Wednesday, October 07, 2015

I'll come to your freethinker meeting and PROVE the Resurrection for $145!

A scholar named Richard Miller wrote a book earlier this year proposing a supposedly "new" theory on how that delusion about Jesus rising from the dead arose.  It involves our friend Romulus, legendary founder of Rome.  The book costs $145. 

Here's an interesting and well-written review from Amazon, by one Simon Albright, which predicts that the book will excite frenzied and worried opposition from the ranks of Christians.  Then following that, my somewhat shorter response. 

"If you've ever interacted with any number of atheists online, there is a vocal contingent of them that spread a meme pointing out a number of identical events in the lives of Horus and Jesus. For example, according to the meme, Horus was born of a virgin and he was also born on December 25th. He was visited by Three Wise Men, and baptized. Likewise, he had 12 Disciples, walked on water, was "transfigured" on a mount, and was resurrected, etc.

"In response, Christians do something extremely logical and straightforward (or even just other atheists who aren't as hoodwinked by conspiracy theories): they simply ask for the original quotes in the original Egyptian documents of these amazing parallels with Jesus. Of course, the quotes are never forthcoming because it is all made-up, and it illustrates that atheists are just as likely to be misled by false information as religious believes who don't research facts for themselves.

"A slightly different, but very similar, phenomenon is on display when parallels between Romulus and Jesus are pointed out. Here at least there is peer-reviewed scholarship to rely upon—Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables In Classical Antiquity, by Richard C. Miller—that is published by a reputable academic journal—The Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 759-776, and reading this article is how I personally became aware of Richard C. Miller and his scholarship.

"According to Miller, there are no less than 20 separate parallels between Romulus and Jesus, including any number of the most prominent details in their respective lives, and this book—Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity—is a book-length fleshing-out of the original article seeking to make this case, although applied to many more Hellenistic figures than just Romulus. When brought to the attention of Christians, however, just as with Horus, they balk at accepting that there is any similarity between a number of them—and the reason they give is most interesting. According to them, since the parallels are not absolutely identical in every respect, the parallels are not valid. That is (of course, in an ad hoc fashion—without any research), they argue that, in order for there to have been any mimetic copying going on, or direct influence from a common stock of ancient Hellenistic literary tropes applied to Jesus, the authors of the Gospels would have needed to have fashioned the life of Jesus in a strictly identical fashion to that of other ancient demigods such as Romulus. Since they didn't do this, there was no borrowing going on. The question is: does this assumption of the needed exactness of the borrowing stand up to scrutiny?

"According to Miller, no. To quote his direct words: "One thus accurately adduces such instances of the syncretic language in early Christian theology as indicating a Christian adaptation of antique Greco-Roman forms. Could any fresh, third-party observer not immediately perceive the pattern: a Judeo-Christian version of Zeus-Jupiter, with his own storied demigod son born of a mortal woman?" (Section 1.3; I'll give quotations in sections since I bought the Kindle version and I don't have the page numbers)

"Miller goes on to argue that, although each individual instance of a heroic demigod or storied human translated to heaven had differing characteristics and varying sub-themes, the ancient Hellenistic audience would have understood the commonalities as all drawing upon a common wellspring of mythological literary tropes—and so the composers of these fables would have known what they were doing in their production of them as well. Again, to quote his exact words, he states: "What precisely were the signature traits of the convention, and what meaning did such biographical endings impress upon their ancient readers? While the convention displayed a seemingly endless multifarity of manifestations with several linguistic permutations (signifiers) in subthemes and cultural-literary adaptations, the basic import (signified) of the 'translation fable' trope manifested a durable consistency over a thousand-year period in the ancient Hellenized world of cultural instantiation. This stability, as such, reflects the customary and ritualized use of the convention within a common semiotic grammar of Hellenistic language in antiquity…. The gallery of translation fables, therefore, not surprisingly, possesses no common, explicit thread, characteristic, or requisite set of features. Rather, one observes a cluster of various recurring formal traits or signals" (Section 2.2).

"Miller then sets out 15 separate "Translation Subthemes", including a vanished/missing body, and postmortem translation. Personally, the most interesting to me is "heinous or ignoble injustice rectified by translation"—if only because I have spent the better part of my life listening to Christians say that the only way the Gospel authors would have written about a crucified savior is because it really happened. They would never have made up something so dishonorable, and so by the Criterion of Embarrassment, it is far more likely to be historically true than false. Except now, in the "Gallery" of examples analyzed by Miller, this is a prominent subtheme—and no one bases their lives upon any of the other mythological characters translated to heaven after an injustice. To be clear, in the other cases, the "injustices" were not absolutely identical as in the case of Jesus—namely, crucifixion by the Romans—but that doesn't mean the ancients wouldn't have immediately perceived it to be another in a long line of mythological parallels–and it is long indeed. The Gallery analyzed by Miller consists of an overview of—by my count—77 separate ancient Hellenistic translation fables of both historical personages and non-historical invented characters.

"Likewise, according to Miller, there was a prominent "eyewitness" tradition in many of the other cases of either emperors or generals or heroic characters translated to heaven. In fact, under Imperial Rome, the eyewitness was a crucial part of the convention of deifying emperors—so even the claims of the Christians to have "eyewitnesses" (that are not on display in either Paul or the earliest Gospel—Mark) were not unique, but rather only conforming to the general pattern of such literary tropes.

