Saturday, March 06, 2010

McGrath, Godfrey and "Assuming" Historicity.

And on it goes. James McGrath has taken issue with another of Neil Godfrey's posts on the Jesus Myth.

I'll state for the record that I am not persuaded by the mythicist position, and think E P Sanders is probably the greatest living NT scholar. So I have some sympathy with McGrath.

I appreciate James' point (and even more with Steph's in the comments, I have always thought "assumption" such a terrible term here, though it's often used. . .just because people don't outline a full explanation doesn't mean they've "assumed" it). But there is a counterpoint to be scored here as well.

What other characters do we attempt to reconstruct in any detail based solely on texts? Especially texts that are all written "in-group," none of which are autobiographical?

Neil and I would probably disagree on what standard of evidence is required before we move forward, but I would concede (in the spirit of the 1913 Schweitzer he's been citing lately) that we can only move forward provisionally, recognizing the limits of our conjecture.

Even if we agreed there was an historical Romulus, for example, if you started telling me a specific act he did in the founding of Rome, with details about his consciousness while he did it, I'd laugh in your face. It seems preposterous everywhere but here. And even if we let you get away with it, your statement would be a lot more provisional. If someone replied that they doubt Romulus even existed, you would doubtlessly allow for the possibility, and acknowledge that your later conjectures were based on an earlier conjecture: That Romulus was real.

When we deal strictly with textual evidence elsewhere, we recognize the limits of our conjectures. But here we have none (still germane to my post Why Bother?). Not only do we not have to be provisional, we can suggest that all the gospels fundamentally misunderstood Jesus' message, and we know even better than they do what it was. While many critics would disagree with those sorts of efforts, we don't deprive them of dialogue, while virtually anywhere else we wouldn't deem to treat such speculation with a grain of seriousness.

As I pointed out before, we have no rules.

So, to get back to the point, Neil's probably wrong. Or at least should be more provisional in his comments. Sanders' may have assumed historicity. He may not have. He doesn't tell us, so we don't know. Some academics probably do. Some probably don't. But without an explanation we can't be sure what they've done, and can't be sure they've "assumed" anything. Simple decorum and charitability demands that we give them the benefit of the doubt.

But James is wrong too. What we do with texts is a lot different here than everywhere else. Not because we treat them differently--it's often suggested that the biblical historian is engaging in some new species of history. We can flatly reject that. We figure ways to find authentic information from texts the same way any other branch of history does. Sometimes with the same criteria.

But what we don't do is see the limits. We don't recognize the provisional nature. And (as I've said again and again lately), we build on people who also didn't see the provisional nature. The last guy's speculation becomes my fact in a sense we really don't see outside of this branch of historical inquiry.

It's not that we don't see any limits at all, of course, just that the ones we push are too far removed from what our evidence can really state to be of much use. But we still have an outer boundary, beyond which we pay proponents the most serious of insults: We deprive them of a dialogue partner.

Robert Eisenman flatly rejected hard science. Hard science he requested. Now there's an analogue to creationism. But he got dialogue partners. Baigent and Leigh, Barbara Thiering, hell, even Dan Brown. Truly ridiculous, crackpot ideas. That got dialogue partners.

Are we really going to suggest that an Earl Doherty or a Robert Price is so over the edge that even these crackpots are more deserving of engagement than they are? Because if we are, we're wrong. And wholly unjustified.

Here's the simple reality: Earl Doherty does very little that a Crossan or a Meier doesn't do. He uses the same criteria. He just attaches different (entirely subjective, the same as everyone else') weight to them. And by tweaking the weight--this criteria has more force than this one--he uses established methods to drive ineluctably to a given conclusion. That is how history is done, biblical or otherwise. And if it's okay for a Crossan or a Meier (as examples who rely heavily on methodological criteria for authenticity), the it's okay for Earl too.

19 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'We figure ways to find authentic information from texts the same way any other branch of history does.'

So what can we conclude from the fact that the Gospel of John has no mention of any baptism by John the Baptist of Jesus?

Can we conclude , that the baptism must have happened, citing as evidence the fact that there is no baptism in the Gospel of John?

'Earl Doherty does very little that a Crossan or a Meier doesn't do.'

Meier reads the Gospel of John, sees that there is no baptism, and concludes that a baptism must have happened - that the church was 'stuck' with the fact that a baptism happened.

Would a Doherty ever do that?

Rick Sumner said...

