Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Did Christianity Begin?

In this book we find Bird and Crossley in fine form, trading shots over the inadequacies of the other's account of Christian origins, never budging, never giving in when they disagree, but mercifully engaging instead of talking past each other. It's a sharp and fun debate, and I honestly can't say who wins. Two books like this were published back in '99, but they haven't aged well. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (Craig vs. Crossan), and The Meaning of Jesus (Wright vs. Borg), each featured an evangelical debating with a liberal Christian, but seemed chiefly concerned with interfaith dialogue. Bird and Crossley come off more historically disciplined, and the latter is secular, having no interest in Jesus as a confessional figure at all. This is where the rubber meets the road.

The authors take turns going first and responding to the other's reply across five chapters:

1. The Historical Jesus: Crossley -- Bird -- Crossley
2. The Resurrection: Bird -- Crossley -- Bird
3. The Apostle Paul: Crossley -- Bird -- Crossley
4. The Gospels: Bird -- Crossley -- Bird
5. Earliest Christianity: Crossley -- Bird -- Crossley

Crossley has the advantage of starting and ending strong -- speaking first and last in the first and last chapters, where he's at his best -- and so on whole he may seem more impressive. But Bird comes off better in the sections on Paul and the gospels, and he ties evenly with Crossley in the resurrection chapter. It's a bit like watching a boxing match between friends who get floored repeatedly, but are never down for the count. Let's see how they do.

Front and Back: Jesus and Earliest Christianity (Chapters 1 and 5)

Crossley is the alpha and omega of the book, providing a reliable guide to the historical Jesus and how Christianity triumphed in the Roman Empire. He begins with the wry observation that he's sometimes mistaken for a quasi-evangelical on account of the large amount of (synoptic) gospel testimony he thinks is traceable to Jesus. My own starting assumptions are the same as his:
"I think that there is a lot of useful historical information about Jesus' life and teaching that can be gleaned from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (but not John)... I believe the following: famous terms for Jesus such as 'son of man' and 'son of God' really were being used by or of Jesus when he was alive; Jesus really did practice healing and exorcism; and Jesus really did predict his imminent death and probably thought it had some important atoning function." (p 1)
Crossley grounds all of this in Judaism, showing that there's nothing necessarily "Christian" about any of this. One can hardly argue with his general sketch: Jesus was conceived and born like any other human being (Crossley thinks his father was Joseph; I suspect he was illegitimate, but no matter). His prophetic career was driven and shaped by social upheaval in Galilee; he condemned the rich for no other reason than being rich, and promised a reversal of fortune for the poor. He forecast God's coming kingdom, but was wrong about that expectation. He was a successful exorcist-healer. He was executed by Jerusalem authorities for raising hell in the temple during a passover festival. He died a martyr, and like other martyrs his death was understood to have atoning value. Right on.

The only weakness is Crossley's claim that Jesus was a completely law-abiding Jew, based on an overwrought distinction between "biblical laws as explicitly stated in the bible" and "the interpretation or expansion of biblical law to new situations" (p 6). While I agree that Jesus was more law-observant than many confessional portraits suggest, "Torah" and "Torah-interpretation" can't always be kept so neatly distinct. But more on this when we get to the section on the gospels (chapter 4).

Bird's take is transparently confessional, going so far as to defend the virgin birth, that Jesus thought he was divine, and that he wasn't wrong about the kingdom's timetable. Crossley's rejoinder on all these points is right on the money, and as he notes, Bird's evangelical view makes him more or less obligated to argue this stuff. I was getting a very bad feeling for Bird in this chapter, but thankfully he gets better as the book goes on.

Jumping to the end, where Crossley and Bird give alternative accounts of Christianity's ultimate success, I think the former again shows more argumentative strength. Believers like to hold up what's theologically distinctive and appealing, but religions usually triumph for more mundane reasons, even accidentally. The west would have probably become Islamic if Charles Martel had lost the Battle of Tours in 732 (think how different the world would be today if a very minor battle had gone the other way). Sociological accounts of Christian origins may not be the most exciting things to read about, but Crossley is right that "Bird's near-complete reliance on ideas and individual influence is odd and outdated" (p 166).

