Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Jesus Process

Following on from my previous post, and spawned by the recent furore over Bart Ehrman's attack on mythicism in Did Jesus Exist?, R Joseph Hoffmann has now posted three essays in what he calls 'The Jesus Process'. As a complete ignoramus on this subject (apart from reading Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus), I think this could provide some excellent resources. I've only skimmed them, but these are my initial observations.

The first essay, by Maurice Casey, is an attack on the internet mythicist phenomenon. Quoting Earl Doherty, he says:

The primary purpose of both site and book [Jesus: Neither God Nor Man] was to reach the open-minded ‘lay’ audience…[2]
This is as inaccurate as possible. The internet audience is ‘lay’, but it is not open-minded. It has both ‘Christian apologists’, whom mythicists love to hate, and atheists who are determinedly anti-Christian. Both groups consist largely of people with closed minds who are impervious to evidence and argument, a quite different world from the critical scholars among whom I am happy to have spent most of my life, whether they were Christian, Jewish or irreligious. We were not concerned by ‘peer pressure’ or the ‘constraints of academic tenure’, except that we were united by an absolute determination to oppose any threat to the academic freedom of people in our universities, regardless of status, colour, race, religion or creed.
Not a very auspicious start. This is an error of fact and judgement. Casey is foolish and plain wrong to label the 'internet audience' as closed-minded. Plainly many surfers are, but he would have some difficulty demonstrating that each and every surfer is not open-minded (are none of them members of the academy he lauds?), or that the 'internet audience' is some homogeneous whole that acts in a closed-minded way. So, a false and unsubstantiated statement, which is a shame. Perhaps he considers that most people are not open-minded, which may be true, depending on his definition of open-minded, in which case he could have moderated this claim by saying much of the internet audience is not open-minded, as far as it reflects the population at large, which would be easier to defend, and not obviously wrong.

He goes on to discuss the claims of Doherty, Dorothy Murdock, Tom Harpur, bloggers Neil Godfrey and Steven Carr, and Robert M.Price. Here I'm hoping he is on more solid ground, since it's his area of expertise. The essay appears to be well referenced, and I look forward to a discussion of the points he raises. Given his background, I take his criticisms seriously, so I'm bound to take his opinion on this difficult subject seriously too. As a layman, I would need to be given some extremely good reasons to disagree with his understanding of the consensus view of critical scholarship. I hope his reasoning is not infected by the sort of intolerant attitude to dissent shown by his initial outburst against the 'internet audience'. Needless to say, such obvious errors of fact and judgement do sway the reader's opinion of a piece.

Hoffmann himself has written an essay on 'the road' to an historical Jesus, countering mythicist claims:
The following remarks are designed as a kind of summary of what we know for certain about the conditions and the process through which historical tradition emerged. It is a preface of sorts to a more ambitious project on the myth theory itself and what we can reliably know–if anything—about the historical Jesus.
This looks closest to the sort of thing that will help a know-nothing like me to understand the process scholars have used to conclude that, yes, there is an historical Jesus. It appears well referenced and methodical, and Hoffmann eschews the intemperate language that characterises his wrong-headed attacks on new atheism. I look forward to reading up on his references and reading some of the background scholarship. Although he plainly disagrees (now, but not before?) with mythicists, I hope this is something that they can treat as a useful rebuttal. Maybe this is closer to the book that Carrier thought Ehrman was going to write? Hoffmann says towards the end:
And this brings me back to the starting point.  They [the gospels] preserve something, and I believe it is historical memory as well.  They might have gone off in all directions. The apocryphal Jesus story does just this, with tales of ascents into heaven, a divine brat who slays his playmates, and a revealer who descends to hell and puts demons in irons.[135] That is pure legend.  It “flies off in all directions.”  The Gnostic gospels do it too.  But the canonical gospels do not.  If a contrived mythology is the sufficient explanation of these literary artifacts, it is the job of the myth theorists to explain why they are such poor examples of the mythic tradition—not why they tell the tale of a man who ascends triumphantly into heaven, in some late accounts, like Romulus in the famous apotheosis of Livy–but why they begin with someone who bothered to touch the ground at all.
Why do the canonical gospels begin with a man who is far from divine? If this is true, then he makes a good point. If the purpose of the gospel writers was to tell the story of a divine visitation, they would start with those details. That they start with a more mundane story suggests the story of an 'ordinary' man is their message. However, I'm not sure how he was unaware of this in 1996, when he wrote, apparently sceptical of an historic Jesus:
...Why is the core historical episode of the gospel tradition, the story of Jesus's death on the cross, completely lacking in convincing historical detail, being rather a liturgical drama built up from the psalms and prophetic texts?...
And I'm still not sure how scholars know that a narrative is documentary and not fiction; much modern day story-telling deals with fictional characters who do not behave supernaturally, so presumably they did too 2000 years ago? Nonetheless, I'm grateful that he has given us, the non-paying public, the benefit of his many years of scholarship. This would be impossible in pre-Internet years, Professor Casey should note! I will invest in a Hoffmann book, as a form of thanks.

