# Proving What?

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or not?

The formula looks something like this:

Let A1, A2, … , An be a set of mutually exclusive events that together form the sample space S. Let B be any event from the same sample space, such that P(B) > 0. Then,

 P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ∩ B ) P( A1 ∩ B ) + P( A2 ∩ B ) + . . . + P( An ∩ B )

Invoking the fact that P( Ak ∩ B ) = P( Ak )P( B | Ak ), Baye’s theorem can also be expressed as

 P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ) P( B | Ak ) P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) + . . . + P( An ) P( B | An )

Clear?  Of course not. At least not for everybody. But that isn’t the issue because the less clear it is the more claims can be made for its utility.  Its called the Wow! Effect and is designed to cow you into comatose submission before its (actually pretty simple) formulation, using the standard symbols used in formal logic and mathematics.

What is known by people who use Bayes’s theorem to advantage  is that there are only certain conditions when it is appropriate to use it.  Even those conditions can sound a bit onerous: In general, its use is warranted when a problem warrants its use, e.g. when

• The sample is partitioned into a set of mutually exclusive events { A1, A2, . . . , An }.
• Within the sample space, there exists an event B, for which P(B) > 0.
• The analytical goal is to compute a conditional probability of the form: P ( Ak | B ).
• You know at least one of the two sets of probabilities described below.
• P( Ak ∩ B ) for each Ak
• P( Ak ) and P( B | Ak ) for each Ak

The key to the right use of Bayes is that it can be useful in calculating conditional probabilities: that is, the probability that event A occurs given that event B has occurred.  Normally   such probabilities are used to forecast whether an event is likely to  occur, thus:

Marie is getting married tomorrow, at an outdoor ceremony in the desert. In recent years, it has rained only 5 days each year. Unfortunately, the weatherman has predicted rain for tomorrow. When it actually rains, the weatherman correctly forecasts rain 90% of the time. When it doesn’t rain, he incorrectly forecasts rain 10% of the time. What is the probability that it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding?
StaTTrek’s solution to Marie’s conundrum looks like this:

“The sample space is defined by two mutually-exclusive events – it rains or it does not rain. Additionally, a third event occurs when the weatherman predicts rain. Notation for these events appears below.

• Event A1. It rains on Marie’s wedding.
• Event A2. It does not rain on Marie’s wedding.
• Event B. The weatherman predicts rain.

In terms of probabilities, we know the following:

• P( A1 ) = 5/365 =0.0136985 [It rains 5 days out of the year.]
• P( A2 ) = 360/365 = 0.9863014 [It does not rain 360 days out of the year.]
• P( B | A1 ) = 0.9 [When it rains, the weatherman predicts rain 90% of the time.]
• P( B | A2 ) = 0.1 [When it does not rain, the weatherman predicts rain 10% of the time.]

We want to know P( A1 | B ), the probability it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding, given a forecast for rain by the weatherman. The answer can be determined from Bayes’ theorem, as shown below.

 P( A1 | B ) = P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) P( A1 | B ) = (0.014)(0.9) / [ (0.014)(0.9) + (0.986)(0.1) ] P( A1 | B ) = 0.111

Note the somewhat unintuitive result. Even when the weatherman predicts rain, it only rains only about 11% of the time. Despite the weatherman’s gloomy prediction, there is a good chance that Marie will not get rained on at her wedding.

When dealing with conditional probabilities at the loading-end of the formula, we are able to formulate the sample  space easily because the “real world conditions” demanded by the formula can be identified,  and also have data–predictions– regarding Event B, which is a third event, A1 and A2 being (the required) mutually exclusive events.

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  “actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is  the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

To compensate for this, Carrier makes adjustments to the machinery: historical events are like any other events, only their exclusivity (A or not A) exists in the past rather than at the present time or in the future, like Marie’s wedding.  Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula. Managed properly, he is confident that Bayes will sort everything out in short order:

If you treat every probability you assign in the Bayesian equation as if it were a syllogism in an argument and defend each premise as sound (as you would for any other syllogism) Bayes’s theorem will solve all the problems that have left [Gerd] Theissen and others confounded when trying to assess questions of historicity.  There is really no other method on the table since all the historicity criteria so far have been shown to be flawed to the point of being in effect (or in fact) entirely useless. (Carrier, “Bayes Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, 107).

What? This is a revolution in  thinking? Never mind the obvious problem:  If all the historicity criteria available have been shown to be “in fact” entirely useless and these are exactly the criteria we need to establish (“treat”)  the premises to feed into Bayes, then this condition would make Bayes compeletly useless as well–unless opposite, useful criteria could be shown to exist.  Bayes does not generate criteria and method; it depends on them, just as the solution to Marie’s dilemma depends on real world events, not on prophecy. Obversely, if Bayes is intended to record probability, the soundness of the premises is entirely vulnerable to improbable assumptions that can only poison the outcome–however “unarguable” it is by virtue of having been run through the Carrier version of the Bayes Machine.  Moreover, he either means something else when he talks about historicity criteria or is saying they exist in some other place.  In any event, the criteria must differ from premises they act upon and the conclusion Bayes delivers.

“Fundamentally flawed,” as I noted in a previous post, is the application of Bayes to data where no “real world data and conditions” can be said to apply.  It was this rather steep lapse in logic that led a former student of mine, who is now studying pure mathematics at Cambridge to remark,

Is this insistence [Carrier’s] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.”

In fairness to Carrier, however, the use of Bayes is probably not being dictated by logic, or a respect for the purity of mathematics, nor perhaps even because he thinks it can work.

It is simply being drawn (unacknowledged) from the debater’s handbook used by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, who (especially through 2007) was active globally debating the question of God’s existence, under the title “Is there a God?” using Bayes’s Theorem as his mainstay.  Not only this, but Swinburne is the editor of the most distinguished collection of essays on Bayes’s Theorem (Oxford, 2002).  In case you are interested in outcomes, Swinburne formulates the likelihood of God in relation to one argument for his existence (the cosmological) this way:  P (e I h & k) ≥ .50  The “background knowledge” Swinburne needs to move this from speculation to a real world condition is “the existence [e] over time of a complex physical universe.”  In order to form a proposition for debate properly, Swinburne depends on the question “Is There a God,” which gives a clear modality:  A and A1.

Unlike Carrier, I believe, I have had the dubious pleasure of having debated Swinburne face to face at Florida State University in 2006. A relatively complete transcript of my opening remarks was posted online in 2010. In case it is not clear, I took the contra side, arguing against the proposition.

I knew enough of Swinburne’s work (and enough of his legendary style from graduate students he had mentored at Oxford) to be on guard for his use of Bayes.  Unlike Carrier, Swinburne is both a theologian and a specialist in formal logic, whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics and economics.  He travels the two worlds with ease and finesse and his most prominent books—The Coherence of TheismThe Existence of God, and Faith and Reason--are heavy reads.

But he is quite uncomfortable with historical argumentation.  Historical argumentation is both non-intuitive and probabilistic (in the sense of following the “law of likelihood”); but tends to favor the view that Bayes’s excessive use of “prior possibilities”  are subjective and lack probative force.   So, when I suggested he could not leap into his Bayesian proofs for God’s existence until he told me what God he was talking about, he seemed confused.  When I scolded him that the God he kept referring to sounded suspiciously biblical and fully attributed, he defended himself with, “I mean what most people mean when they say God.” When I retorted that he must therefore mean what most atheists mean when they say there is not God, he replied that arguing the atheist point of view was my job, not his.   When I said that any God worth arguing about would have to be known through historical documents, the autheticity and epistemological value of which for a debate like this would have to be tested by competent historical research, he became  impatient to get back to his formula, which works slowly and cancerously from givens to premises–to the prize: the unarguable conclusion.  It seems Swinburne thought the fundamentalist yahoos (not my interpretation) would be so dazzled by the idea of an “unarguable argument” for God’s existence that he would win handily.

Except for those  pesky, untended, historical premises.   Not to let a proficient of Bayes get past his premises is the sure way to cause him apoplexy, since Bayes is a premise-eating machine.  Like any syllogistic process, it cannot burp out its unarguable conclusions otherwise.  The result was that in an an overwhelmingly Evangelical-friendly audience of about 500 Floridians, the debate was scored 2 to 1 in my favour: Swinburne lost chiefly because of The Revd. Thomas Bayes.

And this is the trouble Richard Carrier will also need to confront, sooner or later.  He will not solve the primary objections to the use of Bayes’s Law by telling people they don’t get it (many do), or that there are no other methods on the table (where did they go to?), or that all existing historicity criteria, to use a more familiar word in the lexicon he uses on his blog, are “fucked.”

It is rationally (still a higher term than logically)  impossible to use the existence of the world in which thinking about God takes place as the real-world condition that makes it possible to use cosmology as the real-world condition proving his existence.  As Kant complained of Anselm’s ontology, existence is not essence.  It is not argument either. The defeater in this case is history: God has one, in the sense that all ideas about God are historically generated and directly susceptible to historical description and analysis.

And he could learn a thing or two from Swinburne’s sad fate, which is adequately summarized in this blog review of the philosopher’s most extensive use of the Theorem in his 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin’ mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that “it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead” (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn’t exist).
2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn’t).
3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.

It’s almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn’t);

the probability that this cheese is Camembert is also one in two (since it’s either camembert or it isn’t); and so on.

At any rate, while Carrier loads his debating machine with still more improbable premises, I am going on the hunt for those missing historicity criteria.  They must be here someplace.  I do wish children would put things back where they found them.

# The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check

In Honour of America’s Annual Nativity Feeding Frenzy

(First published as First Century Pulp Fiction: CBS at the Manger
A review of the recent CBS 48 Hours special “Birth of Jesus”
)

Once again the American media and a few scholarly mercenaries have tried to focus attention on New Testament mythology as though startling historical facts are waiting to be discovered beneath the layers of legend.

It happens every year, at Christmas and Easter: new revelations, startling discoveries (often described as “archaeological” to give a scientific ring), the latest scholarly finds, expert opinion. Given the lineup on CBS’s recent 48 Hours special on the birth of Jesus—John Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Michael White, and Ben Witherington (appropriately the gamut from skeptical to credulous in their approaches)—the ready supply of expertise (read: informed opinion) is no more in doubt than a burned out bulb in a marquee display.

