which quote from the Septuagint’s mistranslations of Hebrew texts is enough to call it into question.

Tim protested: This is nonsense. The Septuagint was the translation accepted by Hellenized Jews at the time.

This explains why Greek-speaking Christians would have used it as a source instead of the Hebrew scriptures. It does not undo the fact that the Septuagint contains mistranslations of the latter.

Tim continued: It was only later, and partly as a result of the rise of Christianity, that the Jews switched focus to the Masoretic text.

This is irrelevant, and fails to address my point about Acts’ Peter (and James, too) wowing thousands of Jerusalem Jews with mistranslations of their holy scriptures.

I wrote: Acts’ story of Jesus’ ascension does not even agree with the finale in the gospel of Luke: the gospel of Luke has its Jesus ascend on the day of his resurrection,

Tim responded: No, it doesn’t; it is simply very vague on the time frame.

Luke nowhere indicates that even a single day had passed between his resurrection and his ascension. The entire context is that of one day’s events. It is not “simply very vague on the time frame,” such that it allows for the 40 day stretch that Acts inserts between these events. Inserting such an interval in Luke’s version would completely break the flow of the final movements and sayings of Jesus.

I wrote: ... while Acts has Jesus linger around for some 40 days before ascending up in a cloud.

Tim quips: Finally something you got right.

So far, you’ve not shown me wrong on any point, Tim. At points when you charge me of being wrong, you offer no details. Rather, you just assert that I’m wrong, or that you’re unpersuaded, or that there’s some alternative reading, etc. But you give no specifics to support these charges. You offer empty dismissals.

I wrote: But if “coordination between [Paul’s] epistles and Acts” is the strongest you have to go on, you must have a lot of faith to compensate for the damning shortcomings here.

Tim: Produce some actual shortcomings, as opposed to recycling unpersuasive drivel, and we can talk about them.

See above. But what good will my efforts be if you simply dismiss them as “unpersuasive drivel”? This kind of talk is what I would expect from an untutored novice who is afraid to deal with the issues because of their impact on his confessional investment. It’s not the kind of talk one expects from someone who is seriously determined to get to the truth on these matters.

Tim asks: Meanwhile, how are you coming on Resch’s list of over 1,000 parallels?

I’ve seen dozens of lists of purported parallels between the early epistolary record and the later narrative record. Whether Resch’s or someone else’s, I cannot recall specifically. But mere citation of parallels between these layers is irrelevant, and the fact that you seem to think parallels are significant only suggests to me that you haven’t really grasped the issue here. I don’t dispute the incidence of parallels between these layers. Parallels are to be expected if the later narratives drew on the earlier sources to inform literary invention. So you can cite 10,000 parallels if you like. But that will not undo the fact that we observe increasing level of details as the portraits of Jesus develop over time. For Paul, Jesus is an otherworldly figure who existed in some unspecified past. The gospels put him explicitly in first century Palestine, something Paul nowhere does.

As I read through the rest of Tim’s comment, it’s more of the same: he continues to miss numerous points, begs the question by assuming what he has been challenged to substantiate, and retreats behind unsubstantiated dismissals. I can only suppose that he is not very serious about this kind of discussion, but rather is deeply anxious to protect something he’s afraid to have exposed.

It seems that the more we look at this 800 pound gorilla, the more we find that we've underestimated its weight.

Regards,
Dawson

 

1:06 AM, March 10, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

I wanted to make a few more points to show that Tim has apparently misunderstood much of what I have been arguing.

Tim had written: And he repeatedly uses language that parallel's Jesus' own sayings; some of that is documented in Harvey's list, above.

I responded: And I responded to this. If you read what I had stated, you would have seen my following statement: Paul provided the raw material which later writers interpolated into their narratives.

Tim now writes: I think you need to make up your mind whether there are so few parallels between Paul’s epistles and the gospels that they aren’t even referring to the same person or whether there are so many that the gospels were built up around the letters. It doesn’t make much sense to try to have it both ways.

Statements like this only confirm all the more that you have not understood my points, but this is not due to my lack of explanation. I’ve been very careful and patient with you, Tim. The parallels between the early epistolary layers, represented chiefly by Paul’s letters, and the later narratives like the gospels, are not in the details that I put in my list. Rather, they are in various teachings, mostly moral and theological teachings, which Paul tried desperately to expound, but which the later writers sought to concretize in their narratives of an earthly Jesus by putting them into his mouth in the context of events they invented for allegorical and didactic purposes. I give an example of this below.

I wrote: Parallel expressions between Paul’s letters and the statements which the gospels put into Jesus’ mouth in no way seals the case for gospel authenticity.

Tim responded: Sure helps, though.

Not if the gospels were taking statements Paul makes on his own behalf and inserting them into their Jesus’ mouth.

I wrote: Remember that when Paul was writing his letters, the gospels were not written yet. So Paul could not have been quoting from them.

Tim responded: Plausibly so, though there is some evidence to suggest that the Aramaic version of Matthew was already published.

What is that evidence? Is there any evidence that Paul had access to it when he was far away on his journeys? Do you think Paul was quoting teachings from Jesus as found in this Aramaic version of Matthew, and yet failed to attribute those teachings to Jesus?

Tim continued: Some of the places where Paul's language corresponds more closely to Luke's gospel than to Matthew's or Mark's also suggests that Paul may have seen portions of what Luke was writing. But I would not insist on this.

Couldn’t it be the case that Luke had possession of copies of Paul’s letters, and took various passages from those letters to inform speeches he invented and placed in Jesus’ mouth? I see this vastly more plausible than the supernaturalism required on the literalist Christian reading of the texsts. The historical record is just as it would need to be if this is what happened, showing a consistent pattern of development, both in detail as well as in theology and also in the portrait of Jesus, with the passing of the Pauline generation and the emergence of the gospel and later generations. We already know that the author of Luke was pro-Pauline. It would not have been at all difficult for him to take elements from Paul’s letters, such as Rom. 13:9’s injunction “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” and stick them in Jesus’ mouth (as he does in Luke 10:27). Paul nowhere indicates that he got this teaching from an earthly incarnated Jesus; he nowhere attributes the teaching to Jesus at all. But in the later strata we find Paul's teachings put in Jesus' mouth. These are siezed upon by apologists as "corroborating parallels" when in fact they are a smoking gun. Examples of this kind of cribbing are found all over in the gospels. Moral teachings found in the earliest strata of the NT are later attributed to Jesus, whereas in the earliest strata where they are originally found, one could never learn from those sources that Jesus had ever spoken on the matters they touch. Do these produce “parallels” between the strata? Of course. But notice that they do not place the details that I listed in the earliest strata; those details came later, as the result of literary invention.

I wrote: Since the gospels were written well after the time of Paul, his letters may have been available for later writers to draw from. Statements in Paul’s letters thus inspired certain teachings we find in the gospels, which would explain the similarities.

Tim responded: This suggestion is really far out, and it reinforces my earlier comparison between mythers and conspiracy theorists. Why should anyone think this?

How is it “really far out” to entertain the possibility that later writers used earlier writings as a source of content and inspiration for their own writings? We find evidence of expansion on themes throughout much of the New Testament. New Testament authors are constantly using Old Testament themes and quotes in their own writings. 2 Peter enlarges on portions of Jude. Etc. This is hardly controversial.

I wrote: What’s telling, however, is that when Paul gives those teachings – as I showed above – he did not attribute them to an incarnated Jesus.

Tim responded: This is ambiguous. If all you mean is that Paul doesn’t stop and say, “Oh, and by the way, this Jesus – he was corporeal,” then sure.

I’m talking about parallel moral teachings, Tim, like the ones Wells cites in the passage I quote from page 33 of his book The Historical Evidence for Jesus. Neither you nor Harvey have addressed that statement. The parallels are not in details like miracles, healings, travels in Galilee, a temptation in the wilderness, the virgin birth, crucifixion outside Jerusalem, John the Baptist, Joseph of Arimathaea, etc., etc., etc. These details are exclusive to the gospels and later strata. They are not paralleled in Paul’s letters.

Tim wrote: Many of the arguments you are trying to make in this discussion depend on principles that will not stand up to a comparison with the evidence.

What are these offending principles that you have in mind, where do my arguments depend on them, and how do they not stand up to a comparison with the evidence? Specifically, what do you consider ‘evidence’ here? We have texts. To call them evidence, we need to be clear what we mean by ‘evidence’ here. Evidence specifically for what?

Regards,
Dawson

 

2:36 AM, March 10, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

I had written a response to Tim’s 11 March comment directed to me, but at the time I decided not to post it because dialoguing with him has become so worthless. So I did not post it. It’s clear that he doesn’t grasp the essence of my points.

In this comment, I wanted to respond to Harvey’s point that the (alleged) fulfillment of OT prophecies by the gospel Jesus is simply too improbable to he a coincidence (that seems to be the brunt of the case he’s trying to make). Harvey wrote:

The chances are 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. Which is equivalent to taking as many silver dollars as it would take, and cover the state of Texas with them until it was 2 FEET deep. Then mark ONE Silver Dollar, stir the coins up thoroughly all over the state, put a blindfold on a man, tell him he can travel as far as he wishes wihin the state but he MUST pick out the ONE marked coin... In other words There's NO CHANCE one man could have fulfilled all of these 8 prophecies yet alone the ADDITIONAL 40 in his lifetime with the percision that was done unless HE IS GOD.

By making the matter an issue of probability, Harvey undercuts his own position quite severely. Consider the scenario he uses to illustrate the sheer remoteness of the probability he ascribes to Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecy. If I told Harvey that, under the conditions he describes, I know someone who found the one marked silver dollar in the 100,000,000,000,000,000 coins that buried the state of Texas on the very first draw, would Harvey believe me? According to Harvey’s own statement, apparently not, for he insists that “There’s NO CHANCE one man could have” done this – either find that one coin, or that “one man could have fulfilled all of these 8 prophecies.” It seems that Harvey himself is telling us that this is not to be believed, given the proportions of the stated improbability. It is just a made up story that the guy I know found the coin on the first try. If we grant the astronomical improbability of this happening that Harvey insists we accept, then other explanations become more probable, such as that the story of the guy finding the one marked coin out of 100,000,000,000,000,000 is either mistaken, false, or simply fabricated.

With respect to the so-called fulfilled prophecies found in the gospel portrait of Jesus, Harvey says this is 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. What is the probability that a writer or group of writers pulled phrases and statements from the OT and assembled them into a literary narrative which is at the end of the mere fiction, but which on some interpretations appear to be a portrait distinguished by the fulfillment prophecy? I’d say a whole lot better than the probability that Harvey wants to ascribe to one man the fulfillment of the 8 so-called prophecies that he has in mind. And if midrash were a developed technique of re-interpreting sacred texts, as Bart has rightly pointed out, then the probability that the so-called “fulfilled prophecies” that we find in the gospel portraits of Jesus are at the end of the day a literary invention, significantly eclipses the excessively remote possibility that Harvey has claimed for his interpretation of the same.

So on Harvey’s own premises, we should be quite skeptical of his position to say the least.

Regards,
Dawson

 

11:44 AM, March 15, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

That's fine, Tim. I agree that the following remarks made by Tyro to you on 12 March indicate what impartial readers of our exchange are more likely to conclude:

I've been disappointed that, even after over 100 comments in this thread, the mythicists use evidence while historicists use Arguments from Authority or personal attacks.

Regards,
Dawson

 

5:23 PM, March 15, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Tim,

You wrote: The comment would be just if the defenders of the traditional position had not already occupied the historical high ground.

