Friday, September 11, 2009

Reviewing the Jesus Puzzle: The Conspiracy of a Conspiracy of Silence

Following is a short examination of the first piece of the puzzle presented in Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle: Pieces in a Puzzle of Christian Origins. Within the article, Doherty breaks down the evidence for Jesus into 10 pieces in an attempt to demonstrate a mythical origin of Christianity.

The first piece of the puzzle is the Conspiracy of Silence. The argument behind this piece simply put is that the early Christian writings do not contain the Gospel narrative. The absence of narrative includes the following:
  1. No reference to Jesus' life and ministry.
  2. No mention of miracles performed by Jesus
  3. No mention of physical teaching of Jesus
Furthermore, he attempts to diffuse the historical references in the epistles. For example, he alleges that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is a later interpolation. Metzger's A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament makes no mention of a viable interpolation here on textual grounds. Paul's mention of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23 is simply written off as "a mythical scene Paul has himself developed" without justification. Evidently, the many exceptions to his rule are conveniently interpolations or myth.

When we get to the non-Christian sources, Josephus' mention in Antiquities of the Jews 18 is a "Christian interpolation" as is the mention of "James the brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ" in Antiquities 20.


Regarding the mentions in the epistles, we have seen that they are simply written off as (1) later interpolations and (2) mythical inventions of the author. This process does not seem to be a function of historical investigation but simply modifying the evidence and parameters to fit the pre-conceived conclusion. This same sort of evidence tampering continues with the mentions in the non-Christian sources. Josephus' clear and acknowledged mentions are placed into the realm of later Christian interpolations and tampering. In this way his thesis can once again be qualified.

It seems that the conspiracy of silence is one created by Doherty himself. With regard to the later pagan sources, they are beyond this investigation simply as they are a fallacious standard. Where historians mention Jesus, they are interpolations - when other historians who one would not expect to record the ministry of a Jew of Nazareth do not mention Jesus, this is evidence for his conclusions. At best, he is circular.

Now, regarding the claims of Josephus, Doherty is clearly against the consensus of scholars. The second mention of Jesus in the words of Professor Edwin Yamauchi, "Few scholars have questioned the genuineness of this passage." Any survey on the historical evidence for Jesus from both liberal and conservative commentators will make this fact known. With regard to the longer reference to Jesus there is evidence of Christian embelishments. However, once again, the consensus is that there was a clear mention of Jesus as a physical person placed in history here. Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans and Jacob Neusner in The Missing Jesus state:

"In the part of this embellished text that virtually all regard as authentic Josephus describes Jesus as a teacher and wonderworker who was accused by the leading men (i.e., ruling priests) before the Roman governor." (p.21)
From what scholars see as the authentic text of Josephus we can learn 10 facts about Jesus:

(1) Jesus was known as a wise and virtuous man, one recognized for his good conduct. (2) He had many disciples, both Jews and Gentiles. (3) Pilate condemned him to die, (4) with crucifixion explicitly being mentioned as the mode. (5) The disciples reported that Jesus had risen from the dead and (6) that he had appeared to them on the third day after his crucifixion. (7) Consequently, the disciples continued to proclaim his teachings. (8) Perhaps Jesus was the Messiah concerning whom the Old Testament prophets spoke and predicted wonders. We would add here two facts from Josephus’ earlier quotation as well. (9) Jesus was the brother of James and (10) was called the messiah by some. (Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus : Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ)
The scholarly understanding of Josephus' mentions of Jesus are very different to that entertained by Doherty.

