"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Misheard Scholarship

At this point there are over 1800 comments at that Salon post I mentioned, and unless TC put this link in the comments there, too, I don't think anybody bothered to notice this, readily available on the intertubes:

In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world -- the Christian church -- was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today -- is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?

That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists....

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine....there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on [sic] in a bona fide department of biology.
As I've said before, nothing succeeds in America like being ignorant, so that you can always claim you know much more than the experts.  Rick was right in comments earlier; the Alternet argument is very thin soup.  And June pointed out how toxic the comments were at Salon  For every person putting forth an intelligent argument in comments, there were seemingly half a dozen ready to pounce and shred it with nothing stronger than snide ignorance.  One example was the comment that there had been 40 "versions" of the Bible published in the last 20 years.  I couldn't get that commenter to understand the difference between a "translation" and a "version," and I was even attacked for attempting to do so.  When you can't distinguish between "version" and "translation," on what basis do you have a discussion of a book?

Ehrman wraps this up neatly for quick consumption, so a few more quotes before we go:

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is [sic] pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus' life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus' closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.

Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the "pagan" savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).

Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.
One of my favorites is missing from this catalog:  my NT professor, Steve Patterson, told of a seminar he took in graduate school.  The class spent a semester looking for any precedent or parallel in ancient texts or literature to "This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you," and the rest of the eucharistic formula.  They couldn't find one.  It is completely unique to two letters of Paul and three of the gospels (John doesn't mention it).  Who would make up something like that, and why would four different groups (Paul, and the three gospel communities) invent it independently?

As Ehrman concludes:  "Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed."

Funny none of this makes its way into that Alternet article, either.


Blogger June Butler said...

126 comments on the Facebook post as of now, though I'm out. The atheist who linked to the article in Salon said he's listened to several of Ehrman's lectures, but I guess he missed the part about Jesus' existence. He was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, as I was, and he oozes the bitterness of certain ex-Catholics, which is rather familiar and understandable to me, though I don't share it.

10:29 AM  
Blogger June Butler said...

Interesting about the words of eucharistic liturgy. My sense is that the writers would not have made up something like that.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

The Jesus Seminar's (now largely forgotten) black, gray, pink, and red decisions on the "true" words of Jesus were based, in part, on uniqueness. The less the words could be found in other sources prior to the gospels, the more likely they were to be authentic.

The eucharistic formula is, apparently, unique. Which raises the more interesting question: what does it mean? We have given it meaning over the centuries (it split the Protestants among themselves as much as the interpretation distinguished Protestants from Catholics), but how was it understood at the time, and in the 1st century?

If you look at it plainly, without considering doctrines of transubstantiation or symbolism, it is very peculiar language, indeed. Pregnant with meaning, no doubt; but the meaning is not something connected to anything that came before it.

11:53 AM  
Blogger June Butler said...

What do the words mean? Wars have been fought, and people have been killed over the meaning of the words. I'll settle for the little poem attributed to Elizabeth I and/or John Donne.

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

I've done some, though not exhaustive, reading of Spong, Crossan, and Borg, which would have been sufficient to jolt me out of the faith if I was rooted in literalism. Also, in an adult class in my church, we viewed and discussed the splendid video series Living the Questions.

To me, an analogy would be that my faith would crumble at the news that the Shroud of Turin is not authentic.

And don't even try to reason with the likes of the atheists at Alternet, because they don't listen. They're as fundamentalist as the worst of the Christian fundamentalists.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I also like the words of the German Evangelical Church: "May it be unto you according to your faith. "

2:17 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

Yes. The poem and the words from the GEC leave wiggle room for a wide circle of the faithful.

2:44 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

To me the basic meaning of the Eucharist is that the act of sharing food and drink, the basis of continuing life, the satiation of hunger, providing other people what God provides us, participating in the equalization of the distributions of the common wealth is the body and blood of Christ, of us being able to directly share in the spirit of God. I believe that, literally, though I doubt it is all there is to it.

I associate it closely with "that which you do to the least among you, you do to me" "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and other sayings.

6:29 AM  

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