Friday, April 12, 2013

David Mirsch's "The Open Tomb", Part 3

Continuing our look at TOT by Mirsch, we pick up on page 102, where Mirsch hypothesizes some conspiracy over the Greek word tekton being rendered "carpenter" rather than "stonemason." Apparently in his limited view, the former term was used as a way to emphasize Jesus' rural roots and minimize his role. 

This is simply nonsensical. Both activities in the first century would have been the province of the artisan class, people who worked with their hands and were looked down upon because of it. Cicero, for example, regarded such occupations as vulgar and comparable to slavery. No distinction of the sort Mirsch imagines would have been made in the first century. Nor, for that matter, would it have mattered  if, as Mirsch imaginatively supposes, Jesus as a tekton worked on the stonemasonry of the Jerusalem Temple. It is not impossible that this could have happened, but that is not the point: The point is that doing so would have added nothing to Jesus' honor rating in the eyes of his contemporaries.

Mirsch then briefly comments on Paul, turning him into a "Herodian" (! - 103) who distorted Jesus' message of "violent rebellion" [104]. He gives no arguments for supposing this to be true as yet, but may do so later.

There is the usual canard about the Slaughter of the Innocents (link below). Mirsch actually admits that it is argued that very few children were killed, and that this is why it is not recorded by someone like Josephus, but he does not answer this point at all.

The next major point has Mirsch trying to mangle Gospel chronology for his purposes. He abuses the comment of John 8:57, where it is remarked by Jesus' enemies that he is not yet fifty, and uses it as a reason to think Jesus must have been in his 40s, not his 30s as the usual chronology argues. He notes the argument that "50" was used by Jesus' opponents because it "represents a social milestone" of maturity. But he waves this off as something that "cannot be proved" [107]. Perhps Mirsch should check Numbers 4:3, where Moses is told, "Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the tent of meeting,” as well as Numbers 8:25, which sets 50 as the age of retirement from Temple service. It was just proved that 50 was a milestone in Jewish thought -- just as “65” is in today’s world. (To his credit, though, Mirsch ends by admitting that his argument isn’t sufficient to overturn the consensus that Jesus was in his 30s.)

Much of what follows is merely Mirsch rewriting the Gospels based on his assumption that he was warrant to do so, so we can just pick out some isolated foolishness to comment on.

In Mark 5:1-20, he considers it odd that the people reacted to Jesus’ exorcism with fear. here again Mirsch is simply vastly ignorant of the social setting: Within that setting, Jesus’ power over spiritual powers implied a power as well to displace local political authorities -- and displease Rome.

Rather amusing is Mirsch’s  supposition that Rome might have “managed to get their hands one [sic] of the written copies [of this story] that no doubt would have been disseminated throughout the countryside”. [111] Apparently he had not heard that 1) the literacy rate in this period was less than 10 percent; 2) the production of written documents involved a great deal of time and expense that would have made such “dissemination” impossible. Mirsch clearly knows nothing about ancient production of written material.

From somewhere Mirsch gets the idea that apologists argue that the exorcism of the man in Mark 5 occurred at some sort of small port city, which is why different geographic references are used. Who makes this argument, I do not know. Those scholars I have read say this was a pastoral area. In any event Mirsch does not touch my own view (link below). He also opts for an idiosyncratic understanding of Luke 8:26, and it’s profession that Gerasane country is “opposite” (antipera) Galilee, to put the location of this event in an entirely different place suitable to his thesis. As there is no sign that Mirsch is in any way trained in Greek, much less enough to contradict serious scholars who maintain otherwise, his ravings on the matter may be taken with a grain of salt.

Just for yuks, though, Mirsch’s thesis is that the story is a cover for one in which the “tombs” are the city of Tiberias (built on a graveyard), and Jesus killed off all the bureaucrats of that city, specifically by tying them with pigskins and throwing them into the Sea of Galilee to drown. [127] It’s rather funny that Mirsch raised the usual canard against the Slaughter of the Innocents not being recorded elsewhere, while failing to see that this even more stupendous event would be far more stunning if left unmentioned by someone like Josephus.

Mirsch commits the usual error of placing the Zealots much too early. In the chapter he also makes several other errors we addressed in the article on Jesus’ trial (link below) re Judas Iscariot and other arguments that try to “Zealotize” Jesus.

Mirsch's next creative effort is to turn the story of Jairus' daughter into codespeak for violent rebellion. Doing so involves such contortions as reading Jesus' instruction for her to "rise up" as code for, "rise up and rebel against Herod Antipas," while the instruction to give her something to eat is said to be a "thinly veiled directive to inform the people about what is to transpire politically and to mobilize accordingly." [124-6] Such creative efforts require no real rebuttal; by the same sort of machinations I could easily turn Mirsch's book into a series of restaurant reviews in code.

