The Jesus Process
1. Plausibility and Possibility
In a few previous posts I’ve talked about the weight of “plausibility” in assessing arguments for the historicity of Jesus. A few commenters have correctly said that plausibility is not evidence. That’s true. No one said it was.
Plausibility is a precondition for managing the kinds of information that would be suitable for discussing a character like Jesus of Nazareth. A plausible cabbage is a cabbage that is not being passed off as a cucumber. Socrates–even without much evidence for his existence, outside dialogues attributed to him by a pupil whose dates and specifics are also sketchy–is typical of a range of fifth century Athenian philosophers. He is thus plausible as Herakles is not. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Clark Kent were contemporaries in 1938; only one is plausible.
It is the minimal distinction between what is typical and what is unusual (or, strictly, incredible) that permits us to raise questions about plausibility. It’s true that a good writer can invent plausible figures, but in fact the characteristic of literature called verisimilitude (roughly, “believability”) in its evolved form (realism) is a feature of modern literature that grows out of particular schools of writing–especially naturalism in fiction. Dreiser’s departure from Victorian novels of manners and morals in Sister Carrie (1900) is a good example. In the previous history of fiction, characterization was often stereotyped to reflect the moral or ideological prescriptions of the day. The raison d’etre of a literary or dramatic figure was to represent a virtue, a vice, a fate, or teach a lesson–until relatively recently. One of the incidental reasons to think that the Jesus of the gospels is not a stock or contrived figure is the lack of literary unity with respect to his character. While countless scholars have seen this feature (including Schweitzer) as “mysterious”, it is probably merely a function of inconsistencies among traditions.
In Aristotle’s era, dramatic heroes like Agamemnon or Odysseus possessed what was called “magnitude” (μέγεθος) or larger-than-lifeness, not life-likeness, even though he specifies a “grounding in reality” as the basis for all good dramatic art, which he regarded as an imitation (mimesis) of reality. Even plausible figures in ancient literature tend to be highly constructed, and in cases where the figure is typically heroic–Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus, for example–the artifice of the writer and artificiality of the figure are transparent. A writer with the skill to make a Jay Gatsby or a Bruce Babbitt as opposed to a stock figure like Lucian’s Peregrinus (who may have been historical) would have been implausible in himself.
To say that Jesus is a plausible figure is thus merely to say the following: (1) His description fits the historical matrix from which it comes; (2) Allowing only for the credulity of writers and listeners of the time, there is nothing especially surprising about this description that would cause us to conclude it is fabricated or composed from assorted myths and legends, and (c) Lacking any positive grounds for thinking that the figure was invented through the fraudulence or malice of legend-spinners, it is more economical to think that it is a story (not an historical record) based upon the life and work of an historical individual. Saying only this and no more is saying that we prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones: that is what Occam’s razor requires us to do–to utilize and exploit the possibilities before us before spinning off into other possibilities that do not arise organically from the material in front of us and its closest known correlates.
The first “great” naturalistic novel, 1900
2. The Hegelian ‘Fallacy’
The older and more extravagant forms of mythicism came to light out of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, associated with the German universities, especially Göttingen and Tübingen. The names of the leaders of the school–Bernard Duhm, Albert Eichhorn , Hermann Gunkel, Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, Alfred Rahlfs, Ernst Troeltsch, William Wrede and others–are known, primarily, only to scholars.
Most of the group (never really a school) were German protestant theologians, though they eventually had Catholic sympathizers like Alfred Loisy and a few so-called Catholic modernists. Wrede (d. 1906) is perhaps the most famous of the lot for his work on the so-called “messianic secret” in the gospel of Mark, arguing that many elements of the gospel tradition were secondary and rationalistic– that the real source of Christianity’s success is a mythological interpretation of the life of Jesus rather than the teaching of Jesus ( “another backwater Jewish sect”) and other equally controversial ideas that were considered radical in their time.
