Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Smash: David Mirsch's "The Open Tomb"

In observance of Easter, we have a special series on a book titled The Open Tomb: Why and How Jesus faked His Death and Resurrection (hereafter TOT) by David Mirsch. We're doing this for a couple of reasons. One is that it was requested by a reader. The other is that it is always good to check out what the latest thesis of this sort is, in order to see just how far down to the bottom of the barrel critics have to scrape to argue against the Resurrection.

And barrel bottom may be too high to rate this one. There is nothing to indicate that Mirsch has any serious qualifications or credentials; rather obnoxiously, he lists himself online as a "historian" in charge of "Mirsch Biblical Research," though his past employment is as a "pulmonary lab technician". The closest he ever came to credentials in history, by his own profession, is taking some history at a technical college. For Mirsch to call himself a historian is false advertising at its finest; one may as well call someone assigned to clean out hospital bedpans a "doctor."

Further, his listing of resources in TOT is pitifully short, and reads like a collection of books picked up at a used book jumble at a seminary library. Mirsch's main talent as a writer is saying in 500,000 words what could have been said in less than 500, and there is nary a footnote to be found within the main text. 

The result is as you might expect. TOT is worthless historical rewrite, one in which Mirsch hypothesizes that the New Testament accounts are a coded message, behind which Mirsch's unbridled genius has discovered (while serious, credentialed scholars have missed) the reality that "Jesus was the son of a high priest and the scion of two of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem," whose mission was to "wield the sword of a nationalistic movement intent on driving the Romans from the land." This thesis is so wacky that I am not sure even Robert Price or Acharya S would endorse it, though I could be wrong! And this, by the way, we are to believe is the result of "ten years of research" (1) by Mirsch. I can only conclude that his definition of "research" is inclusive of ingesting hallucinogenic substances.

Nevertheless, Mirsch is trying his best to sell this idiocy; he has a Twitter page, for example (with all of 29 followers, which is about as many people as read one of my most obscure Tekton articles every month), a Facebook page, and has been leaving spam on Skeptical blogs advertising the tome. As far as can be seen, though, almost no one is paying attention, least of all anyone with serious credentials.

So with that in mind, let's survey this monstrosity of 459 pages over several entries, which may not be consecutive, but will be completed.

Mirsch of course is required to dispense with the work of authorities in the field in order to propound his ludicrous thesis, and he does so with the dispatch of the Roadrunner, but with all the grace of Wile E. Coyote. He declares to start that "[a]lmost everything written about Jesus" is "almost entirely speculation and theory." [2] Not that Mirsch has read even one quarter of one quarter of one quarter of one percent of "everything" written about Jesus, though as deluded as he appears to be, he likely thinks the tomes he picked up at the jumble sale represent a significant portion of that. In reality, Mirsch is simply not competent enough to address serious scholarship, and merely crafts this slogan as a way to easily dismiss it. 

In the same way, he also dismisses ancient sources like the Gospels as "second hand" and "propaganda". [2] This too is merely sloganeering, as neither "second hand" nor "propaganda" means "inaccurate, and therefore we can ignore it." Mirsch merely makes affective use of these terms in order to sway the reader who already wishes to believe this to be the case. It is doubtful he could so much as defend the premise that any particular first hand NT account like Matthew or Mark is "second hand." Much less is it likely that he can explain why "second hand" allows us to offer an automatic or semi-automatic dismissal.
"Propaganda," loaded word though it is, is even moreso an unjustified slogan. The word means something meant to present only one side. This opens two questions. The first is, how does Mirsch know the Gospels, for example, present only one side, and that there is another side that would differ, and do so honestly?  Second, why would this mean we can simply dismiss a source as inaccurate, and feel free to come up with an insane rewrite of what it reported?

By Mirsch's own view, even his rewritten Gospel interpretation could be called "propaganda". Also, historians do not simply wave off sources that tell only one side. For example, I am now reading a book about Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. Our main source is one of Magellan's own diarists who clearly was biased towards Magellan. Yet the reaction of historians is not to just throw out this diarist's account, or to rewrite his diary as a cover for a story of Magellan taking a rocket ship to Mars. Rather, they simply sift and use the diarist's work critically. But that seems to not suit Mirsch's ham-handed approach.

A hallmark of Mirsch's approach is that he finds what he thinks is some problem in the text, and then, assuming there is no good answer to the manufactured problem, proceeds to take this problem as a reason to rewrite the history. However, the "problems" he detects are the sort one would never uncover by reading from a jumble sale bin.

