Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Confucius proves Jesus

How Confucius proves Jesus.

The Gospels are commonly subjected to intense skepticism. In recent years, skeptics like Robert Price and Richard Carrier have claimed that not only are many of the bare facts related in the Gospels false -- but even that Jesus may have never lived.

Are the Gospels believable?

The evidence for them, I think, is historically compelling. If they did not tell about miracles, and if some scholars did not find philosophical reasons to doubt such things can happen, with the evidence in front of us in the Gospels alone, no one would think to deny the outline of Jesus' life, personality, career, teachings, teachings, death, and (yes) resurrection.

In this post I'll consider an interesting parallel, the great sage whose life and personality stand at the heart of Chinese tradition, as Jesus does in Western tradition. (My arguments are largely adapted from a chapter in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.)

The Analects of Confucius is, in some ways, quite similiar to the Gospels: a collection of sayings and anecdotes about a wandering ancient teacher, written down some time afterwards by disciples. I know of no serious China scholar who denies that Confucius lived. Few doubt that the Analects, especially the first chapters, provides a fairly accurate picture of who Confucius was, what he taught and did.

Yet as historical sources, the Gospels have many advantages over the Analects:

(1) Timing. The Gospels are probably closer in time to the main events they record. Confucius died at the age of about 70, so his early life would be much further removed from the time of his death, than was the case for Jesus.

(2) Multiple attestation. There are four Gospels, but only one Analects. A house with four pillars stands in an earthquake, when one resting on one pillar topples in a breeze!

True, scholars find a relationship between the Gospels, especially the first three "Synoptics." Probably both Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark. But both writers also relied on their own material, named by scholars (doubtless after breakfast), "Special M" and "Special L." So together with John, we still have at least four early and detailed sources for the life of Jesus, compared to just one for Confucius.

(3) Cultural specificity: H. G. Creel effectively applied the principle of what Jesus scholars call "dissimilarity" to the Analects. On the one hand, the book is free of the jargon and freeze-frame philosophy of later Confucian thought. On the other, while respectful towards traditional writings, Confucius has a different agenda, and even language, from the classics. For example, he often spoke of Heaven, the contemporary term for God, but seldom of Shang Di, the term earlier poets and historians used, or "Heaven and Earth," (except in late chapters), a pantheistic term that would be popular later.

In the Zhuang Zi, a couple centuries later, the character called "Confucius" would parrot Taoist ideas: "Just go along with things and let your mind move freely." But in Analects, he speaks in a unique and what we recognize as his true voice, reflecting and interpreting prior beliefs, floating distinct ideas down the current of tradition for later generations to work over.

The eminent British scholar N. T. Wright tests the gospels by the more strenuous tool of 'double dissimilarity:"

"When something can be shown to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting point (though not the exact replica) of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being in touch with the genuine history of Jesus."

Wright shows that even by this much more rigorous standard, much in the Gospels is affirmed by stringent historical method.

(4) Realistic details. "Zu Gong wanted to dispense with the live sheep presented at the Ducal Temple at the announcement of the new moon. The Master said, 'Zu! You care for the sheep. I care for the ritual.'"

Analects is full of non-dramatic anecdotes of that kind -- daily conversations one can imagine springing up around a person of Confucius' sort. The combination of specific background facts, concrete, believable characters, and sayings that carry the flavor of the teacher's thought, make the text credible.

The same is also true of the Gospels. One gets the feeling of meeting a real person in the Gospels, mediated by place, personalities (of disciples as well as master), disputes, and unique teachings.

(5) Embarrassing! Scholars also evaluate Analects by the "criterion of embarrassment." Confucian educator Chen Jingpan argued we can believe in it in part because the book contains a lot of material

Confucianists would not appreciate:

"Chapter 19 details squabbles between the disciples, and 19:25 tells us that one of them said Confucius was no better than the disciple Zu Gong. In 6:26 it is related that Confucius had an interview with a notorious duchess; this had embarrassed countless prudish Confucians, and was used by their enemies to mock them in Han times. Yet these things were not deleted from the text, which must increase our respect for it." . Notice, Chen argued more than just that certain sayings would not have been invented by skeptics. More, their willingness to report dicey goings on helps establish their credibility. The entire text, or at least the chapters where such sayings are found, deserve our respect.

The Gospels relate far more material that is much more deeply "embarrassing" than these examples. Jesus not only met one sinful woman: he saved one from stoning, chatted another up by a well, and told dinner hosts that another impressed him with her love! Jesus is not only said to be no better than Peter, he is accused of sorcery and betraying sacred traditions. The criterion of embarrassment therefore supports the historicity of the Gospels far more strongly than that of the Analects -- and it supports the latter quite well.

(6) Criticism of subject. Here the picture of Confucius appears to have been slightly airbrushed. A few complaints are reported, in an off-hand way, but nothing serious enough to explain why at least one tried to assassinate him.

The Gospels, by contrast, are full of intense, heated, and realistic criticism of Jesus. Strong verbal attacks on Jesus are reported, sometimes without defense. The four gospels contain nit-picking, suspicion, entrapment, barbed comments, and angry denunciations, directed by respectable citizens at Jesus. He is accused of being a commoner, sinner, "Samaritan and a demon," of breaking Jewish law, the Sabbath in particular, not paying taxes, lack of education, blasphemy, insanity, and black magic.

What disciple would have made all this up? It is hard to think of any parallels -- the wind-bag sage in Apollonius of Tyana is treated with almost universal adulation, as is the "Jesus" of the Gnostic texts. The Gospels, in this regard, seem raw to the touch with uncensored reportage.