I believe Tyro’s comment was specifically in regard to the performance of “historicists” in the present comments thread. I took this to include Harvey as well as you, since you seem so anxious to protect the view that the portrait of Jesus found in the gospels is historically accurate. Over and over again in your responses, you demonstrate that you don’t really grasp the major points that have been raised in this thread. I have explained this repeatedly, and in none of your follow-up comments have you overcome the habit of reading the early epistolary strata through gospel-colored glasses. You want to claim “the historical high ground,” but your own performance in this thread indicates that such a claim buckles readily under the pressure of the questions Bart, I and others have raised.

You also wrote: As the case actually stands, however, the mythers must try desperately to explain away the historical evidence found in Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Juvenal --

What evidential value do you think can be found in Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Juvenal in regards to the claim that the portraits of Jesus in the NT gospels are historically accurate? Let’s deal with specifics, I’d be happy to examine it with you.

As for “mythers” having to “try desperately to explain away the historical evidence” found in these authors, I’ve examined for instance Doherty, Wells and other skeptics on these sources, and I see no indication of desperation in their treatment of these issues. On the contrary, they seem more than willing to explore them and interact with literalist defenses of their alleged value as evidence for the Christian view. In fact, Doherty devotes an entire chapter to Josephus in his book The Jesus Puzzle (see pp. 205-222). Wells dedicates a chapter of his book The Jesus Myth (see pp. 196-223) to “The Earliest Non-Christian Testimony,” and deals specifically with Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus. Josephus is a topic that has been raked over so thoroughly in the literature that it seems silly to rehash it. But it seems to impress you for some reason; why it does is not clear to me. Suetonius references a “Chrestus” in Rome during Claudius’ reign (AD 41-54), and many take this to mean the Jesus of the gospels. However, he nowhere mentions a “Jesus,” and even if “Chrestus” is taken to mean “Christ” or “Messiah,” that this passing reference somehow confirms the portraits of Jesus found in the gospels seems more than a stretch (perhaps desperation?). The relevant writings of Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus all date from after the beginning of the second century, and it is already granted that by this time stories about a Jesus had been circulating. So when Tacitus mentions a “Christ who, in the reign of Tiberius, had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate,” he may very well have been reporting what he learned from Christians he had interviewed, thus reporting what Christians at that time had come to believe. All these points have been considered and debated over and over again, they certainly pose no threat to the mythicist or other critical positions, and I find no evidence of the desperation you affirm to exist in the critical literature.

Indeed, Tim, it seems that if Christians had something stronger than appealing to these relatively late and non-contemporary sources to corroborate the gospel stories, they would. But they don’t because there is no independent contemporary witness to the gospel stories. What’s interesting is that writers who would have been contemporaries of the gospel Jesus, like Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) and Philo Judaeus (20 BC – 50 AD), never mention Jesus. And yet, it seems that if Jesus had indeed garnered the international reputation at the time that the gospels ascribe to him, we might well expect such contemporary authors to take notice.

Tim continued: not to mention the Gospels, Acts, the epistles

These have already been dealt with above and in the sources that have been cited.

Now, earlier you had stated that there are “allusions” in Paul’s letters to details on the list that I gave from which we can infer that Paul’s audiences knew of those details. I’m still waiting for you to present some examples of this, and to defend this claim. So far, it seems you have abandoned this position. Is that true?

Regards,
Dawson

 

12:44 AM, March 16, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

I wrote: What evidential value do you think can be found in Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Juvenal in regards to the claim that the portraits of Jesus in the NT gospels are historically accurate?

Tim: You’re changing the subject, which is whether Jesus existed.

I see now where you’ve gotten yourself confused in this thread. If you review what I’ve been stating, I’ve been quite consistent in defending the position that the gospels are legends, not the view that Jesus never existed. I have nowhere presented an argument with the purpose of concluding that Jesus never existed. I made this clear early on in my comments in this thread when I wrote in response to a comment by Jessy:

 

Where Doherty may be regarded as a "mythicist," I can be regarded as a "legendist" - I think it's clearly the case that the stories we read in the gospels and the book of Acts are the product of legendary developments, regardless of whether or not Mark came first, regardless of whether or not there was ultimately a human being named Jesus which initially inspired sacred stories messianic heroism.

 

I think Doherty makes a lot of good points, even if one rejects his mythicist conclusions. And as I pointed out to Harvey, One can be skeptical of Doherty’s grand conclusion and yet recognize that he uncovers many damning facts in the process.

So if you’re going to dialogue with me, Tim, you might want at least to get my position straight.

Tim: My point was not that the tone of the attempts is desperate but rather that the arguments exhibit the sort of overreaching that indicates an inability to argue the case within the ordinary canons of historical investigation.

Thanks for clarifying your statement. But still, you give no example of what you’ve charged against Doherty, Wells and others in the mythicist camp. As for “ordinary canons of historical investigation,” can you show us what you have in mind here, and where and how Doherty, Wells and other mythicists defy or flout these?

Tim: I’ve read Wells’s discussions carefully, and I’m completely unimpressed.

If you’ve read Wells, then you should know that he bases many (if not most) of his points on conclusions and admissions made by many authorities in history and apologetics. One can hardly read a paragraph in one of Wells’ books without encountering a damning statement from highly respected sources.

Tim: The Josephus denials are particularly weak in view of the discovery of the uninterpolated Arabic text of the Testimonium.

I’m not sure what you mean by “Josephus denials” here, but even if we suppose that the Testimonium is authentic, specifically what value is it?

Tim: Does it bother you just a little bit that the attempts by the mythers to “deal with” these sources have been dismissed by every serious historian to have looked at the issue, including conservative Protestant, liberal Protestant, liberal Catholic, agnostic, and atheist historians?

This is a common tactic on the part of apologists: assume that all “serious historians” are monolithic in their views and also in their condemnation of “the attempts by the mythers to ‘deal with’ these sources.” You say that Doherty’s attempts “have been dismissed by every serious historian” who has looked into these issues, which is more than just a general statement. Where’s your support for this? Is the mark of a “serious historian” his dismissal of Doherty’s attempts? If so, then you offer a mere tautology. Is there something more substantial that you have to support your statement? I don’t know, for you don’t give anything to support it here.

I wrote: Suetonius references a “Chrestus” in Rome during Claudius’ reign (AD 41-54), and many take this to mean the Jesus of the gospels.

Tim: And rightly so.

How is that “rightly so”? How does a passing reference to “Chrestus” serve to indicate specifically the Jesus of the gospels? How does a passing reference to “Chrestus” mean specifically someone who was born of a virgin, who was baptized by John the Baptist, who performed miracles and healed congenital blindness, who was the Son of God, etc.? These elements are part of the identity of the Jesus of the gospels. How can we take Suetonius’ reference to “Chrestus” as confirmation of the truth of the gospels’ portraits?

I wrote: However, he nowhere mentions a “Jesus,”

Tim: Why would you expect him to do so?

It’s not about what I expect of Suetonius, it’s about what he says and also about what he fails to say. “Christ” was a title indicating a station, “Jesus” is a name of a person.

I wrote: ... and even if “Chrestus” is taken to mean “Christ” or “Messiah,” ...

Tim: Chrestus” is a known variant on “Christus,” which is the Greek term used to translate mashiyach in the Septuagint, so there is little room for doubt here.

That’s fine. But again, what value is it as evidence? Evidence specifically for what?

I wrote: ... that this passing reference somehow confirms the portraits of Jesus found in the gospels seems more than a stretch (perhaps desperation?).

Tim: Here again you are misrepresenting my position and trying to shift the subject from the existence of Jesus to the accuracy of the gospels.

My point has always been the vast discrepancy between the early epistolary strata and the portraits we find in the gospels, Tim. So I’m not really shifting anything. In fact, I’m trying to bring the discussion back to my point.

Tim: If you are giving up on the mythic theory, we can move on.

Can you find any statement of mine where I affirm the mythic theory? Again, you seem to have missed some of my own comments, and thus are not fully aware of my position. It really makes no difference to me whether Jesus was a myth or originally a real person.

Tim: Otherwise, you are going to have to make your case, and that will have to include, inter alia, giving a historically credible explanation of the non-Christian references.

Why do I specifically have to do this? What is so historically incredible about Doherty’s, Wells’ and others’ treatments of these references? You’ve asserted that they are overreaching, that “every serious historian” rejects them, that they are untenable or what have you, over and over again. But I’ve not seen anything specific here to suggest that Doherty and Wells in particular have gotten these things wrong. It’s not enough to claim that “every serious historian” rejects them. Such claims need ample substantiation, given their universality, and you’ve not even begun to take up this task.

I wrote: The relevant writings of Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus all date from after the beginning of the second century, and it is already granted that by this time stories about a Jesus had been circulating. So when Tacitus mentions a “Christ who, in the reign of Tiberius, had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate,” he may very well have been reporting what he learned from Christians he had interviewed, thus reporting what Christians at that time had come to believe.

Tim: I have been unable to find anyone outside of the myther community who accepts this claim regarding Tacitus.

RT France, a respected NT scholar who is no friend of the mythicist position, calls Wells’ case for Tacitus’ reference to “Chrestus” as coming either form interviews with Christians or from hearsay about what they believed “entirely convincing” (The Evidence for Jesus, p. 23). In his The Historical Figure of Jesus, EP Sanders – another NT scholar – admits that “Roman sources that mention Jesus are all dependent on Christian reports” (p. 49), where Suetonius’ mention of “Chrestus” is taken to mean Jesus.

Now what is the alternative that you prefer, and what evidence do you have for that alternative? Many apologists take the unsupported position that Tacitus looked it up in Roman records. But why then would he refer to Jesus as “Chrestus”? Would the Roman records have stated that ‘the Christ’ or ‘the Messiah’ was crucified? Would the Roman records have inaccurately given Pilate the title “procurator”?

Tim: His description in Annals 15.44 is hostile, even contemptuous. It bears no sign of having been obtained from interviews of Christians.

Either way, the very use of “Chrestus” – if this is supposed to refer to the Christian messiah – strongly suggests that Roman records were not the source of Tacitus’ information about a person being crucified under Pilate. Also, giving Pilate the title “procurator” also speaks against this. So, if not from interviews with Christians, or hearsay that he gathered from conversations with persons acquainted with what Christians believed by this time, what do you take as Tacitus’ source of information here, and why?

I wrote: All these points have been considered and debated over and over again,
they certainly pose no threat to the mythicist or other critical positions, ...


Tim: In the judgment of virtually every historian who has ever looked into the question, they are fatal to the mythicist position.

Well, until you present “the judgment of virtually every historian who has” not only “looked into the question,” but who has reviewed Doherty’s, Wells’ and other mythicists’ points on these non-Christian references, we only have your judgment that these references are “fatal to the mythicist position.” These references are relatively late, well into the time when at least one or two of the gospels were in circulation, well into the time when the legend of Jesus had grown to the point of setting his crucifixion under Pilate. So they certainly are not damaging to the legendist case that I would defend, so I don’t see how they would be damaging to the mythicist case either. When Wells backed away from the mythicist case, it surely was not because of a passing reference to “Chrestus” in Suetonius.

I wrote: What’s interesting is that writers who would have been contemporaries of the gospel Jesus, like Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) and Philo Judaeus (20 BC – 50 AD), never mention Jesus.

Tim: Here we have another common move of the mythers, the argument from silence.

