Monday, September 01, 2014

5 Reasons to suspect Alternet doesn't really know much about Biblical scholarship

No one can bring the stupid (what else can I call it) like Alternet to Salon.  Three topics excite excess commentary at Salon:  Barack Obama; race (esp. "white privilege"), and Jesus.  Not religion; just Jesus.

Case in point:  proof that Jesus never existed and everybody agrees that's so*, based on a documentary by an atheist who has five points to make:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.  In the words of Bart Ehrman: “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts. Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded. “Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.”

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures.  The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine.  But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other. If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the  20 question quiz at

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.  They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage.  But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.”  John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”
I wasn't going to include all of that, then I decided:  "What the heck?"  I would point out, to begin with, that last link to Crossan is a reference to his magisterial "The Historical Jesus."  Here the book is reduced to a quote taken out of context.  So much for the "scholarship" of this article or, by association, the film the article discusses.

In other words, it goes on like that.  Yes, there are wildly different versions of Jesus.  After 2000 years, and with so many blind men describing the elephant, what do you expect?  I can give you wildly divergent views on FDR, LBJ, JFK, Harry Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, or particularly Ronald Reagan.  What that proves is only that beauty and truth are in the eye of the beholder.

Back up to no. 4: yes, the gospel accounts contradict each other.  You cannot reconcile the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke no matter how hard you try.  So what?  None of them are meant to be history in the Greek/Herodotus sense of the word, since that idea of history didn't take hold in the West for several centuries later.  Josephus, the great historian of the 1st century of Palestine, always knew the Romans buttered his bread, and always made sure his history reflected their preferences.  Today any change in the accepted narrative of Europeans Dominate the World and America is A Shining City on a Hill is despised as "revisionism" by one group or another.  Show me any time when histories didn't disagree, and I'll show you a history to prove you haven't read enough history.

Oh, and it isn't "linguistic analysis" that established the "Q" gospel; it was textual analysis and narrative analysis, and many other kinds of analysis.  Yes, the stories all disagree; as the article says, they were written for different communities.  Do we all have to be literalist fundamentalists in order to be Christians?

No. 3:  no, they don't.  So what?  I learned this in Sunday school.  And Josephus, to name one, says he was in Jerusalem during the sacking by Rome, and the streets were knee deep in blood.  "I was there" is his historical mantra.  But nobody believes Josephus literally waded through rivers of blood in the streets of Jerusalem.  Any lawyer will tell you, eye-witnesses are some of the most unreliable witnesses.

No. 2:  Paul barely mentions the life of Jesus because there's no evidence he knows it.  By his own account Paul becomes a prosecutor of Christians, and then on the road to Damascus has a powerful conversion experience.  This story is re-told long after Paul's death by Luke in Acts.  Paul's conversion makes him a proselytizer of the gospel as he knows it, and what he knows is the soteriology of Jesus and the theology of the Messiah.  What he doesn't know is anything beyond the most rudimentary story of the first eucharist, which he tells more than once (most famously to the Corinthians).  It's no surprised he doesn't know the nativity stories; Matthew and Luke seem to have tacked them on for literary and proselytizing purposes; Mark and John don't bother with them.  Unless you think the wise men and the shepherds (two different gospel accounts) must have been historically true or else the stories fail (and if you do, I pity you), what is the problem that Paul doesn't know them?  No other gospel but Luke tells the story of the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, and the crucifixion stories vary widely in what happened at Golgotha (or that it happened at Golgotha).  THIS IS NOT NEWS!  It has been known for centuries, millennia even.  If some idle reader of Salon/Alternet doesn't know this, it doesn't prove a new insight into world history is born.

It just proves there's a sucker born every minute.  But we knew that, too.

No. 1:  well, that's why you should read Crossan's work instead of just looking at one page on a website:

If no Christian had written anything about Jesus for the first hundred years after his death, we would still have two succinct accounts from those not counted among his followers. One account dates from the last decade of the first century and comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in hisJewish Antiquities 18.63:

"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. . . . For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. . . . When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the firstplace come to love him did not give up their affection for him. . . . And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."