I do agree with Bird that Christian monotheism began as early as Paul and probably before (on which see below), but Crossley is right that it wasn't Jewish friendly (in my view it was a radical if understandable mutation) but found ready welcome in the Gentile world. I also think Crossley, following Casey, is at least persuasive about why Jesus was only later understood to be God in the strongest and most explicit sense: "changing social situations and the perception of socio-ethnic alienation from the Jewish community, just like the conflicts underlying John's gospel" (p 148), on top of a pagan milieu where monotheism was fluid and had a long tradition within the development of agrarian empires. If Judaism had been more missionary and less ethnic/kinship-oriented (as Crossley suggests, p 147), it could well have triumphed over the pagans before (and instead of) Christianity. In short, there was nothing inevitable about Christianity's triumph owing to theological beliefs.

In Between: Paul and the Gospel Writers (Chapters 3 and 4)

If Crossley is the alpha and omega, Bird is the mu and nu (doesn't sound flattering, I know), nailing some important ideas that came in-between Jesus and the second century. I should preface this by admitting I don't agree with Bird's overall take on Paul -- I think the apostle was anti-nomian (despite a few lame protests to the contrary in Romans), while Bird warms to Wrightian ideas about covenant-climaxes, continuity with the OT, and that the law really "hasn't been done away with" (p 91). That aside, Bird is on top of his game in discussing two crucial topics: Paul's Christology and his reason for persecuting early Christians.

Against Crossley who sees an exalted but not divine Jesus in Paul's letters, Bird sees the Jewish God himself. I agree that passages like I Cor 8:6 go beyond portraying Jesus as an exalted being, and ditto with Philip 2:6-11, where Jesus is not only exalted but worshipped as the Lord of all creation (which Bird rightly parallels with Isa 45:23). This isn't to say Paul never waxed ambiguous (or perhaps even uncomfortable) (in I Cor 15 he takes pains to subject the Son to the Father), but for him, Jesus was somehow YHWH. Not a Chalcedonian, granted, but the fifth-century Hellenized deity was easily derived from Paul's (radically mutated) Jewish personalized understanding of God.

I suspect first-century Judaism was ripe for a radical move like this on account of increased personifications. "Who God was" mattered more than "what he was", says Bauckham; and Witherington has chronicled the development of Wisdom incarnate in various ways (through texts like Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon). It was a short step to start meshing the divine and human in creative ways. The "Big Bang" theory of early high Christology (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Philip Esler) is to be preferred over the gradual evolution theory (e.g. James Dunn, Maurice Casey, and Marinus De Jong). While I agree with Crossley that we don't get an explicit equation between Jesus and God until John's gospel, it's implied nonetheless in Paul's letters and to a lesser degree the synoptics.

Overblown Christology and wacky messianic beliefs, however, doubtfully account for why the early Christians were persecuted so zealously. I'm confident Bird is right that the catalyst for Saul going berserk was the acceptance of Gentiles without requiring circumcision, or in other words, indiscriminate table fellowship (Crossley suggests it was only an "interpretation" of the law calling forth such zeal, to which Bird counters on p 93). Saul's zeal must have been aimed against those who were visibly threatening the integrity of Judaism with outrageous behavior -- not just professing abstract belief in wacky ideas or splitting legal hairs. Christianity was likely admitting uncircumcised Gentiles (few as they were) right from the get-go -- and only around 49 were James and Peter beginning to insist otherwise, precisely so they could survive more comfortably in a mainstreamed movement. As Paula Fredriksen explains, millenarian movements have a short half-life by necessity, and the pillars' move was an entirely understandable one. Paul's formula may have been destined to prevail in the Diaspora, but not Judea. James was pulling back on a position originally shared with Paul (indiscriminate table fellowship between circumcised and uncircumcised), to fend off threats from any more Sauls who were ready to pounce.