(7) Emotions Many ancient writers, both in the Greco-Roman and Chinese worlds, were leary of honestly depicting the emotions of their heroes. (So, of course, are many Hollywood screenwriters -- which is how Arnold Schwarteneggar became an actor!) One way the early records about Confucius persuade us of their honesty, is by recording the raw emotions of the teacher: "If I have in any way done wrong, may Heaven reject me! May Heaven reject me!" "When the Master was in Chi (note: the large state to the north) and heard the Shao music, for three months he was unconscious of the taste of meat. 'I did not imagine,' he said, 'That music had reached such perfection as this!'" "When Yan Yuan died the Master said, 'Alas! Heaven has bereft me!'"

The Gospels confront us even more powerfully with raw human emotion. (By contrast to the Gnostics, where Jesus is a cosmic stick figure.) Jesus shows his feelings naturally, and without apology. Despite the bold authority with which he spoke, his eyes were not focused on himself. He did not project "death-like serenity" or "austere severity" like some gurus. Nor, like others, did he brag.

Jesus was never blase or incurious. He asked, "Who touched me?" He felt pity, became indignant, showed anger, expressed frustration, and displayed delight, joy, and sorrow. . Thomas Cahill complains that Luke "consistently omits" the emotions of Jesus. But in that Gospel, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. He prays "in agony" in the Garden of Eden, until sweat pours down his back. Passion is often implicit in his words: "Was no one found to return and give thanks to God but this foreigner?" "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!" "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked permission to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." Jesus' stories, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, are intense in their feelings. . A good modern novelist can make up realistic emotions, of course. But can anyone point to a genuine parallel in the fiction of the ancient world?

(8) Unique quality A wise man does not build his house on sand, nor can a great civilization rest on shaky epigrams. On close consideration, though sometimes his teachings border on platitude, the sayings of Confucius surprise us by their very humility and common sense. Later scholars exagerrated his teachings or ignored the fine balance he found. Confucius' sayings, while not unmatched, and sometimes prosaic, are sensible, and played a mostly positive role in East Asian civilization.

Reading later Confucius literature, such as the Book of Rites, it is hard to imagine any Confucian scholar making up these sayings. They are too personal, too humble, too sensible, and too balanced, for a second-teer scribe to invent.

While some of it is puzzling or off-putting, overall, the quality of teachings given in the Gospels is far more astonishing. "No one ever taught like this man." Even after 2000 years, this anonymous voice in the crowd offers what seems a mild statement of the obvious, as true to the words that prompted it as every other crowd response in the Gospels.

Modern giants of literature and scholarship, surveying a far vaster range of thought, have echoed that ancient comment. The editors of National Review called the words of Jesus "inimitable" -- which, obviously, they are. Dickens described the parable of the Prodigal Son as the best story in literature. Tolstoy spent a lifetime trying to live up to the Sermon on the Mount. . Lin Yutang was one of the great literary figures of 20th Century China. He wrote novels, social criticism, biography, practical philosophy, an anthology of Chinese and Indian literature, and a dictionary. Lin grew up in the Church, left, studied Buddhism, Taoism, Western and Indian thought, and then concluded, "No one has taught as Jesus Christ."

The Gospels are the background Muzak of the Western world, and it may be hard for those who are too familiar with them -- including some biblical scholars -- to see them for what they are. Clearly Jesus' great teachings could only have come from some paramount genius. It is folly to imagine anonymous clerical bookworms making this stuff up. The Gospels preserved the teachings of Jesus, because they recognized from the beginning that he spoke as no one ever else could.

(9) Women. Females figure little in Analects, except for Confucius' nieces, whom he married off to worthy disciples. Another exception was his visit to an upper-class woman of shaky reputation, followed by vehement denial of impropriety. Confucius was, in general, almost as much of a prude as his later followers might wish. . The Jesus of the Gospels, by contrast, consistently treated women with compassion, and without fear, condescension, or male superiority. Walter Wink argued that Jesus' behavior towards women is "astounding:"

"In every single encounter with women in the four Gospels, Jesus violated the mores of his time . . . his behavior towards women . . . was without parallel in 'civilized' societies since the rise of patriarchy roughly three thousand years before his birth."

Skeptics often suggest the Gospels were written to preserve traditional male hierarchy. But how could Jesus have torn down gender conventions every single time he talked to a women in them, if they were written to devalue women? At least one must conclude that the authors were unusually honest patriarchs, to record so much that seemed to undermine their biases. Radical criticism thus shows the humility and honesty of the gospels from yet a new angle.

(10) Caste. Confucius did not pose with famous people all the time, like Apollonius of Tyana. But he was fairly class-conscious. He spen most of his time with disciples or officials, though he would teach a poor student, if need be. His approach is only very mildly revolutionary.

In seeing people, Jesus was blind to the social boundaries of his day. A lot has been written on this topic in recent years, no doubt because we esteem "equality" and "pluralism" highly. These were not the dominant values in the 1st Century, however. In Jewish culture, holiness was defined by placement within a series of concentric circles. The high priest was the most righteous, followed by ordinary priests, Levites, Israelites of pure blood, illicit children of priests, Gentile converts, children born out of wedlock in general, foundlings and eunuchs, those born with deformed sexual organs, then last and least, non-Jews.

