Monday, December 31, 2012

Dating the Pauline Epistles

I had a discussion with Dr. Richard Carrier about dating the Pauline Epistles to the first century. Here is what he had to say.

Paul wrote before the Jewish War, which began in 66, and probably before the Neronian persecution of 64 (if such there was), as neither are ever mentioned in his letters (yet both, and their consequences, would have been too huge not to affect anything he said, esp. in Romans); and he wrote well after Aretas assumed control of Damascus (which he mentions in 2 Corinthians 11:32), which was between the years of 37 and 40; and most (if not all) of his literary activity came 14 to 17 years after his conversion (Galatians 1:15-18, 2:1; possibly also 2 Corinthians 12:2); all of which argues for his letters being written in the 50s. 
For a detailed analysis: Gerd Lüdemann, Paul, The Founder of Christianity (2002), which also details why we should trust a chronology derived only from Paul’s letters and not from Acts.
One can avoid this conclusion only by assuming these are all lies and the letters are fabricated to look like they were written in the 50s. That’s an enormous ad hoc assumption, which has no inherent probability (even out of the gate, much less after considering how little the forgers even bothered to polemicize against the Gospel version of Jesus etc., or do or say anything distinctive of the second century or even intelligible in that context–as opposed to, for example, the Pastorals).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Shame on us!

Two weeks ago, on Dec 16 to be precise, a 23-year-old student boarded a bus in New Delhi. While on the moving bus, she was assaulted, beaten up and gang raped. She died a few days ago.

In another case, in Punjab, a 17-year-old teen committed suicide after being pressurized to marry her rapist.

In case you think these are just two isolated occurrences, think again. In India a rape is reported every 20 minutes. How many go unreported is anybody's guess.

What is different with these cases is the widespread protests that have resulted.
More stringent punishment, capital punishment for rape has been called for. My gut tells me that moving towards a penal system like the one in Saudi Arabia is not the solution. But in this post, I would like to talk about the social situation in India

In India, the rape victim is considered 'damaged goods', unfit for marriage, ostracized by the society. In the Punjab case, the victim was actually pressurized to marry her rapist, seemingly to absolve the victim of the dishonour! What kind of society do we live in?

Yes, we need a penal system that deters potential rapists. But we as a society need to discard our antiquated and inhuman way of treating the victims. No amount of legislation can force this societal  change. We as a society need to change. How many more victims have to fall prey to this warped sense of 'purity' before we change?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bart Ehrman on Christmas and Jesus

This is Christmas season and time for scholars and non-scholars to pontificate about Christmas. The Pope has a book out that talks about Jesus' birth and infancy. I had posted on Bart Ehrman's review of the book.

Now Bart has written a piece for the Newsweek and it is the cover story this week. What Do We Really Know About Jesus?

The piece is a run of the mill Bart Ehrman article. If you have read Bart's books, there is nothing new here.
For many centuries, most Christians garnered their information about the birth of Jesus not from the New Testament but from popular writings that were not officially considered Scripture. One of the best known of these books is called the “Proto-Gospel of James,” composed probably in the late second century, a century after the canonical Gospels, and accordingly, far less likely that they contain anything like historically accurate information. But Christians throughout the Middle Ages were rarely interested in historical accuracy;
And not much has changed for mainstream Christians when it comes to historical accuracy, I think.

Bart takes a dig at the Pope and I love that. He also slips in the 'fact' that Jesus was actually from Nazareth. Even after getting beat up for his book, "Did Jesus Exist?", Bart can't help mentioning this 'fact'. Otherwise a decent article. Go read it here!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

St. Francis Xavier

It is St. Francis Xavier's feast tomorrow (December 3). Francis Xavier was a pioneering proselytizer who took God's word to Portuguese India, Indonesia and Japan.

St. Francis Xavier died in 1552 and his in-corruptible body is housed in a casket in a Basilica in Goa, India. The right forearm, which Xavier used to bless and baptize his converts is on display at the main Jesuit church in Rome. All of this is believed by the devotees to be a sign that this dude was God's own! There will always be naysayers. But we won't fall prey to Satan's treachery, will we? Not today!

If you read some of the letters he sent back home, you can see his love for the locals, his respect for their customs. He was truly a piece of work! Here are some choice snippets.
We have in these parts a class of men among the pagans who are called Brahmins. They keep up the worship of the gods, the superstitious rites of religion, frequenting the temples and taking care of the idols. They are as perverse and wicked a set as can anywhere be found, and I always apply to them the words of holy David, "from an unholy race and a wicked and crafty man deliver me, O Lord." They are liars and cheats to the very backbone.
If it were not for the opposition of the Brahmins, we should have them all embracing the religion of Jesus Christ.
Here is the letter in its entirety.