As corroborative evidence, argument from silence is not necessarily fallacious or invalid. In the proper context, it can be quite damning.

Tim: Again, this will impress those with no firsthand knowledge of history, since they are likely to assume that a writer could not fail to mention such a person as Jesus had he really existed.

It’s not only that they fail to mention Jesus, who’s fame (according to the gospels) had spread quite far during his own lifetime, but also the slaughter of the innocents or “a night of the living-righteous-undead” (as one commentator puts it), both of which only Matthew reports.

Tim: But the assumption is exploded by examples from secular history. Thucydides, for example, never mentions Socrates, though from our point of view Socrates was the principal character in Athens during the twenty years embraced in the History. No historian concludes from this silence either that Socrates did not exist or that Thucydides was inventing his history.

I would be more impressed by this as an attempt to bolster your effort to downplay deafening Pauline silences if Thucydides had written volumes about Socrates but failed to mention that he was a teacher, a philosopher, a thinker, etc. That would be closer to what we find in Paul vis-à-vis the gospels: here we have numerous letters achingly preaching about Jesus, but nowhere do they speak of Jesus as a teacher, a miracle-worker, a healer, an exorcist, etc., etc., etc. As the Jesus cult grew, so did the stories about who he was and what he did. That’s very characteristic of legend-building, and the pattern we find in the NT is precisely what we would expect to find if the gospels and later writings were the product of legend-building.


I wrote: And yet, it seems that if Jesus had indeed garnered the international reputation at the time that the gospels ascribe to him, ...

Tim: The gospels ascribe an international reputation to Jesus within his lifetime?

Are you faulting me specifically for using of the word “international” here? The gospels speak of Jesus’ fame spreading throughout the region, from Palestine and Galilee and into Syria and other places (see Mt. 4:24; 9:26, 31; 14:1; Mk. 1:28; Lk. 4:14; 4:37; 5:15, et al.) My point is that Jesus’ reputation as a healer and miracle-worker, according to the gospels, reached far and wide during the lifetime the gospels give to him. Gospel passages which speak of Jesus’ fame in this manner are most likely the product of evangelistic exaggeration. Paul's Jesus, on the other hand, was "emptied" and lived in obscurity.

Tim: Dawson, have you ever read the gospels?

Yes, both as a believer (in my misguided youth), and now as a non-believer. Glancing back at my 20’s, I now wonder, “What was I thinking?” whenever I look at the gospels. I know many others who have asked themselves the same question.

Tim: Yet again you are misrepresenting my position, a habit that you indulge sufficiently often that it is no wonder if sane people eventually abandon the attempt to have a discussion with you. I never said that Paul alludes to the details on your list.

You are welcome to clarify what you meant by ‘allusions’ then. Recall that I had asked:

How can we know what details the immediately intended audiences of Paul’s letters (e.g., the congregation at the Corinthian church, etc.) knew about Jesus?

And you responded:

One good way is by looking at all of places where he makes allusions that they could not have understood unless they already knew the outlines of the story of the life of Jesus.

I was hoping you could give examples of what you mean here.

Tim: By your own admission, you constructed the list to include details that were left out of the gospels.

Huh? The details on my list (e.g., virgin birth, born in Bethlehem, the slaughter of the innocents, Jesus’ baptism, female witnesses, etc.) are taken from the gospels, not “left out of the gospels.” I think you meant to say “left out of Paul’s letters,” no?

Tim: As I pointed out to you above, this renders your list worthless (unless you have been inadvertent) since it is very easy to construct a similar list for any letter or set of letters dealing with a real figure from history about whom we have extensive independent documentation.

You’ve claimed this before, but I can think of no parallel situation to Paul’s letters preaching about Jesus. For Paul, Jesus was not just some person who existed in the past that he mentions in passing in a letter or two. Paul is preaching, and he’s preaching Jesus crucified and resurrected, and the portrait he paints of Jesus is nondescript by comparison to what we find in the gospels. The silences we have in Paul are much harder to explain than supposing this is a common practice in secular writings. Paul repeatedly issues moral teachings, and while he nowhere attributes those teachings to the earthly Jesus, we find in the gospels that evangelists have taken those teachings and thrust them into Jesus’ mouth, in order to give those teachings authority (apparently those teachings were not thought to be good enough on their own).

Tim: This variation on the argument from silence provides no evidence that the figure was not real: all that it establishes is the tautology that Paul did not mention the things in the gospels that he did not mention.

As I have stated before, and apparently need to state again, whether or not there was a real man named Jesus at some point in history prior to Paul’s writings who originally inspired a cult of religious hero-worship, is really of no concern to me. I’ve gone on record more than once in this thread declaring that my position is that the gospel stories are the product of legend-building, not that Jesus never existed.

And Paul’s variant portrait of Jesus as compared to the gospels has much greater value than the mere tautology you grant here. But the fact that you grant that Paul is silent on numerous details that are central to the portrait of Jesus given in the gospels, is sufficient admission for my purposes to confirm that my position has a valid basis.

Tim: The only interesting question is whether there are sufficient reasons to identify the person of whom Paul speaks with the person of whom the gospels speak.

And this is essentially the question I’ve been raising, Tim. If you go back and review the themes that I have been developing in my comments here and in my writings elsewhere, you’ll see that the question you mention here is quite topical.

Tim: For that, Harvey’s list of allusions to features of the life of Jesus that are also depicted in the gospels gives you a good place to start.

And I’ve interacted with Harvey already above. Harvey seemed unaware of my point that later evangelists were in the position to lift elements from Paul’s letters – such as the moral teachings I mentioned above – and incorporate them into their portrait of Jesus in the gospels. Over and over, the historicists seem unable to grasp this point, which I don’t think is that difficult to grasp.

Regards,
Dawson

 

3:43 PM, March 16, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Tim,

I've been busy all day with doctor appointments both for myself and for my daughter, so you'll have to forgive me for not responding to everything you wrote to me in your comment above. Had I the luxury of unbounded time, I would be happy to devote more to considering your points. For now, this is all I'll be posting at this time.

Tim: I took you, I think naturally enough, to be siding with the mythers to this extent: that you disbelieve that there is abundant evidence that a real messianic teacher named Jesus, who stands behind the gospel accounts (whether they are legends or memoirs), existed in Palestine in the first quarter of the first century.

I’m not sure how I could have been clearer than when I said the following of my position:

 

the stories we read in the gospels and the book of Acts are the product of legendary developments, regardless of whether or not Mark came first, regardless of whether or not there was ultimately a human being named Jesus which initially inspired sacred stories [of] messianic heroism.

 

 

Tim wrote: I’ve read Wells’s discussions carefully, and I’m completely unimpressed.

I responded: If you’ve read Wells, then you should know that he bases many (if not most) of his points on conclusions and admissions made by many authorities in history and apologetics. One can hardly read a paragraph in one of Wells’ books without encountering a damning statement from highly respected sources.

Tim: Not on Josephus, as I recall.

I’m sure your memory is a fine one, Tim, and that you do a lot of reading. One problem with reading a lot (I suffer from this myself) is that after a while it is sometimes hard to remember where you’ve read something that you remember reading. But I’ll give a for instance here. In his interaction with JP Meier’s criticisms, Wells, in his The Jesus Legend, quotes among others S. Mason (Josephus) several times (at length on p. 50, again on following pages), paraphrases a position maintained by JN Birdsall (p. 51), and RE Brown (p. 54). That’s just one of Wells’ books. The statements by these scholars which Wells cites are all favorable to his points in response to Meier.

Tim wrote: The Josephus denials are particularly weak in view of the discovery of the uninterpolated Arabic text of the Testimonium.

I responded: I’m not sure what you mean by “Josephus denials” here, but even if we suppose that the Testimonium is authentic, specifically what value is it?

Tim: In the uninterpolated version of Agapius? Let’s see. It tells us that Jesus was a real Jewish teacher around the time of John the Baptist. It characterizes him as wise, says that his conduct was good, and indicates that he was known for his virtue. It tells us that many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. It tells us that he was condemned to death by crucifixion by Pontius Pilate, that his disciples did not abandon their discipleship after his crucifixion, and that he was reported by his disciples to have appeared to them alive three days after his crucifixion. Not bad, eh?

This is just a recap of what the Testimonium states. But I take this to mean that you think not only that the Testimonium is authentic, at least Agapius’ version, but also that what it states is true. Is that correct? This puts a two-fold burden on you. Although it dates from the tenth century, the version you specify is often taken to be authentic because it is supposedly less complimentary to Christians, and therefore less likely to be a Christian insert. That’s a pretty weak argument, so hopefully you have something better than this. Needless to say, the existence of Agapius’ version of the Testimonium or its downplayed tone does not undo the fact that the first Christian to quote it is Eusebius, in the fourth century. The Jewish biblical scholar S. Sandmel points out that “although Church Fathers quoted Josephus frequently, and this paragraph would have suited their purposes admirably, yet they never quoted it” (We Jews, p. 18). Feldman notes that several Fathers from the second and third centuries used Josephus’ works, but they “do not refer to this passage [the Testimonium], though one would imagine it would be the first passage that a Christian apologist would cite” (Josephus, p. 695). For these and many other reasons, the Testimonium is considered to be a Christian interpolation.


Tim wrote: Does it bother you just a little bit that the attempts by the mythers to “deal with” these sources have been dismissed by every serious historian to have looked at the issue, including conservative Protestant, liberal Protestant, liberal Catholic, agnostic, and atheist historians?

I responded: This is a common tactic on the part of apologists: assume that all “serious historians” are monolithic in their views and also in their condemnation of “the attempts by the mythers to ‘deal with’ these sources.” You say that [mythicists’] attempts “have been dismissed by every serious historian” who has looked into these issues, which is more than just a general statement. Where’s your support for this?

Tim: I did name a dozen sources early in this thread when I was interacting with Tyro on the subject. How many did you need?

You said “every.” How many are there? Only a dozen?


I asked: How can we take Suetonius’ reference to “Chrestus” as confirmation of the truth of the gospels’ portraits?

Tim: Indirectly: it places Jesus on the ground within a specified window of time, roughly 5 B.C. to 35 A.D.,

Suetonius does not even name Jesus, but mentions a “Chrestus” in a passing comment, and his doing so does so much more than anything in all of Paul’s writings. Paul writes many letters preaching Jesus, and yet nowhere fits him in such a time range. This is dismissed by saying that Paul wasn’t writing memoirs about Jesus. Was Suetonius writing memoirs about Jesus? I’m inclined to agree with Wells when he writes: The historian Suetonius may fairly be represented as saying that under the Emperor Claudius (who died A.D. 54) there were disturbances in Rome between Jews and Christians concerning the claim being pressed by Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. But no more about the ‘historical’ Jesus need have been included in this Christianity of Claudius’s day than what extant Christian writers (Paul and others) were saying before the gospels became established later in the first century; and this much does not confirm their portrait of Jesus as a preacher and wonder-worker in Pilate’s Palestine. (The Jesus Legend, pp. 40-41) Naturally I expect you to class this explanation into the group of “desperate” attempts to “explain away” what Christian apologists like to take as “evidence” for truth of the NT. And yet, I see it as stemming from a concern for, among other things, avoiding anachronism.

Consider: The statement refers to Jews (not “Christians”) in Rome during Claudius’ reign (AD 41-54), to a “Chrestus” (not to Jesus) who had influence over these Jews. Were these early Christians in Rome? Perhaps. What were they taught? Who knows. How long were they there? Who knows. Who missionized them? Were they worshippers of a recently crucified Jesus? If one wanted to believe the gospels’ portrait of Jesus, it would be easy to fill in these blanks with gospel-inspired answers. But is that warranted by what Suetonius actually writes? I’m not persuaded that it is.

