A new book questioning the historicity of Jesus has just come out, with academic contributors of some esteem: Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (a publication of the Copenhagen International Seminar: Equinox, 2012), edited by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna. Neither Thompson nor Verenna are deniers of historicity, but historicity agnostics. They believe the question of the historicity of Jesus needs to be seriously examined and not dismissed as an exercise only for cranks. They also agree that historicity is more questionable than is usually claimed. This is a review of that book.
Is This Not the Carpenter? is an anthology, with scholarly contributors on both sides of the debate (the last time this was done was back in the 1980’s, whenn R.J. Hoffmann and Gerald Larue [eds.] brought us Jesus in History and Myth, which is now very outdated). All the contributors to Carpenter hold or have held professorships or the equivalent in their respective fields, except Verenna, who is a history student at Rutgers (his contribution was peer reviewed by other contributors). The introduction to the book alone is of great value, as it summarizes some of the key problems that make historicity a viable topic of debate–including an excellent, and well-sourced, list of all the different and contradictory “historical Jesuses” that are proposed today, demonstrating a bewildering lack of agreement among historicity proponents, which I myself have noted gravely calls into question the validity of their methods (Proving History, chapter 1).
In addition to that valuable introduction, the book is organized into three parts, the middle one more valuable than the rest; and the first one, the least. In order:
Part I: The Backstory
Part I has essays by Jim West (who makes a brief case that the Gospels, like the historical books of the OT, are not even attempts at recording history, and from this conclusion takes an overall agnostic position), Roland Boer (who discusses the origins of Jesus-myth thinking in German scholarship, in particular Feuerbach, Strauss, and Bauer, and concludes the quest for the historical Jesus is “somewhat futile,” and that “it is a good time to return to a more sceptical position,” taking mytho-political readings of texts like the Gospels more seriously again), Lester Grabbe (who summarizes the evidences for Jesus outside of Christian sources, far too briefly and uncritically to be of use in my opinion, nevertheless concluding that they are sufficient to confirm historicity), Niels Peter Lemche (who provides a brief summary of the history of hostility from even secular historians toward increasingly minimalist readings of the bible, which readings nevertheless tend to win out in the end, but the most I can make of his position is that hostility to Jesus-historicity-deniers is irrational, regardless of whether in the end they are wrong), and Emanuel Pfoh (who calls for more attention to how the literature of that period and region was actually composed, noting how mythic construction was far more commonplace than usually acknowledged, and he provides considerable support for Thompson’s whole project in The Messiah Myth; Pfoh’s own position on the historicity of Jesus is firmly agnostic).
With the exception of Grabbe, these essays are all interesting in respect to demonstrating agnosticism and skepticism are more common in the field than scholars like Ehrman would have us believe, and for filling us in on the history and logic of why. But none of them are essential reading, IMO.
Grabbe’s essay, by contrast, is not worth reading at all. It makes too many mistakes to be useful. For example, he says things like Tacitus is “the only Roman writer to mention Pilate (though we have confirmation of his existence from an inscription),” failing to mention that we have confirmation of his existence from his contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, as well as in the historian Josephus, who was, as a Roman citizen, a Roman writer. More importantly, Grabbe’s discussion of Whealey’s refutation of Pines on the Arabic of the Testimonium Flavianum (TF) is flawed to the point of being wholly useless. Whealey demonstrated that the Arabic derives from Eusebius, not Josephus, through a Syriac intermediary; she argues that this proves the manuscripts of Eusebius originally read differently than ours now do, which is implausible but a crucial point Grabbe misses, since he seems to think she argued that the Arabic derives from Josephus independently of Eusebius. In all, his entire treatment of Josephus is rendered obsolete anyway by my forthcoming article “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200” in the Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (Winter 2012). His treatment of Tacitus and other authors is similarly weak, and unoriginal. I would recommend you simply buy and use Van Voorst on this subject, and ignore Grabbe.
