Saturday, May 05, 2018


I'd like to consider some stock objections to the historicity of the Gospels, using the Victorian art critic John Ruskin as a comparative reference frame. 

1. Argument from Silence

A stock objection is that if something is only mentioned in one Gospel, or if something is mentioned in the Gospels but not in extrabiblical sources, then it's fictional. Now the argument from silence is sometimes compelling provided that there's an expectation that if someone existed or something happened, there'd be an extant record of that, or that the writing in question would mention it. Likewise, that one Gospel writer may suppress a statement from his source. So goes the argument.

i) Although Ruskin was, among other things, a social critic who wrote extensively about politics, his autobiography (Praeterita) fails to mention Queen Victoria, even though his life spanned her entire reign. 

ii) Ruskin knew Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). In his autobiography, Ruskin mentions that he used to visit the Liddell daughters, including Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for the fictional character by that name in Carroll's two storybooks. Yet in the autobiography, Ruskin never mentions Dodgson, or mentions the relationship between Alice Liddell and the storybooks.

iii) In his autobiography, Ruskin mentions his "friend Rossetti". Actually, there were several family members with that surname. He's alluding to Dante Rossetti, but he fails to mention his brother William or their famous sister Christina. 

iv) In his autobiography, he fails to mention other literary contemporaries like Kipling, Tennyson, and Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot). 

v) In his evangelical youth, Ruskin was friend of Spurgeon, but he fails to mention him in his autobiography. That may be because Ruskin lost his evangelical faith and preferred not to mention that part of his life.

vi) Ruskin fails to mention John Everett Millais in his autobiography, even though he mentions two other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Dante Rossetti and Holman Hunt. As an art critic who championed the Pre-Raphaelites, how could he fail to mention Millais?

The obvious explanation is that Ruskin's wife (Effie Gray) had an affair with Millais. And the reason for the affair was Ruskin's failure to consummate the marriage, which gave rise to a sordid divorce settlement. Ruskin passes over this episode in silence, not because it was unimportant, but because it was such painful and humiliating experience. He didn't want posterity to remember him for that! 

But all these people existed. All these incidents happened. And even when Ruskin is being discreet, he's not redacting a source. He's the source!

2. Compositional devices (conflation)

Michael Licona has classified a number of (alleged) compositional devices in Plutarch, including expansion, conflation, and displacement. Compare that to the following description in Ruskin's autobiography:

I had with me, besides Couttet, a young servant who became of great use to me in succeeding years...But in 1842 another young housemaid came, Anne Hobbs,2 whose brother John Hobbs, called always at Denmark Hill, George, to distinguish him, in vocal summons, from my father and me, became my body servant in the same year, and only left me to push his higher fortune in 1854.3 I could not say before, without interrupting graver matters, that the idea of my not being able to dress myself began at Oxford, where it was thought becoming in a gentleman-commoner to have a squire to manage his scout. My good, honest, uninteresting Thomas Hughes, being vigilant that I put my waistcoat on right side outwards, went abroad with us, instead of Salvador; my father, after the first two journeys, being quite able to do his courier’s work himself. When we came home in ’42, Hughes wanted to promote himself to some honour or other in the public-house line, and George Hobbs, a sensible and merry-minded youth of eighteen, came in his stead. Couttet and he sat in the back seat of the light-hooded barouche which I took for this Italian journey; the hood seldom raised, as I never travelled in bad weather unless surprised by it; and the three of us walked that April morning up the 1 

In these, and other such favorite verses, George Herbert, as aforesaid, was to me at this time, had has been since, useful beyond every other teacher, not that I ever attained to any likeness of feeling, but at least knew where I was myself wrong, or cold, in comparison. 

A little more force was also put on Bible study at this time, because I held myself responsible for George’s1 tenets as well as my own, and wished to set him a discreet example; he being well-disposed, and given to my guidance, with no harm as yet in any of his ways. So I read my chapter with him morning and evening; and if there were no English church on Sundays, the Morning Service, Litany and all, very reverently;2 after which we enjoyed ourselves, each in our own way, in the afternoons, George being always free, and Couttet, if he chose; but he had little taste for the Sunday promenades in a town, and was glad if I would take him with me to gather flowers, or carry stones. I never, until this time, had thought of travelling, climbing, or sketching on the Sunday: the first infringement of this rule by climbing the isolated peak above Gap, with both Couttet and George, after our morning service, remains a weight on my conscience to this day. But it was thirteen years later before I made a sketch on Sunday.3

