Lester L. Grabbe Responds to Richard Carrier

Some of you may have read Richard Carrier’s review of the forthcoming collection of essays edited by Thomas L. Thompson and I.  The one paper in the volume he didn’t like he reviewed negatively; that paper belongs to Lester Grabbe.  He has asked me to reblog a comment he left on Carrier’s review.  I will post it here in length.  Here you go Lester:  

Since Dr Carrier has given a completely misleading impression of my article, I thought I might make a few brief points:

1.  Thank you for the reference to Van Voorst.  It was, unfortunately, unavailable when I did my research for the article.  However, my practice is to go to primary sources as the basis of any research.  It is also important to take account of secondary sources, but if you work from the primary sources, it is not usually a disaster if you overlook a secondary source.

2.  “Uncritical” is the typical sophomoric response of one who cannot refute the arguments of another.  Of course, there are many uncritical studies in the scholarly literature–as I have often pointed out–but my article is not one of them.  On the contrary, I critically analyzed every source and came to a considered judgment about its historical value for the question.  You might disagree with my conclusions, but it is not because I was uncritical.

3.  Your attempt to show I made an ignorant mistake about Pilate is cheap and disingenuous, as a full quotation of the passage quickly shows:

Thus, it seems likely that Tacitus’ source is Roman.  Tacitus is the only Roman writer >to mention Pilate (though we have confirmation of his existence from an inscription).  >If Pilate had reported to the Senate on the matter, this would likely have been available >in the senatorial archives.    [Is This Not the Carpenter?, p. 59]

My argument was about Tacitus, not Pilate.  As for the alleged lack of knowledge about the facts, I examined and discussed all or almost all the primary references to Pilate and also listed the main recent secondary sources already 20 years ago in my Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (1992), pp. 395-97, 422-25.

4.  No, I didn’t take account of your article, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josepehus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200”, since it has not yet been published.  I’m afraid I’m not prescient.

5.  I think it highly unlikely that Josephus used Luke, and I think that few scholars of either Luke or Josephus would accept that proposition.  (I also doubt that Luke used Josephus, though that is a possibility.)

6.  Even though you assure everyone that I am mistaken, on not less than two occasions, you also urge your audience not to read my article.  Yet you devote about 25 percent of your entire review of the book just to my contribution.  I am left with the distinct impression that you are afraid for people to read it.

In conclusion, critical scholars will disagree with one another, which is fine–that’s part of scholarship.  But they should present evidence and careful argument for their positions:  chest-thumping and penis-waving will not substitute.

Lester Grabbe

I have asked Richard Carrier to comment here as well.  See comments below.

Undisputed! Ignatius, Skepticism, and the Problem of Ignorance

The title may be a little confusing; what do any of those things have to do with each other?  Well, as it turns out, this post is a bit of a critique of the ‘criterion of disputation.’  This criterion goes that if a particular person, place, or event in antiquity wasn’t contested (that is to say, their existence or their happening wasn’t called into question) by other contemporaries, that the person, place, or event must have been historical.  If we broke the argument down into a syllogism, it would look like this:

 P1. If (insert name here) did not exist, a first century text would mention it.

 P2. No first century text mentions it.

 C1. Therefore (person) existed [i.e. (individual/group) did not not exist].

But this is just not a sound argument, nor is it helpful.  For starters, this criterion uses too many generalizations–it’s a special plea because it fails to prove accurate in many, if not most, of the cases one would think to use it.  For example, Romulus.

At some point in early Rome (we don’t know when precisely) there grew a belief in a demi-god, a patriarch, of the city of Rome.  Was it within the first 50 years?  The first 100 years?  Maybe later?  We are pretty sure that Rome became a Republic sometime in the 6th century BCE, and that it is traditionally said to have been ruled by several kings prior to it becoming a republic and that it was founded perhaps 200 years earlier.  The first mention of Romulus is in the 4th century BCE and our earliest history of Rome comes from Diocles around the same time.  So there is some length of time between when the city was first established and when the patriarch was given to myth. I’ve dealt with the problem of proximity before, but clearly I need to readdress it at some point in light of some additional considerations, but more on that soon.  What should be remembered here is that nobody doubted the historicity of Romulus; his existence went undisputed.  Interestingly enough, not only did his existence go undisputed, some of his miraculous deeds did get disputed.  For example, Plutarch disputed whether or not he had really risen from the dead–but his existence was never disputed.

Likewise, and I’ve written on this before, Palaephatus wrote in his introduction to his work Πeρὶ ἀpίstων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists a great deal of “true stories” behind the myths.   In his work, he writes that Centaurs were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!

And then, of course, there is Euhemerus himself (from whom the word ‘euhemerism’ derives).  Euhemerus argued that the gods of the Greeks were mythologized historical Kings.  Again, the gods were not disputed to have existed, but their mythology stripped and they were placed within the context of a historical setting.

But we should bring this back home a little bit; we should consider Ignatius as a model here.  Ignatius supposedly wrote several letters defending Christianity in his lifetime and is attested to have lived from about the early-mid first century to the early second century CE.  Later Christian historians write on him and tell us about his life, more about his martyrdom.  No one in antiquity doubts his historicity.  But I am doubtful that such a figure as Ignatius existed historically (I’d say there is about a 30-40% chance that such a figure existed–and that is being generous).  In fact, I don’t believe there is any way such a figure, if he did exist, wrote anything (or, if such a figure did write something, then it might be argued but at a later date).  Let me break this down for you so you can better understand what I’m arguing here.

When I say I am 30-40% sure of Ignatius’ historicity, for example, I’m not denying his existence outright.  I must stress that; I’m not denying his historicity completely.  I’m stating that the limitations of our evidence doesn’t ipso facto suggest Ignatius didn’t exist, but they certainly don’t help or support the case for his existence.  For example, are we really to accept that Ignatius was captured by Romans in the second century for practicing a ‘false religion’, only to be supplied by those same Romans with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about his same forbidden religion?  And are we then to assume that his letters were kept or sent out by these same Romans (which Ignatius considers rather mean-spirited and cruel to him)?  Are we to believe he had other ‘illegal Christian’ visitors, let in by the Roman guards (the same guards holding him for being a Christian), to secure these letters before he was eaten by lions?  Keep in mind, he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!  I just don’t buy it.  Maybe you do.  I do not.