But the opinions are. Quote Witherington, for instance: “[Mary] was very young at the time of the annunciation, barely a teenager. We’re talking about a small town girl here.” But the basis for this is nowhere to be found in the gospels; it’s based on guesses about marriageable age in Jewish tradition, spliced together with a prophecy from Isaiah 7 about a “young woman bringing forth a child,” spliced further with an event which defies historical explanation: an “announcement” of a virgin birth by one of God’s favorite messengers.

As with so much network (and general) docu-drivel, the scholarly shovels are out digging holes in air as though solid ground were beneath them. Other Class One errors: Elaine Pagels playing the Gnostic card, saying that the Gospel of Philip questions the entire concept of the virginity of Mary. Actually, the GP says that Mary is the “virgin whom no power defiled” and denies the historical Jesus (including his physical birth) completely.

Relevance to this discussion: nil. Witherington on the slaughter of the children by Herod described in Matthew’s gospel “From what we can tell about the ruins of first century Bethlehem, a few hundred people lived there. I think we’re talking about six to ten children [slaughtered] max.”

Queried as to why the event isn’t recorded outside the gospel account Witherington says “it was a minor event” by the standards of the time. So minor, in fact, that no other gospel writer mentions it, and New Testament critics have known for ages that while Herod may have been a no-gooder, the “massacre of the innocents” is just another case of Matthew milking prophecy to exploit his notion that Jesus was the “true” king of the Jews, Herod an evil imposter.

Slaughter of the Innocents, Giotto

In another instance, CBS took its crew to Egypt (receipts, please: no poolside drinks) to ask the visually tantalizing question, “Did the holy family actually live there for a while?” Matthew says they did. He says so because he is “reenacting” the Exodus scenario and gives his hand away by linking the sojourn to Hosea 11.1. Great story. Terrible history.

The problem with all such television exercises is that most of what is claimed is simply not true, or new, or revolutionary. The vast majority of biblical scholars know this; shame on them. It is the seasonal game to boost ratings, with Jesus Christ Superstar heading the pack—this year in tandem with ABC’s provocative query, Where is Heaven, How do I get There? Since archaeology is especially useless in answering that question we can leave heaven to one side, or up there as the case may be, and focus on the Christmas story, rightly beloved by children because it was a children’s story from the beginning.

Here is what we really know:

1. The Nativity Story is late—very late: The original gospel was communicated orally, chiefly by illiterate peasants. It possessed no story of the birth of Jesus because no one was interested in that part of the story until later. Paul has never heard of Jesus “of Nazareth,” or Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, or kings from eastern provinces, or a distant guiding star, or a virgin named Mary. He knows a story about a semi-divine messianic “man from heaven” (Philippians 2.5-11) whom he names Jesus Christ, “born of a woman [unnamed, unhusbanded], under [Jewish] law” (Galatians 4.4).

2. The earliest gospel and its copies possessed no birth story: When the basics of the story of Jesus were written down, the earliest literature still contained no story of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and (we think) the latest gospels–Mark (ca. 70, at earliest) and John (ca. 95, at earliest)–also know nothing of the birth of Jesus. Well, that’s almost right: the Fourth Gospel, John, knows a story similar to the one Paul knows, fancified a bit using ideas borrowed from popular Stoic philosophy, so that the semi-divine man becomes the “divine Word” of God, “who became flesh.” But still, no manger, no virgin birth–a mother he addresses, in fact, as “Woman” (John 2.4) , no angels singing Gloria, and instead of Bethlehem, active embarrassment that he hails from Galilee (John 7.40-2).

To add to the confusion, Matthew knows nothing of Jesus being from Nazareth; the family resides in Bethlehem and end up in Nazareth because it’s part of an escape route (Matt. 2.23). Luke on the other hand has the family living in Nazareth and ending up in Bethlehem because of an otherwise unknown Roman tax census (Luke 2.4f.). There is no historical memory here, and not even the Nazareth tradition is secure since despite all the very energetic attempts to find references to it no such “village”—not even an outpost of Empire–existed in the first century. (Yes, I know the contravening evidence; it is not compelling).

Discussions of the inscription from Caesarea Maritima have not alleviated our ignorance of this location and thus discussions of the implications of its proximity to the Hellenistic mini-city of Sepphoris are completely conjectural. The solution espoused by some scholars, of making this man of mystery Jesus of Bethlehem from Nazareth near Sepphoris makes him less a mystery than a cipher.

In fact, the birth in Bethlehem is legendary and the “hometown” (or refuge) of Nazareth was, if anything, a large farm.

3. The Stories are legends based on other legends: The birth stories are pious tales appended to the gospel of Mark by later writers whom tradition names “Matthew” and “Luke,” – but probably not by the authors known by those names.

Scholars know that the original gospel of Luke did not have its familiar nativity story because our earliest version of it, used by the famous second century heretic, Marcion, did not have it.

And as Marcion was writing and quoting away from his version of “Luke” in 120 AD or so in complete ignorance of the tale (just like Paul), we can assume that the nativity story came later. It arose at around the same time many other legendary accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus were being written: The Pre-Gospel of James, for example, or the (in)famous Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which are full of entertaining stories about the birth of Jesus. In Infancy Thomas Jesus makes sparrows out of clay, then brings them to life, and smites his playmates—dead—for being rude to him. In some of the apocryphal tales he performs cures in the manger as a newborn. The tendency in the early church was to make Jesus “miraculous” from the get-go. The sources of these stories are tales told about emperors like Alexander the Great (whose mother was thought to be a virgin), Augustus (emperor, allegedly, when Jesus was born), Vespasian, heroes such as Herakles/Hercules (another virgin birth), Apollonius of Tyana, and Jewish folktales, like those associated with Chanina ben Dosa.

The story of the star is taken from Virgil’s praise-hymn (Eclogue IV) in honor of the “Peace” of Augustus. Nothing in the story is original, but its popularity was ensured by having its roots in a hundred other famous myths and legends. The point was to show Jesus the equal of the cultural heroes of the time.

4. What about the Genealogies? Another reason for knowing that the nativity tales are legendary is that, like all legends, they are uneven, flamboyant (even by the standards of miracle tales, which were the favorite form of first century pulp fiction) and contradictory. The two tales, Matthew’s and Luke’s, were not written very far apart in terms of chronology–perhaps Matthew’s coming first. But they were written to satisfy different audiences, different tastes, and for different religious reasons.

There are too many of these discrepancies to list here but there’s no need to dig very deep: Both Matthew and Luke provide “genealogies” of Jesus designed to defend their saviour from the Jewish calumny that he had been the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier (another proof of the lateness of the tales). But the genealogies themselves are out of synch: Among many discrepancies, Matthew (1.16) knows Jesus’ grandfather as Jacob, Luke (3.23) as Heli, and neither writer seems aware that the whole genealogy is negated by the doctrine of the virgin birth, which makes Joseph’s paternity irrelevant in any case. This shows to biblical critics that the genealogies originally served a different purpose from the virgin birth story—the first to prove the Jewish/Davidic pedigree of Jesus, the second to prove his divinity, mainly to gentile converts. Even the earliest Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, rejected the genealogies as forgeries, and the gospels of Mark and John know nothing about them.

5. Virgin Birth, Manger, and the Rest of It: As Christianity forged ahead, the church became less interested in the Davidic/Jewish pedigree of Jesus than in arguing his divine status–as son of God (filius dei, the designation used by Roman emperors from the time of Augustus, and conditioned by their belief that Jesus was their true lord and king). The miraculous birth was the culmination of this belief, the stage at which the virginity of Mary is introduced into the picture (Matthew 1.13-25 and Luke 1.5-8).

Matthew tells a Jewish story, more or less, and links the birth to prophecy by misusing, or misunderstanding, a verse from Isaiah (7:14, which in Hebrew simply reads, “A young woman [not a virgin] shall conceive and bear a child.”) Luke tells a Greek story, with awe-struck shepherds and harp-playing angels singing in the provincial skies. The Christians who adhered to the earliest tradition long enough to be regarded as heretics in the second century, the Ebionites, regarded the virgin birth story as heresy.

The earliest Christians seem to have followed Mark’s opinion that Jesus was promoted by God to lieutenant godship at the moment of his baptism (Mk 1.11), but the idea of a divine child sent by God for the salvation of his people was a part of the mythological picture of the late first and second century, Christianity’s formative decades. It was too tempting to leave aside: Wondrous manifestations of light, cave-births, hidden divinity made manifest to trembling onlookers. They were all part of the story of the birth of the gods and heroes before Christianity came onto the scene to share them.

In Buddhist tradition, at Gautama’s birth, in equivalently odd circumstances, a great light shines over the world. Persians marked the birth of the Sun, symbol of the god, in the cave of Mithras at the winter solstice, and the Roman co-option of the cult of the sun god, Helios (combined with Mithras in the pre-Christian pantheon) made the solstice the date the birth of Jesus, “the light of the world.” In Greek tradition, Zeus as the Sun divinely illuminates the birth chamber of Herakles in the stable of Angras. And the poet Ovid presents Hercules as the child Horus, who shares a midwinter birthday with Zeus, Apollo, and other calendar gods. The Greek god Hermes was born in a cave in swaddling clothes. The story of the annunciation in Luke 1.30-33 is itself a borrowing of the Egyptian idea that impregnation can be effected through a ray of light falling from heaven, or a word (logos) spoken in the ear, a legend associated with the birth of Apis. The list goes on.

In summary: The stories of the birth of Jesus are late, legendary, and totally without historical merit. They are the additions of devotional writers who are at cross-purposes over whether to understand Jesus in messianic or heroic context and end up doing both. The failure to iron out contradictions is not their problem, because they were doubtless unaware that such contradictions existed. That the contradictions do exist, however, gives us important insight into the mythological foundations of the nativity tale.

Real scholars need to pay closer attention to the origins of religious myth and story and in communicating their opinions to have fuller regard for their role as reporters of reasoned conclusions. Looking for the manger, like looking for Noah’s ark, will probably continue to transfix believers once a year, but historians and biblical scholars should have no part in that quest.

# Cleopas the Atheist

The dilemma for thoughtful people who find much to commend in serious unbelief is brought about by unthoughtful and (often) unserious people. Even if their intentions are good (as in nice, not naughty) their tactics are terrible. I quote me:

My real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests — whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why atheists feel they have the right to feel more agitated and annoyed by the noise of the religious right, which after all is simply a bigger and more influential sideshow, than liberally religious, studiously ethical, or indifferent men and women — where I think the real and growing numbers of “converts” are. Most absurd of all is the persistent effort of younger new atheists, the Dawkinsians and Flying Spaghetti Monstratarians, to see their “cause” as equivalent to the civil and sexual rights movements of the twentieth century.