The radicals and left Hegelians, like the history of religions club, were influenced by the idea that history moves in predictable patterns, under the influence of recombinant conditions ( a Zeitgeist that shapes, alters, synthesizes and recreates “ideas.”) The Zeitgeist was, of course, a metaphysical construct but was often spoken of as though it was a real factor of change. Hegel describes it as much:
Spirit does not toss itself about in the external play of chance occurrences; on the contrary, it is that which determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose. (Phenomenology of Spirit)
It is impossible to overstate the influence of the rival interpretations of Kantian and Hegelian philosophy on the New Testament scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth century. I mention it here because one of the results of that influence was to assume that history is a form of ideological coalescence, a process where events and personalities invest other ideas, personalities and events to create the contexts in which we live–our “present.” Truth resides in a complex outcome driven by the spirit of time and simplicity is hardly achievable at all as the flux continues. For the same reason, the “original” idea is not as important as the unevolved idea: what stands at the end of the process, however temporary, is what is intended, “how things are.”
Hegelianism made its energy felt in fields as removed as geology, biology, archaeology, theology and philology: it gave us words like “evolution” and “synthesis” and “syncretism.” Even the conservative John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman wrote his famous 1878 essay “On the Development of Christian Doctrine” under its spell. The belief that a single-minded monistic God directed the course of the world gave way to the belief in processes molding and remolding phenomena according to an”absolute” purpose. Even early views of natural selection could be described as telic and purposive rather than “accidental” using Hegel’s idea of spirit and purpose as the unseen forces of change in history.
The application of Hegelian ideas to theology and to biblical studies was simultaneous as the areas were taught in parallel fashion in the German faculties. The first doctrine that came under scrutiny was “inspiration”– whether the New Testament was a sui generis book delivered whole-cloth through divine revelation to inerrant scribes, or whether like other historical monuments it could be read and seen as a document of its time. Slowly and irrevocably, Hegelian principles began to gnaw away at the doctrine of divine authorship The notion that there were lots of messiahs lots of saviors lots of resurrections and lots of parallels between Christianity and other ancient religions was exciting stuff in the theological lecture halls of 19th century Germany. If you can imagine what sexy scholarship looked like circa 1890, think Göttingen and Tübingen.
On the one hand, it was no longer possible to say that Jesus was unique, or even very different from his Jewish context. On the other, more Hellenistic side, it was no longer possible to see the Christian salvation myth as entirely different from other salvation myths.
As an uneven amalgam of these two traditions (not to mention, a cake- batter blend of the two in certain sections of the fourth gospel) , it was tempting to conclude that the Jesus problem could be solved using Hegelian tools. That is what Strauss’s disciples thought and later what Baur and Drews in Germany and a few radical Dutch and American scholars began to believe. In a word, they bought versions of the Hegelian “conglomerate” model hook, line and sinker, thinking that only theological conservatism prevented their colleagues from acknowledging the composite and basically artificial nature of the New Testament sources.
There are too many problems with the various Hegelian models to discuss them here but it may be enough to point to the most obvious one. Concerning the implicit “theodicy” of Hegel’s view the best place to start is with Thedor Adorno’s piercing Negative Dialectics.
Hegelianism is an overgeneralized way of dealing with historical processes. In the long run, things run the course they run–influenced by the conditions under which they develop, like water at freezing point. An event in historical terms is a singularity no matter how influences bear on its occurrence. Even the most rigid determinist would be hard pressed to say that Hegel’s ideas constitute a law of development.
Thus, in one sense, every historical event is unique. In another sense, it has many parallels It is unique in the sense that it forms an Archimedian point of occurrence that does not share space with any other point; but like the stars in the sky, its analogies are not only obvious but help us to distinguish it from other events. The key to defining a particular historical moment lay in its differentiation from what is parallel and similar.
That is why, with respect to the New Testament artifacts, it is important to emphasize both the familiarity and unfamiliarity of the Jesus event. From the gospels we gather (or can reasonably conclude) that it was rather ordinary: the story is told on a superficial level, with allusions to ambient events–politics, rulers, sects, religious customs–but very little in the way of character development in the documents themselves.