And then there is that whole pesky thing about Christians being persecuted in the early second century.  Pliny didn’t even know what a Christian was and he should!  He held enough high positions and judicial positions that if there were some edict against Christianity he would know about it!  And yet the way Ignatius discusses his captivity, one would think that the Romans were just hunting Christians down. This calls into question not only the authenticity of the letters, but also the person.  For what more do we know of him except from later Christian tradition?  Of that later tradition, it is no more valid or useful than the letters themselves.  So I don’t think my estimation of about 30-40% is too low or too skeptical.  In fact I’m probably being more generous than I should given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.

But I could make an even stronger case that the historical validity of things were simply not questioned in antiquity.  And examples are readily found in the New Testament itself.  All of the pastorals are written in the names of people which may or may not have any historical significance.  That is to say, was Nicodemus a historical figure?  And what of Simon Magus in Acts?  Certainly some must doubt the historicity of these individuals.  But who contested them?  Who in antiquity wrote on the ahistoricity of Nicodemus or Simon Magus?  Indeed, their traditions were merely exemplified.  Many of these traditions were created within a generation of the events, some contemporaries probably still lived to dispute them if they wanted to do so.  Yet we have no evidence that anyone sought to dispute them.

Now, keeping in mind that we have letters attested to have been written by Ignatius, my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.  In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones.  I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people.  But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.  Maybe that will change when better evidence presents itself.  I’m leaving room for such possibilities.  But I’m not straight out denying the traditions.  And that is the difference here between my skepticism and someone who is a denialist.  And I would put a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp.

Now, most academics are skeptical to some degree.  Skepticism is healthy and useful.  But what this shows is that there is a danger in not being skeptical enough.  That doesn’t mean to suggest that we need to be hyper skeptical where our doubt borders on denialism–that is not what I’m suggesting, and there is a clear difference between that sort of skepticism and what I recommend.  My concern is that there are too many arguments made without consideration for the elephant in the room; too many scholars who are not following through with their own conclusions.  And I believe it is a general fear of becoming too skeptical; too sensitive to the limitations of our evidence.  My concern is that the limitations of our textual evidence is taken for granted–and some may say it isn’t, because they’re using evidence and argument.  But if our text is our evidence, and the text is subject to fictionalization, almost completely in the sense of the Gospels, what does that say about the state of the evidence?  And what does that say about the value of the criterion of disputation?

I tend to think the greater danger is in merely taking the information within our texts for granted, that is to say, simply relying upon consensus rather than doing any of the leg work to verify the validity of a consensus.  For example, I trust my doctors, but I still look into the medication they prescribe me just to make sure I know what I’m taking.  If I have questions, I consult my doctor or get a second opinion (or a third or fourth).  And when a scientist presents a study on evolution, I look into it as well because I don’t know whether that scientist is presenting credible arguments from the evidence–even if his premise (evolution) is one with which I agree.  Another example of this is when geologists try to suggest that a gust of wind is responsible for the parting of the sea during the crossing of the Israelites from Egypt or that an earthquake can accurate point to the exact day of the crucifixion.  Doing one’s due diligence is not something to be ridiculed, in my humble opinion. Being a responsible scholar depends on ones familiarity with the basics–not just the knowledge that everyone agrees with them.

All I want to see is more honesty.  My goal in all of this is to simply keep the conversation open.  Maybe one day we’ll have evidence which will close it, but I don’t think we currently do.  I think there are multiple ways to interpret the data which are all just as useful and realistic and possible.  But what this criterion does is shut out the alternate realistic possibility that people in antiquity rarely disputed traditions–because traditions were more important than the fact of them.  The same could be said of Tea Party candidates today who believe that the early founding fathers of this country established a Christian nation, that Jefferson was a religious fellow; tradition (even if that tradition was just created) is more important than the facts.

The criterion of disputation doesn’t allow for the facts; it presumes things about it that we can provide ample evidence against.  And those who use it should always be cautious.

Related Articles: Minimalism and Ancient Historiography

Defining Mythicism: Parallelomania, Luxor, and Acharya S

This is nothing new for those who read this blog, but Richard Carrier has posted an excellent example of a problem that plagues the case for mythicism: Parallelomania.  I’ve stated over and over (and over and over) again that correlation does not equal causation.  Here is a snippet from his blog on the subject:

Parallelomania is the particular disease of Jesus myth advocates who see “parallels” everywhere between early Christianity and all manner of pagan religions. Many of those parallels are real; don’t get me wrong. Some are even causal (Christianity really is a syncretism of Judaism and paganism, which point I will soundly prove in my coming book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ). But most parallels are not real, or are not causally related (remember that basic rule in science: correlation is not causation). Some don’t even exist (and here bad scholarship becomes the disease: see my cautionary review of Kersey Graves’ Sixteen Crucified Saviors).

One important example of a “non-parallel” is the Egyptian nativity narrative at Luxor. I reviewed this claim years ago (Brunner’s Gottkoenigs & the Nativity of Jesus: A Brief Communication). Acharya S (aka D.M. Murdock) responded to that by claiming I was reading the wrong text (and also not reading it right), but she’s mistaken. She also claimed that the meaning of “immaculate conception” is up for debate; it is not. She simply cites other people making the same mistake she did, as if a mistake many people make ceases to be a mistake, which is a non sequitur. It would have been better if she had not doubled down on her error and just corrected herself. But that’s her own look out. What concerns me more is her poor treatment of the details of Egyptian history and the texts in the Luxor case.

That Luxor Thing | Richard Carrier Blogs.

His conclusion is too good to simply quote here out of context.  Do read on.

Defining Mythicism: Richard Carrier – “Did Jesus Exist?”