By sharp contrast (and Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk has written well on this), Jesus was willing to fall in with anyone. He "routinely breached the walls and barriers that set sacred space off from profane, and he trampled indifferently on the social dividers that enforced segregation." When Jesus told a story, one was not surprised to find half-breeds, tax collectors, and beggars as heroes. This is the Jesus the Jesus Seminar believes in:

"In contravention of the social order, Jesus was socially promiscuous: he ate and drank publicly with petty tax officials and 'sinners,' yet he did not refuse dinner with the learned and wealthy. He was seen in the company of women in public -- an occasion for scandal in his society. He included children in his social circle -- children were regarded as chattel, especially females, if they were permitted to live at birth -- and advised that God's domain is filled with them."

Like the servant in Isaiah, Jesus displayed a strange, redemptive blindness. In steadfastly failing to notice caste, class, gender, or age, he began to change the world.

How likely is it that such a figure was the invention of pious fiction writers? Read the "Gospel of Judas," even the "Gospel of Thomas," to see what a fictional "Jesus" would look like, praised by so many clever intellectuals, but a proper Gnostic bore. The real Jesus was too original, even while preserving and extending the deep truths of Jewish culture, to be a pious stick figure. These are just ten of the fifty traits that I found describe Jesus in the four canonical Gospels. Each of these, like the winding threads of nucleotides in DNA, suggest that the texts originate from a complex and unique person. It is not easy to invent aphorisms and stories geniuses like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Lin Yutang would stand in awe of: it passes belief that several anonymous early followers of Jesus did so. One cannot believe that Jesus' concern for women was ascribed to him, with deft realism, by several unknown 1st Century proto-feminist propagandists. Jesus' teaching only makes sense as coming from a Jew, and only makes sense as the source of Christian doctrines: yet it makes no sense as merely Jewish, or merely Christian, as N. T. Wright demonstrates.

And on it goes. Each argument, like a strand winding around other strands, makes the whole immeasurably stronger. The evidence for the life, teachings, personality, acts, death and resurrection of Jesus is, as purely historical evidence, thus exponentially greater than for the life and teachings of Confucius. And almost no one doubts, or should doubt, that Confucius lived, and did much of what the early Analects say he did.

But is even such strong historical evidence, strong enough? Is it good enough to persuade us that Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, or raised the dead? Confucius did no miracles. We are not asked, in the Analects, or Quran, or Lao Zi, to move beyond the intellectual familiarity of practical materialism. Someone might well respond, "So maybe the evidence for Jesus is overwhelming. But I can't believe in miracles, anyway. Such things just cannot happen."

The validity of such a response is a question to consider another day. But one has to wonder: If skeptics have for so long overlooked truths that stand out clearly in the Gospels, like an "elephant ten yards away in broad daylight," as C. S. Lewis put it, is it not possible they have overlooked other things, about the world in general, that ought to fit into the background knowledge by which they evaluate the Gospel evidence?


Anonymous said...

(From an atheist reader):


If you want to question the historicity of Confucius, I'm OK with that. But, you are arguing that people believe Confucius existed; therefore, they should believe that Jesus existed, too.

This is pure equivocation. The issue of whether Jesus existed, and the issue of whether Confucius existed, are completely unrelated. I would examine the evidence for either with equal skepticism, but believing that one of them existed, does not obligate me to believe the other.

You have attempted to write an article that demonstrates that Jesus must have existed, because we don't question the existence of Confucius. In reality, you actually wrote an article that merely questions the historicity of Confucius, in an attempt to create a false dichotomy.

This is typical of your strategy. Misdirection, equivocation, and false dichotomies. If we want to question the historicity of Jesus, we don't want to be misdirected into questioning the historicity of Confucius. This would not be productive.

David B Marshall said...

J: You seem to have overlooked the actual arguments made in the article above. Please read it more carefully.

There are reasons why China scholars universally believe Confucius lived, and pretty universally believe we know a lot about his life. I gave some of those reasons above. I then showed that the same reasons also apply to the Gospels, to a much greater degree.

It is entirely valid to argue in this way. If an analytical tool works in China, there is no obvious reason why it shouldn't work in Palestine. Saying "the two are unrelated" is not an argument, because I have already explained HOW they are.

Your failure to notice, still less deal with, my actual arguments, is a lot like your failure to notice the huge mass of internal evidence in the Gospels for the reality of Jesus.

Feel free to scoff at every China scholar on the planet, if you like. Some Young Earth Creationists likewise scoff at every astronomer who says starlight comes from millions of lightyears away, and at every geologist who swears the rocks are old. China scholars are no less intelligent than geologists and astronomers, and have tested their subject for a much longer time. You are free to ignore their conclusions, and the arguments by which they reach them, as you do above.

Anonymous said...

MG: Marshall, I believe you have overlooked the fact that your entire premise is flawed. Refer to Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. by David Hackett Fischer, pp. 254-255.

"The fallacy of proof by analogy is a functional form of error, which violates a cardinal rule of analogical inference--analogy is a useful tool of historical understanding only as an auxiliary to proof. It is never a substitute for it, however great the temptation may be or however difficult the empirical task at hand may seem."

David B Marshall said...

MG: In fact, my arguments for the Gospels above do NOT depend mainly on analogy, and therefore do not commit this "fallacy."

The purpose of the analogy is to point to and illustrate several lines of historical reasoning that support the general reliability of the Gospels. It is not just, "Scholars believe the Analects, so you should believe the Gospels, too." It is, "Scholars have good reasons for believing the Analects. Those reasons, when applied to NT studies, give evidence that the Gospels are even more believable." Confucius is mainly a rhetorical device to help skeptics understand and recognize the validity of accepted and useful historical arguments that support the Gospels.

Tim said...


This is a very interesting line of thought. Thanks for taking the time to spell it out: I will want to mull it over more when my mind is fresher.