But we have more to be thankful to St. Francis Xavier. In case you thought the inquisition was a European thing, think again! Goa had its very own inquisition! Though St. Francis Xavier did not live to see it in action in Goa, he requested for it. But it was eight years after his death that the inquisition finally came visiting. From 1560 to 1812 when it was abolished, the holy office of inquisition did what it took to keep the Indians pure and free of heresy.

Richard Zimler, author of Guardian of the Dawn, which documents the Portuguese Inquisition in India says,
A large number of Hindus were first converted and then persecuted from 1560 all the way to 1812!
Over that period of 252 years, any man, woman, or child living in Goa could be arrested and tortured for simply whispering a prayer or keeping a small idol at home. Many Hindus -- and some former Jews, as well -- languished in special Inquisitional prisons, some for four, five, or six years at a time.
Well, God's work has to be done. No one claims it isn't messy, right?

Let's not forget all this when we pay tribute to Francis Xavier this day as we celebrate his feast.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ehrman's review of 'Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narrative'

Bart Ehrman has posted a review of the Pope Benedict's latest book 'Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives'.
The Pope is not principally trying to “set the record” straight with respect to all the myths and legends that have sprung up around the nativity scene.   He instead provides an intelligent, very pious, and not very critical pastoral and soothing interpretation of the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.
Of course he would do that.  What else would he do?  He’s not going to focus on the discrepancies between the accounts, the historical implausibilities, the violations of all sense (not just virgin births, of course, as that’s a doctrinal certainty; but also stars stopping over houses and the like).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fr. Paul Thelakat is a Liar!

Fr. Paul Thelakat, spokesperson for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church is a liar. But first the backstory.

Late last month, 31 year old Savita Halappanavar died at a hospital in Ireland. She was 17 weeks pregnant, pregnant with her first baby. On October 21st, she was found to be miscarrying. She died of septicaemia a week later.

An abortion could have saved her life. But the hospital refused until the foetal heartbeat stopped. Otherwise, according to the Catholic Church's warped reasoning, it would have been murder.

So, she died. She didn't have to.

Fr. Paul Thelakat had this to say about this incident.
Had the people concerned followed Catholic morality, Savita’s life could have perhaps been saved.
It is sad and unfortunate that the Catholic Church’s morality is attacked on account of her death.
Fr. Paul Thelakat is either a liar or ignorant of the Catholic Church's teachings on abortion. I would say, LIAR!

To clarify, the Catholic Church bans all direct abortions - even when performed to save the life of the mother.

An indirect abortion on the other hand is permitted. An indirect abortion is one where the abortion is a side effect. So, if the doctors had removed Savita's uterus, or the fallopian tube in case of an ectopic pregnancy, then it would be indirect, as the fetus dies but as an indirect consequence.

In this case, the doctors knew the fetus was dying. They should have done the only ethical option open - saved the mother. Yet the doctors waited. Because Ireland is a "Catholic country".

Fr. Paul Thelakat and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy probably know all this. Yet they have the guts to look at us in the face and tell us that 'Catholic morality' would have saved Savita's life!

Update: Here is a statement by the Irish Bishops Issue on the death of Savita and here is Dr. Jen Gunter's post showing how stupid the statement is.

Disclaimer: I am an ex-catholic.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rape, Abortion and God

It is election time in the United States and discussions about abortion and rape (and legitimate rape) are doing the rounds.

Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock has been in the limelight for saying this.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
Mention rape and "gift from God" and news media is going ballistic. But the fact of the matter is, Mourdock did not call rape a gift from God. He called a baby, a new life, a gift from God. He just screwed up in how he stated it.

Fact of the matter is, the 2012 Republican platform states this as well.
"...we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which can not be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion or fund organizations which perform or advocate it and will not fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life."
No exception for rape, incest find a mention!

This is the position of vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's as well.

This is in fact, what the Catholic Church teaches. Except in cases where the mother's life is in danger, abortion is killing an innocent human life. A Sin! Actually, the catholic teaching is not even that 'liberal'. The teaching is more theologically nuanced.

If the pregnant mother needs a surgery to save her life and the surgery as a side effect involves taking the life of the baby, it is an indirect abortion. It is permitted. If the mother has a tumour on the uterus, then if removing that results in abortion, then it is cool. You have the Pope's blessings.