That was the issue at Antioch, I believe, which I've written about before (see here, for instance), and I agree with every one of Bird's objections to Crossley (p 94). Antioch was about circumcision (per Esler, Nanos, Watson), not food laws, which is why it's relevant in the context of Galatians. Paul's adversaries at Antioch weren't the "food faction", but the "circumcision faction". The issue at Antioch wasn't about what was eaten, but with whom it was eaten. It's exactly what Paul had found so offensive as a Pharisee.

When they turn to the gospels, Bird and Crossley are again focused on the question of Jesus' divinity and the Torah, and I should address Crossley's love-affair with a "completely law-abiding Jesus/Markan Jesus". As mentioned above, he bases his view on an overplayed distinction between biblical laws and their interpretation/expansion. When, save in trivial cases, does the former not involve the latter? Whether or not one is violating the First Amendment (freedom of speech), or Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), is no more self-evident to our nation of Americans today than whether or not one was violating the sabbath or the duty to honor one's parents in antiquity. The question is whether or not Jesus was perceived as violating the Torah, which he was. And as William Herzog emphasizes, it's always a question of whose Torah we're talking about: the Torah of the prophets? of the priests and scribes? of Galilean peasants? etc. Bird says as much in his rejoinder to Crossley:
"Whose standard of law-observance is [Crossley] talking about? Does he mean the sectarians from Qumran? Does he mean the Pharisees (if so, which school of the Pharisees: Gamiliel or Shammai)? Does he mean the radical allegorical interpreters that Philo refers to in Alexandria? While there was diversity of Law-observance and legal interpretation within Judaism, that does not mean that each group thought that each other's interpretation was legitimate and fitted comfortably within the boundaries of a common Judaism. The polemics that Jewish groups vented against each other would suggest otherwise... Thus it is one thing to say that the Gospels make sense as part of intra-Jewish debates about the Torah, but it is quite another thing to suggest that the view of the Torah espoused within the Church during the earliest decades of its existence were regarded by others (outsiders or insiders) as exclusively Law-observant. Did the Pharisees who debated with Jesus about hand-washing and purity laws think he was Law-observant?... Paul's belief that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised has parallels in certain pockets of the Jewish Diaspora. Did that stop others from accusing him of being anti-nomian? Of course not! If early Christianity was so Law-observant in the 'Jewish' sense that Crossley argues for, then why was James the Just put to death on the charge of being a Law-breaker?" (p 133)
Jesus himself may have believed he was fulfilling the Torah (everyone interprets their sacred traditions properly in their own minds, don't they?), but that's not the end of the story -- anymore than it was for Paul when he claimed his gospel fell in line with the calling of the prophets. His opponents easily denied his claims: what he actually taught was apostacy. Paul, of course, went beyond Jesus and explicitly dethroned the law (and I think he was largely anti-nomian in his own mind), but the analogy regarding perception still holds. If Crossley wants to insist that Jesus was "completely Torah-observant" from Jesus' own perspective -- in the same way that other Jews who found wiggle room for their questionable interpretations were -- then fine. But many would agree with that anyway.

Jesus' Body (Chapter 2)

Crossley is right about the unhistoricity of the resurrection (as if this should need spelling out in a work of history), and Bird is right about the historicity of the empty tomb. Crossley insists that visions alone gave rise to the resurrection belief, based particularly on the account of II Maccabees 7. But as Bird points out (p 68), that's not an example, because the resurrection is seen as corporate and happening at the end of history -- as is every understanding of the resurrection we know of. There was no precedent in Judaism for a single person being raised before the apocalypse, and so (in light of the fact that Jesus' martyrdom wasn't seen as a failure), based on visions alone, the disciples would have concluded that Jesus was a ghost or apparition, or that his spirit had been exalted into heaven. Visions coupled with an empty tomb, on the other hand, could have plausibly caused the disciples to revise their expectations. Which they did.

