Historicity Stuff This Weekend

Two quick notes: (1) Tomorrow (Saturday the 15th, 2014, 8pm Central Time) I’ll be guesting on a Google hangout whatsit with Robert Price to talk about the “Christ myth theory,” with some stop-ins by David Fitzgerald, Neil Godfrey, and Raphael Lataster. Deets here. (And now the video is on YouTube.) And (2) the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue were impressively quick to get the video of my talk online (about why we conclude Acts is historical fiction and not a genuine history of early Christianity). That’s now here.


  1. says

    A friend of mine studying for his PhD at Asbury Theological Seminary had a response to your talk, which I thought was rather dismissive (he tried to make out like the publishing of Not the Impossible Faith via Lulu, and the fact that it was “only” 454 pages, was somehow an indictment of you as a scholar). But what seemed to have been the most substantive part of his response (though not by too much) was this:

    “Pervo doesn’t know the ancient sources as well as others and he isn’t the leading scholar on Acts. Pervo’s perspective is a fringe understanding of Acts that 80-90% of the field thinks is too far out there. If you read any ancient fiction, you will quickly see that Acts doesn’t fit into that genre. Couple that with the fact that Historical Fiction as a genre simply doesn’t exist and this guy’s perspective is simply not representative of the landscape of scholarship.”

    He also sent me a book review of Pervo’s work by Craig Keener, in the June 2009 Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. I was wondering if you might have any response?

    • says

      Pervo was chosen to write the Fortress Press Hermeneia series commentary on Acts. That is the leading (non-fundamentalist) bible commentary series. That signals his status.

      I would ask who your theologian thinks is the leading expert on Acts… ten bucks he names a hard-core Christian believer. Just like the guy he names: Keener…a fundamentalist–writing for a fundamentalist journal! Yeah. Because we trust their opinions about the Bible. Please.

      When you exclude fundamentalists (as you should; they are wholly unreliable and often actually contractually obligated by their institutions to affirm biblical literalism), of what you have left, Pervo is the leading expert on Acts, and in that group his views are typical, not fringe. But even among fundamentalists still alive, none compares. I have seen no evidence that he “doesn’t know the ancient sources as well” as any other authority on Acts. So that’s just fundamentalist bullshit.

      Regarding your theologian’s claim about fiction, I can vouch for the fact that what he just told you is false. This is just like CS Lewis claiming the Gospels don’t look like myths, when in fact they totally do. In the case of Acts and fiction, anyone who actually has read ancient novels would know that, although I suspect he is engaging the delusional filter of focusing on differences (when in fact all novels are different from each other) rather than the similarities shared by all or most exempla, as he should be doing (and as any responsible scholar would), and thus he literally, delusionally, doesn’t see the similarities. His cognition is defective and therefore his judgment cannot be relied upon. That is a madness typical of fundamentalists.

      Finally, I don’t know what he means about “historical fiction” not existing as a genre. Either he is making an irrelevant semantic point (being hyper-particular about what he means by a “genre,” e.g. hyper-specifically, myth is not itself a genre, as it can be written in all genres), which makes no difference to the argument (fiction is fiction, and exists regardless of whether you call it a “genre”), or he is making a false claim (historical fiction was actually a very popular genre for Christians: they wrote half a dozen books of Acts; and for Jews: the book of Daniel is the most famous example; and the ancient pagan novels were all historical fiction: fictional stories placed in a definite period of human history).

  2. Paul Thomas says

    Hi Richard

    Another enjoyable presentation. I learned a boat load from Pervo’s ‘The Mystery of Acts’; I’m glad you elaborated on Luke’s use of Jospehus; despite Pervo making the claim, I couldn’t find any examples to back up their relationship (aside from some similarities as a genre).

    One of the questioners picked up on your use of language regarding the road to Emmaus story, intimating that you saw the story as absolutely false, which you then correct him on, by rightly saying it has an extremely low probability to it. You often say something like, “this is bs”, or “this didn’t happen”. Would you consider changing this in talks to “the probability is low”, to avoid ambiguity? A bit robotic I know, but it has its benefits. The reason I mention this is because in my discussions with believers / apologists, they get confused at the fact that historical statements are all probabilistic. I know you’re heavy on this anyways (Proving History is next on the reading list).

    Lastly, with regards to Q, if you read this before meeting up with Price, it’d be great if you could question him about it. He still goes for Q as a source; listening to his Bible Geek podcasts I’m pretty sure he said he’ll try to get around to reading Goodacre’s book, but he still seems convinced by the Q hypothesis.


    • says

      No, people need to learn that certainty is not a thing. If they constantly think any assertion of knowledge entails 100% certainty, it is their assumption that needs correcting, not the language.

      Regarding Q, the evidence is more than even Goodacre marshals (that’s why I listed three authors on the point, not just him). I summarize some of the evidence (and other scholarship) in On the Historicity of Jesus, although I don’t rely on any conclusion about Q there (I merely treat it as hypothetical and disputed).

  3. Neunder says

    On the Acts Video:

    Very informative! Enjoyed it!

