on 20 November 2010
This is an excellent book. The authors set out "A Case for the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition" (subtitle), and do this utterly convincingly. It is impossible to summarize adequately the detail of the 450 pages of text, because every page contains passages deserving to be quoted, either (a) laying out the positions of those SCHOLARS WITH WHOM THE AUTHORS DISAGREE, or (b) quoting THE SCHOLARS WHO REBUT these positions and SUPPORT the general position of OUR AUTHORS, or, finally, (c) giving the INSIGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS OF OUR AUTHORS THEMSELVES..
Every chapter of this book is a worthwhile read, but the Introduction and the first chapter are indispensable. In pages 24 to 27 of the Introduction the authors identify four groups of scholars. (1) Some "have argued that the Jesus tradition is virtually - perhaps `entirely' [italics in text] fictional in nature ... this view holds that we have no good grounds for thinking any aspect of the Jesus narrative is rooted in history, including the very existence of an actual historical person named Jesus." (2) Others accept "that we have enough evidence plausibly to conclude that an actual historical person named Jesus existed. But, they insist, the reports we have of him are so unreliable and so saturated with legend and `myth' that we can confidently ascertain very little historical information about him. (3) Others, increasingly numerous now, accept much more of the gospel accounts of Jesus as having a historical core, but reject as legendary, not historical, "the authoritative claims made by Jesus as well as the miracles he performed ... "
(4) The fourth group of scholars, with N T Wright and John Meier singled out, support and include our authors, as against the first three groups. This fourth group "argue that the Jesus who can be recovered through responsible historical investigation is, generally speaking, fairly reflected in the portrait(s) of the Synoptic Gospels." This group stresses "the `Jewishness' [italics] (religiously as well as ethnically) of both Jesus and his cultural context." (pp. 25,26).
In a word, the first three groups, which include the members of the Jesus Seminar, and Rudolph Bultmann, reject as impossible anything that is miraculous in the gospel narratives, and often much more besides. Eddy/Boyd categorize this as `the Legendary-Jesus Thesis', the conviction "that the Synoptic portrait(s) of Jesus is substantially, if not entirely, legendary - that is, for the most part, it is historically inaccurate."
In reply Eddy/Boyd consider that this a priori rejection of the possibility of miracles is simply unjustified by proper `open' historical scholarship. On page 23 our authors say: "[O]ur counterargument is that if one will allow the Western naturalistic assumptions [of the first 3 groups] to be called into question, and thus if one remains open to the `genuine historical possibility' [italics in text] that the Synoptic portrait(s) of Jesus is substantially rooted in history, one will find that there are compelling grounds for concluding that this portrait is historically `plausible' [italics] - that it is more probable than not that the general portrait is rooted in history."
Although our authors never lose sight of their declared aim, the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to a rigorous study of (i) the principles which must govern the discipline of historical research in every field and at any period in history, not just for the New Testament, and (ii) the way in which historical data is transmitted and recorded (orally or in writing). This will enable the scholar to make as close an approximation as is possible to `what actually happened'. (I like the authors' use of the mathematical comparison, that the transmitter of history can only ever approach `asymptotically' to `what really happened', which means approaching ever-closer without it being ever possible to achieve one hundred percent total recall and reconstruction of the past: the fallibility of the human memory, the inescapable prejudices and other differences in the points of view of the observer(s), the fact that each retelling of the past depends on the make-up of the audience, and on if one is preaching to the converted, or engaged in possibly angry debate trying to score debating points, etc. etc.)
One must admire the authors' wide acquaintance with the scholarly literature dealing with the methods of transmission of historical data, and the plausibility of its accuracy, in totally primitive oral-dependent societies up to and then including the Greco-Roman-Mesopotamian world of the first century, with its top cadre of writing historians. There is the constant specific parallel examination of the nature of historical transmission within the Jewish world, both in Palestine and in the wider Greco-Roman world, oral-dominant yet strongly literate and with its own written traditions. It is this Jewish world (and not its surrounding pagan cultures) which gave rise to the New Testament, and specifically to the Synoptic Gospels.
Our authors also meet head-on and convincingly rebut every other charge made against the substantial historical reliability of the Synoptics: that the Gospel story was invented to match legendary pagan parallels to the Jesus story (dying and rising nature gods, mythical heroes, semi-divine men, supposed `abundant' pagan miracle-workers, etc.); the small number of pagan references to Jesus; the accusation that Paul knew very little of the Jesus story and that Paul 'invented' Christianity, or that the Gospel Jesus story was invented by the first Christian communities rather than being first-hand transmission by original eyewitnesses; that the gospel accounts differ at times, etc. etc.
Finally, James Dunn is quoted on p.453 (from Dunn's A New Perspective on Jesus, 2005): "If we are unsatisfied with the Jesus of the Synoptic tradition, then we will simply have to lump it; there is no other truly historical or historic Jesus ... [T]he quest [for the 'Historical Jesus'] has been too long captivated by the will-o-the-wisp of a historical Jesus, an objective artifactual figure buried in the Gospels and waiting to be exhumed and brandished aloft, as different from the Jesus of the Gospels - not fully realizing [that] the less the reconstructed Jesus owed to the Synoptic picture of Jesus, the more it must be expressive of the agendas of the individual questers."
on 27 August 2013
This book has put barely a dent in Earl Doherty's magisterial 700-page blockbuster Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (2009). Admittedly this is a bit unfair since Doherty's book was published after this one, but it does suggest that Eddy and Boyd need to come back with a much more effective rebuttal of Jesus mythicism. For example, Doherty makes mincemeat of their treatment of Paul. See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, pages 30-34.
