Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Sophia of Jesus Christ (not of Richard Carrier)

Image result for saddam hussein body double
Everyone has a mustache!  That proves they're all
the president of Iraq.  
One of the more fascinating sub-plots running through the "Search for the (a) Historical Jesus" epic has been the search for Jesus Stunt Doubles, for allegedly Messianic figures in the ancient world who act the part of Jesus at the most exciting moments of his story -- doing miracles, dying for the world, rising again.  The hope among skeptics is that if there is anyone like Jesus out there, we can dismiss the gospels as "just another X," just another radical, just another Jewish Messiah, just another Gnostic, Buddhist, zealot, Augustan hippie in an age of yuppies, myth, you name the file into which to place "Jesus of Nazareth." 

In Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, I show that this millennium-long search has not just run bone dry, it has managed to prove precisely what it so wistfully aimed to disprove.  Skeptics from the Third Century on have overturned every stone on the beach, bought flippers and snorkels and oxygen tanks and upended subterranean rocks, have built rockets and flown into the air and flipped stones of mist from which castles in the clouds are built, and the search has failed.  Indeed, the increasingly desperate measures even respectable skeptics like Bart Ehrman have taken to try to wish a Jesus Double into existence, reveals a gap between all ancient fiction, all merely human messiahs, and the Son of God, that makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk where small ants get stuck. 

Thus skeptics play a valuable role in proving Christianity, by searching high and low for the most plausible parallels to the life, person, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection, and records of Jesus of Nazareth -- and finding "parallels" that make even polite people laugh out loud. 

Richard Carrier has been one of the busiest and therefore (I say) most helpful such skeptics.  In Jesus is No Myth and in a few posts on this site, I describe how Carrier discoveries numerous supposed Jesus doubles, or old books which he boldly claims share "all the characteristics" of the gospels -- Plutarch's Life of Romulus, an early novel called The Golden Ass, tales that Herodotus records, various myths and back-alley stories.  I show that far from disproving the uniqueness of Christ, all these "parallels" demonstrate it.  If Jesus was just one of many, and the gospels nothing very special, why after thousands of years of searching, are the likes of Apollonius of Tyana or a very foggy vision of Romulus, the best parallels well-educated, assiduous skeptics seeking passionately to overthrow Christianity, can come up with? 

I argue that an important principle in conducting and evaluating this "Search for the Alt Jesus," is that one should set criteria for evaluating texts before one begins comparing them.  One should first analyze the gospels and learn what traits they bear, and what traits they share, before looking for works that can be compared to them.  The danger I am trying to avoid is confirmation bias, reading texts with one eye open and one shut, cherry-picking traits that confirm whatever thesis one is trying to establish.  And that, unfortunately, is what scholars (and Internet skeptics) often do to prove their case: they open the gospels and whatever works they're comparing, and higgedly-piggetly focus on whatever traits catch their attention. 

So in Why the Jesus Seminar Finds Jesus, I began by systematically analyzing core qualities of the gospels before looking at other literature in depth.  I described 50 traits that the four gospels share, which help define what a "gospel" is.  Only then did I begin to analyze gnostic texts, arguing that there is no such thing as a "gnostic gospel."

In Jesus is No Myth, I concentrate on 25 of those traits, those which demonstrate historicity.  (Plus several other such traits, drawn mostly from the history of New Testament scholarship.)   Then I argue that no ancient novels or hagiography resembled the gospels in a significant way, especially when it comes to historical credibility.  That includes works which Carrier, and a younger scholar who has been influenced by him, Matthew Ferguson, claim are very similar to the gospels, or even superior historically.  I show that they are no such thing.  I concentrate particular fire on Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the most popular "Alt Jesus," but also analyze ancient novels, hagiography, and other writings.

But there is one work which Carrier sees as a telling parallel to the gospels, which I overlooked in Jesus is No Myth: The Sophia of Jesus Christ.

Let us now see if Sophia can be credibly compared to the gospels, and if it can thus help "explain Jesus away."   