We are given basic information to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth belonged to an established ablutionist sect of preacher-wonder-working dissidents who lived on the edge of Jewish popular opinion and “mainstream” sects, and rapidly deteriorating tolerance of such characters. The basic narrative provided in the gospels does not make Jesus unique, however; it absolutely situates him in the time and place where he is reckoned to have lived. Even at the point in the gospels where a mythic savior or celestial hero would defy death on Golgotha, smite his enemies and rise laughing into the heavens (as some strands of Gnosticism taught, the hell-harrowing Jesus of the Gospel of Nicodemus, and even the Christ of Philippians 2.5-11), the canonical Jesus simply dies a gloomy death, with only a drum roll and minor stage business thrown in to mark it.
Christ harrows hell
Some responders who are deeply committed to mythicism (and use the word “historicism,” rather absurdly, to describe a “belief” in the historicity of Jesus) cling to a notion that the existence of the gospels do not “prove” that Jesus exists because it is just as “plausible” that
(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him or,
(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig; or
(c) are, for amusement or malice, making the whole thing up.
Unfortunately, each of these invitations to skepticism is non-parsimonious; that is, they ask us without warrant to lay to one side the concrete information and what it says in favour of alternative explanations not warranted by either internal or external reasons for doing so. Parsimony does not ask us to put skepticism on hold; it asks us to use skepticism methodologically rather than as a Pyrrhonic silver key that, at the extreme, calls final certainty about anything into question. The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible. Hume’s rejection of Pyrrhonism might apply: “Philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.” In short, the prior question–”What are we dealing with in the New Testament books and how can it efficiently be described” cannot begin with the belief that all explanations have the same status and that all those rendering opinions have the same capacity to render good ones.
Sextus Empiricus, recorder of Pyrrhonism
The appropriate response to (c) is that while there is every reason for a gospel monger like Paul to make things up, given the fact that he is confronted directly–perhaps within two decades– with a post-crucifixion crisis in the life of a small band of religious orphans, there is no equally compelling reason for a gospel writer to do so. Indeed, the way in which the synoptic gospels confront the crucifixion has little symmetry with Paul’s expansive notion that the resurrection of Jesus is a “fate” that can be experienced by all believers, given a little tinkering with the definition of σάρξ (flesh).
The gospels seem early enough and linked enough to Judaism to resist applying the literal fable of Jesus’ resurrection to his followers. Paul seems far enough away or disconnected enough from the Jewish context into which Jesus fits to explicitly attribute the effects of the resurrection to all those who are “in Christ.” Indeed, that is why his brand of Christianity succeeds where the slow tale of a Galilean wonder-worker would not have attracted or sustained attention. The theological positions are radically different. Examination of the contents of these (accidentally) canonical artifacts has to begin with accounting for this radical difference, and a primary question would have to be: Why would any two writers “just making things up” make up such completely different stories? (That by the way is the subject of a chapter in the book, not a blog topic.)
As to (b) a rough application of the rule of economy would suggest that the artifact evidence is evidence of a man named Jesus, whose name, career and fate correspond to the careers and fates of others of the time. A coincidence of a common name is evidence of a common name, and evidence of a common name ascribed to a similar career holds for very little unless one is wedded to dates certain for the gospels For reasons I will try to make clear in my book, I hold to a relatively early date for significant portions of the gospels, not because I wish to stick them closer to the time of the “historical Jesus” but because in terms of their rationalization of his fate and what can be made of it, the gospels like new wine, are a little thin. By the same token, “Jesus could have been anybody” does not respond to the fact that the gospels say that Jesus was an historically-located somebody, and as we’ve said before on this site, arguments from analogy and similarity would only be useful if we had satisfactorily exhausted the possibility that the gospels are substantially wrong in their descriptions. Thus far, that case has not been made.
As to (a), that Jesus is “made up,” or is a deliberate fiction in the service of religious cult: a consistent application of economy would require us to state reasons for the fabrication. What is the likely social context for making up a rather dull story about a failed messianic prophet from Galilee, especially when that story flies in the face of essential parts of later mythological construals like Paul’s. A strong reason for the existence of the story would be that the story had wide appeal because the man was popular and people rem embered him, and that eventually these reminiscences, inconsistent and partial as they are, found their way into writing and then were copied, and by “John” greatly modified .
The weak reason for the existence of the Jesus story is that is that an unknown scribe, with time on his hands decided to tell a story. Two centuries of careful work on the gospel suggests that the second explanation is absurd. I will deal with that topic in my next post.