Friday, 13 February 2015

Evangelical Hero-Worship

In my days as an evangelical Christian, one thing that struck me was how much certain people, often theologians, attracted hero-worship within the movement. This was to such an extent that it bordered on idolatry, at least within the paradigm of evangelicalism. Back in my day, such “gods” were people like John Stott, F.F. Bruce, or even the-then-emergent Richard Bauckham. Note that of course they were all men.

How little has changed in the intervening decades! At least, the heroes have somewhat changed, as new ones have come along and old ones have faded from memory, but the same cult of personality persists.

Prof. Holloway (H.T. Otagosh)
This phenomenon has not gone without challenge, but when a certain Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament at the University of the South (USA), objected to an honour being bestowed on object-of-evangelical-idol-worship, Professor N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham (England) and current professor of New Testament at St Andrews University (Scotland), all hell was unleashed, at least online, from a significant section of the evangelical faithful.

Holloway’s “crime” is to out Wright as an apologist rather than a scholar. He did this in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper at the University of the South (available here).

Anyone familiar with Wright’s work would know this denunciation to be correct. Wright is a virulent homophobe who used his unjustified privilege in the British parliament's House of Lords to promote his bigoted views. He writes copiously about the New Testament, but always with a slant on trying to prove the NT correct in some way, in order to please biblical-inerrantists and assorted fundamentalists.

In Holloway’s brief letter, he mentions Wright’s homophobia, before moving on to his main objection to Wright being bestowed an honorary degree from Holloway’s own University, namely that the University

…has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

One of the problems of short letters to newspapers is that there is simply no room to set out one’s evidence for one’s claims. Anyone who wasn’t intimately familiar with Wright’s work might not realise the truth of Holloway’s claim – his fellow evangelicals are certainly not going to let on.

Of course Wright was a bishop in the Church of England, and so some people might suspect he is not the most independently-minded kind of person. The See of Durham was traditionally awarded to someone with some theological expertise or insight, but after David Jenkins showed too much insight in the post for the Church of England’s liking in the 80s and early 90s (he questioned the virginal conception and implied that the resurrection was not merely “a conjuring trick with bones”) the bishopric has subsequently gone to evangelicals, who will toe a very conservative doctrinal line. The sequence of Durham bishops to follow Jenkins shows this very clearly: Michael Turnbull, Tom (N.T.) Wright, Justin Welby (now Archbishop of Canterbury), Paul Butler. So no source of inspiration can be found any longer from Durham!

Evangelicals have, of course, already infiltrated university theology faculties the world over, adopting a veneer of academic respectability whilst churning out their bible-is-right-as-has-been-predetermined material in ever growing quantities. Non-evangelicals look on in dismay as their discipline is reduced from research into apologetics. This has undoubtedly led to Holloway’s letter, which at times uses some language that I wouldn’t have chosen. Nonetheless, well done Prof Holloway for speaking out!

Then came the backlash.

Some of this backlash you can see in the comments online below Holloway’s letter. Whilst there is some support for the professor’s stand, the evangelicals have got organised, and it worries me, to an extent, where this might lead.

For now, some of the evangelical comments are quite amusing (not intentionally). I particularly like one from a certain Dan V Bennett (I hope I’ve parsed his name correctly), which I wondered initially whether it was an intentional parody, but on reflection I don’t think it is, particularly as it starts off with a valid point – that Holloway isn’t a “book a year” apologist, he writes rather more than that; I haven’t checked this, but it seems to me likely to be correct, at least until he wrote his recent tome on Paul.

Bennett includes gems such as:

[Wright additionally produces] endless lectures, debates and sermons delivered in a schedule that would exhaust men a third his age.
 N T Wright is a living saint. His YouTube videos alone have carried the Gospel as forcefully, with as much true Christian love as any Evangelist in Christs’ [sic] service today.
 Just so we don’t miss it, let me repeat: N T Wright is a living saint. He is a soul-saving Christian brother who radiates the Truth of the Gospel with love, modesty and humor to the world at large.
 Next time, Dr Holloway, I suggest you limit your rants an [sic – perhaps “to” is meant] in-house email. Using N T Wright as a keyword will only bring his thousands–millions?–of supporters to his defense [sic].

Fantastic! I had forgotten how much we evangelicals revered our super-heroes. In my time as an evangelical, I did have an evangelical friend who had the insight to point this out; but that level of insight was rare in evangelical circles.

For another example of this kind of evangelical love-fest, take a look at how Professor Larry Hurtado fawns over Professor Richard Bauckham’s review of his work (here). Hurtado doesn’t offer this kind of veneration to anyone outside the evangelical fold – you should see his disdain for Professor Bart Ehrman, to whom he had to apologise recently for falsely imputing financial motives to Ehrman for some of his work, when in fact Ehrman gives the money to charity (here “And, if colleagues such as Ehrman have no personal stake in the matter, why the repeated readiness to engage in those public debates? Simply the handsome fee involved? Maybe.”)

