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Re: [XTalk] historical Jesus

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  • William E. Arnal
    ... Right. This is really no argument for historicity at all -- it is simply a way of pointing out that the most obvious sort of falsification (fictitious or
    Message 1 of 134 , Dec 1, 2000
      On Thu, 30 Nov 2000, Russ Conte wrote:

      > 1. Many of the people described are historical = real. To me this point
      > is critical. If we could verify that several of the key players never
      > lived, or lived in other time periods, the whole event becomes fiction.
      > But Pilate is real (the Pilate stone is good evidence), Caiphais is
      > real, (if you buy that that ossuary is his, and I do), Jesus is real,
      > the Sanhedrin is real, (though we can debate the historicity of
      > individuals) and the list can go on for quite some time. Just because
      > the people are historical does not necessarily mean the events described
      > are also historical. For example, I could say that Thomas Edison was a

      Right. This is really no argument for historicity at all --
      it is simply a way of pointing out that the most obvious
      sort of falsification (fictitious or anachronistic
      characters) does not occur here. An actual example of how
      the presence of real characters does not actually provide
      support for the historicity of a literary product is the
      poem "Kublai Khan." There was, of course, such a person, but
      the poem itself is a fragment of an opium dream.

      > 2. Subtle details of the trial are consistent with other details in
      > Roman history. Perhaps the most amazing (in my opinion) is the trump
      > card the prosecution plays out here, from John 19 (NIV):

      Again, this doesn't mean much. Some details of the trial are
      UNREALISTIC, too. And realistic details are to be expected
      in any ficion -- the authors were, after all, familiar with
      their own time period, and could be expected to render
      background details with thorough verisimilitude, without
      even trying.

      > 3. A number of archaeological details are consistent with historical
      > evidence. This ranges from the most basic (Jesus was crucified as
      > opposed to being beheaded), to the description of the tomb (which is
      > consistent with the types of tombs of that era). Others are also
      > possible.

      Again, this means nothing -- the author was familiar with
      his own time and his own culture. So what? If I were writing
      a novel now, and had a character being buried, I would quite
      naturally and without even thinking about it have a formal
      funeral and a tombstone. The presence of these "realistic"
      details would mean nothing about the actual events

      > It is fair and honest to say that there are obvious discrepancies
      > between the four accounts in the four Gospels. But, for example, there
      > are five primary sources on the fire at Rome, and each puts Nero at a
      > different location. That does not make the fire non-historical, but it
      > does create some ambiguity with the evidence. Same for the trial. To me
      > the evidence is that the trial is historical, though the accounts are
      > not perfect, they are quite good.

      On what grounds? Look, the presence of conflicting accounts
      is not really the issue. The issue is the literary
      dependence among those accounts, and the ways in which those
      accounts, in their differing details, reflect the
      theological and literary agenda of the writings in which
      they occur. We don't need to go back to the arguments of
      Reimarus (even though, I suppose, some evangelical types are
      still sparring with him when they appeal to oral
      traditions as explanation for synoptic divergences, etc.).
      The real issue, it seems to me, is that the prototypical
      passion narrative (i.e., Mark's, on which I think the other
      three are literarily dependent) is a tissue of prooftexts
      and an exemplary statement of the author's ("Mark's") own
      theological agenda.

      > To say that the trial is not historical in any way is to throw out quite
      > a bit of Roman history.

      No, that history stands. But its details have little bearing
      on the historicity of the passion accounts.

      William E. Arnal e-mail: wea1@...
      Religious Studies/Classics New York University
    • Rikki E. Watts
      ... .. Fair enough, and indeed I do appreciate the restraint. ... As you know Bill, while I recognize the distinction, it seem to me in practice that this kind
      Message 134 of 134 , Mar 6, 2001
        on 3/2/01 10:36 AM, William Arnal at william.arnal@... wrote:

        > In a way I'm a little disinclined to pick this up, for much the same reasons
        > that I've left off responding on the "miracle" thread: 1) I've pretty much
        > said what I have to say, anything else would be clarification or quibbling
        > over details;
        .. Fair enough, and indeed I do appreciate the restraint.

        >and 2) the discussion ITSELF (this is MUCH more true of the
        > "miracles" thread than this one) threatens to defeat my whole purpose in
        > engaging in it -- i.e., it tends to focus our discussion on theological
        > issues rather than on historical ones.
        As you know Bill, while I recognize the distinction, it seem to me in
        practice that this kind of dichotomy is sometimes a thinly disguised attempt
        to sneak in a kind of doctrinaire naturalism by the back door, if not the
        mistaken application of the fact-value distinction to history. (By the way,
        I'd be very interested in hearing your response to my assessment of Hume.)

