Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Historical Nature Of Early Christianity (Part 3)

Julius Africanus argues that the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are consistent with each other, and he cites historical witnesses to that effect (Letter To Aristides, 5). He comments that he's going to provide "the true history of these matters" (1). Regarding the darkness at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, Julius comments that the event is recorded in a history written by Thallus (see fragment 18:1 from his Chronography here). Tertullian and Jerome also appeal to non-Christian sources for corroboration of the darkness. If those Christians thought the gospel accounts of the darkness were fictional, why would they be appealing to non-Christian sources, non-fictional sources like a book of history and government records, for corroboration?

Origen refers to "the history recorded in the Gospels" and refers to how enemies of Christianity interpreted Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in the same historical manner as he does:

"With respect to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, if any one desires, after the prophecy of Micah and after the history recorded in the Gospels by the disciples of Jesus, to have additional evidence from other sources, let him know that, in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians." (Against Celsus, 1:51)

Origen often refers to his own historical interpretation of the New Testament in his treatise Against Celsus, and he frequently refers to corroboration of that view from non-Christian sources. Celsus wants a reliable historical witness to support the gospels' account of the descent of the dove at Jesus' baptism (1:41), and Origen's reply discusses what's involved in "substantiating...historical fact" (1:42) and "historical probability" (1:44). Origen notes that Celsus is arguing that the gospel account is "fictitious" (1:43). Notice that Celsus thinks he's arguing against Christianity by charging the gospels with fiction, and Origen thinks that he as a Christian should defend the historicity of the account.

Like other early Christians, Origen contrasts pagan myths that are fictional and the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life that are supported by "much evidence" (1:67). Pagan mythology is to be rejected as unhistorical, whereas the New Testament's presentation of Jesus is supported by the testimony of eyewitnesses and their willingness to suffer for their testimony (3:23).

There are many other such passages in Against Celsus and elsewhere in early Christian literature. Robert Wilken is correct:

"The question of the mythological and legendary character of the Gospels did not first arise in modern times. The historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life was already an issue for Christian thinkers in the second century....The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world....Already in the second century, however, Celsus devoted part of his True Doctrine to a critical examination of the accounts of Jesus' life, and Porphyry paid even greater attention to the literary and historical analysis of the Scriptures....The primary issue in the debate over the Bible was whether the Scriptures could be considered a reliable source for the words and events they record....Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], pp. 112, 147, 203)

21 comments:

  1. Jason said "The question of the mythological and legendary character of the Gospels did not first arise in modern times."

    This is interesting, and is certainly surprising given the sheer skepticism society commonly places on the Gospels.

    Do you find that when people consider the Historicity of Jesus (or the Gospel) people are more apt to simply repeat what they hear from others, to shore up an already held notion, rather than look into the issue for themselves in any objective way?

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  2. Jason, I have a few issues to raise here; though many I shall withold, for you are unable to bear them just yet. I shall begin with a gentle prod. Since most all of the literature which you propose and engage in discussion was composed in classical Greek, why not spend the time to learn the language? Afterall, you do desire to achieve competence in understanding these texts, right? Which would you prefer as an astronaut, to have your rocket built by experts at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab or to have it built by highly enthusiastic hobbyists in a garage? If you truly care, then become competent.

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  3. Now on to your misleading presentation. Origin's argument is not that the Gospels can be demonstrated as being historically reliable in all of their content. His argument in Contra is that Celsus, as a Jew, has already chosen to believe all sorts of stories that are at least as incredible as those conveyed regarding Jesus (e.g. the dove; 1.45). At 1.42, Origin freely admits the nature of the problem, drawing anologies between the historicity of the Trojan War and the broader question of the reliability of the Iliad. His second example, taken from the Greek tragedian tradition is between complicates the matter of the historicity of Oedipus and Jocasta in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, since the play also contains the fantastic appearance of the Sphinx. The chapter concludes the analogy with the Gospels by prescribing maturity in reading and discernment of complex authorial intent rather than the "simple faith". I respect Origin's candour here. His analogies from Greek literature, moreover, showing the hybridity of an historical kernel with fantastic embellishment are apropos.

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  4. At 1.67, moreover, Origin altogether avoids proposing historical proofs, testimony, or argumentation for the historicity of the Gospels, instead falling back on the typical line of argument proffered by the Anti-Nicene apologists, namely that the veracity of Jesus as the Son of God is legitimated by the efficacy of his movement. That is the demonstration distinguishing the potency or legitimacy of his accounts over against classical Greek and Roman fabulatio. This is his "much evidence", not some undisclosed body of historical proofs, as your statement would imply.

