Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hurtado on historical scholarship

My own position is clearly to the right of Hurtado's. That being said, it goes to show just how far "out there" nullafidians like Carr actually are when you see a moderate like Hurtado take them to task. And while one could (and should) dismiss Carr as just another crackpot, he represents the same paranoia we find in Richard Carrier and Hector Avalos.


larryhurtado permalink
Mr. Carr: I know that web-blogging seems to invite the “fire-from-the-hip” approach to issues and by anyone with an opinion. I do invite open discussion and debate on relevant matters. But the truculent tone of your contributions does cause me to give some advice.

It’s rather important in serious critical discussion of historical matters to understand that an assertion doesn’t amount to proof of anything, and that the absence of corroborating evidence for individuals (e.g., of the sort you say you’d like) doesn’t justify the conclusion that they never existed. It’s one possibility, which in turn would have to be tested with equal critical scrutiny, and on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, it is legitimate to consider whether there may be legendary characters in the Gospels narratives, entirely possible in principle. But sweeping generalizations of the sort you’ve lobbed aren’t sound method.

So, go off and do the critical research and publish it in a proper refereed journal or with a respectable publisher and get critical reviews. That’s how we scholars make and try to establish our views. You’ve made your claims clear. Thanks. But they’re no more established by making them than there were before doing so. So, do the detailed analysis required. Publish it. And give us the reference(s) when it’s out. I think that there are some criticisms that can be levied at some of Bauckham’s arguments and claims, too. But at least he’s done the hard work involved (acquiring the languages, working through the scholarly literature, etc.) that justifies his work being critically considered.

larryhurtado permalink
I’m not sure what Steven Carr would count as evidence. He asks for signed affidavits of first century people, but that’s not available for anyone from antiquity, Julius Caesar, anyone.

So, what do historians usually work with? Well, texts of first-century provenance that appear to posit personages as real people. So, e.g., in the Gospel accounts we have a number of named figures, without any other introduction, which would suggest that the authors expected their readers to recognize the figures. Technically, of course, this suggests only that they were known names/figures, which could still allow for them being fictional-but-already-accepted figures at the date of writing. In the case of Simon of Cyrene, Mark’s gospel identifies him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21), again without further introduction, which most scholars have taken as alluding to two guys known to the original readers. We have a Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13, for example, whom some suggest could be the same guy mentioned in Mark.

With all due allowance for the growth of legend etc., we should recall that people often speculated that Pontius Pilate was a fictional character too, until the inscription mentioning him turned up in Caesarea Maritima in the 60s.

larryhurtado permalink
I repeat that Mr. Carr echoes legitimate questions about the gospels and their narratives (but neither he nor others should labor under the impression that they’re new or unconsidered questions, one needs only to probe the scholarly literature beyond web banter to find the discussions). We can discuss any such question here, but as this is my seminar (so to speak), I do ask that participants express themselves as serious interlocutors, not as schoolyard feisties.

So, e.g., Mr. Carr, what leads you to *assume* (and without any reason for doing so given) that the Gospels’ authors “hide” their identify for unworthy reasons? *Much* of ancient literature is anonymous, from our earliest pieces (e.g., the Enuma Elish) onward. Indeed, “signed” writings begin to appear in the Hellenistic period a bit more, but it was still a relatively newer literary practice.

The gospels are judged by most scholars (of whatever persuasion on religious matters) to have been “in house” texts, i.e., written by/for fellow Christians. Indeed, many scholars believe that the authors (or some of them) wrote to/for particular circles of Christians, and so may well have been known to the original recipients.

But the authors also seem to have seen their task as formulating and giving a “rendition” (NB: musical analogy, not the CIA) of Jesus-tradition that was largely already known.

So, e.g., Mark introduces “Pilate” without bothering to indicate what he was, suggesting that stories of Jesus’ crucifixion were already circulating before Mark wrote.

So, it is more commonly thought by scholars that the anonymity of the Gospels sprang from the authors’ sense that they were serving a *community* of interests, conveying what they believed was sacred truth/tradition, and, so out of modesty felt it inappropriate to present their accounts as their own literary products (even though it is evident that each author seems to have exercised considerable editorial control over the finished accounts).

As for corroboration that the cast of characters in the Gospels were real people, I repeat, a fair question. But, again, why the antagonistic tone to it, Mr. Carr? (You have your own web site where you can rant and engage in schoolyard fisticuffs, so please restrain yourself to calm discussion here. If you aren’t interested in learning anything, but merely wish to joust and work out personal “issues”, this isn’t the place for it.)

We don’t have anyone from the 2nd century BCE who verifies that he met Judas Maccabee either. Yet virtually all serious scholars take 1 Maccabees (with its cast of characters) as a basis for trying to reconstruct the Jewish revolt against Antiochus IV. The point, again, is that the absence of corroboration isn’t proof of fiction. That’s what’s called a non sequitur.

We do have corroboration of some characters. E.g., in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we have first-hand references to Kephas (Peter), James (Jesus’ brother), John (Zebedee), Barnabas, and Titus (all of whom are also mentioned in Luke-Acts.

