π -ness Envy? The Irrelevance of Bayes’s Theorem

In a recent post responding to a blog review of Sources of the Jesus Tradition by atheist blogger Richard Carrier, I made the point that his own contribution to the book does not rise above the level of pedantic lecturing on a theorem of dubious value to engage the literary matter.

Carrier has claimed on a number of occasions that his approach is revolutionary, a tour de force and essentially over the heads of New Testament scholars.  Apart from the naivety of saying anything like this in a field littered with the corpses of dead theories and “discoveries,”  this is scarcely where you’d want a revolution to be fought.


There are numerous critical issues attached to using a theorem that is primarily about probability to assess material that isn’t.  It is, however, a common feature of forensic (i.e. controversialist) approaches to the Bible on both the fundamentalist side and the atheist side to engage the material on a literal level.  This is so because both sides have to meet on the field at that point where literal claims about the text are being made, if not with the claim that the texts themselves are designed to propose facts–though most biblical literalists would say that they are, and most of their opponents would say that they are defeasible at this level.

Accordingly, a particular way of reading the text has been the main source of “rationalistic” critiques of the Bible since the Enlightenment though many of those critiques were superficial and almost all have been improved by serious academic study in the last two and half centuries.

Reasonably speaking,  it is analytically impossible to assess claims of “factuality” without assessing the texts on which such claims are based, even if we begin with relative certainty or skepticism (for example) about the occurrence of miracles or the reliability of a written tradition. Despite the fact that the multiplication of “conditions” and “assumptions” violates the sensibility of most post-modernists who deplore looking at things like authorial intention, criticality, or audience (community) in discussing narrative,  the character of the text is the conditio sine qua non–the starting pointfor all discussion.  It is a condition a literalist believer, on the basis of his epistemological suppositions, tries to avoid since his prior assumption is that the text has a particular integrity, and the skeptic, guided by opposite beliefs, no less literal, is often able to ignore.

Modern New Testament scholarship emerged precisely in response to the impasse between credulity and skepticism, neither of which seemed a sufficient answer to the “problem of the text.” Forensically speaking, text is text.  Critically speaking, it isn’t.

Generally speaking, the biblical literalist feels he is under no  compulsion to defend his confidence in the text; he assumes he has warrants for his confidence.  He can invoke a number of interdependent subordinate claims to support his position–arguments from antiquity (the age of the text or its distance from the reported events), reliability (a kind of mock-psychological assessment of the trustworthiness of “reporters”), self-consistency (whether the text is basically coherent within itself and among variants, where they exist), inspiration and inerrancy  (the belief that the text is autonomous as a product of revelation and thus superior to any methods used in its evaluation). Most subordinate claims have been savaged by modern critical approaches that have grown organically out of the study of the gospels and cognate literature, though some are still of interest to historians.

A forensic approach to the Bible means that key debating points like the six-day creation story, the resurrection of Jesus and (perhaps) the existence of Jesus have to be treated as historical assertions to the same extent they are asumed to be true by the most literal readers.  This is a severe limitation to forensic approaches since they initiate discussion with the question of whether a text is vulnerable as a truth-claim, using a formula more suitable for modal logic than for history: Is something possible or probable?  Are events described in a text more likely to have happened or not to have happened?


Even the study of the text for both literalists and skeptics will be subordinated to the modality of claims.  Texts that assume propositional value for the literalist (even if that value has to be manufactured) are the very texts the skeptic needs to find defeasible.  Scholars have understandably winced at this level of discussion because it’s easily seen as a branch of apologetics rather than as a field of serious literary and cultural study. Its preoccupation is not with what the text has to tell us, but with whether you or your opponent is right or wrong about a relatively small number of events.


Debaters like Carrier have suggested that the critical methods developed for dealing with the Bible in the nineteenth and twentieth century are insufficiently rigorous. But that is simply not the case.  In fact, the methods grew in tandem with evolving perceptions of what the character of the text actually was, how it was formed, and what its creators thought about the world. In the language of an older school of criticism, what its “life situation” was. They continue to evolve and to adapt in an organic way.  Only if the sole question to be answered is whether the description of an event corresponds directly and generically to “what really happened” (if it were possible to answer that question, as it isn’t in many cases) would the modality of a forensic approach be useful, and its usefulness would still depend on prior questions.

“Conventional” and revisionist approaches remain central to academic study, however, if we assume that the New Testament is not making its case propositionally, event by event, but narratively.  If Genesis was not intended to teach astronomy, the New Testament was not intended to teach medicine. Neither of those statements tells us what the Bible was intended to do, yet such a determination would be essential for answering questions about how it fulfills its purposes.