Tim: This means that documents written about him within the next generation or two are less likely to be complete forgeries, as there were people who would have known the actual facts and been able to correct the misstatements.

Isn’t this itself an argument from silence, Tim? It seems you’re arguing to the effect that, since we don’t have anyone coming forward and challenging the statement, we can rest assured that no one did, no one could have, or no one would have disagreed? Statements that a person writes are not suddenly broadcast – especially back in the second century – to everyone who might be interested as soon as they’re penned.

I observed: However, he nowhere mentions a “Jesus,”

Tim asked: Why would you expect him to do so?

I then responded: It’s not about what I expect of Suetonius, it’s about what he says and also about what he fails to say. “Christ” was a title indicating a station, “Jesus” is a name of a person.

Tim now asks: Why should this observation have weight?

If “Chrestus” is supposed to mean “Christ” (and for all I know, it very well could have), it still only references a title, not a specific individual named Jesus. Paul himself, in his letters as I have pointed out, warned his congregations about rival gospels, rival Jesuses, rival Christs. Whether Suetonius thought “Chrestus” or “Christ” was a proper name seems irrelevant, for he was reporting what he had learned, and a misunderstanding – whether Suetonius’ own or one he inherited from his own sources – won’t help us here.


Tim wrote: Chrestus” is a known variant on “Christus,” which is the Greek term used to translate mashiyach in the Septuagint, so there is little room for doubt here.

I asked: That’s fine. But again, what value is it as evidence? Evidence specifically for what?

Tim responded: For the existence, in the first quarter of the first century A.D., of the person about whom Paul was writing and about whom the gospel stories, whether true or false, were written.

The way I read the passage in Suetonius, it could easily be taken to mean that the “Chrestus” under whose influence the Jews of Rome were causing unrest, was still alive, even present with them. Am I being outlandish here?

Here’s the Latin: “Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit.”

Here’s the English translation: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”


I asked: What is so historically incredible about Doherty’s, Wells’ and others’ treatments of these references?

Tim: Aside from the intrinsic weakness of some of their arguments, particularly the arguments from silence, the problem is that they need to explain all of the secular data away. If any one of them is a genuine independent reference to the same person to whom the gospels refer, then the mythic theory is shot. Now, one or two might be explained away, particularly if they were both from one source and an argument could be made that this source was unreliable or derived information entirely from Christian writings. But every additional reference from another non-Christian source adds to the implausibility of the attempt to explain them away.

I disagree. None of the non-Christian references are early. In fact, most are from the second century and later. The best of them only testifies that Christians existed, not that the miracle-working Jesus of the gospels was a real person. Also, I have reviewed Doherty’s and Wells’ interactions not only with the references in question, but also with apologetic treatments hoisting them up as evidence for a historical Jesus, and I do not find their explanations at all “desperate,” as you had indicated earlier. It could simply be that we have different contexts of judging the material in question, but from what you’ve provided, I’m unpersuaded that anything I’ve read in either of these two authors is really such a stretch.

I wrote: RT France, a respected NT scholar who is no friend of the mythicist position, calls Wells’ case for Tacitus’ reference to “Chrestus” as coming either form interviews with Christians or from hearsay about what they believed “entirely convincing” (The Evidence for Jesus, p. 23). In his The Historical Figure of Jesus, EP Sanders – another NT scholar – admits that “Roman sources that mention Jesus are all dependent on Christian reports” (p. 49), where Suetonius’ mention of “Chrestus” is taken to mean Jesus.

Tim: First, a point of fact: Tacitus uses “Christus,” not “Chrestus.”

Thanks for the correction – you can tell I’m multitasking like crazy to try to participate here.

Tim: Second, a point of interpretation: I said that I couldn’t think of anyone who accepts the claim that Tacitus was reporting what he learned from Christians he had interviewed, which is what you said in the statement to which I was responding. France doesn’t quite say this: what he says instead is that it came either from interviews with Christians or from hearsay.

Understood. My point in my above statement was that Tacitus was essentially reporting what Christians at that time had come to believe. How specifically Tacitus learned it – whether through firsthand interviews with Christians, or from hearsay, etc. – is ultimately immaterial to the point I was trying to make. But keep in mind that Tacitus was governor of the province of Asia ca. AD 112-113 and, as Wells surmises, "may well have had the same kind of trouble with Christianity that Pliny experienced as governor of nearby Bithynia at that very time.” He notes Hengel’s statement that “Tacitus’ precise knowledge of Christians and his contempt for them are probably to be derived from the trials of Christians which he carried out when he was governor in the province of Asia,” and concludes: “To decide from his ‘hostile tone’ that his information does not derive from Christians, is entirely unwarranted.” (The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 17; Wells quotes Hengel’s Crucifixion, p. 3).

Tim: The Sanders quotation strikes me as an overstatement (how could he know this?),

I think that’s a fair question, but as a respected source, don’t you suppose he has his reasons for making such a statement? Or, is it the case that even scholars are capable of overstating their case?

Tim: but on the Tacitus question, both Sanders and France come down more on your side of this question than I had thought anyone responsible did.

So there you have your answer.


I wrote: It’s not only that they fail to mention Jesus, who’s fame (according to the gospels) had spread quite far during his own lifetime, ...

Tim: I see we’re down from “an international reputation” to “quite far.” Actually, in his own lifetime Jesus was essentially a nobody from the standpoint of the Roman world.

“International” does not by definition denote all nations; rather, it means involving two or more nations. And that is the impression I get from the NT passages I cited.

I wrote: ... but also the slaughter of the innocents

Tim: Yes, assuming that the account in Macrobius is derivative from Christian sources – but again, as this amounted probably to only a small number of children, there is no particular reason to think it would be recorded in Roman sources; and as for Josephus, he has greater crimes in the same vein to lay to Herod’s account.

So, there is admittedly no corroboration of the slaughter of the innocents – even in the NT (Matthew being the only one who mentions it) – but we can be sure it happened all the same, because Matthew includes it in his gospel. Got it.

I wrote: or “a night of the living-righteous-undead” (as one commentator puts it), both of which only Matthew reports.

Tim: A baffling passage, I admit. But aren’t we slipping over here from a discussion of whether the gospels give a substantially accurate portrayal of Jesus to a discussion of inerrancy?

No, inerrancy is not where I was going with this. The point is that the gospel of Matthew is an excellent example of the kind of legend-building I’m talking about. There are numerous details in Matthew’s gospel that are so “baffling” (as you yourself put it) that they embarrass many believers. In my experience, Christian apologists don’t want to touch these points with a ten-foot pole.

Tim: Paul isn’t writing volumes about Jesus: he is writing letters to churches.

Paul is by far the most prolific writer of the New Testament. In terms of volume (i.e., quantity, as I intended the use of the term in my statement above), he produced the largest portion of writings concerning Jesus that the church saw fit to canonize. In that corpus of epistles, we do not find Paul ever characterizing Jesus as a teacher, a miracle-worker, a healer, an exorcist, as born of a virgin, etc. Imagine someone writing 10 letters heaping admiration for Mozart, and never once mentioning that Mozart wrote music or that he lived in the 1700s.

Tim: We get what one might expect if the stories were known and the main purposes of the letters were practical and doctrinal rather than historical.

Not if Paul had known of the teachings which the gospels attribute to Jesus. Had Paul known of these teachings, why didn’t he credit Jesus with them when he (Paul) pens them into his letters? Indeed, Christians are always trying to put the stamp of Jesus’ approval on the things they say. It is conspicuous by its very absence that he doesn’t do this.

Tim: In passing, he alludes to Jesus’ teaching on the sorts of issues that one might expect to come up in churches, including divorce (1 Cor 7:10; note the special stress he lays on this and cf. Matt 5:32; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18)

I Cor. 7:10 is probably the strongest citation you’ll be able to produce on behalf of your point. In it Paul attributes his charge to those who are married to “the Lord,” which for Paul is the risen, heavenly Jesus, not a pre-crucifixion Jesus. So he doesn’t have the earthly Jesus we encounter in the gospels in mind here. Also, Mark’s use of this teaching is troublesome. Wells points out:

 

Jesus could not, as Mark alleges, have told a Palestinian audience that a wife should not seek divorce, since in Palestine only men were allowed to do so. But Paul could appropriately urge such a ruling on the Gentile Christian communities to which he appealed; and if he told them it was Jesus’ teaching, he would have meant (as many commentators admit) not a teaching of a Palestinian Jesus but a directive given by some Christian prophet speaking in the name of the risen one.... This would have been the obvious way of supporting a ruling on divorce which the Christians of Paul’s day were anxious to inculcate. At a later stage it would naturally have been supposed that Jesus must have said during his lifetime what it was believed the risen one had said through Christian prophets; and so the doctrine was, however inappropriately, put into his mouth as an address to a Palestinian audience by Mark. (The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 23)

 

So that Paul got this teaching from traditions about an earthly Jesus is problematic.

Well, Tim, I wish I had more time to respond to your many other points. Unfortunately I do not, so I’ll have to let things lie unless somehow I am afforded more opportunity to delve into these matters further.

Regards,
Dawson

 

11:11 PM, March 17, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Tim: My confusion arose because you repeatedly defended Wells's and Doherty’s positions and arguments.

I have defended points which Wells and Doherty have incorporated into substantiating their larger conclusions, yes. But I explained this when I pointed out that one can dispute their grand conclusion (e.g., that there never was a man named Jesus) while recognizing that they make solid points along the way. You asked for examples of this, which is a fair question. But given my time constraints and your own confession to have read Wells (and perhaps Doherty?) in the past, I would point you to their writings. If you do not have their books, both Wells and Doherty have published some of their material online and it is available free of charge. You should also note that both authors have interacted extensively with their critics.

I had quoted Wells:

 

But no more about the ‘historical’ Jesus need have been included in this Christianity of Claudius’s day than what extant Christian writers (Paul and others) were saying before the gospels became established later in the first century; and this much does not confirm their portrait of Jesus as a preacher and wonder-worker in Pilate’s Palestine. (The Jesus Legend, pp. 40-41)

 

Tim: Between “need have been” and “probably was” there is a serious gap. Wells needs the reader to infer the latter from the former, more cautious statement. But he presents no evidence that would justify this further step.

I think Wells puts greater weight on his assessment of the situation because of the timeframe involved (Claudius' reign between 41 and 54 AD) in relation to the body of Christian literature extant at that time, and also the scant detail included in Suetonius' statement (for instance, Suetonius tells us nothing that isn't already present in Paul's letters). Again, I would agree with this move because the narrative details found in the gospels (such as the ones I included in my list) are not attested to during this timeframe. This is what Wells means by "the 'historical' Jesus" - i.e., a Jesus which was born of a virgin, who was an itinerant preacher, a moral teacher, a miracle-performer, a curer of diseases, etc. The Suetonius passage recommends none of this, and I have seen no good reason put forth to suppose that anything more than what Wells suggests could be read into Suetonius here. As “evidence” for the “historical Jesus,” it is as flimsy as it gets. But I realize that Christians have historically tried to make the most with at best flimsy evidence (it is better than nothing, I suppose), so I am not surprised by the persistence.

Tim: However, that reference fits together well with the account of the growth of the early church and the clashes with Judaism as recounted in Acts and the epistles.

