Friday, November 27, 2015

Is This Not Appalling Scholarship?

From the September 2012 E-Block.


  I've taken it upon myself, as editor and primary author of Shattering the Christ Myth, to keep abreast of any new works on the subject of Jesus' existence, and produce any needed replies. The volume Is This Not the Carpenter? (INC) edited by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna, represents a mixed-interest entry into the subject matter, with contributors ranging from the moderate (Lester Grabbe, Jim West) to the fringe lunatic (Robert Price, James Crossley, Thompson himself). A reader generously donated the volume (which costs nearly $100!) so well devote some entries to a somewhat selective examination. As it turns out, many of the chapters do not side with the Christ-myth thesis at all. 

The introduction is credited to Thompson and Verenna, but based on the content is clearly mostly Thompson at work (whether directly, or indirectly), so I'll save some time by just referring to Thompson as author. I'd have to say the intro typifies a certain naivete found in fringe scholarship, one in which absurd ideas are concocted to explain textual phenomena because far more prosaic and contextualized interpretations are either ignored, or more likely, are off the fringe writers' academic radar screen. Some time ago I reviewed Thompson's Messiah Myth (MM -- link below) and the introduction to INC repeats the same fallacious patterns, so that if you read my review, you have a refutation of the introduction in principle. But you might want them in terms of specifics, so let's have a look at some of those.
The focus is on the story of Jesus healing in his hometown (Mark 6:1-6 and variants). As with MM, Thompson excels in esoteric readings that quite frankly seem to have been pulled out of thin air. Thompson's ignorance of more prosaic explanations emerges from the get-go; he is on from the start about an alleged "leifmotif of hands" in Mark's version (which is excessive in and of itself, as mark mentions "hands" only twice in the account), which he goes on to connect to "the figure of the Greek god Hephaestus, who was the god of craftsmen, who himself had forged the magnificent equipment of the gods...Does the question about the carpenter identify Jesus as Jewish Hephaestus?" Let's try for something more contextual and prosaic, shall we? Mark does mention "hands" twice, but it's not because he's dreaming of Vulcan's forge (we can only be glad Jesus never healed anyone with a hammer and an anvil). Rather, the emphasis is on the hands as "zones of interaction," as we have explained elsewhere: 

The "hands and feet" bit has to do with one of three "zones of interaction" recognized by anthropologists. Malina and Rohrbaugh in their social science commentary on the Synoptics [356] note that the hands and feet were a "zone of purposeful action" and "of external behavior or interaction with the environment." It includes the hands, feet, fingers, and legs. Thus the hands and feet are not presented as evidence of crucifixion but as evidence of physical ability to interact.

Of course, this is all a mountain out of an anthill by Thompson in the first place; if indeed the historical Jesus had been out healing people, and being a carpenter, the hands are the obvious instruments to use; he is obviously not going to be sawing wood, hammering nails, or performing healings with his toes, elbows, or glutes. As we noted in the review, Thompson needs to learn Albert Lord's Lesson. The one thing he does get right is that Mark is certainly being ironic by comparing the deeds done by Jesus' hands. But all that about Hephestus is just plain silly.

In other aspects, Thompson's presentation is, as in MM, remarkably high on assertion and remarkably low on real argument. Bias or trickery is seen under every rock; it is said of John's version, for example, that John "is so committed to a Christian supersessionist polemic against Jews that he freely compares the Jews negatively with Samaritans, Galileans, and foreigners in support of the presentation of Jesus as 'the savior of the world'. " Well, could it be that John is committed to that polemic because it happens to represent a a certain truth? That Jesus really is the savior of the world, offering a new covenant to succeed the older? Nah, couldn't be. It's so obviously wrong we don't even need to argue it, right? (And not so incidentally, Thompson here hints at, but does not explicitly state, the usual error of turning John into an anti-Semite; if he's under that illusion, he needs the contextual clue that "Jews" = Judeans, not religious Jews.)

