Friday, October 14, 2005

Jesus recently deceased (addendum)

A few posts back I wrote about finding an error that Earl Doherty made on his website in an essay which was originally published in 1997. I've started reading the book he published in 1999, The Jesus Puzzle, in which he lays out his most comprehensive case that Jesus Christ never lived. I found one modification there, but the error remained. I'd like to highlight what is wrong with his argument, and to start by comparing it with a similar but far better argument made by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in a new book about Hiroshima, Racing the Enemy.

First Doherty's argument. The charge that the early Christians were not thinking of a recent human life is central to the nonexistence theory. Doherty repeats the charge seven times in the opening 15 pages of The Jesus Puzzle. Here are the last three instances, with bold emphasis added to mark off what I'm calling "blanket phrases" (see pp. 14-15):

Is it feasible that ... nowhere would anyone ... happen to use words which would identify the divine Son and Christ they are all talking about with his recent incarnation[?]

The Jesus of the epistles is not spoken of as a man who had recently lived.

Thus, we are left with an entire corpus of early Christian correspondence which gives us no indication that the divine Christ these writers look to for salvation is to be identified with the man Jesus of Nazareth whom the Gospels place in the early first century -- or, indeed, with any man in their recent past.

In three sentences, Doherty has used 6 blanket phrases without qualification. Now Hasegawa's argument (pp. 297-98):

Richard Frank, who argues that the atomic bombings had a greater impact on Japan's decision to surrender than Soviet involvement in the war, relies exclusively on contemporary sources and discounts postwar testimonies.... This methodology, though admirable, does not support Frank's conclusion. Hirohito's reference to the atomic bomb at the imperial conference comes from Takeshita's diary, which must be based on hearsay. None of the participants who actually attended the imperial conference remembers the emperor's referring to the atomic bomb.

Hasegawa then mentions each of the remaining references to the bomb and to the Soviet attack. And he gives us a summary:

In contemporary records from August 6 to August 15 two sources ... refer only to the impact of the atomic bomb, three sources only to Soviet entry ... and seven sources both to the atomic bomb and Soviet involvement. Contemporary evidence does not support Frank's contention.

There's a certain thrill in reading historical writing of this kind: it's careful all the way to the end, judicious but thorough in its conclusion, desirous of dialogue with the best arguments of others (which are taken seriously), tolerant of uncertainty, and still firm.

Doherty lumps into one category, which he then dismisses as myth, all the times that Paul speaks of Christ's cross, crucifixion, death, killing, sacrifice, blood, body, flesh, and birth. He says that three "apparent exceptions" remain to his charge that Christ was not referred to as a recent historical person, and he lays them out between the second and third quotes above. He includes two which also appeared in his 1997 essay -- and he now includes 1 Timothy 6:13, where Jesus is said to make a confession before Pontius Pilate, who had ruled only a few years before Paul wrote. He argues one by one why they are merely "apparent" exceptions.

His method here is to lay out possible exceptions in the middle of an argument, but not to mention them in the conclusion. I can imagine Hasegawa or any responsible historian laying out the exceptions and concluding, "Thus, with two exceptions, and by a slim margin, the texts point away from the atomic bomb as a cause of surrender." Doherty takes the exceptions and dismisses them, which is his prerogative. But having dismissed them he then offers conclusions unburdened by them -- from which he then builds the next step in his argument. He builds, in short, from a foundation that he has already cleared of possible stumbling blocks to make it look firmer than it is.

And the conclusions themselves are far more sweeping than anything in Hasegawa's book, or indeed in almost any book of history I have read. Hiroshima is a modern and well-documented subject. By contrast, historians of antiquity repeat constantly that a fundamental practice of their work is living with uncertainty, because the record is so thin. None of the respected works of biblical scholarship have such statements as Doherty's. What is worse, two of Doherty's three statements above are negatives. The remaining one is a loaded question.

If a historian is trying to prove a negative, that's well and good in itself. But the method has to cover everything. It has to cover every significant bit of data as well as every possibility that we can reasonably foresee. Doherty has in one form or another noted the lack of respect for his theory, and though it's true that his opponents can shut their minds to his central thesis without considering it, no one can hope to earn scholarly consideration if the method is unrigorous. Doherty dismisses 3 passages. He misses entirely Paul's claim that he had met "James, the brother of the Lord" (Galatians 1.19). Here is a possible or apparent exception -- the fourth explicit one, if we're counting -- to Doherty's rule that the earliest Christians were not thinking of a recent life. Yet he doesn't think of it, as I argued on this blog, because he had dismissed the James statement as an argument for Christ's humanity before tackling the question of when Christ lived.