Since Paul's letters already indicate that early Christianity experienced conflicts with Judaism, this "fit" that you mention is of no value in confirming the content of later narratives.

Tim: I am not arguing that the records must be true because they are uncontradicted: I am pointing out that large-scale fabrications are more difficult to pass off as genuine when the events they report are supposed to have taken place within living memory than when they are not.

I'm not sure how difficult you suppose this to be, nor is it clear how one determines whether or not a fabrication is "large-scale." If someone came up to me and said that some event happened 10 years ago, a time well within my memory, and I had never heard of it, on what basis would I dispute it? Indeed, I am not the owner of the claim that it happened, so as a hearer of the claim I have no onus to prove or disprove it. Nor am I obligated to accept it as knowledge, especially if the content of the claim contradicts knowledge that I have already validated. But still, how would it be "difficult" for a person "to pass off as genuine" a fabricated claim? Of course, the chances of him successfully passing off such claims would depend in part on the nature of what's being claimed as well as on the judgment or credulity of those who happened to learn of those claims. Some people are readily willing to believe claims about allegedly supernatural personalities, even if they have no good reason for doing so. I've met persons like this myself. A recent visitor to my website recounted anecdotally his encounter with a Christian believer who declared, "I don't care whether Jesus existed or not, all I know is that He is always by my side, and no one can be happy without His love." Others will simply find claims about allegedly supernatural personalities to be absurd, and many of them are not going to launch into research trying to refute such claims. Thus they go unchallenged, and this very fact can easily be recruited by the faithful as a corroborating point recommending them. And yet, they’re untrue all the same.

I wrote: None of the non-Christian references are early. In fact, most are from the second century and later.

Tim responded: In the context of ancient history, Dawson, that’s awfully early. And the Josephus references are from the first century.

I don’t see where you’ve established that the Josephus references (e.g., the Testimonium) are genuinely Josephan (thus allowing you to put them into the first century). At any rate, your objection seems trivially semantic, and I’ve come to expect better from you. But to give you the benefit of the doubt, I'll rephrase my point for you: none of the non-Christian references antedate the gospel narratives, the only earlier source that we know these details are found in written form. Even if we accept the Testimonium (in whatever form) as genuinely Josephus, it still would date from the last decade of the first century, at a time when at least a couple of the gospel narratives would have been in circulation and thus available to Josephus. The Testimonium, even at its best, tells us nothing that we do not already find reported in the gospels. Tacitus dates from ca. 112, give or take, and again tells us nothing we don’t already find in the gospels. I find it quite unlikely that Tacitus was drawing from Roman records, for it is hard to believe that he would see Pilate registered in those records as a prefect and then mistakenly call him a procurator in his own writings (and even more difficult to believe that the Roman records would record him as procurator instead of prefect in the first place). Similarly I find it very unlikely - and statements you’ve made yourself support this – that Roman records would have referred to Jesus as “Christ.” Etc., etc., etc. The potential that these sources are merely relating what Christians at the time had already come to believe and were claiming is very real.

Tim: The Tacitus reference goes further than the existence of Christians to the existence and crucifixion of Christus under Pontius Pilate, as does the Josephus reference (in uninterpolated form), which Tacitus may be following.

They do not attest to these things if they are simply repeating in one form or another what Christians of the time had been claiming; in that case, they're just repeating what Christians are already on record as believing. In other words, it needs to be established that these sources are in fact independent of Christian reports. Otherwise, they carry very little if any weight. If, for instance, Tacitus was simply reporting what he learned about what the Christians of his day believed - either through interviews he conducted with various of Christianity's representatives, from hearsay, from some written source that was itself based on such reports - then he's not an independent witness of a historical Jesus.

I wrote: My point in my above statement was that Tacitus was essentially reporting what Christians at that time had come to believe. How specifically Tacitus learned it – whether through firsthand interviews with Christians, or from hearsay, etc. – is ultimately immaterial to the point I was trying to make.

Tim: I do not understand why you say this.

I say this because, if Tacitus is merely repeating something he learned either directly or indirectly from Christian sources (i.e., is simply repeating what Christians were already on record as believing), then specifically how Tacitus learned this - whether through interviews he conducted with Christians, from hearsay, from trials of Christians that he knew of, etc. - is essentially irrelevant.


Tim: If Tacitus learned it from Josephys, then Josephus contained a clear reference to Jesus centuries before Eusebius is supposed to have inserted it. That closes the loophole that both Wells and Doherty have tried to use to get rid of the Testimonium.

I know of no compelling reason to suppose that Tacitus got his information from Josephus. The Testimonium names Jesus, and yet Tacitus refers to “Christ,” as if that were his name. Of course, if we are to believe that Tacitus got his information from Josephus, are we also to believe that got his information from Roman records as well? As for Josephus, I simply find it very much a stretch to suppose that Josephus affirmed that Jesus was "the Christ" and yet remained a committed orthodox Jew.


I wrote: Imagine someone writing 10 letters heaping admiration for Mozart, and never once mentioning that Mozart wrote music or that he lived in the 1700s.

Tim scoffs: Bad analogy.

The analogy I gave is actually quite strong, given the vast differences between the Jesus of the Pauline epistles and the Jesus of the gospel narratives. The analogues here are, in the case of Mozart, the fact that he wrote music and lived in the 1700s, and, in the case of the gospel Jesus, the crucial elements that he was widely known throughout Palestine and neighboring regions as a miracle-performer and lived in the 1st century. Someone writing letters expounding on the greatness of Jesus while failing to ever mention that he performed miracles or lived in the 1st century is like someone writing letters expounding on the greatness of Mozart while failing to ever mention that he wrote music or lived in the 1700s. That Paul would write so much recommending Jesus, and yet nowhere credit his handiwork as miracle-worker, for instance, is comparable – in my mind, anyway – to someone writing a similar quantity recommending Mozart, but never mentioning that he wrote music.

Tim: There are several holes in this argument. In some respects the simplest solution is that Mark, who is writing for a Roman audience, has added an explanatory sentence in verse 12 to cover the case. (Cf. Matt 19:9) This need not even have been an attempt to put words in Jesus’ mouth; the focus shifts after verse 12, so it could well be a gloss. Another possibility is that there were Greeks as well as Jews in the audience in Judaea and that Jesus elaborated the point for their benefit. In neither case does Wells’s attempt to cast doubt upon the obvious source of 1 Cor 7:10 succeed.

The passage in Mark (cf. 10:2) makes it clear that Jesus is addressing Pharisees. If the evangelist added his own explanatory note, how is this not putting words into Jesus’ mouth? This seems only to confirm Wells’ point, at least by degrees, which is significant concession enough. The passage does not indicate that there were Greeks in the audience; in fact, Mark specifies that Pharisees are his audience. Perhaps a good point to research is whether or not the law prohibiting a woman to divorce her husband was strictly a Jewish law (and thus meant only for Jews), or a secular law (and thus applicable to all inhabitants, including any Greeks that we want to put in the audience). I haven’t checked this out. Do you have any sources on this? However, as it stands, the “holes” that, according to you, plague Wells’ take on this issue either take the “it could be” stance (which isn’t entirely weak, but it doesn’t have the strength you seem to give to it), consist of adding an explanation that most likely wouldn’t have made sense to the immediate audience (which seems to confirm Wells' point), or posit something that isn't stated in the text itself (such as the presence of Greeks, which smacks of ad hoc defensiveness). Besides, if Paul were getting his “words of the Lord” from a prior source, what was his source? Paul tells us in Galatians and elsewhere that he got his gospel directly from the Lord, not from other men, which suggests he didn’t get it from traditions that were already circulating. Mark and the other gospels weren't written yet. So where did he get this teaching of the earthly Jesus if that’s the position you want to maintain? This remains unanswered. Meanwhile, that the evangelist was taking a teaching that had already acquired currency among early Christians (such as in the early epistolary strata, as I have suggested) and putting it into Jesus’ mouth in the development of a narrative of an earthly Jesus, does not rely on these tactics, and fits (a word you found appropriate earlier) best with the legend case. It's not a stretch by any means.

Regards,
Dawson

 

2:32 PM, March 20, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

I wrote: I think Wells puts greater weight on his assessment of the situation because of the timeframe involved (Claudius' reign between 41 and 54 AD) in relation to the body of Christian literature extant at that time, and also the scant detail included in Suetonius' statement (for instance, Suetonius tells us nothing that isn't already present in Paul's letters).

Tim: Actually, the very oddness of Suetonius’s reference is excellent evidence that he isn’t getting his information from Paul’s letters. So it does provide independent evidence for the physical existence of Christ...

That Suetonius did not get his information from Paul’s letters (something I wasn’t suggesting anyway), does not make it independent testimony. Indeed, Suetonius refers to a “Chrestus” which you admit was a common name, so how can we be sure it was a reference to someone named Jesus? As I mentioned earlier, the Suetonius reference can be taken to mean that the individual who was prompting the offending disturbances was not only present (in Rome!), but also still alive. But I think you’ve missed the point that I was making above, which is: we already know from Paul’s letters that there were conflicts in Claudius’ day, and Suetonius’ passing reference to unspecified Jews making disturbances under the instigation of someone named “Chrestus” gives us no new information. As such, it may – in your mind – pose a threat to the mythic case (though even here I’m unpersuaded), it poses no threat to the legend case whatsoever. Why? Because the legend case is compatible with conflicts such as those to which Suetonius refers.

I wrote: Again, I would agree with this move because the narrative details found in the gospels (such as the ones I included in my list) are not attested to during this timeframe. This is what Wells means by "the 'historical' Jesus" - i.e., a Jesus which was born of a virgin, who was an itinerant preacher, a moral teacher, a miracle-performer, a curer of diseases, etc.

Tim: Here we have a semantic juggle on Wells’s part. If there was a real itinerant Jewish teacher named Jesus, hailing from Nazareth, who delivered even many of the sayings and sermons reported in the gospels, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, whose disciples declared him to have risen from the dead and founded the Christian church on account of their professed belief, then there was a historical Jesus even if the virgin birth never happened and the miracle stories were all late additions.

Wells puts “historical” in scare quotes to distinguish what Christians take as the historical Jesus from what he would consider an actually historical Jesus. Christians want to take the supernaturalism of the gospels and other NT texts seriously, as if they were truly historical. Wells does not consider these elements truly historical, hence the use of scare quotes. There’s no juggling going on here.

Tim: Demanding that the secular evidence present him as a miracle worker if it is to count for his mere existence is demanding the unreasonable.

I’m not sure about this. Jesus is said to have entertained many large audiences, not all of whom became his follower. Someone could have observed Jesus engaged in some miraculous stuntwork, but assumed that he was like many magicians of the day. He could have easily attributed some supernatural gift to the fellow and thought his performances were indeed otherworldly, but he may have scoffed at the idea that he was “the son of God.” Indeed, as I imagine what I read in the gospels (they give the imagination quite a bit to play with), I could easily imagine such a situation. On the other hand, one could reasonably fathom that a non-Christian individual witnessed some miraculous event and never came to attribute its cause to a Christian religious hero. For instance, he could have seen a group of formerly dead people emerging from their graves and walking among the streets of the city, something that would seem truly miraculous. However, this same fellow may not have realized that the cause for these resuscitations was the death of some guy named Jesus outside the city walls. Indeed, why would he make such a correlation?

Tim: Someone fully persuaded that Jesus worked miracles would in all probability have become a Christian, at which point his testimony would no longer be considered non-Christian evidence.