Finally, I thought I’d mention one trick used by evangelicals: a slight denigration. Professor Nijay Gupta, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, wrote a blog article where he, unsurprisingly given his evangelical stance, took issue with Holloway’s objection to Wright receiving an honour (here).

There are many fallacious arguments he raises there, some of which are dealt with by others (see Otagosh, or, if you can stand the mythicism, Vridar, the latter having a nice, but unprovenanced quote from retired Professor Niels Peter Lemche). But something I noticed was how he dealt with the titles of the 2 professors involved: Wright he accords as “professor”, but Holloway gets merely “doctor” from Gupta. So I wrote a comment on Gupta’s site questioning this.

Rather than deal with this slight of hand openly, Gupta has taken refuge behind a webpage on the university site which accords both titles to Holloway; Gupta fails to mention that this page also describes him as “professor”. He also fails to mention that the university directory lists Holloway as “professor”. Also he is strangely silent about the fact that Professor Holloway’s original letter was signed “Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament”. Instead, the technicality of one webpage using the title “doctor” alongside “professor” is sufficient for Gupta to think he can get away with this.

Of course the onslaught from the evangelicals has only just started. I hope Holloway can get through this. Standing up for what’s right isn’t easy; good on him that he’s got this far in face of the opposition.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Updating the Blogrolls

I've done some work to update the blogrolls on the right-hand side of this site. Some of the blogs had changed address, I've removed one which promoted an extraordinary amount of homophobia and miscellaneous hatred, and I've added others which I hope will bring some variety and interesting topics for those who'd like to take a look.

Please let me know what you think.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Doubting Jesus' Resurrection - A Review (Part 3)

After the frivolity of The Life of Brian let's get back to the more serious stuff.
In chapter 1 of Doubting Jesus' Resurrection (DJR), Komarnitsky addresses the empty tomb legend. When people read the New Testament they probably start reading the four gospels; indeed some people never get beyond them! But for those who do make it as far as Paul's letters, which are now placed in printed editions after the four gospels and indeed after Acts of the Apostles, it will already be established in their minds that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was discovered empty a few days later.

The Resurrection According to Paul
However Paul, who was writing his epistles long before the gospels were written, never mentions such a tomb, and certainly not an empty one. To be fair, he does say Jesus was buried*, and rose again, but he never says anything about his burial, whether it was in a tomb or in the ground, or whether the place that he was buried was ever found empty. Most readers, of course, won't notice this when they read Paul's epistles because they already "know" that Jesus was buried in a tomb subsequently found empty because they have already read the gospels; thus they harmonize in their minds (or their churches harmonize it for them) what Paul has to say with what the gospel writers had to say.

Komarnitsky first attends to the question of why should Paul have written about the tomb, empty or not. After all, he was writing not to set out the story of Jesus, rather he was addressing particular issues that had arisen in the churches with which he was corresponding. Komarnitsky rightly points out, though, that in 1 Corinthians the "resurrection of the body" had become just such a particular issue, and Paul spends quite some time dealing with it, using Jesus' presumed resurrection as a model in his argument. Indeed, as you read 1 Corinthians 15 and see his detailed arguments about "the resurrection of the body", both Jesus' and those who had died in Christ, "it is hard to understand why Paul did not mention a discovered empty tomb if he knew about it." (Komarnitsky's italics, chapter 1, paragraph before endnote 3).

Sometimes christian apologists try to argue that Paul does, in some undetectable way, imply the existence of an empty tomb (I remember one arguing this on the former Richard Dawkins forum which has sadly been deleted so I can no longer find our conversation). I think this kind of argument shows that these christian apologists recongnise that there is an issue here, and they want to find a way of reading into 1 Corinthians that there was an intimation of an empty tomb; I think that unwittingly they are surrendering the case that Paul's resurrection is different in this respect to the gospel writers' resurrection.

Komarnitsky picks up on some other explanations that christian apologists can give in this area, and shows how unconvincing they are. In summary (and a good one at that) he cites Geoffrey Lampe:

  If Paul and the tradition which he cites lay no emphasis on the [discovered] empty tomb the question arises whether Paul nevertheless may have known of it. Many New Testament scholars hold that he did. Certainly it would be quite unsafe in the ordinary way, to infer that he did not from the fact that he does not actually allude to it. But in this case I think the argument from silence has unusual force. For the situation in which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying that there is a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12). In answer to them Paul marshals every possible argument, and in particular, he adduces the known fact that Jesus was raised from the dead as the foundation for belief in the future resurrection of Christian people. If Jesus' resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he raises consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known that the tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.
  (DJR, chapter 1 at endnote 4, citing from GWH Lampe, "Easter: A Statement" in The Resurrection, ed. William Purcell, 1996, p.43)

Paul's version of the resurrection is thus easier to argue for. He doesn't need any supernatural force to leave physical evidence like an empty tomb. His idea of the resurrection thus seems more primitive than Mark's (which is itself the most primitive of the 4 canonical gospel's resurrections). And it is to Mark's gospel that Komarnitsky turns next.

