27 January 2009

transplant thread (mythicism) . . .

Posted by at 9:40 AM Read our previous post
This post started out as a response to a post in Answers in Genesis Busted.
It got too long for a comment and I didn't want to clutter someonbe else's space.

James McG:

"On the first point, I should have said I don't know of any evidence that appears convincing. :)"
(He was replying to my two book suggestions which posit arguments for Jesus being deified as a figure from the remote past during the time of Paul—he had previously said that he "saw no evidence")
I can dig that.
I am not certain that I buy the theories wholesale either (I am skeptical about skeptics too, not just the credulous)
It's about reasonable doubt, though ...
two points that I can't gloss over:
  1. Irenaeus strongly implies that Jesus was in his mid-fifties at the time of his death.
  2. The rabbinical writings explicitly refer to Jesus as having been killed under Alexander Janneus.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't argue that there are any useful historical data in these. Not at all. But the very fact that people relatively close to the events in question had such widely scattered datings for Jesus, that is, the fact that the matter was open to such varied speculation later by both Christian and Jewish authors, seems a little suspect to me. Paul doesn't date Jesus. The apologist claim that the road to Damascus episode happened a mere five years or so after Jesus' death can only be justified if the late book of Acts is read back into the epistles, which is highly problematic (i.e. bass ackwards).

James seems to agree with me here when he says:
"Historical critical scholarship has not simply investigated what we can know about Jesus and early Christianity. It has raised serious challenges to the reading back into the New Testament of the later church's doctrines and dogmas. That too needs to be part of a critical approach to these questions."

"On the second point, Paul states that there were other Christians, "those reputed to be pillars", individuals more widely recognized as leaders than he was (they seem to have already been leaders when Paul was still persecuting the church), whose work was aimed at a Jewish audience. And so it seems problematic to treat those elements that Paul and his circle introduced as the original characteristics and defining features of the movement."


I have asked the following questions before with no reply:
  • How long had he studied under Gamaliel?
  • What form did Paul's persecution of Christians take?
  • What made Paul turn into such a thug? Was he a zealot? A sicarii?
  • If sanctioned by authentic Jewish authorities. . . Is there any precedent in Jewish history up until that time of such Jewish' persecution of apostate offshoots?
Besides all that . . .
When I lauded Gerd Lüdemann's thesis regarding the dearth of historical information regarding "Christ Jesus" in the Pauline corpus on my own blog, James' response to me there seems to suggest that he accepts that there is not much there in Paul that's relevant to J's historicity after all. (Correct me if I am misreading that, James, please.) If Paul is then talking about a mythical figure . . . . then what other sources do we have to base anything on?

Yes, Paul's epistles do reveal (I agree) Jerusalem as the epicenter of the story (perhaps even of a proto-kerygma) that very likely predates the communities he himself founded and that they looked to the "three pillars" as authorities in some way.
What do we really know about these pillars, though?
  1. They insisted on circumcision.
  2. They insisted on keeping kosher.
  3. They were annoyed at Paul.
  4. Paul kinda resented them in return, even while conceding to their authority.
They sound like pious Jews (more or less).

Do we have any textual (or other) evidence (other than Paul's sometimes-indignant letters) which leads us to believe that they subscribed to any of the christological and or pan-inclusive constructs that Paul was preaching?

Perhaps this continuity between Judaism–Paulinism is only there to those who wish to see it. Perhaps what we have here is a case where a self-appointed franchise started selling a product that was much different than the original.

I think the main problem with a lot of mythicists is that they get stuck on the question of whether Jesus actually existed or not. THis question is a dead end.
Instead, once it is realized that virtually EVERYTHING in the texts has narrative precedents in the Hebrew scriptures or has been synchretically assimilated from precedents in neighboring Pagan traditions (Price's "amazing shrinking son of man" metaphor is an apt one), the question of the historicity of Jesus is reduced to a futile one—indeterminate—like dividing by zero. If it can be demonstrated that the origin of the story is almost purely legendary (whether there was a person named Jesus or not) then the question is moot.
The theological accretions are so thick and so ancient that any attempt to remove them to reveal the form of one human life underneath is futile and self-defeating from the git-go. As analogy, imagine the way that coral and barnacles will grow around a sunken ship, using its general form, its length and girth, as an under-girding matrix. Eventually, though, the wood and metal that once comprised the boat rotted away, and what was left was a rather amorphous crusty outline. The removal of the barnacles and reef destroys the form of the thing we are trying to examine.