I've written too many blogposts about the empty tomb to count, but Dale Allison's arguments against and for its historicity are worth revisiting. He plays devil's advocate for both sides, because there are indeed many arguments from both sides which fail to carry weight. For instance, Bird appeals to Paul in arguing for the empty tomb (p 41), but Paul can be used either way. In listening to someone like William Lane Craig a novice could get the impression that a case for the empty tomb is so conclusive it's foolish to question it, but that's ridiculous. Arguments for the empty tomb slightly eclipse those against it on account of their concrete and evidential nature. As Allison says:
"Of our two options -- that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied -- the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility. The best two arguments against the tradition -- the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies -- while certainly weighty, remain nonetheless hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential." (Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pp 331-332)
The concrete and evidential arguments are the testimony of the women, and the simple fact that the disciples had no reason in the world to invent a premature resurrection (without an empty tomb prodding them in that direction). People create fictions in order to cope with failures and broken dreams, but in an apocalyptic context Jesus' execution wasn't seen that way. His crucifixion would have demoralized the disciples but met their expectations just the same. Jesus promised there would be suffering and death in the tribulation period, and it's a sure bet he foreshadowed his own. His followers would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they (and he) would have been resurrected. As Bird notes, citing Allison, "the disciples were emotionally down but not theologically out" (p 45). It was the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) that caused them to conclude Jesus was raised prematurely.

When Bird writes that any answer to the question of how Christianity began "must include the notion that God raised Jesus from the dead" (p 48), he could be taken more seriously by non-evangelicals if he just qualified it with the word "belief". The belief that God raised Jesus from the dead was important, but historians don't put two-and-two together the way the disciples did. "Belief," as Crossley says, "does not prove anything happened, anymore than lots of people believing in God proves God exists." (p 58) We'll never know why Jesus' body vanished -- though grave robbing was common enough, especially the corpses of holy/crucified men -- but we don't resort to faith confession to answer historical questions.

Conclusion

How Did Christianity Begin? is a debate to learn from, because in the end there's no clear place to lay your allegiance. Neither Crossley nor Bird explain Christian origins in a way that completely satisfies, but that's how it should be. They are each persuasive about a good deal, but about different things, and ultimately about evenly matched. I'm wondering if their discussion indicates that secular historians have an edge on the historical Jesus, evangelicals on the confessional writings of the NT. I seriously doubt it, but that seems to be how it played out in this case.

19 Comments:

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

Loren,
Thanks for a very wholesome, even handed, and enjoyable review!

10/29/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Thanks for your review, Loren.
As always I nodded most of the time in agreement with your judgements.
Yes, I agree that James Crossley makes Jesus a bit too law-abading.
Yes, I agree that Paul was antinomian.
And yes, I agree that the most plausible explanation for the belief in the resurrection in Jesus is an empty tomb and visions of the risen Christ.
What I didn´t agree about is your statement that the equation of Jesus with God is implicit in Paul´s letters and the synoptics. Divine yes, but that doesn´t mean that Jesus is equated with God the Farther. Not even GJOhn does necessarily equate the Son with the Father (a good case for that has among others been done by James McGrath).

10/29/2008  
Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Good review.

10/29/2008  
OpenID oecolampadius said...

Loren,

I guess the whole Bird vs. Crossley debate raises more questions for me than answers.

Do you agree that the resurrection was unhistorical epistemologically or ontologically? Is there another way to answer the question?

What I mean by “epistemologically” would bowl down to something like this:

(i) Could it be the case that the resurrection happened, but that our historical methods cannot access the event? This is the epistemological question.


The Ontological question:

(ii) Do you believe that the resurrection certainly did not happen? If so, do you have some solid evidence that it didn’t?

What do we base our idea of a “reasonable” recontruction of history? What assumptions are being smuggled into the back door in the debate over Jesus’ resurrection?

If we accept that (i) is possible, then what does that tell us about the historical method? It seems to me that if we are willing to discount a possible event because a method rules it out, then it would not be worth much. I always thought our methods were meant to get at truth. If they are not then it makes me question what good it is to have one. It seems to me that at the end of the day we are left with interpretation to on degree or another. What is convincing for me may not be for you.

