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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Doubting Stephen

Stephen Law lectures in Philosophy at Heythrop (University of London) and has been causing a bit of a blog stir, on his blog, by doubting the existence of Jesus (I noted this thanks to Doug C). Given Heythrop has lots of theology and philosophy, it could be an interesting place for him to be! Anyhow, I’m not so interested in getting involved in the debates over whether Jesus existed. Given what I've written on this blog and in publications I obviously think he did (and I think I’m relatively conservative concerning the synoptic tradition). This is based largely on the argument that there is much in the synoptic tradition that puts Jesus as a fairly typical Jewish teacher and lacks serious ‘Christianising’ (coupled with independent attestation and various historical Jesus criteria). But I’m not really so interested in all that. I’m more interested in having some wholesome fun with Stephen Law's arguments. It looks like the debate it getting pretty heated (though not initially so it would seem) so I just want to cool it down with some non-polemical interaction with Law’s arguments.

But first, one point of interest, a kind of Interesting Fact for the Day and a rare kindred spirit (cf. the WL Craig debate): Law was asked to debate Gary Habermas on the historicity, or not, of the resurrection.

Stephen Law writes:
First off, I am not sure whether Jesus existed, or if he did, what he did and said. Remember, we have four documents, written decades after Jesus lived, by true believers, saying there was this person and he did these things. None of the authors was an eyewitness, it seems. It's all second-, third- or fourth- hand testimony… why should we lend much credence to four documents produced by four somewhat anonymous true believers, who weren't even eyewitnesses themselves, decades after the alleged events, in the case of Jesus?

The problem is that on all sides (see some of the comments) too much is being claimed about what we do not know with any great certainty. I do not think any of the gospel authors were eyewitnesses but this should be qualified. I am open to the idea that a lot of material (e.g. certain early legal material with little ‘Christianising’ influence) is extremely early (as I’ve argued elsewhere). I’m even open to the idea of eyewitness reporting in the tradition. But then I really don’t know on the eyewitnesses other than educated guesses and even then there is the very real possibility of eyewitnesses embellishing and making things up. We may have to entertain a very chaotic model concerning historicity. Whether material is second, third or fourth hand testimony could well depend on what passage we take but it is almost impossible to say with anything close to certainty. Some of us don’t even think at least one gospel was decades (plural) after the event. As for ‘somewhat anonymous’, if Law is implying that the canonical gospels were originally anonymous he might be right. But they may be pseudonymous. I’m highly doubtful, but some clever people do argue that they were written by Mark et al. Maybe they are right. Even if we don’t accept that they are right, it still leaves things a bit too uncertain. Again, I’m not sure how much this is of use in terms of whether Jesus existed because all these authorial practices were known in the ancient world (and let’s not forget things like multiple authorship) and who knows whether anonymous or pseudonymous authors were close in the tradition to Jesus or fourth hand? If we accept an eyewitness author who knows how much they made up (in the case of John if there was an eyewitness author that person invented fantastical amounts!)?

Stephen Law adds:
There were, in addition, many other gospels that the Church later suppressed. These gospels contradict the "official" four on many points (in some, Jesus does not even die). Even if we can put them to one side as "later" and "unreliable" (as the Church did), the fact is they illustrate that, at that time, the faithful were not at all shy about adding their own embellishments to the story, and indeed, just making stuff up. But then how can we be sure the four official Gospels don't involve a lot of made up stuff?

I’m sure the four do make stuff up (those good old favourites on this blog – and I’m very glad to see Law uses them too – namely Matthew’s resurrected saints remain as good an example as any). But here I think Stephen Law’s argument needs some cultural contextualisation when he claims:
I could go on, but this is all small beer compared to the real evidential deficit, which is this.
If two friends tell me that a man called Bert visited them at home last night, I have every reason to believe them. That's evidence enough.
But if they then tell me that Bert flew around the room, then dropped dead, and them came back to life again, before turning the sofa into a donkey, well then that's no longer nearly good enough evidence that they are telling the truth, is it?
In fact, not only am I justified in rejecting their testimony about the miracles, I would now also be wise to suspend judgement on whether any such person as Bert even exists, let alone did the things they claim.