You may prefer, instead, just to read the thing directly, have a belly laugh at Dr. Carrier's expense, and go on.  But since we have a more objective methodology, we might as well use it.  And anyway, while I do not claim to be the world's most luminous prose writer, nothing I can write even on a bad day could be as tedious as Sophia.

I. Richard loves Sophia

Carrier leads off Chapter Ten of On the Historicity of Jesus by discussing two texts, Eugnostos the Blessed, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ.  The first is a Gnostic text telling the typical Gnostic creation myth, as endlessly repeated in Nag Hammadi Library texts.  Indeed "eu" just means "good," and "gnostos" is a reference to supernaturally revealed knowledge, the basis of Gnosticism. 

The second text is a knock-off copy of the first, with this difference: Gnostic teachings are set into the mouth of "the Savior," after those disciples whom the Gnostics favored -- Matthew, Philip, Thomas, Mary, Bartholomew -- asked "set up" questions designed to elicit those teachings.  In many cases, the words are exact, or almost exact copies:


"Everything that came from the perishable will perish, since it came from the perishable. Whatever came from the imperishable will not perish but will become imperishable, since it came from imperishableness.  So, many men went astray because they had not known this difference; that is, they died."


"Everything that came from the perishable will perish, since it came from the perishable. But whatever came from the imperishable does not perish but becomes imperishable, since it came from imperishableness.  So, many men went astray because they had not known this difference and they died."

Carrier argues:

"The peculiar thing about these two texts is that they pull away the curtain and reveal a key pathway by which Jesus tradition was invented . . .

"The Wisdom of Jesus Christ then takes direct quotations from this epistle and puts them on the lips of Jesus, and expands on them, to fabricate a post-resurrection narrative scene with dialogue between Jesus and his disciples.  So here we see whole sayings of Jesus being invented by fabricating a historical conversation (a Gospel-style narrative), borrowing things said by Eugnostos and representing them as things said by Jesus in conversation with his disciples.  This could be how much of the canonical Gospels were composed: things said by other people, in other texts, being 'lifted' and adapted and placed on the lips of Jesus.  Certainly these two texts proved that this was being done.  And we have no a priori reason to believe this isn't how it was always done."  (On the Historicity of Jesus, 387)

"If historical settings could be invented to make Jesus say what Eugnostos said, certainly historical settings could be invented to make Jesus say what he was believed to have said in revelations . . .

"So the question is: Are the Gospels fictional constructs, like the Wisdom of Jesus Christ and Plutarch's Life of Romulus?  In other words, are they just myths?  Or are they some kind of historical records we can rely on to prove Jesus existed?" (Ibid, 388)

Let us begin, as usual, with preliminary problems with Carrier's argument.  I see seven. 

II. Pulling Away the Curtain of Wisdom

(1) If The Sophia of Jesus Christ shed any light on the gospels, why have skeptics been so silent about this revealing text until now?

(2) Sophia was written after the gospels, by Gnostics.  Is it not anachronistic to assume early Christians would create gospels as later Gnostic texts were created?   In general, Gnostic texts, like Buddhist texts, are not much interested in historical facts, since what really matters lies outside of the mundane realm.  And that disinterest shows throughout the Nag Hammadi library, which almost never offers any really concrete historical claims, as do the gospels throughout.

(3) The Gnostic myth which both Eugnostos and Sophia relate, is a carbon copy of the same myth, in words that grow tediously familiar as you read through the Nag Hammadi library, in numerous texts like The Tripartite Tractate, The Apocryphon of John, The Hypostasis of the Archons, and the Paraphrase of Shem.  This is how I lost my hair, reading through these texts, and looking in vain for something new or fresh or full of life. 

But that brings up a question, or a gross disanalogy to Carrier's analogy.  Why do we have so many Gnostic texts, preserving the stale clichés of their school, which we can point to along with Eugnostos the Blessed, to explain Sophia?  And yet we have no such pre-Christian collection, preserving the infinitely greater and more interesting sayings of Jesus, before he appeared. 

If anything, the analogy begs the question, "Who is this man?" 