The Resurrection According to Mark
DJR presents material here that will be known to some bible-reading christians, but it is still surprising to find how many don't yet know this information. The important thing about Mark's account of the resurrection is that the gospel originally ended at chapter 16 verse 8, and everything that you read in your copy of the bible after this verse has been added by later individuals who were clearly not satisfied with the abrupt way Mark's gospel originally concluded. Almost all bible translations now indicate this piece of information in at least a footnote (check your bible version out - if it doesn't, you really shouldn't be using that translation!) and the matter has been known about for some considerable time now. It still amazes me that many bible translations continue to print verses of Mark's gospel after 16:8, and that generally only an easily-missed footnote is included which, if lucky, might catch the reader's eye to alert him/her that late material has been added.

But what is the effect of the fact that the earliest form of Mark stopped at chapter 16 verse 8? Well for one thing, although there is a discovered empty tomb in the earliest form of Mark's gospel, there are no narrated resurrection appearances.

If you were previously unfamiliar with that fact, you might need a moment for it to sink in. The earliest gospel in the bible has an empty tomb, but no account of any resurrection appearances. Sure, earlier on Mark had a prediction of a resurrection appearance (see below), but didn't think it necessary to outline what actually happened. Other people came along later and added appearances to Mark's gospel.

Note also that Mark's resurrection is the converse of Paul's in this respect:

  Paul: Empty tomb
  Appearance stories ✔︎
  Mark: Empty tomb ✔︎
  Appearance stories
That's not to say that Mark is unaware of appearance traditions. Just before he concludes his gospel he has a "young man" telling the two Marys who had come to the (empty) tomb:

  ἀλλὰ ὑπάγετε εἴπατε τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ τῷ Πέτρῳ ὅτι προάγει ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν· ἐκεῖ αὐτὸν ὄψεσθε, καθὼς εἶπεν ὑμῖν.
  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, "He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." (Mark 16:7)

This is a reference back to something that Mark had Jesus predict a couple of chapters earlier:

  ἀλλὰ μετὰ τὸ ἐγερθῆναί με προάξω ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν.
  But after the raising [of] me I will go before you to Galilee. (Mark 14:28)

So it could be that Mark's account of the empty-tomb-version of the resurrection was written precisely to introduce, or at least propagate, a new idea that "proves" the resurrection actually happened - i.e. testimony is drawn up (to order?) that some people saw where Jesus was buried, and that this place was empty a few days later. The tale that Jesus was actually buried has to be quite complicated - Joseph of Arimathea has to be introduced as a member of the Sanhedrin (which has just asked for Jesus to die), have him request Jesus' body and have Pilate grant it to him, all of which seems far fetched. Then women have to be introduced who watched proceedings from afar and thus know where the body is put without raising suspicion, while the disciples have, of course, all fled. All very contradictory and unlikely.

And there's another interesting aspect to Mark's tale here which Komarnitsky picks up on. The very last verse of Mark's gospel does not say that the women spread the news of what they had just seen, as per the instructions of the "young man". Instead (Mark 16:8) they were afraid and they said nothing to anyone.

Note how this fits in well with the introduction of this new empty tomb story. The invention of such a story at the time Mark was composing his gospel (generally put around 70CE) entails a problem: why did nobody previously know that there had been an empty tomb all along? Well it was because the women didn't tell anyone - you see they were afraid. Ta da!

The rest of the first chapter of DJR is devoted to examining how the other gospels took over and adapted Mark's story of the empty tomb, adding appearances of Jesus to various individuals and, in the case of Matthew, a defense against the charge that Jesus body could have been stolen from this empty tomb (well it was guarded by soldiers, you see - strange though that Mark's women - nor Luke's - didn't mention them).

The overall point of this chapter of DJR is to show that the idea that Jesus rose from the dead did not come about from a discovery of an empty tomb. Rather it was the other way round: the story of the empty tomb came about because of an already existing belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

So, how was that earlier resurrection story born?

 *It is of interest that Paul says Jesus was buried, because we know that often victims of crucifixions weren't buried, rather their bodies were left on crosses to act as a deterrent to others to behave in the same criminal or seditious manner. The bodies would eventually be eaten as carrion by the local wildlife. DJR comes to this matter later on in the book, but for now I shall note in passing that the Jesus and Brian conference I've just attended pointed out how The Life of Brian was again accurate in this matter; in one scene Brian and his mother Mandy pass close to a couple of rotting corpses on crosses just outside the walls of Jerusalem (see video above). Thumbs up again to Brian's attention to detail!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Jesus and Brian - or "What have the Pythons done for us?"

A little break from my series. I have been attending this 2½ day conference in London which is an amazing combination of  the serious and the jovial: biblical criticism and the best Monty Python film - arguably the funniest film - ever produced. It's a marvellous excuse for stuffy biblical critics to let their hair down, and for some of them get paid (!) into the bargain.