His method was at fault. I'm guessing that when first exploring the idea of Christ's nonexistence, he noted the apparent exceptions to the rule that Christ was not human, and these included the James passage. He then carried the data in its "conclusion" form to the next question: but Doherty writes out his conclusions, as noted, without reference to the exceptions. So when he got around to the question of time, the James passage was settled in his mind. It was not carried with the rest of the data.

This guess about Doherty's internal process could be flat-out wrong. But my estimation of his general method is not. He is trying to overthrow longstanding Biblical models by proving negatives, but his method allows him to forget a passage which he himself had seen many times. And all this, he compares in his book to the Copernican revolution (p. 125).

If he were to revise the opening pages of his book according to my critiques, he would drop the two apparent exceptions from his 1997 essay (since Paul does not root the Last Supper, or the killing of Christ by the Jews, in time); keep 1 Timothy, and add the James passage. He probably should also add 1 John 1:1-2, where Christians speak of seeing and laying hands on a life which somehow also went back to the beginning of time. Doherty would then still have three "apparent" exceptions, as he does now in his book. A future edition of his book might make these changes, so that no one could see the original flaw in the method. I'm interested particularly in what the James passage might do to his argument, but there is perhaps something more important to highlight: the way Doherty comes to his conclusions. He came to his radical conclusion about Jesus long before correcting this particular error -- if he does correct it.

As for what the James passage does to his argument, well, it may be that he forgot it because of its particular power. Uniquely among passages in the New Testament, it has the potential to disprove both of the arms of Doherty's thesis discussed here: the opening one, about a recent life; and the central one, about a human life. If Doherty's right about the passage, and Paul meant to say that he met with a man regarded as a brother in the spiritual sense, Jesus Christ still lives. Mythicists can win many arguments and still lose their central one about Jesus' existence. But if they lose only one of their constituent arguments, the central one begins to fold. In this case, the central one cannot be mounted, at least not in the way that Doherty has done, for then the earliest Christian correspondent, Paul, would believe that he's met a biological brother of Christ. Suddenly everything in Paul's writing would take on a meaning contrary to what Doherty has explicated: he would lose not just his opening 15 pages, but entire reams of what he's written about Paul's statements. Additionally, the remaining Christian correspondents would have to be re-evaluated, unless it was satisfactorily explained why they contradicted Paul. Some compromise could be worked out, perhaps, but the blanket statements would have to be thrown out (although they should not be made even now, so I can't be sure of this).

The James passage thus becomes one of the negatives that must be proved: "Paul definitely did not mean to include the biological meaning of brother." He may have meant to include the spiritual connotation, but that positive claim is not enough to show: he also cannot have meant to include a biological connotation. Paul gives no clarifying statement -- indeed nowhere does he say that his Christ should not be confused with the (very common) idea of an earthly Messiah. Paul uses the word for "brother" dozens of times, almost always in reference to Christian brotherhood. Doherty is saying that Paul almost never uses the word with a biological kinship implied along with the spiritual kinship, and that he definitely does not use it that way in the James passage. Doherty needs, in short, for Paul to use a single meaning, which always excludes biological kinship, almost all the way down the line, and certainly whenever Christ is the subject.

Doherty devotes exactly 1 page in his book, out of nearly 400, to the James passage (see p. 57). He fails to take it seriously again at his website, in a section from November 2003 devoted to responding to readers:

"James, the Brother of the Lord"—Again

I have to confess to being, by this time, somewhat amused by all the fuss which opponents of the mythicist case ... create over this phrase in Galatians 1:19. These five words, despite their ambiguous meaning, are regularly offered as a secure hook on which to hang the existence position. Let's test them to see how much weight they can bear.

He has thrown the burden of proof off his shoulders by insisting that the opposing argument hangs on this hook -- and by implication, falls from it. That works better as a description of his own case. There is no need to insist on any interpretation of the passage, unless you're a mythicist; and historicists do not insist on a strictly biological interpretation here. They say only that in all of Paul's correspondence, at least this one time seems to include a biological connotation.

