R. Joseph Hoffmann Weighs In

Joe Hoffmann asked me to post this up on my blog for the time being.  Below, Joe weighs in on the recent exchange and comes out with his own feelings on it all.  Take it away Joe:

Memorandum to Myself : The Jesus Project

R. Joseph Hoffmann

Just as I was beginning work for my PhD at Oxford my supervisor was recovering from a bad time in British theological circles for having been a “founder” of the “Myth of God Incarnate” debate. With John Hick and others, Maurice Wiles had been blamed, even in the national press, for undermining the foundations of the Christian (read: Anglican) faith which had always been especially devoted to the doctrine of the incarnation.

The Myth-theologians were not especially interested in the historical Jesus but in pressing the fairly obvious point that the language of the New Testament is essentially derived from a time when gods did become men and men became gods—that is to say, antiquity. Coming fresh from the more energetic Germanics of Harvard Divinity School (I will not name names, but the years were 1976-1980), I found the whole discussion a little quaint. In fact, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School Ronald Thiemann called it that to my face, as I recall, during an interview in 1982. Oxford–England in general with its traditional antipathy for the splashiness of German and American biblical scholarship–arrived late to any interest in Nag Hammadi and felt that its obligations toward the apocrypha had been neatly summarized by a strange little collection by a certain Montague Rhodes James, a librarian, medievalist, and ghost- story writer, whose New Testament Apocrypha had appeared in 1924. Oxford repaid its debt to scholarship with the superb re-do of J K Elliott in 1994. What was happening at Claremont, Utrecht and Cambridge, MA in Coptic-Gnostic studies seemed robust and real compared to the cold-tea debates (as I saw them) when I arrived as a brash postgraduate at Wiles’s door in Christ Church.

This is a memorandum to myself as to why I no longer see the Dutch-American initiative in quite the same way, and why I think I missed the point and the wisdom of the Myth debate. The Myth of God Incarnate was not (to repeat) a seminar devoted to the historical Jesus. That there had been one was assumed with the same nonchalance as one would say “Well of course I had a grandfather. Where do you think I come from?” What there had not been is an incarnation—presumably also, while there was disagreement on some specifics, not a resurrection, virgin birth, or assorted other signs and wonders either. God had not become man. But like the Jesus Seminar later which trudged over some of the same ground the Myth seminar was greeted with a series of awful ripostes including a piece of apologetical nonsense called The Truth of God Incarnate. It was one thing to call Genesis a myth. It was OK to say, even, that Abraham was about as real as Oedipus. But were the canons of Christ Church and the Queen’s appointed theologian now saying that the word did not become flesh?

It’s sad in a way that the Myth seminar was doomed to be overshadowed by the gnostic gospels craze and other, equally important trends in New Testament Studies. Sad because the Myth seminar reminded scholarship beyond theology that the New Testament does not put itself forward as the story of a simple Galilean peasant who got himself godded through the reminiscences of his “community.” We can infer the community from the existence of the written sources, but in fact we only need to infer a writer and an audience for his work to explain the survival of the story. The twentieth century infatuation with the word “community” was itself a construct of theology in its attempts to depersonalize the origins of the gospels. But, as rule, communities do not write books, with the possible exception of the Jesus Seminar. Nor do communities invent the elaborate mythological framework we find fully fledged in the Fourth Gospel, but nascent in all the others. If by social memory we mean a “personality” whose character and actions can be recovered from the myth that encases it, or retrace the process that brought the transformation about I’m afraid I can’t see it at all in the New Testament. I do not think we are dealing with a man who became god, but a god who was made man. I think the New Testament is telling the truth about itself.

The growth of anti-supernaturalism and rationalism from Holbach’s day forward could deal with a man who became God only by ignoring the primary artifact—the story itself. Once you begin to demythologize (and even that once-radical word has become quaint) Jesus can be anything you want him to be. That in my view is what happened as theology tried unsuccessfully to fight for an “ordinary” Jesus whose message could be detached from the prevailing literary form we call gospel.

So my memo to myself (and anyone else who wants to share) is this: you can believe that the author of the Fourth Gospel was “mistaken” or “gnostic” or “inclusive” in using incarnational language, but the story he tells is not about a man who became God. The acts of Jesus, the words of Jesus and the deeds of Jesus befit someone who is God incarnate, the word of God. That’s also, more or less, the Christ of Paul’s Philippian hymn. It is fair enough for theologians and biblical scholars to say that this is the cultural ornamentation through which the significance of Jesus is being expressed by one social group who’d heard the Jesus story (yawn), but the story is the datum, not that guess, and the story is a myth. That’s what the Myth seminar was able to say with something approaching clarity—a clarity never achieved by later investigations—before it disbanded in 1980. The gnostic Jesus, whatever we may mean by that term, is a slightly more radicalized or de-historicized myth; the Lucan Jesus an artificially historicized version of the same thing. But each is to the datum as Subaru is to car. They are not perspectives on an historical individual, but variations on a mythic theme. In its most abstruse and literarily earliest form, it is Paul’s myth of Christ the Lord. In its most abstract and impersonal form, it is the Hymn of the Pearl. It is composite and as I’ve said elsewhere metamorphic—like all myths. But it does not provide knowledge of the life, profession, social status, or parentage of a man.