Ophelia Benson has claimed that it’s now fashionable to kick the new atheism around: it’s so first-half decade of the new millennium.

She is probably right. Nothing is more fun than to trample on icons when they’re already on the ground, whether it’s Lenin or Saddam Hussein, or the dude you were rooting against on Survivor Nicaragua. There is something immensely satisfying about knocking the hubris out of heroes who only yesterday were treading on red carpets, as the Greeks discovered when Aeschylus sent Agamemnon for a bath. If you ever wondered about the phrase “kicking Johnnie when he’s down”–it’s all relative to how far up Johnnie was when he fell.

Time marching on

And I have done my share of kicking–even before the final Act of Pride when four mediocre thinkers, none of them especially knowledgeable about religion, dubbed themselves “new” (as in atheism) and imagined themselves riding like Durer’s Four Horsemen against the horizon of the new age of unbelief. In fact, modus-operandically, they were much more like the Four Evangelists, telling much the same story: God does not exist; Religion is awful; People who think otherwise have IQ’s somewhere lower down on the evolutionary scale they don’t believe in.

Messiahs over Perrier

There was absolutely nothing new about new atheism except a naive confidence on the part of certain organizations (here nameless) that their messiahs had come. Unable in their own right to be anything but small, they found a role as booking agencies for the rock stars of the atheist wave.

The funny thing about messiahs, religious and political, is that they both come and go. That’s why Christians have always held to the second coming–the really important one, when all the things that were disappointing about the first one, especially the non-recognition of the savior and his untimely death before his work was done, will be put right. In the case of the new atheists, messiahship even came with choice: a couple of professors, a plain-spoken but slightly mystical graduate student (then), a sharp-penned intellectual. It was an embarrassment of bitches.

But it could not last. And now the question is, what was it all about, this shining anti-Christmas star that adorned the secular heavens for five years, give or take a year.

I have never been able to resist analogies to religious experience because, whether atheists like it or not, religion and irreligiosity have a lot in common. In fact, as atheism has everything to do with religion, only religious analogies are apt. Here is one:

In a piercing note of disappointment recorded in the Third Gospel (Luke before you peek), a group of wayfarers returning from celebrating Passover in Jerusalem encounter Jesus incognito on the road. It is, suggestively, three days after the crucifixion. Jesus asks them, in so many words, “Why the gloomy faces?” And a certain Cleopas proceeds to recount the events of the last few days, including reports of the empty tomb. Cleopas also registers his own disappointment:

“We had been hoping that he was the one who would liberate Israel.”

The story has been overwritten by a heavy hand with no appreciation for the irony of Cleopas’s belief that they had it wrong: that Jesus was not the messiah after all. The story does not end there, though it should have.

Before atheist pecksniffians point to the improbability of this little scene: I do not believe this encounter ever happened. But I do believe the scene is instructive far beyond its grounding in folklore and legend. Stories are funny that way. Less than a century after this piece was composed, the Jews of Palestine had found a new messiah and went down to defeat, once again, by choosing the wrong man for the job of deliverance. If they had only had two-year election cycles they could have chosen many more and been spectacularly wrong each time.

Bar Kochva

The early Christians developed their faith without books, on the basis of stories that eventually got written down and much later canonized.

The fame of the new atheist messiahs followed a far more rapid course: They began with texts, four of which became virtually canonical within four years.

Their following developed as “book events,” helped along by media, and driven by sales. It’s the difference between a reputation culminating in a book and books culminating in reputations. And yes, for purposes of my little analogy, it does not matter that the reputation of the former is sparkling with stories of the miraculous and the improbable, anymore than it matters that the books of the latter are derivative and repetitious.

The atheist authors, without pressing the analogy to its pretty obvious margins, enjoyed immense stature. Extravagant claims were made, not least in titles like The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell.

Of course there was nothing to prevent religious apologists from writing back, and they did–in droves–books that with one or two exceptions were even worse than the books that evinced them. The intellectual battle was really fought in the reviews and even in the blogosphere, much of which was acidly critical of language, argument and methods–including my own review of Daniel Dennett’s book. But nothing stood quite as tall, for a while, as the icons their followers erected to them in the naked public square. Nothing seemed to pierce the aura of the atheist olympians. Except time.

The key similarity between Christian messianism and atheist messianism is the idea that “at last” things are going to change. That liberation is at hand, achievable in the work of others. It just takes knowing who to trust–who the real deal is. I would be the first to say that the resumes of the canonical new atheists were impressive–a bit like being born of Jesse’s lineage, David’s son. It is interesting that we require our messiahs to be credentialed–either by signs and wonders, priestly and preferably royal lineage, or failing that an Oxford degree.

But at its heart, messianim is all about people wanting a change–people who feel they’ve waited long enough. People, to put it bluntly, who are feeling a bit desperate, outnumbered, isolated.

Atheists in the last century have relished being a minority, in the same way Christians basked in their minority status in the Empire. Small is good when big is bad. David and Goliath, the short guy taunting the big bully–archetypal, isn’t it, but fraught with danger.

It is hard to imagine that once upon a time Christianity (the world’s largest religion) had that kind of radical reputation, an immoderate sect, a philosophy, to quote the emperor Julian, that turned the world upside down, and from an earlier period even the stigma, according to Tertullian, of being organized atheists. But it did.

We live in a twenty first century global village, not first century Roman Palestine, so what counts as radical and revolutionary will obviously be different from the faith of the ragtag confederates who “believed the gospel.” What they believed in their time we will never quite be able to comprehend. That includes people who think they believe it now as well as people who don’t believe it because, sensibly, they think its shelf-life has expired. Those who think they know, don’t. Those who feel they are brighter than those who think they know fail to understand the unavoidable intellectual boundaries of the ancient world. This is no one’s fault exactly. The surety of the fundamentalist Christian and of the atheist are equally based on a marked indifference to the weird nexus between history and imagination, myth and reality. I can honestly say that I have no real sense of what made someone a Christian in the year 50CE other than what I know about frustration and a gnawing feeling that my time has come. And I think that no first-century Christian would make it even as far as the writings of Augustine (which they would not have been able to read) before he would find Christianity unrecognizable. Time wounds all heals.

The early Christians were “atheists” because they rejected the imperially-approved gods, making them the religious minimalists of their time. –Richard Dawkins’s over-quoted quip that some of us go one step further performs the inadvertent service of pointing out just how radical the church was in its day.

Yet I have to admit that I’ve always found it remarkable that the Christians not only survived the execution of their leader but turned the symbol of his humiliation into a symbol of their success. Ever wonder why the icon of choice isn’t some crude rendering of an empty tomb? Yes I know: crosses are easier to make. But even before they were made as amulets to hang around Christian necks, Paul comments on the fact that the death of Jesus, not his life, brings about that apparently most desirable of states, salvation. And this is because in the theology he strives stutteringly to adapt to his non-Jewish listeners, instruction, even a literal physical resurrection of believers counts for nothing. Death? Sacrifice? Immortality as a bonus? Now you’re talking. But what is key is that you can’t do it by yourself: the Christian is in an utter situation of dependence on the deliverer from sin and death.

Paul of course had the salvation myth of the mystery religions in view, a kind of thinking that has not made much sense or borne scrutiny for over a millennium. His huge disservice to humanity is that he taught people to distrust themselves–that the empty tomb was a real promise, a symbol, of eternal life, not an image of a life that has to be lived here and now, built block by block and choice by choice. His whole message pivots on the Old Testament idea that salvation comes through a heavenly other, not through human effort. Even an amateur like George Bernard Shaw knew that Paul’s “monstrous imposition upon Jesus” had profoundly negative effects on the course of civilization. It still does. They don’t know it, but when unbelievers begin to disbelieve, it’s Paul they disbelieve in.

But as a post-Christian radical theologian I have my own interpretation of what the gospel means. As a humanist, I believe it means no God will save you–us. The life of all messiahs ends in the same message: Do it yourself. It does not matter whether the message is oral or written, offered in philosophical jargon, rendered in code. It’s all the same. People who put their faith in deliverance by others will ultimately have to find their own way out of every mess.

Religion has not been the solution to the troubles of humankind–we all know that–and it has created conditions of war and poverty that don’t resemble, to any recognizable degree, the angelic salutation of Christmas night. It should come as no surprise therefore that Christmas night was no part of the original story, and despite the annual maniacala of the holiday season, Christianity has almost nothing to do with Christmas.

It has much more to do with Cleopas’s disappointment, or, in Mark’s gospel, the shuddering awareness of the women that the tomb is empty; Jesus was not there. They were alone. Maybe he had never been there. They had certainly always been alone.

What does all of this have to to do with new atheist messiahs? Curious isn’t it that so many atheists had waited in the dark for so long for light to shine in their darkness. Every secular organization was ready to hitch its wagon to their rising star. Every evangelical pharisee was ready to pounce on their message of liberation from the darkness of superstition and credulity. The defenders of the old religion, especially in what had come to be called the “post-9-11 world,” almost guaranteed their prominence. The unchurched created a virtual church around them. At its most extreme, and fair to say mainly among the organizations who exploited their work, religion became the very devil and “science and reason” sacraments of deliverance.

The stunts and gimmicks like Blasphemy Day, for anyone with a little historical savvy, resembled nothing so much as the pageant wagons that rumbled into medieval European villages with their stock of stereotyped nasties: Herod, Caiphas, Pontius Pilate, the Devil himself. Whatever the new atheists were, the atheistism they spawned was part polemic, part simple buffoonery, mainly humbug. It was strangely suited for an illiterate age in which the movers and shakers themselves, like false messiahs throughout time, thought they were original and promised goods they couldn’t deliver.

Popularity is the death of every radical movement, or rather the death of its radical nature. New atheism didn’t die because fundamentalists were “right” or because evangelicals crucified it, or even because philosophical critics (maybe that’s my niche vis-à-vis this movement) warned that it wouldn’t last for long.

It set itself up for a free fall proportionate to its quick rise because its messiahs accepted the title–relished the title. Not a bit like the Jesus who, in one account of his interrogation anyway, demured by saying, “Call me what you want to.”

What is required of any believer and every atheist is the frank acknowledgement that the tomb is empty. The harvest is passed. The summer is ended. The messiah has never come and will not come. And we are not saved. But that is the challenge, not the end of the story.

.