B.R. said...

What a load of rubbish. You've got to be kidding. How does weak rhetoric "prove" Jesus? You provide no evidence for any of the miraculous events in the gospels, and use loose comparisons between Confucius and Jesus to try and slip absurd conclusions past. And it's beyond ridiculous, the way you try to compare the gospels to the analects; Confucius' followers never attributed miracles, godhood, and resurrection to him, and since there the gospels are entirely fictional(due to the complete and utter lack of evidence for any of it's claims), it goes well beyond absurdity to say that the gospels are more trust-worthy. And at the end of this charade, you spin some nonsense about how each attribute makes the case stronger and stronger--ignoring the fact that you have absolutely no evidence whatsoever. All of it boils down to "Emotions, details, embarrassment, etc.", never anything substantial. For even one paragraph of this post to correspond with reality, first you must offer proof that the gospels are reliable, accurate accounts of Jesus' life and ministry(and perhaps, in the process, explain why we are given conflicting genealogies for Jesus, why the gospels directly contradict one another at every possible turn, and why you're willing to give credence to magical accounts written by anonymous authors with unknown motives).
If and when this happens, feel free to let me know.
Good night.

David B Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B Marshall said...

BR: You seem to have missed all the relevant points. As I explained in the OP, when it comes to the historicity of the Gospels, we face two separate issues: (1) the historical evidence itself, and (2) background knowledge of how the world works that we bring to that evidence. This post is entirely about (1). Your objections are almost all about (2).

It looks like you're used to certain kinds of evidence, and the idea that there might be other kinds -- commonly used by historians in other fields, as I show -- sort of blow your circuits.

As for the objection that there are contradictions in the Gospels, that's a question to argue with an inerracist theologian, not with an historian. Historians and lawyers are used to working with generally trustworthy sources that contradict one another on details: in fact they often distrust sources that agree too closely, fearing collusion. (As Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi explains in Helter Skelter.) But that's a topic for another day.

The reason the Analects don't have that problem, BTW, is that there is only one of them -- if there were four early sources that good, there would certainly be many apparent contradictions, but the historical evidence would also be much stronger.

One more thing: if you respond, please do improve your tone. There's no need to be angry.

B.R. said...

I'm not angry, just somewhat annoyed by your logic. But I apologize if my tone was offensive. Your point about types of evidence(1) and (2) is all well and good, except for one problem; (2) is more important than (1), and (2) is what should be used to establish the basic premise(are we dealing with factual people/places/events, or myths and legends?).
If ancient documents were found that appeared to corroborate Robert E. Howard's fictional continent of Hyerborea, which method of evidence would historians use to analyze this find? (1) or (2)? Without factual, real-world evidence, any conclusions drawn from this document are baseless assumptions, and if new evidence makes the document out to be fraudulent, false, or just diluted legends, then these assumptions are false.
The title of your post is "How Confucius *Proves* Jesus".
So apart from the rhetoric offered here, where is the proof?

David B Marshall said...

BR: OK, thanks for the apology and clarifications.

I agree that (2), the background beliefs you bring to a purported historical event, are every bit as important in evaluating it as (1), the purely historical evidence for that event. I don't know if you can say one is more important than the other: the probability of the event is a combination of the two. (If Tim McGrew comes back, maybe he'll explain this in more formal logic.)

What does (2) involve? The whole kit and kaboodle of the Christian belief system. Does God exist? Does he reveal himself to the human race? Has he revealed himself in some special way to the Jewish people, including in prophecies of a Messiah? Do miracles happen? Does the world need saving? Is Jesus, as described in the Gospels, and in his influence on the world, a credible candidate for the job of "Messiah?"

The reason I don't talk about these issues in this post, of course, is because they are all huge questions. The post is pretty long, already. I've written five books, so far, along with lots of other stuff. I deal with some of these questions in the books, and plan to deal with others, or some of these in more detail, in the future.

The Gospels are just one piece of the puzzle -- but for Christians, they're the key piece, the piece that makes sense of everything else. I wouldn't try to argue all that in one post.

B.R. said...

Well, I can give you that--I very rarely post anything longer than five paragraphs on my blog, because it gets extremely boring extremely fast(possibly the ADD making it's presence felt). But don't you think you should change your title here? Until the initial premise has been established, our friend Confucius hasn't proved anything.

Dr H said...

Ah David, this is some funky blog you've got here. The alleged 4096 character limit is actually more like about half that -- murder on a long-winded SOB like me. ;-)

This is post #1 in a series of 4...

I have to agree with the first commentor's point. It's all very well to give the example of Confucius and the Analects as one possible approach to determining the historicity of your four favorite Gospels, but giving that
example doesn't "prove" the Gospels. It simply provides one method by which their historicity might be assessed.

Perhaps if you changed the title of the article? Saying that Confucius
proves Jesus" is neither true, nor really what your essay seems to mostly be about.

Some specific points:

* "Are the Gospels believable?" Well, that is really a matter of personal opinion, isn't it? The real question is "Are the Gospels substantially records of true
historical events?"

* You go on to suggest that if the miracles were left out, "no one would think to deny the outline of Jesus' life, personality, career, teachings, teachings, death, and (yes) resurrection."

Well, I bet that they would, but the most salient point here is that if you retain the story of resurrection, then you haven't really left out the miracles,
and any critic for who miracles are a problem is certainly going to criticize the Gospels on that ground, if no other.

* "Timing." The Gospels are probably closer in time to the main events they record. Confucius died at the age of about 70, so his early life would be much further removed from the time of his death, than was the case for Jesus.

