But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Friday, June 1, 2012

Hoffmann Tales

In the debates following the appearance of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist last March, R. Joseph Hoffmann weighed in with a scathing manifesto dissmissing  the “mythicist” theory in general and one of its leading spokesmen, with a special gusto.  Introducing Carrier, as man from a “Freethought Blog Ghetto”,  an “atheist” and a “part-time Jesus-denier” in a self described rant titled Mythic Pizza and Cold-cocked Scholars  Hoffmann deplored the “sewer of internet-facilitated nastiness…flowing into what used to be called academic discussion”. 
              My curiosity was whetted instantly. As someone on the record saying that the “Jesus existence” debating is a hopeless group-think which has no greater purpose than badmouth opponents , I am thrilled whenever I see my theoretical insights confirmed by the behaviour of well-known scholars.   And Hoffmann is overly generous in that regard.  Right off the bat, to make a point about the “sewer” Hoffmann chose to engage not Carrier himself but some unknown blogging wit who was mighty pleased with Carrier’s response to Ehrman. This is a popular technique of attacking a dumber proponent of a theory rather than a smarter one as a way to score debating points quicker.   There are of course risks associated with this manoeuvring, as the demoliton of this sophistry  by Rees-Mogg in Dawkins’ anti-theist argument  illustrated.  That Hoffmann has a certain weakness for the nutty type of equation becomes evident quickly.  God deniers are Jesus deniers are mosquitos, and mosquitos carry dengue  and malaria.  Mosquitos, the train of thought goes on, like Alex Forest (the crazy woman from Fatal Attraction) will not be ignored.   By what method did she get into the academic perspective of Hoffmann ?  He does not tell but it is  obvious why Glenn Close’s mongoose stare needs to be embedded in the paragraph.  It takes no divine to conclude that more than a bunny rabbit is in a mortal danger from Jesus-dengueing mosquitoes ! 
         The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense”, Hoffmann states matter-of-factly. Care to run that one by us one more time, prof ?  Would that be the bunny-boiling buggers or the buggers who together with rum and cat-o-nine-tails made Winston's navy the best in the world ?  It is not clear !
            The incensed academic of course deplores the lack of couth and finesse at the Freethought Ghetto, and recalls in wistful threnodies  the gentlemanly bygone age in the Ivory Towers  on the very next blog.  But lest he stand accused of lack of  “sewer” biting skills,  he will tear into Carrier for his estimate of him as “crazy”.  In his exercise of gentlemanly standards, Hoffmann somehow manages to follow a sentence in which he complains of Carrier’s uncivil, unscholarly, temperamental outbursts, with one which calls him “Dick” and “Carrier the Terrier”.   There seems to be – and I am not claiming any academic credentials for saying this – a screw or two loose in professor Hoffmann’s nomenclatura.  For whatever perceived inanities Richard Carrier is guilty of,  it is plainly unwise to return them in the self-same artless form if one is bent on claiming a higher professional standard.    
         Something else caught my eye here:  the idea that one can actually fake common sense.  True, C. Wright Mills observed more than half a century ago that common sense seems often more common than sense. But still. In the high altitude of academia, it rarely matters what people without eligible degrees think, especially not in the academic disciplines where the expertise consists in gathering evidence of what God (or his duly appointed emissaries) actually did and said. They are those who pretend to study New Testament as literature but some of them  too will turn into raving madmen should one suggest that the gospels are nearest to fiction. The disciplines relating to the texts, professor Hoffmann seems unaware,  have long been held by the smarter common folk to be basically the Great Science of Talking through the Hat, i.e. having no greater object than to condescend to people about things that no one can really know in the absence of evidence.  It is not just Steven Carr or PZ-EZ who would scoff at the idea of an “independent historical investigation” the final product of which are assertions about artefacts that noone has seen, or the opinion on the therapeutic merit of spitting into the patient’s eyes as a way of returning sight to him.   Nor is the disdain of the people who have common sense for religious or quasi-religious patter something dependent on Internet technologies. My sixteen-year old son says the New Testament is “random bullshit…marketing”. He should know better; he attends Catholic high school !  (my concession to his mum).  He has never visited a Jesus chat group.  But he already belongs to the greater pool of intelligent people who read the texts and will not mince words in saying the gospel factuality is historically imponderable.  Most will hold off on whether  that means Jesus did not exist. That is where the common sense lives as far as I can tell.  
The mythicists as a group have convinced themselves they know the figure of Jesus did not exist in history. Is that possible ?  Sure it is. And the more Ehrman, Hoffmann and the Tweedles of Nottingham U. sing a historical positivist looney tunes to them, the greater the conviction that the religious fanatics smuggled Jesus into history.  I don’t think they have made their case, but that is not my point.  My beef here is  with the academic competence dervishes who should make themselves familiar with a few lines from Omar Khayyam’s Rubiyat:
These fools by ignorance most crass
think they in wisdom all mankind surpass

And glibly do they damn as infidel,
Whoever is not like them, an ass.