Now, say a pregnant mother has pulmonary hypertension and cannot bring the baby to term without endangering her own life. If the 'cure' is to abort the baby, it is a direct abortion and not permitted. Tough luck, says the Pope. Sister Margaret Mary McBride found herself excommunicated for making a decision that saved the life of a pregnant mother.

If the decision to save a pregnant mother's life is complicated, pregnancy from rape and incest are no-brainers. They are never permitted!

So, the Pope's stand is essentially the same as Mourdock's if not more to the right.

Many evangelical Christians and Mormons have similar beliefs but probably less nuanced.

The problem actually comes down to the problem of evil. When we declare that the almighty God is loving and caring, we have trouble explaining evil. Including rape. A popular technique is to credit God with all that is good. All that is evil/bad is Satan's work, God testing you, a side effect of free will; take your pick!

Now, a baby is obviously a blessing and it is obviously from God. A little twisted thought and you start equating a "blastocyst" to a human baby. And you get to Mourdock's position!

Holy crap on a cracker!

Disclaimer: I am an ex-catholic and pro-choice (no nuance).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A response to Sam Harris

Sam Harris has written a blog post defending free speech. Do read "On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God". I agree with much of what he has to say. First, here is what I agree with.

Sam Harris has this to say:
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance.
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
And I could not agree more! That the movie was a bad one is a non-issue. It could have been directed by Francis Ford Coppola for all we care. Is it factual, is not the question we need to ask. Killing because one feels insulted, simply can NOT be tolerated.

But I do take issue with somethings Harris writes. He writes:
But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.
I disagree. There is hysteria out there and the rioting has spread to twenty countries. Saying, "calm down, we are not trying to insult you", is not an apology. While it may be perfectly fine for Harris to stand up and give the middle finger to the protesters, the US govt has bigger responsibilities. Avoiding more attacks on embassies is one of those and it has to be weighed against the benefits of giving the protesters a stern message.

Going to war to protect the rights of this film maker is not a good choice. Disavowing the offending movie while protecting the principle of free speech is exactly the stand the government should take (contra Harris.) The movie does not reflect the opinions of the US government. The administration has a responsibility to make that clear. It is important when mobs are rioting.

In an ideal world, we do not have to choose. But we unfortunately, do not live in an ideal world.

There is perception in the middle-east that the US is out to get them. Yes, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of religion and centuries of animosity. Not to be forgotten are the last few decades of jockeying for leverage and control in that area. But given all that, standing up for the rights of this filmmaker is not likely to be high on the list of the US govt. Not in a very volatile situation.

Like I said, in an ideal world, we do not have to choose.

I also take umbrage at Harris' defense of Romney.
I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis.
And Governor Romney, though he is wrong about almost everything under the sun (including, very likely, the sun), is surely right to believe that it is time our government delivered this message without blinking.
Romney was on the lookout for an opening to reboot his faltering campaign. He thought he found one when the crisis broke out. And completely misjudged it. And ended up looking like an idiot. Please stop defending that.

And Sam, this is not a blinking contest.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Are Jesus mythicists, denialists?

[Updated to link to Tom's responses and mine (originally posted on Tom's blog).]

Tom Verenna has written a blog post on the criterion of disputation. While I agree with him on that, I do have a bone to pick about his claim that a lot of mythicists are denialists.

Tom says: estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.
And: [update 07/24]
In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones. I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people.  But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.

As he just admitted, "an estimation of 50/50 is allowing for a lot of unknowns". If they are really unknowns that need to be accepted, and since he admits to being generous and taking conservative estimations why not be honest and admit to tilting away from historicity?

That is not denial. How about that being honesty?

I am suggesting saying, we have very little reason to think Jesus existed.

The closer we study the writings from the first and second centuries, the more it all looks like pious fiction and reports of hallucination.

How easily do we all side with ahistoricity of Romulus! Or would Tom say he is 50/50 on that as well? Is Tom a Romulus denier?? :)

How about another example? Let's compare Jesus mythicism with atheism. Fundamentalists like to say atheists deny the existence of God. They try to paint a picture where Atheists supposedly claim to have proof of absence of God. 

Atheism simply says that we have no reason to believe in a God as there is no evidence for a God. Not that it is impossible for any sort of God to exist.

Of course, the evidence for God or its absence is not as patchy as that of evidence for the historicity of Jesus. But considering that we know only a tiny tiny tiny fraction of all there is to know in this universe, our evidence of or the lack thereof for God is also patchy, surely! Should we go 50/50 on Theism?

Perhaps you would change your mind on putting "a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp"!