Another good example of this is the debate over the “Delay of the Parousia”. Some say, as you did in your post, that the New Testament Christians (and Jesus?) most certainly believed that Jesus was coming back within a generation. However, other scholars equally skillful in NT criticism dispute this, and many of them make good arguments. You can pass it off as confessionalism if you want, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. Questioning the motives of another scholar is an attempt to not deal with their arguments. They could turn the table ask why we whould assume naturalism as a method. A theist is not bound to assume naturalism especially in the case of the resurrection where, as you say, the evidence tilts slightly in the direction of the empty tomb. Add to the evidence for the resurrection, the belief in an omipotent God and the warrant for that event tips in the theist’s favor/ To say that someone stole the body is ad hoc, and is an attempt to get away from the implications of the empty tomb, the visions, and the testimony of the early church. As William Lane Craig notes about these supposed two possibilities (which is all they are):

“But Allison thinks that there is also “a respectable case” against the empty tomb (p. 331). This assertion is surprising. The supposedly respectable case consists of only two arguments: first, “the ability of early Christians to create fictions” and, second, “the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies” (p. 332). But these two considerations show at the very most the possibility that the empty tomb narrative is a legend. That same possibility exists for the crucifixion and burial accounts. This is a possibility we become aware of based on our general background knowledge prior to an examination of the specific evidence. These two considerations do nothing to show that, based on an examination of the specific evidence, the narrative of the empty tomb is a fiction or legend. It’s shocking to me that Allison could think to oppose to specific evidence such a priori possibilities based on general background knowledge.”

The best the historian can do if he/she does not accept the resurrection is to claim agnosticism, or face up to the fact that it is rejected on grounds other than an objective reason.

10/29/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Oecolampadius,

Thanks for commenting. I'm getting at the epistemological issue more than the ontological. Historians just don't account for things by appeal to the miraculous, even if they are philosophically open to that sort of thing.

There are no analogues to Tom Wright, Ben Witherington, and William Lane Craig in other fields of historical inquiry. Take the crusades: no scholar, however pious, claims the crusaders really found the Holy Lance (that pierced the side of Christ on the cross) after the siege of Antioch in 1098, nor that accompanying visions of Christ, Mary, Peter, and Andrew somehow contained an objective reality. They may or may not philosophically entertain such ideas, but they also know that there are other perfectly reasonable explanations for visions and the like.

Crossley is right that NT historical critical scholarship is unique (and peculiar) for the way the miraculous is appealed to in accounting for things. It's too bad, because many evangelicals have made fine contributions in the field, and they could be taken more seriously if they behaved like other historians.

10/30/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

oecolampidus wrote:
The best the historian can do if he/she does not accept the resurrection is to claim agnosticism, or face up to the fact that it is rejected on grounds other than an objective reason.

I think this is the kind of reasoning that is more likely to be found among people more well versed in philosophy than in how to do proper history.
It is simply not the case that a historian must reamain agnostic to a claim of a supposed resurrection of a jewish miracleworker 2000 years ago. Any good historian who asks commonsense questions should be able to come up with a good answer to that. But commonsense questions and commonsense answers is exactly what is lacking most of the time in the exegetical field.

Another good example of this is the debate over the “Delay of the Parousia”. Some say, as you did in your post, that the New Testament Christians (and Jesus?) most certainly believed that Jesus was coming back within a generation. However, other scholars equally skillful in NT criticism dispute this, and many of them make good arguments.

What scholars do you have in mind? N T Wright? I would hardly say that the arguments I have seen so far from him or his likes are that skillfull or good.

10/30/2008  
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

And may be Antonio the prophet himself was expecting the Lord to come at any time. That would really put things in a Jewish context, hey what! As for the prophet being law abiding, where does it say that he offerred sacrifices? - seems to say something about his theology, doesn't it? You bet it does. After all, he was a prophet, wasn't he?

10/30/2008  
OpenID oecolampadius said...

"It is simply not the case that a historian must reamain agnostic to a claim of a supposed resurrection of a jewish miracleworker 2000 years ago. Any good historian who asks commonsense questions should be able to come up with a good answer to that. But commonsense questions and commonsense answers is exactly what is lacking most of the time in the exegetical field."