If he were familiar with the Christian teachings surrounding his identity, I would think so. This is one reason why I think the Josephus passage is simply unbelievable: I don’t think Josephus would surmise that Jesus was in fact the Messiah and yet remain a committed, non-Christian Jew.

I wrote: Since Paul's letters already indicate that early Christianity experienced conflicts with Judaism, this "fit" that you mention is of no value in confirming the content of later narratives.

Tim: I agree that the confirmation afforded by the Suetonius reference is marginal given the Pauline epistles. But as mythers usually have to put a strange spin on Paul’s epistles, the value of a reference that cannot plausibly be spun as derivative from Paul’s epistles increases.

I don’t think “the mythers” need Suetonius’ reference to derive from Paul’s epistles. My point about this above, which I explained, is that – at best – Suetonius’ reference points to something that we already know from the epistles, namely disputes among Jews. The Suetonius reference loses even more value as evidence if “Chrestus” is a common name that could refer to just about anyone (indeed, someone who has otherwise been forgotten by history) and that this someone was still alive and present in Rome, someone who was personally responsible for the instigating to which the Suetonius passage refers. I certainly don’t see anything in the Suetonius passage which suggests that the individual instigating the disturbances it mentions was crucified and later resurrected, for instance.

Tim wrote: I am not arguing that the records must be true because they are uncontradicted: I am pointing out that large-scale fabrications are more difficult to pass off as genuine when the events they report are supposed to have taken place within living memory than when they are not.

I responded: I'm not sure how difficult you suppose this to be, nor is it clear how one determines whether or not a fabrication is "large-scale."

Tim: Under hostile circumstances, I’d say that it would be almost impossible within living memory to do more than insert a few isolated passages and twiddle with a few more.

I guess I’m just not persuaded here at all. It seems that anyone could write whatever they want, and if he tried to pass it off as history, it’s quite possible that someone out there is going to buy into it, especially if he were philosophically predisposed to believing in the supernatural. Many would just laugh, assuming they caught wind of it, which is what I expect many did. But there will be some who are either gullible or desperate, anxious for something to make them feel better, and these individuals will be susceptible to believing a lie, a fiction, a legend, a tale, even if it purported to take place within living memory.


I wrote: If someone came up to me and said that some event happened 10 years ago, a time well within my memory, and I had never heard of it, on what basis would I dispute it? Indeed, I am not the owner of the claim that it happened, so as a hearer of the claim I have no onus to prove or disprove it. Nor am I obligated to accept it as knowledge, especially if the content of the claim contradicts knowledge that I have already validated. But still, how would it be "difficult" for a person "to pass off as genuine" a fabricated claim? Of course, the chances of him successfully passing off such claims would depend in part on the nature of what's being claimed as well as on the judgment or credulity of those who happened to learn of those claims.

Tim: If he claimed that the event was done in public and that there were living eyewitnesses of it, that would help his case.

It would be easy to claim that there were living eyewitnesses to the event in question, even if this were a complete fabrication. He doesn’t even need to name the alleged eyewitnesses, or say where the alleged event took place, or when it took place. He could, for instance, say “above five hundred brothers” saw this, and to make it seem real, he could say that some are now “asleep” (meaning apparently that they’re now dead), but never mentioning who these people were, where they could be found for purposes of inquiry, etc.

Tim: If he told you that you should break with the religious group with which you have identified since birth, change your way of life, submit to new rules of conduct, and endure fierce persecution because this event took place, you would have to be crazy to accept it without strong evidence.

Tim, I have known a lot crazy people then. They’re called Christians. They have broken from their families, burned bridges with past friendships, and become almost unrecognizable, both in appearance and in character (some sprinkle their conversation with phrases like “the Lord willing” or “Praise Jesus!”, while others seem to have this feigned euphoric disposition going on). They go through all kinds of troubles in the world, like everyone else, and call them “trials and tribulations.” When they encounter differences of opinion, such as in the workplace or in some public venue, they call this “persecution.” I have seen pastors claim to have raised persons from the dead (such as at the scene of an accident in one case, another at a hospital, and yet another in an elderly home), and the entire congregation just believes it, because they have determined to put their trust in everything he says. After all, he’s the “man of God,” so they would rather undergo additional hardship themselves rather than be caught questioning the pastor.

I wrote: Some people are readily willing to believe claims about allegedly supernatural personalities, even if they have no good reason for doing so. I've met persons like this myself. A recent visitor to my website recounted anecdotally his encounter with a Christian believer who declared, "I don't care whether Jesus existed or not, all I know is that He is always by my side, and no one can be happy without His love."

Tim: Let’s set a howling mob on his trail and burn a few of his fellow-parishoners in shirts dipped in wax for a garden party and then see how firm his convictions are.

Indeed. I wonder what a lot of internet apologists would do if faced with such threats to their persons. It’s easy to say “I would never disavow Jesus!” But until you’re faced with such a situation, how do you know? There have been some throughout history – in the past century we’ve seen Muslim suicide bombers, kamikaze pilots, Heaven’s Gaters, Jonestown, etc. – volunteer their lives for all kinds of baffling causes. They believed, and then they acted on it. They didn’t even wait for some howling mob as you describe to come chasing after them. On the contrary, they took the initiative toward their own demise. Then again, we have no idea what St. Paul did if he was tortured in Rome. Christians prefer to think he remained faithful until the end, as his torturers flogged him for the last time. The Christians of the day, of course, had they heard that Paul recanted, probably would not have recorded it, settling it in their minds as a lapse into weakness, or that he was a vessel which the Christian god used and discarded for whatever reason a god would do so.

I wrote: I don’t see where you’ve established that the Josephus references (e.g., the Testimonium) are genuinely Josephan (thus allowing you to put them into the first century).

Tim: We haven’t gotten into this discussion in detail, but I am persuaded by the same evidence that has persuaded the overwhelming majority of Josephus scholars that, although the Testimonium as it stands in most manuscripts has suffered interpolation, it was originally a brief and fairly neutral passage. The Agapius text confirms this – in fact, Maier uses the (uninterpolated) Agapius text as the basis for the translation he gives in his translation of Josephus, relegating the interpolated text to a footnote.

I see, you rest your position on an appeal to authority. That’s fine.

I wrote: Even if we accept the Testimonium (in whatever form) as genuinely Josephus, it still would date from the last decade of the first century, at a time when at least a couple of the gospel narratives would have been in circulation and thus available to Josephus.

Tim: This will help you, in the sense that it will take away the value of the Testimonium as an independent non-Christian source of evidence for the existence of Jesus, only if you assume that Josephus is making use of the gospels.

If I make the stretch needed to allow the Testimonium to be genuinely Josephan, I see no stretch needed at that point to suppose that he could have made use of literature that was available in his day. Of course, he could have heard reports about what the gospels were claiming, and based his passage on this. Either way, if we grant that the Testimonium is genuinely Josephan, he had to get his information from somewhere, did he not? If he didn’t get it from gospel traditions, some of which by the last decade of the first century were already written, where did he get it?

I wrote: The Testimonium, even at its best, tells us nothing that we do not already find reported in the gospels.

Tim: Right: but if it is an independent witness, then what it tells us corroborates the gospels, particularly when it comes to the historicity of Jesus. For that reason, it is necessary for mythers to explain it away as an interpolation en toto: nothing less will do.

I see no good reason whatsoever to suppose that the Testimonium is an independent witness. Scholars already have agreed – pretty much in consensus from what I’ve seen – that Josephus’ writings were tampered with by Christians, no one before Eusebius (4th cent.) makes use of the passage in question (even though many earlier apologists relied heavily on Josephus to argue for the truth of the gospels), and it tells us nothing that the gospels don’t already themselves tell us.

I wrote: Tacitus dates from ca. 112, give or take, and again tells us nothing we don’t already find in the gospels. I find it quite unlikely that Tacitus was drawing from Roman records, for it is hard to believe that he would see Pilate registered in those records as a prefect and then mistakenly call him a procurator in his own writings (and even more difficult to believe that the Roman records would record him as procurator instead of prefect in the first place).

Tim: As I have pointed out, this mistake is found in Philo and Josephus as well; nor is Tacitus normally particularly accurate about titles in other contexts.

For the position that Tacitus got his information from Roman records, you need either that those records incorrectly recorded Pilate’s title, or you need Tacitus reading the correct title in those records and then making the mistake when he incorporates what he read in those records in his own writings. Both are possible (so is bowling a 300 game), but I don’t find it very likely. And again, there’s nothing in the passage in question to suggest that this is what happened. So in the final analysis, as “evidence,” the Tacitus passage is just not helpful.

I wrote: Similarly I find it very unlikely - and statements you’ve made yourself support this – that Roman records would have referred to Jesus as “Christ.”

Tim: I think you must have misunderstood what I have said about the Roman records.

That’s possible. I went back to find what I thought I recalled you saying on this point. Here’s what I think it was:

I had asked: Would the Roman records have stated that ‘the Christ’ or ‘the Messiah’ was crucified?

You had responded: The term would not have had this significance for the Romans.

I took this to mean – as I myself would think – that Romans would not record Jesus’ name as “Christ” in a record of his crucifixion. Perhaps you think they would record his name as “Christ” instead of Jesus, even though “Christ” is a religious title that, as you had stated, would not have the significance for Romans that it did for the early Christians.

Tim: It is entirely plausible – in the case of Suetonius it seems actually to have been the case – that the Romans at some remove from Palestine thought that “Chrestus” was Jesus’s name, as “Chrestus” was a fairly common Roman name.

The appeal to Suetonius here is question-begging at best (see my points above). Indeed, if “Chrestus” was a fairly common Roman name, the Chrestus that Suetonius refers to need not be the Jesus of the Christians. I already gave reasons to suppose it could easily have meant someone else.

But the point in question here was in reference to Tacitus, not Suetonius. Without coming out and affirming it explicitly, it seems that you are suggesting that Roman records have “Christ” where I would think they’d have “Jesus,” even though “Jesus” was his name, and “Christ” was a religious title that the Romans would not have recognized. You say this by supposing they might have thought it really was his name. Do you suppose they might have thought “Lord” might have been his name as well? At any rate, it seems you need the Romans to have mistakenly recorded Jesus’ name as “Christ” in order for Tacitus to be an independent source. Meanwhile, I see no reason why Tacitus could not have gotten his information from someone like Pliny, from Christians themselves, from trials that he attended or learned about, from discussions with other officials who had field knowledge of Christians in their jurisdictions, etc., all of which would point to repeating what Christians believed and were preaching at the time.

I wrote: The potential that these sources are merely relating what Christians at the time had already come to believe and were claiming is very real.

Tim: In the Josephus case I believe this is very unlikely, since the language of the passage (in the uninterpolated form) is not what a Christian would have written, does not use the phrases a Christian would have used, etc. You can find a good discussion of this in van Voorst.

This seems to confuse what Josephus would have written with what a Christian would have written. If we grant that the Testimonium is genuinely Josephan (even the version that you prefer), we would still be saying that Josephus wrote it, not a Christian. Then again, it wouldn’t be too difficult for a Christian interpolator to attempt to approximate Josephus’ voice in order to make the passage seem all the more authentic. In fact, I would expect as much (I’ve come across some exquisitely crafty Christians in my day).

I wrote: If, for instance, Tacitus was simply reporting what he learned about what the Christians of his day believed - either through interviews he conducted with various of Christianity's representatives, from hearsay, from some written source that was itself based on such reports - then he's not an independent witness of a historical Jesus.