Beyond the forensic approach, the question about the kind of literature the New Testament literature represents remains absolutely prior and absolutely crucial.  As an example, the amount of material that can be removed into the category of “myth” (a great deal, from most of Genesis to all of Revelation) can never be determined by modal assessment of the truth properties of a text, since analytically myth is not amenable to modal analysis and only a wrong definition of myth as a kind of rhetorical lie or pre-scientific error–a definition that flies in the face of modern anthropology–would make such analysis possible. The forensic approach does itself a huge disservice by paying insufficient attention to the history of criticism, where the general mythological character of much of the material is almost taken for granted, and focusing instead on a discounted view of myth as non-factuality.

What is true of myth, moreover, is true of the other “forms” (literary and historical genres) that exist within the Bible and the New Testament especially. So much of the Jesus story is myth, in the sense of μυθογραφία (writing of a fabulous story), that I have no objection to the phrase “the Jesus Myth.” –But a great deal to object to in the sentence “Jesus ‘was’ a myth,” implying absolute non-historicity and a method designed simply to document his irreality.  In Sources, this is the subject of two essays, one of which (“On Not Finding the Historical Jesus”) suggests that the gospel writers bore no interest in the “question” of the historical Jesus but had a profound interest in his reality.

For the forensicists, “Was the cosmos created or was it not created in six days”; “Did Jesus or did he not rise from the dead?”;  “What did he really say?” and “Did he exist?” are primary questions that should not be swept under the rug of literary analysis: they are questions of right and wrong.  The text exists primarily to settle these questions.

In my view, this is an impoverished way to approach the Bible since the book (taken as a kind of religious artifact rather than an accident of editorial history) was not construed to answer such questions and the methods that have been devised to explore it have been driven by different phenomena and concerns: what communities believed; how they understood society; how they manipulated history and politics religiously to provide social coherence; why ideas like salvation and redemption gained ascendancy in the first century and how they evolved to become something quite different in the second.  Put flatly: the questions asked by the forensic approach are not primary questions at all because they do not arise from the text.

Not unless you accept the prior assumption that the literature of the Bible puts itself forward as hard fact (and most scholars in the present century would say, it doesn’t) all operations on the material should derive naturally from what it is.  Certain techniques like hermeneutical suspicion, mutiple attestation, “dissimilarity,” and redaction, source (and various other) criticisms and linguistic distribution are simply code for ways of testing how the tradition developed and how the sources evolved over time.  If anything, the “factuality” or modal probability of events in using any of these methods is held in suspense in the same way Coleridge describes the willing suspension of disbelief (and for not altogether different reasons) in the Biographia Literaria.

Back to Bayesics?

I was reminded of the danger and potential irrelevance of imposing non-literary templates on the biblical material by a former student, whose comments on the use of Bayes’s theorem are significant because (a) he is not critiquing the use of this device as a New Testament scholar: he is a PhD candidate in mathematics and is properly reckoned a prodigy in pure mathematics; and  (b) he is not a Christian.

I personally find his comments devastating to the use of the theorem as an assist to the modal approach to the Bible.  But I’ll leave it to others to decide:

“Is this insistence [Carrier] 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 parmeters 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.

The fatal flaw in Carrier’s misuse of the theorem therefore is that the “real world conditions” he finds described in the gospels are not real world conditions. Thus its application does not flow from axioms designed for its use.  The gospels are the complex record of the reactions of communities to conditions that are extremely difficult to assess.  Even though Carrier may know and accept this premise, he finds it unimportant to address its consequences.

It may be that in further work Carrier will lay the theoretical groundwork, justifying his use of Bayes as a cipher for understanding the gospels.  But even if his mission is not that–even if it’s just a game-playing exercise for debunking their historicity in front of believers–it seems to me that Ayez has raised a fatal objection:  Bayes is for apples and the gospels are oranges. And Carrier’s persistent defense that no one is really on the same page–or able to “get” the page he’s writing–is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

The Gospel of Chloe: A New Contribution to “Q” Studies

While this corrupt tract, found pasted to the bottom of a patio table in Sharm el Sheik, dates from the second century, it does not seem to be connected with similar materials found in saunas and billiard table pockets.

Judging from the poor condition of the manuscript, multiple erasures, and detritus from camel faex, the original language seems to have been Aramaic, suggesting a Palestinian provenance for its most important ideas. A third character is a female disciple referred to only as “Daughter” by the male speakers. Extraneous ossuary evidence from Talpiot (תלפיות) shows almost decisively that the woman in question is the biological daughter of Judas and hence the niece of Jesus by Judas’s sister Tiffany.