# Letting Go of Jesus: Reprise

“But I tell you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also. Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again.” (Luke 6.27f)

Let’s pretend the year is 1757 and you have just come away from reading a new treatise by David Hume called an “Enquiry concerning Miracles.” Let’s assume you are a believing Christian who reads the Bible daily, as grandmother taught you; or perhaps a priest, a vicar, a Methodist minister. Part of the reason you believe in God, and all of the reason you believe that Jesus was his son, is tied to the supernatural authority of scripture. You have been taught that it is inspired—perhaps the very word of God, free from error and contradiction–passed down in purity and integrity from generation to generation. –A reliable witness to the origins of the world, humankind and other biological species.

You know many verses by heart: Honor your father and your mother. Blessed are the poor. Spare the rod, spoil the child. The love of money is the root of all evil. Lots of stuff about disobedient children and the value of being poor, confirmed in your own experience: there are many more poor than rich people, and children often don’t listen to their parents. You think the Bible is a wise and useful book. If you are a member of an emerging middle or merchant class—whether you live in Boston or London or Edinburgh—you haven’t read enough history to wonder if the historical facts of the Bible are true, and archeology and evolutionary biology haven’t arisen to prove them false.

The story of creation, mysterious as it may seem, is a pretty good story: it will do. As to the deeper truths of the faith, if you are Catholic, your church assures you that the trinity is a mystery, so you don’t need to bother with looking for the word in the Bible, where it doesn’t occur.

If you are a churchgoing enthusiast who can’t wait for Sunday mornings to wear your new frock or your new vest, it doesn’t bother you that there’s no reference to an 11 o clock sermon in the New Testament. If you are a Baptist and you like singing and praying loud, your church discipline and tradition tells you to ignore that part where Jesus told his followers to pray in silence, and not like the Pharisees who parade their piety and pile phrase upon phrase.

But what really convinces you that what you do as a Christian of any denomination is the right thing to do is what theologians in the eighteenth century, the great period after the Newtonian revolution of the 17th, called Christian Evidences.

The phrase was introduced to make the supernatural elements of the Bible, and especially for Christians the New Testament, more up to date, more in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Reasonable men and women who thought the medieval approach to religion was fiddle faddle—something only the Catholics still believed, especially the Irish and Spanish—had begun to equate reason with the progress of Protestant Christianity. Newton had given this position a heads up when he suggested that his entire project in Physics was to prove that the laws of nature were entirely conformable to belief in a clockwork God, the divine mechanic.

Taking their cue, or miscue, from Newton’s belief in an all powerful being who both established the laws of nature and could violate them at will, as “Nature’s God,” it seemed as though miracles had been given a new lease of life. No one much bothered to read the damning indictment of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, twelve years Newton’s junior, who had argued that belief in a god whose perfection was based on the laws of nature could not be proved by exceptions to his own rules. –You can play basketball on a tennis court, but it doesn’t explain the rules of tennis very well.

Anyway, you’re comfortable with Newton, the idea of Christian “evidences”, and all those lovely stories about impudent wives being turned into pillars of salt, the ark holding good old Noah and his family teetering atop mount Ararat (wherever it was) those vile Egyptians being swept up in the waters of the red sea, and the miraculous acts of kindness and healing and bread and fishes recounted in the New Testament. As a Christian, you would have seen all these stories as a kind of prelude to the really big story, the one about a Jewish peasant (except you don’t really think of him that way) getting himself crucified for no reason at all, and surprising everyone by rising from the dead.

True, your medieval Catholic ancestors with their short and brutish and plague-besotted lives needed the assurance of a literal heaven more than you do in the 18th century. But in general, you like the idea of resurrection, or at least of eternal life, and you agree with Luther—

“The sacred Book foretold it all:
How death by death should come to fall.”

In other words, you believe in the Bible because it’s one of the only books you have ever read–and perhaps not even it, cover to cover. And in a vague, unquestioning, socially proper kind of way, you believe the book carries, to use the language of Hume’s contemporary Dr Tillotson—the attestation of divine authorship, and in the circularity that defines this discussion before Hume, the divine attestation is based on the miracles.

Divinity schools in England and America which ridiculed such popish superstitions as the real presence and even such heretofore protected doctrines as the Trinity (Harvard would finally fall to the Unitarians in the 1850’s) required students for the ministry to take a course called Christian Evidences. The fortress of belief in an age of explanation became, ironically, the unexplained.

By 1885, Amherst, Smith, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Dartmouth and Princeton mandated the study of the evidences for Christian belief, on the assumption that the study of the Bible was an important ingredient of a well-rounded moral education.

Sophia Smith, the foundress of Smith College, stated in the third article of her will that [because] “all education should be for the glory of God and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said college, and that all the discipline shall be pervaded by the spirit of evangelical Christian religion.”

But all was not well, even in 1885. Hume’s “On Miracles” was being read, and was seeping into the consciousness, not only of philosophers and theologians, but of parish ministers and young ministers in training and indolent intellectuals in the Back Bay and Bloomsbury. Things were about to change.

Within the treatise, Hume, like a good Scotsman, appealed to common sense: You have never seen a brick suspended in the air. Wood will burn and fire will be extinguished by water. Food does not multiply by itself with a snap of my fingers. Water does not turn into wine. And in a deceptive opening sentence, he says, “And what is more probable than that all men shall die.”

In fact, “nothing I call a miracle has ever happened in the ordinary course of events.” It’s not a miracle if a man who seems to be in good health drops dead. It is a miracle if a dead man comes back to life—because it has never been witnessed by any of us. We only have reports. And even these can be challenged by the ordinary laws of evidence. How old are these reports? What is the reliability of the reporter? Under what circumstances were they written? Within what social, cultural and intellectual conditions did these reports originate? Hume’s conclusion is so simple and so elegant that I sometimes wish it, and not the ten commandments, were what Americans in Pascagoula were asking to be posted on classroom walls: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish….”

–So what is more likely, that a report about a brick being suspended in air is true, or that a report about a brick being suspended in air is based on a misapprehension? That a report about a man rising from the dead is true, or that a report about a man rising from the dead is more easily explained as a case of mistaken identity, or fantasy—or outright fiction.

The so-called “natural supernaturalism” of the Unitarians and eventually other protestant groups took its gradual toll in the colleges I have mentioned. At Smith College, beginning in the 1920’s, Henry Elmer Barnes taught his students:

“We must construct the framework of religion on a tenable superstructure. To do so is to surrender these essential characteristics of the older religion: (1) the reality and deity of the biblical God; (2) the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus and His special relevance for contemporary religion; (3) and the belief in immortality.” Sophia Smith’s college had taken a new turn.”

At Williams, John Bissett Pratt began his course in philosophy by telling his students, “Gentlemen, learn to get by without the Bible.” At Yale, the Dwight Professor of theology in 1933 repudiated all the miracles of the Bible and announced to his students that the Jesus Christ of the Christian tradition must die, so that he can live.”

Perhaps I should add that when I got to Harvard Divinity School in the 1970’s I was told by the reigning professor of theology who out of deference will remain anonymous, that my way of speaking about God was too literal—almost as though I “believed the metaphor was a real thing.”

This little reflection on Hume and how his commentary on miracles changed forever the way people looked at the gospels is really designed to indicate that in educated twentieth century America, between roughly 1905 and 1933, the battle for the miraculous, Christian evidences, and the supernatural was all but lost—or rather, it had been won by enlightened, commonsensical teachers in our best universities and colleges.

Of course it was not won in the churches and backwoods meeting houses of what we sometimes call the American heartland, let alone in preacher-colleges of the Bible belt, or the faux-gothic seminaries of the Catholic Church.

Hume’s logic and the theological consequences of his logic barely penetrated the evangelical mindset

When the tide rolled out on miracles, what was left standing on the shore was the Jesus of what became, in twentieth century America the “social gospel.” He wasn’t new—actually he had a long pedigree going back to Kant and Schleiermacher in philosophy and theology. He’d been worked through by poets like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who detested dogma and theological nitpicking and praised the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and ethical teaching—his words about loving, and forgiving, caring for the poor, and desiring a new social order based on concern for the least among us.

In Germany and England and finally in America where ideas, especially religious ideas, came home to roost more slowly, something called the “higher criticism” was catching on. Its basic premise was that the tradition about Jesus was formed slowly and in particular social conditions not equivalent to those in Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany. Questions had to be asked about why a certain tradition about Jesus arose; what need it might have fulfilled within a community of followers; how it might have undergone change as those needs changed—for example—the belief he was the Jewish messiah, after an unexpected crucifixion, might have led to the belief that he was the son of God who had prophesied his own untimely death.

The social reality that the community was an impoverished, illiterate, persecuted religious minority might have led the community to invent sayings like “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are you who are persecuted,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” But if this is so, then the gospels really weren’t the biography of Jesus at all. They were the biography of what the community believed about him.

The Victorian church was as immune to the German school of thought as Bishop Wilberforce was to Darwin’s theories—in some ways even more so. Even knowledgeable followers of the German school of higher criticism tried to find ways around its conclusions: Matthew Arnold for example thought the gospels were based on the misunderstanding of Jesus by his own followers, which led them to misrepresent him; but then Arnold went on to say that this misunderstanding led them to preserve his teaching, although in a distorted and conflated form. They added their words and ideas to his, but in their honest ignorance was honesty. Arnold’s influence was minimal.

The deeds were gone; now people were fighting over the words.
When the twentieth century hit, few people in the mainline Protestant churches and almost no one in the Catholic Church of 1905 was prepared for the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus—a long, not altogether engaging survey of the 18th and 19th century attempts to piece together a coherent picture of the hero of the gospels. Schweitzer pronounced the quests a failure, because none of them dealt with the data within the appropriate historical framework. No final conclusions were possible.

We can know, because of what we know about ancient literature and ancient Roman Palestine, what Jesus might have been like—we can know the contours of an existence. But not enough for a New York Times obituary.

Beyond tracing this line we get lost in contradiction. If he taught anything, he must have taught something that people of his own time could have understood. But that means that what he had to say will be irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible to people in different social situations. His teaching, if we were to hear it, Schweitzer said, would sound mad to us. He might have preached the end of the world. If he did, he would not have spent his time developing a social agenda or an ethics textbook for his soon-to-be-raptured followers. (Paul certainly knows nothing about ethics—just some interim rules to be followed before the second coming of Christ.)

Schweitzer flirts most with the possibility that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in an era of political and social gloom for the Jews. But Schweitzer’s shocking verdict is that the Jesus of the church, and the Jesus of popular piety—equally–never existed.