Tim: As I acknowledged above. However, though this cannot be ruled out directly, the evidence does not seem to point that way.

I suppose we just see the evidence pointing in opposite directions. I believe I’ve given your viewpoint a fair hearing and have interacted with it as much as I can, given my limited time and resources. At best, it seems, there is nothing that conclusively recommends Tacitus or any other non-Christian source as firm evidence for the truth of the gospels. There are just too many holes here, too much potential implausibility (such as supposing that Tacitus got his facts mistaken or that the Roman records he consulted were, or that Josephus thought Jesus was the Messiah and yet remained a committed non-Christian Jew, etc.) to take these sources down the Christian path, a path that leads to supernaturalism which, as an adult thinker, I find absolutely unbelievable to begin with. In fact, it seems that, if there were a Jesus and the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus were at all historical, I’d wonder why that same Jesus doesn’t just appear to everyone else he wants to convince, just as he did for Saul. I remember asking a Mormon missionary this question once, and his response was, “Jesus wants us to have faith.” I then asked, “Didn’t Paul have faith?” He was stupefied in silence, and insisted on changing the subject.

I wrote: I know of no compelling reason to suppose that Tacitus got his information from Josephus. The Testimonium names Jesus, and yet Tacitus refers to “Christ,” as if that were his name.

Tim: In Antiquities 20.200, just a few pages on from the Testimonium, Josephus refers to “Jesus who was called the Christ.”

Which is another passage which some scholars consider to be an interpolation. Some scholars have pointed out that Josephus is careful to avoid messianic language in his writings. As Wells points out,

Feldman has noted that Josephus mentions about ten Messianic figures in the last three books of the Antiquities without using the term ‘Christ’ or Messiah of them. That he avoided it is intelligible, since at that time it “had definite political overtones of revolution and independence,” and he was “a lackey of the Roman royal house.” (The Jesus Myth, p. 218; Wells quotes Feldman, Josephus and Modern Scholarship, pp. 689-690)

So, although perhaps not conclusive, there is good reason to suppose the use of “Christ” or “Messiah” is out of character for Josephus. In fact, the use of the participle ‘legomenos’ (“to be named” or “called”) in the shorter Josephan passage is quite consistent with its use in several places in the gospels. France wants to suppose that Josephus was using the participle with negative implications (as “alleged” instead of “called”), and yet there are many places in the NT and even in Josephus’ own writings where it does not imply such negativity.

Interestingly, Josephus does reference John the Baptist, but he nowhere connects him with the Christian movement (see Ant. 18:116).

I wrote: The analogy I gave is actually quite strong, ...

Tim: I have already addressed this; what you say subsequently simply reiterates your analogy and takes no account of what I said, so there is nothing new here requiring response.

You offered what you considered to be a stronger analogy, but gave no indication why the analogy I gave for my point was bad. It appeared to me that you didn’t grasp its strength, which is why I stopped to point out the relevant points of comparison. You still apparently think it is a bad analogy, and yet you do not show why. The analogy that I gave (involving someone writing a bunch of letters praising Mozart and yet never mentioning that he wrote music or lived in the 1700s) encapsulates what the Christian position expects us to accept about Paul’s silences vis-à-vis the gospels’ portraits of Jesus. The gospels make it clear that Jesus was known for his marvelous works, his healings, etc., and yet it is of these things for which the gospels have him famous which Paul seems completely ignorant.

I wrote: The passage does not indicate that there were Greeks in the audience;

Tim: It simply doesn’t tell us much about the audience.

On the contrary, at Mark 10:2 it specifies the Pharisees and at 10:10 it specifies Jesus’ disciples.

I wrote: ... in fact, Mark specifies that Pharisees are his audience.

Tim: No: it specifies that the Pharisees are his target.

What’s interesting is Mark 10:10, which narrows Jesus’ audience, at the point where he issues his teaching about divorce that Paul is said to have “echoed,” to just his disciples: “And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.” Were any of Jesus’ disciples Greek?

I asked: Besides, if Paul were getting his “words of the Lord” from a prior source, what was his source?

Tim: Most likely from the apostles, either directly or indirectly. Traveling with Luke would be a great way to find out a lot of information.

This would go against what Paul himself tells us. He tells us explicitly that he did not receive his knowledge of the gospel from other men, nor was he taught it, but that he got it “by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12). He also tells us that his time with the Jerusalem apostles was quite short and limited primarily to Peter and James (cf. Gal. 1:17-19). So if we take Paul’s word for it, he didn’t get these teachings from the apostles.

But you think otherwise:

Tim: I think these passages are being overread. Paul, by his own account, was commissioned directly by the Lord, but nothing he says in Galatians or 1 Corinthians conflicts with the account in Acts that he spent time with the disciples at Damascus immediately after his conversion and baptism (9:19) and subsequently was with the disciples in Jerusalem (9:27-28).

Here’s what I read in Gal. 1:11-12:

“But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Here’s what he says a few verses later (vss. 17-19):

“Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me: but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.”

Paul explicitly states that he was not “taught” the gospel that he took to the gentile mission, that he did not get it from other men, that it was given to him directly “by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

But you would still prefer that we believe Paul got a teaching “of the Lord” from apostles, even though his own words strongly suggest otherwise. Okay.

I wrote: Meanwhile, that the evangelist was taking a teaching that had already acquired currency among early Christians (such as in the early epistolary strata, as I have suggested) and putting it into Jesus’ mouth in the development of a narrative of an earthly Jesus, does not rely on these tactics, and fits (a word you found appropriate earlier) best with the legend case. It's not a stretch by any means.

Tim: There are so many problems with this hypothesis that I cannot even begin to enumerate them all in a blog post.

I can appreciate this. At this point, instead of arguments supporting your contention here, you chose to list a number of questions. And while I am fascinated by all this, I am by no means an expert, so all I can do in my limited time is give it my best shot.

Tim: Where did Paul get all these ideas?

For many of Paul’s teachings, he refers to the OT (and curiously not to an earthly Jesus). He apparently saw himself as opening the scriptures in a new light, having received a “revelation of Jesus Christ” which empowered him to impart a new message to the gentile world.

Again, Wells makes an interesting point here:

 

Any reader of Paul can see that all his important doctrines are buttressed by an appeal to the OT. But he very strikingly does not do what Matthew repeatedly does, namely cite it as foreshadowing incidents in Jesus’s incarnate life, such as his virgin birth, his settling at Capernaum, his teaching in parables, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and his disciples’ desertion of him at his arrest. Paul shows no knowledge of such incidents, nor of John the Baptist, whose preaching was, according to all three synoptics, foretold in the OT, and whom both Matthew (11:11) and Luke represent as Jesus’s forerunner and hence as greater than any ordinary mortal. Paul makes no mention of him because John the Baptist’s preaching had in fact nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity [Wells references Josephus here]... (The Jesus Myth, p 77)

 

Wells also points out that “The influence of Jewish Wisdom literature on Paul is undeniable: statements made about Wisdom in this literature are made of Jesus in the Pauline letters.” (The Jesus Myth, p. 97)

Tim: (The mystery religions “explanation” is beyond hopeless.)

I don’t think I’ve made this appeal, however I would note that Paul was no unlearned man, and he hailed from Tarsus where mystery religions had been thriving at the time. Paul himself even appeals to “mystery” on numerous occasions (see for instance here). Again Wells: The pagan environment of earliest Christianity cannot have been unimportant. (The Jesus Myth, p. 99)

Tim: What did Peter, James, and John have to say about his teaching?

I don’t think we have anything authentic from their hand.

Tim: How did the actual beliefs of those pillars of the early church – to whom Paul himself refers in Galatians 2 – manage to disappear without a ripple?

Perhaps I’m just daft or tired, but I’m not sure what you’re asking here.

Tim: Whence the materials in the gospels that could not have come from the Pauline epistles?

You mean like the virgin birth, the association with John the Baptist, a crucifixion under Pilate, the sayings attributed to Jesus? It is good that you admit that these elements are not present in the earliest strata of the NT. There are many plausible explanations for these. Some are the result of attempts to reinterpret the OT. Some are attempts to put Jesus into a historical context by associating him with genuinely historical places and people. There were collections of wise sayings (e.g., the Quelle) which were incorporated into certain Christian circles and put into Jesus’ mouth.

Tim: How did the clever forgers manage so thoroughly to cover their tracks that there is no hint now of their existence?

Who says “there is no hint now of their existence”? And were they really “forgers”? Perhaps not in today’s understanding of the term. At any rate, there were many things in existence in those says the evidence for which did not survive unto today.

Tim: How on earth did the undesigned coincidences get built in, so that things in one gospel that make no sense taken on their own are explained by passing references in others?

Unless you give me an example of what you mean, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to weigh in on here.

Tim: How does one account for the undesigned coincidences between the epistles and Acts – things that could not plausibly have been written up on the basis of Paul’s epistles?

Again, I’m not sure what specifically you have in mind here.

Tim: We have forgeries in history, and we know what they look like. This isn’t it. If the mythic theory requires this sort of retrojection of Paul’s epistles into the gospels and Acts, that simply puts more nails into its coffin.

I see. Well, I guess this is your vote in favor of the NT’s supernaturalism then.

Regards,
Dawson

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Regarding the source of Tacitus’ information, I had asked:

Now what is the alternative that you prefer, and what evidence do you have for that alternative?

Tim: If Tacitus’s information came from interviews with Christians, it would be evidence only of what Christians believed when they were interviewed.

I would say this is correct. If Tacitus' information came from interviews with Christians, it would only confirm that the Christians he interviewed believed what is being reported in his statement. This does no damage to either the mythic theory or the legend theory.

Tim: If it came from hearsay, it would be evidence for what was believed about Christians, which is wider in scope; if there were any dissent over whether “Christus” had been crucified under Pontius Pilate, this would lessen the probability that Tacitus would refer to it in so matter of fact a fashion. If it came from Roman records, then that closes the case on the mythic theory.

If it could be established that Tacitus' information in fact came from Roman records (something that no one, to my knowledge, has been able to do), I would tend to agree that it would put a capper on the mythic theory. But it would not put a capper on the legend theory. Recall that the legend theory allows that a real human being named Jesus existed and may even have been crucified at some point, and that the narratives we find in the NT about a man so-named are legendary tales that grew over time since his death on a cross under Roman rule.



Tim: So there are several options here. (1) There is no hint in the passage that Tacitus has personally conducted interviews to gain this information; that is, I think, by far the least plausible hypothesis.

You are correct, Tacitus does not state that he gathered the information he is reporting from interviews that he personally conducted. In fact, he doesn’t make any statement identifying the source of his information at all. So far as what Tacitus does state, it is an open question. It’s not clear how we can conclude that the possibility that Tacitus did get his information from interviews with Christians is “by far the least plausible hypothesis.” But I do agree that you are free to think this. I had already pointed out that Tacitus was governor of Asia ca. AD 112-113 – around the time that the passage in question was written in fact. I quoted Wells pointing out that Tacitus could very well have had problems with Christians in his province similar to those that Pliny experienced as governor in neighboring Bithynia at the same time. Pliny tells us that he interviewed Christians. If he actually did do this, I don’t see why the possibility that Tacitus did the same is “by far the least plausible hypothesis.” No, that Pliny did confer directly with Christians does not mean that Tacitus did, but if it wasn’t beneath Pliny to have done so, why suppose it was in Tacitus’ case? No argument has been given to conclude as strongly as you indicate here that Tacitus would not have done this.