We also have Thompson up to his usual efforts of finding "thematic elements" repeated from an older story to a newer one, and using this to hint at ahistoricity; this is again a failure to learn Lord's Lesson, so we need not take that aspect further. He also embarks on a rather comparison of Mark's version of the story to that of Matthew and Luke, and the Lesson applies just as well.
From there, there is a brief discussion of the "Quest for the Historical Jesus." It is rather ironic for Thompson, as a fringe author, to speak disparagingly of the "assumption of a historical Jesus" and "unquestioning acceptance" of the historical Jesus as though it were some sort of lunacy in itself. His own theory of imagined "motifs, themes and tropes" (discussed, again, in the review of MM) is suppsoedly providing the genius element all those other schoalrs are missing; they are misunderstanding the "implicit functions of our texts." Yes indeed. Alvin Boyd Kuhn felt the same way, didn't he? And he was no better at providing evidence for his views, or arguments that were any less circular than Thompson's.

As noted in the review of MM, Thompson's claims of "mythic and theological representations" are little better than the same sort of arguments produced by Acharya S. An unhealthy combination of imagination, semantic machination (involving crashing two highly different situations together by using vague, generalizing descriptions), and selectivity is all that it amounts to, and it is simply an arbitrary exercise that can be used to dehistoricize Lincoln as easily as Thompson dehistoricizes Abraham, Moses, or Luke. It can even be used to dehistoricize one of his own contributors, Robert Price (link below). Is this not the fringe Bible scholar?

The intro closes with descriptions of chapters to follow, but we'll deal with those on their own terms in further entries. 

Chapter 1 is by formerly prominent blogger Jim West, discusses the phenomenon of "minimalism" in history. There is not much to address here; West appeals to some of the typical canards common to those who accuse the Gospels of historical error (including the rather strained idea that Matthew and Luke put the "Sermon on the Mount" in entirely different places). West uses this to argue that the Gospel authors were themselves "minimalists" in reporting history. Here, however, West is merely imitating the "higher critics" who don't even bother to look for or evaluate solutions to these alleged problems, and simply opts for the simplistic idea that such differences are best explained as efforts to make esoteric "theological points." As with Thompson, such views require more imagination than consideration.

Chapter 2 by Roland Boer is a historic survey looking back at the work of David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach. I have read Strauss alone of these three, and can certainly attest that he would fit in well with the Thompson crowd: Like them, he owed much more to imagination for his findings than practical consideration, and was well versed at inventing problems either out of ignorance or thin air. In any events, as little more than a "look back" at the history and roles of these three authors, Boer's chapter contains nothing that concerns me.

Chapter 3 by Lester Grabbe is a brief survey of non-Christian references to Jesus. It is naturally not as comprehensive as our own treatment in Shattering the Christ Myth, but does contain a handful of the same points, and in general agrees with our own conclusions. Grabbe apprently believes Jesus exists, so that he represent the reasonable sector of INC.

Chapter 4 is little more than a historical survey/sermonette by Niels Lemche, the point of which appears to be that 1) higher criticism is wonderful; 2) even moderate like Willieam Dever are brainwashed by their religious upbringing. If Lemche had an argument of any sort intended to prove his points, he neglected to include it, and so there is really nothing to address here; and if there were anything to address, it would be difficult to find it among Lemche's stream-of-consciousness meanderings.

Chapter 5 by Emmanuel Pfoh begins with the assumptions asserted by Thompson -- that the Gospels are myths reflected by motifs, not history ,and come of the "mythic mind" of ancient persons who, after all, were too primitive to properly relate the difference to us clearly. Pfoh relates a sort of agnosticism about a historical Jesus (he says there "might have been a person" by that name). However, the essay barely gets out of the realm of methodological survey otherwise; overall it merely assumes, rather than arguing for, the Jesus of the Gospels as a "mythic figure," and so contains nothing that can be seriously addressed.