Whatever sketch you come up with will be a sketch based on the image you have already formed: The agnostic former Jesuit Alfred Loisy (d. 1940) after his excommunication wrote a book called The Gospel and the Church, in which he lampooned the writings of the reigning German theologian Adolph von Harnack (d. 1930) who had published a book called The Essence of Christianity.

In the book Harnack argued that the Gospel had permanent ethical value given to it by someone who possessed (what he called) God-consciousness: Jesus was the ethical teacher par excellence. Loisy responded, “Professor Harnack has looked deep into the well for the face of the historical Jesus, but what he has seen is his own liberal protestant reflection.”

In America, Jesus was undergoing a similar transformation. In New York City around 1917 a young graduate of the Colgate Divinity School named Walter Rauschenbusch was looking at the same miserable social conditions that were being described by everyone from Jane Addams to Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in literature.

Rauschenbusch thought that the churches had aligned themselves with robber barons, supported unfair labor practices, and winked at income disparity. So, for Rauschenbusch, the gospel was all about a first century revolutionary movement opposed to privilege and injustice. In his most famous book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he writes, “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Like Harnack before and dozens of social gospel writers later, the facts hardly mattered. Whether Jesus actually said the things he is supposed to have said or they were said for him hardly mattered. Whether he was understood or misrepresented hardly mattered. Liberal religion had made Jesus a cipher for whatever social agenda it wanted to pursue, just as in the slavery debates of the 19th century, biblical authority was invoked to defend buying and selling human beings. Having given up on the historical Jesus, Jesus could now be made to say whatever his managers wanted him to say.

Unfortunately, ignoring Schweitzer’s scholarly cautions, they failed to demonstrate how the words of a first century Galilean prophet, fixated on the end of a corrupt social order, could be used to reform a morally bankrupt economic system.

For many of us who follow the Jesus quest wherever it goes, it’s impressive that the less we know about Jesus–the less we know for sure–the longer and many the books that can be written. In what will surely be the greatest historical irony of the late 20th and early 21st century, for example, members of the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 to pare the sayings of Jesus down to “just the real ones,” came to the conclusion that 82% of the sayings of Jesus were (in various shades) inauthentic, that Jesus had never claimed the title Messiah, that he did not share a final meal with his disciples (there goes the Mass), and that he did not invent the Lord’s prayer.

They come to these conclusions however in more than a hundred books by Seminar members, of varying quality and interest, each of which promises to deliver the real Jesus. The “real Jesus,” unsurprisingly, can be almost anything his inventor wants him to be: prophet, wise man, magician, sage, bandit, revolutionary, gay, French, Southern Baptist or Cajun. As I wrote in a contribution to George Wells’s 1996 book The Jesus Legend, the competing theories about who Jesus really was, based on a shrinking body of reliable information, makes the theory that he never existed a welcome relief. In a Free Inquiry article from 1993, I offended the seminar by saying that the Jesus of their labors was a “talking doll with a repertoire of 33 genuine sayings; pull his string and he blesses the poor.”

But all is not lost that seems lost. When we look at the history of this case, we can draw some conclusions. We don’t know much about Jesus. What we do know however, and have known since the serious investigation of the biblical text, based on sound critical principles, became possible, is that there are things we can exclude.

Jesus was not Aristotle. Despite what George Bush thinks, he wasn’t a philosopher. He did not write a book on ethics. If he lived, he would have belonged to a familiar class of wandering, puritanical doomsday preachers, who threatened the wrath of God on unfaithful Jews—especially the Jerusalem priesthood.

We don’t know what he thought about the messiah or himself. The gospels are cagey on the subject and can yield almost any answer you want.

He was neither a social conservative nor a liberal democrat. The change he (or his inventors) advocated was regressive rather than progressive. But it’s also possible that we don’t even know enough to say that much.

He doesn’t seem to have had much of a work ethic; he tells his followers to beg from door to door, go barefoot (or not), and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. He might have been a magician; the law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard, and exorcism was prevalent in the time of Jesus, as were magical amulets, tricks, healings, love potions and charms—like phylacteries.

But we can’t be sure. If he was a magician, he was certainly not interested in ethics. After a point, the plural Jesuses available to us in the gospels become self-negating, and even the conclusion that the gospels are biographies of communities becomes unhelpful: they are the biographies of different perspectives often arising within the same community.

Like the empty tomb story, the story of Jesus becomes the story of the man who wasn’t there.

What we need to be mindful of, however, is the danger of using greatly reduced, demythologized and under-impressive sources as though no matter what we do, or what we discover, the source—the Gospel–retains its authority.

It is obviously true that somehow the less certain we can be about whether x is true, the more possibilities there are for x. But when I took math, we seldom defined certainty as the increase in a variable’s domain. The dishonesty of much New Testament scholarship is the exploitation of the variable.

We need to be mindful that history is a corrective science: when we know more than we did last week, we have to correct last week’s story. The old story loses its authority. Biblical scholars and theologians often show the immaturity of their historical skills by playing with history. They have shown, throughout the twentieth century, a remarkable immunity to the results of historical criticism, as though relieving Jesus of his obligation to be a man of his time and culture–however that might have been–entitles him to be someone who is free to live in our time, and rule on our problems, and lend godly authority to our ethical dilemmas.

No other historical figure or legendary hero can be abused in quite the same way. We leave Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Cleopatra in Hellenistic Egypt, and Churchill buried at the family plot in Bladon near Oxford.

The use of Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles, in the long run. And when I say this, I’m not speaking as an atheist. I am simply saying what I think is historically true, or true in terms of the way history deals with its own.

It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation. It’s (at least) an act of honesty to say that what we would like to believe to be the case about him might not have been the case at all.

To recognize that Jesus—whoever he was–did not have answers for our time, could not have foreseen our problems and moral dilemmas, much less rule on them with godly authority, frees us from the more painful obligation to view the Bible as a moral constitution.

The history of Jesus-scholarship is a progression of narratives about what might have been the case, but probably wasn’t.

If men and women in the New Testament business wish to pursue the construction of counter-legends as though they were doing history, there is no one to stop them. If they announce to an unsuspecting and credulous public that they have found “new historical materials,” better “gospels,” the “real story,” or the bone-boxes of Jesus and his wife and family, they simply prove the axiom: Jesus may not save, but he sells.

It has been a long time since theology’s dirty little secret was first whispered: “The quest for the historical Jesus leads to the door of the church.” But that is still where it leads. We leave him there, as Schweitzer lamented, “as one unknown.”

# Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.

In this essay, however, I will focus on why it is not a total waste of time.

What seemed to be an endlessly fascinating question in the nineteenth century among a few Dutch and German radical theologians (given a splash of new life by re-discoverers of the radical tradition, such as G A Wells, in the twentieth) now bears the scent and traces of Victorian wallpaper.

Van Eysinga

Theologians in the “mainstream academic tradition” have always been reluctant to touch the subject because, after all, seminaries do not exist, nor for that matter departments of religious studies, to teach courses in the Christ Myth. For that reason, if the topic is given syllabus space at all it is given insufficient space and treated as the opposite of where sober, objective scholarly inquiry will take you in New Testament studies.

It sometimes, but not often or generally enough, occurs to my colleagues that much of what passes for real scholarship is equally slipshod, constructed on equivalently shaky and speculative premises and serviced by theories so artificial (Q, for example) that (to quote myself in the introduction to George Wells’s The Jesus Legend) it can make the theory that Jesus never existed a welcome relief from the noise of new ideas.

I umpired what was (as far as I know) the only direct conversation between George Wells and Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician, 1978) in 1985, in Ann Arbor Michigan. On that occasion, Smith said naughtily that “the only thing Professor Wells and I have in common is that we each hold a theory that the other regards as absurd.” So much for “real templates.” Especially ones that ask us to accept that “everything we have previously learned is wrong.” Not even the Novum Organum asks us to believe in that kind of paradigm shift. As for myself, the only thing I have in common with both those who want to argue the myth theory as a provable hypothesis and those who believe the gospels provide good evidence for the life of Jesus is that we are probably all wrong.

Arthur Drews

I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him–the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example–is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion–a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact–a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.

It never happened of course, and the great conclusion to the whole enterprise after notable false stops in the twentieth century was the Jesus Seminar. It was never clear to me how a methodology with its roots tangled in a kind of cloddish German academic hubris (husk, husk, husk, sort and sift) could come to a salutary end. And it didn’t, unless we can assume that giving birth to a Jesus who said nothing for certain and might have said anything at all is a “result.”

Harnack

I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus. Some of my reasons for saying so are laid out in a series of essays included in the anthology Sources of the Jesus Tradition, coming out in August. The main argument for Jesus-agnosticism is being developed in a more ambitious study, The Jesus Prospect, for which watch this and other spaces. (The prologue on method will be ready later in 2010.)

But before all of that, let me say a few words about why I believe Christianity benefits from discussions like this, and especially from Jesus-agnosticism (as opposed to Jesus-loving and Jesus-denying scholarship)–without ever having formally to acknowledge them.

For just over four years of my academic life I have taught in predominantly Muslim universities. Both were highly selective places, the sort of institutions contrived to train “tomorrow’s leaders,” highly aware and critical of the dangers of madrasah education, more than willing to make judicious room for the comparative study of religion. But secular approaches to the Quran were not high on the agenda of either place. Even in “liberal” circles in the Islamic world there is an enclosure for religion which is to be treated respectfully, or ignored, but not questioned extensively.

American University of Beirut, Main Gate, blt 1866

The question of the historicity of Jesus does not arise naturally in Islam–or I should say among believers–any more than the “question” of Muhammad naturally arises. The status of Jesus in Islam is assured not because he is the star of the New Testament but because as Issa he is a a revered figure in Islam. He is not the unique prophet. He is not the way, truth and life. People do not “get” to Allah through him. But he is sui generis. That is, he is an indispensable rung in a ladder that leads to God through the Prophet who is unique: Muhammad.

Myth-theorists, to the extent they pay attention to other religions, tend to regard Muslim belief with the same defensive disdain one often associates with Christian fundamentalists’ view of Islam: Islam is later, derivative, probably bogus (they reason); Muslim rejection of what the prior tradition specifies about Jesus, fatally injures their own contingent tradition. –As Jesus goes, so goes Muhammad. Revelation is whole cloth, not patchwork, and it is often more annoying than interesting to Christians (and some secularists) that Islam seems to be a sequel to the Bible with a slightly revised cast of characters and substantially revised course of events.