Mirsch is suspicious, for example, of how Jesus (in his view) micromanages certain details, even securing the room for the Passover meal. "Surely, there is no need for the Son of God to be concerned with where Supper will be eaten," he moans. [5] This assessment fails as an unjustified resurrection of the snotty deism of the Enlightenment, as represented by David Strauss, of whom we said:

A minor focus for Strauss involves the miraculous catch(es) of fish described in the Gospels, in which Jesus instructed Peter and his fellow fishermen to let down their nets for a catch after getting nothing all day -- and having them end up with a net full of fish. Strauss not unexpectedly dismisses the miraculous aspect: under the presumption that this was a miracle of direction (in essence, Jesus calling the fish over to be caught) he objects that the idea Jesus "could influence irrational beings is impossible to imagine out of the domain of magic." [316]

What makes this "impossible to imagine" is not explained, but one suggests that it is only the limits of Strauss' imagination. On the other hand, on the idea that Jesus just happened to know where to find the fish (making this a "knowledge" rather than a "power" miracle) Strauss objects to this miracle (and many others) on the grounds that it was too petty of a miracle for God to soil His hands with. "Was this the preparation for engrafting the true faith? Or did Jesus believe that it was only by such signs that he could win disciples?" Surely, Strauss says, Jesus would have been too overwhelmed by weightier thoughts to figure out where the fish were.
Really? Can the divine be overwhelmed thusly? What we have here is nothing more than Strauss' incredulous deism shining through. What matter is it if the catches of fish were the signs chosen to influence the disciples? They were fishermen -- this was something meaningful that they could relate to. In this day and age when actions spoke multitudes as messages, and when there would be much less surety where one's next meal was coming from, this was a highly appropriate "sign" to Peter and his friends to demonstrate Jesus' power. Strauss, in line with the god of deism and his position as a well-fed scholastic, simply did not recognize the significance of God being willing to descend to their level (is this not what the Incarnation involved?).

A similar point can be applied to Jesus securing the room for the Passover. Fellowship meals are critical for the social health of an ingroup in a collectivist society. As ingroup leader, Jesus' role would always be to take charge of the preparations and provide direction. That he was the Son of God in no way lessens this obligation, or gives any reason why he should not perform it, unless one adopts the snotty deism of Strauss -- and that is not the picture of God offered in the Old Testament of the New Testament.

Mirsch's conception of history befits one whose credentials in it come from a technical school. He supposes that "stories are believed as fact simply because they have been handed down over the centuries," and "solely on the strength of the desire of believers to accept the tradition as true." [7-8] While this is no doubt the case for a majority who accept any view from history -- even that of the American Revolution -- it remains that above and beyond the matter there is serious, credentialed scholarship that Mirsch has barely sampled. Once again, this is little more than a breezy dismissal that Mirsch feels permits him to move on without incident.

Another alleged peculiarity, according to Mirsch, is that we have a strange and "profound" silence concerning what "the ruling Jews of Jerusalem thought of Jesus". [17] We will see later that he merely waves off the non-NT source that fills in this silence (Josephus), and of course, he merely reinterprets or ignores what is reported in the NT. But beyond this, why is this a problem? Mirsch fails to mention that when it comes to "the ruling Jews of Jerusalem" thought of anything whatsoever, all we have on that comes from Josephus and the NT -- they are the only sources that give us any insight into those people and what they thought at that time. They left no records of their own to this day. Thus Mirsch is not telling the whole story when he speaks of "the lack of record of contemporary Jewish sources," he misleads the reader when he thinks to answer this lack by positing the query of whether they did not think Jesus important enough, or else had some "agenda" for not doing so (which in fact is what he ends up arguing). The most he does is allow that records may have been willfully destroyed (though there is no evidence of that either), but the fact remains that this allegedly problematic "silence" he takes advantage of has the more prosaic and obvious explanation that virtually nothing has survived from that era to begin with. As one classical scholar remarked, what has survived from the first century could fit on a three foot bookshelf. So is Mirsch going to conveniently posit willful destruction to explain the loss of works by Seneca?
Yet another fake problem for which Mirsch offers false solutions relates to the "James ossuary".  He initially relates an argument -- by who knows who -- that there is some significance to the ossuary being "found in Jerusalem" which suggests that James' home had become Jerusalem. I know of no scholar of archaeologist who argues such a thing, though if they did, it would make little sense; one of the big issues with the ossuary is that no one knows where it was dug up. So it is hard to see how anyone could adopt such a line of reasoning in the first place.