This video is some years old and people’s perspectives become more refined over time.  So I asked Richard if he still stands behind this video before vlogging.  Richard noted, in response:

In the intro of the S.II talk I establish caveats (that the talk itself is tongue in cheek and doesn’t address lots of other issues like the Josephus passages or letters of Paul and so on), but the overall argument is something I will formalize, possibly with some changes, in On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. Obviously that only treats Acts in relation to the question. I’ll have different chapters on extra-biblical evidence, the epistles, the gospels, etc. I give a somewhat serious version of the argument in my online debate with O’Connell (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/carrier-oconnell/)

Richard adds another caveat:

My argument now is that we face a dilemma, either (a) Acts is fiction from the ground up, or (b) it is based on an earlier set of sources; if (a), then obviously Acts is eliminated as evidence for historicity; but if (b), then the earliest sources behind Acts can be shown to have been suspiciously lacking a historical Jesus. Ironically this means the more reliable you deem Acts to be, the less likely Jesus existed as a historical person (unless you deem Acts to be so reliable as to be free of any error or distortion whatever, but only fundamentalists would believe something so absurd of any ancient historical narrative).

It’s a little crass at times, but overall humorous and provocative food-for-thought.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and the Q&A; I like that carrier does not resort to conspiracy theory.  In fact in the end, during Q&A, Carrier outlines his problems with the movie Zeitgeist and his frustrations with it are my own.

Richard Carrier “Did Jesus Exist?” Skepticon 2 Redux – YouTube.

Defining Mythicism: Explaining ‘Jesus Possibilianism’

Recently I have become acquainted with the concept of Possibilianism (and I think it best represents what I am now).  But not only does it fit me epistemologically, but I think it fits my position on the figure of Jesus as well.  Steven Carr has asked (I think, since at times it is difficult to get at his meaning) about my agnosticism, as if I am suggesting I sort of just sit on the fence about it.  And that isn’t necessarily my position at all, as I do not just throw my hands up in the air and say, sighing, “Well, I guess my job is done now since I don’t have a specific definitive position on historicity.”  But I was wont to explain it in more detail as I hadn’t quite had an opportunity to weigh out what exactly my position was.  Thankfully, it seems Possibilianism has proven to be quite useful.  I’d like then to propose a new term for your consideration and one I’d like to become accepted within the community, Jesus Possibilianism.  Essentially, as it should be defined:

Jesus Possibilianism: (noun) The position that, while not accepting current trends in mythicism (or as I call it, Zeitgeist Mythicism) nor aligning oneself with the theistic epistemological positions on Jesus, refuses to take any hardline approach on historicity (that is, not accepting nor denying affirmitively historicity) while actively engaging in attempting to discover (through academic pursuits) the reality of the multiple positions on the figure of Jesus as they are today, were in the past (both distant and near), and will be in the future (through meme theory).

That is to say, while I doubt historicity, I still seek to determine the value of historicity and do not refuse the possibility, as I recognize the limitations of the evidence and the differences in interpretation which can be as valid (or more valid, in some instances) as those produced by those who call themselves mythicists.

 

Defining Mythicism: Post Compilation of Articles on Jesus

Some have expressed interest in a compilation blog post combining all my articles on mythicism and the figure of Jesus from this site.  So below I have compiled a list of blogs I’ve written for the series ‘Defining Mythicism’.

Below are articles on the figure of Jesus which are not a part of the ‘Defining Mythicism’ series:

Below are articles on Zeitgeist and Acharya S/Dorothy Murdock.

Defining Mythicism: The Signs Gospel and the Figure of Jesus

James McGrath highlights a post by the blog Synoptic Solutions on the Signs Gospel and the figure of Jesus.  I tend to think the post is a little ridiculous.  Here is the offending snippet:

In the Signs Gospel, Jesus is not being portrayed as a god on earth. Instead, he is portrayed as very human–a miraculous human, but a human nonetheless. Like the rabbis, he is not quite historical, yet he is not mythical, either. Instead, he is legendary. And so I propose that this is the correct model for understanding the historical Jesus. He is a legendary figure–but that does not mean he is an imaginary figure. Indeed, it means just the opposite: it means that he was most certainly historical.

There are several problems with this statement overall (e.g., the so-called Signs Gospel itself, the certainty of the claims being made about the Signs Gospel, portrayal of Jesus, the problems associated with Gos. of John, claims about the historicity of the figure of Jesus, and so on). First, and most importantly, the ‘Signs Gospel’ is hypothetical.  Like the sayings Gospel ‘Q’, the Signs Gospel is little more than a collected group of events (re: miraculous works) compiled by certain scholars (some who fall into line with confessional theology) as to seemingly avoid the problems associated with dependency (that is to say, that the Gospels are not independent traditions based upon eyewitness testimony); and we all know there are several very good (I would say ‘unassailable’) reasons to stop pretending ‘Q’ exists (ahem…).  For those unfamiliar with the Signs Gospel and the proposed value of the Gos. of John in historical Jesus studies, according to D. Moody Smith remarks (Johannine Christianity, p. 63):

“It is now rather widely agreed that the Fourth Evangelist drew upon a miracle tradition or written source(s) substantially independent of the synoptics, whether or not he had any knowledge of one or more of those gospels. Since the epoch-making commentary of Rudolf Bultmann, the hypothesis of a semeia– (or miracle) source has gained rather wide acceptance.”

And:

“Whether such a miracle source can be precisely isolated and identified, as Bultmann and some who follow him think, is a question we need not decide here. The demonstration of the existence of a source (or sources) is not entirely dependent upon the possibility of isolating it with certainty and precision throughout the Gospel.”

The problem with D.M. Smith’s statement is that I am not so sure it is as ‘widely agreed’ that John used the Signs Gospel as he makes it appear (I will also not get into his other apologetic-esque comments here; Crossley does a good job of that in the article mentioned below).   I am not sure what is taking place with the John, Jesus, and History Project (JJH) via the SBL, but just judging from James Crossley’s paper (forthcoming in my volume with Thomas L. Thompson) it seems that suggesting that Jesus was a historical figure based upon this Gospel is a difficult task indeed (if not entirely futile, despite what the JJH project suggests).  One has to make gross presuppositions about the state of the evidence (i.e. you have to start from the conclusion that the Gospels present accurate representations of the historical Jesus first, which is a position that runs rather counter to historical-critical methods).   In addition, the Gos. of John might actually not have been composed until sometime in the early second century (but no later than the p52’s terminus ad quem, c. 150 CE), rather than at the turn of that century as it was once thought.