        > So, I think, this will be MY last word on the matter, although as always
        > others are quite welcome to put in THE last word.
        Indeed, thanks.. And I'll take you up on the offer... :-).

        > At 09:37 AM 2/28/01 -0800, Rikki E. Watts wrote:
        >> including such movements as deconstructionism). I mentioned PM because it
        >> highlighted the fundamental problem with what most people seem to understand
        >> as "modern" epistemology which, in terms of doing history--my primary
        >> interest here, concerns the problematic of the fact-interpretation
        >> distinction (deriving from the mistaken notion that truth via objectivity
        >> emerges from the eradication of subjectivity), the inappropriate application
        >> in historical studies of the Baconian idea that one builds up from discrete
        >> facts to a larger picture, and the assumption of doctrinaire naturalism. If
        >> you don't mean these things when you speak of being a modern then fine. On
        > Indeed I don't mean these things, at least in the e-mail to which you were
        > responding. I meant "modern" in a non-technical sense, as in "not ancient."
        > And in fact I was not so much thinking of INTELLECTUAL constructs, such as
        > explicit epistemologies, as of unquestioned worldviews, types of
        > experiences, and so forth. The world we live in -- whatever you want to call
        > it -- affects the way we think, and indeed the ways in which we are CAPABLE
        > of thinking. And this is not exclusively (nor even primarily) in terms of
        > explicit epistemological schemata.
        Okay.. but now I'm having trouble understanding why you made such a
        distinction in the first place (see below).

        >> the other hand if the suggestion is that if one lives in the modern world
        >> one is somehow trapped in this epistemology and therefore that this somehow
        >> rules out a discourse about a larger view of the world, then this seems to
        >> me not only to smack of dogmatism and credo as much as any fundamentalism
        >> but if true would mean that we could never change our minds and the latter
        >> is manifestly not the case.
        > No, that's just silly. One's living in the "modern" (or contemporary, if you
        > like) world is indeed a KIND of trap, in that it does indeed dictate and
        > limit thought to a considerable degree. But to say this is HARDLY to suggest
        > that a RANGE of thought is impossible, or that these things never change. In
        > fact, it is precisely the point of such historicizing that such overarching
        > conceptual frameworks DO change over time, and indeed may always be in the
        > process of changing. My very simple original point is that OUR worldview and
        > its possibilities (however various) are very different from those of ancients.
        On your last point, quite right. But, help me, are you suggesting then that
        this gulf is such that we cannot have any sense of ancient worldviews? I
        don't think you are. If not, then what are you saying that Gadamer hasn't
        already said about our "situatedness" and horizons? I'm glad to hear that
        you don't think we are trapped in our present cultural/intellectual
        horizons; if we aren't then that opens the door to the possibility of access
        to the ancient world. But now I'm puzzled about why you mentioned the fact
        of our being modern in the first place.

        >>>> all of his examples and studies with the exception of
        >>>> Balkans' singers are taken from modern, technological,
        >>>> western, highly literary cultures--hardly likely to help
        >>>> us with questions of how ancient village oral culture
        >>>> dealt with particular stories of significant people.
        >>> Yes, and this sort of reasoning is specious.
        >> Whose? Mine or Crossan's? :-).
        > I can't remember! I probably meant yours (or rather, Crossan's critics).
        I thought so actually, :-).

        > Simply using examples of how memories work, here there and anywhere, does
        > cast SOME light on the problem, and I'm disinclined to buy into the positing
        > of a huge rift between "oral" and "literate" cultures. Nonetheless, of
        > course, historical and cultural situation IS (obviously) a factor, and needs
        > to be taken into account. My impression is that Crossan does this, though
        > perhaps not as much as some would like.