The third essay, by Stephanie Fisher, a pupil of Casey's, appears to be a critique of Richard Carrier's Bayes Theorem approach to Jesus historicity. Carrier is referred to as 'atheist blogger Richard Carrier' twice in the first couple of paragraphs, which seems to be an attempt to denigrate Carrier's standing, and is an unnecessary flourish, if so. Carrier is a published historian, which is more than one can say of Fisher at the time of writing, however flawed his arguments may or may not be. The essay also seems imbued with too much snark; odd from a protege of a man who seems to be forever railing against the the snark of the new atheists. The use of 'Dickery' in the title is calculated to insult Carrier, and, as such, is unnecessary; a scholarly approach would pay more dividends, I think. She starts:

Most analysts would say that Bayes’ theorem is not in the least amenable to complex and composite historical texts. 
I hope she supports this with a reference (none at the initial assertion); prima facie it seems an unlikely claim, but I'm no expert on Bayes, or history! So maybe she's right, and she's supported her case below. She goes on:
Bayes theorem was devised to ascertain mathematical probability. It is completely inappropriate for, and unrelated to historical occurrence and therefore irrelevant for application to historical texts. 
I'm not sure about the grammar here, but that Bayes is 'completely inappropriate for, and unrelated to[,?] historical occurrence' is quite an assertion, and needs to be backed up by evidence and argument below. After all, Carrier has written a whole book to support his view.
Carrier doesn’t have a structured method of application, but worse, he is dealing with mixed material, some of which is primary, much of which is secondary, legendary, myth mixed accretion. He has no method, and offers none,  of distinguishing the difference and this renders his argument a complete muddle. Effectively in the end, he can conveniently dispose of inconvenient tradition, with a regrettable illusion that Bayes provides a veneer of scientific certainty to prior conclusions he is determined to ‘prove unarguable’.
This gets closer to some substance; Carrier has a problem with method, apparently, in particular with how to deal with mixed, primary and secondary, material. Here some examples are required to explain how Carrier's proposal lacks method, and how his approach would cause problems with primary and secondary material. Hopefully Fisher supports this, and her other objections to Carrier, in the body of her essay, which I look forward to reading in detail in the coming days.

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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Hoffmann on Jesus's Existence

R. Joseph Hoffmann appears to exemplify the old philosophical problem of identity; am I the same person who went to Primary School, then Grammar School, and college, and passed those professional exams? Who married the wife? Is the wife the same person I married? Of course we change, but how sensible is it to call that younger person me?

Hoffmann's views appear to have changed on the thorny subject of the existence of Jesus to a remarkable extent. Here's what he said in the foreword to G.A. Wells book, The Jesus Mystery, back in 1996:
It is no longer possible to dismiss the thesis that Jesus never existed as the “marginal indiscretion of lay amateurs” (to paraphrase a sentence once imposed on Matthew Arnold’s biblical criticism by his theological critics). The direction of biblical criticism since Albert Schweitzer's day has circled back with dizzying regularity to the implied question of Jesus's existence but has sought without success to answer it.
And here he is 16 long years of scholarship later:
For those of you not paying attention, the New Atheism has a new postulate:  Not only does God not exist but Jesus didn’t exist either.  It is a theory that zips past Planet America every fifty years or so, like a comet, then fades away until a new generation of nutters tries to resuscitate it.
Every fifty years or so? Surely shome mishtake? He presumably means every 16 years or so, although it's odd that he would see fit to write a foreword for one of the 'nutters' 16 years ago. Although he doesn't describe Wells as a nutter in the foreword, as far as I can see, but I may have missed it! 16 years ago, the implied question of Jesus's existence had circled back with 'dizzying regularity', but now it zips past every 50 years or so.

