Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Are the Gospels Myth? Contra Kris Komarnitsky

Alexander and his horse
One of the hobbies I am coming to enjoy as I advance in age, is collecting fake “Jesus doubles.”  No, I don’t mean Christian baublehead dolls, or Orthodox icons.  I mean the phony parallels that skeptics so often point to in an increasingly desperate attempt to find someone, anyone, in the ancient world at all like Jesus of Nazareth, to defuse his embarrassing, intractable uniqueness and historical credibility.  

I have featured some Jesus Doubles (JD) on this site in the past.  (And plan to tackle more in my coming book.)  First, foremost, and among the most amusing, is the ever-popular Apollonius of Tyana.  The only thing he really shares in common with Jesus of Nazareth, is the middle name, "of."  But I love the Saturday Night Live style of the dialogue, the crested dragons and the cures for rabies and Jack the Ripper syndrome (drink lots of beer!)  Richard Carrier suggested the Golden Ass in (which really is gold), Matthew Ferguson The Contest of Hesiod and Homer (no contest with Jesus; see Part IV), and then (as if competing at the carnival to see who can come up with the most flamboyant outfit) Bart Ehrman came up with a real whopper, Baal Shem Tov, a Hasidic Polish Jew also known as the Besht, in a story that features a reincarnated, talking 500-year old frog, among other stars.  

These stories make fascinating and amusing reading, and also show just how desperate the skeptical cause has become.  

Recently, though, a reader sent me an article, by an amateur historian named Kris Komarnitsky, that offers a JD that may outdue the lot.  

Not that Komarnitsky himself seems ridiculous or unpleasant.  The article is polite, mostly sensible, and keeps to the subject.

But a reader brought the article to my attention, saying that one of his paritioners had read it, and it had helped to confirm that paritioner in his atheism.  He asked if I would offer a response.  

I will not much dispute Komarnitsky's claim that mythology can sometimes get started  quickly.  But I will dispute that any of his critiques of the gospels land a glove.  And I will maintain that the new "Jesus Double" he points to, is far-fetched in the extreme, and shows how desperate times have become for such skeptics, that they lead to such desperate measures.  

As it happens, I happened to be writing about the wonderfully zany work, The Alexandrian Romance, just yesterday -- the new "Jesus Double" in question.   

The Article

In May, 2013, a reasonably competent and careful amateur historian named Kris Komarnitsky challenged a popular argument for the essential historicity of the gospels.  It has never been an argument that I placed much stock in, mainly because I think there are vastly superior lines of reasoning that support the historicity of the gospels.  Nevertheless, Komarnitsky’s counter-argument is worth considering, both because it is cited by the likes of Richard Carrier and Matthew Ferguson, and (more importantly) because if we follow the thread of Komarnitsky’s thought, it lead us to several viewpoints from which the state of the field is made clearer.  

The original argument, by historian A. N. Sherwin-White and echoed by William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel, is that the gospels appear too early to have been the product of much myth-making.   After studying numerous ancient historical figures, Sherwin-White argued, in the early 1960s, that legends never develop and supercede a core body of historical fact in a mere two generations.  Since the gospels were written within two generations of Jesus’ death, therefore, it is highly unlikely that they are the product of conventional myth-making:

“Even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition.”

Two Preliminary Assumptions and Problems

In response, Komarnitsky concedes that “virtually all scholars” admit the Gospels were written within two generations “after Jesus’ death.”  He also notes that his counter-argument is based on the assumption that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, adding, “Nearly all scholars acknowledge this possibility.”

We must pause at the outset to point out that the basis of Komarnitsky’s argument, these two core assumptions, are shaky from the get-go.  

For one thing, as is the want with liberal scholars (and even Sherwin-White seems to give way to this conceit), there is a ruinous equivocation hidden in the term “generations.”  Does it mean “the life-span of an individual?”  Or does it mean “the time it takes one set of children to grow up and produce their own children?”  The latter can be conventionally set at, say, 30 years.  But the former allows a twelve year old boy who watches Jesus multiply fish and loaves, to report that event first-hand in, say, 100 AD, if he lives to the moderately ripe age of 82.  In other words, by the former meaning of the word “generation,” one need not posit ANY generations passing before the gospels were written -- not one, let alone two.    

And that is the only meaning of “generation” relevant to the historicity of the gospels.  If people were still alive when the gospels were written, eyewitness testimony is possible and available for writers to interview, and we do not need to talk about “two generations!”  And clearly, by 65 AD, when Mark was probably complete, or even 95 AD, by which time John almost certainly was complete, some of Jesus’ followers would still have been alive.  

