Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Domincan Friar fired for Mythicist book


Thomas Brodie's book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus is now high on my must-read list!  It's the ultimate in courage when someone whose livelihood depends on a religion comes out against it.  It's costing him his life-long profession and probably dozens of personal relationships.  I applaud his courage "coming out," though apparently he's been dancing around the topic in his publishing career.

In general, I'm surprised at the total-mythicist stance, i.e. that Jesus never existed at all.  I had kind of assumed that Jesus had been a rabbi with a bit of a following who did get crucified, but whose "resurrection" was more like Elvis sightings.

I'm currently reading a self-published book that synthesizes the research and arguments behind the mythicist position:

Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed by David Fitzgerald.

I just finished the section that rips apart the gospels.  I never knew that Mark gets details wrong that a Jew would have known.  Then, Matthew comes along and corrects it and Jewifies Christ a bit more.  Luke meanwhile makes Jesus a bit more like the Jebus we know and love, and then John is off-the-charts nutty for Christ and at the same time anti-semitic despite worshiping a Jew.

Fitzgerald also validates my opinion that John is the Republican gospel.  I've noticed that the least "Christian" Christians tend to put more faith in John and quote John more often than any of the other gospels.   Quite the eye-opener, with references for deeper reading. John's Jesus is no poor-loving meek-inheriting Jesus. He's Superhero Jesus!

I was planning to review this book by Fitzgerald but every page (or Kindle screen) is so packed with information I'll just recommend it for anyone wanting an overview of the problems in the whole "Christ was a Real Person" idea.  (There are many!)


Don said...

I must confess I was rather less taken with Fitzgerald's work. He presents a interesting case, some bits are marvellous but his research is often sloppy, occasionally even distorted (at least as far as my two degrees in Classical History have permitted me to see). Also Brodie isn't against religion, he argues for faith in his book- just a faith in a Jesus that is a transcedent force, or it that how is seems to read.

Don said...

or that is how it seems to read*

LadyAtheist said...

Don if you post a review of Fitzgerald I'll post a link here. I'd be interested to know what was distorted about it.

It's the most readable book on early church history I've found, so I would want to recommend it to people, even if I have to add caveats.

Don said...

Its fine, but its the equivalent of Lee Strobels apologetics for Christianity: a breezy, confident and simplicists account of the topic. It is one-sided and is pressing an adgenda, not a dispassionate study. I.e. the discussion of the intellectual background of the N.T. is a HUGE topic, yet Fitzgerald, contrary to most scholars, presents its books as being highly intellectual and in a philosophical background. He argues against scholarship (although he never lets on that this is a marginal viewpoint) in a page or so by pointing to features that can be more easily interpreted differently. He never lets on that the N.T. is written in simplicist Koine Greek, not Attic. He blunders on the meaning of the word ekklesia, presumably as he uses an English translation of the Bible rather than understanding the original language that it was authored in.

One of the more absurd claims is the point that because the Gospels use the Septuagint (a Greek translation) that they must have been authored by particularly educated people. He doesn't seem to know that the Septuagint was by far the most common translation. He sees "Greek" and thinks that they must have been highly educated. Anyone with a basic understanding of the ancient world c.a. 1st BC/AD would not make this link.

He makes other silly mistakes; he cites Epictetus as an author when it was Arrian, he says that no scholars think that the Gospels titles are early/accurate when many recently have argued this (e.g. Hengel, Charles Horton, Markus Bokemuehl, Stuhlmacher). If you are reading his work and dont know this, you will presume he is telling the truth and move on. If you are familiar with the field you realize how infuriatingly distortive it is. It is much akin to reading Christian books such as Josh McDowell's "Evidence that Demands a Verdict".

The most distortive part that I could see is when he talks about Seneca. I work with Seneca's writings as it happens, and they are completely mangled. He notes that Seneca doesn't write about Christianity in his book De Superstitione. He seems unaware that this book a commonly assigned to have been produced around 31 C.E. [see L. Hermann "Seneque et la superstition" 1970 389-396; although others have suggested perhaps 41 C.E] So, depending on the time of Jesus’ life, he had either just begun or just ended his ministry. It is absurd to think that Seneca would note Jesus' life in it.
He points out in something that, well, he has just made up: “In his book on Superstition, Seneca the Younger took aim at every known religious sect of his time, pagan and Jewish.”

