Saturday, March 15, 2014

Selective historical skepticism

I'm going to comment on an article by Hector Avalos:
I am an agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus.
If he were more forthcoming, he'd admit that he's an apostate and a militant atheist. 
A main problem continues to be the lack of documentation from the time of Jesus to establish his existence definitively. Jesus is supposed to have lived around the year 30. But there is no mention of him anywhere in any actual document from his own time or from the entire first century.
That denial turns on Hector's idiosyncratic definition of an "actual document from his own time or the entire first century." 
The best known stories about Jesus are the biblical gospels. Despite recent claims to the contrary, most biblical scholars recognize that none of the actual manuscripts of these gospels originated earlier than the second century. 
The best efforts of textual scholars have failed to recover the so-called “originals” of any biblical text. Thus, it is difficult to know what has been added or subtracted from any original accounts.
Several problems:
i) If scribes frequently and drastically added or subtracted from the original text, that would generate dramatic and increasing diversity in our extant MS tradition. Where's the evidence? 
ii) It's not as if scribes tacked Jesus onto accounts originally bereft of Jesus. Jesus isn't exactly a minor character in the Gospels. Without Jesus, there is no narrative. There is no plot. The Gospels are pervasively centered on Jesus, from start to finish. It's not like a scribe could insert or excise Jesus from the Gospels with the stroke of a pen. The accounts are totally built around Jesus. What he said and did. What others said to him or about him. What was done to him, with him, or for him. 
iii) Significant tampering with the text would be extremely controversial. Christians divide over far less. That would leave its mark in the historical record.  
iv) The church has never had the centralized command-and-control required to systematically alter the text of Scripture. The church is too geographically diverse, with too many competing factions and rival power centers. 
v) The aim of textual criticism was never to discover the original documents, but to recover the original wording. Keep in mind that this is like proofreading. The general state of the text is not in doubt. With few exceptions, it's a question of correcting minor errors that crept into the text in the process of repeated transcription.  
vi) The reason we have so many MSS of Scripture in the first place is because Jews and Christians revere the sacred text. That's why they are zealous to preserve and transmit the text for posterity.  
Historicists often will reference the famous Annals of Tacitus, the Roman historian, for evidence of the existence of Jesus. However, even John P. Meier, author of “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus” and a historicist, admits: “As with Josephus, so with Tacitus our observations must be tempered by the fact that the earliest manuscript of the Annals comes from the 11th century.”
That paranoid attitude leads to radical skepticism regarding the possibility of historical knowledge. And it's at odds with his own alleged field of expertise–medical anthropology. For instance:
As I began to research Greco-Roman healthcare, I saw that the problems with their system mentioned in Greco-Roman sources were the problems that were being addressed in the Bible: the cost of healthcare, going to the temple to receive it, crowded spaces and tiny limitations. They address these problems in Greco-Roman literature and the solutions were being addressed right there in the New Testament. 
One of the things I was surprised to learn in your book was that there were actual pharmaceuticals at the time. 
Yes, we know that from a number of sources. Number one, we have whole books such as a book by a man named Celsus, big compendium on all medical and all the substances that were used.
Notice how confident he is in using Greco-Roman sources to reconstruct ancient Mediterranean healthcare, even though he doesn't have the original MSS at his disposal. Why isn't he agnostic about the existence of the historical Celsus? 
True enough, we cannot document the existence of most individuals who lived in the first century. So why should we expect documentation for Jesus? 
But that absence of evidence is still curious because, when speaking of Christianity, the Bible says that “everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22, RSV). More traces should remain in the first century of a group that everyone was speaking against.
Is Avalos really that obtuse? The phrase "everywhere it is spoken against" is hyperbolic. Has he no grasp of literary conventions? 
In favor of the historicists are the frequent allusions in the New Testament (e.g., Galatians 2:1-10) to “James, the brother of Jesus,” which seems to designate a particular person, and not just a follower of Jesus. It would be odd for a mythical character to have a brother who seems genuinely human. 
On the other hand, 1 John 4:3 states: “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” The rest of this biblical epistle suggests that there were other self-described Christians who did not believe that Jesus had come in the flesh. 
If the existence of a real flesh-and-blood Jesus was so well established, why were there Christians who did not believe in such a flesh-and-blood Jesus in the first place?
There's no reason to think John's opponents in Asia Minor were in Palestine during the public ministry of Christ. The apostle John is the primary source of information about the life of Christ for his Anatolian parishioners. And, of course, his opponents reject his testimony. 
Heretics are quite capable of dematerializing flesh-and-blood. Take failed millenarians who dematerialize the physical return of Christ.  