Facts aren’t his only weakness, either. Grabbe’s conclusion that the “independent references to Jesus [in Tacitus and Josephus] make it very likely that such an individual existed and was known as the founder of the Christian sect” is simply illogical (such late attestations certainly would prove he “was known as the founder of the Christian sect,” but would not prove either author had any source independent of Gospel-influenced Christian tradition). His claim that “Tacitus probably obtained his information from a document or archival source” is given without argument or evidence (demonstrating how badly historicists struggle with even basic logic), and his claim that “Josephus’
source of information is more uncertain” is evidently made in ignorance of the demonstration that his source (or rather, that of the TF) is probably the Gospel of Luke: G.J. Goldberg, “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995), pp. 59-77. (The other reference in Josephus, to the death of James, was almost certainly never about Jesus Christ originally, but a completely different Jesus and James, as I demonstrate in “Origen, Eusebius, and Accidental Interpolation,” cited above.)
Part II: The Epistles of Paul
Part II has essays by Robert Price (who provides a very good précis of the Jesus myth theory, with an emphasis on the Epistles and their relationship to the Gospels), Mogens Müller (who argues the Epistles confirm a historical Jesus), and Thomas Verenna (who argues the contrary). These three essays are required reading for anyone who wants to examine the question of historicity in greater depth, especially to argue for or against historicity, as their arguments would have to all be taken into account in any such project.
There are points where I might disagree with Price or Verenna, but I agree their arguments need at least to be addressed before being dismissed. With regard to Müller, though, we can see the fatal flaws in his reasoning from his concluding summary alone:
If we only had the genuine letters of Paul, we would not know much about the earthly, not to say the ‘historical’, Jesus. We would know that, the night he was delivered, he held a Passover meal with his disciples, during which he instituted the Eucharist, that he died on a cross and was buried, but was believed to have risen from the dead. We would also know that he gave commandments (in spite of the evidence being very slender). [p. 127]
He here commits the fallacy of reading into the Epistles what we are told in the Gospels, which is a circular argument (presupposing the historical veracity of the Gospels, and thus the historicity of Jesus, in order to argue for the historicity of Jesus). For Paul never says Jesus’ last supper was taken “with his disciples” (nor even specifically that it was a Passover meal, even if it was understood as such), and Paul cites as his source a revelation direct from Jesus (1 Cor. 11:23, cf. Gal. 1:8-12 and 1 Cor. 15:3-8), not human testimony, and Paul appears to imagine Jesus talking to all Christians (through Paul) when inaugurating the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-36). And that Jesus died, was buried, rose, and gave commandments is in agreement with the mythicist hypothesis (which is that all these things occurred in the heavens and were learned from revelation and scripture). Thus from these facts alone it is not possible to argue for historicity in any definitive way.
However, Müller did earlier reference the passages in which Paul mentions “brothers of the Lord” (one of them named James: Gal. 1:18-19; cf. also 1 Cor. 9:5), and that is and remains the best argument for historicity. Indeed, it is in my opinion the only argument for historicity that carries any significant weight (Verenna responds to it on pp. 157-58). But there are some other arguments from the Epistles that carry at least some prima facie weight that Müller does not much address, but which are presented in Gerd Lüdemann’s chapter on this same topic in Sources of the Jesus Tradition (though Lüdemann, unlike Müller, recognizes that 1 Cor. 11:23-26 is not a historical tradition). Though Müller’s chapter is a must-read (as much as Verenna’s and Price’s are), so is Lüdemann’s. For the Epistles are the main battle ground for Jesus myth theory, and thus consulting the best scholarship on their relevance to historicity is essential.
