Recently the name of Ben Witherington came up in a dialogue between bloggers. One blogger was pointing out a consensus position on the provenance of Hebrews, and another brought up a Witherington work as a counter-weight, suggesting that consensus views should not be taken too seriously, because of the tit-for-tat, spy vs spy spectrum of NT scholarship. I think that this "equal time" approach to consensus is flawed and at that point I stepped in and suggested that, if Witherington is irrelevant, it is not because he is a "conservative", but because his approach is transparently apologetic and subjective in nature, sometimes even stubborn in its unwillingness to consider anything outside a pre-defined orthodox reading of the materials. Witherington might be a fine exegete in his own right, and if his pious and insightful (I'm told) commentaries help to reinforce people's faith, then, by golly, more power to him, but his transparently apologetic tendencies make him a very bad choice for any kind of objective debate on anything that veers from his faith.
Since then, I came across this post in Witherington's blog, where he tries to deconstruct the mythicist arguments as put forth in Earl Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle. In this post, he lists what he considers Doherty's basic tenets and takes issue with each in a methodological fashion. He does his best to demonstrate the ahistoricity (even "anti-historicity" as he calls it) of each point. This post of his had me shaking my head in several places, and since Michael Halcomb posted some comments with a link to a Witherington/Levine discussion (synchronicity? :), I thought this would be the perfect time to write a post about why Witherington bugs me so much. It would take a very huge post to touch on everything that bugs me . . . :P . . . . . I'll try to be selective in this critique and keep it short and sweet.
Before I proceed, let me say that what I object to the most about this kind of apologetical browbeating is illustrated in the comments section of his post. Young people seeking pious affirmations for their faith just take people like W at his word and obviously have no idea of how contentious some of the things he offers up as historical givens in fact are. This is how misinformation spreads. An "authority" speaks, and the loyal disciples disseminate.
That's the irony in of all this—it's misinformation complaining about misinformation.
I am neither a historian (my academic training was in engineering) nor a full-fledged mythicist, but my point here is not so much to defend mythicism but only to point out the feeble (though vociferous) apologetic argumentation on W's part.
Anyway . . . let's begin:
Piece No. 1: A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
Here, let me begin by counting a point in Witherington's favor. When I, like him, first read the title of this section used by Doherty, my reaction was to think it was a tad antagonistic. To phrase it like that is to set up a combative accusatory barrier (conspiracies are serious business, no?), and I think that this is an unfortunate mistake on the part of Doherty. It is not helpful, especially because his book is not really a polemic. Witherington points to problems he has with the silence argument:
Witherington:Yes . . .
1) First of all the earliest NT documents chronologically are Paul's letters (written between A.D 49-64 or so) in these letters not only do we hear about Jesus as a historical figure but also Peter, James, John, and a host of others who were eyewitnesses of Jesus' existence, not to mention that there are references that he performed miracles, taught various things and died on the cross.
we generally accept that Paul's letters are the earliest documents chronologically.
I would however place them in the slightly narrower window of between 51-64, but I suspect this has to do with whether one accepts Galatians or 1 Thessalonians as the earliest Pauline account. It makes no big difference for the argument at hand, though, and only I mention this to point out that sometimes what Witherington states as a foregone conclusion—a given— (his Christian-initiate readers may miss this in their eagerness to accept Witherington's faith reinforcing professions as authoritative) is not as "given" in historical scholarship as he would have us believe them to be. I'll call this kind of misleading presentation the everybody-knows-that clause, and I'll try to point out places in his post where I think he is flagrantly engaging in this kind of thing. In this first case, this slightly contentious point has no relevance to the argument at hand and so I colored it amber (the doozies I'll make red).
Yes, the letters of Paul are generally recognized as the earliest record of Christianity, a historical glimpse into Christian teachings that are the closest to the time period in which Jesus is supposed to have lived. Doherty says that Paul does not corroborate any of the narrative details about Jesus' life as described in any of the gospels. I agree with him. I think that seeing such details in Paul is the sort of 20/20 foresight thing I've described before on this blog. Namely, we read the letters of Paul from a perspective of having heard the full story four times already before Paul is even mentioned in the canon. The fact that the earlier texts follow the later ones in their ordering lends to this confused misperception. It's easy to envisage a historical figure behind Paul's elaborate theological constructs (he surely wasn't the only inventor, but the Pauline school is all that survived) only after accepting the biographical narrative as normative first.
But try this little thought experiment: Forget everything you know about the biographical narrative in the gospels (mischievous grin :) and then read Paul without interpolating any gospel material into it. What you'll find is that the only narrative elements which the Pauline letters and the gospels have in common are the death, the burial, and the resurrection of a guy named Jesus. But it's really only these three details where the overlapping stops. There is no mention of anything biographical prior to these. No quotations from his parables or teachings—not even when they would back up his point! (more on this later in the critique) . If Paul was aware of the basic outline of the story of Jesus' life as later set down in the gospels, he shows no interest in passing down the story to the communities in Corinth or elsewhere.