Isa in Turkish Islamic art

Needless (I hope) to comment that western views of the sort described above are ignorant. Jesus’ “role” in Muslim teaching does not depend on any Christian beliefs about Jesus but on the Quranic incorporation of Jesus. The status of Jesus in Islam is contingent on Islam, not Christian teaching about Jesus. Muhammad ur-rasul Allah: The Prophet is the seal (guarantor) of the prophets and at the absolute center of a religious cosmos–which nevertheless includes satellites like Jesus, David, and Abraham in orbit around him.

“Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; (but) I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him,
who hopes to meet his Lord, do good deeds, and let him join
no one in the worship of his Lord!’ [Surah Al-Kahf 18 :lll).

Interestingly, however, this apparent protest of humility actually enhances the prophet’s stature. He’s an earthen vessel, but all the more credible because he bears human testimony to the miraculous and to the reality of a personal encounter with the divine will. More than the scholars of Islam, the sufis and mystics would preserve this belief.

To the extent this encounter is reflected in prior religious traditions, Muhammad is more a prophet like Moses on Sinai than a water-walking miracle-worker like Jesus. Maybe this signals a continuity of desert tradition largely missing in the artifice of Christianity, but the Quran is far more Torah than Gospel. The directness of the dialogue between Allah and the Recorder, Muhammad himself, is the directness of the instructions of Yahweh to Moses. True, in Islamic tradition Muhammad is sometimes credited with miracles, like splitting the moon (a gloss of Surah 54.1-2). But “orthodox” Islam in its sectarian complexity does not tie itself to these supernatural occurrences: the final miracle of Islam is the Quran itself and the place of Muhammad in its promulgation. What he said, did, and taught (and there are plenty of hadith projects in departments of Islamic theology devoted to just that question) are of secondary consequence. It is vital that he existed because without that the divine will would never have been known in an authentic form and the correction of existing inauthentic forms, like the biblical tradition, would never have taken place.

The Annunciation in Islamic Context

Odd, then, that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.

What’s usually missed in the discussion of the war between right and wrong believers before 325 is that both camps agreed on the essentials: whatever else Jesus was, “human” doesn’t do justice to it. The bitterness of battle, and the cheer-leading that has gone on for the victors ever since, leads us away from the fact that even the pro-humanity orthodox camp did not leave us with an historical figure but with a luminescent god-man whose finger perpetually points to his own breast as the source and explanation for his mission to earth.

Mission to earth? Yesterday’s gnosticism is today’s science fiction. It is all too easy to fall into gnosticism or science fiction when we examine such images in the writings, art, and liturgy of the church. Especially if we also see religion, more generally, as a species of superstition–resurrections and ascensions into heaven as undiagnosed instances of mass obsessional disorder.

Women at the Tomb

But to discover elements of the fantastic in religions like Christianity and Islam, vestiges of thought-processes that fail our requirements for modernity, is not the same as “demonstrating” that religion is fantasy.

Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.

I say could not “quite grasp” the idea of a disincarnated divinity because some of the Christian fathers flirted with Neoplatonism–Clement of Alexandria, for example–and they were saved by a pragmatic hair from being gnostics themselves, as I think–if we are being honest and not pedantic–the author of the Gospel of John was.
The writer’s tortured theological prologue is our best evidence of the philosophical dilemma confronting some early christian communities.

But the true (non-Christian) Neoplatonists like Porphyry despised Christianity because, they said, a disembodied divinity is the only form divinity takes. To reach the far-distant god of a Plotinus you need not just a little water, a few words to a confessor and a healthy appreciation for the Eucharist but a very big invisible ladder and the annihilation of all fleshly encumbrances.

Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology. The earliest shapers of Islamic thought were scarcely seduced by ingenious verbal strategies for mixing and mingling the human and divine: Muhammad therefore stayed vigorously human.

If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.

The really good news is that to the extent we don’t know who Jesus was or even whether he was, Christianity is spared the awful theological and religious certitude that drives Islam to do sometimes outrageous and violent things in defense of that certainty, the totalizing imperative that all religions in their history have struggled to keep in the cave.

The incredibility of the divine and the uncertainty of the human is a potent defense against a totalizing imperative, an inadvertent safeguard created by the extravagance of early doctrine. The vulnerability of Christianity is a vulnerability created by critical examination of its sacred writings–the legacy of its scholars, including its religious scholars, its secular scholars, and even scholars whose speculation outruns caution and evidence. It was Christian scholarship that first put Christianity at risk. Islamic scholarship has played no equivalent role in relation to Islam.

In the end, Jesus and Muhammad are more unalike than alike. If both are unique, they are unique in different ways and not because either’s claim to invulnerable authority can be treated as true or false on the basis of evidence.

Because of accidental but real historical circumstances, inquiry has invulnerated the Christian tradition in a way that has yet to happen, and may never happen, in Islam. If it does happen, it will not be because the west compels it, or because science requires it or because secularism requires it. Islam is not in retreat from the forces of reason. It will certainly not happen because some absurd theorists, mainly western, under-informed and under-equipped, and working on western assumptions, claim that (like Jesus?) Muhammad never existed.

But that is a subject for another time…

# Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon

The never-ending story in New Testament studies is first, how the gospels came to be written down (and where, and when) and how they “relate” to each other. The long-suffering faithful have for centuries–since the process of vernacular Bible translation in the sixteenth century got its legs–been encouraged to believe that the canonical order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is also a chronological order.

The belief is somewhat flimsily supported in fairly early references by writers like Papias, whose reputation as a scholar was already challenged by the man who recorded his words, the fourth century writer Eusebius, and the heresy-fighting bishop, Irenaeus–the real father of giving names and legends to the gospels.

Students studying for divinity and graduate degrees across Europe and North America have learned for more than a century that the matter of who-wrote-what-first is endlessly fascinating. The average opinion in the most prestigious and hyperactive research institutions in North America and Europe is that orthodoxy and canonicity are at best provisional ways of looking at the gospels, and, worse, misleading from the standpoint of solving the puzzle of Christian origins.

Many of these neophytes have been treated to professorial displays of source-theory so brilliant and so complicated that they could well be considered algebra. Others, so deceptively self-assured and literally faithful to ancient testimony that they cannot possibly be correct:

The standard model

Armed with only a smattering of Greek and a stash of newly- minted ingenuity, they are urged to go at the problem as though beneath it is buried a secret jewel, the pearl of great price. But it isn’t. What lay beneath the architecture and power-points, alas, are processes that the gospels themselves conceal by virtue of their simple givenness. Looking for the “origin” of a gospel is bit like looking for Jesus in the tomb on Easter morning: it was here just a minute ago.

The theory of Markan priority and the more ambitious but eventually standard “two source” hypothesis (based on the notion that Matthew and Luke embedded Mark’s gospel and must have possessed a written sayings source to account for materials not found in Mark–the variable Q will do) enjoyed sovereignty of sorts for three generations. –Mainly because it had the simplicity that mnemonics have in helping you to remember chemical formulas. {ML} = Mk+Q.

The so-called Griesbach hypothesis, in and out and up or down in favour in each generation, is just as plausible for the diagrammatics of a case: Matthew wrote first; Luke based his story on Matthew and Mark used both. It has its own bad-boy appeal, while theories of Lukan and even Marcionite priority have gotten less attention.

It is notable but unsurprising that in all of this clatter the traditional idea that consistency is not provided by literary dependence but by revelation is not discussed very much among the algebraists. Needless to say, I am not complaining about the end of supernaturalism; I welcome it, and note that in the closest book-tradition to Christianity–Islam—these priority, hierarchy and relational questions are much less important. The point is not that we should use plenary inspiration as a way of solving source- and dependence- issues, but that the complexity of some of the theories make inspiration an almost welcome relief from the haggling. –Especially (dare I say it) any discussion or theory about Q.

In a sense, Christianity brought this dilemma on itself. While divine inspiration was held up as the proof of the integrity of the gospels from very early in the tradition, it was held up in a heresiological context–that is, in the war between orthodox bishops and the religious “others,” the heretics. It involved the book itself (or books), of course, but just as much it involved the question of who can claim to be inspired and who safeguards the process through which inspiration can be validated. What (book) do you trust was inseparable from the question of who do you trust.

The suggestion that the authors were “apostles” or “apostolic men”–friends of the apostles, like Mark, allegedly, and Luke–seems gratuitous even in the context of the age. And the age, by the way, had a habit of attributing a gospel to anybody of any prominence whose legend would win hearts and minds to their cause: that is why the attribution of gnostic gospels to Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Philip, Judas and even to “Truth” sheds light on the general habit of pseudonymity and forgery.

P52

But as we know, if not through consensus, the Gnostics weren’t the first or only ones to play the name game: it was being played on the Catholic side in Paul’s name after Paul was dead, in Peter’s name, and in James’s and in Jude’s and John’s. But why stop with what we know almost certainly: it was also probably being played in the case of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whose perilously thin legends and reputations were created after tradition (read: bishops) had named the anonymous writings ascribed to them.

Biographical authority and authenticity have to be understood against the backdrop of battles with Marcionites and harder-core separatists. It is finally solidified in Book 4 (8.2) of Irenaeus’s turgid work Against the Heresies where he claims to have compiled a book of all the “legitimate” successors of the apostles and the Lord: γενομενος δε εν ‘Ρωμη διαδοχην εποιησαμην μηχρις ‘Ανικητου…”: “And when I had come to Rome I remained there until Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord.”

Irenaeus the Fierce: Scourge of Heretics

The gospels, in this pitch and toss, are held to be locked away in safety from the corruption of heresy through the lawful succession of the western (Roman) bishops. They are “in” the church, he says as money is in a bank; the heretics are outside, “like so many weeds.” There are four of them, neither more nor fewer—just as there are four winds, four corners of the earth, four providing angels.

Irenaeus and his brother bishops were not especially concerned about the relationship between and among gospels, for the simple reason that (unlike most modern interpreters) he theorized that they constituted four independent testimonies to the truth, miraculous, therefore, precisely to the extent that there had been no consort among the authors and no copying of one to the other source. The heresy fighters were concerned with preserving traditions, the origins of which had already been lost in a century-old fog. The question of a copyist tradition only reveals itself when the belief in the miraculous four-fold testimony unravels, a chapter that began to be written at the end of the nineteenth century.

copyist

The Greek lyric poet Anacreon lived in the 6th century BCE. Through the efforts of Aristarchus (2nd century BCE) some of his work, most of its fragmentary, has been collected and survives. He was remarkable for his mastery, in some cases invention, of metrical styles and for his mastery of the Ionic dialect. (If you have not read any Anacreon lately, read, at least, “The Picture” for its lyrical elegance).

