Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Gagnon on mythicism

It is a shame that the WashPost decided to compound deep insensitivity with deep ignorance in retweeting on Christmas day a 2014 op-ed by the self-professed "polyamorist" Raphael Lataster, “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up," Yes, there is the evidence from the late first-century Jewish historian Josephus (minus later Christian editing) and early second-century Roman historianTacitus, among other extrabiblical sources (as the writer of this article points out). Yet there is so much more.
No one would knowingly create a life of Jesus that would lead to one's martyrdom. James (Jacob), one of Jesus' younger brothers, would not have died a martyr's death as head of the church in Jerusalem for a brother whom he made up. Simon (Peter/Cephas), surnamed by Jesus "rock" for being the first human to confess Jesus' messiahship, also would not have suffered martyrdom if in fact he had made up the figure of Jesus. The same applies to all other disciples of Jesus who claimed to have known him during his earthly ministry and suffered for their proclamation of Jesus as Christ. No one profited materially from such a hoax. Deprivations in food, clothing, and shelter, along with persecution, were the common lot of Jesus' followers. The idea of a massive conspiracy, with little or no self-gain and everything to lose, never buckling under the weight of fraud, is ridiculous.
The church would not have made up a crucified Messiah since the crucifixion posed a problem for the church's faith, a problem that it sought to explain in various ways (including atonement models). The idea of a suffering Messiah was not a standard expectation in early Judaism. Suffering and death suggested failure, not success, in a messianic mission. Yes, the church could go back to their OT Scriptures and gain comprehension through Isaiah 53 and Psalm texts speaking of a suffering righteous one, but only as an after-the-fact search for comprehension, not as an anticipated expectation for God's anointed one. The Gospels themselves speak of the despair of the disciples immediately following his crucifixion, which is exactly the historical outcome one would expect.
Moreover, no Jew would have created a Messiah who grew up in an obscure town in Galilee ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). The baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptizer (certainly a historical figure, as attested by Josephus) suggests the superiority of John over Jesus, a problem that the Gospel writers sought to explain and minimize. They wouldn't have created such problems if Jesus had been a figure of their own imagination.
Some of the hard teachings of Jesus, including his unparalleled rejection of divorce and remarriage-after-divorce, required moderation and explanation. They were also based on a singular recognition of unique authority. What other Jew would claim the power to amend unilaterally the constitution of Israel? The universal route for authority in Judaism was derived: So-and-so appealed to so-and-so and on it went as far back as one could push it, hopefully at least to great figures in the Restoration after exile. The distinctive use of "amen" not as a responsive, confirming particle but rather as an introduction to Jesus sayings violated every prior norm, where instead of tracing his teaching to earlier sages Jesus in effect confirmed his own sayings as self-authenticating and in need of no one else's confirmation.
Declaring one's self Lord of the Sabbath and forgiving sins that were not committed against one's own self were other elements of the early church's testimony about Jesus that raised the question of which Jews would imaginatively create a human with such authority. Such claims generated offense and made the Jerusalem church subject to persecution at the hands of fellow Jews. The messianic claims of the early church not only earned the ire of fellow Jews but also brought the wrath of Roman authorities who were rightly suspicious of such a seditious threat to the emperor's claim of ultimate authority. Why would the church bring upon itself the wrath of the world through its own creation?
Along with the absence of any expectation of a crucified Messiah was the absence of an expectation of a resurrected Messiah. If one were going to make up a resurrection out of whole cloth, one wouldn't buttress it by appealing to female witnesses to an enigmatic figure at an empty tomb in the place of Jesus' body and to appearances by Jesus. The testimony of female witnesses would be regarded as unreliable because of their sex. Then somehow 500 people at one time would have to be made to see this made-up resurrected figure or at least collectively lie about it.
Why would a self-professed zealous Pharisee such as Paul give up subservience to the very Law of Moses that he excelled in and abandon his persecution of the church, all for extraordinary daily deprivation and persecution around the Mediterranean Basin were he not convinced of the historical reality of this figure now raised from the dead? Paul's call-conversion was within a few years of Jesus' death. By his own testimony he met with Cephas (Peter) and the Lord's brother James (Jacob) after three years and then again a little over a decade after that with these two and with John. He was certainly convinced of their truthfulness. Indeed, even when he had been persecuting the church he did not question the historical existence of Jesus.
The very shape of the Gospel stories and sayings conforms to what we would expect of traditions transmitted orally and preserved for decades by followers of a given teacher: sayings in easily memorizable form (e.g., parallelismus membrorum), self-contained pericopes independent of a larger narrative, with all the variations across transmission lines that would accrue from an original nucleus. An example would be the story of Jesus' distance healing of the mortally-ill, Capernaum-located "boy" of an official (Matt 8:5-13 // Luke 7:1-10; John 4:46b-53), which, while exhibiting significant variation (ethnicity and office of the supplicant, precise nature of the malady, questions about whether the supplicant meets Jesus directly and initiates a request for distance healing, the identity of the "boy" as a son or slave) shows significant points of agreement between two obviously independent sources: the reconstructed "Q" original behind Matthew's and Luke's versions and the story in the Johannine Signs Source.
No, it creates far fewer historical problems and requires much less faith to acknowledge the historical reality of the figure of Jesus than to posit the non-existence of the man from Nazareth.

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