As a side note: My introduction to the mythicist position was actually the work of a Scandinavian gentleman, Alvar Ellegård, not Doherty, but I think both are right in pointing out that when Paul speaks of Jesus, it is of a Christ-Jesus, something which bears many of the tell-tale markings of a legendary figure who has somehow become historicized and divinized.
Other than the mention of his death, all we have left in Paul is . . . . silence.
Paul does mention a Cephas and a few others who seem to serve some kind of apostolic function in Judea and Syria, but he never makes mention of them as "disciples" of Jesus, and when he mentions "the twelve" (if that is not an interpolation, which I think it might be), he does so apart from these other apostles, explicitly.
Again, bracket what the gospels say about Peter and John and James et. al. . . .
If all that had survived to our day had been the Pauline corpus—if the gospels had not been composed during and after the war—we would have almost no historical information at all on either Jesus or any of those others that Witherington presents as Pauline reference to J's humanity. This is a crucial point that should not be glossed over, and I stress it here because it means that we cannot retroactively interject ideas from the gospels and Acts into Paul's letters without calling into question our reason for doing so.
If we are honest, we see that any such ideas almost completely absent in the letters.
THIS is the silence the mythicists are talking about. It may not be a "conspiracy" but it sure is deafening in spots.
2) In the book of Acts written in the second half of the first century we have numerous summaries of the life of Jesus, not to mention clear references to Mary* and the brothers of Jesus as well. Paul also mentions these clearly enough in 1 Corinthians. In short, there is no silence about these figures in our earliest NT documents.
FLAG! — and . . . FLAG!
I'll take those two flags in reverse:
The second flag first: Paul never once mentions Mary in any of his letters.
Ever. And of "brothers" only one is arguable.
The first red flag:
Stating this like this— "written in the second half"— could give the unsuspecting reader the idea that Acts was written somewhere between 50–100. The phrasing here reveals Witherington's tendency to pad the language in favor of "early" dating for canonical works.
First, I think it is fairly easy to demonstrate that even the stodgiest of orthodox scholars place Acts no earlier than about 64–66. But more than that, I wonder if Witherington is aware of the mounting analyses (John Knox, Joe Tyson, Richard I Purvo, David Trobisch and Mikeal Parsons to mention just a few) which posit a later dating of Acts, sometimes even as late as the mid-second century. This red flag is not to argue that case though, but to only to call attention to an everybody-knows-that foul on Witherington's part. The dating of Acts is far from settled. No amount of the kind of scholarly posturing that Witherington engages in will make it "seem" settled.
3) Furthermore, John the Baptist and Jesus are both mentioned not only in the gospels and Acts, but also in Josephus' Antiquities, written in the latter decades of the first century.FLAG!
Witherington knows that the Antiquities were published around 93, so he acknowledges the fact that it was composed "in the last decades" of the century (for this reason—semi-honesty— the flag is not straight-up red), but this is still an instance of padding the language in favor of an early dating of works favorable to one's viewpoint.
Flag aside . . .
I think that everyone who is at least cursorily familiar with historical Jesus studies is aware of the contentious debate regarding how much, if any, of the Testimonium Flavium is authentically Josephan. To go into it here would be unnecessarily silly.
Even if authentic, though, it is hardly a contemporaneous mention of J. To present it as evidence of his historicity is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.
Moreover, as Paul doesn't mention John the baptizer at all, and as Mark's gospel is the very first mention of a connection between these two prophets, it seems plausible (at least defensible) to me that a known historical figure could have been coopted by the authors of the NT to lend credence to an evolving story of a god-man that was desperately in need of such biographical milestones to lend credence to faith, just as they coopted other aspects of Jewish prophetic lore in the process—other examples of this technique in the NT would include Quirinius, Pilate, and Gamaliel.
4) To this we may add the testimony of Tacitus who refers not only to Jesus but to his execution under Pilate.First, calling the Tacitus quote "testimony" is a little laughable, considering that Tacitus was a Pagan. This again reflects W's tendency to pad his language to favor an "orthodox" worldview.
Second, the Tacitus reference dates to the latter part of Tacitus' life (106–116 C.E), which, again, disqualifies it as a contemporaneous account.
Beyond that, some people have suggested that this passage could be a later addition by Christian scribes.
After all, no early Christian writers refer to Tacitus even when discussing the subject of Nero and Christian persecution, although this is an argument from silence.
Still, Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo make no reference to Tacitus when discussing Christian persecution by Nero. It's a fact.
Can we gloss this over?
Once again, I object to Witherington's grandstanding as though the issue was somehow decided in his favor by some imagined consensus. Again, the unsuspecting reader might miscalculate his posturing certitude as authoritative.