I am at a loss as to what you mean by "commonsense" in historical research. Is it commonsense that God does not intervene in the world? To say so assumes a philosophical position of either deism, or atheism. Both of these are philosophical positions and are not as common sensical as you want to let on.

Sometimes it takes those of us of a more philosophical inclination to critque the rampant absurdities of historians. :)

Unless you can come up with some objective criteria that is separate from one's philosophy I would postpone all the talk of "commonsense", which is nothing more than "the way we have always done things".

10/30/2008  
OpenID oecolampadius said...

Antonio asked for scholars who argue the opposite conclusion in regards to the "Delay of the Parousia":

CEB Cranfield

Richard Bauckham (see his article "Delay of the Parousia" in the Tyndale Bulletin)

Richard B. Hays

Ben Witherington

Oscar Cullman

G.K. Beale

Tom Scrheiner

Adam Edwards author of the book critiquing NT Wright's view of cosmic language: http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleID=6312

R.T. France

George Eldon Ladd

Craig Keener

Leon Morris

Gordon Fee

G.R. Beasley Murray

Craig Blomberg

Robert H. Stein


and on and on

Of course you will accuse them of being confessional scholars, which is about as bad as a confessionalist calling another scholar a naturalist. Does that refute anyone's arguments?

Have to go to work,
Blake

10/30/2008  
OpenID oecolampadius said...

Loren,

I understand what you are saying, but isn't it a little myopic to ask scholars who may have philosophies contrary to the received method?

I am an advocate for methodological pragmatism in science and history. After all, we all gain from a variety of view points as you noted in your response to me. I say let the Christian Theist do history on his/her own terms, just as the naturalist can do history on his/her terms. It is really a modern myth that we can all come together and put aside our deepest assumptions aboutthe world, and have a universal method of doing research. The reason is because the method assumes that the world is a certain way (i.e. no divine intervention), which is nothing but an assumption.

10/30/2008  
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

"Sometimes it takes those of us of a more philosophical inclination to critque the rampant absurdities of historians."

No need to get philosphical at all. Whoever suggested using common sense may not be too far off what is required to sort out the history of earliest 'Christianity' which more than likely has its origins way back before the time of the prophet. If exercising common sense means being logical, not just accepting concensus views willy-nilly, not just citing another scholar or extant text or quoting an extant text without due consideration, not just accepting an extant text as literally true simply because it is ancient, then common sense or even gut thoughts may be a a good guide. No the philosophers are never going to solve anything. Most of them are not sufficiently specialised to help anyway. The best skill one can have in this field is to recognise when an ancient writer is lying. You don't have to look for long.

10/30/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Cranfield, Bauckham, Witherington etc etc.
Yeh, obviously a bunch of heavyweight confessionals. And I actually judge them by their arguments, not their confessional stance.
Take a look instead at the recent book by Edward Adams "the stars will fall from heaven". At least on confessional who knows what he is talking about and has the intellectual honesty not to play apologetic ploys on us.

10/30/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Blake,
by commonsense I mean leaving aside the endless discussions of what might or might not be philosophically possible that are so popular in confessional circles. By commonsense I mean taking a look at the texts (in this case christian ones) and noting all the absurdities and logical contradictions that turn up on almost any page. By commonsense I mean taking those same christian texts and comparing them to other ancient texts and putting them in their proper context - a time when belief in gods walking on earth, demons taking possession of persons and spirits flying around in the sky was and other absurdities were seen as realities by most folks. By commonsense I mean lifting ones eyes from philosophical mumbling books and at least for one moment take a look at the real world. By commonsense I mean that confessionals like Wright, Witherington et al would do well to do a beginners course in anthropology, sociology, biology, brain science, psychology and other useful sciences before they dabble in history.

10/30/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Blake wrote:
"The reason is because the method assumes that the world is a certain way (i.e. no divine intervention), which is nothing but an assumption."

