Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Historical Jesus Is Here!

R. Joseph Hoffmann has issued the The Jesus Process, a series of essays (one by him) discussing the historicity and non-historicity of Jesus, and the processes of scholarship used to adjudicate between historical arguments on Jesus.

This is a moment of supernova-esque importance because, for the first time that I know, the public (indeed, the world) has quasi-direct access to academic scholars in the process of making scholarly arguments. This is not a journalist's report of an academic conference or paper. This is not a mass-market book made by an academic. This is not a non-academic book challenging academic scholarship.

This is the academy on the "home turf" of the public. This is the opportunity for the academy to show how and why its professionalism serves the world better than amateur scholarship in books and blogs. Now, alert readers may note that one of the three essay writers, Stephanie Louse Fischer, is a graduate student and not yet a professional academic.

Nevertheless, professionalism is what is at stake in this academic volley against prominent mythicist bloggers. This essay series puts professionalism at the center of its concerns. The facts, the knowledge, the inferences and interpretations all serve the application of professional methodologies and techniques. The final outcome of these essays and their aftermath will be both the definition of professionalism and the professional viability of mythicism. This is why the moment is so fascinating.

I am very excited about this moment and these essays. I plan to read and analyze every one. I encourage others to do so, too. From there, we on the sidelines will await what I am sure will be an equally momentous reply from Richard Carrier. There may be other mythicists, academic and non-academic, who chime in on The Jesus Process essays, but now that the essays are out, Carrier is the man. Initially, no reply will matter more than his.

Indeed, the credibility and reputation of non-academic scholarship may rest on what Carrier does with this opportunity. If Carrier can make a strong scholarly case in favor of both his use of Bayesian techniques and his mythicist position, he will have achieved something very significant and unique in modern scholarship.

But Hoffmann's essays are determined, make no mistake about it, to go after Carrier and expose his mythicism as less than professional grade. One of the essays of The Jesus Process is by Hoffmann, a long piece called "Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus." In it, he promises that the weight of history is "decisive" in favor of the historicity of Jesus. On this point, Hoffmann offers his thesis as follows:
It is my view, simply stated, that while facts concerning the Jesus of history were jeopardized from the start by a variety of salvation myths, by the credulity of early believers, by the historiographical tendencies of the era, and by the editorial tendencies of early writers, the gospels retain a stubbornly historical view of Jesus, preserve reliable information about his life and teachings, and are not engulfed by any of the conditions under which they were composed. Jesus “the Nazarene” did not originate as a myth or a story without historical coordinates, but as a teacher in first century Roman Palestine. Like dozens of other Hellenistic teachers, but lacking sophisticated “biographers” to preserve his accomplishments, Jesus is distinct only because the cult that formed around him perpetuated his memory in ritual, worship, and text, while the memory of other attested personalities of antiquity, even those who enjoyed brief cultic popularity like Antigonus I, Ptolemy I and Demetrius of Macedon are known to us mainly through literary artifacts.
You'll have to read the rest of the article to see how Hoffmann defends the thesis. Let me note, however, that Hoffmann's use of the gospels in his argument may have similarities with the narrative-based methodology employed by Joel S. Baden for the Pentateuch. Both Hoffmann and Baden are interested in immediate sources of religious texts. Hoffmann argues that a person, the subject of the texts, is probably a source for his texts; Baden argues that earlier, separate versions are the sources for his.

In addition to the positive case for the historical Jesus, Hoffmann holds the mythicist position "as fatally flawed and subject to a variety of objections." Here, Hoffmann's thesis is, well, devastating:
The attempt of “mythicists” to show that Jesus did not exist, on the other hand, has been largely incoherent, insufficiently scrupulous of historical detail, and based on improbable, bead-strung analogies.[1] The failure of the myth theory is not the consequence merely of methodological sloppiness with respect to the sources and their religious contexts; that has been demonstrated again and again from as early as Shirley Jackson Case’s (now dated) study, The Historicity of  Jesus (1912). It is a problem incipient in the task itself, which Morton Smith aptly summarized in 1986: The myth theory, he wrote, is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the “silence” of Paul. “In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”[2]
As I said, Hoffmann's essay is long, yet it's well worth careful reading and re-reading.

So, grab your popcorn and read up. I won't say "This is gonna be good," because it already is good.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.