Tim: (2) It could be that the information came from someone else’s interviews and/or torturings of Christians. This cannot be ruled out. But in that case, it matters a great deal for our discussion when this information was wrung from them. If it was after the gospels had achieved currency, then it likely reflects what they had read and believed; if it was earlier, it would reflect at least oral traditions; if it was much earlier, it would reflect teaching in a community where eyewitnesses were still living.

I don’t know how one would go about determining when the information – supposing it was gathered through interviews or torturings of Christians – was “wrung from them.” We do know that Tacitus was writing in the early part of the second century, and we also know that the Christian movement had been in existence for several decades before this. There is certainly nothing in the record to suggest that the information Tacitus was relating in the passage in question had been lying in wait, as it were, for 60 or 70 years.

Tim: (3) It could be that it was a matter of common knowledge. This cannot be ruled out, and it would give stronger but not decisive evidence for the veracity of the facts Tacitus relates.

We have to be a little more specific here: what exactly is being proposed as “a matter of common knowledge” at this time (ca. 112-115)? That Christians lived in Rome? That Christians worshipped someone “called Christ”? That this Christ had been condemned some 85 years earlier by a “procurator” named Pilate in Judea? That the crucifixion of this Christ initially dampened the movement, but it proved resilient and sprang back with renewed vigor and spread from Judea “to Rome itself”? As we borrow into the elements contained in the Tacitus reference, we find an increase in specificity, and “common knowledge” is usually not very specific as this gets. That Tacitus was reporting common knowledge here seems to become more unlikely as each element he reports is introduced. But let’s say that much of this was, ca. 115, already common knowledge at least for Tacitus and his cronies. Tacitus was a learned and well traveled man, a historian who was penning histories. Was this common knowledge for such a person by this time? Perhaps, but this would need to be shown. And even then, it is not necessarily the case that this “would give stronger… evidence for the veracity of [what] Tacitus relates.”

Tim: (4) It could be that Tacitus looked it up in Roman records or some other non-Christian source. This cannot be ruled out, and for this reason the Sanders quotation seems to me to be an overstatement. We know that Tacitus used official sources constantly in his work: the Acta Diurna (see Annals 13.31, 16.22, etc.), the speeches of Tiberius and Claudius, various collections of letters, the work of Pliny the Elder, etc. Significantly, Tacitus had access to Josephus’s works and mentions nothing about Jesus that could not have been found in Josephus.

I have already addressed the proposal that Tacitus got his information about “Christ” from Roman records. It seems quite implausible to me. I’ll run through some of the reasons why: (a) Tacitus refers to the individual in question as “Christ,” not as Jesus. “Christ” is a religious title which I highly doubt would have been recorded in a Roman record; (b) Tacitus refers to Pilate as ‘procurator’ which was the title of Pilate’s position in Tacitus’ day, but not during Pilate’s day, suggesting that, if he was consulting any kind of record, it was a contemporary record, not a record from the time in question; that Tacitus would consult Roman records and see Pilate’s title as ‘prefect’ and then call him ‘procurator’ in his own writing seems unlikely to me; (c) that Tacitus would take the time for a passing mention of Christ to consult Roman records from Judea aged some 80 plus years to add a brief explanatory note in his mention of Christians as Nero’s scapegoat for the fire which destroyed much of Rome in 64 AD seems quite fantastic to me; (d) that Romans in the remote province of Judea would have kept such meticulous records about condemned criminals at the time the gospels put Jesus’ crucifixion seems a bit of a stretch; the Romans crucified thousand upon thousands of condemned prisoners, and even if they did record Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems quite a stretch that they would have recorded his name as “Christ” (if it were recorded as “Jesus,” how would Tacitus have found it if he were looking for someone named “Christ”?), and if they did record it (even as “Christ” instead of, say, “King of the Jews” as the gospels indicate), the likelihood that they survived and made their way to Rome so that some 80 plus years later Tacitus could go into some great hall of records and spend perhaps days looking for such a reference, borders on wishful thinking at this point. So for these reasons, I would say that your (4) is the least plausible. As for Josephus, I have already discussed him as a source at length in previous comments.

Tim: If his information came from such an early non-Christian source, the mythic theory is effectively eliminated.

But not the legend theory. The legend theory is compatible with the possibility that a cultic preacher named Jesus was condemned under a Roman official in Judea. That a man named Jesus was crucified in Judea is nothing remarkable. That legends sprang up in the memory of such a person is not at all impossible, especially if he was considered a martyr for a cause.


You gave your assessment of plausibility for each of these proposals:

Tim: (1) is quite implausible since it is not represented in the passage. (Contrast Pliny.)

If the test of a proposal’s plausibility is whether or not “it is… represented in the passage” in question, then all four of your proposals are equally implausible, for none of them is represented in the passage in question. Apparently, but not clearly, you seem to agree, for you say:

Tim: I do not think that there is a vastly stronger case for one of the options (2), (3), or (4) over the others.

Of all the proposals, (2) seems closest to having any staying power, though I would expand it to include conversations and discussions that Tacitus could have had with clerks and officials, such as Pliny, who had field experience with Christians, and perhaps even written reports about Christians and conflicts involving them in various provinces that may have found their way into his possession. Also, since Tacitus was himself governor of Asia (neighboring Pliny’s Bithynia at the same time he was having problems with Christians), the possibility that Tacitus learned about the Christ cult during his service in such a role seems quite strong to me. (2) seems more likely than (1) since it is broader; (1) requires that Tacitus himself interviewed Christian representatives; (2) allows that he learned about Christians through his colleagues. (2) may be stronger than (3) depending on what is taken as “common knowledge” (see my points above). And below you make a strong point against (3) yourself, which lessens its likelihood. I certainly think that (2) as I would characterize it is several times more plausible and more likely than (4), for reasons already stated.

Regarding proposal (2), you stated:

Tim: Under (2), it tells us either nothing not in the gospels or else something about oral tradition prior to the gospels; this option makes the testimony of Tacitus either no independent evidence against the mythic theory or rather weak independent evidence against it – weak, since many of those oral traditions were probably incorporated into the gospels as we have them.

I agree: (2) would pose no threat against the mythic theory (and even less against the legend theory), but note that it is not because of this that I find (2) more plausible. You should see that this is where I think the evidence points after considering it.

Tim: Under (3), Tacitus’s report tells us what was believed in the Roman world at large. Since it is improbable that this story would have undisputed currency among Romans if it were not substantially true, this option makes the testimony of Tacitus rather strong evidence against the mythic theory.

Your assessment here depends on specifically which element in Tacitus’ report is thought to be “substantially true.” Is it the part that Christians were already hated by Nero’s time? I don’t see how this speaks against the mythic theory (it certainly doesn’t speak against the legend theory). Is it the part that Nero scapegoated Rome’s Christians for the fire? Again, I don’t see how this vies against either the mythic or legend theory. So far both theories are in agreement that the Christian movement existed at the time in question. Is it the part about someone “called Christ” being the “founder” of the cult bearing his name at the time in question? Again, both the mythic and the legend theories are compatible with this. And so far, I don’t see how these parts being “common knowledge” would at all recommend the truth of the gospel portrait of Jesus. Is it the part about Christ being crucified under a Roman official named Pilate? I see no reason why the mythic theory would be incompatible with the possibility that Jesus’ crucifixion had taken place under Pilate could (I’ll be as charitable as possible here) by Nero’s time have been incorporated into oral traditions that were circulating about Jesus. And it certainly is not incompatible with the legend theory which grants that a cultic preacher was condemned to die by crucifixion under a Roman official. Would this part have been “common knowledge” in Nero’s day? I strongly doubt it, if by “common knowledge” we mean common to non-Christians as well as Christians. I suspect that most non-Christians of Nero’s day took little notice of Christians or their beliefs, unless of course they were in their midst and encountered conflicts with them. Most people were probably doing their best just to survive. Then again, Christians would have been just one of many different belief systems of the day. In the very passage under review, Tacitus characterizes Rome as “the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth.”

Tim: But one fact that tells against (3) is that there does not seem to have been much common knowledge about Christians in the Roman world; witness Suetonius’s probable botch of Christ’s name and Pliny’s resorting to torture to satisfy his curiosity.

I think this is a strong, but less than conclusive point against (3). So far I think (2) (as I have nuanced it) is the strongest of the three options so far considered. But we have one more to consider:

Tim: Under (4), the mythic theory is essentially ruled out.

I would tend to agree, so long as (4) could be established as it is herein conceived. But, significantly, it would not rule out the legend theory. As I have pointed out, the legend theory is compatible with an actual cultic figure, wholly mortal in his nature, being martyred under the Romans by means of crucifixion. So even if we could establish (4), the gains here for Christianity aren’t even meager in my view.

Tim: If I had to pick just one specific hypothesis as the most plausible of the lot, I’d go with Harnack and say Tacitus was using Josephus, on the basis of close parallels between them in the recounting of information.

Then again, if close parallels are the deciding factor, it would be just as easy to suppose that Tacitus had reviewed reports from various Asian provinces about Christians and what they believed. I would put this under (2) as I enlarged it above. And again, even if we grant that the Testimonium, for instance, is authentically Josephan (I’ve already indicated that I don’t think it is), and also that Tacitus relied on it for his information about Christ (which even you admit is unprovable), this would not pose a threat to the legend theory, as I have indicated.

Tim: But since this cannot be proved, only shown to be plausible, the best we can do in the absence of further evidence is to say that this passage of Tacitus offers some evidence against the mythic theory but that it is not decisive.

I can also say that it offers no evidence against the legend theory.

Regards,
Dawson

 

12:05 PM, March 23, 2008

 

 

Bahnsen Burner said...

 

Tim had stated: The slaughter of the innocents doesn’t fit a “legend-building” agenda in any way that I can see.

In fact it does. In Matthew we see various kinds of legend-building going on. In some cases (such as the earthquake and resurrection of an untold number of saints upon Jesus’ death on the cross), embellishments are intended to make the attending event seem more impressive to the reader. Episodes of miracles are especially well suited for this (they seem to come into full flower in Matthew's passion sequences). In other cases, Matthew’s concern is to erect parallels between his Jesus narrative and OT themes. The slaughter of the innocents is an old legend which Matthew incorporates into his narrative for precisely this purpose. As Wells points out:

 

The story of this massacre is a typical tyrant legend, posthumously blackening the memory of a hated despot. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the NT (not, for instance, in Luke’s birth and infancy narrative), nor by any ancient historian – not even by Josephus, who recorded the history of Herod and his family and stressed its horrors. It is also typical of the stories of miraculous escapes from danger with which the infancy of a great man is credited (Oedipus, Moses). Matthew is here modeling Jesus, the second deliverer, on Moses, the first: in both cases, the birth of the child occasions uneasiness in the powers that be, followed by a consultation with wise men, a massacre of children and a miraculous rescue, with Egypt as the land of rescue. (The Jesus Myth, p. 155)

 

Tim: Matthew 27:51b-53 could fit that pattern, but it is quite an extrapolation from this to “numerous details.”

The numerous details which fit this pattern are not extrapolated from Matthew 27:51b-53; rather, Matthew 27:51b-53 is merely one of those many details.

Tim: The stories in the first two chapters of Matthew, whether they are authentic and veridical or not, do not stand disconnected from the rest of the narrative like Matthew 27:51b-53 does.

That’s because the kind of legend-building Matthew uses in the first two chapters are intended to show a relationship between his portrait of Jesus and OT themes (see above).

Regards,
Dawson

 

12:58 PM, March 23, 2008

 

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