30 December 2007

slight of hindsight: (it's not in the texts, dude)

Posted by at 2:46 AM Read our previous post
I listened to this debate on the historicity of the resurrection between Richard Carrier and Michael Licona a few days ago. At several points in the debate Licona repeatedly refered to the "fact" of James' conversion from "hostile" to "faithful" as evidence in favor of the historicity of the resurrection. The amateur historian in me winces every time I hear this kind of reasoning. I'm surprised that Carrier didn't call attention to Licona's repeated fallacy.

Let's ask the obvious: What conversion?

I think that arguing from a Jacobean conversion is faulty for various reasons.
First of all, where is this conversion mentioned in the New Testament? One can infer a conversion from the apparent disjunction between two extremes— i.e. on the one hand, from Mark's (3:19–35) portrayal of Jesus' family as essentially antagonistic (they thought him mad), and on the other, from the clear authority that was James' in Jerusalem after Jesus' death (Acts)— but I think that it is only because we are conditioned by tradition that we do this, the texts themselves don't warrant such an inference. Our mind recognizes a logical problem which requires a solution, and the easiest way to resolve this seeming contradiction (for us the faithful inheritors) and to fill in this gap is to posit a "conversion".

We can also infer it from 1 Cor 15 if we wish, but the only thing we really get in that list is a defense of James' right to apostleship as safevouched by his "having seen" the resurrected Jesus; no conversion is described. Part of the problem here is that folks tend to project Paul's christological constructs onto James, and this is something which I think is simply unsupported by the texts. It would be fantastic if we had any extant bits of writing from such early Christians as Apollos or Barnabas or Theclas, so to compare the variegation of christologies as they were being conceived, lived and taught by the apostles, but we simply don't have any of these, and I think it is wrong to ascribe pauline views so universally just because his are the only writings that survived. It's easy to think James was a Christian in the Pauline vein only after being indoctrinated into a formal faith system that presumes to call the meeting between the two leaders the "Jerusalem Council" and which the author of Acts wants you to think ended amicably (yet also conceding to Paul's gentile mission, this despite Yacob's bloodline relation to Jeshua). This is the same kind of pious logic that also anachronistically refers to Cephas as the first "pope".

As a last resort, we may appeal to the weight of "tradition" but then, when we realize that the closest thing to an early reference to a Jacobean conversion that we have available to us is from the second century Gospel of the Hebrews (an excerpt preserved by Jerome), this prospect becomes rather dim.

In short, no conversion of James is mentioned anywhere in the New Testament.

Fast forward a couple of days.

Now even the pope is engaging in this kind of faulty inference:

I finally got around to reading a translation of Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi encyclical. I'll limit my comments on it to just pointing out one of these conditioned (but ill-founded) inferences that he used in it.
Specifically, he included the name of Barabbas in a list of "political activists." My point here is not to engage the pope's main argument in this letter, but to highlight an hermeneutic error. I have always thought that Mark's wording of his very brief description of Barabbas was very vague.

hn de o legomenoV barabbaV meta twn stasiastwn dedemenoV oitineV en th stasei fonon pepoihkeisan.
"And one called Barabbas was being held with the insurgents who had comitted murder during the uprising."

The labeling of Barabbas as a murderer or even as a zealot is not as overt or explicit as one is conditioned to think it is and though he is held "with" the insurgents, he is not necessarily one of them.

But that kind of semantic parsing aside, has it ocurred to the pope that the story of the freeing of Barabbas is most likely fictional? First, no such custom of releasing one Jewish prisoner during Passover, as described in the story, ever existed under Pilate's rule. To hear the gospels tell it, Pilate was afraid of the Jews. On the contrary, the record shows that Pilate was notoriously ruthless in his dealings with them, particularly in his crowd-control techniques. Barabbas is obviously a fictional character. His name in fact is a very good clue to the symbolic function that his character serves in the story. Some of the earliest manuscripts of the gospel include his full name: Jesus Barabbas— Jesus, Son of the father. He's part of a "scapegoat" paralell construction in the gospel. This is clearly a Yom Kippur symbol.

But then again, the pope also refers to Ephesians as though it was an authentic Pauline letter, so it's no wonder that another, more nuanced textual anomally should slide right by him and go over his head.

On a final side note:
I used to respect and admire his predecessor very much, even when I disagreed with his pronouncements.
I cannot say the same thing about this new guy. Basing my opinion on his performance so far, I honestly fear that he might cause more harm than good in his tenure as pope.

I'm hopeful nonetheless.




  1. Mark has no nativity stories, which is why he can portray the family of Jesus as hostile, without contradicting stories which claim that Mary knew she was carrying her Lord and Saviour, the foetus John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb (!!) when the foetus Jesus enters the room etc etc.

    No text of the first century says James was hostile and then converted because he saw a risen Jesus.

    Licona is simply automatically harmonising contradictory texts.

    One text says James was 'hostile'.

    Another says he was a follower.

    Rather than admit a contradiction, Licona says James was hostile and then became a follower.

    There is, of course, no word from any James claiming that he had been hostile or that he had seen a flesh and bones Jesus walking the earth or that this converted him.

  2. I pretty much stop at the word evidence here. The truth is that it's not evidence and it is historical data that offers only a very low probability of basing the resurrection as fact. It assumes that a) this conversion as such happened and that b) such a conversion is evidence of a resurrection. The number of holes in those assumptions are too many to enumerate.

    What if I wrote down on a piece of parchment that I just say Jesus in front of me? Is that evidence of a resurrection? To a very low degree perhaps. Did other people see Jesus? Nope. So my claim is one of extremely low probability since it cannot be tested by any other means than what I tell you. It's circular reasoning du jour!

    Reminds me of a post of mine from a couple months back on Brawndo (from Idiocracy).


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