The conference programme has seen talks from far-flung experts all gathering in London, plus some well-known, home-made British figures contributing their already acknowledged expertise. Philip Davies shared the stage at one point with James Crossley, both of whom are published authors on this subject. 

The conference has been addressed by 2 "Pythons" themselves, Terry Jones and John Cleese, which has been great fun. Time and again there have been positive comments from the biblical critics about how well-informed the film was about some of the details of scholarship in historical Jesus studies, much to the bemusement of John Cleese (and probably Terry Jones as well, although it was difficult for him to get a word in edgeways when Cleese was in full flow!)
Terry Jones (getting a word in edgeways), John
Cleese (in a rare moment of calm) and Richard Burridge

George Brooke, a well known expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls from Manchester University, managed to raise a rueful laugh amongst the assembled professorship when he noted that the Pythons, before they wrote the script for the film, had actually gone and read the Scrolls, in contrast to the practice of most of his students.

Whilst not every portrayal in the film of 1st century Judean life in the film has held up to scrutiny, it is remarkable how much has done so. So, for example, there was some debate as to how much resistance and resentment there was towards the Romans actually at the time of Jesus' ministry and death - obviously there was rather a lot in the 60s CE, but how much of this, as per the portrayal of the film, went back to the setting of the film in the 20-30s? N.B. The on-screen titles put the action at, "Judea AD 33... Saturday Afternoon... About Tea Time".

Shocking and Blasphemous?
There was also some considerable discussion about how shocking, or even blasphemous, the film had set out to be. Cleese and Jones maintained that this had not been their intention; they had been clear that it was not a parody of Jesus himself, rather it was a dig at people who were silly enough to impose their ideas on a poor, unfortunate contemporary of Jesus, Brian; if Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge (in a famous 1979 chat show interview with John Cleese and Michael Palin) had thought they were lampooning Jesus, this was because they had missed the first 15 minutes of the film; thus they had failed to understand that Brian and Jesus were not supposed to be one and the same person. Cleese even went on to say at the conference that he didn't feel he could parody Jesus, because so much that Jesus had to say was really rather sensible; it was many of his followers who deserved the ridicule.

This found support, rather oddly, in the person of Revd Canon Prof Richard Burridge (I've given his titles so you can see where you might have thought he would be coming from), who agreed that the opposition of the churches to the film in 1979 and early 1980s had been one big mistake. James Crossley in turn took issue with this, pointing out that whilst the film did distinguish between Brian and Jesus, nonetheless there were clear parallels between the 2 characters: both were born in the same neighbourhood, they had questionable paternity, Mandy (not Mary) was asked if she was a virgin, Brian was sometimes referred to as "Brian of Nazareth", they both were reticent to accept the title "messiah" (the Messianic Secret seems to have been a concept that the Pythons had come across), they both preached apocalypticism (for Brian this was briefly, reluctantly and by accident), they were both misunderstood by their followers, they were both crucified, etc.. So wasn't the ridicule that the film piled on Brian, or at least the situation he found himself in, really directed at the gospels' portrayal of Jesus? Whilst Crossley is a great speaker and had assembled a case, I do think counter arguments could be made to much of this.

The only time when there was serious disagreement though was when Paula Fredriksen and Bart Ehrman were both quizzed by one member of the audience (sorry I don't know his name) who was surprised to be told that the majority, and a large one at that, of historical Jesus scholarship continues to understand Jesus as being an apocalypticist. This criticism seems to follow the ideas of John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack. I do feel that this nameless interrogator really didn't stand a chance - his questioning felt as effective as Otto's crack suicide squad.

I think the prize for originality must go to Katie Turner and her talk on clothing in the first century. I hadn't imagined this subject was going to be quite so fascinating. Turner is a PhD student at King's College London which was hosting the event, and she had clearly looked into this issue in some detail. She was able to show that, whilst not perfect, The Life of Brian had got its first century costuming much more accurate than any other film or documentary on 1st century Palestine. Indeed it was more authentic in this regards than 2 documentaries, one each made by The History Channel and the BBC; and The Life of Brian was even more accurate than Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ. All this despite these latter works claiming to have a high degree of authenticity and accuracy. Her information and accompanying slideshow were most impressive.

Ehrman laid into those who have been arguing that eyewitness testimony was a corrective factor in the transmission of the gospel stories, helping them to be reliable. He presented a brief but devastating critique of the idea that eyewitness were available and able to help preserve an accurate tradition which has ended up in the canonical gospels. He didn't have to name arch evangelical Richard Bauckham and a small band of followers who have picked up on Bauckham's theme - everyone in the room knew who he was talking about. I was pleased to hear someone trying to stop this rot, and Ehrman certainly knows how to sock it to people.

Who were absent? Well Mark Goodacre attended the first 2 days, but wasn't giving an address, which surprised me given his interest in films. You can see his two reports here and here.