Though, even if it had been written earlier, like around the turn of the second century CE, it does not follow that one can judge the figure of Jesus, let alone propose a whole new model (!), based solely on a single narrative and hypothetical document.  It seems rather presumptuous, if not downright arrogant, to suggest firmly (and with such certainty!) that Jesus was indeed historical from the most miraculous, ludicrous, and late of the canonical Gospels.  And to top it off, the author begs us to presume the existence of a hypothetical document as secondary evidence for his position!

While it might be that the Gospels are legendary, mythologized narratives about a historical person, it is folly to ignore all existing narratives besides the Gos. of John whilst making the outrageous claim that Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized.  This is nothing more than begging the question: if all of these factors (Signs Gospel did exist as a source for John, John did have source material from an eyewitness, tradition stemmed from a historical core, John is the primary witness to historical tradition, etc…) are true, Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized (essentially amounting to nothing more than the Chewbacca Defense: “Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!”).  But as the song goes, “well, that’s a far cry from the truth.”  We can only say so much from the evidence.  And when one is proposing a hypothetical document, even one that is largely accepted, the proposal can only be hypothetical (as a conclusion can only be as strong as the evidence).  To a large extent, this does prove, quite directly, that there are instances of bias in historical Jesus scholarship and with the question over historical value of the canonical Gospels.

Although there is hardly much need for additional evidence; it is clear that historical Jesus scholarship has its own share of failings.  Crossley notes, for example (and do read the whole article):

[T]he study of the historical Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned with fact finding, description and descriptive interpretation in its various forms, with little concern for questions such as why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why this movement subsequently led to a new religion. By Eric Hobsbawm’s standards (see epigraph) most of these historical Jesus writers would come perilously close to being guilty of ‘antiquarian empiricism’ and more than one historical Jesus scholar might be guilty of writing what Hobsbawm dismissed as the ‘Victorian tome’ so typical of biography.

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous other problematic oversights in the post.  The author blogs the similarities of the miraculous signs from Greco-Jewish traditions but ignores those similar motifs found in the Hebrew Bible.  Where is the discussion or even mention of the same trope found in Ps. 107:23-30?

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

I would note as well that Ps. 107 contains other miraculous forms of redemption, through healing of the sick, and the feeding of the multitude (part of the ‘Signs’ which some believe came from this hypothetical source):

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

And of course, one cannot forget the play of the Elisha/Elijah narratives at work in the miracle scenes.  The calming of the storm also has roots in Elijah’s challenge to the Baal worshipers, where Yahweh is portrayed as a God who has control over the storms, in direct conflict with Baal, another storm God.  The feeding of the multitude motif can also be found in the Elisha/Elijah narratives (2 Kings 4:38-41 with Elisha’s magic flour, and with Elijah 1 Kings 17:8-16), as is the healing of the sick/resurrection of the dead miracle stories (i.e., 1 Kings 17:17-24 where Elijah raised the widow’s son and Elisha and the Shunamite woman’s son in 2 Kings 4:18-37).  These miracle stories need not come from another hypothetical source (as fictional as it might indeed be), but from long-held tropes and motifs found in ancient Jewish literature.  John’s ability to take Mark’s Gospel and build upon it is not unknown.

On the subject of absorbing Mark wholly, the author also uses a bit of hyperbole when he states “since we know the Markan author used SG as a source.”  In fact, since these miracles are found in the Hebrew Bible, Mark’s source is probably also the scriptures.  There is no need to fabricate an entirely hypothetical Gospel just to account for the motifs.  And John need only have a copy of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to build upon the scenes (which many believe he did).  The best example for this is the scene at the tomb of Jesus.  Richard Carrier explains it (go to the link for a footnoted version):

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive. It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it. But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself. As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.

I had thought we were moving away from such cut-and-paste mentalities in scholarship; how is the Signs Gospel that much different than Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament?  Sure, we can make Jesus anything we want just by trimming out the miraculous bits and combining all the instances where a particular motif or trope holds sway, calling it the hypothetical ‘Whatever Gospel’, and get people to sign off on the idea.  The problem with this is quite simple: it removes context and as I have shown it allows for the collector of these verses, the redactor of this new hypothetical text, to ignore very important subcontexts, narrative functions, and intertextuality in the original text.

Jesus and Adonis: The Bethlehem Connection

Yes, I know, I’m always cautioning people about parallelism/parallelmania and that doesn’t change here.  A scholar (Jill, Duchess of Hamilton) went on air and discussed the similarities between Jesus and Adonis.  I am uncertain of her qualifications on the matter, though she is clearly working on her PhD.  You can listen in here and there is a transcript available if you just want to cut through it all.  Here are a few snippets:

Could an archaeological dig under the monumental 6th century Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem verify facts about the ancient written records which tell of the people of Bethlehem venerating a grotto as the birth cave of that central cult figure Adonis, Tammuz in various mystery religions? Some mythologists insist that the Adonis shrine is the very same one as the Christians revere, that instead of originating with Jesus and Christianity, the shrine began with the cult of Adonis, a deity of rebirth and vegetation. They say that the holy cave was consecrated by the heathens to the worship of Adonis and that it was the Christians who took over this pagan centre giving a precedent later for the many early churches in Europe and America being built on the sites of pagan temples.

Indeed, the actual existence of Adonis worship in Bethlehem cannot be disputed it is just a matter of when it took place – before or after the birth of Jesus. Yet the fact that the Church of the Nativity, the oldest continuously used Christian place of worship in the world covers the site of a former temple to Adonis is seldom mentioned.

You’ll have to listen in or read on to find out more details.  My concern is that people might jump to the false conclusion that because of these similarities, Jesus did not exist.  This is silly; fictional stories can be written about historical figures.  The case for the historicity of Jesus doesn’t hinge on the nativity scene being historical.  H/T David Meadows.