    But a couple of details seem a stretch:
    -Paul and Lydia are a chaste couple separated and united? I don’t see how the text supports all of that.
    -Paul died and rose from the dead? But the text only says the Jews inferred he was dead. I agree there’s a kind of similarity here, but in the video you seem to overstate your case.

    What am I missing here?

    I accept all your final conclusions, but I fear that critics will try to undermine your credibility by seizing upon what, at least without more support or defense, appear to be overstatements.

    • says

      On the first point, Paul converts her and gains her close company, and is then imprisoned and has to get out to get back to her, and they go off together. That’s exactly what happens in other novels (sometimes the imprisoning is by bandits, but that’s the same concept).

      On the second point, you are treating Acts like an actual literal history. Look at it as fiction. The event never actually happened. There were no Jews who inferred anything. Understanding that, now look at what Luke is saying. That’s the point.

      Moreover, literary parallels as a device were actually not supposed to be exact, but allusive. That is how ancient authors were taught to write. Thus, that Paul saw Jesus as a bright light, while Cleopas saw him as an ordinary stranger, is not a relevant distinction. Luke is still emulating the one story in the other, and making suitable changes. It would actually be bad writing to make them identical. So, too, in the death-and-resurrection parallel.

      Indeed, the death-and-resurrection themes also common in ancient pagan novels (yes, indeed; I didn’t mention that in the talk, but they also have that in common) are also presented as if possibly inferred-but-not-actual (thus making Acts even more like a novel). Luke is thus creating the allusive parallels to Jesus in a manner further in line with ancient novel writing (this is similarly the case with the shipwreck, where the dramatic construction is much more like the novels, than the parallel storm miracle in the Gospel is).

  4. Tim Bos says

    Great talk on Acts, Richard. Enlightening as always. Just wondering: how can you be so sure that Acts has Paul resurrect from the dead? The passage in question is not very clear, and it’s mentioned almost in passing, which seems unlikely if this is supposed to be a resurrection story (you’d expect more exposition for a great feat like that, rather than a passing mention). It also says the aggressor’s “supposed” him dead, which implies that he wasn’t actually dead. I’m not disagreeing with your position; I’m just wondering what the argument for it is.

  5. Tim Bos says

    “That was a standard writing convention.”

    I’m not sure I understand the argument. Are you saying that when Greek novels has the narrator say that a group of people “supposes” someone to be dead, readers would have been expected to understand that the person really is dead?

    • says

      The novels often use circumspective conventions, e.g. the novelization of the life of Apollonius also includes a “maybe she wasn’t really dead” suggestion in the description of Apollonius resurrecting a girl. This is even in the Gospels (at the same place: when Jesus resurrects a girl, in one Gospel he says she is only sleeping, even though everyone else confirmed she was dead).

      The original reason for the convention was (presumably) to appease both naturalists and the superstitious (e.g. in histories it was common to give two causes of major events: one divine, one natural; even Josephus does this). That way each reader could pick the explanation they were most comfortable with or most preferred. But it became so conventional that it was just repeated as a trope even when it no longer had any such purpose. It’s just the way novels “sounded.” You could also elaborate the trope (e.g. instead of a “maybe” reference, just simply have a mistaken death as an entire plot element; Luke notably avoided ever using that device). Just like when someone wants to write something that “sounds like” scripture, they write with particular idioms and story tropes, not for any purpose really except to simply sound like scripture; in this case, to sound like novels.

      I don’t think Luke was necessarily intending to clue the reader in that he’s writing fiction (although he may have, for the elite reader, as Origen explains for scripture generally), but rather to clue the reader in that if pagan stories sound like that, then this is a Christian story that can replace them. He’s basically giving Christians their version of the “scriptures” popularly read and touted by pagans.

      The Jews had done something similar already (e.g., Lawrence Wills, Ancient Jewish Novels).

  6. Greg_Y says

    In the Google Groups chat, I didn’t understand what you meant by “silences” in the epistles and why they matter. Could you explain/elaborate?

    Also, I’ve heard you claim several times that scholars today overwhelmingly believe that the biblical patriarchs never existed. How do you know this is the case (i.e., that there is such a wide consensus), and can you recommend reading on this topic?

    • says

      Taking the second question first, read The Bible Unearthed for a start. Fundamentalists might resist (as they do all facts and science of any kind that they don’t like). But nearly all non-fundamentalist scholars concur. As you’ll find by checking any book or reference work by a non-fundamentalist expert on the patriarchs written in the last twenty years.

      As to the first question, I was referring to the widely-discussed fact that Paul weirdly never refers to any historical man named Jesus but only ever to a cosmic revealed being. All the things one would expect to have been mentioned or debated in Paul’s letters if Jesus existed aren’t there. The result is that historicity defenders scour the texts to find a small handful of extremely obscure references that they then try to prop up as references to a historical Jesus (a feat they would not have to engage in had Jesus existed, since then there would be plenty of clear references to that fact). So the debate then centers on those few passages and what they mean. My informal debate with Mark Goodacre is a good example that will introduce you to the problem and its significance.