Monday, April 30, 2012
No, we have not quite reached the end of this road, yet. The ingenious, we still have with us. A Cambridge-trained art historian has just come out with a new one, tracing the rise of Christianity back to the Shroud of Turin. Jesus' followers took him down from the cross, his wounds were printed (don't know how, yet) on his burial cloth, and the resulting image launched the whole Christian myth! Judging by the introduction, this is not the most poorly-written or weakly-imagined "Christ of Doubt" yet to have been conceived. Certainly, this Thomas De Wesselow fellow has wit and smarts, has read a bunch of books (but already, it seems, not nearly enough), and has that impregnably cool Enlightenment "Tude" down double kosher.
Who knows? Maybe De Wesselow will be the one who finally strikes paydirt, and the Christian church will have to pack up its tent and use its spare crosses as stakes to hang laundry lines from by mid-summer!
Or maybe, yet again, the evangelists and the facts they report will find a way to outwit their oh-so-scientific, Ivy-League, Oxbridge-educated critics, once again.
Let's see how be does, section by section, sometimes chapter by chapter.
Chapter One: The Resurrection
A. The first chapter of the book gives promise both of an interesting read, from a man who has read widely and writes punchy prose, but also suggestions that the boxer may be fighting out of his weight class. Let's begin our review with five of the former.
Rationalists . . . were left, as it were, with a Resurrection-shaped hole in history. (7)
Precisely so. This is the hole De Wesselow proposes to fill.
Over the course of the last 150 years the failure to solve the 'Resurrection problem' has become chronic . . . proposing many weird and wonderful ways of understanding the birth of Christianity, but there are major difficulties with every solution so far proposed, and none is generally accepted. Confounding the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment, the secret of the Resurrection has turned out to be as elusive as the Snark. (8)
Or as obvious as the smile on the Cheshire cat's face.
The birth of Christianity is a marginal issue for no one. (10)
No, indeed, since everyone seems to have written a book or two about it. :- )
These sophisticates are opposed by others who insist, even now, on the reality of the flesh-and-blood Resurrection. (10)
Even now? Do I detect a whiff of chronological snobbery? One might say, especially now -- today, when more people than ever celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Now, when Christian philosophers have taken their arguments to the heart of the university, again. Now, when apologists like William Lane Craig regularly trounce atheist opponents on this very subject.
But we move ahead of ourselves.
(NT) Wright issues historians with a challenge: 'what alternative account can be offered which will explain the data just as well, which can provide an alternative sufficient explanation for all the evidence and so challenge the right of the bodily resurrection to be regarded as the neccessary one?
De Wesselow thus announces, early on, that NT Wright will likely be the major Christian scholar with whom he will cross swords in this book. Good choice, if you feel lucky, DW. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God argues in 817 pages of erudite text and detailed notes, that in fact we do know what happened on Easter morning, and that's why we celebrate it.
But can De Wesselow, an art historian with his first publication in this much-contested field, really contest this ground with the likes of Wright?
B. That brings us to a number of less astute comments DW makes in this first and still introductory chapter, that make one wonder if, despite the succinct eloquence of his style, if he is really in the right ring:
(Christian) mobs set about razing pagan temples and sanctuaries, including the famous library of Alexandria, the greatest center of learning in the modern world. (3)
What, that old myth, again? In fact, the library had been gone for centuries by this time.
This relatively obscure individual (Jesus), whose activities are not mentioned in a single contemporary source . . .
Wrong in two ways. First, the relevance of the comment is weak. DW seems to be demanding that one find non-Christian historical records from the time of Jesus' own, very short life, that tell about that life. But this is an absurd demand. Given how few historians were writing about Palestine during the early 1st Century, really there were no non-Christian sources that COULD have mentioned Jesus, even if he was "famouser than Captain Kangaroo," as Forrest Gump put it. Philo barely even mentions Pilate, and he was the king!
Second, DW admits that Josephus mentioned Jesus, but did so "two generations" later. But the generation that was alive when Jesus was alive, would not have all died off instantly. In fact, most of his followers would have been younger than him. Some could easily have survived into the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s or 100s -- see my recent comparison between the Gospels and accounts of World War II. Most of us still know people who fought in World War II, which is now 67-73 years to stern -- eg, comparable to 100 - 106 AD! Isn't an account from an eyewitness still a "contemporary account" in the relevant sense, that the person writing could have been there? Or if that account is second-hand, isn't it possible that the information came from a first-hand source?
One notices, regretfully, that DW fails to cite Richard Bauckham in this book. Bauckham offers a slew of arguments that the Gospels were, indeed, based on the accounts of people who were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.
In the "Acts of the Apostles," the legendary history of the early Church contained in the New Testament . . . the book of Acts is not a particularly reliable source. (4)
In fact, historians have found that Acts is brimming over with 1st Century names, titles, places, and events that have been confirmed from other sources. Witherington and Blomberg are among those who have documented this fact.