Part III: The Later Tradition
Part III has essays by James Crossley (who argues very effectively against Richard Bauckham’s attempt to claim that the Gospel of John is an eyewitness account of what really happened; Crossley defends the wider mainstream consensus, that the Gospel of John is a fabrication and of no use in reconstructing the historical Jesus), Thomas Thompson (who gives one extended example of what he argues for the whole of the Synoptic Gospels in The Messiah Myth: in this case, a detailed analysis of how the temptation narrative was invented and constructed and how it operates as allegory, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Ingrid Hjelm (who does the same for a couple of scenes in the Gospel of Luke), Joshua Sabih (who analyzes how the story of Jesus came to be transformed and interpreted in the Koran, intriguingly surveying a lot of recent scholarship on the question by Muslim or Arabic specialists), and K.L. Noll (who argues that the quest for the historical Jesus is a waste of time, because “even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind” this “is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity” [p. 233] and therefore we shouldn’t have to declare any definite opinion on the subject of the historicity of Jesus–Noll assumes historicity simply because it’s as convenient an option as anything else).
These chapters are valuable but not necessary reads. Crossley’s chapter, for example, is required reading for anyone who does not already find Bauckham’s thesis absurd on its face (requiring, as it does, that the miracles of Cana and Lazarus actually must have occurred!), but I suspect all sensible and informed people already find Bauckham’s thesis absurd. Nevertheless, if you want a definitive take down of it, this chapter is it. Likewise, even most historicists already concede the Temptation scene is myth, so Thompson’s chapter on it is not required reading, unless you want to see a good survey of the aims and methods behind its construction, which turn out to be the same aims and methods used to construct every entire Gospel (thus casting every scene in as much historical doubt as this one). And so on.
However, of these, I think Noll’s chapter is the most useful of all: he constructs his argument by proposing a very plausible model for how and why the Gospel Jesus came to be invented (in disregard for any historical truth about him, but nevertheless aiming to market what they said as historical truth) as a Darwinian strategy to win arguments (by inventing an authority figure to cite in defense of their claims), and then by showing how the Islamic development of the Hadith exemplifies exactly that model, providing a firm proof of concept. (Supplementing and supporting this part of his case is Robert Price’s development of the same analogy in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, pp. 109-17.) Anyone who has ever wondered, about the Jesus myth hypothesis’ proposed transformation from cosmic to earthly Jesus, “How could that have happened?” will want to read this chapter.
Is This Not the Carpenter? is an important example of what we need more of: serious scholarly examinations and debates on the historicity of Jesus and what methods to use in resolving it. It includes papers that for specialists are required reading on this topic, as well as others that are less required but nevertheless interesting and often useful, and only one of its chapters is too poor to have been included. It does not resolve the debate either way, and contains nothing definitive, but it shows the respectability of historical agnosticism and the possibility of alternative explanations of the evidence. But for it’s unreasonably high list price, I would recommend it to those who have a deep interest in the subject. Everyone else might want to wait for a more approachable, thorough, and consistent summary of the Jesus myth theory.
One Final Note: I am adamantly against the trend (which I see especially in Europe) to price books beyond the reach of almost anyone. I find this elitist, and an abrogation of the responsibility of scholars to communicate their findings to the public. If you can afford it, and want a complete collection on your bookshelf of the latest in historicity research, I still recommend acquiring this book, or at the very least formally asking your local university library to acquire a copy (and certainly click the link on Amazon for requesting a kindle copy from the publisher: European academic publishers also have a bug up their ass against digital distribution, and the more letters they get requesting they join the 21st century, the sooner they will).
But I hope in future publishers will see reason (and that scholars will select publishers who see reason) and price books to what they are actually worth, which in a case like this is no more than $50, and arguably should not exceed $40 (it’s only around 280 pages, after all). A list price of $110 is, in my opinion, an outrage. In a world where PODs can produce hard cover books for virtually nothing, a publisher is extremely inefficient if it has to charge that much, and extremely greedy if it doesn’t have to but does anyway. Either way, the fault is on them, and that needs to change. [NOTE: praise be to the faerie lords of Ka, the paperback has now come out at a reasonable list price of about $30.]