Now, with regard to Doherty's points on the silence of the various epistles. As was demonstrated above, those that conflict with his overall thesis are designated as either myth or interpolations. However, there are many more points that Doherty seems ignorant of. Regarding placing Jesus in history, from the Pauline epistles alone we can learn enough to blast Doherty's marginal thesis. These historical points are collated by prominent New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce in his book 'Paul and Jesus':
"Paul is out earliest literary authority for the historical Jesus. True, he does not tell us much about the historical Jesus, in comparison with what we can learn from the Evangelists, but he does tell us a little more than that Jesus was born and died. Jesus was an Israelite, he says, descended from Abraham (Gal 3:16) and David (Rom. 1:3); who lived under the Jewish law (Gal. 4:4); who was betrayed, and on the night of his betrayal instituted a memorial meal of bread and wine (I Cor. 11:23ff); who endured the Roman penalty of crucifixion (I Cor. 1:23; Gal. 3:1, 13, 6:14, etc.), although Jewish authorities were somehow involved His death (I Thess. 2:15); who was buried, rose the third day and was thereafter seen alive by many eyewitnesses on various occasions, including one occasion on which He was so seen by over five hundred at once, of whom the majority were alive twenty-five years later (I Cor. 15:4ff). In this summary of the evidence for the reality of Christ’s resurrection, Paul shows a sound instinct for the necessity of marshalling personal testimony in support of what might well appear an incredible assertion..

Paul knows of the Lord’s apostles, of whom Peter and John are mentioned by name as “pillars” of the Jerusalem community (Gal. 2:9), and of His brothers, of whom James is similarly mentioned (Gal. 1:19; 2:9). He knows that the Lord’s brothers and apostles, including Peter, were married (I Cor. 9:5), and incidental agreement with the Gospel story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30). He quotes sayings of Jesus on occasion, e.g., His teaching on marriage and divorce (I Cor. 7:10f) and on the right of gospel preachers to have their material needs supplied (I Cor. 9:14); and the words He used at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:24ff).

Even when he does not quote the actual sayings of Jesus, he shows throughout his works how well acquainted he was with them. In particular, we ought to compare the ethical section of the Epistle to the Romans (12:1-15:7), where Paul summarizes the practical implications of the gospel for the lives of believers, with the Sermon on the Mount, to see how thoroughly imbued the apostle was with the teaching of his Master. Besides, there and elsewhere Paul’s chief argument in his ethical instruction is t example of Christ Himself. And the character of Christ as portrayed in the Gospels. When Paul speaks of “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (II Cor. 10:1), we remember our Lord’s own words, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). The self-denying Christ of the Gospels is the one of whom Paul says, “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3); and just as the Christ of the Gospels called on His followers to deny themselves (Mark 8:34), so the apostle insists that, after the example ofo Christ, it is our Christian duty “to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1)….” (pp. 19-20)
Evidently, this is much more information than a conspiracy of silence. Similarly, Paul makes it clear that he is familiar with the teachings of Jesus such as on the issues of divorce.

However, the death blow to the epistle conspiracy occurs when one considers the circumstances of the epistles. These circumstances are two-fold:
  1. The epistles were written to communities that probably already knew gospel narrative. It would not be necessary to recount a biography of Jesus in every letter composed to another community acquainted with the narrative. Take for example, epistles from the Johannine community. They make few references to a historical Jesus yet they produced the Gospel of John which claimed to be based on the eyewitness testimony of the beloved disciple. Evidently, this community which was thoroughly acquainted with the gospel narratives made few references in the epistles. The logic behind such expectations is emphasised when we consider the genre of the epistles.
  2. The genre of the epistles were letters. Letters were not biographical narratives.
As prominent liberal New Testament scholar Marcus Borg states:
"But Paul’s letters tell us very little about the life and message of Jesus. This does not mean that Jesus’s historical life was unimportant to Paul, as some scholars have suggested. Rather, Jesus mattered greatly to Paul. Paul spoke of Jesus as Lord and as God’s Son, as did early Christians generally. He wrote about life “in Christ,” “Christ crucified,” and “imitating Christ.” But narrating the story of Jesus was not the purpose of his letters. Rather, as the literary genre of “letters” indicates, Paul was writing to Christian communities about issues that had arisen in their life together." (Marcus Borg, Jesus p.32)
As has been clearly demonstrated, the grounding for Doherty's thesis is questionable at best.

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