(4) Skeptical Jesus Seminar scholars like Robert Funk argue that there is a deep coherence among the sayings and actions of Jesus in some important, and unique regards.  (Which we will touch in Part III, and which I show in Jesus is No Myth.)  If one is merely "lifting" the sayings of Jesus from some other source, such coherence would be less likely.  If you put Abraham Lincoln's words about "charity towards all" into the mouth of General Grant, they would seem to rest less easily there, even though Grant was of the party of Lincoln and a weapon in his hand. 

(5) "This was being done" is ambiguous.  Being done by whom?  In what century?  These are not minor questions for pedantic scholars. 

(6) Were the gospels "just myths?"  Well, no.  Or show me a myth that looks like the gospels.  As I showed already in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, this is very hard to do. 

(7) "We have no a priori reason to believe this wasn't how it was always done."

Well yes we do.   Dozens of reasons.  Because if two books are dramatically different from one another, that is evidence that they were produced in different ways.  More precisely, if there is internal and external evidence that one book is telling historical truth, but another book lacks all such evidence, well those are reasons, whether a priori or not, to think that the process of producing those works was very different.

III.  Gospels vs. Sophia

1. Does the text claim seriously to be an historical account?
Gospels: Yes.  

Sophia: No, not seriously.   Like the so-called Gospel of Thomas and many other Gnostic texts, the dialogue in Sophia barely pretends to relate any real conversation, but is purely a didactic device.  Thus, there is no mention of place, time, or context in which the alleged conversations occurred, as their generally is in the gospels.   

2. How close in time is the book to the events it purports to record?
Gospels: Within the probable lifetimes of eyewitnesses, and there are signs of dependence on even earlier accounts.  
Sophia:  Probably much later.  Douglas Parrott claims that Sophia may even be 1st Century, which would make it the earliest known "Christian Gnostic" writing.  His reasons for making this bold claim are extremely weak, however.  The Stoics, Epicureans, and astrologers are called "all the philosophers," a characterization that Parrott claims (for reasons he does not explain) only fits the 1st Century.  But it seems to me the Alexandrian school spoke in such terms much later.  He thinks the works "relatively non-polemical tone" also supports an early date, a weak reed if ever there were one.  The truth is, no one has the faintest idea when Sophia was written, only that it must have appeared by the 4th Century, when the Nag Hammadi collection was preserved.   

3. Is the subject defined ethnically in a realistic and distinctive way?
Gospels: Yes. While written either by or to Gentiles, or in a Gentile environment (with the possibly exception of Matthew) the gospels describe First Century Jewish sects, customs, ways of thinking, and Scriptures in great detail and with a high degree of realism.  This tends to support their historicity. 
Sophia: No.  There are no descriptions of Jewish customs, or Scriptures, or any real evidence that a Hebrew culture is being described from the outside. 

4-5. Does the author portray natural or urban sites accurately?
Gospels  Yes, many.

Sophia: Not one.  The author never signals that he cares about external reality by describing any of it accurately.

Stylistic and Literary Qualities

6.  Does the author tell stories? 

Gospels: Yes, which are easier to remember than abstract philosophical teachings.

Sophia: No.   

7. Does the voice of the subject stand out stylistically from the voices of other chroniclers?  
Gospels: Yes.  Even when the narrator is quite prosaic, the words of Jesus, especially in Synoptics but often even in John, stand out from the surrounding story and dialogue like Kilimanjaro from the surrounding "plain." 
Sophia: No.  The voice of Jesus in this Gnostic text carries no distinctive and authenticating style.  It is all, "And afterwards was revealed a multitude of confronting, self-begotten ones, equal in age and power, whose race is called Generation Over Whom Their Is No Kingdom" -- nothing at all like Jesus, but stuff any Gnostic with an education could make up. 

8.  Does the narrator offer concrete non-essential details in his stories?
Gospels: Yes.  The stories of Jesus are full of such details, which convinced even a skeptic like A. N. Wilson that something like had really happened. 

Sophia: No. 

9.  Do listener's react to the hero's actions as people would likely react?
Gospels: Yes.  Crowd reactions are diverse and realistic, very much as crowds do tend to react to charismatic and challenging preachers. 