The next great joke by Mirsch is converting half of the names of the Twelve into an "indication of  violent trend":

The name of Bartholemew is designated as violent as it comes from "bar Talmai," or son of Ptolemy, and "Ptolemy" means "warlike". The manifest idiocy of Mirsch's attempt to make much of this is shown in that while "Ptolemy" was a dynastic name for a set of kings, it was also the name of a leading Greek astronomer. Obviously to suppose that someone was "warlike" based on a name alone is an absurdity.

Next Mirsch tries to make much of the designation of James and John as "boanerges," which we address in the trial article; Mirsch however is so desperate to validate his thesis that he wildly speculates that there was an error in copying the Aramaic version of this word, one which originally referred to a more violent allusion. He also refers to Judas Iscariot as a member of the Sicarii, and adds in Peter because he wielded a sword -- once (again, see trial article). 

Briefly we may note a few more inane questions by Mirsch, concerning Jesus' family being in Egypt. He says the account is "vague" (which is actually normal, according to how we read things, for an ancient biography concerning episodes of childhood), but this is only because it does not answer questions he contrives to make significant based on his assumption of conspiracy. In turn he takes this as approval to suppose that an effort was being made to "hide the truth" -- which just happens to be the truth he wants to read into the text, rather than something else.

In terms of inane questions, however, we have these [139]: Mirsch wonders why there were two separate divine warnings for Jesus' family to move -- why didn't the first angel just get them to the right place the first time? The only reply needed is, Why should that have had to happen? Just to satisfy Mirsch's modern sense of order? However, the actual reason for the seeming dual instruction is a literary one: The first warning is intended to allude to Exodus 4:19-20, and establish a thematic connection between Moses and Jesus -- which is something Matthew does throughout his Gospel.

In this light, it is open to question whether Matthew is even saying there were two warning dreams. If the above is a thematic aside, then there was likely but one dream and one warning.

Mirsch repeats the standard canard asking how a pregnant Mary might walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. As we have remarked to past critics, modern creampuffs would do well to not underestimate the hardiness of ancient people who lived much harder lives than they do -- and who also know how to ride donkeys.

An extended section is then devoted to a re-reading of John 4, the encounter with the Samaritan woman. Mirsch makes a rather tortured case for Jesus as having been a Judean, not a Galileean, because the woman calls him a "Judean." But Mirsch seems to forget that Paul, born in Tarsus, also called himself a Judean. What escapes him here is that Galileeans were likely descended from Judeans who had been transplanted from Judea -- just as Paul's family would have been originally from Judea. Mirsch has no conception of the sharing of the identities, and his forays into dress and dialect as a way for the woman to identify Jesus as Judean are nothing but a diversion.

Just as absurdly, Mirsch tries to "de-Nazareth" Jesus by appealing to the usual canard about the site of Nazareth not having a "brow" from which Jesus could be thrown [142], a point we have answered in Shattering the Christ Myth:


It is claimed in contrast that there is no such geographical entity as Luke describes in the vicinity of Nazareth, and no place from which to throw someone to stone them. But this is false. Nazareth was and still is partially situated in a hollow against the slopes of a mountain, so that it is enclosed on three sides by portions of the mountain. The “brow” likely refers rather to a 30-40 foot limestone cliff at the southwest corner of city, and this verse is read incorrectly as implying that the city was built on the brow of the hill, when it is actually saying that it was built on the hill, and the brow is part of the hill also. This brow is of sufficient height to throw someone down for stoning. (“Mountain,” we should add, is a poor rendition of the word used; it is better rendered “hill.” The same word is also used of the Mount of Olives, which is not particularly large.)

I'll close this round with one final example of Mirsch's statistical naivete. He theorizes that Joseph (Mary's husband), Joseph Caiaphas, and Joseph of Arimathea are overlays for the same person; his one hard data argument for this fantasy is that, although (as he admits) the name "Joseph" was held by 14% of Jewish men at the time, it would "still seem statistically unusual" for a Joseph to play a role in three important events in Jesus' life; Mirsch compared this to someone named "Smith" being one's father, presiding judge in a trial, and parole officer. But Mirsch is comparing enormous apples with tiny oranges. 

A simple survey of the Orlando personal white pages shows that out of 871 pages of entries, only 8 (rounded up) pages are listings for "Smith". That means we'd expect to run into a "Smith" with 1 out of every 108 people (men or women). In other words, "Smith" makes up less than 1% of the population in my home city. (This coheres with national stats too; link below.)

In contrast, given that 14% figure, we'd have it so that one in every seven men we ran into would be  "Joseph". Under such circumstances, there is nothing "statistically unusual" at all about all three of these men associated with Jesus being named "Joseph". Mirsch has failed statistics as well as data gathering.

We'll return with more next week.

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