Defining Mythicism: A Few Questions for Historical Jesus Scholars

This is more of a musing, a pensive attempt at conversation away from the norm.  But here are some random questions, in the hopes of coaxing out deeper thoughts on the question, for historical Jesus scholars on the figure of Jesus.

  • If such a figure as Jesus existed, do you really think his this earthly, historical figure’s name was Jesus?  Or, is it possible this is a title for a figure who lived, for which the narrative is loosely based?  For example, like Romulus holds the name/title Quirinus (‘spear’) when he ascended and which, perhaps, Philippians 2:10 is in reference?
  • What parts of the Gospels are historical and which are tradition and what methods do you use to determine which is which?
  • Which testimony, from Christian sources, from outside the canon, do you find to be the most relevant for determining the historicity of the figure known as Jesus?
These are pretty random and simple, but I thought it might behoove some of my colleagues, who hold a more positive stance on historicity, to address some of these questions definitely.  Since I take an agnostic stance, I thought I should be the one to pose them rather than someone who, perhaps, would ask these questions to force a point.  I hope I have some friends in the community willing to address these remedial points!

4 Responses

  1. Hello, Tom, while I’m not a historical Jesus scholar nor intend to be one, I’ll throw out my two cents, hopefully some real ones will chime in, but they seem to have better things to than blogs. Personally, I think that there has been a lot of sketchy work done concerning Jesus and thi9s in part the need to be controversial in order to say something new on a subject that little depth. You can spend your career as an expert on Napoleon; I think with Jesus, you should have time for some other subjects. The other problem is the figure’s contemporary value as a role model. For instance I think Crossan’s work is far to influenced by his need to like Jesus in a contemporary way. I like Ehrman a lot more because I think he is dispassionate about the nature of Jesus. He doesn’t want to worship him, so he is comfortable with Jesus as a dooms day prophet wandering Times Square with a sandwich board. My issue with some Mythicist isn’t the notion that there is lot of bad NT scholarship or that a lot of it is very biased, but that everyone who is not a mythicist is terribly biased and a bad scholar to the degree they don’t support Mythicism. I’m glad that there are a couple that would like to investigate the issue in a less paranoid way.

    On your questions, I’ll label them 1,2,3, in order:
    1. It is certainly possible that Jesus had other names; nicknames seem to abound at the time. Joshua was popular with mystics at the time, if I recall, two of Josephus rebels sought to replicate Joshua’s miracles. It is also possible that Jesus was a title given to the man from Galilee. Philippians 2:10 could be construed as evidence for this, but hardly conclusive evidence. The histories of interpretation of this song are numerous. Also there is no evidence that anyone ever thought Joshua was a name above every name before Christianity. The other problem is that Jesus was a common name. The nicknames of Jesus’ own followers (in the text, I’ll skip the question of accuracy for now) are descriptive and not ancient, rocky, the thunder brothers. Jesus is an Old Testament name popular at the time. It isn’t distinctive as a title. It would be like a modern Arabian mystic being called Mohammed as a title. What is your take on it?
    2. I’m not convinced that all the episodes in the gospels were intended as historically true, and even in the compilation, I don’t think the authors would assume that the audience would take everything as literally what happened, do you? They may have been clever enough to notice that the writer was not a fly on the wall for all these conversations. How much they I don’t know. I think though that the early gospel writers would be aware that they couldn’t be very sure anymore what Jesus said or did. I don’t think the Gospels are genuine histories; they are stories about the life of Jesus. To use a modern example, look at movies about historical people and events.
    The particulars of what is historical and what is not I think can be approximated with the same criteria we use to judge any testimony, ancient or modern, does it support the authors position or detract, is it known to multiple sources?. I know you have difficulties with them but I don’t see how they cannot be useful to say that some things are less likely than others. What criteria do you use to test the reliability of testimonies?
    3. On non-canonical Christen sources for the “historical” Jesus, I think the easiest choice is the Gospel of Thomas. It makes claims about the words and deeds of Jesus, and it seems to be an old work, a near contemporary of the earliest canonical Gospels. The rest of the body of text from the first generation, (the period when eyewitnesses would theoretically still be alive and thus most reliable in terms of memory,) adds relatively few additional episodes and sayings from the life of Jesus. They do contain clues to the formation of the early Christian community, and I suspect that that could tell us about the nature of the “Christ “and the original message. The Didache, Clement, some of the reconstructed unorthodox texts. I liked Ehrman’s text, Lost Scriptures. It is very basic, but a good guide for a religious historian who isn’t a New Testament specialist.

    Even later works I also think can be useful for this. The early historians and heresy fighters compiled information from their time and sometimes preserve traditions that have been lost in original form, some going back to the time of the supposed Christ. I’ve enjoyed reading Eusebiuses Church history, and eventually want to get Against All Heresies, it sound like a 1950’s b movie.

    Book that haven’t been of interest to me on historical questions about Jesus lean more to the apologies and hagiographic text. The hagiographies may give clues to the histories of the apostles, but say little about Jesus. The body of Christian allegorical literature is also of little use for questions about Jesus’ history, but do show what Christian allegorical literature was like. It is good to compare the gospels to this literature, to see how the gospels resemble contemporary allegorical fiction.

    Which sources do you think have the most relevance? I get the impression the New Testament is the focus of your work. Are there any other religions that interest you as a history student?

  2. Just wondering what you think of this comment over at FRDB:

    Just on the subject of the traditional Jesus, the notion of tradition is very important to the position, hence the name, for want of better. The position revolves around the problems of traditions and how one can–if at all–derive any historical information from traditions. The stupidity of probabilities, modern common sense, or application of rules for extracting history from them brings derisive laughter from me. It’s like expecting to send a meteor into the sun and be able to say where any of its parts are at any given time. Few data that enter a tradition will retain any history. One may point to a particular event, such as the census in Luke, and claim that that supplies a historical date, and, by itself, it does, but how is that date relates to the tradition is a mystery. It’s a terminus a quo for the datum attached to that particular date, but how does it relate to the rest of the tradition? When did the tradition start and when did the datum enter the tradition? Pilate for example implies a date range, but when did Pilate get absorbed into the tradition? The tradition is unable to tell you, though of course it couldn’t be before Pilate. At what stage was the tradition when Pilate entered it? The tradition doesn’t say. We are slightly fortunate because we have a few visions of part of the tradition in the various gospels. There is the possibility of setting up some sort of relative chronology of some of the elements in the tradition.

    The Jesus of this view is–at the moment–unreachable and he always may be. We have no way in and the tradition cannot help. Imagine that the tradition is an avalanche that we can see at one moment of its downhill course. From your position all you can see is the event front. What it has absorbed and is dragging with it is behind that event front. The tradition, as far as we can see, is the event front in that moment. Paul may have been the prime mover of the event, but there is no way to be sure, as things stand. The tradition itself keeps its secrets jealously.

    To me, if this argument holds, it seems pretty reasonable to maintain agnosticism in regards to Jesus.

  3. […] via Defining Mythicism: A Few Questions for Historical Jesus Scholars « The Musings of Thomas Verenna. […]

  4. […] 5, 6, 7, 8). Contributions were also made by John Loftus, Neil Godfrey, Landon Hedrick, Joel Watts, Tom Verenna, and John […]

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