The main thrust of The Jesus Legend is that biblical scholarship to date has been stuck in a `post-Gutenberg' paradigm and that it inappropriately analyses the Gospels from the standpoint of our literate, print culture. It charges scholars with the sins of chronocentrism and ethnocentrism. It suggests that the gospels are in effect transcripts of what would have been "oral performances" and that the discrepancies between the synoptic gospels can be accounted for on this basis. It even suggests that Jesus' own oral performances would have differed from occasion to occasion. Fair enough, but oral performances are also `texts', especially once written down, and thus not immune from scholarly analysis. Eddy and Boyd seem to downplay the significance of the differences as relatively trivial and rhetorical whereas the majority of critical scholars have concluded that the discrepancies are driven by different theological agendas, rather than any concern for historical fidelity.
Eddy and Boyd place so much emphasis on the gospels as effectively transcripts of "oral performances" I became more rather than less inclined to categorise the gospels as drama/fiction/allegory/myth/passion play than historical reporting. On page 433 they write: "Scholars in the modern historiographical world are deeply concerned with reconstructing the chronological order of discrete historical facts. But we now know that such a concern is largely foreign to people in orally dominant cultures." The authors seem unaware of how forcefully this plays into the hands of Jesus mythicists who hold that the original Christian belief in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was not tied to `the chronological order of discrete historical facts' but an event which occurred in a sacred, mythical timeframe.
One of the nine historical-critical criteria which the authors consider is the criterion of embarrassment. They write that the single most embarrassing fact is that `this would-be savior died a cursed death on a tree" (p411). Further on they argue that "The fact that this story [with all of its embarrassing aspects] originated and was accepted while Jesus's mother, brothers, and original disciples (to say nothing of Jesus's opponents) were still alive renders the legendary explanation all the more implausible. In our view, it is hard to understand how this story came about in this environment, in such a short span of time, unless it is substantially rooted in history' (p452). Oh dear what a muddle! The central mythicist argument is that the original Christ sect believed in a Messiah who had been sacrificed in heaven (or the lower heavens) as an atonement for sin, as the epistle to the Hebrews makes clear. There was nothing embarrassing about it. This was their core mystical-theosophical belief arising out of the Hebrew scriptures. The crucifixion-resurrection event happened in sacred space and time. All of the details about Jesus's family and disciples are part and parcel of Mark's creative historicisation-allegorisation of the Christ myth. On this reading, there were no eyewitnesses around to control the Jesus tradition because there were no historical events to be an eyewitness to. We cannot get back to `actual events' from hypothetical eyewitnesses. And there was no `short span of time'; there was an indefinite span of time between the mythical event and the appearance of the gospels. There is, in any case, no mention of Mary in any of the epistles, only the enigmatic phrase `born of woman' which formed part of the `revelation' from scripture (Isaiah 7:14). Hebrews 7:3 tells us that Jesus is "Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever." And in Revelation 12, Jesus is born to a woman in heaven: "A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations." If nothing else, Jesus realists need to account for the fact that the New Testament lends so much support to Jesus mythicism as well as to Jesus realism.
Eddy and Boyd chide critical scholars for their naturalistic bias which amounts to a faith-based metaphysics no less than supernaturalism. They write: `...we believe a truly "critical" stance, combined with intellectual and cultural humility, should incline the historical scholar at least to be open to the possibility that something "out of this world", so to speak, has taken place' (p440). Fair enough, but there's a world of difference between being open to the possibility of supernaturalism and the type of Christian faith which, believing in God's omnipotence, then proceeds to uncritically accept every reported Christian miracle regardless of the evidence. Can we really believe that Jesus (if he existed) and Peter and Paul brought corpses back to life just as they were about to be buried (Luke 7:11-16; Acts 9:40; Acts 20:9-12), or that a handkerchief which had touched Paul's skin could be used to cure the sick of their diseases (Acts 19:11), or that many dead saints clambered out of their tombs and walked around Jerusalem as a macabre sideshow to the resurrection of Jesus himself (Matt 27:52)? A truly critical stance, whilst it may be open to the possibility of the miraculous, much surely treat such reports with extreme scepticism.
On the subject of the non-Christian witness to Jesus I was surprised to read this admission: `...since new religious movements were not uncommon in the ancient world, we should not expect either Jesus or the movement he birthed to have caught the attention of ancient historians' (p441). Gosh. So we can forget all that guff about Jesus being the greatest ethical teacher who ever lived and the huge impact the Christian movement is supposed to have had immediately after his resurrection?
Lastly, may I comment on Eddy and Boyd's annoying habit of describing Jesus mythicism as `the extreme radical fringe'. Let's just appraise Jesus mythicism on its merits. The Jesus Legend has taken on too many enemies - everyone from Bultmann to Doherty. It would be good to see another volume aimed at Doherty alone whose armour-plated thesis is barely scratched by Eddy and Boyd. They also need to take Randel Helms's Gospel Fictions much more seriously. This little book is dynamite also and requires a detailed rebuttal.