In terms of the Bert example, modern people may well be wise to suspend judgment on whether such a person exists but in the ancient world concepts of truth were different. To embellish and invent grand stories about heroes was common enough and respectable enough in a way that many of us now would not accept. This is, I think, an important distinction. It does not ‘prove’ Jesus existed, of course, but it makes the gospel tradition *not quite* as susceptible to suspending judgment in the full Bertian sense. Given the amount of material that looks relatively ‘ordinary’, at least in the sense that it would not be much of a surprise for one of many Jewish teachers to have said at the time of Jesus, and even material where Jesus was not so hot (e.g. Mark 6.1-6), then this subtle point may even take on extra significance because it shows that there were traditions not always hyped up.

Stephen Law adds:
The moral is pretty obvious, I think. No one claims Socrates performed extraordinary miracles in front of audiences of thousands. The gospels claim Jesus did. That is why we need rather better evidence for his existence than just the say so of four rather inconsistent documents written by the faithful decades after the event.
There implication here is that inconsistencies are not helpful in establishing the existence of Jesus – is that a fair reading of Law? If this is what Law is suggesting, then it is worth pointing out that it might actually be better evidence for the existence of Jesus: the ‘more primitive’ seeming (e.g. Jesus not being able to do mighty deeds versus the rewriting of Mark 6) would point more in the direction of existence than not, right…?

One final reflection on this: if we follow Law and doubt Jesus’ existence on the basis of a lack of sufficient evidence, then would we not have to start doubting the existence of the majority of famous and famous-ish figures in the ancient world? After all, the evidence is no better for many ancient figures, right? Would this not even be raising the possibility of re-writing masses of the narrative history of the ancient world? I stress this is not a counter argument to Law but more an observation on the implication of Law’s argument.

Just as a treat, here’s a dig at biblical scholars:
I have read books by University-based Biblical scholars that demonstrate an extraordinary level of gullibility. I have also talked to University-based religious folk who have told me, with a straight face, that Josephus provides good evidence for the historicity of Jesus. This leads me to think that much that goes by the name of “biblical scholarship” ain’t exactly rigorous… P.S. The fact that some of the small minority of atheists who are Biblical scholars believe there was an historical Jesus doesn't cut much ice with me, I'm afraid, given the dominant Christian culture in which they were educated.

Fair??? I’ll let you decide on that one…

Well, just one aside that doesn’t have so much to do with Law’s arguments…My background in pre-university education was extremely a-Christian and a-religious (and even though I did a theology degrees and PhD I didn’t really think of it as being an overly Christianised context, though that may be more to do with my associations and things have certainly swung in the Christianising direction since those days). The past few years has made me think that this could be quite unusual for biblical studies, at least in British biblical studies. Would it be fair to say that most, many, some or few have been educated in contexts where the dominant Christian culture is evident? Just idle thoughts…

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jews and non-Jews eating and not eating together...

…does not necessarily have much do with circumcision…

Or at least this isn’t a view that doesn’t come through in some of the key literary sources.

Mike Bird has some texts on Jewish and non-Jewish table fellowship. Mike doesn’t really add any comments but Loren Rosson does in the comments section:
The problem of mixed table fellowship (to which circumcision was the remedy) was ubiquitous, which is why I often emphasize in the context of Paul's Gentile mission that it's impossible to think about the question of "no circumcision" without direct and immediate implications for mixed table fellowship..

I don’t think this is right, certainly not the heavy emphasis on circumcision as the remedy. But first let’s look at some of the sources. As E. P. Sanders (who is still one of the best to read on this topic) pointed out years ago, the non-Jewish texts have to be treated with some scepticism (or whatever the right word is) because they are often hostile. They are also the generalising views of outsiders which are not wholly informed (indeed why would they really care) and really ought to be combined with Jewish texts which give inside explanations. And after scepticism about non-Jews generalising, to generalise: early Jewish texts (I leave rabbinic literature to one side for now) have a clear tendency to explain the problem in terms of food and/or idolatry. Circumcision doesn’t really come into it. Purity probably wasn’t an issue because it seems very unlikely that so-called gentile impurity was defiling in the sense that Jews with the various impurities described in the Bible were.