In slandering and reviling you persist,
Calling me infidel and atheist:

My errors I do not deny, but yet
Does foul abuse become a moralist ?

A shaikh beheld a harlot and quoth he:
‘you seem a slave to drink and lechery’,

And she made answer, ‘what I seem I am,
but master are you all that you seem to be ?’

                                                (tr. by Richard Le Galienne)

Hoffmann’s  Jesus Process Contortium   
    Late in April, Professor Hoffmann announced a new scholarly “consortium” called “Jesus Process” with a subtitle which left nothing behind:  “A Consultation on Myth, Method, and Madness in New Testament Studies”.  Its objective, clear as day, is to heap scorn on the perceived misperceptions and misdeeds of the mythicists, with special focus on the application of Bayes Theorem to Historical Jesus by Richard Carrier, although that topic was flogged to multiple deaths on the blog all of the past year.  (FWIW, I was in agreement that Bayes theorem is for all intents and purposes useless for the task at hand, as the real differentiator lies in the factual reliability of the inputs, not in the algorithmic mechanics).  Beside Hoffmann, Maurice Casey and Stephanie Louise Fisher announced their contribution. The latter two advertise themselves as ‘independent historians’ though evidently not independent of each other.  “Steph” Fisher is (was?)  Maurice Casey doctoral student.  Casey praised Fisher’s as yet unpublished work in his 2010 volume, “Jesus of Nazareth”.  Not exactly regular fare as academic standards go.
The essays appeared on the New Oxonian site on May 22.  Hoffmann’s own contribution to the debate (“Controversy, Mythicism, and Historical Jesus”) sets the tone. It more or less confirms and promotes a new sub-species of historical positivism regarding Jesus of the gospel which was hinted at by Ehrman in his latest book and which is best exemplified by the writings of Maurice Casey and his protagonist, Stephanie Louise Fisher. 
 Already the first sentence of Hoffmann’s essay presents the kind of irreducible proclamation, or ipse dixit, which precludes reasoned debate:
While the New Testament offers the most extensive evidence for the existence of the historical   Jesus, the writings are subject to a number of conditions that have dictated both the form and content of the traditions they have preserved.”
               The professor should know that one cannot assume what one seeks to prove, i.e. that the gospels were intended to recount actual events, rather than, say,  assert the mysterious workings of God in the end of times.  If it seems obvious that the gospels follow the doings and sayings of a person called “Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazaret(h)/Nazara”, but there is nothing in the text or surrounding it which would confirm the verdict Hoffmann seeks and which at least theoretically is plausible: an historical account, distorted by religious beliefs about, and associated with, the protagonist.   But the plausibility of such understanding of the texts does not in any way exclude other interpretations. It is illogical and manifestly false to claim that this is the only possible reading of the gospels or that the admissibility of such a scenario proves the existence of a single historical person as the source of the narratives.  All sorts of interpretations can be constructed  on the evidence of the gospels: they may seek to personify wisdom and deposit it in a fictitious character in manufactured historical settings.  Or, they may allegorize theological teachings, maxims and oracular revelations and connect them loosely via a set of historical settings with a legendary figure, with whose followers the earliest narrative was at cross purposes (pun intended).   The fact that Hoffmann wants to believe that the mythicist case is fatally flawed generically may be just a case of fatally flawed logic.  G.A.Wells argued in a paper written for the 1986 Ann Arbour CSER conference (Hoffmann is surely aware of this), that just because a theory has been argued poorly, does not mean it cannot be argued well.  I have little to quarrel with Hoffmann when he says that the attempts of mythicists to show that Jesus did not exist, "has been largely incoherent, insufficiently scrupulous of historical detail".  This is of course true of most proponents of the theory, especially those working from “diffusionist” mythological models or, in the case of Doherty, from an improbable theo-philosophical schema.  Fair enough.  The problem is however that the prof seems to conclude that non-existence of Jesus cannot fly because he knows of a better way to talk through the hat.