You don't learn, do you Steven? Polemic, quote mining, non sequiturs

Really. You're not helping your plight.

Steven Carr said...

So no attempt at an argument or refuting my claims.

Just abuse of the post by somebody unable to show what was wrong with it.

I quoted your post, to engage in dialogue, and was met with abuse and no attempt at an argument....



Would a Doherty produce the howlers that Sanders produce in Jesus and Judaism?

Of course not.


RICK
We figure ways to find authentic information from texts the same way any other branch of history does

CARR
So what do mainstream Biblical historians extract from Paul's claim in Romans 10, that Jews could hardly be expected to believe until a preacher had been sent to them, and Christians had indeed been sent to preach about Jesus?

Should we conclude that Jews had never heard of Jesus, if not for Christians preaching about him?

You can search commentaries high and low and this will not even be discussed, let alone refuted.

Because mainstream commentators assume that Jews had heard of Jesus, before Christians started preaching about him.

They just assume the basics of the Gospel story, which is why they approach texts such as Romans 10 in the way that they do.

Steven Carr said...

'quote mining'....

Another term for 'You skewered the pretensions of Biblical scholars by quoting them.

So I am not going to refute it, just hurl abuse at it by likening it to creationist quote mining.

But no matter what you call my quotes of Meier, that is what he wrote, and the plain fact is that he thinks the baptism is historical, partly because it was 'erased' from John's Gospel.

Yes, things are historical IF they are not mentioned in a text....

Rick Sumner said...

You didn't quote mine Meier, Steven, you quote mined me.

No Steven, no attempt. Because they're irrelevant. You're just too obtuse to realize that.

You can reply to this question if you want, but I'm not much interested in any response since I already know the answer:

Have you ever, in your life, convinced anyone of anything with the nonsensical polemic you pollute blog comments with? Since it isn't effective, why bother?

You are the quintessential reason mythicism is dismissed so easily. A guy with an axe to grind and no critical insight.

Steven Carr said...

Still no arguments.

Still pure abuse.

And Meier's words remain written on the page,regardless of how much you hate me for publicising the arguments used by top Biblical scholars.

He thinks things happened if there is a text with no record of them - if they were 'erased' from the text.

Would Doherty agrue like that?

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Rick, if you're right, this would indicate(in Bayesian terms) that different people have different prior probabilities of historicity.

James F. McGrath said...

Contrary to Steven's claim, Doherty's work does seem to me to be full of "howlers" - special pleading for interpretations of straightforward language in non-straightforward ways, false dichotomies, posited background conceptualities that have no basis in any sources from the time, and so on.

I don't think we should give them less attention that Barbara Thiering. I think we should give them all equally little attention, except inasmuch as we atempt to show with as much patience as we can muster why such views are not taken seriously by people with genuine expertise in the relevant fields.

Treatments of Jewish and Christian history seem to be particularly prone to extremes of historicity and dismissiveness. I explored another example not that long ago, namely the Acts of Thomas, where the work is essentially a novel which probably reflects almost nothing historical in terms of any specific story about Thomas, and yet also seems to have been based on at least some slender genuine knowledge about a trip by Thomas to India, since it gets right not only the name of a king, but also his brother. While scholars of early Christianity in recent years have been largely dismissive, scholars of Indian history enthusiastically point to the Acts of Thomas as providing one of the few instances of independent confirmation in what is otherwise a much less well-attested era in the history of South Asia.

And that's what I object to the most about mythicism. I think Godfrey's quote makes it clear that ahistoricity is being presupposed (since the presumption is that nothing in a text can make historicity more likely, and in some cases such as that of Jesus, texts are all we have). And yet the irony is that those who painstakingly look at the evidence, make a case for historicity or ahistoricity, however subjective and however far from certainty, are accused of "presuming historicity." And the irony is that mythicism is popular among people who consider themselves "freethinkers" and yet seem unable to see that they are not applying critical thinking evenly to their own views and assumptions in the way they do to those with whom they disagree.

Steven Carr said...

So not even an attempt by James McGrath to defend Meier's claim that the baptism by John the Baptist was an event that the church was 'stuck' with, because it was 'erased' from John's Gospel.

In other words, it happened because it is not in one of the Gospels...

Instead we get wild allegations by McGrath, with no specifics whatever.