I don't think the mythicists are denying anything. There just is no convincing reason to think that a single person (who went completely unnoticed by the rest of the world, by the way) was behind Christianity. That is not to say I can not be convinced. But until someone does, I'll take the risk of being branded a Jesus denier!

Please see here for Tom's response.

My response to Tom:
Thank you for your response. I have a rather long and rambling response. Thank you for reading in advance!

First about the comparison with Romulus. Perhaps my comparison was a bad one. I confess to ignorance and defer to you if you say so. 
However, my point was and still is that it is easier to take a call on someone other than Jesus, someone like Romulus. Because it is not a high stakes debate. My point is that had this been a dead religion, and had this been a purely academic debate, with the very same patchy evidence, we might have more people on the side of ahistoricity.
When we see copious amounts of pious fiction and fraud and legends, we tend to not consider it history. We don't go hunting for a kernel of history and demand proof that that is not the case. Except in the case of Jesus.

You said:"Anyone who beliefs the content of this photo is a denialist, for example:" 
denialist: a person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence; a denier: 
Denialism is choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth.
Pardon my use of wikipedia. :)
Now, the picture you link to. Anyone who believes the contents are perhaps mis-informed? Many of them, perhaps most of them are not out to find a way, by hook or crook to deny Jesus. I think. Maybe we can agree to disagree. 
I don't think they are doing that to deny an uncomfortable truth or deny historical evidence. Perhaps you'd consider that they are misinformed and simply wrong. 
Back to the question of a historical Jesus. Perhaps there is a lot of misinformation out there because the scholars who ought to know better claim there is "powerful evidence" (That would be Ehrman) when that is clearly not the case. A vast majority of the mainstream scholars refuse to even consider other possibilities. 
Denialism suggests not acknowledging sound historical evidence. Where is anything close to that for a historical Jesus? 
If there were sound historical evidence, evidence that is there to see for people interested enough to look, many of the mythicists would not be denying anything, I think.
Mainstream scholars come up with portraits of a historical Jesus using a fair dose of speculation. Many of them get facts wrong. Why is it such a bad thing if mythicists get some facts wrong or speculate a bit (ok, a lot)? 
With patchy evidence, there is a lot of room for speculation as long as speculation is called speculation. Perhaps people do not do that all the time, historicists and mythicists included. 
I think mythicists actually do have a case there. Maybe not an ironclad one. 
Ever since I read Earl Dorethy's Jesus Puzzle, I have been looking for a sound rebuttal. I have not found a reasonable one. Mark Goodacre seems to be closest to a historicist who does not distort the strength of evidence and he spends bits of time on this subject. I am yet to find him persuasive. 
I understand you are agnostic about Jesus historicism. Believe it or not, I think I understand that your point is that there isn't enough evidence to rule one way or the other. 
But given what you say about the topic, I find it difficult to believe that you are 50/50 on it. Keeping the door open to any possibility is not necessarily 50/50. Any sensible person is open to possibilities, especially new evidence. 
I am not a mind reader. But pardon me when I do a bit of mind reading. When you keep talking about your agnosticism, it seems to me that you are trying to distinguish yourself from those folks who embrace fringe theories.  
Allow me to talk about a bit about my background. I used to call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. I preferred that label cause I knew I could never say there could never be a God. I call myself an atheist now because I realize, no sane atheist I know of claims otherwise.
Perhaps that is why when someone says agnosticism, I go, no no no, what you really mean is... I plead guilty to that. :)

Back to your Jesus historicity agnosticism. When you say,“…my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.”and"a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones".
That does not sound like you are at 50/50! 
Why beat up mythicists if they judge the probability to be different, more in favor of mythicism and fiction and fraud? Why not show them where they are wrong? Why not do a take down of Dorethy's hypothesis and show why 50/50 is the right position with the current state of evidence? 
Why call them denialists?
My second response:
Permit me one more go. 
You said:
"As for Romulus, I would say I would give his historicity at somewhere like 1-2%. With a 98-99% probability that he didn’t exist historically. The evidence is different, and so you evaluate it differently. That is also part of the problem with many mythicist arguments. They presume that the evidence is comparable when in fact all texts need to be weighed against themselves, and be judged upon their own merits."
Sure. And that really was not what I was arguing against. I was not claiming an apple to apple comparison (more like both are fruits).
Let's take it as a given that there is shoddy scholarship out there. You might agree that this is not just on the mythicist's side. But does not matter.
I was arguing two things.
1. You said most mythicists are denialists. I agree that there may be bad scholarship, pseudo-scholarship, too much speculation and fringe theories out there. But where is the sound historic evidence for a historic Jesus that they are supposedly denying? Show us the historicist-50% of your evidence that is supposedly being denied.
2. When you say you are at 50/50, it doesn't sound like 50/50. I assume this is not "I am clueless and hence have no opinion on this" 50/50. So, again, show us the evidence, the evidence that is being denied by mythicists.
Please read Tom's response here.

