Friday, April 5, 2013

David Mirsch's "The Open Tomb": Part 2

Continuing now with Mirsch, we pick up on page 47, where he lays ground for his hypothesis that Jesus deceitfully faked his death. In this we can see at once that Mirsch has consulted only grade-school apologetics and not serious scholarship, for he thinks it will be news to Christians that it was possible to commit such deceit with worthwhile goals in mind. In reality, informed Christian scholars are familar with the notion; it's called the "honorable lie," and I have myself argued that even Jesus used this tactic (link below). That said, faking his death and resurrection would not constiute such a lie, but would be a dishonorable one, as it would have presumed to "speak for God" falsely, and rated Jesus as a false prophet. 

For that reason, when Mirsch appeals to the example of someone else faking their death for honorable purposes -- a Jewish teacher named Jochnan be Zakkai, who pretended to be dead in order to escape the destruction of Jerusalem -- his appeal is in fact irrelevant. Zakkai's deception would be considered honorable indeed: He was deceiving the hated Roman enemy by faking his death. Jesus would not qualify as an honorable liar under the situation Mirsch describes for him. Mirsch's ignorance of social science therefore delivers him a double whammy on this one.

Yet another example of Mirsch being taken in by grade school apologetics is his supposition that Christians would not accept that Jesus intentionally fulfilled OT prophecy. On the contrary, the supposition is that such is exactly what he would do, to the best of his abilities (link below).

Mirsch then tackles the growth of early Christianity, and needless to say, he is completely ignorant of the social factors that would have stunted Christian growth (link below), and he also supposes the "die for a lie" argument is as sophisticated as apologetics can get. About the only place he can be taken seriously here is when he refers to Rodney Stark and gives four reasons why Christianity would gain converts. But all four of these fail, not only to account for the strong negatives one can offer in comparison, but also for Mirsch's lack of knowledge:

1) "[A] strong personal connection with people who are already members". In other words, Mirsch argues that people became Christians because prior family members did. This is only partly true, however; this might follow only if the head of a household converted -- and it would not explain why that household head converted in the first place. Moreover, Mirsch is unaware that if it were another member that converted, like a wife, the husband would be overwhelmingly inclined to treat her as a deviant and try to win her back to the proper religion -- perhaps even using physical threats to do so. Mirsch's idea about family togetherness imposes modern sentimentalism on the text.

2) "[T]he group or organization offers benefits" like health care or a sense of community "that members cannot acquire elsewhere." Unfortunately for Mirsch, in the collectivist society of the New Testament, such things could and would be able to be acquired elsewhere rather easily -- whether from community support, or membership in any number of ingroups, whether cults or professional associations.

3) Similarly, some "spiritual benefit" is supposed. But as noted in the article linked below, the "spiritual benefits" Christianity offered were precisely one strong reason people would reject it.

4) Finally, it is supposed that a chief motivator would have been allowing women places of authority. Well, yes and no. For one thing, there were cults and groups available that already did that. For another, at best that only explains why some women would join, not men. 

In any event, not even at their best do these four reasons overcome the vast negatives Christianity would have had to overcome.

In a chapter following, Mirsch makes much over the designation of Jesus as "Nazarene".  He supposes this must mean something other than "someone from Nazareth"; he would rather it be some sort of reference to Jesus as a "nazarite".
Unfortunately, Mirsch's arguments for this view are particularly misinformed. One is a point we have alluded to as erroneous before; he supposes it would have been done to distance Jesus from Jerusalem, which as we have stated, would have been a wrong move. Another excuse offered by Mirsch is that Mark, as earliest Gospel, just says Jesus came from Nazareth (1:9), not that he lived there. For other references, he merely forcibly reinterprets the meaning to have to do with "nazarites" without any justification other than that he wants it to be that way; as is shown by the fact that he also feels free to hypothsize "Christian redactions" [74] to cover himself. He even has the nerve to say that "scholars and Christian apologists" [77] continue to make the mistake that he corrects, and only do so because of "the power of tradition to misdirect consensus and to obscure, if not outright destroy, serious scholarly study of the historical person." Lest anyone suppose this to be anything but bluster, it speaks enough of Mirsch's horrid scholarship that he even allows that Nazareth may not have even existed [79].