"Through a detailed linguistic and literary analysis, Miller thus argues that the inclusion of so many subthemes of a general convention of translation "implied the mode of fable" rather than history (Section 2.4). Thus, drawing upon an already existing set of literary conventions for aggrandizing heroic figures, the Gospels are only the "romanticized, mythic…literary-rhetorical vehicle of the earliest Christian movement(s)" (Section 3.1) that had precious little to do with the actual historical Jesus.

"Miller provides a grand summary of the implications, including a condemnation of vast swaths of scholarship that seek to somehow remove Jesus from his ancient Mediterranean context and set up brackets around him to say that he and his movement were a strictly Jewish phenomenon (including also the very idea of there being "Biblical Greek"—as though it alone were sui generis and partitioned off from the larger Greek dialects of the ancient world). I myself have been influenced by (or victimized by) this widespread scholarly point of view, as when I was in college, I took a class named "Jesus the Jew", the main thrust of which was to seek to cast Jesus and his followers as the product of an exclusively Jewish milieu. It's amazing that it took this long, but this book by Richard C. Miller admirably corrects this mistaken view. Miller also provides an overview of a strain of evangelical scholarship that (risibly, in light of Miller's analysis) seeks to somehow claim that the shorter ending of Mark—where the body was implied to be missing or vanished—is really a truncated form of the longer version that was preserved in Matthew. The reality is that the fact that the body was missing was precisely what would have clued the ancient reader in to the fact that it had been translated, since a body that was still visible and hanging around would have been a major impediment toward supposing it had been translated to heaven. And likewise, far from being an attempt at history, the stories that arose in the later Gospels of the New Testament concerning what happened to the body of Jesus after it went missing were merely composed in order to guide the intuitions of ancient readers into making the proper judgments about its ultimate translated fate. He ate fish, so he couldn't be a revenant ghost, he wasn't merely still alive since he could teleport through walls, etc.

"It should be noted that Miller ultimately concludes that Jesus was a historical character, although he has been so thoroughly mythologized that we don't see much of him in the Gospels. Also, although himself a historicist, Miller praises mythicists for properly classifying the New Testament portrait of Jesus as one that was not even meant to be historical.

"The bottom line is that this book is too important to languish in obscurity merely because it has been priced out of the reach of a great many readers. It should also be noted that one reviewer claimed this book is less than 200 pages, but this is not accurate.

"Another review noted, "I'm hoping Dr. Miller can translate this into a Bart Ehrman style popular work for the masses." This type of comment is inevitable, because this is an academic work aimed at scholars versed in the relevant background fields, not a popular work aimed at the lowest common denominator. And that should serve as an advisory comment for any potential readers: this book was not exactly written in a colloquial register. That said, it is not that difficult to understand, especially if you are even passingly familiar with semiotics or linguistics.

"On the one hand this book is extremely straightforward to review. Placed in the proper perspective, the comparisons between other translation fables and the Gospels are valid, and they are extensive. The question is: if this analysis is so straightforward, why hasn't this been done before? Miller himself provides the answer by cautioning that the Gospels are one of the main foundations of what became Western Civilization and so they are formidably resistant to deconstruction.

"In any case, it is quite easy to predict that this book will be vehemently opposed, and ruthlessly criticized, by Christians. And Christians will do this—not because they can contradict Miller's conclusions with linguistic and sociological studies regarding how the gospels would have been received by their earliest readers (the only methodology they could employ that would matter)—but merely on account of how this book's conclusions conflict rather violently with their dogmas (and so, according to Christians, the book must ipso facto be misguided). Nevertheless, if you fancy a good read, and one that will contribute solidly to placing Jesus in his wider Mediterranean context, I recommend this book very highly."

Here's my reponse:

Well-written and informative review. But having dealt with myriads of such critics, honestly this line of attack seems a bit ho-hum to me. I've READ Livy on Romulus, and frankly, if that's the best the critics can do (and apparently it is), this book strikes me as little more than a very expensive white flag.

For one thing, it is childishly easy to find 20 common qualities between any two literary or historical figures about whom much is written.  I wrote a similiar list comparing Gandhi to Mao, two very different men, and it was a pretty convincing list, I think.  But that's the wrong way to go about things.   (I am presently writing a book debunking Aslan, Carrier, and Ehrman, and they ALL make the same mistake.)   You need to begin by dispassionately analyzing one text, setting down all major characteristics that define it, only THEN begin analysis of its resemblance or not to other texts. Otherwise your comparison is ad hoc cherry-picking. 

In addition, this line of attack seems (at least from your review) to simply by-pass the reams of evidence for the historicity of the gospel accounts that various scholars, including myself,  have uncovered. 

Still, I'd be inclined to buy a copy of the book and include it in my analysis, if it didn't cost $145. Nor do I find such language as the following all that attractive:

"While the convention displayed a seemingly endless multifarity of manifestations with several linguistic permutations (signifiers) in subthemes and cultural-literary adaptations, the basic import (signified) of the 'translation fable' trope manifested a durable consistency over a thousand-year period in the ancient Hellenized world of cultural instantiation."

I think one could translate that into normal English without losing much:

"While this genre came in different forms marked by different terminology, for a millennia, the basic type held essentially true to form within the Greek cultural sphere."

Maybe Miller would have to sell a book that used ordinary English for a mere $20, but I don't think much would be lost in the translation, and much gained in time.

Heck, I'll come to your church or free thought meeting and prove the resurrection of Jesus in person for $145, if you're in my neighborhood.

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