You are probably more of an authority on this than I, but my recollection is that Confucius is
traditionally thought to have died in 479 BC, and parts of the Analects may have been written
down as early as 475 BC, which would put these early writings a mere 4 years after his death.
Even most apologetics scholars don't date the earliest of the Canonical Gospels much before 70 AD, which is a good 40 years after Jesus's traditional year of death.

This would seem to be a more salient number than the number of years between Jesus early and
later life as compared to those of Confucius.

* "Multiple attestation." This is a rather weak argument, given that two of the Gospels are drawn so
heavily from a third. Not to mention that all three were likely drawn from "Q". At best you have
two "pillars" here. This is still more than for Confucius, agreed, but it is also questionable as to whether John is even telling the same story as the Synoptics, and if he's not, your two pillars are in two different houses.

(Post 1 of 4, more to come...)

Dr H said...

(Dr H -- Post 2 of 4)

* "Cultural specificity: [...] 'When something can be shown to be credible (though perhaps deeply
subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting point (though not
the exact replica) of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being
in touch with the genuine history of Jesus.'"

That is a rather amazing leap to a conclusion from a rickety springboard. I'll cut you some slack since you're quoting Wright, but regardless of the source, the principle is faulty. Plenty of
socially credible (and sometimes subversive) information has been conveyed at various times in
history through the use of fiction. "Candide" and "L'Homme aux quarante ecus" both reflect
authentic movements in social philosophy of Voltaire's day, yet both are works of fiction. Gulliver's Travels similarly expresses ideas in social philosophy which were credible, if a bit readical, for Swift's time and place, but that doesn't mean that Lilliputians really existed.

At best, the type of cultural specificity Wright is referring to, if present in the Gospels, suggests
that they are expressing actual ideas current at the time they were written. But it does not tell us
whether those ideas are being conveyed through actual history or fable.

* "Realistic details." Literature abounds with works of fiction that contain a wealth of realistic
detail. Indeed, one of the way the merits of science fiction works are judged is on how realistically
and plausibly scientific details are handled in the story. Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" trilogy is
chock-full of extremely realistic details about mundane events sometimes to the point of tedium),
yet the work is pure fantasy. And Peake's work doesn't even include any magical events; the Canonical Gospels do.

* Embarrassing! I find this a pretty questionable criterion for authenticity. Yes, you can argue
on the one hand that if someone were creating a hero-figure out of whole cloth, they would be tempted
to leave out any references to feet of clay. On the other hand, when the purpose is to convey a moral code or lesson, depicting the hero as subject to common human failings **which he then overcomes** can, in a moral tale, make him even more heroic. Such treatment conveys the impression to readers "gee, I could do that, too!"

(Post 2 of 4, to be continued ...)

Dr H said...

(Dr H -- Post 3 of 4)

* "Criticism of subject." This is very similar to the "Embarrassing!" point, and I would respond in
the same way, with one addition. Tradition has it that Confucius died peacefully, if not happily, of
old age. Tradition also has it that Jesus was destined from birth (before, actually) to be a sacrifice. Given that Jesus was set up to be a sacrifice, it seems hardly surprising that his story
would include a good deal of criticism of him -- without that criticism his execution would have
seemed arbitrary and not nearly so dramatic. Resurrection without the preceding drama would rob
the story of much of it's impact, rendering it more in the category of "and they lived happily ever
after," than the profound moral lesson that seems to have been intended.

Again, such usage, while quite possible in an historical account, is also quite consistent with the construction of a moral fable.

* "Emotions..." I must say that this is an interesting sort of argument. You begin by saying that it was highly unusual for ancient writers to honestly depict emotion, then you turn around and say that because the Canonical Gospels (allegedly) DO contain such depiction, therefore they must be historical.

Come again? It seems to me that this argument, by itself, would demonstrate just the opposite. The
fact that the Gospels are atypical of other writings with which they were supposedly contemporary would seem to suggest that they were in fact /inauthentic/ writings of their supposed day.

Given that there is other evidence to place said Gospels in their particular historical period, still the best that could be concluded from this particular observation is that the Gospels were, in this regard, a bit unusual in comparison with other period fiction and myth.

"Gadsby" is unique among English novels of the last 300 years, for example, but it is fiction nonetheless.

You ask if anyone can point to a "genuine parallel in the fiction of the ancient world?" If your only criterion is the expression of emotion, there are a great many of them.

Shakespeare is, of course, full of emotion to the point of homicidal passion. But probably that's not ancient enough for you.

How about the Iliad? Achilles mourns Patroclus deeply, and then rages for vengeance against Hector.
Later on he grieves over his friend's death at length -- to the point of blaming himself and entertaining thoughts of suicide. Seems like a pretty believable pattern of emotion to me, surrounding the untimely death of a loved one that one wishes one could have prevented. Indeed, the Iliad has been a favorite among literary critics for analysis of its emotional content, and numerous essays and at least a few dissertations have been published on the topic.

(Post 3 of 4... man, you're makin' me work here!)

Dr H said...

(Dr H -- Post 4 of 4)

* "Unique quality..." "Reading later Confucius literature, such as the Book of Rites, it is hard to
imagine any Confucian scholar making up these sayings. They are too personal, too humble, too sensible, and too balanced, for a second-teer scribe to invent."

Perhaps its hard to imagine a scribe inventing passages here, just like it would be hard to imagine an engineer at the Vail-Ballou printing presses making up pithy Jeffersonian phrases and inserting them into the Federalist Papers. Nonetheless, a good number of "quotes" have been ascribed to Jefferson which he likely never uttered.