An especially ludicrous reason for "de-nazarething" Jesus is an extended explanation in which Mirsch proposes that carpenters like Joseph and Jesus would find no work in Nazareth, and would certainly not walk back and forth to Sepphoris every day. In this Mirsch displays typical ignorance of the social world of the NT, as we have related in an E-Block article to come:

A critical distinction is to be made between two types of time in the Bible: Chronos, which is like our measured time, and kairos, which is more like "opportunity." The latter is explained by the authors with reference to a time in Indonesia when they hired a carpenter to make cabinets.  The nearest carpenter lived on another island, some distance away. So to get the work done, the carpenter first had to wait until there was enough work in the area to justify him making the trip. Then, a month later,  the carpenter showed up and set up "house"  in the author's carport! He cooked his meals there and slept there. Then, once he got the author's projects done, he worked on several other projects in the area.

By the same token, Mirsch has no knowledge of this being how carpenters from Nazareth would find work -- by being itinerants who moved around as needed. Thus Mirsch's most developed argument in this regard fails miserably.
We will bypass Mirsch's attempts to likewise strain out new theories from Capernaum and Magdala, and close this entry with a look at a series of non sequiturs in the service of proving that Jesus was actually part of a wealthy and powerful family in his own day. Basically these run as: 1) Jesus did/got/received this or that; 2) Only a wealthy, powerful person would do/get/ receive this or that; 3) therefore Jesus ws part of a wealthy and powerful family. Naturally step 2 is where Mirsch fails on every point.

In particular, certain elements Mirsch notes are explained just as readily by Jesus being regarded not as a Davidic king on earth, but as a great prophet of God and a king after the manner of God. [97-8] Thus for example, the triumphal entry requires no pretenses of the sort of merely military kingship Mirsch imagines. Nor does the use of so many spices by Nicodemus during Jesus' burial; this is exactly what Nicodemus would also do to honor one he considered to be a prophet of God, especially if he desired to in some way counteract the shame of the crucifixion. The same may also be said of Joseph making use of his own tomb, though here as well, Mirsch is oblivious to the scholarship of Byron McCane explaining exactly why Joseph's tomb would be used -- and why it would NOT be seen as a "royal burial" (because Jesus was buried shamefully in the tomb of a stranger).
Other aspects require more explanation.

Mirsch doubts that the magi would have handed over expensive gifts to Mary and Joseph as poor people, because they "would have been robbed and beaten and killed" by thieves. Mirsch is apparently ignorant of the fact that ancient people normally travelled in large groups precisely in order to have protection from thieves. Since Egypt was a frequent destination for Jews of this period, there would have been little difficulty in Mary and Joseph finding a protective group to attach themselves to.

Mirsch also doubts that Herod would worry about an infant from a poor family. Here again Mirsch's ignorance is apparent: Herod's worry was engaged by the fact that the seekers of this baby were Parthian magi -- representatives of Rome's deadliest enemy at the time.

Mirsch also supposes that Jesus would not have been mocked with a purple robe and crown of thorns unless he truly were a king, and that Pilate would not have made the inscription say, "King of the Jews." Mirsch fails to recognize all of this as part of a status degradation ritual. Pilate's intent, in fact, was to humiliate Jews as a whole, by marking a disgracefully crucified man as their "king". At the same time, a messianic pretender did not require Davidic ancestry in order to have kingly pretensions.

Mirsch also asserts that Jesus would not have been given myrrh because it would be an "expensive mixture to offer a peasant." Mirsch needs to check his own comment on page 419, where he asserts that myrrh was present at every crucifixion.

That's all for now. We'll return next week with part 3.

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