Mythicists really need to stop arguing against Jesus’ historicity and instead stress the fact that the story of Jesus is very probably a synchretic patchwork of legendary material.

To conclude by getting back to the James' point on the three pillars and Paul:

If there indeed was a historical Jesus, he would make infinitely more sense to me as a man somehow exalted by this early, very obscure, Jerusalem group. Unfortunately, we know little more about them other than that they were explicitly upset about their messianic figure's cooption by Paul and the goyim.

A messianism based on a person named Jesus is conceivable in pre-Revolt Jerusalem to me. Sure. But, Paul's bravado nonwithstanding, without textual corroboration, it would be quite a leap to attribute pauline christology to this early group of people that we know so little about.

We must be cautious when trying to assign attributes to such an unknown as this.





  1. Where are the passages in the writings of Irenaeus to which you refer? I would be very interested in reading them

  2. AIGB:
    Heresies (ii, 22, 5)

    (see here.)

    He is arguing against the gnostics in this passage. The inattentive eye might think that he is pointing to a specifically gnostic error, but in fact, he is arguing against the common perspective of the synoptic gospels there, which is, as we all know, that Jesus was barely thirty at the time of his death.


  3. You'll find a plethora of information that (evidenced in this page) none of you are aware of in the Netzarim website, particularly in their History Museum pages and glossary entries:

  4. There have been some good books on Jesus in rabbinic tradition, including relatively recently Peter Schaefer's Jesus in the Talmud. It seems to me fairly clear that a number of individuals named "Joshua" (i.e. "Jesus") get combined as later rabbis engage in polemic against Christians. I touch on this a little in my article "Was Jesus Illegitimate?" in the JSHJ, I think. Jesus ben Pandera was not originally the same individual as Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshu ha-Notzri), since there is no other example of an individual being known as "name son of illegitimate father". The polemical version we find in Celsus probably does come from Jewish sources, but seems to be responding to the Matthean story of Jesus' birth, rather than vice versa.

    Thanks for the detailed interaction!

  5. James;
    Yeah, I agree that it's clear that polemicists were "quote-farming" many Yoshuas into their thing. There are as many Yoshuas in the Talmud as there are in Josephus (what was it, like #3 or #4 on Tal Ilan's catalogue?).

    It kinda reminds me of the way the post-apostolics combed through Josephus to find some references to Jesus. They couldn't find a convincing Jesus reference in the right time period, but they found a vague one for a "Yacob" they could use.

    Still, the polemicists would have KNOWN that Janneus is WAY too early a(n other) Yeshua to pick on. Right? I mean, at least keep it to the Roman Period . . . . y'know? That's just weird to me.

    an asides braisntorm:
    What if the Talmud's "son of an illegitimate father" (as you say) is a play-on-words-jab directed at Mark's—ergo Matt— attempt at a Yom Kippur symbol (the Bar Abbas pericope).


  6. This is interesting. I do have a question though: How come Irenaeus did not know that his timeline for Jesus was way off base?

    It's extremely odd considering that he would have written this way in the late second century, after gospels would have long been in circulation and long after I suspect Jesus historicism became common place in the church (which I think was around the early second century).

    The only way I can see of making sense of this (on the mythicist theory) is if there were many allegorical tales of Jesus going around and the historicization of Jesus happened multiple times. But then, what happened to all these other gospels or oral traditions? Either they got lost or went extinct after the council of Nicea decided on the official version of Christianity. But this is all very speculative and so I'm not going to call this evidence for mythicism.

  7. One more thing: I would think that it may easily be the case that Irenaeus read about Jesus Ben Pandera and got confused, or that he was passed down a confused and inaccurate tradition of Jesus.

    Either interpretation, I believe, fits the evidence, and so I don't think we can really go either way.


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