        >> C'mon, Bill, what is this "to assume some mystical, magical chasm ... making
        >> something wholly other.."? I never said nor intended any such thing, so
        >> please don't put words in my mouth. (Isn't this just another example of
        >> putting your opponents' view in the most extreme terms so you can engage the
        >> black and white fallacy?)
        > No, it's a question of using hyperbole to reflect what I've read on the
        > oral-written divide. Too many students of this problem treat the matter in
        > much the way I've indicated, i.e., as though a kind of cultural *chasm*
        > existed between written and oral cultures, and as though there were no
        > possible continuum between the two, and as though their features don't ever
        > intermix. In general and as a result, I am VERY suspicious of ANY claims
        > that "oral cultures" or "illiterate culutres" (of which Christian antiquity
        > was NOT one) are substantively different than literate ones, ESPECIALLY as
        > regards memory. Modern memories can be just as prodigious.
        - fine (watch out, cows may fly) I agree with you and share your suspicion.
        My reason for mentioning literacy was Bailey's observation of how in a
        setting where they don't commit their history to writing these villages
        passed it on through oral tradition. Crossan's examples deal with
        individuals (not communities) who were asked to recall events that they
        never deliberately committed to memory in the first place.

        >> Sorry, I think you are assuming the wrong book. I'm not referring to his
        >> parables volumes. See instead his article on oral tradition in the Near East
        >> ³Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,² Themelios 20
        >> (1995) 4-11.). Bailey had decades to observe how near eastern villagers
        >> passed on traditions and he noted several categories in which memory was
        >> employed in very different ways. E.g. atrocity stories from outside the
        >> village or its sphere were largely uncontrolled and could be embellished
        >> liberally. On the other hand proverbs were strictly controlled and
        >> bewilderingly extensive passages from the Koran memorized verbatim.
        > Yeah, you already noted this.
        True, but I did so privately. I thought it might help clarify the issue for

        >I actually found the BOOKS by Bailey very
        > helpful for different reasons. I have not yet looked up this article (when I
        > was in Regina, I couldn't get Themelios -- now that I'm back in NYC I have
        > no time!); but I will. I'm still unsure how this offers ANY indication of
        > the verbatim reliability of oral tradition (of which the Koran, n.b., is
        > NOT), nor how it works on the oral/literary scenario. As I've pointed out
        > before, I've memorized HUGE blocks of material, rather easily, in spite of
        > being a literate person.
        >> Most interesting of all were the stories of important figures associated
        >> with the life of the village, or the village's founding moment. Here only
        >> certain people were allowed to relate what happened (someone who had been in
        >> the village only 40 years would be dismissed as an outsider who couldn't be
        >> trusted in such matters). When these 'informal' repeaters told the story
        >> some flexibility was allowed around the less significant details. But like
        >> a good joke, they had to get the points of reference right (even if allowed
        >> some flexibility in the order) and when it came to the punch-line or
        >> punch-deed, it had to be verbatim. Any variation and the repeater would be
        >> immediately corrected by a chorus of rebuttal and suffer great loss of face.
        >> That in itself an excellent motivation to maintain the tradition. He cites
        >> examples where they could do this for stories about missionaries who visited
        >> their villages from almost two centuries before.
        > And again I would suggest that this in itself does not much support the
        > claim that the gospels are not literarily related. Since, in fact, several
        > of the "punch lines" do vary, and since lots of what is verbatim is not
        > "punch line" material.
        Fine, but let's not jump ahead too quickly. I'm sure we are both agreed
        that genre is THE key to interpretation. So the preeminent question concerns
        the genre of the gospels. Crossan wants to explain the gospels by factoring
        in the vagaries of memory and the need either to compensate or to
        substitute. But for those places where the punchline is identical or very
        nearly so, I would argue that Bailey's model offers a much better literary
        and cultural fit, and would strongly suggest that the earliest Palestinian
        Christians were very interested in preserving Jesus' key words and deeds.
        If so, then Crossan's assumption (a la Bultmann?) of creativity, at least
        for the stories under discussion, is highly problematic.
        Having established that, I'm then prepared to tackle the question of more
        significant variations in punchline.