Paul and Mark: key to the Historical Conundrum ?
         It is interesting that Hoffmann should believe the earliest gospel of Mark exhibits ‘Roman historical interest’ rather than the ‘Anatolian eclecticism [sic] as reflected by Paul’.  One has to ask how much the prof has read in the modern Markan scholarship that starts with Willi Marxsen and Norman Perrin.  He seems blissfully unaware of the nearly impenetrable opacity acknowledged by nearly everyone between Wrede and Räisänen plunging into the depths of Mark’s ingenious tale. "Blessed are the ones who speak plainly", commented Wrede sarcastically, "for they shall be understood".   And indeed, there is so much of what professor Aichele described as ‘fantasy'  in Mark which not only clashes with any putative ‘Roman historical interest’ but clobbers such an idea outright.  Aichele acknowledged  that most of the miracles and healing feats in Mark are standard professions of belief. They are strictly addressing themselves to the object of faith – as ‘believe it or not’.  In that respect, he says, the stories are not any different from other sacred texts in other religions or mystical cults.  But, says Aichele, there is also  an inexplicable residuum…an irreducible, opaque remainder of the text [that is] not finally consumed and absorbed along with the rest. What does he mean ?  The difficulty of answering questions along these lines: why do people forget about feeding themselves when they are around Jesus ?  Why is that a sign to those who know Jesus best that it is he that is out of his mind and needs to be restrained ?  What does the physical oppression of Jesus (e.g. 2:4, 3:9, 5:31) signify ?  Why would mourners in Jairus’ house burst out laughing when Jesus announces the girl was only sleeping ?  Is that sort of reaction explicable in the context for which it is given, i.e. human life apparently lost, and a hope for it rekindled by an expert brought in to return her to life ?  How about Jesus adding a commandment to the Decalogue in 10:19 (μη αποστερειτε), one that was actually formulated by Paul (1 Cr 7:5) in different context ? Or the visits to Jericho and Bethany with no action recorded ?  How about removing the roof and making a patient descend to Jesus in exchanging roles of the act of heavenly salvation ?  How about – when we are on the subject of Roman historical interest – the fantastically twisted idea that a governor of a Roman province would have acceded to a request to release from custody someone who is portrayed as adversus securitatem regnum Romanum  in place of a harmless furiosus ?  These are just some examples of Mark’s dramatic ploys which point to a writing project radically different than recording, or redacting previous reports of, historical happenings. 
                  A welcome relief from the droning of Ehrman, who more or less claims that the “Jesus mythicism” is an Internet-age conspiracy theory, or at any rate, gives minimum outline of how the idea of Jesus non-existence developed, is Hoffmann description of second century Gnostics as “mythicizers”.  Of course, we know that there were people in the second century (and probably earlier) who denied that Christ came “in flesh”, in other words, that (nearly) from the beginning the term designated no more than certain passing psychic phenomena (rare but not uncommon), available to great seers and mystics and ordinary psychos (in Mark's idiom the demons who knew Jesus), around which most of the lore was built. We know that because the second letter of John declares such views the work of anti-Christ. So, in truth “Jesus mythicism” is not a new, or modern phenomenon.  It is good that Hoffmann acknowledges that.