6 Responses

  1. I’m liking this Joe Hoffman guy more and more.


    Thanks for posting this.


  2. I’m a huge fan. If you haven’t done so already, you should check out his books on Amazon. He has some great translations of some ancient critics of Christianity (since we only have fragments left, he has done a lot with very little). Joe has a lot of great stuff out there. I’m glad he is heading up the JP.

  3. I think I generally like where he’s coming from but i don’t always understand him. I’m no Jesus scholar by the way. Take this:

    The growth of anti-supernaturalism and rationalism from Holbach’s day forward could deal with a man who became God only by ignoring the primary artifact—the story itself.

    I don’t get it. Secularists haven’t necessarily ignored the story, or stories, of Jesus, they’ve just tried to put them in the context of their antiquity, when men became gods, like Augustus and Vespasian, etc, did, only not for quite as long as Jesus did. Or maybe he’s talking about anti-supernaturalists and rationalists who are still trying to remain Christians. Good luck to them.

  4. The problem, I *think*, Joe is trying to express is that secularists–to steal your term (I prefer ‘critical scholars’)–often come from only your perspective; that men became Gods. They hardly ever consider the other truism of the age–fictional stories became historicized and fictional characters were placed into history; a process known as euhemerism. WHen you take into account the narrative of the Gospels, the idea of a man-becoming-God is less likely than the other possibility: Jesus was an eponymous character who became historicized. I think this is more likely and Joe apparently does as well.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. The problem with the whole ball of wax is that the “history” of Jesus is more or less totally absent from everything but the writings of Christians. In a very real sense, there is no history of Jesus the person. We do not know a single thing about him, including whether or not there ever was such a person.

    If there was no such person, then all of the “history” in the NT and Apocrypha isn’t. His sayings aren’t.

    This could be true even if there was some person, sure — at this point the myth is (in my opinion) impossible to separate from any non-mythical content. The witnesses are not credible witnesses, as so much of what they say is impossible, internally contradictory, and (ultimately) self-serving where the self in question is the nascent superorganism.

    It is for that reason that the Jesus Project’s first job should be to determine whether or not a historical Jesus existed, using (of course) only evidence derived from sources outside of all Christian writings. To the best of my knowledge, there is no contemporary evidence that he did. There is no noncontemporary evidence that he did in the three hundred years or so preceding Nicaea. There is at best evidence that there were Christians, no evidence at all that there was a Christ.

    This is what has created an air of “ennui” concerning the entire topic. We live in a world where somewhere between one person in two and one person in three is nominally at least a Christian, and a significant fraction of those that are left are Muslim and derive from the same general mythology. We have seen neo Christianity come into existence in the form of Mormonism — clearly created out of whole cloth, a pure invention rife with anachronism and worse. And yet “Biblical Scholars” haven’t yet been able to state openly and in public that it is rather doubtful that a man named Jesus ever existed and that if he did exist he bears little resemblance to the myth, and that little impossible to resolve, signal lost forever in the noise.

    So do the world a favor. Sure, it is painful. It is politically incorrect. It is controversial, and may saw off the very branch on which you sit. But start by deciding if the evidence truly warrants the conclusion that “Jesus” ever existed at all.


  6. I think the Christian writings themselves present the best evidence for the ahistoricity of the figure of Jesus. I don’t think there is any reason not to include them.

    To correct you on one point, the Jesus Seminar was, in fact, successful at showing the Jesus of history–if such a man ever did exist–was far from the mythological figure of the Gospels. I recommend, for starters, J.D. Crossan’s tome The Historical Jesus. And while I don’t agree with everything he has to say (you can find debates between us on my blog and his), I do believe that James McGrath has some excellent insights on the narrative and historical context of the figure of Jesus. Also, James Crossley and Marcus Borg are worth the money (James Crossley especially, as he has some excellent knowledge of the socio-cultural background of rabbinic Judaism in the first century CE). The historical Jesus of biblical scholarship today–particularly in critical circles–is far from the mythical figure of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. I, of course, do not agree that such a figure existed–but the historical Jesus scholars of today have acceptable reasons for assuming the historicity of the figure of Jesus based on prima facie evidence–the question is, does it meet secunda facie evidence? That is what the Jesus Project aims to determine.

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