        >> Perhaps you can see why I continue to stand by my critique of Crossan's
        >> discussion of memory as it relates to the oral traditions about Jesus'
        >> teaching and deeds. It is anachronistic and is unaware of how near eastern
        >> villagers actually preserve these kinds of traditions. I make no statement
        > Of how near eastern villages TODAY do so.
        Now now now. That's a bit rude. You seemed happy enough to accept
        Crossan's models without question and doggedly defended them against my
        suggestion that they might not only be culturally but also temporally
        problematic, derived largely as they were from 20th century US. I didn't
        hear a peep from you about the problems of temporal distance. Why suddenly
        now? It might be worth asking why this happens. But yes of course Bailey
        understands the temporal distance (at least culturally he's on much closer
        ground) and notes other indications that suggest a high degree of
        continuity. But, to return to your question, if this is a problem for
        Bailey--at least he's in the same cultural milieu--what does this say about
        >> about how such things would work in the Greco-roman world but at least for
        >> the early Palestinian Jesus movement this is the best evidence we have and
        >> it strongly affirms the notion of a persistent and accurate tradition.
        > But it fails to take other factors into account. That some traditions may
        > be, or are, preserved pretty accurately is a reasonable enough claim,
        > especially when they are restricted to, and pertain to, a fixed local area.
        > But as Bailey apparently notes, when it comes to "outside" stories, all
        > kinds of embellishment takes place. Thne Jesus traditions did not remain in
        > the towns in which the events in question occured -- they spread all over
        > the place. And moreover there were theological reasons to alter these stories.
        Not quite. Bailey talked about atrocity stories from outside. These of
        course travel like wildfire and because they are not considered significant
        for the village's identity are not carefully preserved. But if one is
        dealing with a story that concerns a village (or a group's) origins and
        identity then it is very different. On the one hand, one can imagine
        various villages remembering well the time when Jesus the prophet came to
        them. On the other, for a group whose identity and constituency transcends
        one village, being based not just on what happened in this village but the
        words and deeds of the Jesus in numerous villages, then one would expect the
        same kind of care might obtain. In other words its not so much the
        geographical datum (a single village centred on a locality) but the larger
        sociological one (a new group around Jesus) that is the key consideration.

        >> Again I should have thought the reasons for these criteria would have been
        >> obvious; after all one of the great contributions of the so-called third
        >> quest has been its concern with the Jewishness of Jesus and the importance
        >> of locating him culturally. If not doing this led to all sorts of nonsense
        > And one of the great weaknesses of the third question has been its rigid and
        > ahistorical reification of Judaism, such that there is essentially only ONE
        > (and rather normative) Judaism (single and with a capital "j"), rather than
        > multiple and plural judaisms.
        - sorry but my experience is exactly the opposite. I can't even think of a
        recent historical Jesus/gospels scholar who thinks there was a single
        monolithic Judaism. That one was well and truly laid to rest when I was in
        grad school back in the mid eighties.

        >> in the earlier quests then not doing wrt formation of the documents of the
        >> Jesus movement is just as likely to result in equal nonsense. So let's
        >> compare apples with apples (and I think Crossan is comparing apples and
        >> oranges). My claim was that I know of no a) Jewish document outside the NT
        >> that b) invents recent history and c) calls this the fulfillment of
        >> scripture. (And by Jewish of course I don't mean specifically Jewish
        >> authorship but from out of a Jewish Weltanschauung).
        > This last line is EXACTLY the problem. You've already got a conception of a
        > Jewish Weltanschauung and what it can permit -- anything that goes beyond
        > this is not from a Jewish Weltanschauung! I'd also wonder whether it doesn't
        > beg the question insofar as it assumes that the Jesus movement must have
        > come out of this (rather rigid, I think) Weltanschauung. Why need this have
        > been case? There is too little complexity, still, I fear, in our
        > conceptualizations of what "Judaism" actually is.
        - yes of course I have a perception of what is or is not a Jewish
        Weltanschauung. Two issues here. What is that WS? This is why we do
        history. If you think I am being too tight, then argue the case.
        Demonstrate e.g. that other Jews did indeed invent recent history in order
        to argue for the fulfillment of Israel's story. I'm open. But nothing I've
        seen so far comes close to a convincing analogy. Second, how did they
        operate within their WS? I.e. Just because in the past no one else invented
        fulfillment stories does not mean they didn't. But now you have to show why
        it would have made sense to depart so radically from Jewish character. Law
        courts are often vitally concerned with assessing actions on the basis of
        what makes sense in a given setting, what is in and out of character. This
        does not mean that out of character actions cannot happen. BUT if I can
        make good sense of an action based on what is in character, why go
        elsewhere? On the other hand, I'm willing to consider alternatives, hence
        my question re inventing recent history to argue for fulfillment: explain to
        me how this would work (i.e. why they would want to jettison this and what
        it would prove) in their setting and I'll listen. But I can't for the life
        of me make any sense of a Jew trying to do this. I'm not asking for
        certainty only coherence. I think the view that they didn't engage in
        wholesale elaboration is far more in character and makes more sense
        historically and culturally. The fact that the message of the Christian
        church is so imbued with explicit and implicit indications of an invariably
        Jewish Weltanschauung (how often is Plato or Homer actually quoted?) is a
        fairly convincing indicator what they are operating in that horizon.
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