Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 3

I have been going through and reviewing the book Is This Not the Carpenter? which seeks to set out to treat the historicity of Jesus as hypothesis rather than fact and how best to interpret the data concerning earliest Christianity. I have already reviewed chapters by Thomas Verenna and James Crossley here, and chapters by Robert M. Price, Emanuel Pfoh, and Niels Peter Lemche here. So far I have been feeling positive with regard to these chapters. Will that continue? Let’s find out!

The chapters of interest today are the introduction to minimalism by Jim West, the socio-political environment of 19th century Germany and how it influenced early “radical” criticism of the Bible as told by Roland Boer, references to Jesus outside the NT from Lester Grabbe, how to investigate earliest Christianity without considering the nature or existence of the historical Jesus with K. L. Noll.

First up is Jim’s short introduction about the so-called minimalist school of Bible scholarship. This 5-page article makes two points: the maxim of the minimalist school concerning the Bible, and that even the authors of the books of the Old and New Testament were also minimalist in the sense that they were not trying to be historians. The maxim in question can be put thus:

The underlying assumption here is that the biblical text is not historically oriented. That is to say, the purpose of the Bible is not to offer twenty-first-century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills. It is to speak theologically to … communities of faith.

Such a position has become commonplace more among OT scholars as of late; for a long time stories of Abraham, Moses, and others were thought to carry some kernel of history, but as we studied the books of scripture more carefully and dug into the ground with better methodology, we found that there was no attempt to relate what happened but instead a story that had every other purpose. Be it nationalistic propaganda, a uniting myth, or just the sorts of stories people liked to believe about their ancestors, it wasn’t about what really happened at all. And that means anything said in the OT needs to have outside confirmation so we can know what it says happened in some case really was so.

This conclusion has also been getting into NT scholarship, and it was argued long ago by people such as David Strauss all the way back in the 1830s. To Jim, it also means that the minimalism taken by today’s scholars in this camp also reflects the views of the authors of the stories we read; they didn’t intend to do history. Maybe so, but I don’t think that could quite make them minimalists. Can we really say Paul didn’t think Adam and Eve were people of the past, and that David had no run-ins with tall Philistines? Did Jesus (if he existed) consider Moses more fable than fact? I think more caution is needed before applying the minimalist label to the authors, though Jim’s point of those figures not considering their writings history as we would understand it to be well taken.

But as mentioned with Strauss, there is an old pedigree to these notions about the fictive nature of the stories in the Bible. Moving on to Roland’s chapter concerning German scholarship of the 19th century, we see an interesting matrix of political powers (both church and crown) that tried to keep the status quo along with the Hegelian philosophers and theologians that had the democratic spirit. Using Ludwig Feuerbach, Strauss, and Bruno Bauer as foils to map out this milieu, we can see parallels with both the theology and scholarship moving against the conservative elements of the time and our own generation. Roland brings up in particular the treatment of Gerd Luedemann who could no longer be allowed to teach theology students because he lost the faith. And we can’t have those ideas challenging the fragile beliefs of impressionable young minds. Someone think of the children!

My knowledge of this period and place are limited, so I felt very informed reading this chapter. I would be curious how these political forces came to molest some but not others. For example, Friedrich Schleiermacher had no need of strict historicity as fundamentalists today do, but so far as I know it didn’t cost him university positions. His theology also seems to share elements with Feuerbach. But then again, my ignorance of these times is vast, and Roland has written more extensively elsewhere on the subject. I just need to add to my reading list his books of Marxist criticism of the Bible (yes, Marx was also in the mix as well) along with the books by James Crossley on interpretations of Jesus in various (pre-)modern historical periods.

Moving further backward in time we come to the earliest non-Christian references to Jesus in the article by Lester Grabbe. At less than 15 pages, it is no where near as thorough as Robert Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament. But it is also at deficit in that Lester’s chapter is unfamiliar with this work (and yet Noll mentions it in his chapter). However, the article is reserved in what references it gives weight (and it doesn’t give the time of day to some unlikely references such as from Mara bar Serapion). For example, the mentions of Jesus in Hebrew are considered too late to be informative, which is not unreasonable since they are late, even medieval in composition. However, he doesn’t seem to find issue with how the Jewish sources talk of Jesus living a century earlier than the canonical chronology; how can we explain this major discrepancy? Why make up a Jesus rather than use the one in the time the Christians had? Lester also doesn’t talk of Jewish-Christians such as Epiphanius who believed in just that, and he was a Christian (see Panarion 29). This lack of consideration is a significant deficit, especially if we are to believe the message of Christ crucified was from the beginning placed under Pilate and not Alexander Jannaeus.