Additional Related Links:

On the Doherty-McGrath-Godfrey Exchange

Perhaps the title of this post should read ‘Why we need to watch our terminology’, but I thought that might have been too vague.  Still, I must wonder why I am seeing so much aggression on both sides.  In my attempt to remain impartial, it seems I have alienated myself from Godfrey.  I’d like to address his criticisms and use this as a tool to highlight the problem with the current position Godfrey takes.  He writes:

Tom Verenna has written (naively, in my view, but that is forgivable) that he equates the scientific method itself with the academic publishing processes. But less forgivable is that, without even having read Rene Salm’s book, he has web-posted the very same sorts of ignorant falsehoods and insults as McGrath has leveled at Doherty and others, also without reading their works or being able to outline their arguments in anything but their own straw man versions.

I’m not sure I’ve equated the scientific method with academic publishing, but I do agree with McGrath, as well as Carrier, that publishing academically is one way in which competency can be judged and tested.  With peer review (especially blind peer review), what you write is subjected to an process whereby other legitimate academics who are certified in the field examine your arguments, your use of the language, the translations you provide, and determine if they meet a level of competency  necessary to publish.  It is not infallible and has at times failed.  I can name a few peer reviewed papers that are quite atrocious, which have the most bizarre arguments, that still make it through.  But doesn’t that make an interesting point?

Doherty and Godfrey have argued that peer review, in an academic setting, is a trend for those who belong to the ‘elite club’ of the white tower of ivory, where those with dissenting perspectives against the status quo of the academy cannot gain access.  Yet many dissenting perspectives not only get through, and published, they get reviewed and they get discussed.  Again, the process isn’t perfect, and at times studies get missed that shouldn’t (like Michael Vines’ great work on the genre of the Gospel of Mark), but overall with continued publishing they will get noticed by the community eventually.  And if the study is good enough, compelling enough, and argued thoroughly enough, the study will prove to change, at least a portion, of the academic community.  And sometimes that is most for which you can ask.  After all, just as any group of people, the community is made up of all sorts from a variety of social backgrounds, with differing opinions, and different politics, and different religious convictions.  You cannot hope to convince everyone, and you’re lucky if you convince anyone.

However, when one resigns themselves to publish without going through this process, they deserve what they get from the community.  Its a part of paying your dues.  You don’t sell a lot of books, but that isn’t the point.  If Doherty had sought an academic publisher for his book, or even if he had sought publication for a chapter or two, in a peer reviewed journal, his ideas and views would be read directly by the academic community.  He would be subjected to their reviews, both good and bad. McGrath would be forced to interact with these reviews, as they come from the community, and he wouldn’t be able to (or at least, he couldn’t be accused of) gloss over points or misrepresent, or ignore certain aspects of Doherty’s thesis.  There would always be another academic review, whether by RBL or some other reviewing house, which countered him, or which held a more impartial perspective.  But since Doherty has chosen instead to throw stones from his glass house, well outside of the academy, why should McGrath, or anyone else, take him seriously?  It is only by luck that I have the friends I do, where sometimes I am taken seriously (and I have an academic publication forthcoming!).

As for Salm, that is an interesting critique.  Salm sent me six tracts (no bigger than small pamphlets) ‘for scholars’ which I felt not only fell short of what was needed to prove his case, but that he neglected to address the criticisms against his position.  I feel his position, that Nazareth didn’t exist when it is said to have existed, is patently ridiculous as he currently argues for it and we have more than sufficient reason to accept its place in the first century landscape.  If Salm wants to prove his case, he should seek to publish his finds in ASOR, present a paper at a conference for ASOR or some other society (and there are more than a few that would find Salm’s position interesting).  I never said there was no way he could be right, but as he has presented it in the past, and his reluctance to present it in an academic setting now, suggests to me that even he realizes he has no case.  If he did he would join ASOR or some other society and present it.  The change he seeks will not come overnight, but it will be heard, examined, and the academic discussion on the subject can happen.  And when it happens, it will either validate or invalidate his position.

The past and youth are forgivable, but quite some time ago I asked Tom if he still holds these views or wishes to retract them and I am still waiting to receive a reply to that particular query.

Well, Neil, there is your answer.

Tom on his blog has more recently given the same excuse as Stephanie Fisher has given for the likes of McGrath and West: that is, in effect, that these are really very nice chaps when you get to know them personally. I am sure they are. So this excuses their public discarding of basic human respect and scholarly standards when targeging those who hold views they detest? And those who just happen to judge them at their public word are at fault for failing to realize that behind those ad hominems and misrepresentions is really a very nice chap?

No, Neil, you are quite wrong.  I am not ‘giving an excuse’ for their behavior.  Nor am I sanctioning McGraths’ misrepresentations.  Had you bothered to read my blog, you would note I have often gone out of my way to check McGraths’ more hyperbolic comments and have, on more than one occasion, warned him about the fallacious distinctions he sometimes makes.  However, you have not helped yourself, Neil.  You’ve become an isolationist and as a result have caused yourself to have spiteful comments directed towards you.  I will give you the same advice I gave John Loftus.  If you want to parlay with the academic community, you need to grow some thicker skin–especially if you’re arguing against consensus.  I know for a fact that the biggest criticism against my forthcoming book is that I am not certified; and it is a valid criticism.  My hope is that many will look past it, and some might find the arguments more worthwhile than my status

My comments towards McGraths’ personality are quite irrelevant and I’m not sure how you came to associate them with my opinion towards James’ position on historicity of the figure of Jesus and his remarks towards those with opposing views.

And Tom’s reply above pointing to certain mythicists (e.g. Zeitgeists) demonstrates my point about his using the same tactic of politician-speak in his response to me earlier. When I spoke about McGrath’s unprofessional attacks on Doherty’s book and even on Doherty personally, Tom avoids (and thereby implicitly excuses) the issue by replying that “mythicists” have given “historicists” as hard a time as they have received themselves.