These were all written in the 50s, half a century or so before Acts.
In fact, Acts was almost certainly written well before 100 AD, and probably by the doctor we call Luke.
Paul nowhere shows the slightest interest in the life and career of Jesus.
An exagerration. Quite a few details about Jesus' life and teachings can, in fact, be found in the writings of Paul. Anyway, as Richard Burridge shows, ancient biography often concentrated on the climactic events in a person's life, as the Gospels do. Paul seems familiar with some of that earlier material, and his moral teaching follows it fairly closely. But of course the death and resurrection of one's teacher do rather concentrate the mind.
The Four Gospels . . . generally reckoned to have been written sometime between 70 and 100 by anonymous second-or third-generation Christians. (5)
Here, again, it would be helpful if DW had read Bauckham.
These dates are both rather late. It is probable that John was largely based on the first-hand reminiscences of an apostle by that name. While Mark and Luke probably were probably second generation, they seem to have been very close second-generation reporters, having interviewed not one but a number of first-generation sources, including Peter and others.
(The doctrine of the Resurrection) stands as a testimony to the imperialistic power of the Church and its sustained stranglehold on intellectual endeavor. (5)
Hardly. Actually, the doctrine of the Resurrection dominates Acts and the writings of Paul, which even DW admits were written centuries before Christians gained any political power at all. As I showed in my debate with Carrier (at christthetao.com), Christianity gained acceptance throughout the Roman empire, and later, by mostly peaceful means. The Church of the East seldom had much power. Billions of Christians around the world, not only without power, but in the teeth of power, to paraphrase our good friend Dawkins, have also believed in the resurrection. So this explanation does not explain much.
Also, it was under the alleged "strangehold" of the Catholic Church that modern science, philosophy, shipping, the greatest feats of engineering the world had yet seen, were born. For a baby that got strangled in its crib, European civilization grew up surprisingly strong.
Tertullian, a contemporary Christian apologist, disarmed such rational objections (as Celsus calling the Resurrection 'nauseating and impossible') by simply asserting, 'the fact is certain, because it is impossible.
This misquote of Tertullian ought to be retired into the Skeptical Hall of Fame by now. In Dawkins' Delusion, McGrath shows how Dawkins abuses the very same quote. My readers will have likely come across other instances of this miscitation.
Tertullian was in no way attempting to "disarm rational objections" with this comment. If historians won't read historical texts in context, who will? He was not arguing with Celsus at all, but with the quasi-Gnostic ideas of Marcion. He was refuting the notion that Christ only seemed to die, but didn't, really -- in other words, Tertullian was trying to suppor one of the pillars in DW's own argument, here!
Needless to say, Tertullian's heirs made sure that the works of Celsus and Porphyry perished in the pious book-burnings of the fourth and fifth centuries.
What evidence does DW have that either book was ever burnt? Still less that those alleged burnings made a profound dent in available stores of these two books? Books were lost in antiquity by neglect more often than persecution. If persecution were sufficient to destroy books that were loved, we would have no ancient Bibles, nor would the Christians -- but we do, and they had more, which were copied and passed on.
The sea of faith gradually swamped the empire, and the spirit of rational inquiry was washed away.
Oh, baloney. A discredited version of Western intellectual history, another cheap shot that suggests DW is going to rely on a lot of stale old cliches in lieu of real historical research, at critical junctures.
As even Richard Carrier admits, science had been ebbing for several centuries by the time Christianity was first tolerated. In many ways, Augustine represented the last and perhaps greatest flowering of the intellectual power of Antiquity. What put an end to Ancient Rome, though, was not this alleged "swamp" of Christian faith, but an intellectual decline that began even before the time of Christ, gradual demographic implosion of the sort that Italy and Japan face today (combined with immigration), but which Christianity partly reversed, too little and too late, and then waves of armed invaders from the north.
Blaming it all on Christianity is a taudry and hackneyed old ploy, that does not work anymore.
The weightiest recent work on the founding event of Christianity is a spirited defense of the traditional doctrine by an Anglican bishop, Tom Wright, who makes hay out of the ongoing failure of the secularists to come up with a convincing story of their own. (10)
I agree that Wright's book is good. But why identify him merely as an "Anglican bishop?" Philosopher Raymond Martin says his historical methodology is far and away the best among NT scholars. Marcus Borg also rates him as the best British scholar of the NT. Wouldn't it be more relevant to mention his scholarly credentials?
So already, one notes troubling signs that DW may be over his head when it comes to ancient Christianity. One admires him for his boldness in stepping into this ring, even if he comes to the heavy-weight championship looking for a welter-weight opponent.
As an art historian, though, his discussion of the Shroud of Turin might be especially enlightening. De Wesselow was speaking mostly on this subject this afternoon, on the Michael Medved show. The history of the Shroud is the subject of chapter two: let us examine what he says.