In which case, we do not need to use the term “oral tradition," either.  We can at least potentially talk about “testimony.”  

Given that the consensus time-line for the writing of the gospels allows for input from Jesus' first disciples, why does Komarnitsky say almost all scholars acknowledge the “possibility” that the gospels were not produced by eyewitnesses?  Of course that is possible -- almost anything is possible!  But it is not true that almost all scholars admit that this is probable.  After Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, some highly eminent scholars have granted the strength of Bauckham’s argument that in fact, one or two of the gospels were the products of eyewitnesses, perhaps three or four close second-hand testimonies derived from eyewitnesses.  

There is a great deal of other evidence for that, as I will argue later this year in depth.  But let us now consider Komarnitsky's positive case against Sherwin-White.  

The Case Against Sherwin-White

In his argument against the gospels, and Sherwin-White, Komarnitsky focuses on Arrian’s definitive biography of Alexander the Great.  He cites a colleague and sometime critic of Sherwin-White, P. A. Brunt, who challenges the former’s argument that myths required at least two generations to spring up.  The difference between conquerors like Alexander, or the many other figures Plutarch write about, on the one hand, and Jesus on the other, is that the former were public figures, whereas Jesus was too minor a figure for historians to bother mentioning.  

In reading (and linking) this article, as he does, Richard Carrier ought to take notice, since he and other mythicists are in the habit of asking rhetorically why no historian mentions Jesus, if he really existed!  Here is the answer.  Brunt and Komarnitsky are correct: ancient historians did not generally bother recording the comings and goings of public preachers.  They were generally so obsessed with the doings of politicians and warlords that some, like Polybius, barely mentioned the female gender!  (Which I am pretty sure did exist in the 4th Century BC!)  

So in passing, Blunt and Komarnitsky blunt that popular mythicist “argument from silence."    

Their own point, though, is that public figures like Alexander were too well-known for their followers to tell tall tales about them, while Jesus’ disciples would not have been so constrained:    

“Alexander the Great, like almost everyone else classical historians normally investigate, was a figure of significant public interest when he was alive.  Because of this, widespread knowledge of facts about him across a range of hostile, friendly and neutral people would have limited how much the historical core could have been displaced by legend in the oral and written traditions after his death.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely true.  Alexander was a general who led an army of conquest to India, then back through deserts.  Almost all that Arrian tells, comes from men Alexander commanded, like Ptolemy, who stood in much the same position as disciples (only Alexander could have had him killed for insufficient loyalty, so the discipline of these dsiciples was even tigher), and/ or whose own legitimacy depended on the grandeur of their master.  Those who survived the trek to India and back were hardened and proven veterans, not Alexander’s “enemies,” whose accounts do not, I think, survive.  

So I am not sure the cases were that different.  In fact, Jesus’ disciples would probably have had more freedom to “tell what really happened,” and less incentive to spin, as Ptolemy almost certainly did.  (Peter’s mistakes appear plainly in the gospels, while Ptolemy comes off as pretty uniformly competent even in Arrian’s account which relies in large part upon it, best I recall.)

In addition, Komarnitsky argues, the disciples would have been in a poor position to control the accounts that sprang up about the life of Jesus - even if they wanted to, which (furthermore) they probably didn’t much care to bother with:  

“The ability of a few of Jesus’ closest followers to contain the growth of legend would have been further hampered if the legends were growing in several different locales, for in this case they would have had the nearly impossible task of being present everywhere, stamping out all of the unhistorical legends.  Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry may have also viewed the correction of legends and policing of historical accuracy for events that occurred before Jesus’ death as a relatively trivial pursuit if their focus was on Jesus’ future return.  In this case, their priority would have been on convincing non-believers and galvanizing believers of the most important thing that they believed was true -- that Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead, and would be back very soon.”

So the disciples neither could nor probably even cared to keep their accounts of Jesus’ life on the up-and-up.  The gospel stories sprang up like "rumor-weeds" around the Greco-Roman world, no one could keep a lid on them.  Anyway, the disciples didn’t care much about telling the story accurately, since they were focused on Jesus’ Resurrection and Return.  

This argument is similiar to Ehrman’s story about how the gospels spread around the Mediterranean like “Chinese whispers,” from husband to wife, from wife to friend, from land to land and language to language, before being written down at twentieth remove by someone who had little idea of what really happened.

But there is a problem with both models.  No, there are dozens of problems, which I will describe in my upcoming book (before Christmas, Lord willing!).  Together, they make both models not just untenable, but set them completely beyond belief.  

Let’s just look at one objection for now, which is more than enough to dismantle both theories.  

How did the Evangelists get so much, so right?