My third response:
Thank you for your considered responses! Much appreciated. Permit me one final argument and I’ll bow out. I’ll keep this shorter. 
You said: “So I’m not at all convinced that these people are just misinformed, though they are certainly that too. No, these people are denialists because they can’t even admit when they are wrong. 
I think our point of disagreement arises because you put mythicists in the esteemed company of deniers of the Holocaust, climate change, Obama’s birth place… 
- You say there isn’t sufficient evidence to rule one way or the other.
- Carrier thinks it is 1/5 for historicity (I write this from memory).
- Ehrman thinks it is 99% (again from memory).
So, there is room for arguing one way or the other. So, we are not disputing that. The problem as I understand is that mythicists do not accept criticism nor do they admit mistakes. 
Ehrman repeats the very same mistakes Carrier called out on (evidence for Pilate for instance).
See here:
A scholar of Ehrman’s mettle can get facts wrong and stick to his guns even after being corrected. 
If a mythicist were to get facts wrong or refuse to accept correction, then denialists they must be! I disagree. 
And here is Tom's concluding response.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Giving and receiving as well as having and sharing

There is an opinion piece today on by Justin A. Frank. Justin's opinion is that Romney is a liar and that is rooted in his Mormon faith. "There is a long tradition in the Mormon belief system in which evidence takes second place to faith."

My objection is not with the allegation that Romney lies. It is not even with the suggestion that this behaviour is rooted in his faith.

My objection is with thumping one's nose at Mormonism. What is often unsaid is the contrast with Christianity which is supposedly rooted in evidence and truth.

People, Christianity has a murky origin and a bloody and violent past. It is not all about giving and receiving as well as having and sharing!

Justin, aren't thou pointing to the speck that is in thy brother's eye?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reason to Celebrate: The Historicity of Jesus

The Freethought Festival 2012 happened last month. Here is an audio recording of Richard Carrier's talk on 'The Historicity of Jesus'. There are more audio recordings here.

Update: video recording:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ehrman responds to Carrier's Review

Bart D. Ehrman
Bart D. Ehrman
Bart Ehrman is to post a series of blog posts in response to Richard Carrier's review of his book. He announced this on his facebook page. The responses will be posted on Bart's blog.

Update: Bart's blog is primarily for paying patrons. But Bart is making an exception and making his responses to Carrier, public. You can find his first post about the bronze Priapus here and a "fuller reply" here.

Update #2: Part 1 or Richard Carrier's two part response to Ehrman's response is here and part 2 is here.

Given that Ehrman has promised on not "spending [his] next three months going back and forth with Carrier over his criticisms", this may be the last in this series.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Richard Carrier Reviews: "Did Jesus Exist?"

Richard Carrier
Richard Carrier, has published a review of Bart Ehrman's book "Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth". (I reviewed Bart's book a few days ago).

Here are two snippets:
Mark dressed up a scene by borrowing and translating a line from the Bible, and Ehrman wants us to believe this is evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Really. Think about that for a moment. Then kick his book across the room to vent your outrage.
Consider how his “method” would work if we applied it to the nativity stories (which Ehrman himself concludes are fiction). According to Ehrman’s methodology we have six independent sources for the miraculous birth of Jesus: Matthew, Luke, the Protevangelion of James, Ignatius (Ephesians 19), Justin Martyr, and Q (because some elements of the nativities in Luke and Matthew are shared in common). And there are probably others. Now, we know these are all made up. Not a stitch of them is true. But Ehrman’s method would compel us to assert that we have undeniable proof of the miraculous birth of Jesus. For example, every one of these attests that a miraculous star or light from heaven attended his birth. 
These are all different stories, written in different words, so (by Ehrman’s logic) they “cannot” have been influenced by each other; except where they are nearly identical, then (by Ehrman’s logic) they corroborate each other. This is actually the way Ehrman argues for the historicity of Jesus.
Do read it

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Parallel Universes

I have been trying to keep up with the storm Bart Ehrman's book "Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" has unleashed. Christian apologists love Ehrman's conclusion but hate the scholarly consensus on a 'nobody Jesus'. Mythicists are upset over all the misrepresentation and fallacies Ehrman's book is riddled with. New Testament scholars (at least the ones that blog and the ones I know about) seem to be mostly silent but there are one or two fan boys rallying around Ehrman.