I mention Anacreon because he stands at the beginning of a long tradition of preservation through imitation. In a 1958 collection of his work by Bruno Gentili (Rome, Edizioni dell’ Ateneo) the editor for the Classical Review of that year complained that at least 37 of the poems included as genuine–based on his assessment of vocabulary, testimonia, and metrics–were not authentic and should be moved to an appendix or to the nearest dustbin.

There is even a suggestion that the editor tried to smuggle some very obviously non-anacreonic verse into the edition because he thought they were “pretty”—for shame.

What everyone knows about classical tradition, however, is that Anacreon’s name, reputation, style and prestige is preserved through the art of literary imitation. –Through copying.

New Testament scholars are very much more familiar with classical civilization than they used to be. So much so that biblical studies on the New Testament side has matured enormously in the twentieth and early twenty-first century from the parochial theological discipline it was in the nineteenth. But at a programmatic level, it needs to scrap the idea of authorial attribution completely and to acknowledge that the production of New Testament gospels, at least in the case of the synoptics, was an anacreonic process—a process of imitation, based on the desire to imitate and enhance rather than merely to produce or propagate an original. Admirers of the Jesus-story were using a prototype for copy exercises. Whose story it was is of no importance, and remains of no importance well into the second century.

There is no good reason why an anonymous copyist would have done what he did because he thought the copy he was working from was “authoritative”—and indeed it probably came to him without a titulus , that is to say, attribution. Similarly, as with the ancient tradition in letters, some copyists felt moved to add detail, story, to alter, to correct—things that biblical scholars have known to be true about the gospels for a long time–indeed have developed critical methods to cope with them–but have linked to a different set of motivations based not on what we know to be true of classical letters but what we think to be true of a sui generis form of sacred literature..

Paul: a model letter writer for later copyists

The elongation of a source by adding a birth legend or resurrection appearances is completely appropriate to the anacreonic tradition as beautification, as “outdoing” the model. The gnostic gospels which flaunt the model and seem to sing to a different harp, in this way of looking at the process, are simply failed copies. Even within the New Testament, Paul’s “authentic” if composite letters served as models for every aspiring paulinist who wanted to improve on his thought and language, the winner being the author of the letter to the Ephesians.

As with Anacreon, we know enough to know what the essential ingredients—the equivalent of the theme or metrics—would have looked like. I am not cynical about being able to construct, for example, the original narrative structure or gospel prototype. But I am completely unconvinced that any of the current gospels form that structure or that any of the received gospels is that original.

I find it more probable that we possess four of the exercises, and that these exercises have to be submitted to an analysis based not on “redaction” and tendency—fidelity to or departure from a long-gone plumb-line–as much as on the more or less purely artistic intention of the writer in terms of the story he is telling.

In fact, biblical criticism, in some of its operations, does this already but it often does it as though the question of priority is the same as the question of “source.” We do not know who wrote any gospel—not even “John’s” (and the editorial process in the Fourth Gospel is more explicit than in any synoptic). We know only one ancient collector who insisted that the source was anonymous, or more precisely “the true source”– the heretic: Marcion.

It is not surprising that to smother the effect of this radical suggestion, both copyists and fathers insisted on attribution. The gnostic penchant for attributing and the slanders of both Jewish and conservative Roman observers, with their different but equally sharp insistence on literary-historical pedigree is enough to explain the demand for named sources. But the habit, or defense, belongs to the history of apologetics and not to the earliest manuscript tradition. For all we know one such copyist may have been named Mark and another Luke. But if that is so, it is only accidentally so and they were men of no significant personal distinction. They were men who took it upon themselves to imitate, “restore” or amend the lost (or nearly lost) prototype, the master-copy of the Jesus story.

# How Christianity is the Perfect Religion

Love Incarnate?

I am frankly tired of news about religious extremists plotting world takeover from septic tunnels, watching deals between “good” Taliban and “pro-western” Pakistanis brokered and shredded within months by toothy politicians, depressed from smiling over my gin when MSNBC reports that a pilotless drone (no, a different entity from the United States Senate) has killed a “top level Al-Qaida leader.” (No, not bin Laden. Certainly not—but someone who knows someone who met him once. Maybe at a barber shop.)

Bored enough even to yawn at the last report of a horrific car, market, bus, mosque or school bombing somewhere in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Weary to the point of dizziness at the latest decisions to send in another doomed-from-the get-so cadre of troops to “finish what we started” [sic] in Afghanistan. Innocence betrayed by the allure of travel to distant lands?

At a lower level of cynicism, I am lulled to despair with the conflict over whether Jews in Santa Cruz should or should not have a right to display a fifteen foot high menorah in the “downtown area.” It’s a cluster of candles for God’s sake, but more to the point: don’t you have a back yard?

I am sick of the Vatican being forced into the position, yet again, of apologizing for randy priests and abusive, sexually repressed nuns who couldn’t keep their paws off innocent children in their care. It is disgusting. It is so disgusting that we need to consider seriously if any other social community, unprotected by the fiction that religion operates for the good, is even capable of doing the things that religion does—and does by pointing to a Higher Authority whose function it is (apparently) either to forgive it or condemn it but does nothing to prevent it by putting its holy temple in moral order.

Magdalene Asylum

The commonplace concept of God in all three religions is so miserably and wretchedly puerile that it sends me searching for my dog-eared copy of The Future of an Illusion on an annual basis. May the Kingdom come (and go) soon.

So I ask myself, what went wrong, or what’s gone missing? All of these religions had mystery once upon a time. And without overstating the terrors that take shape when religion is taken literally rather than mystically religion unclothed is a dangerous thing. The poet Matthew Arnold warned a century and a half ago of the danger of taking myths, mixing briskly with the hazards of unformed religious passion and ignorance of literature, and turning them into dogma. For Arnold, the great devil of nineteenth century religion in the English tradition was making postulates out of poems.

Arnold

Who could have foretold that the literalism and plain-talk we expect in twenty-first century discourse would constrain religion to take its own propositions seriously, and worse, act to defend them in absurd and violent ways. But that, I submit is what has happened.

Maimonides. Avicenna. Meister Eckhart. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī Rumi, and more to date (d. 1937) Muhammad Iqbal and Thomas Merton, alas, are not the future of religion.

I have always found it odd in one sense that many of the great philosophical mystics were also great intellectuals, especially it seems logicians and mathematicians. Origen and Ibn Rushd, in their respective pockets, saw theology closely aligned to true wisdom, in that higher sense the neo-Platonists were so fond of talking (and talking) about.

So let me talk about it.

I have said a sufficient number of times (so that anything beyond this time will be mere repetition) that the “cure” for all the bad religion we see around us is not “good” religion or the “right sort of” religion or (above all) declamations that what we’re witnessing “isn’t really religion” but some sort of satanic parody of religion. All such talk is an invitation for conflict under the banner of dialogue.

Religion is not purified by scraping away the mould to see if any edible bread is left. A cure—and yes, that is the word I want–depends on seeing the violence inherent in religious literalism and heeding the call to myth, mystery, and poetry.

When it comes to religion, words speak louder than actions. All forms of biblical and Quranic literalism are invitations to moral terror not because the precept you happen to be reading at the moment is “wrong” but because the one you read next might violate both conscience and commonsense. Violent because you cannot know what verses stir the mind and heart of your friendly local mullah, priest or rabbi. Picking and choosing what the experts believe the laity need to hear–the way most preachers have practiced their faith in public over the millennia–may be a tribute to the power of discernment, but it teaches the congregation—the occasional Catholic, the wavering Muslim—some very bad habits.

It can lead to a constricting of moral vision, the abuse of little children, butchering or disfiguring wives and daughters, the killing of the tribe of Abraham by the children of Abraham. Words do this because they have the power to be misunderstood. And because taken as a bundle, the texts of the sacred traditions are a muddle of contradictory and sometimes terrifying ideas that commend everything from peace on earth to extermination of the unbeliever in their several parts.

It is the kind of tangle that attracts knot-tiers and exploiters and anyone who needs the money of the poor to be rich. Most of the methods developed to study and examine the narratives of the world’s religions “scientifically” in the last two centuries have helped to provide contexts for texts, have shone light on the community within which texts developed—ranging from Syria to Medina—reminding us above all that the ancient words are no different in provenance than modern words: that is, they are human words and need human interpretation. The words are not above us, they should not be considered immune from our assessment and judgment. Any doctrine of inspiration that teaches otherwise is potentially if not actually malignant and insidious.

I could quote Rumi, or Ibn Rushd, or a poem by Alama Iqbal to make my point. They were all great hearts and deeply committed to their vision of religious truth. Taken in another direction, they might have been vicious—because mysticism has often led to esotericism and fanaticism. (Religious language is funny that way.) Origen and Peter Abelard lost their testicles and hundreds of Anabaptists in Munster in 1535 their lives not because they lacked imagination but because they had special visions of how to take the kingdom by storm.

So let me take refuge instead in the myth we find embedded in the story Christians like to read at this time of year.

The Christian myth is that love was born into the world in human form, divine nonetheless and (as the story winds on, without prejudice to the order of composition of the gospel elements) capable of suffering, and destined (as in the ascension myth in Luke) to regain his heavenly estate. True love, recall, does not undergo change, does not “alter when it alteration finds.”

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
(Christina Rossetti, 1885)

People who hate the gory images of crucifixion and the metaphysically blinding element of the resurrection narrative, tend to like Christmas anyway. They like it even though they may very well reject every other part of the Jesus tradition. What they like “about” it may not be Christian at all, and may well be more ancient than the ancient ideas that quietly undergird Luke’s and Matthew’s poetic fables.

Socrates it’s easy to forget, was no fan of “poetical myths” “Those which Hesiod and Homer tell us and the other poets, for they composed false fables to mankind and told them [Republic, 377d]. These are “not to be mentioned in our city” [Republic, 378b]. It is easy to forget this because Plato himself was unable to exile Homer completely from his city. What he worries about is the propensity of “myth” (poetical or philosophical) for misunderstanding and the natural tendency among the uneducated, the young and the intellectually dull for getting the myths wrong—missing the point.