They are, and they have.  I fail to see how one as smart as you might fail to see the problems associated with your own arguments and the rhetoric you use in your own posts.  You seem to ignore the fact that your argument is really not academic.  It isn’t even credible.  This is a very serious charge in the academic community.  Doherty is in the same position.  Sans his degree, which is noteworthy, he is not published and he is arguing a point which is strongly unsupported in the community.  There are ways of doing things, as there are in any field, and you have both, as well as others, ignored the rules of engagement.  If you have a case, publish it.  It will either stand for itself or crumble under the weight of scholarly examination.  But you can’t expect McGrath, nor anyone, to presume to take you seriously when you don’t event take your own arguments seriously enough to seek to present them in an academic manner.

And this is where McGraths’ point is solidified.  When he compares you to creationists, he isn’t speaking about the idea that Jesus might not have existed historically.  He would not levy such a criticism against those who are agnostic about the historicity of such a figure.  No, he is lobbying against your unrealistic approach.  You complain that scholars don’t take you seriously, but you don’t do anything ‘scholarly’.  You don’t publish, you don’t use caution in your conclusions (you and Doherty state that affirmative that Jesus never existed rather than the more agnostic approach), you don’t appreciate the scholarly process, and then you wonder why scholars ignore you.  McGrath is absolutely correct: this is just the same approach that creationists take.

This is what I meant by remaining silent in the face of clear, demonstrable and unequivocal abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual.

Being a public intellectual doesn’t mean you’re right, or that you automatically deserve respect.  Respect is something to be earned, not given freely.

Tom’s silence when faced directly with this question implies complicity. His apparent failure to renounce his own irresponsible and ignorant attacks on Salm’s book without even having read it is as reprehensible as anything we see from McGrath himself. (Sorry, no it is not as bad as McGrath’s standards. McGrath is a fully qualified academic and professor.)

I’ll ignore the subtle ad hom, but I will not excuse your abuse of my integrity.  I have indeed read Salm’s tracts on Nazareth, which he sent me.  I will gladly upload pictures of the tracts I have.  I remain unconvinced because he refuses to engage scholarship directly.  I can’t accept his conclusions at face value without knowing the other arguments, but I can’t know them since most archaeologists are unaware or simply don’t care because he hasn’t published them where they can read them and examine them as a community.   My criticism of Salm remains the same now as it did when I first pointed a finger at him, which is surprisingly the only argument I still feel compelled to agree with myself on from that period in time.  “I consider … Salm’s book on par with that of Joe Atwill’s book, Caesar’s Messiah. It’s the same sort of poor scholarship and ridiculous misuse of the evidence. Both present extreme theories with little regard for the authorities. Both make claims that are really unbacked by scholarship. Both, to my knowledge, never went through peer review. Both have been confronted by scholars and both refuse to revise their arguments based on those criticisms that cannot be countered.  As I said – they could be right, and … Nazareth [may] never have existed [after all]…. Even worse is that scholarship is against them in almost every regard,… the evidence is stacked in opposition. And it’s not because their position is an impossibility, but simply because there is no good reason to accept their position based on probability. Bluntly, the only conclusion one can draw from the evidence is that Nazareth existed.”  I don’t think I was unclear (even though I believe I write better now than I did then).  I don’t think I’m being unclear now.

I am quite sure Tom, James et al are all very nice people to have a drink and discuss the weather with, and that they are the most congenial of folks at conferences and, by and large, hold themselves to the right professional dealings with one another. But when faced with outside critiques — like people who have one respectable persona in their public lives but have “issues” when back at home — outright intellectual dishonesty and malicious slander are, well, not unknown.

Intellectually dishonest?  Slander?  I haven’t slandered anyone, nor have I been intellectually dishonest.  If you feel that way, Neil, I have to believe you are deluding yourself.

I understand that if one wants to get ahead in a guild one must play the game. Hoffmann has acknowledged that the reason the question of the nonhistoricity of Jesus is not more on the agenda among scholars has more to do with concern for security of academic appointments than “common sense”.

This is quite incorrect.  The reason why the historicity of Jesus is not considered in modern scholarship has nothing to do with ‘playing it safe’ but, rather, has everything to do with there not being a study published which raises the question.  And yes, there is a game to be played.  It’s called the game of method and exposure.  You follow the methods and show them through exposure to the community.  If you are that insecure about your conclusions, then I can’t help you and nobody else can either.

So I understand that to be accepted into the club one must learn to think a certain way.

How naive and ignorant.  Nobody is forced to think a certain way; if that were the case, we would still be uttering church law and dogma at all academic conferences and at the beginning of every paper.  And rather than discussing the intricacies of intertextuality in the Gospels we would be singing hymns and praises towards the miracles of Jesus.  This is a completely fallacious and slanderous statement about the status of current scholarship, and speaks volumes about ones own understanding and misgivings about the academic process.  The whole PhD process is bent around producing a new and unique work in the field.  Quoting the so-called ‘status quo’ is not going to get one anywhere.  It won’t even get them by a PhD board.  They’ll probably be cited for plagiarism.  The ‘status quo’ argument is nothing more than a myth, idealized by those who refuse to do what is necessary to earn respect.

And the only thing one must do to ‘join the club’ is to be realistic.  You’re being ‘anything but realistic’ in your analysis.

But that club is only showing its tribal side when some of its members can crucify certain targeted incorrect outsiders while the rest of its members find excuses to remain silent.

Again, if you believe I’ve been silent, Neil, you’re delusional or just not paying attention.

‘Doing’ History in Light of Memes and Cultural Memory Both Ancient and Modern

A recent article by Paul V.M. Flesher on Bible and Interpretation was posted on cultural memory a few days ago, and it was while I was in the process of writing this post, so I thought I might incorporate it into this discussion.  Here is a snippet and a relevant definition of ‘cultural memory’ and how we might consider using it here:

For Bible-believing students, an academic approach to the study of Scripture may constitute an attack on their personal identity. It works to recast their “cultural memory”—a key component of their psycho-social makeup which identifies their past (their personal pre-history, if you will) and locates their place in its progression. A course presenting a literary or historical Introduction to the New Testament, for example, can become for these students a threat to their self-understanding and to their ties with their religious community.