However, just as absurd is Mirsch's response, which is that if the ossuary was found in Jerusalem, "the argument becomes much stronger that (James) was from Jerusalem originally..." and that the contrary NT accounts can be dismissed as "agenda laden" attempts to distance James and Jesus from Jerusalem! Initially, this is idiotic because it is a non sequitur to argue from the (supposed) finding of the ossuary in Jerusalem to James living in Jerusalem. The simple fact is that people aren't always buried where they are born. They are often buried where they spent important parts of their lives. At the same time, many Jews would desire to be buried in Jerusalem precisely because it was the holy city of their covenant.  

Finally, making James and Jesus come from Galilee wouldn't do anything to "distance" them from Jerusalem anyway! The NT record has Jesus doing a great deal in Jerusalem, including dying and rising from the dead, so it is more than a little idiotic to propose that he was turned into a Galileean to "distance" him from Jerusalem -- especially since it is clear that leaders like Joseph of Arimathea didn't need to be. 

I'll add as well that Mirsch's hypothesis that the NT made Jesus from Galilee, and also "downplayed" the involvement of the Romans, in order to "win over pagan converts," [22] is exceptionally misinformed. Making Jesus from a backwards burg like Galilee, which had a reputation for sedition, would have been LESS appealing to pagans than making Jesus from a more prestigious city like Jerusalem. In terms of "downplaying" Roman involvement, this too is bunk: The NT picture fits precisely with the role of the Romans in administering local justice in their provinces; they handled only the sentencing in capital cases, and let the local authorities decide on the rest. This is yet another example of how poor Mirsch's scholarship is.

At page 27 we run into one of Mirsch's sparse reasons for rejecting the Gospels as they stand, and it's nothing new: "obvious contradictions and divergencies," "miracles and healings," "lack of corroboration with contemporary historical accounts." Each of these vague charges has been responded to repeatedly in the literature, but since here Mirsch delivers no specifics, not much more can be said in reply.

On pages 29-30, Mirsch delivers a summary of one of his imaginative rewrites: In the story of Jairus' daughter, Jairus is a "metaphor" for Herod Antipas. He offers no further details beyond saying this dates the story to before 39 AD. He uses this, though, as an introduction to his thesis of the dates and relationships of the Gospels, which will give any scholar, even perhaps Robert Price, apoplexy: He dates all the Gospels to the late 30s AD., and proposes that they were written in the order Mark, Luke, and Matthew. 

He claims this is supported for Luke by "its intended recipient, Theophilus," who was "high priest, that is 37-41 CE".  Now this is a view that I have seen on a few popular websites, but have not seen it taken seriously by any modern scholar. Of course, this is merely a designation of convenience for Mirsch, for while indeed the high priest of that date was named Theophilus ben Ananus, he does not defend this proposition other than for the reason that it supports his theory. The name Theophilus was a relatively common one, and it will require more defense than Mirsch provides here -- which based on the index, is his ONLY defense of the identification -- to support this. But let us, for the record, discuss the matter since it is also appearing on popular forums.

One of the chief arguments that Theophilus was a Roman official -- a view I prefer -- is that Luke addresses him as "most excellent," which is a designation reserved for officials of Rome elsewhere (Felix and festus). I found a blog entry by someone who denies this view, and adheres to Mirsch's (though seemingly with no knowledge of him), giving the following arguments:

1) Just because Luke uses this for Roman officials doesn't mean it wasn't used for other types of officials, like Jewish high priests. Well, then, it is the responsibility of the doubter to make a case by example, not merely speculate wildly because it is what they want to be true. As it is, the other examples we have show it used exclusively of important persons of Roman persuasion: Josephus addresses his patron Epaphroditus with the title (Against Apion, 1; Life, 74, 430), and although we know little about Epaphroditus, it is certain that he was a Roman who was one of Josephus' lead patrons.  The word used by Luke was also used to address Romans of equestrian rank. I can find no evidence it was used of Jewish high priests, and in fact, it would likely offend them, since the meaning of the word (kratistos) is essentially, one who is mighty in deed or power -- a description a Jew would apply to God, not a mere human.

2) He does not call Theophilus by the title in Acts. It's hard to see why this makes a difference, since it would be the same if Theophilus were also a Jewish high priest, or even a grocery clerk. The theorists think this actually supports their view, though, since Theophilus the priest was deposed in AD 41, and they suppose Acts was written to him after he was deposed, and so no longer worthy of the title. But this does not really help matters. Acts would have been written after 62 AD, some 20 years after Theophilus was deposed. Why did Luke wait that long to write and send "volume 2" to Theophilus the priest? And since we also have no evidence that Theophilus was alive that long -- a very serious question, when lifespans were an average of 35 -- it will take more than this coincidence to establish a correspondence.