John Cleese mentioned that the film had got a much better reception in the protestant north of Europe than in the more catholic south. I have to admit that amongst the international audience at the conference (and amongst the presenters, for that matter) I did not detect anyone from France, Spain, Portugal nor Italy. But there was one Brazilian who even said she was struggling with her English, which raises the question of how she coped with the film.
John Cleese's after-dinner speech
Northern Europe was represented most memorably by a Norwegian delegate who proudly asked a question of Cleese just after the Python had said that the silliest question he had ever been asked was by a Norwegian! I'm most familiar with France amongst the southern European catholic countries, and I would modify Cleese's comment slightly in respect of this country: the film is popular, but it hasn't received the cult status that it has in Britain and parts of North America.

I think overall Cleese's comment is largely correct though, and probably this is due to another aspect that was widely discussed during the weekend. In order to understand the parody that the film offers, you have to be familiar with the subject matter that it is parodying. For example, to understand (get) "Blessed are the cheese-makers" (and all those in associated dairying industries!) you have to be au fait with the sermon on the mount/plain and "Blessed are the peace-makers". This level of basic biblical literacy is probably slightly more to be found in dominantly protestant countries than catholic ones.

But there is another reason for its popularity in this domain, that is that the film is thoroughly British. Even the close links with the largely Anglo-Saxon countries of the USA and Canada don't guarantee total comprehension. In this respect Cleese cited what audiences made of the character Reg and the minutiae of the disputes within his group and with other splinter groups - the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, etc.. I had taken these scenes, as it turned out, correctly; they were intended to be a parody of British trade unionism and tiny extreme left-wing political groups (Socialist Workers Party, etc.), and their tendency to fall out with each other over entirely insignificant details rather than concentrate on the bigger picture of what they were trying to achieve. In America, because they were unfamiliar with these finer points of British political life, filmgoers tended to understand these scenes to be a parody of Middle Eastern political groupings. Goodness knows what Southern European countries thought!

Insider Information?
Julian Doyle, who edited the film, stayed with the weekend's proceedings throughout, and gave an interview at the end. He also asked many questions and made many points during the whole conference. He could pick people up on the finer points of the film quite easily, and had clearly read some biblical research as well, although he was not so strong in this latter area. One thing that was quite interesting from a biblical critical point of view was his descriptions of the difficulties involved in putting on the performance. The film was largely shot in Tunisia, reusing sets from Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. This certainly helped bring the film along and kept the costs down.

The idea of mishearing Jesus' sermons ("Blessed are the cheese-makers") seems to have come from the practicalities that were experienced in doing scenes with large numbers of crowd actors. Doyle also described the difficulties in sourcing sufficient quantities of wood to make the crosses - Tunisia isn't known for its trees, and nor is Judean Palestine. He mentioned biblical references to importing wood from the Lebanon, and very much sympathised with the predicament of those who needed quantities of wood in the biblical period. He went on to describe the difficulties in cutting the wood and indeed the construction of the crosses.

I think this demonstrates how trying actually to re-enact something, so-called "presentation criticism", can bring useful insights into the ancient texts.

Finally a word about how the talks were given. Most speakers delivered their addresses from a written script, and as the lectern was set quite low, this gave them some difficulty in maintaining eye-contact with the audience. In fact some of them were so hunched over the podium, I got the impression they were having difficulty making out their notes. One speaker was even quite difficult to hear, possibly because of this strained posture.

Only a couple of speakers (Steve Mason comes to mind as one of them) gave a polished performance, that is not relying on orally delivering a paper line-for-line from its written form, and these freer talks were much more pleasant to listen to, in large measure due to the much easier flow that this approach gave. Even consummate rhetorician, Bart Ehrman, spoke from his notes, although it must be admitted his delivery was better than others - he tripped over his text less than many others, probably because of his considerable experience at events like this.

I do think that professionals who give such talks really need to abandon the robotic delivery-verbatim-from-a-written-text approach. It can turn an interesting subject into a very dull, dry experience. My suggestion is that speakers learn the main points they wish to get across; perhaps they need to write out bullet points as an aide-memoire; but my mantra would be, "Don't read out word-for-word your own paper".

Despite these criticisms the event was thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and informative. A video of the event is being produced, and I understand that when it is edited it will be put on the Kings College London Youtube channel. If it shows the presentations well, it will be very much worth a look.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Doubting Jesus' Resurrection - A Review (Part 2)

In my last post I explained the idea behind this book - to examine how the stories of the resurrection of Jesus got started and developed over time. Turning to Komarnitsky's introduction, it is obviously here that he sets out the general theme of the book.

Words, words, words...
There is one thing I wanted to pick up on. He introduces some of the terms he is going to use; and here he comes up against a problem that those of us who write in this field face, namely how do you refer to the views of scholars who aim to examine the data on as-neutral-a-basis-as-they-can-achieve in contrast to those who impose a doctrine of inerrancy on the text and force the data into that paradigm?