Sophia: No.  There are no crowds, and the disciples are just there to ask questions. 

10.  Does the teacher frequently offer surprising, non-platitudinous teachings?

Platitudes, as G. K. Chesterton recognized, are the norm, not the exception, in ancient and modern teachings.  One would expect a lot of platitudes from small-time, anonymous cult followers of an obscure religion who are inventing the stories of their master for a wider audience.  Genuinely original teachings could in theory be invented by a novel or fiction writer.  But especially if there is more than one source, such teachings strongly tend to indicate a real historical figure.

Gospels: Yes.  Almost uniquely, Jesus never teaches in platitudes.

Sophia: No.  Everything "Jesus" says in this work, is a Gnostic platitude.

11.  Did the protagonist teach in parables?  
This is one of the most minor historical criteria, since a fiction writer could also make up parables.    But all things being equal, parables were memorable, and thus are more likely to be preserved accurately than most other styles of teaching. 
Gospels: Yes.
Sophia: No. 
12. Is the hero realistically criticized by those around him
This is part of the larger "Criteria of Embarrassment" that Carrier attacks, but most historians accept.  It is tautological that a realistic account is more likely to be real than an unrealistic account.  Hagiographical and ahistorical accounts often made crowds respond with rapt amazement at the words of gurus.   In ancient novels, fictional heroes were often praised to the heavens.  The same is true of Apollonius -- he is praised in highly unrealistic ways.  For more on the general Criteria of Embarrassment, see 27.
Gospels: Yes.  Jesus is criticized with remarkable harshness and realism. 
Sophia:  Never.  

Character Development

13.  Were the personalities of a few of the teachers followers developed in a consistent and recognizable way?
This is the pattern one finds in historical works like the Analects of Confucius. In every real classroom, a few students stand out as especially memorable. 
Gospels: Yes.  Peter, James and John, Thomas, and perhaps Judas, are most memorable.  As in real life, like my classes, one "student" sticks out from the crowd, and often speaks on behalf of his "class."

Sophia: No.  The "disciples" are a blank, interchangeable cogs in the wheel of "Jesus'" endless exposition.  

14.  Do people exit the story without making improbable reappearances just to tidy up the plot or give curtain calls to popular characters?
Life is like that. Until Facebook, people walk out of your life and you never saw them again.  But novels and other forms of fiction (The Golden Ass and other ancient Greek novels, Emile, Dickens, etc) reintroduce important characters.  A story becomes less probable, the more these coincidences occur, and the less likely they are demographically. 
Gospels: Yes, characters exit and are gone.  The most obvious example is Joseph, who is absent in all the gospels, without anyone explaining what happened to him.  It appears that the evangelists knew more than they said.  Very realistic. 
Sophia:  No one leaves, unfortunately. 

15.  Is the story about ordinary people rather than royalty or divine superheroes?
Royalty had disproportionate power in the ancient world as today, but are often presented as more important, and far more clever or powerful in ancient fiction than they could have been – Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh, Odyssey.  Histories, on the other hand, often had to deal with "ordinary people" who made good, as Polybius and Thucydides do. 
Gospels: Yes.  Jesus' followers were almost all unimportant, lower-class men and women.
Sophia: No, paradoxically enough.  Jesus' disciples were chosen, by this time, and Jesus himself, because of the prestige they had gained.  Nothing is mentioned about their class origins, but the texts play upon their fame. 

16. Do historically familiar political figures play roles consistent with their known personalities and authority.

Gospels: Yes, several. 

Sophia: No, no famous people are mentioned from outside the New Testament, and they don't act like themselves. 
Moral Views

17.  Does the hero praise sometimes, often unlikely people who are generally scorned, but never flatter?

The tendency to notice ordinary people and their virtues is almost absent from ancient Greek novels.  Religious gurus like Apollonius of Tyana were too concerned for their own dignity and message to really notice people much, and Apollonius tended to notice kings and priests more than common folk.  Jesus is highly unusual in caring for common people he meets in the street -- beggars, blind men, hookers, lepers, old ladies handing out tuppence to the temple.  But his praise, while sincere and powerful, is never merely sentimental.  It is hard to imagine religious hacks making up this personal trait, and maintaining it through several gospels.   