[It was Harriet and Lucy Tovey whom Ruskin installed in the management of his model tea-shop: see Vol. XXVIII. pp. xviii., 204, 661.] 2 [Daughter of Anne Stone (Mrs. Hobbes, as the name should be spelt), who had been with the family from 1821 to 1824. Anne Hobbes became maid to Ruskin’s mother, and married Mr. George Allen in 1856.] 3 [He went to Australia, became a J.P., a Police Magistrate, and member of the Lands Department in New South Wales. He died in 1892.]

d 1 [“Hobbs, not Herbert,” as Ruskin noted in his copy.] 2 [See the Epilogue to Letters to the Clergy, where Ruskin says that for thirty years of his life he used to read the Service through to his servant and himself (Vol. XXXIV. pp. 217–218).] 3 

i) If we didn't have the background information, some NT critics would conclude that John Hobbs and "George" Hobbs were two different people, maybe brothers, whom the narrator conflated. But as Ruskin explains, there were, at that time, three different "Johns" living under the same roof: John Ruskin, John James Ruskin (père), and John Hobbs. so they dubbed the new manservant (who became Ruskin's valet) "George" to avoid confusion.

ii) In addition, notice how Ruskin begins by referring to "George" Hobbs, then abruptly shifts to George Herbert, then abruptly reverts to "George" Hobbs. If we didn't have the full context, some NT critics would conclude that the narrator confounded two different people.   

3. Compositional devices (expansion, displacement)

Consider the following descriptions of fireflies, which Ruskin witnessed in Italy: 

I have just come in from an evening walk among the stars and fireflies. One hardly knows where one has got to between them, for the flies flash, as you know, exactly like stars on the sea, and the impression to the eye is as if one was walking on water. I was not the least prepared for their intense brilliancy. They dazzled me like fireworks, and it was very heavenly to see them floating field beyond field, under the shadowy vines (1845). 

One evening, as I came late into Siena, the fireflies were flying high on a stormy sirocco wind,--the stars themselves no brighter, and all their host seeming, at moments, to fade as the insects faded (1866).

Last night the air was quite calm, the stars burning like torches all over the sky, the fireflies flying all about, literally brighter than the stars. One came into the railroad carriage and shone clear in full lamplight, settling above my head, but the look of them on the mid-sky above the stars was marvelous, all the while bright sheet-lightning playing on the Florentine mountains. We got here soon after ten, and found it cool and delicious (1870). 

The fireflies are almost awful in the twilight, as bright as candles, flying in and out of the dark cypresses (1870). 

…while Siena, in a hill district, has at this season a climate like the loveliest and purest English summer, with only the somewhat, to me, awful addition of fireflies innumerable, which, as soon as the sunset is fairly passed into twilight, light up the dark ilex groves with flitting torches, or at least, lights as large as candles, and in the sky, larger than the stars. We got to Siena in a heavy thunderstorm of sheet-lightning in a quiet evening, and the incessant flashes and showers of fireflies between, make the whole scene look anything rather than celestial (1870). 

I last saw Charles Norton, under the same arches where Dante saw it [the Fountain of Trevi]. We drank of it together, and walked together that evening on the hills above, where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm before the Gate of Siena's heart, with its golden words, "Cor magis tibia Sena pandit," and the fireflies everywhere in the sky and cloud rising and falling mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars (1889). 

i) If we didn't have dated sources, it would be natural to infer that these were all describing the same event, yet he hadn't met Charles Norton in 1845–while some others describe a meeting in 1870. If you return to the same place during the same season, you may witness repeatable natural scenes. 

ii) Notice how Ruskin varies the language, imagery, and details in his four different descriptions of the same event. Some NT critics would infer these reflect different underlying sources, or narrators redacting a common source.  

iii) In addition, there's a fair amount of backtracking in his autobiography. That's because memory is associative rather than chronological. He begins by writing about his boyhood, then adulthood. But the very process of writing about his life jogs his memory, triggering afterthoughts. After writing about adulthood, he adds stuff from his boyhood. There were no word processors back then, making it too cumbersome to rewrite everything so that all the addenda are in the right chronological order. The anachronisms aren't are compositional device, but reflect the order in which events are recollected. 

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