Memories shape an individual’s identity. Frequently we think of memories as recollections of events, activities, or experiences that happened in our own lives. Some of these experiences happened to us alone and constitute private memories, while other events were experienced by other people and thus comprise shared memories. Often many shared memories take place with identifiable groups of people, whether small groups like a family or kindergarten class or large groups such as citizens of a nation, members of a religion, or even fans of a World Cup soccer team. These experienced memories are not cultural memories, although a few may ultimately enter that classification.

Most cultural memories, by contrast, do not recall experienced events, but instead refer to events that happened in the past, usually to people conceived of as one’s ancestors or forerunners. These “memories” must be taught in some way, whether through formal classes, informal instruction or storytelling, or through reading. They constitute acquired knowledge rather than recollections of experienced events. Cultural memories differ from other knowledge of the past in that the events selected comprise pivotal moments that shape the identity of the group preserving their memory, whether this is an religious, ethnic, national or familial group. These are not just any events from the past, but events that are particularly relevant to the social group passing on the cultural memory. To a Frenchman, the revolution of 1789 would constitute a national cultural memory, but the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs would not. It is one thing to learn history, it is quite another to acquire a cultural memory.

I suppose the subject of this post is threefold.  First, (1) how quickly historical memes spread (often false historical memes) and (2) how quickly they can become rooted in cultural memory.  From that point, how does a historian consider the question if ‘cultural memory’ is considered ‘truth’, as rooted in society as well as individuals’ upbringing?

Every few months now, and with greater frequency since the creation of the Tea Party,  there seems to be an onslaught of fictional attributions to America’s founding fathers.  Whether it be words they never spoke, or deeds they never did, or beliefs they never held, America is on the cusp of a knowledge revolution, wherein ‘facts’ are becoming less important than tradition–especially tradition, albeit newly invented, which conforms to America’s current ideological trend.

Paul Revere is also related to Jack Black, apparently... (but don't quote me on that)

Consider the lies being told, the refashioning of history, where in certain politician’s worldviews, is a past where the founding fathers said the Pledge of Allegiance and Paul Revere warned the British, or where Jon Quincy Adams (the son of John Adams) was a founding father and that these founding fathers worked to end slavery.  I believe one commenter said it best, “Will these historical snafus cause [these politicians – ed.] any supporters? It doesn’t look like it, but it makes one wonder if they could pass a citizenship test.”  And perhaps that is also the scary part.  Who educated these politicians?  I am reminded of the comment by junior Senator Mark Pryor to Bill Maher, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate.”  Aside from the obvious question (“Why the hell not!?”), we must wonder how these politicians are elected into office and why they have such a strong following when they can’t even adequately reproduce the history of the country they are attempting to serve!

The answer, I believe, is in the transmission of the meme through an ideology already set in people who, clearly, don’t care about the facts.  And I don’t even mean just one political party, because it goes beyond politics (and as it turns out, both parties are responsible for disseminating quotes without fact-checking and fabricating false quotes to fit their agendas).  In general, and probably predominantly in this country, people are starting to care less about facts and more about impact.  And once such a powerful, traditional meme is transmitted through social interactions (general conversations, viral media, social websites, whatever have you), people latch onto it without bothering to fact-check, and in some instances some seek to actively include such falsities into books and websites used to educate others.

Why this happens  is as interesting as the how, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a result of seeking to propagate an agenda.  As my generation gets older, having grown up with the internet, and a new generation who is even more in tune with technology starts to come into its own, the internet is the one-stop source of information.  I know that the internet is becoming more integral to education as well, wherein students are allowed to use it for research, often under some guidelines.  What implications does internet research have for students today when the most used online encyclopedia can be edited and fixed without any sort of peer review?  Many will undoubtedly say that Wikipedia editors try to be fair and eliminate bias where possible, but it remains to be an editable site where the majority of opinion will supersede any balance at times and with complete anonymity, anyone can edit without the slightest worry about retraction.  And such a site has repercussions for those whose work has been stolen by Wiki editors:

By the time you happen to find your work copied onto Wikipedia, it has already been propagated all over the net by Wikipedia copycats, making the job of going through their copyright infringement office all but meaningless.

And once a false statement is disseminated to other sites, blogs, social media, people will trust it because it comes from people they, themselves, trust: a blog they read all the time, a friend on Facebook or Google+, a news source which might not have verified the facts first before writing a story on it, and in a more relevant case, a news source who runs with a story about either history or religion without consulting experts in the field first.  So people will assume, without much concern, that these sorts of memes are okay to spread and are trustworthy because, well, their friend on Facebook is smart and trustworthy and has no reason to lie,and in our social-media culture the share button is all too easy and tempting to hit.  And thus the fictitious meme is spread by those who, while not having negative intentions, are caught up in a wisp of a motion they do every day, unbeknownst that the shared content wasn’t fact checked by their friends on Facebook, nor the source that their friends retrieved it from.

Your Brain on Memes (via Graphjam)

When Osama Bin Laden was killed, the internet was abuzz with quotes attributed to Martin Luther King and Mark Twain.  The quote of Martin Luther read “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” and of Mark Twain, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”  These were found everywhere, except by those who paused for as moment to fact-check, and a good thing they did!  It turns out they were both falsely attributed–that is to say, fake.  And as a result of some noteworthy research, a trail could be found–where it originated wasn’t some malicious attempt to subvert history but a ‘whisper-down-the-alley’ mash-up of cut and pastes which, somewhere along the way, were so convoluted what became of it was a fictional quote.  And as it turns out, we are doubly guilty of allowing this as it happens a lot.

Even a fellow Biblioblogger, known for his fact-checking and for his ridicule of others who spread false information, was just recently caught using a fake quote from Charles Darwin in order to promote a particular ideal to which he follows.  The quote was spread by Lady hope who claimed to have been with Darwin on his deathbed, but those who we know were actually there (like his family) state firmly she was never at the bed of Darwin and that her story is a falsity.   And the Biblioblogger’s source in this case was a friend on Facebook, one  with whom I also am familiar and know did not spread the quote with any intention of deceiving, he simply didn’t know.  The quote can be found on all sorts of quote sites, especially Christian/Creationist sites.  This Biblioblogger picked up on it, trustingly, and proceeded to spread it, unaware that he was disseminating false information; it is a rarity with this Biblioblogger, but even he, the ineffable scholar he is, can fall prey to his own ideological desires and cultural memory.