In other words, just because the scribe -didn't- invent the lines doesn't -necessarily- confirm that
Confucius -did-. One imagines that Confucius wasn't the only "wise man" wandering around China
uttering pithy sayings between 551-479 BC. Bits of someone else's wisdom, seeming a lot like that
of Confucius, may well have become incorporated into his writings by anyone from the scribe to a
well-meaning disciple with faulty scholarship (or an agenda).

The rest of your argument on this point is basically a fllacious argument from popularity. "A lot
of people say they think this stuff is really unique, therefore it must be really unique."

Even if that were true -- and it is at least potentially true -- this argument does not address the question of historicity or authenticity. I can cite you any number of works that either
describe something that is unique, describe something in a unique way, or are themselves unique
in some manner, and which are not only historically inaccurate, but sometimes complete fiction.

* "Women ... " This is another argument that seems to stray from the path of your main point. That
women may be treated with unusual (for the times) compassion in the Gospels hardly negates the fact
that the Gospels were used in every imaginable way for much of the next 2000 years to preserve and
perpetuate a "traditional male hierarchy".

No? Then tell me how many women popes, bishops, and priests we've had in that time?

But again, I find this argument oddly "backwards". Once again you are essentially arguing that
the Gospels are historical/authentic because they run counter to the historical norms of the time in which they are set. This seems rather like trying to argue that Joyce's Ulysses must have been written in 16th century London, because it's style and content are so different from what
everyone else in 16th century London was writing.

* "Caste..." This one seems out of place, since you point out that Confucius and Jesus were very
different with regard to class-consciousness. And Jesus could certainly be class-conscious enough when it suited him -- such as when he tacitly acknowledges Caesar's sovereignty over material things, or when he decides that the money-changers are too profane to be allowed in the temple.

(Part 4 of... would you believe -5-?)

Dr H said...

(Part 5 of 4... OK, so I lied...)

Time to wrap this up for now. One more comment:

"If skeptics have for so long overlooked truths that stand out clearly in the Gospels,
like an "elephant ten yards away in broad daylight," as C. S. Lewis put it, is it not
possible they have overlooked other things, about the world in general, that ought to
fit into the background knowledge by which they evaluate the Gospel evidence?"

Who's to say the "skeptics" have overlooked any "truths"? Indeed, it is not entirely clear what
"skeptic" means in this context. Certainly something other than the contemporary definition of
one who requires verifiable evidence prior to believing an asserted claim.

Are we referring to "skeptic" in the sense of someone who may be religious -- perhaps even Christian -- but
who sees the Gospels as more moral fable than historical document? Are we referring to someone who doubts
the historicity of Jesus himself? Are we referring to agnostics who doubt the existence of deity itself?
All of the above? Something else?

Without more detail on who your rebuke is aimed at, it's hard not to see it as being aimed at some poor
scarecrow, whom you stuffed with straw yourself.

My $0.02.
OK, in this case, maybe $2.00 worth. :-)

Dr H

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: Your first few points are mostly semantic -- yes, "prove" is a bit strong, a little hypobole. "Believable" is meant as a synonym for "plausible" here.

The point about the time gap is that Confucius lived a lot longer than Jesus. So from the perspective of when the Analacts was written down, many of the events in it would have been more distant in time. I don't know about four years -- what is your source for that?

It is not true that "at best," the Gospels depend on only two sources. Mark is probably earliest, that's one. Matthew and Luke are thought by many (not all) scholars to borrow from an unknown source ("Q"), that's two. Both Matthew and Luke contain material of their own, that's three and four. John adds his perspective, that's five. But even if it were only two, that would be much better than the Analects alone provides for Confucius, just as a man is much more stable standing on two legs than one.

Sorry for trouble with format; you're not the first.

David B Marshall said...

One of the weaknesses of this forum is that footnotes seem awkward here. I cited Wright's principle of Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity, but in a stripped-down version, which does not do justice to it. I am citing Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God here, 132, which is part of his discussion of the story of the Prodigal Son in 125-133. He is also summarizing some conclusions from parts III and IV or The New Testament and the People of God. He then makes use of the argument later in the first book. Probably my argument at this point, were I to expand it into an article or book, would need to include a fuller explanation of what Wright means with this argument, and why it is valid.

Candide is a good example of what Wright is pointing to. Pangloss teaches Candide the bromides that Voltaire "glossed" (unfairly, I would bet) from Leibniz. This (along, of course, with the silliness of the story) tips us off to the fact that Candide is a literary creation of Voltaire: he expresses Voltaire's "gloss" on Leibniz, using satire to make Voltaire's point, not his own. If the Gospels were like Candide, Jesus would be the mouthpiece of the later disciples, which Wright and other scholars argue (and clearly they are right) he is not. In the same way, Confucius is clearly not just the mouthpiece of later disciples.

I'll try to get back to you on your other arguments later; so far you've offered some interesting challenges, which will hopefully help me clarify the argument.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: Sorry for the slow response.

Your challenges are interesting and helpful, but in one sense often seem to miss the point. What you challenge, in many cases, are commonly accepted historical criteria. Often all I am doing is showing that they ARE commonly accepted, then showing how the Gospels pass those criteria better than another text that is commonly evaluated by them.

If you want to challenge the criteria themselves, why pick this forum? Go for the glory! Debunk these standard historical arguments in the limelight, not in this darkened corner! Go after Meier, Wright, Crossan, and Lin themselves!

True, some of my arguments may be a bit more novel.

Let me support the "emotion" argument a bit.