Considering Seutonius, he draws no conclusions because it has too many question marks attached. I would argue the first reference has nothing to do with Jesus (it speaks of ‘Chrestus’, a proper name, and appears to be a figure in Rome rather that Palestine), but ambiguity is just that, so no problem here with Lester’s assessment. His consideration of Tacitus, on the other hand, is rather weak as he doesn’t do much to demonstrate Tacitus is not dependent on Christians, such as those interrogated by PIiny the Younger (we know these two corresponded, but we don’t have all or even most of those letters, so the absence of evidence Lester runs on is weak), and his evidence that he used a written Roman source is nonexistent. Similarly when we look at Josephus whose source is again more likely Christian than independent. And without evidence to the contrary, we can’t say we actually have independent verification of Jesus’ existence and activities, and this is supposing the authenticity of the passages.

Lester considers the Testimonium Flavianum (TF) and its original form, and though it is informed by the studies of Alice Whealey, he does not engage in a key point about the TF. Lester and others before him, such as John Meier, use an Arabic version of the TF which is said to be independent of the earliest mention of the paragraph about Jesus by Eusebius, thus showing it is older than the 4th century. However, Whealey shows that the Arabic TF (first disused by Shlomo Pines) is ultimately derived from Eusebius! That completely undercuts what Lester tried to do in this chapter. As for the minor mention of Jesus later in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities Book 20, it was brief and will be superseded by Richard Carrier’s article on the subject due out later this year. (I have seen an early version of that article, and it demonstrates the minor testimony is likely late and a scribal addition during or (more likely) after the time of Origen.) With these considerations, I have to agree with Carrier about this chapter, though I may not be so negative.

But to end on a positive note, there is the last chapter of the book by K. L. Noll. In trying to understand earliest Christianity without calling upon Jesus (even assuming him historical), he has a very balanced treatment of Thomas Thompson and Richard Bauckham, the later I mentioned James Crossley’s chapter in Part 1 of my review. Noll sees valuable observations by both scholars who come to diametrically opposed conclusions about the Gospels. Bauckham is correct that eye-witness testimony was important and claimed by 2nd century figures, especially Irenaeus as well as others; Thompson is right that the Gospels are chuck-full of literary motifs common in the Ancient Near East (ANE). And because Noll wants to make a science-lover like me happy, he applies a Darwinian idea of how writings clearly not historical could be considered so at a later date. (It may be ironic that it was higher criticism that more riled conservatives and fundamentalists than evolution in the 19th/early 20th century, and now evolution is in biblical criticism further undercutting fundamentalists.) Noll compares his model with that of Muslim hadith literature and their growth in number and need to connect to Muhammad via witnesses, which is something Bob Price also did at The Jesus Project and in the volume of that conference in Sources of the Jesus Tradition.

I think this makes this one of the most valuable chapters in the book. We have a way of approaching the Gospels and earliest Christianity unbiased by what Jesus we should expect, and it uses a model that we can compare with other religions and their growth and development. It also means that we can probably apply sociological tools better with the comparative religion approach, and we can be agnostic about Jesus’ existence or character. Noll doesn’t think we can know anything about Jesus, making quests for his a waste, which appears to be echoed by many others in this volume. It makes for a good last chapter to the volume

Now, a few chapters remain. Thomas Thompson and Ingrid Hjelm will consider the literary creation of stories in the Gospels, while Joshua Sabih looks at Jesus in the Islamic tradition, namely in the Qur’an. I’ll pick these up next time.

I mentioned Mogens Mueller’s chapter on Paul when I talked about Tom Verenna’s considerations of the same passages, so I probably won’t go into depth there in the future (you just need to read Mogens and Tom’s chapters together and consider what makes the most sense). But one thing caught my eye in Mogens’ chapter: he said we can know from Paul that Jesus had a Passover meal (the Eucharist) with his disciples. But that isn’t in Paul’s letters at all, but from the Gospels! The Eucharist isn’t connected to the Passover by Paul, nor are apostles/disciples mentioned; Paul also claims to know this via revelation, making things stranger than him simply repeating a historical tradition. We must be weary of coloring our reading of Paul, claiming what he knew based on later traditions in the Gospels; we have to not read the epistles wearing Gospel-colored spectacles (had to borrow that phrase again from Earl Doherty). Such slips indicate that we are indeed having trouble reading Paul as Paul, and that will cause us to prejudice our interpretations of the evidence. Beware!


3 thoughts on “Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 3

  1. Theological scholarship always makes for interesting conversation, but at the end of the day, human nature being what it is, people believe what they have been taught to believe. That’s why they call it faith (actually blind faith). Everybody’s got a bias so it makes it rather difficult to sort out fact from fiction. However, I would rather go to sources like the Apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi Library, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Book of Enoch, the Seven Tablets of Creation or the esoteric texts of the Kabala instead of the Bible, the Qur’an or books by so-called scholars.

  2. Pingback: Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 5 (Finale) | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  3. Pingback: The Myth of Jesus–My Upcoming Talk | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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