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  6. Here, Jason, I shall again admonish you to familiarize, indeed submerge yourself, within these earliest Christian texts. Forget about reading the latest "scholar's" obscurant argumentation (e.g. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses et al). Learn Greek. Climb into their world and see just how alien their logic is from that of modern Christians (and atheists). If these people were so deeply invested in historicity and inerrancy, then why did they feel such an immediate need to produce such extravagant allegorizing interpretations? Why did they (in contrast to us) seem so bent on the most austere modes of ascetic contestation, even to the point of self-abuse from our standpoint? Did Jesus or Paul teach such extremes? Was that the point? Why, if the early Christians had been bequeathed these allegedly historical records of Jesus did they go on to produce some of the most bizarre, whimsical fiction to be found in antiquity, employing many of the same characters, conventions, motifs, and settings? They even were the curators (valuers) of the Jewish fictional works, e.g. 1-3 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Syb Or.... Rev and Shep Herm were not exactly CNN reporting. Papias is alleged to be the earliest Christian historiographer, but he is hardly a Tacitus or Herodotus. Eusebius even disparages his 5 books, which the ancients do not even bother to preserve. Either it was so poorly composed or his "history" contradicted their own myths of Christian origins, rendering the text useless if not dangerous.

    If you truly do claim to be a lover of the truth, then why tether your connotations of that “truth” to modern socio-traditional propositions? Why not, as I and many other true scholars, pursue the truth at whatever cost to your own faith commitments or social comforts? Do you think that I like not being welcomed at most churches in America even though I have spent every dime and hour of my adult life invested in my most honest effort at studying these topics? Do you think I like being bullied and socially mistreated by apologists who can care less about my research and studies and merely wish to make an example of me for the spectacle of their own social world? I have chosen to construct most penetrating questions regarding Christian origins and to answer them with my best possible skills and most honest intellectual integrity, at whatever personal cost. I have lost friends, family, jobs, money, time, reputation, nearly everything out of my fidelity to this one cause, i.e. the truth. I invite you to join me. I do not ask that you agree with me, in part or in whole, but that you agree with these stated ideals. All who do so, I salute as true scholars.

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  7. All this from a commenter who already told us he was done commenting here, and who spells the name Origin.

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  8. Rhology,

    Richard's just as bad as Dave Armstrong when it comes to "I'm never going to talk to you ever again" claims.

    Come to think of it, he deletes his own posts just as often as Dave Armstrong does too.

    If Richard starts pimping spa products, I think he'll have unmasked himself! :-D

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  9. Rhology said:
    ---
    ...who spells the name Origin.
    ---

    Thank God Richard has unearthed the correct spelling for us, lest we be bamboozled by people with sheepskin from a seminary. *shudder*

    So it's true after all. The correct definition of Yale really is Yale: verb. To talk louder; shout. Billy Bob couldn't hear me so I had to yale.

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  10. ἐκκλησία said:

    "Do you find that when people consider the Historicity of Jesus (or the Gospel) people are more apt to simply repeat what they hear from others, to shore up an already held notion, rather than look into the issue for themselves in any objective way?"

    Those are common responses, and we see the same thing in politics, philosophy, and other areas of life. But people often combine approaches. They may resist something initially, but gradually adopt it and try to conform it to their belief system. People are complicated. A lot of factors are involved, and different individuals can be found at different points all along the spectrum. Generally, though, people don't study the issues much, and change tends to be more gradual than sudden.

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  11. Richard wrote:

    "Since most all of the literature which you propose and engage in discussion was composed in classical Greek, why not spend the time to learn the language? Afterall, you do desire to achieve competence in understanding these texts, right? Which would you prefer as an astronaut, to have your rocket built by experts at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab or to have it built by highly enthusiastic hobbyists in a garage?"

    That's a false analogy that ignores the middle ground, as you often do. And I addressed your claims regarding my education in a previous thread. You're still ignoring what I said.

    You write:

    "Origin's argument is not that the Gospels can be demonstrated as being historically reliable in all of their content."

    You keep changing the subject. I don't think Josephus' writings "can be demonstrated as being historically reliable in all of their content", but I still conclude that he was involved in historiography. Each time you change the subject, and you've done it many times now, you're suggesting the weakness of the position you've abandoned.

    You write:

    "His argument in Contra is that Celsus, as a Jew, has already chosen to believe all sorts of stories that are at least as incredible as those conveyed regarding Jesus (e.g. the dove; 1.45)."

    That's one of his arguments among many others.

    You write:

    "His analogies from Greek literature, moreover, showing the hybridity of an historical kernel with fantastic embellishment are apropos."

    According to you, without any supporting argumentation.

    (continued below)

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  12. (continued from above)

    You write:

    "At 1.67, moreover, Origin altogether avoids proposing historical proofs, testimony, or argumentation for the historicity of the Gospels, instead falling back on the typical line of argument proffered by the Anti-Nicene apologists, namely that the veracity of Jesus as the Son of God is legitimated by the efficacy of his movement."

    That's one argument that was used among others. Origen uses a lot of arguments, as I've documented, and many of them are of the sort you denied were used by the Christians of his day.

    You write:

    "That is the demonstration distinguishing the potency or legitimacy of his accounts over against classical Greek and Roman fabulatio."

    I cited more than one passage, and you're ignoring some of the others I mentioned. Even in the one passage you're commenting on now, Origen also mentions healings and the exorcism of demons. He doesn't say that he's discussing all of the relevant evidence in that one passage. He mentions other evidence in other passages, as I documented above and have discussed in other posts at this blog. You keep ignoring evidence that contradicts your position.