Chapter 6 by Robert Price asks the question of whether a Christ-myth theory requires that the Pauline epistles be dated early. Price uses the opportunity to resurrect some of his favored corpses (like Raglan's theories), Since the date of Paul's epistles is the main focus for Price, there is little else new here. Price is still oblivious to the high-context nature of the NT world, and why that is a reason why we would not, despite Price, think that Paul had "ample occasion to revisit [materials about Jesus]" -- and here Price even commits the profound error of drawing an analogy to a "modern preacher" (from a low context society!). He also notes Dunn's similar argument (without the knowledge of high context) that Paul's readers were expected by him to recognize allusions to Jesus' teachings. Rather than educate himself about high context societies, Price chooses a Monty Python allusion in mockery ("wink, wink, nudge, nudge") and alleges that it is merely an argument made to "wriggle out of a tight spot." He asks, "Given the whole point of appealing to dominical words, who would neglect to attribute them to explicitly to the name of Jesus?" Who would? Members of a high context society, that's who.

Other than that, Price offers a survey of views by varied outdated parties, including mythicists like Drews with no relevant qualifications, and floats the trial balloon that Marcion was the author of the Pauline epistles, and that Marcionite thought lies behind the Gospels. This is accomplished via his usual taffy-pull method of exegesis, to wit, on John's Gospel, which we will use as a sample.

John is Marcionite because "Moses and his Jews knew nothing of God." That's a wacky statement that ought to get some significant support, but here is all Price has to offer:
  • "Despite all that Deuteronomy says about Moses seeing God face to face, John denies that any mortal has ever seen the true God." Price is, as usual, oblivious to ancient idiom and too wedded to his former fundamentalism; as we have noted in other contexts, "face to face" simply means "on a personal level." It does not mean Moses "saw" God in any form other than a hypostatic manifestation.
  • "Jesus' Father is not the same God the Jews worship." (8:54-5) Oh? That makes John Marcionite? Then that also makes followers of Artemis Marcionite. And followers of Zeus. And followers of Booga, Lord of Road and Streets.
  • "All who came to the Jews before Jesus, presmably the Old Testament prophets, were mere despoilers." (10:8) That "presumably" is a failure. The reference is rather to those prior to Jesus with what Price would call messianic pretensions -- people who presumed to broker God's covenant grace -- or other false prophets of the same quality.
  • "The Father is unknown to the world," (17:25) Er -- yes. The world had no covenant with the Father. Marcion may have believed this, but so did the Jews.
  • "The Torah has nothing to do with grace and truth." (1:17) No, I have no idea how Price gets that out of John 1:17.
  • "Jesus raised himself from the dead (10:17-18)." Again, what makes this uniquely Marcionite? It isn't.
    Chapter 7 by Mogens Muller will not detain us long, as Muller does not adhere to the Christ-myth. He does, however, take for granted a number of ridiculous and/or radical ideas (e.g., dating Luke's Gospel 120-30 AD!), and since he only does take these for granted rather than arguing them, there is little to be engaged that is not conceptually covered by what we have already noted.

    Chapter 8 by Thomas Verenna is one we cannot pass by without noting that Verenna was formerly known as Rook Hawkins of the Rational Response squad. I would like to say that Verenna's scholarship has improved since those days, but while he has become more adept at assuming a scholarly tone, his ideas have not made the same graduation. His chapter is one of the longest in INC, and is narrowly focussed on Paul's "born under the law" description of Jesus in Galatians. Verenna flies with the premise that Christians created history from texts, and is apparently unaware that he has this precisely backwards; he only briefly alludes to the idea, but merely dismisses it quickly as only being a "suggestion based on a continuing trend of assumptions rather than one founded on an unbiased investigation of the state of the evidence." As the link below shows, that is simply false. This is no mere "assumption" but a reality of the social world of the NT. Verenna's lack of awareness here is so deep that though aware of the processes used (e.g., imitatio), he nevertheless repeatedly gets the process backwards.

    However, in the end, although exceptionally verbose (especially where Verenna reassures himself that his way of reading the texts really isn't fringe nonsense which departs from the actual use of imitation procedures), the chapter boils down to Verenna digging out past textual echoes which he feels render "born under the law" into a non-historical statement.