Here is Komarnitsky's way of dealing with this issue:
  In general terms, traditional scholarship argues that the four canonical Gospels are historically reliable and that as a group they form a powerful combination of independent attestation of events. In contrast, non-traditional scholarship argues that none of the gospels can be considered historically reliable, and none are truly independent from the others because they all draw from a common pool of circulating oral traditions and/or from each other. [Introduction just after endnote 4]

My italics. And just a little later:
  (SIDE NOTE: This book will use the terms "traditional" and "non-traditional" to refer to the two sides of the resurrection issue - the traditional side believing that Jesus did resurrect from the dead, and the non-traditional side believing that he did not. This designation is an attempt to avoid the baggage that usually comes with terms like critical/uncritical, liberal/conservative, and skeptic/believer.) [Introduction immediately after endnote 5]

I'm not sure that Komarnitsky is entirely consistent in this book with these designations, nor that really they get through the well-established problem successfully. When he refers to non-traditional scholars he is content to include inerrantists. As I have written elsewhere, inerrantists are anything but scholars; scholars have to be free to accept evidence-based conclusions wherever they lead, inerrantists are not. Inerrantists are apologists at best, and have no place in the guild.

Outside of inerrancy, I'm happy to accept that there are scholars who do believe in some kind of resurrection event. Is it reasonable to describe these people as traditional scholars? It's probably a question of degree. I suspect many scholars who do believe in a resurrection event would be more than a little surprised to find themselves as "traditional", largely because they have spent much of their academic lives rejecting, modifying and updating traditional scholarship; perhaps on this point they could be described as traditional, but even here, given the diversity of understanding about exactly what the resurrection event was like, I'm not sure that this is a helpful description.

I guess ultimately authors have to make their way through the jungle and make sense of a complicated picture for their lay readership, and Komarnitsky has made a stab at this.

The Players
On one side of the debate Komarnitsky talks about "The Jesus Seminar" and will make reference to them from time to time in DJR. It might have been helpful here to spell out what the Jesus Seminar was a little more. Also, as there are rather more skeptics than just the Jesus Seminar, and as some of the views of the Jesus Seminar haven't held up well over time, it would have been useful to give more examples of scholars who do not consider that Jesus rose from the dead.

So here's a very brief explanation of the Jesus Seminar. In 1985 American biblical critic Robert Funk set up a group of scholars (initially about 30, but later many more joined) to sift through the words and deeds of Jesus to try to determine which ones were more likely to be historical and which were less likely to be so. Over the years the Seminar published a few works setting out their conclusions.

At the other end of the spectrum from the Jesus Seminar, Komarnitsky frequently cites from inerrantists or those who are so close to inerrancy as makes no odds. For example throughout the work we will hear from Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Lee Strobel, N.T. Wright, Craig L. Blomberg, William Lane Craig, Richard Bauckham and more. No-one can say that Komarnitsky fails to engage with the apologists!

More nuanced academics are also quoted; Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman, James Crossley, John Dominic Crossan, etc.

Finally, there are those on the fringe that are also cited, for example Robert M. Price, Richard Carrier and even Earl Doherty! The inclusion of the last two of these raise an eyebrow or two. Indeed although the citing of Doherty is rare, it does appear that Komarnitsky has relied on the advice of Carrier quite a lot, perhaps not so much in direct quotation, but I gain the impression that he has been consulted to a considerable degree in writing this book. The fact that there are references to a few Jesus mythicists in this work, should not be taken as discrediting the book: their mythicist views do come come through in Komarnitsky's thesis - perhaps fortunately. Neither, thankfully, does Komarnitsky adopt Carrier's over-reliance on Bayes theorem for which the latter has become so notorious.

The Argument and its Presuppositions
It is in this introductory chapter that Komarnitsky first touches upon his overall thesis. Given that his proposal contains a number of elements, most of which Komarnitsky is going to argue for in later chapters, this device carries a risk that readers might cry foul: that he hasn't established what he is arguing for. But I think it is a sensible strategy given the large number of ingredients that make up his thesis.

  This book will begin looking at just one Gospel tradition in isolation, the discovered empty tomb tradition. Considering scholarship from both sides of the aisle, it will be argued that there is good reason to conclude that this tradition is a legend. Following up on this possibility, this book will then move on to its main topic, which is to address a much more basic and interesting question that automatically follows from the conclusion that there never was a discovered empty tomb. [Introduction, 3 paragraphs before endnote 6]

DJR then cites 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (see previous post) before raising the question just alluded to:

  ...this passage... leads to an interesting historical questions: If the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend and Jesus did not resurrect from the dead, what then caused the rise of these beliefs and traditions? [Introduction,just after endnote 6]

Komarnitsky goes onto explain that he is presenting one plausible way to answer this question. To get a summary of his full thesis the reader will have to wait to chapter 6 (although the same reader will have picked up an awful lot about the proposition along the way!).

DJR also sets out some presuppositions in the introduction. Some of these will come as no surprise to the lay reader: 
  •  There was a guy Jesus who existed, even if he didn't do all the things laid out in the New Testament;
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is not a late insertion into Paul's letter.

