Saturday, January 05, 2013

Joe Hoffmann again overstates case for historical Jesus

Once again, R. Joseph Hoffmann feels the compulsion to do battle against the evil "mythicists" who reject the historicity of Jesus.

Well, Hoffmann has Ph.D.-level scholarship in New Testament studies, as well as a level of philosophical education I don't. But I have more than enough academic and personal education in New Testament, and enough in philosophy, to know that his latest argument once again doesn't stack up.

First is the old fallacy of the excluded middle, or, the false dilemma. I, for one, don't outrightly state that Yeshua bar Yusuf never existed, but I do at the same time state the question of his historicity is one that's academically legitimate for study. Hoffmann rejects that, wrongly.

Second is that "mythicist" is arguably a pejorative term; it certainly is for those of us in his excluded middle.

Third, this particular argument of his has its individual weaknesses.

First, the analogy from the semi-empty tomb of John Henry Newman to the allegedly empty one of Jesus is at best weak, and really, from where I stand, a non sequitur.

But, that's nothing compared to this howler:
And even though the dying/rising god cults differed pointedly from each other and from Christianity, it is pretty clear that Christianity after the time of St Paul fit the description of a salvation cult pretty well. It is hard to imagine Christianity surviving and spreading on the basis of Jesus’ teaching alone.
Why is it "hard to imagine"? Buddhism, like Christianity, traces its origin to a single alleged founder (whether historic or not, like Christianity). But, Buddhism is based indeed on just the teaching of the Buddha.

Beyond that, the question of the nature of Jesus' mission is a separate issue from his historicity. A Q/Gospel of Thomas Jesus is just as historical, or ahistorical, as an empty tomb one.

And, beyond THAT, the issue relates to Paul's role in the development of the Jesus tradition, author priority and related issues, which Hoffman partially admits is involved. Noetheless, the "type of Jesus" and historicity is independent of that, too.

That's followed by another misfire:
The political and religious conditions of the time of Jesus plausibly give us characters like Jesus.
So? The "Jesus" of the New Testament could be a composite character! Or, as Hoffmann says purely for rhetorical effect, be Theudas, or my argument, Jesus the Pharisee of a century earlier. The claim that the New Testament statements about historical datum related to Jesus have a higher strength sounds like hand-waving.

The claim that the gospel writers got context right even though they made many mistakes about specifics? I could say that, in Old Testament studies, about the Yahwist and the patriarchs. Depends on how wide you want to draw the lasso of margin of error.


Darwin had his "bulldog" in Huxley. Hoffmann has one, too, in "Steff."

Here's an excerpt from my reply to here, with editing.

She claimed I focused my "fail" too much on logical grounds and that, my rhetorical "opening" aside, I didn't have the scholastic background necessary to have a dog in this hunt.


That said, I didn’t say that it failed only on logical grounds (if that’s not enough). Your arguments in favor of his claims fairly well parallel those I’ve see hurled against the “minimalists” on the Old Testament side of biblical scholarship. They’ve generally been well refuted there, too.

That said, there is another philosophical angle, and that’s the question of in whose court the matter of proof lies when evidence is tenuous. And it doesn’t all lie in the court of those who question the historicity of Jesus.

Anyway, I’ve been down this road before. I’m far from the only person, and indeed not the only non “mythicist” to question Hoffmann’s reasoning. (Other people do on this blog, though, not in as much detail and as specific to Hoffmann, so far, on this post, as me.)

I’ve also said more than once before, as do the ahistoricists, that it’s quite arguable Paul knew zero of a historical Jesus. Paul's “born of a woman” comment can easily be read as nothing more than an “anti-docetist” claim and nothing else. And, it probably should be read as nothing more than that, and I think Hoffmann knows that himself. From there, its easy to see how Paul’s particular accretion of a pagan custom, the Eucharist, tweaked for Judaism, could have accreted. It’s also easy to see how a misreading of the middle voice of apodidomi (hey, Steff, there’s scholarship!) could have been misread as a passive, and then, the growth of “tradition” required an agent for that passive voice, and hence the invention of a mythic Judas, and we go on from there.

Indeed, I have blogged in more depth about that, here.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives us the first extant written account of the Lord’s Supper. He starts with the well-known phrase, “On the night our Lord Jesus was betrayed…”

But, “betrayed” may well not be the right translation.

Many Greek verbs have three voices — the active and passive ones we know in English, and a “middle” voice, a sort of reflexive voice.

Now, the Greek verb αποδιδωμι looks the same in middle and passive voice. But, it has different meanings.

In the passive, it does mean “betray.” But, in the middle, it normally means “hand over,” as in hand over someone to authorities. A similar meaning is “hand up.”

Critical New Testament scholarship believe this is what Paul means. He never, in the epistles he clearly wrote, talks about a Passion Plot, a Roman arrest, or the melodramatic literary angle of a turncoat named Judas.
And, from there,I do believe it's easy to see how myth could develop further. Or, legend, technically, since we're talking about the existence of a human being, conservative Christianity aside.

And, I’ve mentioned this particular bit on other posts of Hoffmann’s and he’s never adequately refuted it.

So, "sorry," Joe, and even more, Steff, there’s a good scholarly keystone for how “Pauline priority” could fit will with the development of myths about a historic Jesus.

Whether it did or not is still an open question. But it IS an open question of legitimate academic discussion, not, contra Hoffmann, something to be rudely dismissed in narrowmindedness, or in personal pique because many mythicists also happen to be Gnu Atheists.

And yes, at least vis-a-vis Richard Carrier, Hoffmann has indeed fused the historicity debate with that of Gnu Atheism, and also with past personal and professional "issues" with Carrier. I blogged extensively about that, here.


Postscript and sidebar: I feel kind of sorry for Steff. I think she's living vicariously through Hoffmann a bit, perhaps combined with frustration at not having yet achieved a career standing that may reflect on her academic study to date. I don't know how else to explain the depth and tenor of her attacks on me, in defending Hoffmann, to claim I don't know anything about either textual criticism or historical criticism, or about Greek. (Without bragging, my undergrad degree is in classical languages, and I also read Hebrew already at that level. At divinity school, I had classes specifically on both textual and higher criticism.)

That said, I see a bit of myself ... I didn't know what to do after I had gotten my M.Div. degree only to realize that I wasn't a conservative Lutheran, and not only that, wasn't even anything to the "right" of Unitarianism, at the least. I wasn't ready to launch into a Ph.D., yet, and especially not if I would be expected to do a full M.A. first.

But, per what I have heard, the nature of her attacks is such that they're not just against me, and not just with that exact angle.

Anyway, along with a friend of a friend leaving Facebook for now, and a friend sharing a link about "online simplification," and some things happening in my "meatspace" life, this issue has made me kind of sad. Pensive, even.


Steven Bollinger said...

Evil? Hoffmann has never called mythicists evil. He says that most of them are dumb, incompetent, and prejudiced, but not evil. And he doesn't even call G A Wells dumb. In fact, he wrote an introduction to one of Well's books.

Gadfly said...

That was meant largely, though not entirely, as a rhetorical device, the "evil." Sorry that wasn't clear to you. (I don't expect it to be clear to Steff, Hoffmann's bulldog.)

That said, it's not entirely a rhetorical device. Hoffmann intertwines his criticism of "mythicists" with that of Gnu Atheism. And, as Wells shows, there are mythicists who aren't Gnus. And, Wells aside, Hoffmann generally turns his guns on newer mythicists in part because they are Gnus.

I've written more on that aspect on other blog posts I've written about other posts of Hoffmann's about "mythicism." You can read the details by clicking the Hoffmann tag.