    Especially laughable is Verenna's tendentious effort to beg for the existence of an otherwise unknown, unattested Jewish acceptance of a crucified, humiliated Messiah, which amounts to Verenna asking "how do we know there weren't some that did accept such a thing" ten different ways; appealing vaguely to diversity in views about the Messiah in pre-Christian Judaism (while still failing to give any reason to expand that diversity into the "crucified and humiliated" range), and picking out texts like Ps. 22 that only Christians after Jesus related to a crucified and humiliated Messiah.

    If this sounds familiar to veteran readers, it should. Verenna here is merely repeating the same arguments used by Richard Carrier in response to my first point in The Impossible Faith. He even has the temerity to use the figure on Inanna as an alleged crucified and resurrected deity, which, as we have shown in reply to Carrier is also false. In essence Verenna here simply repeats Carrier's errors while either ignoring, or being unaware of, my responses.

    Even more outlandishly, Verenna interprets Paul's profession to have been "crucified with Christ" as an indication that the crucifixion happened in the realm of myth. This is yet another example of what I said to begin: It typifies a certain naivete found in fringe scholarship, one in which absurd ideas are concocted to explain textual phenomena because far more prosaic and contextualized interpretations are either ignored, or more likely, are off the fringe writers' academic radar screen. What is below Verenna's radar here is the social fact of the collectivist mindset, wherein one's identity is rooted corporately in an ingroup leader. This is what Paul means when he says he has been crucified with Christ: Because he shares a collective, virtual identity with Christ, he, too, has been crucified. Thus this statement does not, as Verenna supposes, render the crucifixion non-historical.

    Further on, Verenna simply chooses to ignore vast argument to the contrary in rendering the "rulers of this age" in 1 Cor. 2 as heavenly beings, and proceeds to argue as though it is proven that they are.

    It gets even more outlandish, as Verenna reads Paul's report of Jesus as of the seed of David, offering a false dilemma of only two possible readings: 1) Jesus' mother was impregnated by a "celestial seed" of David or 2) it is an allegory. What about it meaning Jesus was a descendant of David? Verenna dismisses it because Paul doesn't include more to satisfy Verenna, e.g., also naming Mary, or using the word "descendant" -- although in fact neither of these is necessary, nor shown to be by other appeals to Davidic remote lineage (e.g., Matt. 9:27).
    Verenna similarly mistreats 1 Cor. 11:23 and the reference to James as "brother of the Lord"; we need no treat those in detail ourselves, as Verenna's analysis is not even to the depth of Earl Doherty's on those passages, and so does not overcome our own replies to Doherty. As strained as it becomes, Verenna points out that Luke nowhere explicitly names James as Jesus' brother. This is true, but how much is needed to connect the dots here?

    Chapter 9 by James Crossley is on the topic of the historicity of John, and so will not detain us for now when our concern is the Christ-myth; we may return to it later.

    From here there is nothing of substance to address that concerns us. Chapter 10 by Thompson, and Chapter 11 by Ingrid Hjelm, are case studies using Thompson's mystical motif methodology, in which the two authors use varying degrees of hypercreativity to dig out motifs and themes in the NT that mirror the OT. Chapter 12 by Joshua Sabih is about Jesus in the Quran (!). Chapter 13 by K. L. Noll does not deal with the issue of Jesus existing, but does demonstrate a level of insanity even worse than that of Robert Price, as Noll applies Dawkins' outlandish idea of memes to Christianity and makes up ridiculous arguments out of thin air and paranoia (e.g., "...Matthew's Jesus seems to attack Paul directly in Mt. 5:19 and 7:21.").

    Thus it is that INC contributes little to the issue of Jesus' historicity. The $100 price is better spent on a night at Outback Steakhouse for four.

    Messiah Myth review
    Price as myth (PDF file, see Appendix 1)
    Scripturalizing history

    1. What is so outlandish about the idea of "memes"?

    2. It's the atheist equivalent to blaming Satan for something you can't explain any other way.