3) Luke mentions "inside knowledge" or gives casual references that a Roman official would not understand or fare about, like the "time if incense." This means very little, since it would need to be argued that the information Luke gives is insufficient to provide a basic understanding within a Roman's knowledge base. Modern English readers have little trouble getting basic understanding of what Luke refers to, so why should this be a problem for a Roman, even if we assume Theophilus was not in some way designated to handle cases involving Jewish affairs (as such officials would be needed among the Diaspora)? At the same time, this fails on the point that Luke's Gospel is an ancient biography, which means that it is intended, in the end, for readers beyond Theophilus.

That said, an analysis of Luke's contents actually debunks this argument. If any Gospel is suitable for a Jewish high priest, it is Matthew, with his rabbinic exegetical techniques and his focus on Jewish interests. Luke presents knowledge that would be suitable for a neophyte where the Gospel was concerned (Witherington, Acts commentary, 63), and it is for this reason that Witherington and others conceive of Theophilus as a "fairly recent convert" who came out of the synagogue, and had perhaps been a Jewish proselyte. As it is, then, Luke's presentation is actually too basic for a high priest.

Returning to Mirsch, we pick up on page 31, where he presents an involved and outlandish thesis of "spiritual progression" to validate his claims of Gospel order (Mark/Luke/Matthew). He selects the account of Jesus being baptized, and references to the Holy Spirit -- called "the spirit" in Mark, "the holy spirit" in Luke, and "the spirit of God" in Matthew. 

Mirsch's initial error is in thinking that Luke would never have changed "spirit of God" to "holy spirit," on the supposition that no one would have "tampered with" a reference to God.  This is simply nonsensical. The word used by Matthew, theos, was not sacrosanct, like the divine name; indeed it was a word used to refer to pagan deities. Furthermore, the holy spirit WAS the "spirit of God", so that the terms are synonymous. Finally, as far as Mark goes, Mirsch quotes Mark 1:10, which refers only to "the spirit," but he forgets that in Mark 1:8, reference is made to "the Holy Spirit," so that 1:10 implies the same thing.
One of Mirsch's rhetorical tactics emerges on page 33, where he counsels the reader to be "open-minded enough to scrutinize all other alternatives." This is merely an attempt to claim the rhetorical high ground, and allow Mirsch to declare that anyone who designates his theory for the bunkum that it is, is thereby not "open-minded." It would never occur to Mirsch that his theory is being rejected because it is bunk, and is recognized as such by qualified commentators.

On pages 36-7 we have the first full exposition of a rewrite by Mirsch. He rapes the text of John 4, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and turns it into a story where the woman is actually a metaphor for Samaria itself, and Jesus is encouraging the Samaritans to join him in rebellion against Rome.  To that end, everything in the story is forcibly reinterpreted, such that e.g., the "living water" becomes a metaphor for future political salvation
It's very creative, but why should we believe it? Mirsch gives all of one argument for this, and it concerns the five husbands of the woman. He begins by professing to find problems with reading the story as literal. Unfortunately, the problems he finds amount to, "Doh!" He first asks why the woman should be surprised and impressed; that a stranger is telling her intimate details about her life -- as she plainly says later -- doesn't seem to be sufficient reason for Mirsch. Second, he asks why Jesus made the reference at all. Apparently he forgot that Jews respected prophets who showed they knew things they would otherwise not be able to know. Delivering a prophecy is Jesus establishing his prophetic credentials. As it is, it is apparent that Mirsch doesn't get this, as he says, "Surely her character has been well established in the story by the facts already mentioned..." That's where he goes wrong: he thinks this was done just as a "character reference"!

Having imagined these problems out of thin air, Mirsch proceeds with his forced re-reading, in which the five husbands are metaphors for five past leaders of Samaria: Hyrcanus II, Antigonus, Herod the Great, Herod Archaeleus, and "Rome". The reader can already smell the books being cooked with that one. Why count "Rome" as a collective, and the other four as individuals? Why not instead also count each of the Roman emperors after Archaeleus -- Augustus and Tiberius?  Why not count all the prefects of Rome who ruled the area as separate individuals? Indeed, why not count the client-kings under Rome, the two Herods, as under "Rome"? The obvious answer: Mirsch needs to strain and smash that number to five so that he can hammer it into his theory. He may as well have rewritten John 4's five husbands as a parable of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

That's enough of Mirsch's absurdity for this entry. We'll pick up with more in a later entry.


  1. Once again, a cogent summary and retort.

  2. Surely Mirsch was writing fiction. Historical analysis it isn't.