Bauckham points out that study of the New Testament, and of the archeology of First Century Palestine, reveals that names given to both males and females in the former, appear in both sources in almost exactly the same frequency.  In other words, the Bible reports the names of men and women in Israel, in the same proportion as they actually appear in tombs and in other records to which archeologists have gained access.  

If you have some 20th-generation Christian in Rome who has heard the tale of a tale of a tale of a tale, on down the line, and who only cares about the Resurrection and the Second Coming, as Komarnitsky says, how likely is it that he would get Jewish names of the time and place so exactly right?  Pretty close to zero, wouldn't it be? Isn’t the frequency of “Levis” and “Thomases” even more trivial than, say, the feeding of the Five Thousand?

And yet the authors of the gospels do get those names right.  Since they were right about such trivia, isn’t it only rational to give them the benefit of the doubt on much larger points?  That is how we evaluate testimony, and that sort of evidence is why we trust Arrian, for instance.  

In addition, we know from Colin Hemer that some 84 facts Luke, author of both Acts of the Apostles and the third gospel, mentions about the Mediterranean world in the last 16 chapters of Acts, have been verified from other sources.  

Show me a myth that can claim that rate of successful reporting!  Not even our best newspapers always seem to win that good a track record.  

None of the three facts Komarnitsky says the evangelists alone cared about, are among the 84 facts that Hemer says Luke got right.  

Komarnitsky notes that according to Brunt, the evangelists “were not seeking to establish historical incidents so much as to proclaim salvation.”  

But as Hemer and Bauckham thus show, the evangelists do succeed in recording numerous historical incidents and patterns, whether or not that was their main goal.  (And it is a false dichotomy to suppose salvation and historicity must be in conflict, since the “Good News” of the Gospel is that something has happened in history that brings God’s salvation to all humanity.  Christian salvation depends on historical facthood, in other words.)  

So Komarnitsky’s skepticism stalls out of the gate.  Far from only caring about reporting the wonderful news of the resurrection, and not bothering to get other facts right, it turns out Luke, for one, was a skilled historian, who gave proper titles, names, ports of embarkation, customs, and so forth, about locales around the Greco-Roman world.  And the other evangelists must have had a close link to 1st Century Palestine, and excellent ears for details, to get so many names right.  (They also describe famous public figures and locales correctly, but I'll save those arguments for another day. )

How About Multiplicity?

Komarnitsky also attempts to undermine one popular argument for the gospels, the claim that they constitute several somewhat independent sources:  

”No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as three independent sources, even though they have different authors . . . They stem from one oral mileau . . . It is easy to see that this also applies to John.”

But this is highly misleading.  In fact, most scholars actually do claim independent sources, as well as mutually-dependent sources, within the synoptic gospels.  Even such hard-nosed (but knowledgable) skeptics as the atheist Morton Smith and the professional anti-Christian debunker Bart Ehrman recognize independent sources in the synoptics, called Mark, Q, M, and L, in the scholarly literature.  The Argument from Multiplicity is very much a live one, even among non-Christian scholars: Komarnitsky ought to have come across it.  

So Komarnitsky overlooks numerous important and obvious facts which support the historicity of the gospels.  Which does not necessarily mean his main point need be wrong, however.      

Quick-Order Myth-Making?

But is Sherwin-White right?  Is it really impossible, or unlikely, that the gospels could have evolved into highly mythological accounts in the course, if not of two “generations,” of, say, 40 years?  

Actually, I am inclined to think myth does sometimes spring up quite rapidly.  The “living Buddha” I studied for my MA, Lu Shengyan, told hundreds of tall tales about his own experiences in the supernatural world.  Those were, admittedly, different from public stories told about a leader, but communist leaders and model soldiers like Lei Feng do seem to accumulate such legends (otherwise known as "lies") fast enough.  Ehrman points to one of the Polish founders of Hasidic Judaism, Baal Shem Tov, about whom wild stories arose over some 70 years, but it appears that such stories or rumors can catch fire even more quickly.  

Which need not cause us to discount Sherwin-White’s argument, and the wealth of data on which it is based.  Again, there is a difference between “possible” and “probable,” and Jesus was not Kim Il Sung.  Sherwin White is probably right in seeing such instant myth-making as an unlikely development, whether or not Jesus was a public figure.  (And he seems to have been fairly public, and been challenged by plenty of enemies.)  

But who cares?  In the end, what "could have happened" is just so much ivory-tower posturing.  

It is obvious that the gospels are not, in fact, myths, or much mythicized.  This is not only because they prove so accurate when they name names, titles, shipping patterns, local practices, public officials, linguistic tidbits, and the like.  (Though I think that is more than enough to overthrow both Ehrman and Komarnitsky.)   