In the Ion [533c], Socrates explains that some people are closer to wisdom and interpretation than others. Call it knowledge—as later Platonists and their sympathizers did. There is a power, Socrates teaches, which descends from the gods to certain men and to others who, like Ion, use the works of the inspired. “It is, he says, like a series of iron rings the first of which is attached to a magnet so that the power of the magnet passes on to all in the series.” Think God, think angel choirs, think wise men, think shepherds. “Those beautiful poems are not human, nor the compositions of men; but divine, and the work of the gods: and that poets are only the interpreters of the gods, inspired and possessed, each of them by a peculiar deity who corresponds to the nature of the poet.” But it stops with the interpreters, the users. The force is not with everyone.

Christianizing Plato is a perilous business, but it did not stop the church fathers and later writers from trying and getting it poetically wrong in their determination to be theologically right. The life of Jesus for many of the interpreters was simply an allegory of divine love, the way in which love (truth) became incarnate. The way love “came down”—in the beginning, for John, “at Christmas” for Rossetti. Certain writers saw this, to be fair, more philosophically than others. The Gnostics did not need a manger or a virgin mother. The most arrogant of the mystics sided with the ancients in thinking that this love was simply a gift of inspiration given to men of learning and ability. Love, philia, is the general term that Plato uses when he wants to convey attraction. It is usually a one way street: the image of iron rings and magnets drawing the things of this world to the things of an unseen realm by a mysterious power that is divine—god-originated..

Perilous though it is, I think that Christianity was unique in democratizing love and in making love available to even the lowliest, the most ignorant, the slaves and sinners. Even the pagan haters of Christianity hated it most for its non-exclusivity, its lack of a membership code. Plato would have hated it, too, and would have insisted that, had there been any, Christians should be barred from his city. Later philosophical Platonism had next to no social dimension. Christianity did.

Christian mythology took the principle of attraction and the connection between God, conceived as love, and forgiveness, considered intrinsic to goodness, and extended it to a human race that had lost its compass and its ladder. Everyone could be perfect because everyone could be attracted.

Do I believe this is literally the state of humanity? Do I think that we should tell our children these things irrespective of SAT scores? Do I agree with Plato that amateurs need not apply and that the secrets of the myths should be “locked in concealment”—the path taken by most of the Platonically-based mysteries and even for a while among certain Christian groups.

What I believe is, there are no mysteries in mangers.

# Of Love and Chairs

Lazarus

A longer version of “The Importance of the Historical Jesus,” excerpted from my book The Sources of the Jesus Tradition (due out this summer) is at Bible and Interpretation: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/love3141509.shtml

In the case of the “Jesus-question,” there is no point at which the theological imagination does not shape the subject matter. Love comes before the chair, feelings and impressions before the “facts” have been put into place, and interpretation before detail. No matter what element of the Jesus tradition comes first, that element—as scholars for the most part today are willing to acknowledge—comes to us as an act in a religious drama, not as a scene in an ordinary life….

Adapted from: The Sources of the Jesus Tradition, to be published in August 2010 (New York: Prometheus Books,ISBN-10: 1616141891)

# The Importance of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project Quodlibet

And he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.28)

For the last three years I have been associated—perhaps identified is a better word—with something called the Jesus Project.    Enough has already been said and written about that for me (mercifully) to be able to avoid another “introduction” to its aims and objectives.

This essay therefore is about something else.  It is about why we should care about the historical Jesus

My guess is that there are just as many people who sort of believe in God as there are people who sort of believe in Jesus.  But the two beliefs are different.  The existence of God can be argued theologically or philosophically.  If theologically (using archaic language) the proofs are usually called “demonstrations” and include some of the classical arguments of the theistic tradition—such as Anselm’s and Thomas Aquinas’s five ways.  It is quite convenient for philosophers to have these arguments because they don’t have to go about inventing their own. They can simply take aim at these rather good ones and fire away, and top it all off with a heavy syrup of philosophical naturalism.  If that last sentence sounds mildly sardonic it is because I think we are living in a post-naturalistic world and that philosophers had better find another island to swim to.  Theologians at least believe they have someone to save them.

“Believing” in Jesus can be argued historically or theologically, but not philosophically.  Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown.  The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events.  For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Jesus of Nazareth would be very helpful.  But we do not possess such a record.  Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and interested reasons for retelling his story.  And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.

Having said this, I don’t mean to suggest that the gospels are made up, that they are like Greek myths, though bits are, or that they possess no historical value.  The Iliad is Greek myth, mainly made up, perhaps seven hundred years older than the earliest gospel, and yet seems to point (however obscurely) to actual events that transpired six centuries before Homer (?) immortalized them.  Herodotus, who lived more than five centuries before the gospels, is known to us primarily as a purveyor of history, but freely uses mythology and the supernatural without totally discrediting the stories he has to tell.

Why then, it can plausibly be asked, can we not assume the gospels point to events that transpired within (say) a generation of their tellers’ lifetimes?  It would be more unusual not to find the mythical and supernatural as part of their fabric than to find precisely the kind of documents we possess—especially coming from a class of writers who were not historians or literary craftsmen.

Belief in the existence of Jesus can also be argued theologically, but I am not good at it.   Paul does it this way by quoting (we assume) a hymn in Philippians 2.5-11. It locates Jesus in a cosmic time-frame that might be Gnostic except for the emphasis on his death and exaltation. The Eucharistic narratives do it this way as well, by making Jesus the centerpiece in an unfolding drama of betrayal and martyrdom.  The crucifixion story is as much a theological memoir as a historical one—or rather a peculiar blending of two interests, a kind of intersection between historical expectation and super-historical completion.  The earliest church fathers, especially Ignatius of Antioch, saw Jesus not just as the fulfillment of prophecy but as the way in which prophecy acquires its meaning through the Church.  The Quran also depends on the existence of Jesus, but rejects certain elements of the Christian story in favor of Islamic interpretation. Still, without the gospel its own claims are fatally jeopardised.  The increasingly elaborate theological framing of Jesus may distract from the fading image on the canvas, but it is the enthusiasm for ever-more ingenious frames that kept the historical figure from disappearing entirely.

These theological arguments are better described as constructions of the “reality” or necessity of the human Jesus, and lead to various controversies that historians have left it to the theologians to sort through.  In effect this has created a kind of scholarly apartheid in which secular historians have treated the theological debates of the fourth and fifth century as the weird preoccupations of a bygone era, while (except among scholars who represent Anglican and Roman Catholic orthodoxy) many contemporary theologians regard the debates in just the same way.

Yet these debates irreversibly coloured the picture of the historical Jesus and created in his place the Byzantine cosmocrator who ruled the aeons.  The one-personed, two-natured Christ, the hypostatic union (the doctrine that Jesus is both God and Man without confusion or separation of natures) would probably count as myth if it had more of a story line.  But at all events the fully divine and human Jesus had become a theological necessity before the end of the second century. The historical presupposition was buried in this controversy, if it had ever existed independently.

Given the “two ways” of approaching the question of the historical Jesus, it may seem a bit strange that the theological comes first.  But there is simply no evidence that the early Christians were concerned about “whether” Jesus had really lived and died.  They became Christians because of the gospel, and the gospels were preached, not read—except by very few.  If there is one cold, hard, unavoidable historical datum that virtually everyone who studies the New Testament can agree on, it is that the early Christian community existed and came into existence because of the gospels.

It may well be true that the beliefs of these communities were as varied as coloured buttons for more than a century.  But the Jesus they “proclaimed” (a good first century verb) was part of a story, not a doctrine—a story they believed to be true.  You can’t go very far into the second century without seeing the story becoming clouded with doctrine and definition, however.

The church fathers and the Gnostics were really two sides of the same obscurantist process:  the Gnostics needed a Jesus whose humanity was transparent or unreal, the church fathers needed a Jesus whose humanity was real but disposable.  It is not surprising that the disposable won out over the unreal.

The resurrection stories, as they lengthened, seemed to suggest that a kind of transformation took place in the hiatus between death and being raised from the dead.  In other words, the historical (human) Jesus who rose from the dead won out over the Gnostic Jesus who does not, not because the gnostic story is fabulous but because the familiar story was human—grounded in history. Paul seems to have caught on to the market value of this fact very early (I Corinthians 15.4-8)

The historical Jesus is not important in the same way that a Roman emperor’s existence is important –that is, as a simple causa prius to his being declared divine, or (for example) as a way of averaging human and divine qualities, as the ancient world was fond of doing with demigods and heroes.  We tend to forget that men of the fourth century, confronted with defining the humanity of Jesus, still had the images and stories of Achilles, Dionysus and Heracles in view.  It was not a thoroughly Christian world, but a world still infused with the seductive images of demigods and their courtesans—the same world whose attractions Clement had anguished over a hundred years before Nicaea.  Saving the saviour from that kind of emulsion prompted some of the more intricate doctrines of the early period.

The preservation of the humanity of Jesus came at the expense of his historicity.  In making sure he would not be confused with Caesar, Apollo or Mithras, they focused on the way in which he was God and how God became man.  At the end of the makeover, however, no first century Jew remained to be seen.  Even a spirit-struck Pentecostal preacher who has only the dimmest idea of what Chalcedon was all about calls on a “Jesus” who was born there—a man-god who can walk on water, heal the blind and save from sin.

The historical Jesus is important because he is a presupposition for the faith that millions of people have placed in non-historical consequences, and not only Christians.  His status if primarily significant to Christians is also important, in different ways, to Jews, Muslims, and even unbelievers.

I do not know whether the recovery of a Jesus after two thousand years of theological repair is possible.  John Henry Newman died in 1890.  He was buried in a wooden coffin in a damp site just outside Birmingham.  To the disappointment of many, when he was exhumed as part of the normal process for canonization in October 2008, no human remains were to be found—only artifacts of wood, brass and cloth.  We are considerably better off of course, in the case of Newman.  The grave site was known, we have letters, diaries, treatises, biographies, the memories of friends and relatives—even his own instructions for burial.  But that is because he was a man living in an age of documentation, and moreover a man of some prominence and means.  We have photographs, and well into the twentieth century the recollections of people who had known him or heard him preach.

Everything we  think we know historically about Jesus points in a more depressing direction: a man of no prominence, living in a widely illiterate age in a backward province, even by Roman standards, with few friends who could have told his story.  Yet the story is oddly similar—a remembrance of a life, wisdom, preaching, struggle, and death.  One of the fathers of the Birmingham oratory on being told that Newman was not to be found in his grave replied calmly, “It’s enough that he was here.”  In the long run, that may be all that can be said about the historical Jesus.