Some other presuppositions may strike some readers as a bit odd if they are not up-to-date in the field:
  • Paul really did write the epistles Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Philemon. This probably only strikes some people as odd as they are unaware that the other letters of Paul, e.g. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, etc, are usually considered "pseudonymous", if one's being polite, or "forgeries" if one's being blunt.
  • The Gospel of Mark was written before the other gospels. This is almost unanimously accepted these days; previously there was a theory that Matthew's gospel was the first to be written, but today there are just a few last Griesbachian theorists left who, as far as I know, aren't publishing anything currently.
  • The earliest christians believed Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, not just spiritually; this is contested in some quarters, but probably does set out the majority opinion.

Each of these 3 would merit some discussion, but DJR steers clear of this. When all's said and done I think this is wise, although it might have been helpful to signal to the reader, perhaps in endnotes, where more information could be found on these topics. 

Additionally it would have been helpful to give some rough dating of the gospel of Mark (Komarnitsky seems to assume the pretty unanimous view that it was about 70CE) so that the relative dating of Paul's authentic letters (he cites roughly 50-60CE with which I don't think many will disagree) can be registered in the reader's mind.

So the introduction sets the scene. DJR is going to examine how 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 could have come to be written without anything supernatural having happened after Jesus' death. But first he needs to tackle how a belief that there was an empty tomb came about; this latter belief is not in Paul's authentic letters but is found in all four gospels which came to be considered canonical. This is the subject of chapters 1 and 2.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Resurrection from a Secular Viewpoint

I'm late to the party. Back in 2009, apparently, a certain Kris Komarnitsky published a book called Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened In The Black Box? (hereinafter DJR). In fact, earlier this year he published a second, updated edition (Stone Arrow Books). I discovered this thanks to James McGrath's blog, which also mentioned that a certain online bookseller was offering it for free on a certain electronic reading device (sufficiently cryptic? No free advertising for big booksellers here!).
Not being able to resist a bargain, I downloaded it and found it a fascinating read. I'm relatively new to electronic book readers, so you'll have to bear with me in this review as I haven't found a way of referencing page numbers in the paper version. The best I can do is give chapter numbers, with possibly an indication of any endnote number that happens to be near any passage I wish to cite.

Who is Kris Komarnitsky?
I'm afraid I know very little about the author - in fact all I know is from this book, and a quick search on the internet. He is a layperson who has become very well-informed about this particular subject, clearly by reading very widely indeed and discussing his idea(s) with a number of experts in the field.
The second edition of DJR has endorsements from a wide range of scholars in biblical criticism, ancient history, psychology (yes, you'll see why later) and social anthropology. On starting to read the book I was initially very worried about what kind of quality a layperson would be able to produce in a work of this kind; clearly others have shared my initial anxiety, but like me, have become very impressed the more they read by the research that has gone into it. Indeed one of the endorsements comes from the aforementioned Professor James McGrath who states:
"Proving the exception, this book shows that if a layman takes the time to investigate a topic, including learning how the relevant disciplinary tools are applied and familiarizes themselves with what experts have already written on the subject, they can draw balanced and even insightful conclusions that enhance the conversation."

So it's an impressive work, and I find myself very much in agreement with the line of reasoning. Are there faults? Well yes of course, and we'll meet some of those along the way. Nevertheless, I think that Komarnitsky has produced a very plausible account indeed of how the belief in the resurrection of Jesus arose and evolved, probably the most plausible account that has yet been produced, and many of the disagreements that I will outline here are very minor in the grand, overall scheme of things.
One thing which is a shame, but understandable, is Komarnitsky's declaration in an afterword  to DJR that this second edition is likely to be the last. As he himself says, christian apologists, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, will undoubtedly attack the arguments in this edition, just as they did for the first; sometimes their arguments might need rebuttal to a level of detail beyond which an ordinary reader would be able to reach; and Komarnitsky has demonstrated himself to be eminently capable of this.. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the amount of commitment over the years that Komarnitsky has put into this work, and it is far from unreasonable to ask someone else to take up the baton.

The Problem
How did the idea arise that Jesus rose from the dead? What was the earliest form of this idea? And how did the idea evolve throughout the early christian period? If you're a christian - particularly, but not exclusively, a conservative one - the answers to these three questions probably go something like this:
  1. The idea that Jesus rose from the dead was because he did just that, and he appeared to his disciples to prove to them that he had risen.
  2. This gave rise to the earliest form of the resurrection - that Jesus rose bodily from his well-known tomb (which was thus left empty), showed himself to his disciples who were able to see, hear and touch him; he also appeared to Paul, possibly in a slightly different manner. The disciples (and Paul) passed on their witness testimonies, which also found their way into the new testament.
  3. The idea didn't "evolve" during the new testament period - it didn't need to because the story was true from the outset, and passed on faithfully without embellishment.

Hmm, well that's not very satisfying unless you're willing to abandon all healthy skepticism and be credulous enough to swallow whole ancient stories of wonder and miracle! So if you take a more realistic position to history, then how could those stories in the new testament have come about?
Well that's something that has been studied quite a lot, both by christians and by people of a more secular outlook.