Another one of those statements one hears so often from confessional circles. My assumption is just as good as your assumption, the old refrain goes. It´s bullshit of course. Everybody has assumptions, but the difference is that some assumptions are based on nothing more than philosophical speculations, faith or taking claims in ancients texts at face value and other assumptions are based on critical thinking, firsthandknowledge about the workings on this particular planet and the received wisdom of countless of scholars and scientists in fields like anthropology, sociology, comparative religion etc etc

10/30/2008  
OpenID oecolampadius said...

You said:“Cranfield, Bauckham, Witherington etc etc.
Yeh, obviously a bunch of heavyweight confessionals. And I actually judge them by their arguments, not their confessional stance.
Take a look instead at the recent book by Edward Adams "the stars will fall from heaven". At least on confessional who knows what he is talking about and has the intellectual honesty not to play apologetic ploys on us.”

It is interesting that you bring Edward Adams up in your comment box. I actually emailed him a while back about his work and he told me that he thought Witherington's treatment of NT eschatology was probably the best book around on it. I will send you the email if you want me to.

Did you read his book? What do you consider an apologetic ploy? Anything that may show that Christianity is not as absurd as you think it is? If you notice I acutally pointed out Adams book in my list of scholars.




You Said:
“Blake, by commonsense I mean leaving aside the endless discussions of what might or might not be philosophically possible that are so popular in confessional circles. By commonsense I mean taking a look at the texts (in this case christian ones) and noting all the absurdities and logical contradictions that turn up on almost any page. By commonsense I mean taking those same christian texts and comparing them to other ancient texts and putting them in their proper context - a time when belief in gods walking on earth, demons taking possession of persons and spirits flying around in the sky was and other absurdities were seen as realities by most folks. By commonsense I mean lifting ones eyes from philosophical mumbling books and at least for one moment take a look at the real world. By commonsense I mean that confessionals like Wright, Witherington et al would do well to do a beginners course in anthropology, sociology, biology, brain science, psychology and other useful sciences before they dabble in history.”

Comments like this show how much you have not read. I tend not to read much pop confessional literature. I think various thinkers like Locke, Berkeley Hume, Wittgenstein, Plantinga, Derrida, Kant, Quine, and others dealt with questions like these, which are questions about method, and you are only giving me “bullshit” about commonsense as you see it.

I am pretty sure that Witherington and Wright would have no problems defending themselves against your claims. If you think they are so deficient then why don’t you tell me why. I am sure Ben would have a discussion with you over at his blog. He is always willing to debate issues.

10/30/2008
Antonio said:

You said: "Blake wrote:
'The reason is because the method assumes that the world is a certain way (i.e. no divine intervention), which is nothing but an assumption.

Another one of those statements one hears so often from confessional circles. My assumption is just as good as your assumption, the old refrain goes. It´s bullshit of course. Everybody has assumptions, but the difference is that some assumptions are based on nothing more than philosophical speculations, faith or taking claims in ancients texts at face value and other assumptions are based on critical thinking, firsthandknowledge about the workings on this particular planet and the received wisdom of countless of scholars and scientists in fields like anthropology, sociology, comparative religion etc etc'"

Bullshit? Did I ever say my assumption was as good as yours? No. I am asking you to justify your assumption about the natural world. It is based on a belief in reality, which deals with philosophy. If you are to dense to understand that then it is your problem.

I have read plenty of critical scholars who take the text at “face value” and they tend to come to very different conclusions. Dunn comes to different conclusions than Crossan. Dever comes to different conclusions than Lemche. Whybray comes to a different conclusion on the Documentary Hypothesis than Friedman. So is the face value of a text based on how you read it Antonio? Are you a new pope?

It is also obvious that you live in a realist bubble when it comes to science which ignores the major debates over this subject. If that is what makes the world comfortable for you then be my guest. The fact of the matter is that there are disagreements in all of these fields. You make it sound as if there are these monolithic subjects that agree on everything. Conservative scholars use these methods also. You just do not like the way they use them, which just shows your unexamined assumptions floating to the surface.