But before I give off the impression that I am arguing against Tacitean authenticity here, let me stress that this is not my point here, but only to demonstrate how, by using a condescending castigating tone and an inflated sense of surety, Witherington conceals the contentious nature of some these issues (some of them burning for centuries now).
But, even if the passage is authentic, Tacitus is obviously only repeating what he has heard some of the Christians saying about Jesus. To infer that Tacitus is vouching for the historicity of this Christus (if he had known of Jesus as a historical figure, he surely would have realized that "Christ" was not a name but a title given to him by his later followers) is a huge logical stretch—see piece 4 below.
W closes his "conspiracy of silence argument" with an air of haughty authority:
Witherington:Let's take care of the amber flag first again:
In short, there is no conspiracy of silence about such matters, but rather plenty of evidence. To this should be added the fact that the canonical gospels, which are already known and cited by church fathers in the second century, were all extant in the first century A.D. and are written either by an eyewitness ( the fourth gospel) or by those who had contact with the eyewitnesses (Mark, Luke, and someone who knew Matthew). This is perfectly clear from the testimony of Papias at the end of the first century A.D. (see Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses).
In short, Mr. Doherty has completely failed to do his historical homework on these matters.
He's taking for granted here precisely that which he purports to prove, i.e. that the gospels were complete and in circulation in the first century.
Beyond this . . .
I have read Bauckham's book. I found it underwhelming in its argumentation and transparent in its apologetic function. Like all apologetic works, it will only be persuasive to those who already accept the premises it portends to "prove." While Bauckham has tried in this ambitious work to raise a theological proposition to the level of a historical one (see the last red flag above) I'm amused by Witherington's championing of him as some kind of final say.
When Witherington says, "there is no conspiracy of silence about such matters, but rather plenty of evidence" this may or not be true, but Witherington provides no compelling counter-argument to Doherty's.
Does "doing one's historical homework" consist of accepting Backham's flimsy theses?
I'm afraid that posturing and "sounding" authoritative doesn't really do much by way of argumentation, but instead make Witherington look rather silly and partisan. There's even seems to be a certain desperation to it.
Piece No. 2: A MUTE RECORD WORLD WIDE
Witherington refutes the notion that Jesus probably should have been mentioned by any of a few quasi-contemporaneous historians thus:
Witherington:Well, except that he's not attested to the degree Witherington implies. To say that he is is simply to overstate a very tenuous case. Doherty is perfectly justified in calling the Testimonium Flavianum "inconclusive" in light of the historical controversy surrounding its veracity. To express such shock at this suggestion seems like so much grandstanding to me.
I have already responded to these mistaken notions above, to which can be added Tacitus was not writing the annals in 115 A.D. and shows no evidence whatsoever of having close contact with any Christian community. ( ed. - Isn't the fact that he's mentioning them now evidence that he has in fact had some contact? This is a silly claim on several different levels. :D )As for Josephus those scholars who are experts in the 'Antiquities' are quite clear (ahh . . . I see . . . those who just happen to reinforce his assertion are the experts—the others are not experts at all! . . . they are all obviously hostile to THE truth . . . . I see . . .) -- the references to Jesus in this work cannot simply be written off as later Christian insertions, even in Testimonium Flavianum, where there were some later Christian additions. Doherty's claim that it is 'universally' recognized is simply a canard, which shows he hasn't bothered to even read the scholarship and text criticism on Josephus' work. Far from the Josephus' references being inconclusive, this evidence is decisive. ( OK, Ben, as long as YOU say so ;) Considering that Jesus never wandered from the immediately [sic] vicinity of the Holy Land it is no surprise at all in an age before the internet that he is not widely attested in the first century. Indeed, the surprise is that he is attested both by a Jewish and a Roman historian who had no axes to grind in the matter.
Witherington's passing comment regarding the date of the Annals escapes me. If by it he means that the Jesus reference was written while he was working on his Historiae (circa 106), that doesn't change the fact that it is too late to qualify as a contemporaneous reference.
Other than that, I'd like to add here that, while it doesn't surprise me that none of Jesus' contemporaries mentions him, it does, however, bother me that none of the contemporaries mentions a slaughter of innocents . . . or a night of the living-righteous-undead (Matt.27:51–53)
Silence does speak sometimes— if we listen carefully.
Piece No. 3: REVEALING THE SECRET OF CHRIST
In this section, Witherington objects to Doherty's argument that Paul speaks of Jesus in mythical themes that have no grounding in any historical or biographical information:
Witherington:Is he seriously suggesting that "born of woman" is a biographical reference? With all due respect, this is a laughable notion. The rest of that last quote is obviously just a theological rumination. The fact that Paul here calls Jesus a man says nothing about J's historicity. (Heracles was a man too, no?—just a thought)
This must be seen for what it is-- a bald faced assertion which completely ignores the evidence. Gal. 4 in Paul's earliest letter written in A.D. 49 or so we hear these words " but when the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law to redeem those under the Law." In one of his latest letters we hear: "for there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all."