You point out that Iliad also contains raw, fairly believable emotion, as of Achilles. And it is true that Homer's heroes are prone to venting rather freely. Odysseus spends half his book in tears. He is the original "man of sorrows," a point Homer often underlines. In fact, in Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, I gave Iliad a mark for realistic depiction of emotion parallel to the Gospels. Homer was no Stoic: thank God for that!

But personally I don't find his work as realistic as you seem to. For one thing, the emotion is too stylized, especially for his troops. They break into copious tears at all the right moments. Odysseus himself sleeps with the GODDESS Calypso every night for nine or so years, then spends all day apparently every day sitting on the shore weeping for his lost family. He does not, despite this, seem to suffer from IDD. Same with his tryst with Circes. (Who all praise him in very contentional terms, and wear their hearts conventionally on their sleaves.)

Great as Homer is, I do not see emotion portrayed in his works as realistically as in the Gospels. Part of that is because Jesus reacts naturally, but not in a stylized or conventional manner. A closer fictional parallel might be Tolstoy, who proves it is possible to depict emotion in a remarkably realistic manner -- the emotions of his heroes often take us by surprise, but make sense somehow, too. The only way to explain the Gospels as fictional would be to suppose the Gospel writers all anticipated this novelistic device -- unless you can find a better fictional parallel in the ancient world.

It is much easier to explain the Gospels as the honest remembrance of Jesus' own close friends.

So a good point, but I think closer discussion of this issue, and a closer look at Jesus in the Gospels, again reveals stronger grounds for trusting the Gospels as historical sources.

Dr H said...

DM: Your first few points are mostly semantic -- yes, "prove" is a bit strong, a little hypobole. "Believable" is meant as a synonym for "plausible" here.

Fair enough. Although I must point out that dismissing an argument as "semantic" ignores the fact that semantic considerations are crucial to determining whether or not we are communicating effectively.

DM: The point about the time gap is that Confucius lived a lot longer than Jesus. So from the perspective of when the Analacts was written down, many of the events in it would have been more distant in time. I don't know about four years -- what is your source for that?

Most sources state that the Analects were written down sometime during the transition from the "Spring and Autumn" period to the "Warring States" period, and the junction between the two is placed at around 476-475 BC. If their being written down actually spanned part of both periods, the latest that writing could have begun is 476-475; 475 is four years after Confucius death in 479 BC.

While it's possible that there was more distance in time between the uttering of some of the contents of the Analects and their being written down, there was far less time between that writing and the expiration of Confucius himself than there was between the death of Jesus and the writings of the earliest Gospels we have.

In other words, it more likely that recorders of the Analects were actual contemporaries of Confucius while he lived, than that most writers for the Gospels were contemporaries of Jesus.

DM: Both Matthew and Luke contain material of their own,

Yes, and that original material is contradictory. They give twon different geneologies for Joseph, for example.

Dr H said...

DM: Candide ... (along, of course, with the silliness of the story)

More than a few would consider a story in which the chief protagonist walks on water, drives "demons" out of a man into a herd of swine, and makes loaves of bread and dead fish reproduce, to be a bit "silly" as well.

If the Gospels were like Candide,

I did not say that the Gospels were "like Candide".

You suggested that if a story could be shown to contain an idea credible to the period in which the story was purported to have been written, that this was evidence that the story was actual history rather than fiction. I pointed out the fallacy of this suggestion, and gave a few counter examples, of which "Candide" was just one of those that happened to pop into my head.

Jesus would be the mouthpiece of the later disciples, which Wright and other scholars argue (and clearly they are right) he is not.

If one considers -all- of the available gospels, and not just the subset of four circularly defined as "authentic," then clearly they are /not/ right. Not unless Jesus really did say all the various contradictory and obfuscatory things ascribed to him. If he wasn't the mouthpiece of the later disciples, then he was the mouthpiece of the earlier disciples.

Dr H said...

DM: I gave Iliad a mark for realistic depiction of emotion parallel to the Gospels. Homer was no Stoic: thank God for that!

But personally I don't find his work as realistic as you seem to.

I didn't say that I found Homer's writings realistic. I specifically addressed your point that no ancient writings other than the Gospels protrayed human emotion realistically. Clearly that is not the case: the Odessey and the Iliad both do so, at least to the extent that the Gospels do.

It would be more correct to turn you comment around, and say that I don't find the Gospels to be any -more- realistic than the works of Homer. Fantastic events abound in both sets of works.

DM: The only way to explain the Gospels as fictional would be to suppose the Gospel writers all anticipated this novelistic device (Tolstoy)

It is hard to resist pointing out that the Bible itself proclaims "there is no new thing under the sun," so the Good Book supports the notion that such novelistic devices may not, in fact, have been quite so "novel" to Tolstoy.

More to the point, this is hardly the "only way" to explain the Gospels as fictional. There are many ways to determine this.

One tried and true test for whether a bit of writing is fact or fiction is whether events it portrays are observable elsewhere in real life. Since we don't encounter warp engines, phasers, transporters, or Klingons in day to day life, these items alone lead us to conclude that the contents of a Star Trek(tm) novel are probably fictitious.

The same can be said for the Gospels and such events as people fulfilling non-existent census requirements, walking on water, healing the blind with a touch, or rising from the dead.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: The transition between Spring and Autumn and Warring States is an EXTREMELy vague description. Nor have you given your sources, or their reasons. I take this to mean you don't know when the Analects were written -- which is probably true of everyone alive today.