So let’s look at a few. Daniel 1 has Daniel and his companions eating their own food because they did not want to defile themselves with the royal food. The foreign food is quite explicitly the problem, though quite why is another question. Note that the translation for what they will eat is usually given as something like ‘vegetables’ but the Hebrew is the plural of zr‘, literally ‘seeds’. I’m not sure of the significance of this but it is worth speculating that we might have an early example of a strict concern for intra-Jewish table purity given that seeds are not as susceptible to impurity according to Leviticus 11. But in terms of the main point it seems that foreign food is the problem.

Next, Judith 12:
So Holofernes said to her [Judith], “Have a drink and be merry with us!” Judith said, “I will gladly drink, my lord, because today is the greatest day in my whole life.” *Then she took what her maid had prepared and ate and drank before him.* Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born. (Judith 12.17-19)

Judith had different food made for her. Clearly table fellowship is made possible having kosher food made especially available. There are plenty of modern analogies to observant Jewish people eating with gentiles by having food prepared.

Next, some additions to Esther:
‘And your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honoured the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations’ (Add. Esther C 14.17)

Here we have Esther avoiding eating at the table which may or may not be due to foods prohibited in the Torah. Still, the food is the centre of the issue. But clearly significant is avoiding of the wine of libation and thus idolatry. Important to note: there are specific circumstances given and there is NOT a blanket ban on eating with gentiles.

More food centred problems:
‘After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the gentiles.’ (Tobit 1.10-11).

Again, food is the problem and why would a Jew eat pork etc? Again, note that eating with gentiles as such isn’t the problem.

One of the most entertaining – and a little unclear – is retained in Joseph and Aseneth:
Joseph said…‘It is not right for a man who worships God, who with his mouth blesses the living God, and eats the blessed bread of life, and drinks the blessed cup of immortality…to kiss a strange woman, who with her mouth blesses dead and dumb idols, and eats of their table the bread of strangulation, and drinks of their libations the cup of treachery…it is not right for a woman who worships God to kiss a strange man, because this is an abomination in God’s eyes…’ (Joseph and Aseneth 8.5-8)

Whatever the provenance of the story, the context of idolatry is very strong here. Perhaps the ‘abomination’ refers to both idolatry and banned food (bdelugma certainly can refer to both). Again, no blanket ban: reasons are given.

Now you may notice how I keep talking about the reasons being given (food and idolatry) rather than a blanket ban. In this context, a sometimes misread text is particularly important, namely Aristeas 181 and the banquet between Egyptian king and his Jewish hosts:
“Everything of which you partake,” he [the Egyptian king] said, “will be served in compliance with your habits; *it will be served to me as well as to you*.” They expressed their pleasure and the king ordered the finest apartments to be given to them near the citadel, and the preparations for the banquet were made. (Letter of Aristeas 181)

The food is central and following the assumed logic of the previous texts comes to the fore here, i.e. when the conditions for the food are acceptable table fellowship is possible. Contrary to some uses of Aristeas, it is quite clear that the Jews and non-Jew will eat the same food and thus problem solved. Table fellowship is possible if the circumstances are right. Notice that circumcision is not mentioned here.

Of course, who knows how things varied on the ground, away from these texts…?

But let’s finally look at the famous extreme example from Jubilees and the following patriarchal advice:
‘Keep yourself separate from the nations, and do not eat with them; and do not imitate their rites, nor associate with them; for their rites are unclean and their practices polluted, an abomination and unclean. They offer sacrifices to the dead and worship demons and they eat among the graves; yet all their rites are worthless and to no purpose.’ (Jubilees 22.16-17)

As Sanders pointed out, this is sectarian so should be taken on its own terms and it may tell us little about how Jews throughout the ancient world behaved. However, note again, even in this extreme example, the reasons for separation and not eating with them is because of the naughty practices of non-Jews, including their idols etc. It isn’t that far removed from the logic underlying the other Jewish texts.