Evolution of a Story
There's quite a lot attached to the story of the resurrection of Jesus, at least in most versions that are read today. Take resurrection appearances, for example. In the earliest version of Mark (which finishes at chapter 16 verse 8 - everything you see afterwards in any bible translation has been added) there are no resurrection appearances, only a vague prediction that some women who went to the alleged tomb will see him in Galilee (Mark 16:7).
Mark is pretty much universally considered these days to be the earliest of the 4 gospels that found their way into the bible. Indeed, the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke knew Mark's gospel and used it to write their own gospels, according to the overwhelming majority of biblical critics today; moreover, most think that the author(s) of John's gospel also knew Mark's gospel, but used it a lot less. Yet when you read any gospel other than Mark's you get a whole host of post-resurrection detail that isn't in this earliest gospel. Across the 3 non-Markan gospels, for example:
  • Jesus makes an appearance where he walks on water, 
  • he enters rooms whilst the doors are locked, he asks explains scriptures to people,
  • he eats some food,
  • he gives his disciples instructions,
  • he asks some to touch him to show that it really is him, and 
  • in Luke's gospel (the only gospel that tries to tie up some loose ends) the body is disposed of - Jesus ascends to heaven.

Not bad for someone who has been 3 days dead!
So we have some evolution of the story just within the gospels themselves. There is further evolution in some other non-canonical gospels - early christians were not afraid to add to the stories as they went along.
But what kind of evolution of the resurrection story took place before the gospels were written? Can we get back to earlier forms of the story? Does this help us figure out how the idea of a resurrection got started?
Well to answer these questions we first need to identify the earliest form of the resurrection story that has passed down to us. This is where Komarnitsky starts his examination.

The Earliest Preserved Form of the Story of the Resurrection of Jesus
You might be forgiven for thinking that the earliest accounts of the resurrection of Jesus that we have today are found in the so-called gospels; given that Mark is the earliest such gospel, then presumably the earliest account is to be found here. But Komarnitsky points out something that biblical critics have known for a long time. In fact the authentic letters of Paul (there are some that are considered forgeries, or more euphemistically "pseudonymous") are considered by almost all biblical critics to have been written earlier than any of the gospels.
In the last few days I have learnt of the passing of one scholar who was part of a very small minority who argued that Mark's gospel was written before the authentic letters of Paul. Maurice Casey was a brilliant scholar, who sadly passed away last week and will be much missed. He, and his colleague James Crossley, were really the only 2 biblical critics that I know of who argue for such an early date for Mark's composition. They have not persuaded the overwhelming majority of scholars who argue for a date of around 70CE for Mark, thus putting it significantly after the authentic letters of Paul. I join the reams of people who disagree with Casey on this point, but although I think he was wrong here, that does not diminish his standing as a scholar of international repute.

Paul does give some sort of account of the resurrection in his letter 1Corinthians 15:3-8:
παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρώτοις, ὃ καὶ παρέλαβον, ὅτι Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς καὶ ὅτι ἐτάφη καὶ ὅτι ἐγήγερται τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς καὶ ὅτι ὤφθη Κηφᾷ εἶτα τοῖς δώδεκα· ἔπειτα ὤφθη ἐπάνω πεντακοσίοις ἀδελφοῖς ἐφάπαξ, ἐξ ὧν οἱ πλείονες μένουσιν ἕως ἄρτι, τινὲς δὲ ἐκοιμήθησαν· ἔπειτα ὤφθη Ἰακώβῳ εἶτα τοῖς ἀποστόλοις πᾶσιν· ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι* ὤφθη κἀμοί.

3 For I delivered to you of foremost importance that which I received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures 4 and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Next he appeared to more than five hundred brothers [and sisters] at once, from whom many remain until today, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Next he appeared to James and then to all the apostles. 8 and last of all, like to "the untimely born"* he appeared even to me.

* τῷ ἐκτρώματι an unusual expression in context, normally used of miscarried babies. Paul is presumably trying to make quite a distinction between him and the other individuals listed in this passage.

The composition of this letter is usually dated to about 55CE which already makes it roughly 15 years earlier than the earliest gospel account from Mark's gospel. But as Komarnitsky points out, Paul probably didn't just come up with this story at the time he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Rather, it is likely that this kind of story, a seemingly rather formulaic one, was given to Paul sometime significantly earlier than this.
This resurrection story looks even more primitive than the story in Mark's gospel. That is, it is unadorned with even the few details that Mark has. In Paul there is no empty tomb, no discovery of the aforementioned empty tomb by a group of women, no announcement that Jesus will appear in Galilee, indeed no-one to make any such announcement; it's a story, but it's a story with noticeably fewer paraphernalia.
Nonetheless, Paul's account still does have a supernatural event at the heart of it. So how did this simpler, yet supernatural version of the story get started?

That's what DJR sets out to answer. We'll take a look at what it has to propose in this series.