And once again,McGrath refuses to touch Romans 10, that I mentioned, where Paul makes it clear that Jews had never heard of Jesus, apart from Christians preaching about him.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi James,

James wrote. . .Contrary to Steven's claim, Doherty's work does seem to me to be full of "howlers" - special pleading for interpretations of straightforward language in non-straightforward ways, false dichotomies, posited background conceptualities that have no basis in any sources from the time, and so on.

Doherty's hypothesis has some problems, for sure. And he has a horrible habit of relying on rhetoric to make his points, to overstate his evidence, and to treat his sources as though they are actively engaging the debate with him. He has an interesting theory, and is an absolutely horrible advocate of it. He needs a Huxley, so to speak.

And indeed some things seem almost comical (Justin and Tatian's proposed interchange is just absurd, for example), and he'd probably be better off to simply acknowledge a problem than to press it. But part of that problem owes to having to cover such a massive amount of material--the type range a genuinely different paradigm brings rather than just a new idea. Could his hypothesis be adapted to remove such things? I don't know. But I don't think we should decline to investigate it simply because it has difficulties.

Other things are simply fallacious, and he has a particular knack for relying on authority when he's arguing for something new. Certainly there are significant problems with his entire package. But how many discussions of Christian origins can truly claim to be free of any such difficulties? More importantly, how many can claim to have always been free of them? We can hardly claim Doherty's hypothesis hasn't withstood serious inquiry: It hasn't had any serious inquiry.

If one goes way back into the annals of the Crosstalk list, Stevan Davies once opined that Doherty offered something fundamentally new in a sense that nobody else he'd encountered had. That he had learned more from alternately engaging and endorsing facets of Doherty's hypothesis than anyone else'. Doherty challenges how we think in a sense that no one else I've read does.

As far as interpretations of straightforward language in non-straightforward ways, I just read 250 pages on a three word phrase (in translation, at least). Carr's Angels and Principalites. Tens of thousands of words on it.

I'm not aware of any area of NT studies that don't take non-straightforward readings of straightforward material. If that's your reason for rejecting him, it's very, very weak.

Rick Sumner said...

James wrote. . .And that's what I object to the most about mythicism. I think Godfrey's quote makes it clear that ahistoricity is being presupposed (since the presumption is that nothing in a text can make historicity more likely, and in some cases such as that of Jesus, texts are all we have).

I think everyone approaches the texts with assumptions. Mythicist and historicist alike approach the texts with an idea of what they intend to find, and that idea colors how they view the material.

But Price is right: Dissimilarity alone can be employed to reject every single verse in the NT, if put in the right hands. Whether we use it to do that or not depends on what our predilections are, a sword that cuts both ways.

James wrote. . .And yet the irony is that those who painstakingly look at the evidence, make a case for historicity or ahistoricity, however subjective and however far from certainty, are accused of "presuming historicity."

To a large degree I agree with this, though it's another sword that cuts both ways. It's always phrased so that one's side is doing history, but the other isn't. And I think that's wrong. Once we move beyond the overly popular crap the mythicist is doing history, and they're especially doing biblical history. It's being played by the same rules the historicist uses, so it's not really sporting to tell them they can't have their ball on our field.

How do you intend to actually know if the mythicist position is as horrible as you assume it is if you don't engage the material? If you don't put forth your challenges and assess the responses? How do you know it can't be modified in the face of new questions when you don't bother asking them, and instead just call them creationists?

That a Thiering or an Eisenman is wrong is self-evident. The case is not so prima facie strong against an Earl Doherty. Even if we reject him, he deserves to be taken seriously, and the lack of fair and balanced engagement (rather than a string of thinly veiled insults) is to the historicist's discredit.

I noted at the outset that I ultimately reject Doherty. But I know why I do, I've engaged the material, I've given him his airtime, I've heard him out. And ultimately I found the theory wanting. But I know why I do.

At this point you can't make the same claim. So is any claim at all really justified?

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Stephen,

I think there's some real hope with Bayesian probabilities in the study of history. Real hope. It's just going to take a better thinker than me to work out the nuances.

Vinny said...

Rick,

Thanks for that post.

James F. McGrath said...

Rick, it may just be that everything I think about mythicism is colored by Steven Carr's failure to acknowledge that Jude's failure to mention Lee Harvey Oswald refutes that the Maitreya was his brother...

Having said that, I have read Doherty (even though I've been accused of not doing so). I just said it had been a while and I needed to refresh my memory. But I think I remember enough (and have confirmed from online sources) to say that Doherty's attempts to force events into "the sub-lunar realm" and treat phrases such as "according to the flesh" in such a context is not merely unpersuasive, but has no foundation or justification in any relevant sources. So I'm all for reading before rejecting. But we have, and then we did, and yet we keep hearing from mythicists that we ought to have found this stuff persuasive.

