Contending with history

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

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3 Responses to “Contending with history”

  1. siobhantebbs Says:

    Thanks for this article. Can you recommend a good secular (read: truth-seeking) book about the history of the Jesus period, or even its historiography? I have been looking for ages. It could be lay or academic.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Siobhan, I confess that I’m not very well-read on the topic. Basically, I’ve ready Ehrman’s two books noted above, and a scattering of apologists’ stuff. The apologists lean on the Bible as their evidence, which as I said above is unconvincing. I’d recommend Ehrman’s more recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, though it deals more with the development of Christian beliefs post-crucifixion. I’m currently working on Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt: A History, but haven’t yet got to the part dealing with early Christianity. If the material so far is any indication, though, I’ll bet her take on it will be enlightening. Though she mainly mentions belief to set the scene for discussing the main theme of the book, unbelief.

    I don’t know what he’s written on this topic specifically, but I’ve heard Richard Carrier talk about historical Jesus stuff on podcasts and in debates, and he seems to have a clear-headed and balanced way of weighing evidence. I would tend to trust his account, if you can find something by him on this topic.

  3. Contending with Christianity’s Critics | Friendly Humanist Says:

    [...] 2: The Jesus of History (single review for whole [...]

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