Looking at the arguments that get repeated on all three sides, it really seems to me that we inhabit parallel universes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Doherty responds to Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist?

Bart Ehrman's book "Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" takes on the question of historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. It answers the question with a resounding "Yes". I had reviewed this book in my earlier post.

Earl Doherty who has championed the view that early Christians believed in a mythical Jesus and not in an earthly incarnation has been responding to the book. The rebuttal is going to be a series of blog posts. And it will follow Ehrman's book section by section.

I am collecting the links to the posts for easy access for anyone interested.

Post 1: Introduction
Post 2: Chapter 1: An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus
Post 3: Chapters 1,2
Post 4: Chapter 2 (continued)
Post 5: A Roman Trio
Post 6: What Did Jews Have to Say?
Post 7: Telling the Gospels Like It Is
Post 8: The Existence of Non-Existent Sources for the Gospels
Post 9: Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels
Post 10: Later Sources from Outside the New Testament
Post 11: Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 1: Papias
Post 12: Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 2: Ignatius of Antioch
Post 13: Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 3: 1 Clement (with Addendum on the Epistle of Barnabas)
Post 14: Non-Pauline Epistles – Part One
Post 15: Epistle to the Hebrews (Part One)
Post 16: Epistle to the Hebrews (Part Two)
Post 17: Jesus Tradition in the Acts of the Apostles
Post 18: The Pauline Epistles – Part One
Post 19: The Pauline Epistles – Part Two
Post 20: The Brother of the Lord
Post 21: “Key Data” in Proving Jesus’ Historicity – The Crucified Messiah
Post 22: A Crucified Messiah
Post 23: Part II: The Mythicists’ Claims – One: A Problematic Record

Post 24: Mythicist Claim Three: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the OT
Post 25: Is Jesus Based on Pagan Precedents?
Post 26: Mythicist Inventions: Part One – Creating the Mythical Christ from the Pagan Mystery Cults
Post 27Did the earliest Christians regard Jesus as God?
Post 28: Did Jewish Personified Wisdom generate Paul’s Christ Jesus? Was Jesus an Unknown Jew Who Lived a Century Before Paul?
Post 29: Bart Ehrman vs. Earl Doherty
Post 30: Did Mark Invent Jesus of Nazareth?
Post 31: Scholarly Reconstructions of the Historical Jesus
Post 32: Ehrman’s Case for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet
Post 33: Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus
Post 34: Ehrman’s Conclusion

This series has now been published as an e-book.
The End of an Illusion: How Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" Has Laid the Case for an Historical Jesus to Rest.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Book review: "Did Jesus Exist?" by Bart Ehrman

Did Jesus Exist - book coverBart D. Ehrman is a historian and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He is a reputed scholar and a prolific writer. His recent book "Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" has been eagerly awaited by the 'Jesus myth' community. This would be the first time a scholar respected by people on both sides of the aisle, has presented a case for a historical Jesus and provided a refutation of the theory that Jesus never existed as a human being.

Mythicists have been ripping into his case and his misrepresentation of their case. This review mostly ignores the latter. Here is a lay person's take on Ehrman's case for a historical Jesus.

Most critical scholars of the Bible believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical personality who walked this earth. Who he was and what he did, they have differing views. But almost all of them agree that he lived.

A small minority however has a dissenting view - that Jesus did not exist as a human being. He only existed in the imagination of the early Christians. He was just a 'myth'. This minority group is referred to as the mythicists.

For those who are not familiar with this debate, the question being answered is not if Jesus is God. Critical scholars of the Bible, like Dr. Ehrman often take the stand that he was not, nor did he do miracles or get resurrected. The question is whether the gospel fiction is entirely fiction or if it was in response to the life (and death) of a real flesh and blood human Jesus.
Aside: If you are new to this debate, surprised that the historicity of Jesus has been questioned, and are interested in finding out what this is about, let me recommend to you the following:
  • Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman (brings you up to speed on where critical biblical scholarship is, today) 
Why do mythicists even question the existence of Jesus to start with? Ehrman does a good job of answering this in his NPR interview.
Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible, Ehrman says. According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archaeological evidence that Jesus ever existed. Even Christian sources are problematic – the Gospels come long after Jesus' death, written by people who never saw the man.

"Most importantly," he explains, "these mythicists point out that there are Pagan gods who were said to die and rise again and so the idea is that Jesus was made up as a Jewish god who died and rose again."
Key arguments

Ehrman's historical Jesus stands on the following two key arguments. (And I summarize).

