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 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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