Friday, January 14, 2011

Critical Review: David Fitzgerald's "Nailed," Part 2A

Chapter 2: Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…

There’s a “Beg your pardon?” in this at once: Jesus was wildly famous? Not in the least. I am with those who, like John Meier, find little reason for the gatekeepers of the first century’s history (those we have left) to mention Jesus. In this chapter, Fitzgerald takes two tacks, and we’ll deal with each one in a separate posting. The first tack is to argue that certain events in Jesus’ life “should have made history” but didn’t.

As with the Chapter 1 premise we discussed yesterday, however, this is a non sequitur. Any number of events – whether amazing or mundane – could readily end up attached to persons who are otherwise completely historical. And that is indeed the case. The story of figures ranging from Alexander the Great to Socrates to Stonewall Jackson have been appended with what historians regard as sheer fabrication, with none thereafter reaching for the conclusion that this provides a step towards suggesting that these figures are non-existent. Even if Fitzgerald is right and all of the events he lists did not occur as recorded in the NT, none of this would lend a bit of assistance to a Christ-myth thesis.

And what of those events? Well, it’s a collection that we’ve dealt with again and again – not one shred of news here. So we’ll have some comments to start, and links below.

The Lukan census – contrary to Fitzgerald, scholarship is now turning in the direction of seeing this event as more and more historical. Fitzgerald’s charge that it looks “suspiciously convenient” is one that could be raised against any number of claim; the simple fact is that much history turns on conveniences. In The Collected What If?, a book we reviewed this past week, historians recount a number of “convenient” incidents, such as a fog that just happened to come at the right time to enable Washington to escape capture by British forces, and a taxicab that just happened to hit Winston Churchill not hard enough to kill him. Appeal to a record being “too convenient” is a non-argument that ignores the realities of life and history – especially since Rome did indeed conduct frequent censuses. Certainly people did not stop being born or conceiving babies during those events.

Fitzgerald also appeals to the alleged incongruity of the two nativity accounts, which we have dealt with. He also raises the standard objection about the alleged difficulty of travel for a pregnant Mary, which was also made by Robert Price. Our answers are the same:

First of all, where did the donkey come from? Price is confusing Nativity with New Testament here. (Added note: They more likely walked or perhaps had a wheeled cart.)

Second, this comment does a grave disservice to ancient people. We modern couch-potato Americans who find even a hike to the fridge and back tiring would do well to remember that in the ancient world, with very few exceptions, fitness was paramount to survival. Walking was the usual mode of transport, especially for poor families like Jesus', and there is no reason why even the "most pregnant" woman (even today, in many cases) could not make such a trip.

Third, and as a matter of speculation, if the census journey coincided with a Jewish feast - as I think it may have - then Nazareth would have been deserted, and all of Joseph and Mary's nearby relatives would be out, too. Would you want to be left alone in such circumstances? Would you want to be left alone anyway?

Finally, we must notice that this "stupidity" was not optional. It was a Roman decree with military teeth in it, and travel with a pregnant wife is much simpler than travel with a newly-delivered wife and a suckling infant.

The second event Fitzgerald notes is the slaughter of the innocents. He makes the usual error of supposing that this involved an enormous number of deaths that should have been noticed.

Third, Fitzgerald appeals to Jesus’ supposedly “famous” ministry. But he offers little grounds for arriving at a conclusion that Jesus was “famous,” particularly with those who were literate and capable of reporting. Indeed, Jesus’ “fame” with the poor and downtrodden, in a heavily stratified society like the New Testament world, would be seen as all the more reason for the elite and literate to snub him as an option.

Fitzgerald also notes that Jesus healed certain people who were prominent, like the daughter of a synagogue ruler, but as none of these people left us any records, it is hard to see why this is in any sense meaningful. It is asked, “how is it that [Jesus] wasn’t whisked off to the royal court, or even Rome itself?” [24]

Fitzgerald can hardly be serious here. What does he think a person like Tacitus or Nero would make of a report that came in that some backwoods Jewish preacher had healed someone? Does he think they would have given it a moment’s notice – even if it happened to be true? Rather, whoever made the report would be dismissed out of hand as deluded, or giving in to Jewish superstitions. Skeptics today certainly do not rush to be healed by Benny Hinn simply because they hear multiple positive testimonies about him!

The next event discussed is Jesus’ triumphal entry. Fitzgerald labors under the assumption that this event was a “momentous occasion” [25], which it would indeed have been seen by Christians. But as far as writers like Josephus and Tacitus were concerned, this was not a defining moment in Jesus’ career. Rather, the most defining moment for them would be Jesus’ shameful crucifixion as a criminal. The “Triumphal Entry” would be little more to such writers than a tragic farce and an example of precisely why Jesus got himself crucified. Once again, Fitzgerald approaches the text without the proper perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries.

Fitzgerald’s further comment that the Romans “would’ve looked very dimly” on Jesus’ actions, and done something about it at once, also demonstrate a serious lack of perspective. Rome only had a limited number of troops in Judaea, and Jesus entered into town in what was clearly intended to be a peaceful gesture. His followers carried no weapons and were not fomenting rebellion. Given the expense of engagement, a “wait and see” approach is precisely the sort we would expect the Romans to pursue.

Fifth, we have the trial of Jesus, and the least that can be said is that at least Fitzgerald doesn’t appeal to alleged court records that do not actually exist, as many Skeptics do. But he does seriously overplay the trial as an event (eg, calling the arrest “dramatic” when it was doubtful that it was any more or less dramatic than the arrest of any suspected rebel figure, of which there were many) and calling the trial “illegal” (not in the least – see link). As an aside, this last point is an example of precisely Fitzgerald is not to be trusted as a secure source. Countless books have been written on the trial of Jesus, but all we have from him is a mere sentence or so of assertion that assumes that the case is already proven.

Sixth, there is the crucifixion, and although this event is indeed confirmed by several sources (Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian), Fitzgerald resorts to generally vague charges that the Gospels offer the story with different tones, a charge that could also be made for any four biographies of any figure (see link). His only specific charge is the “Passover” canard (see link).

Finally, there is a grouping of miracles, but nothing more than the usual misconceptions. The darkness at the crucifixion is taken to have been seen by the “whole ancient world” [27] but no such thing is shown in the text and the standard appeals are made to Pliny and Seneca (and others, but these would have even less reason to refer to it). (link) Also, the standard appeal to silence about Matthew’s signs at the crucifixion (link) Finally, the Resurrection and ascension are added to the list as supposed “immediate bombshell(s) on the consciousness of the first-century world,” [28] which is again a serious lack of perspective: These again are claims that would simply be dismissed as fiction, out of hand, by the likes of Tacitus, even if true – to say nothing of Jesus’ resurrection itself as anachronistic in context (link).

In conclusion, Fitzgerald does little more than haul out arguments that have been refuted repeatedly. While this may have impressed those who judged his book on Rene Salm’s kangaroo committee awarding a prize for the best mythicist book, it is hardly impressive to those who are seriously educated in the subject.

The census – see our summary of the matter

The nativity accounts – Fitzgerald devotes a mere paragraph to this and does not even consider that Matthew and Luke are reporting events two years apart.

The Slaughter

The trial

Four biographies – as in, four of Lincoln, as I show


Darkness: Two items of relevance here and here


Anachronistic resurrection: Point 3, here

The Ticker will return Tuesday with a guest post, then we will look at more of Nailed on Wednesday.