You almost sounded like the first Christians making arguments from authority. So, Antonio is it good to take things on authority or is it not? How do I know what a good authority is? If you reply because they are scholars, then I will ask why that makes them right especially in fields where there is nothing like a "scientific consensus".

10/30/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Blake,
you don´t seem to get it, don´t ya!
You bring up a list of philosophers like Locke, Hume, Derrida and others. All good and well. But what exactly do they have to say about the latest findings in physics, antrophology, comparative religion, biology, brain science etc etc? And what exactly is it that you have to show (except for some old texts, reference to Collingwood or a supposed split among scientists?) that makes you think historians should take the possibility of men walking on water, rotting corpses rising from the dead etc etc seriously. Put the cards on the table or let us historians do our job in peace. As long as you don´t have any good cards to show (and I haven´t seen any so far) you, Wright, Witherington, Bauckham et al are as far as I am concerned playing in the same legue as creationists and astrologers.
As for Wright I don´t think I have much to fear from him. I have already made it perfectly clear on countless occasions on blogs like this and lists why I see him as a pseudohistorian. I don´t think I have to repeat the same arguments again.
And I missed that you had put Edward Adams on your list. Yes, I have read his book and as far as I recall he is arguing for the opposite of what Wright is saying (that no jew could possibly take the "end of world" imagery in Mark 13 in a literal sense). I respect Adams because in contrast to Wright he argues for his case instead of making a claim without nothing to prop it up.
Could also add that the reason I took you to be repeating the popular refrain about "my assumptions are as good as yours" is the fact that you used the critical word "NOTHING" but an assumption" in your reply. Assumptions are usually backed up by something, and all assumptions are not equally credible.

10/31/2008  
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

James Crossley writes on his blog as a part of his response to the above:

"Furthermore, my big argument is that Jesus’ views on the Law were all paralleled in early Judaism."

I wrote on his blog to the effect:
"What evidence is there that the prophet ever offered sacrifices? Or, do you simply assume that he did? This is one critical priestly requirement that the prophet did not obviously conform to. In fact there are good arguments for saying he rejected animal sacrifices."

I have yet to see an answer from him or anyone else for that matter.

10/31/2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What evidence is there that the prophet ever offered sacrifices?

The inquiry is poorly put. What evidence is there that Paul ever offered sacrifice, or Judas Maccabeus or countless other Jews of the period. I don't see how this questions addresses anything.

Back to the resurrection. I think that there are indee other methodological grounds, besides historical, to critique the possibility or not of Jesus' resurrection. I would favor a methodology that surveyed Jewish literature in an attelpt to assertain what most Jews expected at the resurrection. Primarily, there is Paul, who interprets Jesus resurrection as the beginning of the Resurrection. Can an argument be made that since according to Paul and perhaps other Jewish traditions, the Resurrection did not happen per our Jewish sources, then it is also unlikely that Jesus was raised since this is the sign of the Resurrection happening?

10/31/2008  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

I just posted this on Chris Tillings blog as an addition to the recent discussion of James McGrath´s new book on the burial of Jesus. Since I think it hooks up with my discussion with Blake I´ll post it here too.

Bobbyt wrote:
"The only problem with the 'methods of historical study' is that they are dependent on current philosophical preconceptions - they are subject to changing fashions."

Maybe the methods some historians use are dependent on "current philosophical preconceptions" but I very much doubt that a good historian does that. It is hardly because of philosophical speculations that an overwhelming majority of modern historians dismiss the miraculous. It is based on observation of the real world out there. It´s not like we haven´t taken a deep look at supposedly miraculous phenomena like glossalia and demonpossession. The closer you look at it the less there is to it...

As for James I can only applaud him. He is to be commended for his intellectual honesty. Keep up your work!

PS! Oops I almost forgot. Nope, I still do not agree with James that the historical method does not allow us to come to any firm conclusions about the claimed resurrection of a galilean 2000 years ago. It´s not like a historian should stay content with looking for clues in the NT alone. There is a whole world out there that has been running around for 2000 years that give additional clues, not the least church history...

10/31/2008  

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