For this reason and several others I suspect the same kinds of issues underlying the Antioch incident recorded in Gal. 2. But that’s another story….

Anyway, I’ve discussed this and the scholarship in lots more detail in Date of Mark’s Gospel, ch. 5. And, believe it or not, though obviously in less detail, in the new Bird and Crossley book…

Thursday, August 07, 2008

EABS Lisbon

Lisbon is a great city. Very, very friendly. It was pointed out that I rate conferences by the food (it’s true) and this was as good as any. And as my paper discussed aspects of the rave scene, a big shout out to the great staff at Hotel Britana! But we were there to learn from the European Association of Biblical Studies and you don’t really want to hear the social side of things, do you?

John Lyons’ session on the biblical world and its reception was as good an academic session as I can remember. From children’s lit to San Francisco, from Dawn of the Dead to gloomy old Manchester, we saw lots of examples of how biblical texts were being creatively used, gaps filled, biblical questions answered. Quite to my surprise one of two people with some good knowledge of Manchester music and its social historical context were present. It was particularly fun to be in a context not only where this sort of stuff could be discussed but to be away from the often polemical contexts I at least have found myself in the past few years. I also liked the fact that theoretically I knew I could persuade people on the basis of argument alone because there weren’t as many deeply held views at stake (I mean, I know I wouldn’t be able to persuade lots of people in historical critical arguments no matter how strong the arguments are because commitment levels are so intense). The Q&A sections were a good standard and some of the questions raised on this blog were also raised (independently) at the session. The question of historical, social, political etc contexts of reception was raised a couple of times. Another question raised was one of audience and in particular who picks up on the allusions. That could be a tricky issue but one obvious worth exploring. Some will be easier than others. Let’s take the UK. Some areas have a more obvious Christian context than others. Some people (I know) just will not pick up on allusions whereas others it will part of their upbringing and contexts whether they believe or not. Notice how this kind of audience, like the various other questions, is not too removed from standard historical critical questions. As with historical criticism and NT it also shows the warnings of mirror reading texts in establishing audience.

I did detect a little bit of an inferiority complex or paranoia among some colleagues, namely that they won’t get taken seriously enough. I appreciate why they may think like this because would someone trained in reception alone be hired for a post at junior level at least…? But on the other hand, and more in more intellectual than practical terms, who cares? IF historical critics don’t like it, then let them carry on doing what they do. Reception history doesn’t need their endorsement intellectually just as historical critics don’t need the endorsement of reception critics, unless of course reception history tries to answer a classic exegetical question. In terms of the use of the Bible without trying to get to ‘the original meaning’ then we are virtually talking about two different worlds, right?

In terms of importance, I’ll give another example of no less a figure than John Lyons himself. John will probably write on his paper in due course but here we started getting into the reception of the reception. Given that Johnny Cash is the topic of John’s paper we might be able to answer some of the slightly snobbish questions that are sometimes raised against reception history, esp. the non-‘orthodox’ theology type, i.e. is it really relevant and who cares about all these views of crazy people (I remember this something like this said in a questions session by one very famous professor at a theology conference)? Firstly, I’ll just mention this: is it really fair to dismiss the history of anyone because it isn’t orthodox or mainstream? I’d hope that we are now in an era when all sorts of histories ‘from below’ were acceptable… Secondly, and in direct answer, Johnny Cash is an excellent example for a different reason, namely he is a figure of cultural significance, esp. since his death. John’s paper and papers on this have shown that he turns up in all sorts of different cultural contexts. If academic worth is measured on things like cultural significance and influence (not that it necessarily should), couldn’t a case for studying someone like Cash be particularly strong, even more so than much of historical criticism…?