1. In Galatians 1:18, Paul talks about meeting Cephas and "James the brother of the Lord". So, Paul knew James, the brother of Jesus. Paul also knew Peter, Jesus' his closest disciple. "Surely James, his own brother would have known if he [Jesus] lived".

2. Prior to Jesus' time, Jews did not believe in a suffering messiah. They came up with that idea only because Jesus got crucified and they explained it by coming up with the idea of a crucified messiah.

Supporting arguments

The thesis is also supported by the following:

3. Paul talks about a Jesus who was born of a woman, seed of David, a Jew. Paul talks about a Jesus who had a last supper and was crucified. In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, he says the Jews killed him.

4. While the gospels may not be error free and may portray Jesus in ways that are non-historical, they do provide historical evidence. They provide clues that there were independent or partially independent traditions that go back to a historical Jesus. The gospel of Mark, the The Lost Sayings Gospel Q (common material between Mathew and Luke), material unique to the gospel of Mathew (or M), material unique to the gospel of Luke (or L), the gospel of John are all independent traditions.

5. Early church fathers like Papias, Ignatius of Antioch and Clement reference traditions that are also independent.

6. Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historian Tacitus refer to Jesus in their works. Ehrman agrees that these are too old to be counted as evidence of a historical Jesus. However, these are independent traditions adding to the evidence.

7. As a rebuttal to the claim that Christianity started as a cult of Christ, similar to the other dying and rising mystery cults, Ehrman says there isn’t any evidence of dying and rising mystery cults from around the time of the birth of Christianity.

Ehrman's conclusion

All of this evidence cumulatively lets us come to a conclusion that Jesus must have existed as a historical person.


Let me go in the order of the above list.

1.1 James the brother of the Lord:That Paul knew a James who was a sibling of Jesus is not the only way to read Galatians 1:18-20. The phrase 'the brother of the Lord' need not necessarily reference a blood relationship. Mythicists like Doherty and Carrier argue this quite well. And they are not alone in this reading.

1.2 Interpreting the phrase 'the brother of the Lord' as referring to a blood relationship is a result of reading the gospel into the epistle. If all that we had were the epistles of Paul, would we have concluded that Paul was talking about Jesus' sibling?

1.3 The meeting with Cephas: Ehrman at one time questioned if Cephas in Paul's epistles and Peter from the gospels were one and the same. He has evidently changed his mind now. (And I am quite fine with that.) But is that conclusively established? If the gospels were works of fiction (as Doherty argues), can they not have used known personalities like James and Peter to give it color, just as they could have done with Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod, Quirinius? Ehrman has not proved his argument.

More importantly, Paul does not say Cephas walked around Galilee with Jesus. Wouldn't assuming that he was a disciple (Paul never says 'disciple') be circular reasoning?

What we can reasonably conclude is that Paul claims in his epistles, to have spoken with James and Cephas and these guys are probably the Peter and James who show up in the later gospels. Stated that way, it is far from being an argument clincher!

2. Crucified Messiah: Ehrman's claim is that the Jews would not have come up with the idea of a crucified Messiah had Jesus not got himself crucified. They were after all expecting a conquering Messiah! To me, this is not self-evident. If a crucified man could have made them come up with that idea and interpret the Old Testament that way, well, they did come up with that idea. To invent a fictitious 'conquering Messiah' who lived in the recent past would have fooled no one. Carrier does a great job in explaining that if they invented a messiah, this is exactly what they would have done.

3. Born of a woman: Doherty does a good job of explaining 'Jesus born of a woman' 'born under the law' etc. All of these are explained quite well with they mythical Jesus hypothesis. I do not see how Ehrman has refuted this. I would say, Paul's words can be interpreted both ways.

4. Independent traditions: I find that Ehrman sees independent traditions all over the map. He at times qualifies these as partially independent. But most of the time, he talks about just 'independent traditions'. I do not think he has established how all of these are independent traditions that go back to a historical Jesus. If the gospel evangelists could invent the Christmas legends, the post-resurrection appearances, the miracles, if they could invent legends,  we can not assume that the traditions go back to a historical Jesus. Ehrman assumes that at least some of the stories are not made out of whole cloth. His book did not clarify for me, how he arrived at this conclusion.

I did not find Ehrman's arguments that the handful of Aramaic words in the gospels can let us conclude that there were Aramaic oral/written traditions. The fact that the stories were set in a place where Aramaic was spoken can explain this.

To be clear, I am not making the claim that Aramaic sources are impossible. I am saying that Ehrman has not established this (or even come close).