He cannot know what he just claimed. The text is heavily, heavily, fragmented (you can see the 14 remnants in F. Haase’s L. Annaei Senecase Opera quae supersunt III), and no writer tells us what its overview was. All we know is that he critized several foreign cults and the Jews- which was a common practice in Roman intellectual circles to pick a few groups and -rhetorically- spear them. Presenting Seneca as offering an extensive (indeed he claims every known!) list of religions and sects might function to establish his argument’s relevance to your readers, but it is bogus. He made it up. He then suggests that it is suspicious that this work is lost. That perhaps Christians destroyed it. All of this despite that fact that the following works are also lost: ) Aegyptiorum; 2) Exhortationes; 3) De Immatura Morte; 4) Libri Moralis Philosophiae, 5) De Matrimonio, 6) De Forma Mundi; 7) De Situ Indiae, while the 8 ) De uita beata and the 9) De Otio are lacunosed. I mean there is even a book by Dionigi Vottero that collects the fragments from lost books from Seneca! Conte, Fowler, Most, and Solodow, in their history Latin Literature (p.422) even state: “a number of his [Seneca's] philosophical works that were most popular in antiquity have not survived.”

LadyAtheist said...

Okay I see that there are errors, but if Seneca is left out completely there are still a lot of examples. To the point that I've read, Seneca isn't that important so far anyway. In my field any overview has some errors because nobody is an expert in everything. If he'd had a group of colleagues to proof this those would have been caught. I did kind of go "huh?" when he referenced lack of evidence in writings that only survive in tiny fragments. Unless those fragments are detailed tables of contents whatever they reveal says nothing about what was lost.

I think your point about the literacy of the writers is good, but compared to the average peasant of the day, whoever wrote anything at all was light years ahead. Just how common was it for someone to know how to read and write Greek, even in Greece?

The argument that Christians themselves may have destroyed references to Jesus seems valid to me. With so many heresies to suppress, how willing would they be to allow them to survive in a book if they were willing to kill people who believed them? So much has been lost to history purely through chance but active suppression can't be rejected out of hand.

Anyway, the main difficulty is that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. On the other hand, just the fact that there were believers in Jesus isn't enough to prove that 1) he existed or 2) he was who he was purported to be. The broad picture is what I was hoping for and I was impressed especially by the contradictions amongst the gospels, which says a lot. Was Jesus a rabbi with a small cult following? Or was he a major figure with a huge following? You would expect evidence if the latter were the case. If he really wasn't a big deal in his day, then shouldn't the parts of the gospel that say so be deleted from the Bible?

Don said...

Thanks for the reply. I agree that occasional errors are fine, but what angered me is that saying that Seneca's work recorded almost every religious movement is just made up. No-one thinks this. It suits his argument so he just states it. That along with the sloppy engagement with the arguments really riles me. I expect it from apologists, but I don't think the atheist community is cognizant that they too can be taken in by some of their pop-(anti)apologists. I will respond to your reply and leave it there though.

Consider p.78, where you draw attention to the contradiction between the gospels. First Jesus "could not" do mighty works in Mark but Matthew changes this to just that he "did not". The word "power/could" in Mark is dunamai in Greek. My Greek lexicon has the following definition: " to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable circumstances, or by permission of law or custom
2) to be able to do something
3) to be capable, strong and powerful"

Mark has Jesus going around doing mighty works everywhere, so there is not evidently a problem with Jesus' capacity. There is something about being in Nazareth that was different. Mark's section reads:

"“A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith."

So he does do miracles. Just not any mighty ones in Nazareth. Why? Because people don't want him there. He moves elsewhere and keeps on doing mighty works in other places. There is no contradiction.

He goes on an extended discussion on how the Gospels made up prophecies. Now this is strong, pervasive stuff. It shows just how dishonest and superficial the Bible's writers approach to scripture was. Only it doesn't- well not entirely anyway. The way that the Gospels construct their prophecies is accordingly to a sophisticated method of Jewish exegesis. We might not understand why etymology makes a text suddenly become a Messianic, but for the ancients this was indeed a verifiable interpretation. It is not thrown together, or constructed out of thin air or to distort. The Gospels' Messiah texts observe careful rules of Jewish hermeneutics. You can easily make them look silly by removing them from this rubric. So read the scholarship of Donald Juel's "Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity", Aquila H. I. Lee's "Messiah to Preexistent Son: Jesus' Self-Consciousness and Early Exegesis of Messianic Psalms" or "Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology", Matthew Novenson's "Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism" and so on.

As for literacy Catherine Hezser, "Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine" argues that around 10% of the population were basically literate. But, in any case to construct a Greek document you just employ a scribe to write down your words. Something that Paul did even though he was educated in Greek - e.g. in Romans 16 Paul tells us that a person named Tertius wrote down his words.

Don said...

Or was he a major figure with a huge following? You would expect evidence if the latter were the case. If he really wasn't a big deal in his day, then shouldn't the parts of the gospel that say so be deleted from the Bible?
You don't remove sections from classical works. Works from antiquity always agrandize themselves, the work of the historian to understand what is true and what is not. The general consensus of scholarship, that Fitzgerald ignores, is that Jesus was only marginally well-known.

The other point is that it is not a surprise that people who were a big deal in antiquity are not preserved in contemporary sources. This is no secret to Classical scholars.