As expected though, the prof takes an unfriendly line to the Gnostics. To him they truly were lthe original version of the lamentable “mythicizers”  whom the church fathers valiantly fought and defeated.  Hoffmann it seems missed Schweitzer’s poking fun at the exasperated  theologians championing the historicity of Jesus” fighting the Jesus myth proponents in his time who so resembled the church fathers fighting heresy in the middle of 2nd century. “Like them they felt themselves called upon to protect the spiritual welfare of the defenceless masses who were in danger of being craftily deluded…As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of ….the widest possible readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low.  (Quest, ed. John Bowden, Minneapolis 2001, p. 395).

Given the tenor of the essay, and its obssessive concretization of the gospel metaphor, it is not surprising to find that Hoffmann considers Paul's influence on the whole marginal. If Paul's spiritualism does not fit the theory it needs to be carefully censored.  So, Hoffmann  teaches thqt Paul's reputation was 'para-canonical rather than original to the tradition'. The apostle's prestige was 'forced on the church writers' by 'a specific heresiological crisis'.  Really ?  That is news to me. Not only the Pauline allegory of Mark confirms that (at least in the eyes of the Markan community) the disciples were as clueless about the novel concept of resurrection as some in Paul's Corinthian audience, but also that they did not know the cross. The women running from the tomb tell nothing to noone; the news of Jesus' rising gets out through the gospel itself.  That of course, in the eyes of some, makes Paul the de facto originator of the Christian tradition.  He did not invent Jesus but certainly supplied the theological ground for him to walk on. The attempts to dress up the unknown historical Jesus as self-conscious Messiah fulfilling his earthly fate selon Paul are - well, laughable. Mark's tragi-comical farce of Paul's cosmic spirit of the Lord being mistaken for the parochial Jewish Messiah who would restore the old kingdom - by his own disciples and the Sanhedrin - is a brilliant brief on the historical, fissiparious Jesus' idolatry meeting the earliest Christian faith.  When Matthew re-wrote Mark to make Jesus' corpse rise with zombies scaring kids in Jerusalem, the hard core of Paul's faithful would have nothing to do with the caricature of their original Christian faith. They would bolt to Gnostic cults. On the positive side for the historicist zealots, the gospel became dumbed down sufficiently to assure mass following, the spiritual conquest of the planet and the continued worship of nonsense in the related academic disciplines.  All we have left of the original gospel are the two asses on whose back Jesus rode to Jerusalem -  the plagiarist's thumbing his nose at the two geniuses who created it in the two literary formats of the New Testament.     

Did Paul Meet Jesus' brother ?

I have had an exchange with Hoffmann about this on his blog which ended up with his expunging my final post after I had caught him mistaking James the Zebedee for James the Jesus brother.  Oh, well !  

Hoffmann, like Ehrman, suffers from the delusion that there exists a way of connecting James the brother of the Lord, of Gal 1:19 to the James, the brother of Jesus (Mk 6:3, Mt 13:55) and further to the James of Acts 12:17.  There isn't because Luke does not know Jesus brother by the name of James.  But of course that is not the end of the problems.  

        Gal 1:19 is likely interpolated, as I have shown here (How many times was Paul in Jerusalem?) .   But even if it is not Hoffmann's analysis is flawed.  He argues with Drews, whose position would not be the preferred one among the current breed of mythicists.  Price, Carrier, Wells and Doherty have all indicated that the 'brother of the Lord' is not to be understood as a rank-and-file member of the cultus but as as something of a rank or functional description of an inner circle of the Jerusalem assembly.  In this they agree with E.P. Sanders, who described the 'brothers of the Lord' (and the apostles) as leaders of a 'Jewish eschatological movement'.   So there is a difference between the αδελφοι εν κυριω (Phl 1:14, generic brother, member of the cult) and αδελφοι του κυροιυ (1 Cr 9:5, church leaders).  

         It is to be noted that 1 Cor 9:5 describes what appears to be privileged members of the Jerusalem assembly, a group into which Paul himself by all appearances had not been accepted (1 Cr 9:2).  That the Jerusalem temple worshipping dignitaries would have been referring to Jesus by the near absolute "Lord" (which Paul used to describe as the visionary entity which at times overwhelmed him, and which he understood to be the son of Lord-God) strikes me as a non-starter. 
        Further, other than the interpolated "James, brother Jesus called Christ" in Josephus Ant XX.9 there is nothing in the earliest Christian history indicating that James the Just was thought of as Jesus' relative.  Luke knows nothing about it. Neither does the writer of the letter of James. Nor the Gospel of Thomas. The first person historically who is recorded to have made the connection was Hegesippus in the middle of 2nd century. But nothing has survived of Hegesippus. His belief was recorded by Eusebius a century and a half later, who was plainly skeptical of a blood relationship between Jesus and James (H.E.1.12). Heggesippus account of James is obviously legendary as it affects to credit that for thirty odd years he operated a church in Jerusalem dedicated to the memory of his executed brother without the authorities being aware of it.  When they naively ask him to renounce Jesus, and he refuses, they promptly throw him down the parapet and stone him to death.    
       Of course none of this will sway the historicist passionnés. They will deny the possibility of  reading of 'brother of the Lord' as something other than plain admission of kinship.  Bad for them that not only the author of the Acts of James but Origen was struck by the improbability of the idea:  Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine. [Contra Celsum 1.47]. One has to wonder how Origen figured that.