I'll let Doherty lay out the issue of connations. All emphases are his:

1 - The word "brother" itself. As I have said in my Sound of Silence Appendix (it bears repeating): "Paul uses the term "brother" a total of about 30 times, and the plural form "brothers" or "brethren" (as some translations render it) many more dozens of times. A minority are in the context of ethical teaching, Paul admonishing his audience about how to treat one's "brother." In most of these (if not all), the term means a fellow believer, not a blood sibling. In all of the other cases but one—leaving aside the passage under consideration here—the term can only refer to a Christian believer [....] IN NOT A SINGLE INSTANCE CAN THE TERM BE IDENTIFIED AS MEANING SIBLING.... And yet so many traditionalists confidently claim that in this case, "brother" means sibling.
3 - It is claimed to be critical that nowhere else does Paul use the singular phrase, "brother of the Lord." At the same time, the plural "brothers of the Lord" in 1 Cor. 9:5 is similarly claimed to refer to Jesus' siblings (as in Mark). However, we read in Philippians 1:14 the phrase "brothers in the Lord." Here we have an identical phrase, in the plural, with a change of preposition. Here, "brothers" is acknowledged to be understandable only in the sense of "brethren," members of a brotherhood or group of fellow believers. Throughout the epistles, we are clearly in the presence of a group centered in Jerusalem and devoted to a "Lord," a group of which James seems to be the head, a group of which 500 members underwent some "seeing" of the Christ. And yet when the word "brother" becomes singular in Galatians 1:19, it reputedly switches to the meaning "sibling." When the group of brethren changes its preposition from "in" to "of", certain members of that group automatically become relatives of a recent human man.

Doherty concedes that "the brother of the Lord" is the correct translation and that the phrase is unique -- different from Paul's common references to brothers in the Lord. He makes much of the idea that a large shift in meaning cannot hang on a preposition -- as if the size of a word corresponded to its linguistic power.

The remaining arguments in his book are brief.

One, he says that "the Lord" probably refers to God and not to Jesus. Yet Paul has opened the letter with this greeting: "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ" (1. 3). Doherty, admittedly no expert in ancient Greek, does offer some of his own translations throughout his book, but not here.

Two, he says that the letters of James and Jude do not identify their authors as brothers of the Lord (Jude identifies himself as a brother of James; the "brothers" of Jesus, named in Mark 6:3, include James and one Judas). Doherty says this is significant because these authors, if they had really been biological brothers of the Lord, would not have passed up the chance to say so and augment their authority. Others writing in their names, Doherty says, would be sure also to mention the kinship. But the same would be true about men who had a spiritual bond with Christ: that would have to be mentioned. The Gospels report that Jesus' family did not believe in him (Mark 3.21, 3.31). That would be the only thing that James and Jude would be highlighting by pointing out their biological tie. Leave the Gospels out entirely, and it's still hard to see how biological kinship augments your authority. A son of a wise man can claim something from a mere blood tie, if he has not dishonored his father. But a mere brother, who did not honor the blood bond while the man in question was alive and in need of help? No, the "silence" of James and Jude is clearly a burden for the mythicist case, where "spiritual" kinship should be mentioned, if Doherty's standard is correct. More likely, his standard is just too pointed. These authors were probably not brothers of Jesus; or perhaps they were uncertain about attributing letters explicitly to brothers of Jesus.

Paul certainly does not see the James whom he met as having any authority because of a blood tie. Paul does not need to be using "the brother of the Lord" as a title for James, the way that later Christians used it. When he says "I saw none of the other apostles except James, the brother of the Lord", he probably just means "James, the one related to the Lord" -- to differentiate him from James the apostle.

Doherty consistently fails to imagine how the earthly and the spiritual connotations might mix together in the minds of the early Christians. He insists again and again, "This is the spiritual Christ, not the human Jesus." This tendency to insist that an issue must fall into one of two extremes which do not mix may be the greatest flaw in his argument. Perhaps it takes a skeptic, who divides the world dualistically into what is natural and what is supernatural (or unreal), to impose such a strict rule on ancient texts. It seems like a mistake, really a blunder, to insist on spiritual connotations straight down the line for a world where both Gentiles and Jews spoke of divinity and humanity mixing.


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