  1. “On the other hand, 1 John 4:3 states: “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” The rest of this biblical epistle suggests that there were other self-described Christians who did not believe that Jesus had come in the flesh. If the existence of a real flesh-and-blood Jesus was so well established, why were there Christians who did not believe in such a flesh-and-blood Jesus in the first place?”

    Theorists like Avalos play this game. They think they can reconstruct the scene behind the text. Hidden after all the prior evidence was erased. But when you call them on it, they can back-peddle and say, “Hey I’m a agnostic here.” Like the old canard about the differing religions and the elephant. The relativist wants everyone to believe he’s in the dark with the religions. He’s not committed to the tail or the trunk. He’s just wants everyone to get along. But he’s quick to tell everyone what the elephant really is.

    Avalos and Doherty (Doherty especially, but it also appears that Avalos has largely thrown his hat in with that lot), out of one side of their mouths, say that the slim amount of textual data they will grant comes from the earliest Christians is enough to reconstruct an elaborate savior-myth set in the heavens, but out of the other side of their mouths say the NT and the first two hundred years of Christian/non-Christian testimony is not enough to grant that a man named Jesus lived in Palestine from 6BCE to 30-33CE.

    How can he cite 1 John 4:3 when “it is difficult to know what has been added or subtracted from any original accounts”? Can’t have it both ways. Is anyone really expected to believe Avalos is an “agnostic” here?

  2. We've responded more extensively to Avalos on issues like these in chapter 4 of The End Of Infidelity.

    His reference to "definitively" settling the issue of Jesus' existence is misleading. As with other historical matters, a probability is all that's needed.

    We shouldn't just ask what individuals like Josephus and Tacitus said about Jesus. We should also ask what non-Christians in general seem to have believed. The New Testament authors, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and other early Christians tell us what their opponents were saying about Jesus during the earliest generations of Christianity. They repeatedly tell us that non-Christians acknowledged Jesus' existence. See here, for example. Given factors like the general reliability of human memory, the easiness of remembering whether a highly public figure like Jesus had existed, and the interest early non-Christians would have had in denying Jesus' existence if they thought they could effectively do so, it's unlikely that Jesus' existence would have been so widely acknowledged if he didn't actually exist.

    Avalos' appeal to Acts 28:22 is problematic for another reason Steve hasn't discussed above. Even if we assume that the passage is wrong, so what? It's not as though the historicity of Jesus depends on whether the Christian movement was spoken against as widely as Acts 28 reports.

    Avalos' use of 1 John 4 is likewise misleading. Judging by what Ignatius and other ancient sources tell us, there were some early heretics who acknowledged an appearance of Jesus' historicity (he seemed to be born of Mary, seemed to be crucified, etc.), but claimed that there was no normal physical existence behind that appearance. They didn't deny that Jesus seemed to exist historically. Rather, they acknowledged the evidence for his existence, but offered an alternative explanation for it. The fact that such a group, which was opposed to Jesus' physical existence, thought they needed to concede an appearance that he existed physically is evidence for Jesus' historicity, not evidence against it. 1 John 4 may be responding to those heretics or a group of a similar nature. Even if Avalos wants to argue that the evidence regarding whether 1 John was responding to such a group is inconclusive, the evidence we have shortly afterward, such as in Ignatius, isn't so ambiguous (e.g., Ignatius' Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 1-4). Where the evidence is most explicit, Jesus' objective existence in Israel during the timeframe in question (whether as a normal human or an entity with the appearance of a normal human) was a fact accepted by both the early Christians and their opponents. His existence is acknowledged by a large number of individuals and groups who were in a good position to know whether he existed and who had an interest in denying his existence if they thought they could effectively do so.

  3. In addition to not mentioning Jesus, many sources contemporary with earliest Christianity or writing shortly after don't mention Paul or the early Christians in general, for example. But how many people who question Jesus' existence would similarly question the existence of Paul or the earliest Christians in general? Authors often didn't mention individuals and groups even if they were familiar with those individuals and groups. Ancient authors, like modern ones, were highly selective in what they reported. Other prominent religious leaders in Israel around the time of Jesus (Gamaliel, John the Baptist, Paul, etc.) also aren't mentioned by contemporaries outside of their religious movement and initially are only mentioned by a small minority of later sources. Ignoring Christianity, including its founder, would have been popular among non-Christians who knew of the movement, but wanted to dishonor it or didn't have a good response to it, for example. There would be many reasons for ancient sources to not mention Jesus and his followers even if they existed and even if their existence was widely known. Craig Keener writes:

    "Without immediate political repercussions, it is not surprising that the earliest Jesus movement does not spring quickly into the purview of Rome’s historians; even Herod the Great finds little space in Dio Cassius (49.22.6; 54.9.3). Josephus happily compares Herodotus’s neglect of Judea (Apion 1.60-65) with his neglect of Rome (Apion 1.66)." (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 64, n. 205)