5. Taking the church fathers' writings to be independent is something that Ehrman has not demonstrated.

5.1 Papias: 4th century church historian Eusebius' references to Papias is what has survived of Papias' works. Papias supposedly knew elders who knew the apostles who knew Jesus. Papias' credibility is questioned by Eusebius himself. Yet, for Ehrman 'it is a testimony that explicitly and credibly traces its own lineage directly back to the disciples of Jesus themselves'. Credibly? Really??

5.2 By the time of Ignatius of Antioch, we see evidence of a belief in a historical Jesus. His long epistles are considered forgeries. We are not sure if even the short epistles attributed to him are authentic. Is this another 'tradition' from the beginning of the second century we can count on?

Claims of lineage to the apostles is common in the 2nd century. Taking this at face value is not something a good historian would do. Counting them as traditions that date back to 30s AD and a historical Jesus has to be demonstrated and not assumed.

6. Josephus and Tacitus are late and could be basing what they wrote on Christians who, even the Mythicists agree were around in the first century. So, this is moot, to the question of a historical Jesus. Ehrman actually agrees with this. (He also takes issue with Price for saying the same thing, which is funny.) The authenticity of the passages in question are also disputed and not just by Mythicists.

7.  About dying and rising gods and mystery cults, Carrier and Doherty present and argue the case for its influence on early Christianity. Ehrman disagrees. Neil Godfrey however points out that Ehrman may have overstated his case in this book. He does not seem to disagree so much in his earlier writings. See here, here and here.

More criticism
  • Ehrman's answer to the silence in the first century epistles is to say that Paul does occasionally refer to a historical Jesus. And so do the non-Pauline epistles. I did not find this argument very convincing. Without reading in the gospels into Paul, it is difficult to show otherwise. But I agree that silence is not conclusive evidence of absence. Doherty's positive evidence of a belief in sub-lunar crucifixion is largely ignored as Ehrman argues that Paul believed in a historical Jesus.
  • Ehrman seems to be able to date Paul's conversion to 32-33 AD (pg 261). He dates the origin of traditions about Jesus to 31 or 32 AD (pg 251). The traditions from 'the Aramaic-speaking communities of Palestine' 'must have' originated 'probably in the 30s CE' (pg 92-93). In page 97, these traditions  'almost certainly' originated in the 30s CE. How does Ehrman date these so precisely? The reference to King Aretas in 2 Corinthians? Without assuming a Jesus who got crucified by Pilate, how does he date these? Ehrman does not tell us! Assuming a crucification by Pilate would be circular reasoning, wouldn't it?
  • Acts are dated by Ehrman to 80s AD and the speeches to 'much older' traditions, 'older in fact than any surviving Christian writings'. Does Ehrman consider the dating of Acts to the early 2nd century by the Jesus Seminar a fringe idea?
  • Ehrman's chronology of the early Christian writings and traditions is roughly as follows:
  1. Early oral traditions, speeches in Acts, pre-Pauline hymns
  2. Pauline epistles
  3. Gospel of Mark
  4. Gospels of Mathew and Luke, Acts
  5. Gospel of John 
From this, he sees a smooth transition of ideas about who Jesus was. As the legends grew, a Jesus who was exalted at resurrection (Pauline epistles) transitioned to a becoming the son of God at baptism in Mark and then to a Jesus who became the son of God at conception (Mathew and Luke) and finally to the preexistent word/logos that became flesh in the gospel of John. Ehrman however fails to really account for the high Christology in the Pauline epistles which is a bump in the smooth transition and addition of legend. Without explaining that, Ehrman's chronology simply does not work!

The questions really are:
  1. Can the Historical Jesus theory explain and make sense of the data and evidence we have from the first and second centuries.
  2. Can the Mythical Jesus theory do the same?
  3. Which one is the better argument? Does the evidence on one side rule the other out?
In my personal opinion, Ehrman has not demolished the mythicist's case. He has in fact, inadvertently demonstrated that the case for a Historical Jesus is not rock solid.

More importantly, he has taken this discussion mainstream. And that I think is the most significant contribution of this book.

Carrier's second volume (expected in 2013) will play the devil's advocate. Rebuttals from Carrier, Doherty, Price and Acharya are also sure to follow.

Enjoy the fireworks!

Disclaimer: I am an atheist. I subscribe to Doherty's thesis that Christianity started with a mythical Jesus who was later historicised. I have read some of Ehrman's and Price's writings. I am currently reading Carrier's 'Proving History'. I am only vaguely familiar with Acharya's works and have not read any of her books so far.

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