Witherington:Needless to say, I disagree with the notion that Doherty's is some wildly radical misreading of Paul. But more importantly, I fail to see why Witherington would suddenly leap into invective language right here, calling Doherty "pure polemic" out of the blue, without leading up to that ad hominem conclusion with any kind of argument whatever.
In short, Doherty seems to be channeling the misinformation of the later Gnostic gospels, not the earlier and far more historically grounded canonical ones. Not only does he badly misread Paul, he equally misreads the canonical gospels on these very matters. It is precisely these sorts of remarks which show such ignorance of the earliest Christian sources which lead NT scholars of Christian faith, Jewish faith, and NO faith to completely ignore the pure polemics of Doherty--- he is no historian and he is not even conversant with the historical discussions of the very matters he wants to pontificate on.
Am I the only person who finds this a little weird?
Unless, of course, by "polemic" he means that it doesn't accept a traditional orthodox viewpoint.
Regarding Doherty's credentials as a historian:
I think that Witherington's implication that one needs an advanced degree in history to study these matters is essentially elitist grandstanding.
Two thoughts for him on this.
- "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." —some folk singer
- If it's a doctorate you need to take an mythicist argument seriously, then don't worry, just wait a few months until Richard Carrier completes his PhD review (in history, no less :). Judging by what I've read and heard so far from this young man, I have a feeling that whatever book he produces on this particular subject will probably be groundbraking. At the very least it will render fideist (at heart) rants like Witherington's obsolete and completely ineffectual.
Piece No. 4: A SACRIFICE IN THE SPIRITUAL REALM
Here, Witherington counters Doherty's claim that Paul understood the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection to have happened in some "spiritual realm":
Witherington:Okay, one at a time.
Here again this sort of assertion betrays a complete lack of understanding of Paul's writings, and indeed of early Jewish demonology. In early Judaism demons and evil spirits are involved in the human sphere and in the human realm, as well as in the heavenlies. It is not an either or matter. Paul certainly does not suggest Jesus was crucified and rose in the spiritual realm. To the contrary, Paul recites the early Christian creed in 1 Cor. 15.1-5 that Jesus died and was buried like any other mortal, and then was seen alive on earth after his death. Since Tacitus as well stresses Jesus died a mundane death at the hands of Pilate, on the basis of his knowledge of the Roman records, it is quite impossible to dismiss such evidence, or project it it into a merely spiritual realm. Furthermore, the book of Hebrews is perfectly clear that Jesus suffered and died in Jerusalem, not in some spiritual realm ( see E.G. Heb. 13, or Heb. 7-11). It does refer to Jesus going to heaven after his death and ascension into heaven. But his death is said to be a sacrifice on earth, like that of a passover sacrifice. Once again. Doherty has totally failed to interact with any of the experts on either Paul or Hebrews, and chooses to make up his interpretations as he feels led
First amber flag:
This is too strong a judgement on Doherty considering that, because almost complete dearth of textual data concerning the theological or practical beliefs within Pharisaism (or any other brand of Judaism for that matter), nobody—not even Witherington—can so smugly claim such expertise on ancient Judaic demonology.
First red flag:
Just a continuation of the flag previous, only red this time to reflect my annoyance at his claim to a high understanding of Jewish demonology with the kind of certitude that only serves cover up for the fact that it is based on his own (and others' apologetic works) exegetical parsing and not much else. This kind of confidence I can take from one like Jacob Neusner. From Witherington it just seems to me to be so much grandstanding.
Witherington's understanding of early Judaism is a result of his theological convictions.
Second red flag (and a biggie):
Two points regarding Tacitus (again).
- Whether he wrote the reference to J in 106 or in 115, either is simply too late to matter much in corrobarating J as a historical figure.
- Claiming that Tacitus got the information he relays in his famous reference to J from some official Roman records is very problematic. Here's just a couple of crucial reasons why (there are many more):
- In no civil or census record would a historical Jesus be listed as "Chrestus."
- No official Roman document would have refered to Pilate as a procurator.
- It is simply more likely that he got the information from Christians —i.e., it explains more with less reliance on elaborate rationalizations or conjectures, such as that Rome would hold on to archival documents for damn near a century (I'll call this . . . the Ockham's razor approach :)
I think I'll stop here, lest this post get any longer. But I could go on all night . . . . his post is rather long and it is FULL of unsupported claims like the ones I highlight above.
But I hope this gets my point across.
As a final note, if you think I am too harsh in my assesment of W's stodginess, ask yourself why he is so reluctant to adopt the modern scholarly convention of using BCE and CE when dating events and people.
How does the old expression go?
"The devil is in the details."