    And Origen was responding to Celsus' comments on "what have you done in word or deed". Much as you neglected the context of what Justin Martyr was responding to when you misrepresented him, you're neglecting Origen's context as well. His responses to Celsus are largely framed by the issues Celsus raises.

    And you keep changing the subject. Objecting to the quality of Origen's arguments doesn't address the fact that Origen distinguishes between the veracity of his system and that of other systems and does so on the basis of evidence you claimed the early Christians weren't concerned about.

    You write:

    "If these people were so deeply invested in historicity and inerrancy, then why did they feel such an immediate need to produce such extravagant allegorizing interpretations?"

    Different individuals and groups allegorized to different degrees. Origen was on the more allegorizing end of the spectrum, but even he held a view of Biblical historicity that's conservative by today's standards. Similarly, there was a lot of allegorizing in medieval times, along with belief in historicity and inerrancy. The same is true of many conservative Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox today.

    (continued below)

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  13. (continued from above)

    You write:

    "Why did they (in contrast to us) seem so bent on the most austere modes of ascetic contestation, even to the point of self-abuse from our standpoint? Did Jesus or Paul teach such extremes? Was that the point? Why, if the early Christians had been bequeathed these allegedly historical records of Jesus did they go on to produce some of the most bizarre, whimsical fiction to be found in antiquity, employing many of the same characters, conventions, motifs, and settings? They even were the curators (valuers) of the Jewish fictional works, e.g. 1-3 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Syb Or.... Rev and Shep Herm were not exactly CNN reporting."

    Those generalizations are far too vague and undocumented to carry much weight, and you haven't explained how they allegedly lead us to your conclusion. We "value" a lot of fiction in our day.

    You write:

    "Papias is alleged to be the earliest Christian historiographer, but he is hardly a Tacitus or Herodotus. Eusebius even disparages his 5 books, which the ancients do not even bother to preserve. Either it was so poorly composed or his 'history' contradicted their own myths of Christian origins, rendering the text useless if not dangerous."

    Most scholars believe there's historiography in the New Testament, predating Papias.

    And Papias wouldn't need to be as good a historian as others in order to be writing in a historical genre. You keep trying to change the subject.

    Eusebius disparages Papias on some points, but cites him with approval or with neither approval nor disapproval on other points. Many other sources commented on Papias as well, so any evaluation of how Papias was viewed would have to take far more than Eusebius into account.

    Papias' work was preserved into medieval times. See here.

    Your comment about his work perhaps being "dangerous" is likewise ignorant. None of the criticisms of Papias by Eusebius and others suggests such a thing, and Papias plays no significant role in the early argumentation against Christianity.

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  14. hmmm... I have again overestimated you, Jason. You are unable to keep pace with my train of thought and tend grossly to misunderstand my statements and logic. You also persist with ye ol' gatling approach. I leave you to your strange world, champ. Perhaps someone else can be of better help to you at this stage in your development.

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  15. Excellent quote from -- (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], pp. 112, 147, 203)


    Looks like a book worth trying to purchase. Thanks for posting it.

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  16. There are truly few people more potentially misguided then types like Richard, who think they alone have uncovered the facts that demolish Christianity.

    And so in their heroic quest they suffer much for the enlightenment of humanity.

    Not the first and won't be the last. Sort of reminds me of Loftus and crew....

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  17. Richard wrote:

    "I leave you to your strange world, champ."

    That's not the first time you've said you're leaving. Or did we allegedly misunderstand you again?

    We're supposed to keep asking you questions about what you mean. At the same time, you don't seem to have so much concern for asking us questions to clarify our views. It seems like a double standard.

    And you don't explain how your alleged intended meaning can be reconciled with the words you used. You just assert that you've been misrepresented, without demonstrating it.

    Do you have your own variation of English? A version of the language that makes you appear wrong on so many issues where you're actually right?

    Either you're frequently wrong or you're frequently a terrible communicator. I think it's the former. You just imply the latter when you're trying to avoid the consequences of having been refuted. That also makes you dishonest, in addition to being so frequently wrong.

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  19. Jason, I already have been quite clear about how I understand mature discourse. Since you appear sorely incapable of that, and since I do not amuse myself with entertaining your goon tactics and ignorant arrogance, I am attempting to exit the discussion. I merely return becuase you keep addressing me or posting outlandish comments aimed at invoking me back into discussion. I hope I am clear when I say that I have left the discussion. If you wanted a discussion with me, you would have addressed me according to proper protocol as gentlemen do. If you did not want a discussion with me, then why is it that you keep addressing me? Since I am not available to clarify my points, you really have no ethical business attempting to engage that which you do not comprehend. So why not just drop the matter? Or is this too part of the ape routine?

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  20. Dude, just go away already.

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  21. Richard has deleted another one of his own posts. And he's contradicted himself again by posting after he said he was leaving. And he's made more unsupported claims and applied more double standards. He's illustrated what I said, again, rather than refuting it.

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