And it doesn’t even just occur with the use of quotes; chain letters are another popular internet phenomena proving, for our own age at least, that people care little about checking into the truth of claims and more about the message behind them.  Indeed, letters are sent around without a care whether or not the individuals are real or completely fictitious.  And this really brought to light, in my mind, interesting parallels to the past, sans current technology, and how quickly a meme can spread and change and what implications there might be.

When you stop to consider how popular ideas can become, and how ardent we are, as social beings who seek out patterns and affinities, about creating cultural references to popular ideas, is it any wonder that we fabricate and create and exemplify and exaggerate?  Some fictional legends about our founding fathers are already ingrained in our cultural memory and some are even teaching them as fact!  For example, I was tough in elementary school that George Washington had wooden teeth.  It was only when I was older and was able to read things for myself that i found this to be a complete fiction.  Washington actually had teeth carved from ivory and gold.  One set of them is on display at a Baltimore museum.  There are, of course, folk legends about historical figures: Johnny Appleseed, Black Bart, Buffalo Bill, and so on.  These were historical figures with huge legends about them.  But there are also folk stories, based around fictional characters from dime novels, which are also ingrained in our cultural memory.  Stories about Cordwood Pete and Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Ichabod Crane, and John Henry (a very noteworthy African-American folk legend) abound and I am certain there are those who believe these stories are based off historical figures, even though they are characters invented by dime novelists and writers.  There are even fiction figure like Uncle Sam (who is the personification of America, whose name stems from a historical person Samuel Wilson) who make up a large part of our cultural patriotism, who of course are not historical figures, but created to exemplify certain ideals we felt, as a nation, best covered us.

The same seems to be true for those in antiquity.  In a paper, soon to be published in a volume of great interest (if I don’t say so myself), Kurt Noll argues that the spread of memes in antiquity happened quite fast, faster than people currently give credit.  This actually makes sense, if we consider it from a standpoint of the ancient mythic mind.  In antiquity, fact-checking even among the more elite of society–the historiographer and biographer for example–was virtually nonexistent, and among the lay audiences or listeners of tales fact checking was just not important.  While it might have taken time for news to funnel through the trade networks and social channels in antiquity, once a meme was transmitted, they took on a life of their own.  This is perhaps why we have so many differing narratives, conflicting and divisive, even about common myths (like with what happened to Romulus).

Buy this book!

The same might be said about early Christianity (whether you believe Jesus was an earthly figure or not–it is irrelevant for this discussion); Bultmann, a believer in the earthly, historical figure of Jesus, still made clear his views that what we have in the New Testament represent cultural memory, or kerygma–the post-Easter traditions–from the early church and not ‘history’ in the sense of real, historical events.   Fictional words, deeds, and actions attributed to Jesus and the early church fathers are commonly found in our sources.   The Canonical Gospels are no different.  When the controversial Jesus Seminar analyzed the 1500 words supposedly spoken by Jesus, they could only agree on 2% likely being authentic.  In fact, 82% of the sayings attributed to the figure of Jesus were thrown out.  Of course, of the 2% left which the Jesus Seminar believed were authentic, other scholars have put forth studies showing they aren’t at all authentic (most notably, the inexpensive book The Messiah Myth by Thomas Thompson comes to mind, but also Thomas L. Brodie’s massive, yet decently priced, book The Birthing of the New Testament–so pick them up!).

In antiquity, this was a common occurrence.  Moses, for example, is often portrayed, similarly to Jesus, in different ways, speaking different (sometimes contradicting the modern canonical narrative we now possess) words, imitating certain actions, traveling to different lands, and so on.  Like American folk history, legends were built up around ancient individuals who had historically lived, and sometimes the legends came about during their own lifetimes, like Julius Caesar, but usually after their deaths like Apollonius of Tyana, Socrates, and Pythagoras.  Other stories, though, also arose from fictional characters, or those who appeared in fiction writing but were historicized later into cultural memory, like Lycurgus of Sparta, Moses, Abraham, Judith, Horatius Cocles, Romulus and Remus, Aeneas, and so on.  There are perhaps hundreds of cases where individuals who never existed were historicized into the past in antiquity.  No scholar worth their salt would dispute this (the numbers are too numerous).  The question isn’t about whether or not fictional characters could be accepted as historical figures, but the speed at which a fictional story could transform into a mythic one.

In out day, cultural memory plays a large part in the spread of memes circulating around false information.  Of course the internet and social media technology certainly don’t hinder the process.  But if cultural memory is the reason why we spread information the way we do, as self-serving as that might appear, then we must expect that in antiquity, cultural memory was also a catalyst for the spreading and distortion of memes surrounding legends and myth.  The introduction (by Bernard Knox) to M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus (See also Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic), contains an interesting little story about the power of cultural memory and the spreading of a story while highlighting the speed at which this can be spread within just a few decades.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Sir Arthur Evans had built for himself during the excavations at the site. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner.  The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.

It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.

Sobering indeed.  We have a world where a search on a browser will produce exact results to a search queue, which puts information at our fingertips, in our faces, in mere seconds..  Memes spread quickly in our era as a result of how quickly information is available.  But even in pre-computer culture, where memes are spread via oral tradition, something common in antiquity, it only took 9 years to alter the story completely, introducing a new character completely fabricated, and shine light on another faction of the narrative.  Only 9 years.  And the reader is only told of the one bard.  If the same question were posed to other bards, the song might be completely different still.

So the question that follows all of this is how does one locate ‘history’ when even our earliest sources are nothing better than cultural memory?  And clearly the first Christian communities, whomever they were, could not agree upon those existing cultural memories (which is why we have competing doctrines, competing Gospels, conflicting theologies and exegeses).  This doesn’t just follow for Christianity, but Judaism, or the history of the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Sumerians, or those civilizations for which we have nothing but bones and pottery shards?  How does one separate ‘history’ from the ‘meme’ and cultural memory when we have trouble even in our own day!  And it does make one wonder why future historians will be arguing about over our generation, assuming we don’t kill each other before then.

%d bloggers like this: