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Piety masked with scholarship is particularly revolting

I know professors of English. I like professors of English, and can respect their work. But then some professors of English publish total rubbish like this, and it’s facepalm time.

Jesus’ resurrection: What really happened?

This scholar’s interpretation navigates between the perils of realism and fundamentalism

Read the whole thing, if you can stomach it. There’s no navigation at all; there’s nothing but totally credulous acceptance of much embellished legend, treated as if it were fact. Take the opening story, for example:

The burial of Jesus took place in haste, in keeping with Jewish law, as commanded in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hange him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day.” One can only imagine the eagerness of those who loved Jesus to remove his body from the cross, a position of extreme exposure and embarrassment, and to lay it gently in a crypt, safe from mocking Roman eyes. At last, the torture was over.

Having acquired permission to take charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea wrapped it carefully in fine linens and, with the help of Nicodemus, put it in a crypt hewn from rock not far from the site of the execution on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Nicodemus had brought a mixture of embalming spices: aloes and myrrh.

“One can only imagine…” Yes, that is the one true phrase in the whole mess. It’s all built up out of imagination. We have no contemporary accounts of the death of this person, Jesus; we don’t even have reliable sources for the existence of the person at all. Yet here this Parini fellow is reciting speculative BS about how people were feeling during events that may not have happened at all.

Maybe, to Parini, navigating between realism and fundamentalism means avoiding both and dwelling on kitschy rose-colored portrayals of fantasy events?

Huge questions confront anyone thinking about Jesus. Did he really rise from the dead? Was there an actual Resurrection? If so, what would that look like? A large number of Christians throughout history have imagined a resuscitation, refusing to countenance the slightest hint that the Resurrection should be regarded as something beyond human understanding. I myself would argue this: life and death are mysterious, at best, and the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin. Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this. And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.

He has no reason to doubt a magical account of a god-man rising from the dead 2,000 years ago? Really? No reason at all? Does he have a brain in his head? Perhaps I have no reason to believe that.

I can appreciate the difference between literal and figurative, like the difference between science and art, but sometimes there is no concrete meaning to balance, and the best answer is rejection of the nonsense, rather than wallowing in it.

We’re going to be seeing a lot of this pious bullshit in this month before Christmas, aren’t we?

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    <q cite = "the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin."

    The membrane only works one way, despite what the worshipers of Osiris and his imitators may believe.

  2. A. Noyd says

    Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this.

    Sounds like a particularly egregious failure of the imagination for an English professor.

  3. robro says

    That’s sad. Even sadder is the number of academic Biblical scholars and archaeologists who also find “no reason to doubt” the resurrection myth, much less any other aspect of the historical Jesus. They must know that resurrection myths were a dime-a-dozen among ancient cults. Attis, Osiris, Dionysus…a lot of the big names in cults died and came back to life…annually (hint, hint). Also, trees were often involved. Attis was hung on a tree. Osiris was entombed in a tree to hide him from Isis. Jesus was hung on a cross. Religions are syncretic, including the Judeo-Christian cults.

  4. loopyj says

    And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment.

    Ummmm…no. What trumps everything, the central tenet of Christianity, is the idea of original sin and that you can get your icky original (and flavours other than original) sin rinsed clean from you with the anti-bacterial properties of the blood that Christ shed on the cross. And to do this, you have to accept and believe that he actually died and was literally resurrected in order to be your saviour. Without believing in the resurrection, your Christianity is mere philosophy (like Bill O’Reilly claimed it was when he insisted that Christianity isn’t a religion; I leave it to Christians who watch his program to take that one up with him).

    But I suppose you can make up and invent whatever kind of Christianity you want; when it comes to religion and spirituality, the only limit is your own irrational imagination.

  5. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Why is realism a peril?
    The question was “What really happened?”
     
    Article: Wikipedia – Realism (arts)

    “Realism in the arts may be generally defined as the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements.”

    Gosh, can’t have that.

  6. A Masked Avenger says

    PZ, in the OP:

    We have no contemporary accounts of the death of this person, Jesus; we don’t even have reliable sources for the existence of the person at all.

    The first statement us unqualifiedly true: there are no contemporary accounts of his death. The second is qualifiedly true: you specifically said “reliable sources,” and that’s fair enough. I.e., there aren’t any contemporary writings or inscriptions testifying to this person’s existence. However, I’d be cautious of giving the impression that there’s any real doubt that an itinerant preacher lived at that time, on whom the Christian legends were based.

    While I’m not personally a historian, I accept the scholarly consensus that this person existed, and recognize the hodgepodge of mythicist arguments as reflecting poorly on their originators. FTB’s own Richard Carrier is an exception, being an actual historian who acknowledges the need for good scholarship if the consensus is to be overturned–but he has not, so far, successfully overturned it.

    You might take the view that it doesn’t really matter whether a wandering preacher named Joshua existed, since he would bear little resemblance to the character in the New Testament, and therefore the New Testament figure can still be regarded as, to all intents and purposes, purely fictional. If so, I can certainly see where you’re coming from, but that’s different from the claim that there was “no such person,” and conflating the two would also be a mistake.

    Apart from that nit, your take down of this English teacher’s awful piece of writing is, if anything, too gentle. The incoherent thought is only compounded by the childish expression. It reads like a pretentious Sunday School student might speak.

  7. Nick Gotts says

    Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this.

    An elephant was able to fly using only his ears, the movie Dumbo says. I see no reason to doubt this.

    BTW, when I click on a Salon link, the comments never appear, although they used to. Does this happen to others?

  8. sigurd jorsalfar says

    Nick, Salon is notorious for having comments that come and go arbitrarily. Right now I can see them, but there have been many times when I could not. No one really knows why this is. Salon works in mysterious ways.

  9. chrisv says

    As noted, Professor, there is a time to do away with childish things. You are supposed to be an educated person and you embarrass yourself. Stick to your Chaucer. BTW, Merry Winter Solstice.

  10. says

    robro said,

    Even sadder is the number of academic Biblical scholars and archaeologists who also find “no reason to doubt” the resurrection myth, much less any other aspect of the historical Jesus.

    This has often made it difficult for me to find academic work on this topic I actually want to read. I have long enjoyed Philip Harland’s podcasts and books though, as most of his work is deals with broader topics that touch on early Christianity, such as associations in the Greco-Roman world, and when looking at Jesus much of it is looking at the historical context, or the reality of the situation, such as the different and diverse opinions of the early Christian church.

  11. ChasCPeterson says

    I consider use of the phrase “I myself” to be a reliable indicator of bullshit.

    We’re going to be seeing a lot of this pious bullshit in this month before Christmas, aren’t we?

    probably, though of course the month leads up to the celebration of his fictive day of birth, not death-but-not-really. I’d put the prior probability of this guy Jesus having been born several orders of magnitude higher than that of his rising from death.

  12. says

    Why the feck is an English professor being billed as a (presumably, relevant) “scholar” when
    1. The Gospels aren’t written in English.
    2. The English professor isn’t even treating the Gospels as what they are (literary fiction), but is treating them utterly uncritically, as though the Gospels are newspaper accounts or legitimate history.

    If the author so dislikes “literalism”, then why does he take the Gospels’ statements so literally?

  13. raven says

    The burial of Jesus took place in haste,…

    What burial? There is no evidence that jesus was buried. There is little evidence that he even existed.

    Parini is assuming that an anthology known to be mostly or all fiction is…true. This isn’t scholarship, it’s straight fundie xian god babbling.

    It’s known that Frodo tossed the Lord of the Rings into Mordor’s Mount Doom, attached to Gollum therefore we should….

    Worship Frodo? Write a god babble essay in Salon and claim it as fact?

    Odin, the Father of the gods tore out his own eye and threw it in a magic well to know the future so….

    OK, kids, listen up. Ragnarok is coming any day now. Featuring giant wolves, dragons, giant snakes, Frost Giants and a huge battle. Make sure you root for the right side.

  14. raven says

    Parini:

    life and death are mysterious, at best,

    False. Thanks to modern biology and science, we know a huge amount about life. To the point that we have really resurrected long dead organisms. The 1918 flu virus and an endogenous retrovirus, Phoenix, that had been dead for 5 million years.

    No mystery about death. We’ve all seen it countless times. We know enough to avoid it for ourselves, our loved ones and pets. And we know it will come to us all.

    >and the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin.

    This is meaningless. It’s not even a good analogy or metaphor.

    The line between living and dead is fuzzy these days thanks to modern medicine. But it still exists. It’s a one way trip. Unless you are a dead virus and scientists decide to resurrect you.

    Far as we know, Cthulhuism is the One True Religion. You will die someday. The universe doesn’t care. That will be the end for all time.

  15. marcoli says

    I recall a bit on TV done by the shock comedian Bobcat Goldthwait that went something like this: ‘Do you want to know what were the real last words of Jesus? Do do you really want to know?’ Then he gets down on his hands and knees and pretends to hammer the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, all the while screaming in pain at the top of his lungs. Hard to believe that was ever aired on TV.

  16. raven says

    The Empty Tomb is a standard xian apologetics argument. It neglects that the evidence that jesus even had a tomb much less an empty one is about zero.

    The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment.

    This seems to be mainline Protestanism. I don’t have much of a problem with it. God is love and love your neighbors and all that. Social justice is worthwhile and worth working towards.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t most of modern US xianity. The god of love was a modern invention and is about to go through that “porous membrane between life and death”. The fundie god, the Sky Monster has made a comeback. And fundie-ism is based on lies, hypocrisy, and mostly hate. Hate sells and sells well.

  17. imthegenieicandoanything says

    “I see no reason to doubt this.”

    Terrible writing! He means “I have not the courage or integrity to doubt this” since reason plays no role at all in this Salon piece of shit. What a shit site it is!

  18. JohnnieCanuck says

    Chas @ 13,

    Hmm. You put the dex at what, 4 or 5? Probability of resurrection < < 1.0e-120. I’d have thought the possibility would have been greater for the existance of an itinerant rabbi named Yeshua around whom myths were told. Maybe even as high as 5.0e-1

    Unless by ‘several’ you mean ‘several hundred’ orders of magnitude. ;-)

  19. artymorty says

    Before I clicked the link I thought, “Let me guess: Salon.”

    Yup.

    Ugh, fuck Salon’s editors. They publish the reekiest cutesy-jeebus farticles. *Close Tab FOREVER*

  20. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    literary analysis:

    Wait: don’t go on yet! Just relax on the couch a minute and hold on to your thoughts while i try to craft a truly interesting and original way to say that it is all your mother’s fault.

  21. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Chas

    I consider use of the phrase “I myself” to be a reliable indicator of bullshit.

    I, for one, agree with you completely.

  22. brianpansky says

    And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment.

    I’m starting to get really sick of some believers self-diagnosed superiority above fundamentalists.

    The only thing being called fundamentalism here is treating the resurrection as “the only important part of the good news”. oh no! the horror! those awful fundamentalists!

    then immediately the writer goes into how:
    1)god “loves” the world…for some definition of the word “love”
    2)this non-measurable love that god has is the “social basis” of TRUE spiritual enlightenment.

    this empty-love and enlightenment-exclusivity is better than fundamentalism! because reasons!

  23. hexidecima says

    “I see no reason to doubt this”

    so there is no reason to doubt that Mo travelled to Jerusalem on a magic pony to take dictation from an archangel.

    so t here is no doubt that Texcatlipoca created the world

    that the Wicca Goddess didn’r dance the universe into existence.

    bllthephhtphlbettetlh !

  24. says

    Attis, Osiris, Dionysus…a lot of the big names in cults died and came back to life…annually (hint, hint). Also, trees were often involved. – @5, robro

    Am I the only one who is now struck by the resemblance between the Jesus (and other gods’) resurrection stories, and the storylines of the WWE?

    “Ladies and gentlemen…let’s get ready to HUMBLLLLLLLLLLLEEEEE!

    “You’ll remember at last year’s Crucimania XVIII, when TomTom the Doubter and Simon the Magus faced off in a Disciple-discipline CAGE MATCH at CALVARY – roll the clip, Steve…

    “And you saw Jesus the Jew-King knocked right over the ropes when his tag partner DeathKiss turned traitor in the Battle Rabbile, and rendered him unto Caesar OH YEAAAAHHHHH!

    “Well, here’s some special tape we’ve recently found, showing that the Jew-King wasn’t put down forever! Watch him chuck aside this enormous rock, then stride forth to show off his biceps, and to talk some smack about The Governator, Pontius Pilate.

    “For tonight, we’ve got a preliminary tag-team bout between some new talent, the Moishe Brothers, and an old favourite pairing, Pharaoh Ramses the Awesome with his giant friend Euphucre the Eunuch…”

    o,O

    Or maybe it’s just me.

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? has mostly persuaded me that the biblical Jesus constitutes a composite of stories circulating after the Romans demolished Jerusalem.

    Price even cites a secular story of a Jesus who died in Jerusalem during that war, which I quoted from in an earlier comment.

    That Jeshua (one Bar Ananias) (whose story Price draws from Josephus) was probably not yet born at the time of the purported JC crucifixion, but he did receive severe punishment due to shouting dire predictions of the city’s fate during a pilgrimage season (well before the uprising). He may have rioted on the temple grounds, but he did not perform miracles, tell parables, philosophize, or even gain followers, never mind resurrect; each facet of each of the “gospel” versions seems to have immigrated from elsewhere.

    Besides, the composite hypothesis at least moves us past the sucked-dry “fact/fiction” debate, and back towards what little evidence we have.

  26. says

    rave

    The Empty Tomb is a standard xian apologetics argument. It neglects that the evidence that jesus even had a tomb much less an empty one is about zero.

    Even if you do accept it as an accurate account, it’s still really shitty evidence. They came back in the morning and the tomb was empty. Now, what’s more likely? That the body came back to life, dematerialized, and rematerialized elsewhere later on, or that some people came by in the night and took the body away, and someone claiming to be him turned up a few days later? Indeed, the once-popular heresy that Jesus was drugged while on the cross (via the vinegar and water he was given), such that he would appear at a distance (like the bottom of the cross) to be dead, was begged down from the cross with the excuse that it was religiously prohibited to leave a body up (on the Sabbath, IIRC), and he was then stolen from the tomb, nursed back to health, and after a brief reappearance before fucking off into hiding somewhere the Romans wouldn’t come after him again is much more plausible than the standard Christian line.

  27. Akira MacKenzie says

    ChasCPeterson @ 32:

    The shattering of one’s narcissism, the myth that they have some cosmos-ordained “purpose,” and the belief that they will go on forever.

  28. microraptor says

    A Masked Avenger

    While I’m not personally a historian, I accept the scholarly consensus that this person existed, and recognize the hodgepodge of mythicist arguments as reflecting poorly on their originators. FTB’s own Richard Carrier is an exception, being an actual historian who acknowledges the need for good scholarship if the consensus is to be overturned–but he has not, so far, successfully overturned it.

    You might take the view that it doesn’t really matter whether a wandering preacher named Joshua existed, since he would bear little resemblance to the character in the New Testament, and therefore the New Testament figure can still be regarded as, to all intents and purposes, purely fictional. If so, I can certainly see where you’re coming from, but that’s different from the claim that there was “no such person,” and conflating the two would also be a mistake.

    There might have been a 19th century lumberjack named Paul Bunion, but if he wasn’t the size of a house, didn’t have a blue ox of similar stature, and didn’t do any of the things described in the stories I read when I was a kid, it would be ridiculous to claim that said fictional character was real. Similarly, if there wasn’t a a Hebrew preacher who did all the things the Bible says that Jesus did, even if there was a man who shared the same name and profession as the Biblical character, it’s really not accurate to claim that it makes Jesus a real person. It’s like the word game Christians play with “belief” against atheists.

  29. says

    If he wanted to do that, he’d strip the story down to the bare fact claims first. Forget the interpretations the writers added, strip it to the bare fact claims. Son of a carpenter, starts preaching about some reforms to the Judaism of the time, pisses off the Romans, is crucified, and is reported alive a few days after he’s buried.

    If we go further and assume he did turn up alive, what happened? A not quite dead Jesus wakes up in a tomb, has a surge of adrenaline and pushes the rock at the door aside would be my guess. Apparently people did sometimes survive crucifixion of his duration, and it would be terribly easy for the medical science of the day to declare someone dead prematurely. His reported lifestyle would lend itself to a good degree of physical fitness, if he wasn’t sick going into the ordeal- survival would be unexpected but not impossible.

    I’m not sure the Gospels should be given even this much credit as a source, but if he’s stuck on them, he can still do so much better than he did.

  30. says

    Of course an even more likely explanation for the “resurrection” of Jesus, if he existed and was executed, is that he died, was interned in one fashion or another…

    …and that his followers, when they came to check on the body, went to the wrong place. “He’s gone, he’s been resurrected!” they cried as they ran to tell their fellows the good news, while in his actual burial place the deceased Jesus began to decay like everyone else who had died.

  31. raven says

    even if there was a man who shared the same name and profession as the Biblical character, it’s really not accurate to claim that it makes Jesus a real person.

    True.

    The central claim of xianity isn’t that some rabble rousing guy named jesus ended up on a Roman cross.

    It’s that a rabble rousing guy named jesus was actually god, the creator and ruler of the entire universe.

    FWIW, jesus was one of the most common names in Israel at that time. In fact, he wasn;t really named jesus. It was more like Yeshua. Jesus is the Greek version, because the NT was written in Greek. And Yeshua is a version of the Hebrew name, Joshua. Joshua being the legendary hero who genocided the Canaanites and took their women, land, and stuff.

  32. jackinyogrill says

    Why is this guy’s profession important? Is there just a general assumption that professors of English Lit are more credulous or inclined to believe ridiculous things?

  33. baryogenesis says

    Salon’s still mostly a cool place. The comments about this are almost universally disparaging. So, think about it, that’s a good thing, right?

  34. johnhodges says

    A peeve of mine: the basic message of Christianity is usually described as (1) original sin angers God (2) the blood sacrifice of Jesus, the “lamb without blemish”, appeases God’s anger and so offers redemption, salvation, Eternal Life in Heaven (3) Salvation is thus offered as a “free gift”, you need only accept it by BELIEVING that Jesus gave it to you.

    But this does not remotely resemble what Jesus taught, as reported by the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (1) The End of the World and Judgment Day is coming soon, perhaps Real Soon, certainly within the lifetime of Jesus’ generation, i.e. the people standing there hearing him speak (2) very few will be saved, by being admitted to Heaven when the Earth is destroyed; Hellfire awaits everyone else (3) to have any hope of being among the few, you should bust your ass to rack up as much credit as you can in the limited time remaining (4) by, for example, following the entire Law of Moses down to the last iota, distributing all of your wealth to the poor, practicing strict nonviolent pacifism, and abstaining from all sin, even in your thoughts; “Be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Even that is no guarantee.
    For chapter and verse on all this, see http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/the-ethics-of-jesus

  35. draconius says

    “So, it’s like this: Some guy like Jesus is hated more than a serial killer because reasons. Jesus gets crucified, someone stabs him with a spear (The +16 Spear of Destiny, a 8d46+12 weapon that gives the bearer a +879 bonus to strength) to make sure he is dead and then…

    his followers, when they came to check on the body, went to the wrong place. “He’s gone, he’s been resurrected!” they cried as they ran to tell their fellows the good news, while in his actual burial place the deceased Jesus began to decay like everyone else who had died.

    (from @38, Timgueguen)

    But as it turns out, the gardener was Jesus THE WHOLE TIME. DUN DUN DUN. Also his real name was Yeshua. DUN DUN DUN.”

    “Well, [publisher company's representative], what do you think? Would it sell?”

  36. A Masked Avenger says

    microraptor, #34:

    There might have been a 19th century lumberjack named Paul Bunion, but if he wasn’t the size of a house, didn’t have a blue ox of similar stature, and didn’t do any of the things described in the stories I read when I was a kid, it would be ridiculous to claim that said fictional character was real. Similarly, if there wasn’t a a Hebrew preacher who did all the things the Bible says that Jesus did, even if there was a man who shared the same name and profession as the Biblical character, it’s really not accurate to claim that it makes Jesus a real person…

    (Repeating the disclaimer that I am not a historian, for emphasis.)

    You’re moving the goal posts. No historian anywhere, at least none worthy of the name, is claiming that the Gospel of Luke is non-fiction. The debate centers entirely on whether the central figure of those works, and the associated religion, are based on an actual person, or are purely fictionalized.

    So for example, “Johnny Appleseed” actually existed, although most of the stories about him are at best exaggerations. Similarly Daniel Boone. It’s more than possible (I have no idea, and care even less) that Odysseus or Hercules might be based on actual historical figures as well–or they might be fictional characters like Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter.

    The question, in a nutshell, is whether Jesus is the Christians’ Johnny Appleseed, or whether he’s their Bilbo Baggins. The question is perfectly meaningful, even though you would scorn Christians equally either way. You’re changing the subject when say, “Who gives a flying fuck whether the story is ‘based on actual events’ or not?” Your view of the matter is valid, but it’s useless for discussing, um, the question whether it was based on actual events or not. The consensus of historians is that it was in fact based on actual events involving an actual personage. You can of course feel free not to give a fuck.

  37. sigurd jorsalfar says

    The “perils of realism” remind me of a former acquaintance of mine who was an alcoholic and once told me the best way to avoid a hangover is to never sober up.

  38. Nick Gotts says

    timgueguen@38,
    I was going to raise this possibility. Take a look at this page, which is by a Christian academic, Byron R. McCane. He points out the markings of a “shameful burial” of Jesus in the gospels (they are stronger in gospels generally considered to be earlier), and develops the hypothesis that “Joseph of Arimethea” was a member of the Sanhedrin, but not a follower of Jesus – he just wanted the corpse buried by sunset according to religious law. He says:

    Certainly few–if any–of Jesus’ followers directly witnessed his death and burial, and the glamorized Christian stories of his interment cannot be trusted to describe wie es eigentlich war. Yet there are good reasons to stop short of complete scepticism about the fate of Jesus’ body. Indeed, the evidence from Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources all coheres around a single conclusion: Jesus was buried in shame. Someone from the Council approached Pilate about the body and put it in an underground tomb reserved for Jewish criminals.

    So (McCane doesn’t say this, BTW), if this is what actually happened, if any of his followers did witness the burial it would likely have been from a distance, in hiding – and they would be in a highly emotional state, and strangers to Jerusalem – illiterate country people in the Big City. What more natural than that they might go to the wrong tomb and find it empty because no body had ever lain there?

    But then again, it’s possible the whole “empty tomb” schtick is a later invention. Mark’s gospel is generally considered the earliest, and it ends (or did before an extra few verses – Mark 16:9-20 – were tacked on) with three women going to the tomb, finding it empty, and being told by a young man in a white robe to go and tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus has risen. But they “told no man, for they were afraid” [italics in my KJV]. So if the whole post-mortem narrative was invented by Mark, this could be a way of explaining to impertinent sceptics why they hadn’t heard about this empty tomb before – and as an added bonus, blame the delay in these interesting facts coming to light, on some cowardly women not following instructions from a man. The extra verses contain the only mentions in Mark of Jesus’s post-mortem encores – his appearances to the disciples.

  39. Nick Gotts says

    A Masked Avenger@45,

    I agree almost entirely. However, there are possible intermediate cases – say, if Jesus of the NT sources was based on the words, actions and life-histories of two or more people, possibly with additional wholly fictional elements. But at any rate, you’re right that it’s a genuine historical issue (of interest to many non-Christians), and that the current consensus, including among non-Christian scholars, is that there was a specific person it makes sense to call the original of the NT accounts.

  40. says

    There are reasons to believe that Jesus was a historical figure (Johnny Appleseed hypothesis.) His place of birth was apparently a problem for Matthew and Luke. They both independently contrived stories to make his birthplace Bethlehem. If anyone was inventing this story out of whole cloth, they never would’ve started in Nazareth. The same is true of the crucifixion. If they were free to create this myth, why would they create such a humiliating death? It’s obvious the gospel writers struggle with this fact.

    Also, why Paul? Here we have a historical figure tacking his theology onto Jesus. He attests to meeting the disciples. If they were fictional, he could’ve done an end run around them. Instead, he writes about their having real conflict and difficulties. Galations doesn’t read like myth making. It reads like a letter. Even if you think it was forged, why would someone forge a historical document to give authority to Paul to talk about Jesus if we’re talking about myths?

    Why do we see no precursor Christian writings before the life of Christ? Myths usually evolve over time. They don’t spring up and spread based on near current events. They’re either placed far in the past. We don’t have large discrepancies about when Jesus lived. If he was some cosmic deity made into a human, there wouldn’t be that kind of chronological agreement.

    Occam’s Razor. The easiest way to explain the documents we have is that there was a Jesus, his cult decided he was the messiah. Facts of his life were inconvenient for that assertion as the myth snowballed. There were also parties vying for control after his death. Peter, Paul, and James being three examples we can infer directly from the New Testament.

  41. Shatterface says

    Why is this guy’s profession important? Is there just a general assumption that professors of English Lit are more credulous or inclined to believe ridiculous things

    They kind of are – at least those involved in literary interpretation. The meaning of a text isn’t inherent in the text, it depends on the meaning given to it by the readers and so is largely external to it. Those who insist that they have ‘uncovered’ the true meaning by close-reading and without reference to real-world readers are basically indulging in an exercise in bullshit.

  42. says

    His place of birth was apparently a problem for Matthew and Luke.

    Maybe they relocated his birth not only to retro-fulfil a prophecy (which is not only wrong, but fake) as well as to avoid questions like, “I grew up around here, how come I don’t remember any of that stuff happening?” You know how a lot of christians wonder what jesus’ adolescent years were like? That’s convenient because if you relocate him you don’t need to backfill – thus we miss all this beautiful bullshit about jesus charming the deer out of the woods, teaching the rats to speak, and bringing his roman centurion doll to life and having it march around the town square yelling “romani ite domum!”

  43. brucegorton says

    Ryan Cunningham

    There are reasons to believe that Jesus was a historical figure (Johnny Appleseed hypothesis.) His place of birth was apparently a problem for Matthew and Luke. They both independently contrived stories to make his birthplace Bethlehem. If anyone was inventing this story out of whole cloth, they never would’ve started in Nazareth.

    Why not? David was the youngest son of a sheep farmer.

    Giving a hero humble origins gives them instant points of identifiability and separates him or her from the ‘unclean’ influences of the city.

    Small town wholesome and the big bad city aren’t exactly new ideas.

  44. Owlmirror says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    You know how a lot of christians wonder what jesus’ adolescent years were like? That’s convenient because if you relocate him you don’t need to backfill – thus we miss all this beautiful bullshit about jesus charming the deer out of the woods, teaching the rats to speak, and bringing his roman centurion doll to life and having it march around the town square yelling “romani ite domum!”

    Take a few minutes to read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It’s a hell of a trip. “Beautiful bullshit”, indeed.

  45. says

    One good thing to remember is that almost no one listens to religious leaders or uses their drivel as guidance, this includes not listening to religious English professors. Yes, there are sheep-like followers, especially in the USA, who read this stuff and act on it, but as a recent survey from Britain shows, 0% of Catholics in Britain look to religious leaders for guidance:

    … Zero percent of British Catholics now look to religious leaders for guidance as they make decisions and live their lives. The majority say they rely on their own reason, judgement, intuition or feelings. Catholics over 60 are somewhat more likely to take authority from external religious sources, but the figures are low for all ages. Just 8% of Catholics say they look to “tradition and teachings of the Church” 7% to God, 2% to the Bible, 2% to the religious group to which a person belongs, and 0% to local or national religious leaders.

    Likewise, only 36% of Catholics say that the Church is a positive force in society, and when those who take the opposite view are asked their reasons, the most popular are: that it discriminates against women and gay people; the child abuse scandals; that it’s hypocritical; and that it’s too morally conservative …

    Remember, this was survey of self-described faithful Catholics.

    There’s no reason to think that most church-going sheeple give Jesus’s authenticity a second thought during the work week. Church is more of a tradition or habit that they follow blindly, without thought.

    http://www.salon.com/2013/12/01/new_poll_faithful_catholics_are_an_endangered_species_partner/

    Even mormons, especially young mormons, are beginning to show signs of not listening to their leaders when it comes to not having sex before marriage, marrying young, having as many babies as possible, and shunning gay families. Jesus, real or not, is an underpinning they do not examine.

  46. brucegorton says

    The same is true of the crucifixion. If they were free to create this myth, why would they create such a humiliating death?

    Because the story wouldn’t have worked without it. On a narrative level a bitter defeat makes victory seem greater.

    Crucifixion was used essentially for traitors to Rome and escaped slaves. It was a punishment intended as the symbol of Roman authority and power, and what would happen if you crossed them.

    Jesus not only coming back from the dead, but coming back from death via that specific method? That would have had power to the largely Roman audience.

  47. anuran says

    Once. ONCE?!?!?! Zombie Jew Onna Stick came back from the dead once and they think it’s a big deal? John Barleycorn does it Every. Freaking. Year. And you don’t have to take the priest’s word for it. He’s right there in every field in nice neat rows. And you can even turn Him into beer afterwards.

  48. Azuma Hazuki says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    Just wanted to let you know you’re awesome. I’ve been reading your posts on other blogs here, specifically ones about counter-apologetics, presup, and so forth, and find them both knowledgeable and very straightforward. Thank you for the help you’ve given me in bad times.

    Where do the rats and deer and walking centurion doll stories come from though? I just read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and didn’t see a reference to any of them.

  49. says

    If anyone was inventing this story out of whole cloth, they never would’ve started in Nazareth

    It’s commonly accepted that Matthew and Luke are later than Mark. As such, they were not free to create the myth from scratch. They couldn’t just outright deny what was already accepted in the community.
    Add to that the fact that Mark is clearly not interested in making Jesus into the Davidic Messiah, it’s possible that the early Jesus cult simply didn’t have this theme. So, the problem of birth place may simply stem from an attempt to re-brand Jesus into the Davidic Messiah. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he wasn’t mythical to begin with.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that the gospels represent a distinctly late stage of Christianity, after the destruction of the temple. We cannot simply assume that earlier Christians held the same views.

    He attests to meeting the disciples. If they were fictional, he could’ve done an end run around them.

    The disciples could be real without Jesus being real. I don’t remember, but does Paul ever actually state that they were the disciples, i.e. the actual physical students and followers of Jesus, as opposed to simply the leaders of the Christian community?

    The phrase that pop into my head when I think about this is “the Jerusalem pillars.” It’s easy to imagine different apocalyptic sects merging (after a period of contention and smoothing out) and then, as the Jesus figure is historicized, the leaders of these sects are likewise associated with Jesus, to create apostolic authority.

    I’m not certain of all the facts here, but you certainly can’t jump straight from Paul mentioning the disciples to Jesus being a real figure.

    There were also parties vying for control after his death. Peter, Paul, and James being three examples we can infer directly from the New Testament.

    Were they vying for control after his death or were they just vying for control? How could you tell the difference?

    More to the point, if there was a historical Jesus, what do we really know about him? The only biographical details that aren’t questionable are those that are outright false. We don’t know where he was born (Bethlehem is clearly bunk, Nazareth isn’t much better); we don’t know what he did when he was alive (he may well have preached, but we’re not sure what); we don’t know when or how he died (given that the crucifixion account appears suddenly in Mark and is clearly derivative).

    Can we even be sure his name was Jesus? The NT is full of people being renamed or being given names as titles; Peter, Paul, James and John are all examples. Isn’t it possible that a person like “Jesus” might be given that name as a reference to Joshua (since they’re basically the same name); the hero who led the Israelites to victory in the promised land? Granted, “possible” is a far cry from “actually happened”, but I mention it only to show that even the tiniest, most innocuous details are up for debate.

    Some of the details may actually reflect a real person, but we have no idea which ones or to what degree they’re factual. Maybe he was crucified, but maybe he wasn’t. We simply don’t know. What we do know is that the sources we have had a very relaxed attitude towards factual reporting and on numerous occasions added to, changed or just plain invented the text. Most of the details surrounding the crucifixion are clearly invented, so maybe the whole thing is.

    We have no writings from him or from anyone who met him. We have nothing contemporary from anyone. If there was an actual person who inspired all this (as there may very well have been), he has long since disappeared under a mountain of myth.

  50. Daryl Carpenter says

    Ryan #40

    Matthew and Luke didn’t like the idea of Jesus coming from Nazareth, but Mark wasn’t bothered about it. Therefore there’s a possibility that Mark (who wrote first) invented the idea that Jesus was from Nazareth. You may say that jesus coming from such a small town is embarrassing, but I wouldn’t necessarily draw that conclusion. An important person coming from inconsequential beginnings is a common literary trope in ancient literature. It’s perfectly believable that Mark could have invented it.

    One can’t just pull out the embarrassment criterion and use it to declare certain parts of the gospel as authentic. It’s an incredibly naive way to do history.

    Also I’ve never seen what’s particularly embarrassing about someone dying a martyrs death.

    Actually there is some uncertainty when Jesus lived. Traditions exist that Jesus lived around 100 BCE under the reign of Alexander jannias. Irenaeus believed Jesus lived during the time of Claudius. You may not think this is a large discrepancy, but it does demonstrate that there were some people (who didn’t live long after Jesus) werent exactly sure when Jesus had lived, which is remarkable if he was supposed to be a recent historical figure.

    There may be some scope in arguing that the epistle to the Galatians bears evidence of a serious disagreement and is therefore likely to be describing real historical events, but again I’d suggest this is a naive approach to history. Just because something appears to be ‘embarrassing’ it doesn’t mean it should automatically be accepted as histotical. It might be, but then again it might not.

    It’s important to point out that Paul in Galatians doesn’t meet the disciples; he meets the ‘pillars’. These aren’t necessarily the same thing. Hell, the disciples (as described in the gospels) probably aren’t the same group Paul calls ‘the twelve’ in 1Corinthians 15:5, where it appears that Peter (Cephas) isn’t part of this main group. I know this sounds picky, but it’s really important not to harmonise the Pauline epistles with the gospels when it isn’t warranted. It’s like when people say Galatians 1:19 mention James, Jesus’s brother. No, not exactly. It says Paul met James, the brother of the LORD. This phrase may have a different meaning and not reflect a blood relationship.

    But again, I tacitly agree with you that it’s wholly plausible Galatians does reflect some real events. But there may be other explanations for the letters contents. IMO the entire thing is a redactional war zone comprising of many theological viewpoints. Not only does it contradict Acts as to where Paul received his gospel (was it a special revelation to him, or was he caticised by the Jerusalem church?) but more damningly it contradicts 1 Corinthians 15, which has Paul PASSING ON the tradition of the resurrection kyegma. This alone should make us doubt that the same person wrote both letters. But no Christian scholar wants to contemplate that these letters aren’t authentic to Paul. Can’t cast the Protestant Messiah into the dustbin of history…

  51. says

    @63, CD: That. Was. AMAZING! Beautifully written. Downright peacetacular. :)

    I seriously want to put out a wrestling magazine, a one-off issue, with the various MANLY HEROES of the Bible square off in the squared circle. Especially if I can call one of them TomTom the Doubter.

    This was my favourite bit of what I’d wrote earlier, since I’m on enough meds to be willing to say to hell with modesty and be glad you’re not all nearby (ahem) where was I? – oh, right, favourite:

    “And you saw Jesus the Jew-King knocked right over the ropes when his tag partner DeathKiss turned traitor in the Battle Rabbile, and rendered him unto Caesar OH YEAAAAHHHHH!”

    Rendered unto Caesar. Yeah.

  52. hunter says

    How does anyone get to be a teacher of English without, apparently, having the slightest acquaintance of European and Middle Eastern mythology? Or, for that matter, metaphor? There are any number of stories about gods and demigods who were sacrificed in one way or another and then resurrected. It goes hand in hand with agricultural societies.

    That’s almost as good as a book I ran across recently that purported to demonstrate that humanity developed storytelling in the Pleistocene because we were all afraid of being eaten. The author was serious.

  53. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Caitie Cat:

    Don’t think I missed “rendered unto Caesar”. I, myself, thought it was a nice touch.

    ========
    Is it wrong or is it intended that I always hear Bikram’s shout in the voice of Ali, immediately post-Liston?

  54. jackinyogrill says

    Shatterface:

    They kind of are – at least those involved in literary interpretation. The meaning of a text isn’t inherent in the text, it depends on the meaning given to it by the readers and so is largely external to it. Those who insist that they have ‘uncovered’ the true meaning by close-reading and without reference to real-world readers are basically indulging in an exercise in bullshit.

    I was asking terms of believing in things like the resurrection of Jesus. The interpretation of literary texts is not really in the same sphere, because there are different methods of interpretation (your point, that there is no ‘true’ meaning to a literary text, is true from a post-structuralist point of view but not from a new historicist viewpoint, to take one example). That has no bearing on whether or not English professors are more inclined to believe in the supernatural.

  55. John Horstman says

    @LykeX #60:

    The disciples could be real without Jesus being real.

    Indeed. Through processes like memetic mutation, it’s possible for disciples to exist without a mentor/leader or copies to exist without an original. Because interpretation of a text (the ‘text’ can be the actions of a given individual) is (at least) as much a function of the biases and projections of the reader as it is of the intent of the author, the construction of meaning, even with respect to physical actions with material impacts, is largely dependent on second-party (or third-party) interpretation (this idea may make more sense if one keeps in mind the social justice refrain that intent is not magic – meaning of an action can be mostly based on the interpretations of those observing or impacted by the action and have almost nothing to do with the intent of the actor/agent). As a result, someone can copy something that never existed in the first place – in this case, the agent is intending to copy something that came before, but has actually engaged in an unintentional act of creation, fabricating the original along with the copy due to projection or differential interpretation of some earlier act/work resulting from the difference in context of the supposed original actor and the imitative actor.

    Monty Python’s Life of Brian illustrates this principle quite well: Brian’s ‘followers’ are not following Brian at all (in fact, he wants them to go away and leave him alone), but are instead projecting their own desires, constructing a messiah figure who is then mapped onto the body of Brian (or, to step back another level, mapped onto the character who is embodied by the actor playing Brian). We have a perfect demonstration of followers without a leader, disciples without a mentor.

  56. says

    Neil Rickert @ 3

    I’m willing to take it as literary analysis. But then, literary analysis never did make sense to me.

    As someone who studied literary analysis and to whom it usually does make sense, I would advise against that. This nonsense doesn’t work as literary analysis at ALL.

  57. David Marjanović says

    the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment

    Let that crap sink in.

    BTW, raven, it’s not mainline Protestantism. It’s newage.

    OK, kids, listen up. Ragnar[ö]k is coming any day now. Featuring giant wolves, dragons, giant snakes, Frost Giants and a huge battle. Make sure you root for the right side.

    The morally right side, or the winning side?

    To the point that we have really resurrected long dead organisms. The 1918 flu virus and an endogenous retrovirus, Phoenix, that had been dead for 5 million years.

    Come on. What does it even mean for a virus to be dead? And what’s your definition of “organism”?

    We could call it the Argument from personal credulity.

    + 1

    Why do we see no precursor Christian writings before the life of Christ?

    Some have argued that we do see a few.

    Irenaeus believed Jesus lived during the time of Claudius.

    Oh wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow. Wow. That’s three emperors later than the consensus.

    Reference, please!

    kyegma

    Kerygma?

    This alone should make us doubt that the same person wrote both letters.

    Indeed!

    the Protestant Messiah

    Full of win.

    Is it wrong or is it intended that I always hear Bikram’s shout in the voice of Ali, immediately post-Liston?

    Of course it’s intended! :-)

    Monty Python’s Life of Brian illustrates this principle quite well:

    Indeed.

  58. says

    Seems to me we’re taking on a lot of ad hoc hypotheses to keep Jesus mythical. “Maybe Nazareth was just a humble origin.” We don’t have any reason to think that, except that we don’t want Jesus to be real. We’re inventing a story to keep our pet idea alive. Anyone making a messiah would know that he needed to come from Bethlehem (and be from the house of David.)

    Before wading deeper into this, though, how much of this do you think is myth? Was Paul historical? Josephus? Papias? Constantine? How close to Zeitgeist are we orbiting?

  59. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    I’m prepared to accept without qualms the idea that sometime between the conversion of Rome into an Empire (i.e. sometime after the rise of Caesar) and the revolt of AD 70 a Jewish man (I’ll even grant that he was named Yeshua, son of Yousef) was crucified in Jerusalem around the time of Passover, for the crime of being a wandering preacher who said inflammatory things. Sure, he could be from Nazareth, and sure his ancestors could have included David. Sure, he could have been a carpenter by trade.

    I’ll even accept that there were shenanigans involving his corpse.

    Those things are easy to accept – they fit nicely into patterns that we know well existed.

    I’m prepared to accept that some time after his death, a cult arose, adopting elements of Judaism (most of the early adherent were Jewish, after all) and other Middle-Eastern cults. I’m prepared that one of the early leaders of this cult was an educated Hellenized Jewish man who had Roman citizenship (hell, I’ll even accept that he’d been the student of Gamaliel).

    I could go on.

    None of the above requires me to accept:
    (1) That the aforementioned Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah.
    (2) That there is any connection between Yeshua and any deity of any sort, for that matter.
    (3) That the supernatural events surrounding his birth and death as described in the gospels happened.
    (4) That there was necessarily any connection whatsoever between Yeshua and the later leaders of the cult.
    (5) That this cult in its forms and patterns before ~150 AD bore anything more than a passing resemblance to the Church as it rose to prominence in late Antiquity or to the modern Church.

  60. CJO says

    Anyone making a messiah would know that he needed to come from Bethlehem (and be from the house of David.)/

    This is assuming
    1) That messianism was monolithic, that the Jewish eschatological imagination was universally and solely focused on a liberating political/military figure. Simply, wildly untrue.
    2) That “making a messiah” in any putative mythicist scenario would have to have been a calculated effort by at most a very few contemporary individuals, and the resulting figure would be carefully crafted for broad acceptability. Rather, mythic figures more commonly arise syncretically and in this case may have developed organically along lines that were ultimately due to the particulars of the concerns of individual mystics and religious leaders separated in space and time.

    Before wading deeper into this, though, how much of this do you think is myth? Was Paul historical?

    Saul/Paul of Acts? Almost certainly not. But on stylistic and thematic grounds, someone wrote large chunks of several of the letters, so the question doesn’t have a clear yes/no answer. One thing is clear: the letters as we have them are stepped on. Some effort was made to domesticate a literary corpus that at mid-2nd century was the centerpiece of the gospel of the Marcionites and other proto-gnostic heretics. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that part of this process also involved obscuring its origins further by disseminating it under another name.

    Josephus?

    No reason to believe he didn’t exist, but nothing in the study of Christian origins depends on it, one way or the other. He didn’t write the “Testimonium” passage.

    Papias?

    A guy named “Father,” companion or disciple of the legendary Presbyter John, believed by prominent members of a group subsequently to be known as “the Apostolic Fathers” to be their forerunner. What’s fishy about that?

    Though, again, as with Paul, we have the quoted fragments. Not a lot is even supposed to be known, and not much hangs on the identity of the author of those fragments. Could have been Polycarp himself, passed along by members of the congregation at Smyrna who referred to him just as “Father”, could have been anonymous by the time Irenaeus got ahold of them.

    Constantine?

    One of these things is not like the others.

    How close to Zeitgeist are we orbiting?

    Speaking for myself, quite far. Despite your belief that the only possible motivation for entertaining hypotheses of Christian origins that do not feature a historical Jesus is “we don’t want Jesus to be real,” I am simply interested in Christian origins from a literary-social-historical and anthropological angle. I’m not convinced, but I do see the appeal of a radical reimagination of the problem. It cuts right through a lot of troubling questions, but of course it raises some new ones, perhaps equally vexing. What the debate really doesn’t need to center on is the motivation for critical analysis. The results of it can stand or fall on the merits.

  61. microraptor says

    The big difference between Jesus and a lot of other people of dubious historical existence is the number of currently living people who are emotionally invested in believing that Jesus was real.

    If, for example, conclusive archeological evidence was discovered that showed that Sun Tzu wasn’t a real person, how many people would actually care?