To be fair, the foreword proceeds and gives an outline of mythicism arising from Schweitzer's work (although he says that Schweitzer argued against the Jesus of 'nineteenth century Protestantism' rather than Jesus himself), which he plainly sees as naive and misguided for the most part, and then an outline of the historicist response during the twentieth century:
The quest [for the historical Jesus] goes on with something close to the fervour of scientific discovery. At the risk of provoking controversy, it goes on mainly in Christian circles and among Christian theologians. The Jesus of 'history' has always been obscure to Jewish scholars whose enforced involvement in discussions of Jesus's stature is largely the result of the triumph of imperial Christianity in the fourth century, by which time no clear record of Jesus existed except that foisted on Jewish scholars by Christian teachers.
Quite a sceptical comment on the historical Jesus. He calls Wells "the most articulate contemporary defender of the non-historicity thesis" and then asks some questions that need to be answered 'at this juncture in Jesus research':
Why is Paul utterly silent about the historical Jesus?...Why is the core historical episode of the gospel tradition, the story of Jesus's death on the cross, completely lacking in convincing historical detail, being rather a liturgical drama built up from the psalms and prophetic texts? What role can the recovery and analysis of 'Q' (the hypothetical sayings source) play in deciding the matter of historicity? 
In the debate between Ehrman and Carrier, on which Hoffmann appears to side with Ehrman, these questions from Hoffmann sit better on the Carrier side.

Now, to be fair again, these questions may well have been answered in the intervening years to Hoffmann's satisfaction. Note, however, that they did not appear to be at the time of this broadcast in 2007, when Hoffmann said "I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist". Note that him saying 'Jesus of Nazareth' did not exist is not necessarily the same as denying an historical Jesus, however; 'Jesus of Nazareth' may be code for 'the Jesus of nineteenth century Protestantism', per Schweitzer, for example. We are back to the problem of identity. However, the blurb for the show says:
The goal of The Jesus Project, according to Dr. Hoffmann, is not to “prove” the non-existence of Jesus, but to take the theory as a “testable hypothesis” and use the best methods of critical inquiry to reach a probable conclusion.
...which does not suggest that a mythicist hypothesis is automatically nutty, and also suggests that he is at least sympathetic to the possibility, and maybe does not think that its proponents are 'nutters'. Which makes the quote at the top all the more puzzling in its intemperance. Rather hilariously Hoffmann says about Wells, presciently:
The arguments against it [Wells's mythicist thesis] have ranged from ad hominem attacks on his qualifications...to the familiar and often unargued proposition that the non-historicity of Jesus makes the rise of Christianity and the writing of the gospels all but impossible to explain.
Not dissimilar barbs have been flung at Carrier, too.

Whatever his thought processes are, it's good to see that he has launched something called the Jesus Process, which might throw some light on this fascinating, if infuriatingly distant, story.

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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Do Catholics want their Children to Grow up Bigots?

I ask because that is what the Catholic Church want, and I don't believe any of my Catholic friends would agree with them.

Cardinal Vincent Nicholls has sent a letter to parishioners urging them to oppose gay marriage:
We have a duty to married people today, and to those who come after us, to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations.

The 'true meaning'? Well, according to Catholics:

The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, by its nature is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring...

So because someone once, in a far off age, wrote down that marriage is between a man and a woman, for the procreation of children, so it has to be for ever, regardless of facts and changes in mores. This sort of brutish intransigence is a perfect demonstration of the evil of religion.

And now they want to infect children with the same despicable bigotry; the Catholic Education Service has sent this letter to all Catholic secondary schools, where it has been read out in assembly in at least one school, and the pupils urged to sign a petition against gay marriage.

This is the reality of faith schools, as Andrew Copson highlights in today's Guardian:
But, with the evidence mounting, the government should be investigating not just the incidents of the last fortnight, but also the whole principle of allowing such discrimination within our state education system at all.
I cannot stop grown-ups from being bigots (and believe me, I've tried!) but faith schools deliver in-built discrimination to our children, by definition, even before we consider the bizarre and irrational tenets that can infect each individual faith. Discrimination should not be state-funded, if we want a society which values equality for all.

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