Gospels: Yes. 

Sophia: No.  This "Jesus" praises no one.  He's too into himself and his message to notice people. 
18.  Does the hero read the powerful the riot act, especially for their obduracy and injustice?
Seeing the poor as humans, it is just as astounding that Jesus also treated the rich and powerful not as people to fear, not as authority figures to rebel against, nor as worldly men to avoid, nor again as a black lab treats its master when reprimanded for stealing a steak.  Jesus was unusual in treating the rich as individuals, as human beings, sometimes praising, often warning, and ultimately ticking off.  But some repented and followed him.
Again, it is impossible to recognize this trait, and seeing it as the mere invention of the sort of person who pens a spiritual biography of their great teacher.  Nor can one find it anywhere in ancient Greek novels. 

Gospels: Yes.

Sophia: No. 

19.  Does the hero speak respectfully to the weak, but without patronizing them, and making strong demands on them.

Gospels: Yes.

Sophia: No.

20  Are the hero's teachings shocking for their originality and depth in his own culture, and remain so to this day?   
Gospels: Certainly.   Anyone who fails to recognize the profundity and power of Jesus' moral teachings, is no more worth listening to than a cedar stump.   
Sophia: Absolutely not.  The author was ripping off Gnostic teachings, as Carrier recognizes, and they are almost unreadable today. 

Social Qualities

21.  Does the hero notice individuals rather than classes of people? 
Reasoning: Again, this is a fairly unusual quality in an important public figure, which is seldom invented for ancient fictional characters.  In Greek novels, the crowds play roughly the same role as the chorus in a Greek play, merely expressing appropriate emotions to add drama.  This quality adds some to the realism of those few texts that display it of such a person: Analects, Plato’s Dialogues, the Gospels.  There may be a few ancient fictional works in which this trait can be found, however -- maybe Tobit, for example. 
Gospels: Yes.
Sophia: No. 

22. Is the hero blind to conventional social boundaries: caste, class, gender or age?
Gospels: Yes.

Sophia: No. 
23.  Does he consistently treats women with dignity, compassion, and respect, though often in bracing or challenging ways?

This is far more likely to describe a real person than the subject of several different ancient works of legend, ecclesiastical propaganda, or imagination.  Women most often were sexualized in ancient fiction (not just!), or played conventional or outlandish roles.  In The Golden Ass, the most prominent women are witches and / or seductresses.  It is true that a few ancient philosophers spoke up for women, and Euripides could give women strong roles.  But even there, is it hard to find examples of fictional characters who treated women as respectfully as Jesus did. 

Gospels: Yes.
Sophia: No.  Twice "the defect of the female" is referred to, however. 


24.  While never lapsing into poetry in the formal sense (as heroes in ancient epic sometimes do), did the hero make use of poetry and hyperbole in his teaching?

This is the pattern one finds in the gospels, which is also highly realistic in a real teacher.  In ancient fiction (Homer, for instance, and even in Lord of the Rings, which echoes an ancient sensibility) heroes are prone to breaking out in spontaneous, often complex, poetry.  That is not realistic.  But good teachers are often informally poetic, and I find in my own classrooms, that hyperbole and exaggerated play-acting are very effective pedagogical tools.  Jesus was obviously a highly gifted teacher. 

Gospels: Yes.

Sophia: No.


25. Is the hero presented with great variety, intimacy, grace, and subtlety as the fulfillment of a wide variety of threads of ancient truth within his culture?

This item is so unusual – rather unique – that it is hard to say whether it should be considered of no relevance to historicity, an objection, or as an absolute proof of historicity. It is certainly important, and one should never trust a comparison of the gospels to some other texts that do not bring this deeply important quality up. 

I argue, in Jesus is No Myth, that ultimately this trait supports the historicity of the gospels. 

Gospels: Yes.