His description is carefully neutral or, at most, mildly critical. The text was both preserved and interpolated by Christian editors, but I cite it without their proposed improvements.

The next account dates from the first decades of the sec-ond century and comes from the pagan historian Cornelius Tacitus. Having told how a rumor blamed Nero for the disastrous fire that swept Rome in 64 C.E., he continues inAnnals 15-44:

"Therefore to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the wor1d collect and find a vogue."

Despite the differences between the studied impartiality of Josephus and the sneering partiality of Tacitus, they agree on three rather basic facts. First, there was some sort of a movement connected with Jesus. Second, he was executed by official authority presumably to stop the movement. Third, rather than being stopped, the movement continued to spread.

There remain, therefore, these three: movement, execution, continuation. But the greatest of these is continuation.

John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco 1994, pp. vi-vii).

Crossan's The Historical Jesus points out how perfectly ordinary a personage Yeshua ben Yosef would have been; a peasant, a complete unknown.  What is remarkable is not that no contemporary made a record of his existence (this presumes, among other things, a level and reach  literacy which simply didn't exist.  Paul was rare in that he could read, but he could not write more than his own name.  This was not an unusual combination); what is remarkable is that, against all odds, we know of the existence of Jesus at all.

Ehrman, who is quoted in No. 1 above, is right; but do you think in all the records of the world any mention of you is going to exist?  But, you object, you aren't a notable person.  True; but who is?  Name the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2000.  In 2012.  In 1973, without using Google.  All fame, as George C. Scott Patton says at the end of the film, is fleeting, and that which we find important today (the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, for example) are unremarkable during the individual's lifetime.  We have records of Van Gogh because people save such records now; but we only know Samuel Pepys lived because we happened to find his diary.  What of all the people who lived when he did?  Why did no one make a record of them?  As Brueghel pointed out, the world probably went on with its business the night of the birth, too.  Does that prove it didn't happen?

There is a longer discussion to be had on each of these points, but the fact is:  none of them are news. It might shock your sainted grandmother (but probably not) or upset a true-blue fundamentalist, but then the presumption of such critiques is that the only true Xians are the fundies, and if they are wrong, the rest of us are destroyed in our faith, as well.  I learned far more challenging things than this in seminary, and they were trying to prepare me to do ministry, not to turn me into an atheist.

I don't really understand what these points have to do with denying the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth.  They are critical of simplistic, "Sunday School" version of Jesus, more than anything else. There is serious scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, and it is more than 100 years old.  None of that gets mentioned in the article at all.  Most scholars, Christian or atheist (the worst slander of the article is the idea that Christian scholars are blinded by faith and can't recognize any scholarship that proves Jesus never lived), are as interested in the question "Did Jesus exist" as literary scholars are interested in the question "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?"  In other words, the only people asking such questions are people who don't know what they're talking about.  These are also the people who think their ignorance gives them greater expertise than anyone else.

And they will always be with you, too; though you don't have an obligation toward them that you have toward the poor.


  1. The thing that annoys me most about Anti-TheistNet pieces, is their tone of breathless "Breaking News!"-ness.

    But they're always rehashed stuff from DECADES ago, that *serious* Biblical scholars---and Non-Fundy Christians---dealt w just that long ago. Anyone who would become an ExChristian on that basis, wasn't much of a Christian (as opposed to Fundy) to begin with.

  2. This is remarkably thin soup. We have little mention of Jesus outside of his own circle in his own day. Paul's letters are not biographical in nature. Gospel writers may be dependent upon witnesses rather than be witnesses themselves. There are differences between the gospels. Moderns have interpreted his life in contradictory ways. Therefore he didn't exist.

    It makes me wonder if our author believes Socrates existed.

    Or for that matter, Paul. Or Peter. Or any of the other disciples. Or Mary the mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdelene. Or James the brother of Jesus. Makes you think Christianity must have popped into existence out of a negative quantum vacuum state. Bang!


    *sips cup-a-primordial-soup thoughtfully*

  4. Rick--

    The usual response about Socrates is that he's mentioned in the play (whose name suddenly escapes me!). There is, of course, no doubt the Socrates of the dialogues bears less and less of a resemblance to the historical figure as Plato develops his own ideas; but apparently that's okay, even though Socrates is one of the seminal figures of Western culture.