Rick Sumner said...

I couldn't agree more in the case of people like Carr. There used to a be a Ted Hoffman kicking around who was just as bad. It's perhaps just bad luck for Doherty that most of his most vociferous supporters are even poorer debaters than he is. As I noted above, he desperately needs a Huxley. Unfortunately evolution was a slam dunk in the sense that no discussion--mythicist or otherwise--of Christian origins can be. So even a Huxley can't make a case without a receptive audience, and there doesn't seem to be one anywhere. And that, again, is to the shame of the historicist. Even if he's wrong, he does deserve to be taken seriously. It isn't some laughable "Jesus-is-based-on-Mithras-because-I-read-it-online" hypothesis.

Kata sarka provides a nice example of where Doherty hasn't really gotten a fair hearing actually. Because the discussion has largely focussed on whether or not he quote mined Barrett. Which he did.

The case he makes in his first book is horrible. It begins with an abuse of Barrett, and ends with the observation that it could be "quite useful."

I'm not sure that Doherty's reading of "according to the flesh" (which Carr, in customary fashion, very poorly explains) is that big of a stretch though. His appeal to Barrett is fallacious, of course. First of all he's quote mined him, second of all he's relied on an equivocation that only works in English.

But the term is used for Jesus, and Jesus alone in, for example, Ignatius To the Smyrneans and Acts. Why? It seems obvious to me that it serves as a qualifier, a way to get around the virgin birth. That Jesus enjoys legitimate sonship through Joseph, despite the lack of actual parentage.

It functions as a sort of idiom here, and it's really not that big a step to Doherty's interpretation. It's an argument he (unfortunately) missed, though I haven't read the new book yet so it may have been corrected.

It's a small enough step that if he's right everywhere else, or even most other places, his proposed reading almost has to become the default. We can't hang historicity on Rom.1:3. Or if we do, we at the very least can only do so provisionally. Which is how I think most of our conclusions should be framed, and I would hope that if we did so our conclusions would, in general, become less strained. We'd have less drum majorettes.

But in the end, for the record, I reject Doherty's reading. But I don't see it as a refutation of his thesis.

The sub-lunar realm is a little iffier. He seems to have abused his sources there. I'm not sure if a stronger case can be made or not.

Rick Sumner said...

I thought I'd included this above. I'd intended to, at any rate.

James wrote. . .Having said that, I have read Doherty (even though I've been accused of not doing so).

In that case I extend my apologies. I'd misunderstood the situation, and was uncharitable my own self.

James F. McGrath said...

No problem, Rick. It has been said a lot lately. And if there is a problem that confronts both mythicists and mainstream scholarship alike, it is that we all have a tendency, if we hear something enough, to think it must be true! :)

Steven Carr said...

MCGRATH
Rick, it may just be that everything I think about mythicism is colored by Steven Carr's failure to acknowledge that Jude's failure to mention Lee Harvey Oswald refutes that the Maitreya was his brother.

CARR
I see McGrath is now resorting to lies about what I write, as he cannot refute my arguments.

As McGrath well knows, the Maitreya does not exist, despite the fact that pictures of him have been posted on the Internet.

We can apply standards of mainstream Biblical scholarship to the case of the Maitreya, and see that they crash and burn there too, just as badly as they have crashed and burned for the past 100 years when scholars have applied the same standards to the historical Jesus.

Standards which include claiming that something happened because one text does not mention it (!)

It takes a lot more than claims that the Lord had a brother to show that there was a Jesus, especially when major church histories have no record of this person being a brother of Jesus.

McGrath is in an industry which has failed its customers for the past 100 years.

This is not surprising as all mainstream Biblical historians do not have a methodology which works.

Without tools, they are groping in the dark.

James F. McGrath said...

Obviously someone who cannot recognize satire in their own time is going to have a tough time working out genres in ancient literature.

Why it has any bearing in Steven's mind on the question of the historical Jesus that some people didn't mention some things is beyond me. In the case of Jesus' brothers, we know that later Christians sometimes tried to turn brothers into cousins in order to maintain Mary's perpetual virginity. And that of course is helpful to historians, since it situated the sources that refer to Jesus' brother(s) without embarrassment in an earlier period.