Sophia: Not, of course, so much as a trace.

26. Are the hero's miracles portrayed as all or nearly all realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful, and pious, in the sense of pointing people to God?   As worked for others, not for self?   As coming in response to a genuine need, not showy or ostentatious?

Gospels: Yes, setting them apart from all ancient fictional miracles that I know of. 

Sophia: No miracles.  

Conventional Criteria
27.  Criteria of Embarrassment. The gospels, as often noticed, frequently report events that would seem to be highly embarrassing to Jesus or to Christian faith.  One frequently-given example is Jesus' cry on the cross, "My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?"  I also gave a number of narrower examples earlier, in regard to criticism of Jesus.  But this argument is important and broad enough to merit more expansive development.  It is often argued, including by non-Christians, that such sayings and deeds are probably genuine.  Why would anyone invent such embarrassing scenes?  

Indeed, this is a common historical argument.  I have seen it made in the context of ancient China and Medieval Europe, for examples.  I have even seen Richard Carrier make it more than once, even though he argues that it is almost impossible to use validly, in Disproving History.  (See my review on Amazon, though.) 

Gospels: Yes. 

Sophia: No.  Pretty much everything "Jesus" says is typical Gnostic mythology.  

28. Multiple Attestation.  

Gospels: Yes, whether you count gospels, or the purported sources on which they rely.  

Sophia: No.  
30. Undesigned Coincidences.   

Tim and Lydia McGrew, among others, argue that there are dozens of intertwining facts among the books of the New Testament, especially the gospels, which reinforce one another in a subtle way that no author would create by accident.  
Gospels: Yes. 
Sophia: No.  

31.  Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity.  This is an argument offered at length by the eminent New Testament scholar N. T. Wright for the historicity of many scenes in the gospels.  The basic idea is that gospel accounts are distinct both from their Jewish matrix, and from the early Christian context in which they were first promulgated -- yet also make sense within, and of, both contexts.

Gospels: Yes. 
Sophia: No.  Sophia makes perfect sense as a Gnostic rip-off of Christianity, as the "Confucius" passages in the Zhuang Zi make sense as a Taoist rip-off of Confucianism.  But any famous teacher would have done just as well.

32. Prior probability.  

A final reason to trust the gospels has to do with their impact upon the world and relation to world history.  The gospels are, I would argue, more credible because God really does appear to have used them, and the person they tell of, as an instrument to bless, if not all  peoples on Earth, probably most people on Earth, as God promised to Abraham.  And also because Jesus fits within a larger, international, redemptive history, making greater sense of human history.

Gospels: Yes. 
Sophia: Thankfully not. 


So, does The Sophia of Jesus Christ help us understand how the gospels were produced?  Hardly.  That would be like saying a grain of sand with silicon in it, helps us understand how computer chips are manufactured.  
Let's face it, Richard Carrier grasps at this straw, or grain of sand, because he and his fellow skeptics are desperate.  They know, by hypothesis, that the gospels must be fictional, and thus resemble other ancient works of fiction.  Jesus must be an ordinary sage, or hero, like all the other sages and heroes that the ancient world produced.  
The problem is, they can't find anyone at all like Jesus.  Even ancient sages given the name Jesus, aren't one big like him. 
And clearly, that applies not only to random characteristics, but to dozens of traits that mark the gospels as being historically-credible works.  
My full argument for those traits, and why they demonstrate the historicity of the gospels, can be found in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.  
But what this post proves, is that whether or not those arguments work, and the traits I describe really do prove that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the essential truth about Jesus, they certainly do demonstrate how blind, and how desperate, critics of the gospels have become.  They are blind because they fail to see the most obvious and remarkable characteristics of the gospels which they spend years analyzing and critiquing.  They are desperate, because when asked for analogies, the best they can come up with is still our silly, pompous friend Apollonius of Tyana, or Rabbi Who Talks with Frogs (his Indian name?), or the un-wise, and unoriginal, "Sophia" of "Jesus" the "Christ." 
Now there, I've used up my monthly quota of scare quote marks already.  

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