But the relevant issue is not the gap between when the person written about died, and accounts about his life were written. It is between the EVENTS RECORDED and the writing of those accounts. For instance, I have no special advantage in writing about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, because we are contemporaries -- I was 12 when he died. If I were alive and paying attention during his presidency, that would be different.

There is no reason why the writers of at least the second and fourth Gospels could not have been among Jesus' original disciples.

It is not true the material called M and L is "contradictory," in general. Most of it appears to be parables.

The Gospels obviously are not "silly," even if they challenge materialistic beliefs about the world. One who claims they are, might be, though. And Jesus doesn't "make dead fish reproduce;" he produced extra fish. Some day, even science might catch up.

We have talked about how many Gospels there are in the past. I gave several reasons to think, in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,'" that by any reasonable definition, there are only 4. I still think my analysis demonstrates this fact. But you seem to be changing the subject, anyway, since the issue here is the canonical Gospels.

David B Marshall said...

On Homer, we will just have to disagree. He portrays emotion to great dramatic effect, but he does not do so "realistically," certainly not to the extent that the Gospels do.

Why is it, for instance, that wherever Odysseus or Telemachus goes, they always find people beating their breasts about the sad fate of Odysseus, years after the fact? And of course Penelope is immediately struck by the beggar who is Odysseus in disguise: "Dear stranger, among all the great travellers received in this house, never has one in speech given proof of such grateful discretion or juster insight than yourself." That's not how people act. (Have you ever been married?) That's certainly not how people act in the Gospels. (Even the dog whimpers when he recognizes Odysseus after 9 years, then dies!)

In fact, emotions in Homer are not at all realistic -- they are highly stylized, with major characters having major emotions, minor characters having minor emotions, and all focusing in a dream-like swirl about the hero.

In that context, the genuine realism of the Gospels is shocking. Given that Homer was THE fiction writer in the ancient world, the difference (within some similarity, as I admitted) is highly significant.

David B Marshall said...

"One tried and true test for whether a bit of writing is fact or fiction is whether events it portrays are observable elsewhere in real life. Since we don't encounter warp engines, phasers, transporters, or Klingons in day to day life, these items alone lead us to conclude that the contents of a Star Trek(tm) novel are probably fictitious."

No, the reasons we dismiss Star Trek as fictional, is because (1) It claims nothing else; (2) It fits clearly within the standard genre of "Science fiction;" (3)It's set in the 23rd or 24th Century; (4) It's produced in grainy 1960s American film, nothing more high-tech; (5) It echoes 20th Century language, social concerns, races, etc; (6) It is internally inconsistent: Star Trek technology claims to operate by science, not magic, yet star ships can communicate with their base tens or hundreds of light years away, instantaneously. No explanation is given.

The Gospels claim that God operates in the world, and sent Jesus to save us from our sins. Jesus does miracles as signs that God is really with us, and that we should trust Him. There is no internal inconsistency here; in fact, given prophecies in the OT and elsewhere, the Gospel makes sense of much more human experience than it describes.

And of course you're just begging the question, by assuming that no one today experiences miracles. One of my friends in Oxford used to be an imam at a mosque in Africa, until God spoke to him audibly, and at the risk of his life, he began to follow Jesus. In that context, the Gospel stories do not seem entirely anomalous, though of course by hypothesis signs confirming the Incarnation are bound to be particularly striking.

bethyada said...

David, excellent article. I discovered your blog today looking for something else and have spend over an hour reading various posts.

Can I point out a minor problem you make here (and made in another post) for your correction?

DNA is made up of nucleotides, not amino acids; the later are constituent components of proteins. Of course codons of nucleotides correspond to amino acids.

You may want to correct your otherwise erudite article. Feel free to delete this comment afterwards.

David B Marshall said...

Beth: Glad to have you drop by! Well that is a highly embarrassing mistake! How in the world did I confuse that? Thanks for pointing it out -- do you remember which was the other post?

bethyada said...

This one: Does "Junk Science" make Americans smarter?

True or false: Humans have somewhat less than half of their DNA in common with chimpanzees. (50% "correct.)

What does that mean? Are we counting identical atoms? Or amino acids? Or genes? If the latter, what about genetic drift in the non-coding portions of the genome? Here I would almost automatically say "no," but come to think of it, this is a rather ambiguous question, again.

amino acids should read nucleotides here.

Though I agree this question is poorly worded as there is debate as to how this is counted as your suggest.

May I point out a creationist picked up on your errors here. We are not all scientifically retarded. :)

David B Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B Marshall said...

Thanks again. Corrected. That whopping error aside, I don't think I'm scientifically retarded, for an amateur. But that and my error with Celsus ("Celsus on the Marshall School of Apologetics") should keep me humble for a week or two, anyway.

em ubungrammatik said...

Confucius said, You must take the middle way to truth. And, [religious fanatics] is not one of them, ...

Michael Benoit said...

Dr. Marshall,

I enjoyed your article. I had the same objection regarding the emotions depicted in Homer, but you make a good point regarding how "exaggerated" these emotions often seem. Is it possible, however, that these emotions were realistic given the time period? I realize it may seem like a stretch, but perhaps people back then were just, well, more emotional?

I'd also like to learn more about how Christ and His teachings differed from contemporary thought and attitudes, whether Jewish or Greco-Roman. Do you have any works that you recommend on that subject? I read Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among the People" and found it helpful, but would like something more geared towards the person of Christ, specifically.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Michael. I've recently read all extant Greek novels, numerous plays and quite a bit of Greek history, to answer just those questions. My book comparing the gospels to other ancient literature is almost complete. I'll probably post some on the question over the coming year, too.