Now, unfortunately, it appears that first-century Christians didn’t think to lay aside the sort of affidavits that Mr. Carr (and, dear me, all of us) would have liked. So, should we accuse the ancient gospels authors of wholesale deviousness and duplicity, or leave open the likelihood that the uncorroborated characters might well be as real as the ones corroborated? “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

As I tell my students, in history lots of things are possible; the job of critical historical work is to judge what among the possibilities may be more likely. That requires a lot of knowledge, a lot of weighing of options, and trying to be as clear-headed and unpolemical as you can.

Now, unless I’m a bit premature, I think we’ve just about run out this thread, so let’s move on to something else. Results: (1) We don’t have first-century affidavits testifying to the existence of a lot of people, well, for most people, including a number mentioned in the Gospels; (2) this can be taken as proof that they (and, uh, most people in antiquity) never existed and any references to them in narratives of any kind are fiction and devious duplicity, or as accidents of history (like Forrest Gump’s mama said, “S*** happens”.)

For those interested in serious scholarly investigation of relevant matters, I recommend, inter alia, another book by Richard Bauckham, _Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church_ (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), which will also have oodles of bibliography for still further reading.

larryhurtado permalink
In critical historical work we try to keep our assumptions as controlled as we can. So, it’s a fair point to note that Paul doesn’t mention Judas. But what to *make* of that? Ah, that’s the real question. Options: (1) Could be Paul didn’t know about Judas, and perhaps because the Judas-story came along later (not a new suggestion); (2) Could be that this isn’t significant at all or has some other reason behind it.

Paul (in the uncontested letters) doesn’t refer to Pilate’s involvement, or the temple authorities, or Roman soldiers, either, however, so should we call all these characters into question too? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe this isn’t an entirely adequate way of determining the authenticity of all these characters and their actions.

Now it’s true that the passion narratives are studded with allusions to, and appropriations of, OT texts, this intended to bring out the religious meaning of the events narrated. Some have proposed that the OT texts may even have been mined to construct some/all the passion narratives. Possibly. But that’s a very strong claim that requires a very strong argument, not simply asserting it. The commentaries, and serious books have canvassed all this. (Contrary to some assumptions, the Internet hasn’t really produced much in the way of new thoughts, just a wider circulation of them, including a lot of discredited ones.)

For one detailed study the following:
Raymond E. Brown, _The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels_ (2 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1994).

larryhurtado permalink
It’s getting a bit wearisome to have to correct repeatedly Mr. Carr’s sweeping claims and his polemical (i.e., he’s made up his mind) approach/tone. But, for the record, a few comments more.

We *do* have historical documents referring to all the “cast of characters” for which Carr (and, Lordy, the rest of us too) would like still further information and references. OK. Carr would like more, and is suspicious of what we have. But it’s not a *lack* of evidence, only a body of evidence of which he’s suspicious. OK. We’re done with that. No need to keep on re-asserting that you’re suspicious, Mr. Carr. We’ve got it.

Now what on earth he means by some of his other statements, I can’t figure out. The authorship of the Gospel of Mark was not disputed. The only name we have attached to it in ancient tradition is “Mark”. That may be right or wrong, but ancient Christians don’t seem to have felt confused about the matter. So, there’s no mystery to allege as suggesting some sort of conspiracy.

We don’t have references in Paul’s letters to lots of narrative events in the Gospels, Judas and lots. So?? These letters presuppose readers already converted, already introduced to the Christian message and Lord knows what body of traditions. Letters to churches are one genre, and gospel narratives another.

I repeat again that it’s a fair *question* whether any of the named or unnamed characters in the Gospels might be legendary (aside, of course, from those in the parables, etc., who are presented as instructive fictions). But that it is a *question* does not make the question itself an answer to anything. And the questions have been explored quite considerably by scholars, and with various proposals. So, we don’t need Mr. Carr suddenly to burst into the room as if we’ve all been stupidly plodding along in our naivete. Pa-leese!

Carr refers to “plagiarising”, but I don’t get the reference. In any case, people in the ancient world operated often with a different sense of authorship than moderns, and often felt much freer to appropriate from other works. Indeed, the anonymous authorship of the Gospels suggests no desire to claim ownership of what they wrote, not an intention to deceive.

Anyway, Mr. Carr, if you think that the whole guild of NT scholars is so incompetent as you judge (as a mere amateur you think yourself able to show us all up), then perhaps you have nothing to learn from this site and should bid your farewell. Or visit as you choose. But we all have your views well in mind now. So, thanks, and selah.

larryhurtado permalink
James, Jesus’ brother, is mentioned in Acts 15:13; 21:18. (James Zebedee’s death is related in 12:2. And the simple reference to “James” without need of any other qualifier is commonly taken as reflecting this figure well-known among early believers).

Mr. Carr: I request that you read others’ postings more carefully. I have repeatedly granted that questions can be asked about the historicity of any character in the Gospels. I have simply reminded you that this does not require non-historicity of the characters. So, please stop distorting my comments as “all Hurtado can do is say that these people existed because they are in the Gospels”. That’s not what I’ve said. You seem to want constantly to polarize simplistically, rather than probe in honest investigation. If that’s the case, then go somewhere else. If you’re interested in honest investigation, then stop distorting what others say.


1 comment:

  1. Looks like a case of "the academy meets the Internet"