We need to realize that any person in antiquity who would not likely be recorded about in physical assets such as coins, epigraphs (etc...), that we are dependent upon literary documents. These are extremely rare from antiquity. We probably have less than .001% of all literature from Classical period currently extant. Apart from a few examples, and most of these during specific events such as the Athenian-Spartan conflict, the Second Punic War, or the upheavals during the fall of the Roman Republic, we do not have sources from the time on people in Classical history. We have almost nothing written from the time about dozens of Roman Emperors who ruled one of the largest and most literate societies pre-enlightenment Europe. We only hear of great generals, such as Scipio, decades after the event. Perhaps we might suggest that he didn't exist too? Great philosophers who mingled with Emperors, politicians and business men, who would have had infinitely more influence (and connections with literate people) than the itinerant failed messiah figure Jesus in rural Palestine with twelve followers!How much do we know of them from the time of their lives? Practically nothing. People like the founders of Stoicism and Epicureanism (Epicurus, Chrysippus, and Zeno) --the two most popular philosophical schools in the late-Roman Republic/ Early Empire-- their writings were part of every educated Romans' libraries. They had students and followers (like Christianity) in every major city. So there must be thousands of copies of their writings... No. Apart from three letters of Epicurus almost nothing. Alexander the Great who conquered the whole known world. Well, we must have thousands of reports about him from the time? Think again. We can fit it on about half a page of A4. That Jesus is mentioned by dozens of historians within 150 years of his life is amazing. Read Classicists Graham Anderson's "Saint, Sage and Sophist: holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire". It goes through hundreds of famous figures in antiquity, but read it. How many of them were written about during their lifetime? Practically none. However, read books such as the one you list and that is not mentioned.

LadyAtheist said...

The Protestant Bible threw out a couple of books didn't it? I would think that if Christians intend to have a reliable document of their history, they would want to delete the incorrect parts. Scholars could still read the Council of Nicea version or King James or whatever.

If you took out all the parts of the New Testament that are demonstrably false, how much would be left?

I would be interested in knowing who those dozens of historians are and what they really said about Jesus himself (rather than referencing his followers). Do they repeat what was said in the gospels or say something new?

By analogy you could say that Elvis really did fake his own death then walk among us because of the many sightings of him after his fake funeral. If instead of the Elvis myth dying out it had taken hold and become a new religion, then became the dominant religion, wouldn't copies of Weekly World News be carefully preserved but copies of the New York Times be burned?

Don said...

The Protestant Bible threw out a couple of books didn't it? I would think that if Christians intend to have a reliable document of their history, they would want to delete the incorrect parts. Scholars could still read the Council of Nicea version or King James or whatever. I dont know what Christians would do, I am talking about what scholars do. Every text from antiquity has errors, bias and misleading statements. Historians dont redact and mutilate them as texts. They write books about books them so people can educate themselves about it, but they dont start hacking off bits here and there of Suetonius.

If you took out all the parts of the New Testament that are demonstrably false, how much would be left? You mean is you had another "Jesus Seminar" it depends on your presumptions.

I would be interested in knowing who those dozens of historians are and what they really said about Jesus himself (rather than referencing his followers). Do they repeat what was said in the gospels or say something new?

What dozens of scholars you are meaning? If you mean scholars who study the historical Jesus there are thousands. It is the most studied area of ancient history. THere are journals, handbooks produced on the topic. There are approaching a hundred academic books published on the historical Jesus by historians each year. None of them argue that Jesus didn't exist, they all come to different conclusions but agree there is a kernel of historicity. But then again the book you reference isn't a serious one. Its a pop-skeptical one. The scholarship on this is done elsewhere.

LadyAtheist said...

I was referencing your comment: "That Jesus is mentioned by dozens of historians within 150 years of his life is amazing."

I forgot that you recommended a book for learning about them. I had been under the impression that most of the references weren't to Jesus per se but to Christians.

The most pernicious form of Christianity today is the fundamentalist/literalist strain that is ignorant about the Bible among other things. If historians and/or theologians would be more forthcoming about the problems in it, and write more for the ignorant fundies than for each other, they would be doing the world a great service.

Don said...

I agree that efforts to show the proper historical context of the N.T. is a good thing. Trying to ape Christian apologists and using any hackneyed and distorted arguments might help convince people, but it is dishonest.

Another example from the book you mentioned. It makes a big deal about the slaughter in Bethlehem and why it wasn't recorded. What the book doesn't tell you is that Bethlehem would have had around twenty families (it was a small village), meaning around about 5-10 children would have been killed. A horrible event, but not remarkable in antiquity. A proper work would acknowledge this, let people know the context of the argument. This doesn't.

It seems like I have some vendetta against the book, I don't. It just so annoying seeing supposedly freethinkers use the superfical and silly tactics of the worst apologetics.