While an interesting product of a syncretistic heretical movement, scholars have been unable to determine what relevance its contents may have for the serious study of the New Testament.


Jesus: Judas, do you [ ] me?

Judas: That depends on what you mean by [ ]

Jesus: Judas, do you [ ] Me?

Judas. Oh, that’s better, you ask louder and capitalize Me. It’s like I said, and it’s what the Daughter said. It is what it is, isn’t it?

Jesus: So you don’t?

Daughter: Like who said?

Jesus: Who will remember the Glory?

Daughter (rubbing eyes and adjusting veil): I will.

Judas. I never know what to answer. Ok, I will too. And just what is the glory?

Jesus: The Kingdom of God is like the night sky at noon.

Judas: Just don’t. People are already saying we’re gnostics. No, I say, he’s tired. He’s been with the multitudes again. He doesn’t bring lunch, again. Maybe blood sugar, knock on wood.

Jesus: But you must remember; that is why I came into the world
Daughter: Why do you say things like “came into the world”? We know where you’re from. You came in a cart just like the rest of us.

Jesus: It will be harder for a relatively fat man to prick his neighbor with a needle than for a camel to enter the mystery of the kingdom of God by the narrow gate. But I say to you, shake the dust off your sandals! Let him who has ears, etc.

Judas: Look, my job is to make sense of this. When you hired me, you said Judas, what I really need is a PR man, a people person. Ever since then, it’s Judas do you love me. Peter do you love me. It’s driving us all blithers. We need writers–professional people who can sell it. Frankly, the boys are saying you’ve lost it and that we’ll never get to Jerusalem.

Daughter: I know someone. His name is Chloe.

Judas: Chloe is a girl’s name.

Daughter: It’s a gender preference. He writes like a boy.

Judas: We can change his name to–something else.

Jesus: I like Chloe: Someday he’ll be famous, like the womb that bore me. Does Chloe love me?

Judas: Chloe doesn’t bloody know you. You talk, let Daughter write. Do your short thingies, not the long “I am the cherry in the middle of the chocolate”- stuff.

Daughter: I don’t know how to write. I have a good memory, though. I think it will help with the kerygma.

Jesus: The law is inscribed on the hearts of men though not one of seven bothers know what treasures it will own when the son of man comes like David on the heights. Not women though. It’s not inscribed there. The secret of the Kingdom lay hidden like a pearl under an oyster basket. Who among the daughters of men can shuck the oyster….

Judas: You can’t saaay that. In two thousand years people will say, Oh right: Jesus the liberator. Look what he says about women and oysters. And you don’t bloody make sense and you don’t stick to the point and without us you’d still be scrubbing spit off the floor in your father’s house.

Jesus: In my father’s house there are countless mansions. And my father will say to you, “Depart from me before I cast you among the swine like the pearls you are” or something like that.

Judas: Daughter, how much will Chloe want to sort this out?

Daughter: He’ll do it for thirty.

Judas: Thirty denarii? That’s great.

Daughter: Thirty pieces of silver. That’s real money.

Judas: It will break us. It might not even be worth it to clean up his language, but sometimes he sounds sane. And let’s face it, he’s the rockstar. Christ, if only he hadn’t wasted the nard.

Daughter: That’s right, blame me. He has really nice feet.

Jesus: Blessed be you Simon bar Jona, for flesh and blood sake now get behind me. Yes, there.

Judas: That’s disgusting. No wonder Peter ran off. He’s in one of his trances. Does Chloe know we can’t put his name on the scroll?

Daughter: Not yet. I still have to see if he’s got time. What do you suggest.

Judas: Discretion. People have to think he said it. No titles, no bylines. Thirty drachma, not a copper more. Just the sayings that make a little sense. No description–no lakes, or hill, or cliffs. We’ll fill that in later, after… you know.

Daughter: Got it. Just sort out the sayings.

Judas: Not all of them. I’ve got someone named John working on the worst ones. We’ll see how he goes, maybe publish a second volume. But John wants a byline. The pig.

Daughter: Just the sayings, no scenery, make them short.

Judas: Exactly: We can do this. “Chloe” Move it around your mouth. It has a nice qof thing going—k-k–k. That’s it, we’ll call it Q. Just us–us. No one outside knows. In two thousand years, who will guess?

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.


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.


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.


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.

The Importance of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project Quodlibet

And he asjesus_photoked 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.