    Besides, Plato was there, so.....

    *looks around for cup-o'-primordial soup...*

  5. This is why many of us Friends look at Scripture as something less than literal, and not so important as our experience of the Inner Light and whatnot.

    *chews oatmeal thoughtfully*

  6. It's why Jewish tradition treats the scriptures as a conversation about God, rather than a description of God.

    What's funniest is the number of people (always attracted to these kinds of posts at Salon) who insist Scripture is full of blood thirsty scenes (and they have all of them ready to produce, like people with evidence of how there's too much sex in movies or TV have ready examples) which proves....Well, I don't know what, really. but they insist it means something.

    As the Friends understand, experience of God is guided by a community (else why gather together?). If you want to look for the "snuff porn" (as I've seen it described) in Scripture, that's all you'll find. If you're looking for the experience of God, Scripture might be your guide to finding that.

    But nobody except fundamentalists and atheists seem to think Scripture is the end and the beginning of all that's important.

  7. RMJ --

    It's The Clouds. Which, of course, paints a different picture of Socrates than does Plato. Does that mean Socrates was not a real, historical person? Also, in re:

    a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist

    I do not think these descriptions are as mutually exclusive as the AlterNet author seems to think they are.


    Also, I misread (at first) what you meant by "ready to produce": I first thought you were saying these people had ideas of how to turn those scenes into TV miniseries or movies or plays or some such ...

  8. Alberich--

    Thank you, I went completely blank on that.

    As for the descriptions, I've found on-line critics of Christianity (usually that's what is critiqued) seem to take a very fundamentalist view of scripture, so that if it has any act of violence, that is "snuff porn," and it pervades and negates everything else in the canon. "Contradictions" are also a key point (as in the article cited); any contradiction is proof of...well, something definitive, though I'm not sure what.

    And any interpretation of scripture that is not a literalist interpretation is decried, while all literalist interpretations are treated as childish mythologizing.

    I think the point is mostly to scream and fling poo, actually. Some just sound slightly less like howler monkeys than others.

  9. I took part in a long discussion thread on Facebook about the article in Salon that was supposed to blow the faith of Christians (and Jews?) all to hell. Why do I bother?

  10. June--

    I dunno, either. I keep telling myself "You can't fix stupid."

    And then I'm amazed at how much stupid there is in the world, and I think: "Well, surely I can do something!"

  11. The writer and those who applaud the article seem to assume ignorance of contemporary scholarly studies of scripture and religion on the part of Christians and if only we knew what she knows, we could not possibly be so stupid as to believe. The thing is we can know of those studies and still believe. Not all of us are stunned into agnosticism or atheism by knowledge, and that seems so very hard for some people to understand.

  12. Not all of us are stunned into agnosticism or atheism by knowledge, and that seems so very hard for some people to understand.

    I know I'm repeating myself, but in order to agree with you, let me say the problem is the presumption that all believers are fundamentalists who will lose their faith the moment any information is presented to them.

    Bultmann is derided by many conservative Christians, but he considered himself a very devout Christian. I know Biblical scholars who are very "liberal" (Like Crossan) who consider themselves Christians; and others who consider themselves atheists.

    Whaddya know? There's room for all kinds in this world! But like the fundies, the atheists complaining about this Biblical scholarship (of which they have little or no understanding), want a world where everyone is like them.

    Reminds me of the old joke about heaven.....

  13. It is bizarre that they're still using Bart Ehrman to argue Jesus didn't exist because he argued exactly the opposite.

    I know I've pointed that out to Tarico in the past but she, like the rest of the AlterNet atheist crowd are entirely uninterested in accuracy and honesty.

  14. I had not looked at the comments until now. Yikes! You told 'em, Andrew! The site is toxic, and I doubt I'll go back unless someone calls in a clean-up crew. How likely is that?

    I laughed when I saw the comment about the Operator game, which we called Whisper, and which I referenced in the discussion on Facebook. I won't soon engage in that activity again any time soon.