Sorry if this sounds subjective.  But we are human, and intuitively able to recognize the difference between a Kim and a Jesus, or an Apollonius and a Confucius, one genre of writing and another.    

Read the gospels!  Then read the works skeptics so desperately appeal to, to claim some sort of parallel!  Read Life of Apollonius of Tyana, or The Golden Ass, outloud!  Read them with your sense of humor intact!  Read them with an audience at a party!  You will find much to laugh at.  That is why reading such stories has become one of my favorite hobbies, as the years steal upon me.  

And Komarnitsky provides me with a treasure.  I never thought a skeptic would dare compare the gospels with The Alexander Romance.  

Alexander Romance and the Gospels

Komarnitsky notes that after all, there is one fanciful work which "may," possibly go back to almost the time of Alexander.  (His paper is full of “mays” and “ifs” and “plausiblys” -- it is good that he recognizes the weakness of each link in his chain of argumentation.  But the total chain is rendered weaker and weaker with each new speculation.  Why does Richard Carrier not take a Baynsian sledgehammer to that pack of cards?)  

If wild legends about Alexander could crop up so quickly (if they did, Komarnitsky does not make a genuine case for treating Alexander Romance as early), why not of Jesus?  And then why should we not grant that the gospels may be the same sort of thing, early tissues of myth?  

“If the Gospel accounts of Jesus are similiar to the Alexander Romance account of Alexander the Great, who would have written the unbiased or less legendized accounts with more of the real story?  The answer is: nobody.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone packs their whole argument, the moon and the stars and the lamps and the dog and the living room furniture, into a dependent clause?  Komarnitsky shows how modest Mary Poppins was, pulling lamps out of her handbag, or Hermoine, caring a tent and innumerable useful items around in a small bag by magic.  For into that single dependent clause, Komaritsky packs everything it takes to end Christianity, and change the world -- and also a collosal and fatal error.  

“If” the gospel accounts of Jesus are similiar to Alexander Romance?”  

But they are not.  At all.  

Such a ridiculous sentence only scans because most Komarnitsky’s readers have not read the thing.  

This is much the same hat trick Bart Ehrman pulled when he debated Timothy McGrew, and that Richard Carrier played when we debated: pick “parallels” to the gospels that the skeptic knows almost no one in the audience has read, and can evaluate.  Such arguments sound so smooth, and glide gently  down the throat -- until you read the originals being cited.  Then the reasonable person can only laugh.  

Again, I will not try to prove here that the gospels are completely different from Alexander Romance.  It is not worth proving.  All you have to do is read the works, and anyone but a fool should be able to see at a glance that the gospels are orders of magnitude more credible.  

In my coming book, I plan to describe 30 distinct characteristics that make the gospels credible, historically.  Hardly any of them apply to any of the early Greek novels, and while I haven't officially scored it yet, I think Alexander Romance comes off with almost no historically-relevant parallels to the gospels at all.  

Here are a few samples from Alexander Romance.  Tell me how much like the gospels you think these samples are:  

“Traveling again, we came in two days to a region where the sun does not shine.  There lies the Land of the Blest.”  (Somewhere near Juneau, Alaska, I guess!)

“There were black stones in the river; everyone who touched these stones turned the same color as the stones.”

“There were birds on the river, very like our birds, but if anyone touched them, fire came out of them.”

“We came across many animals: six-footed ones, three-eyed ones, five-eyed ones ten cubits long . . . Animals like wild asses of more than twenty cubits.”

“Their arms and hands were like saws.”

“The two trees in the middle of the garden spoke, one in a male voice, the other in a female.”

“Men with the heads of dogs.”  
I will analyze this and other ancient novels in detail in my coming book, but really that is hardly necessary to recognize that Komarnitisky and his fellow skeptics have reduced the argument against the gospels to an absurdity by citing such parallels. But kudos to them for bringing to our attention some of the more entertaining ancient works, and have thus enriching our lives.  After reading such works, I feel a bit like Elizabeth Bennett’s droll father.  After Mr. Bennett evaluates the three suitors who have asked for the hands of three different daughters, he praises the two who are rich, kindly, and possess good characters, but then settles on the third, who is an utter scoundrel, for particular praise:

”Wickham, perhaps, is my favorite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as much as Jane’s.”

It is hard to choose, but I think Alexander Romance may prove one of my favorites among the Jesus Doubles.



Toasty McGrath said...

Are the gospels myth? I dunno, let me check to see if the stories about a wizard turning water into wine and walking across a sea sound like mythology or not...

David B Marshall said...

Don't be a snarky jackass. Ditch your materalistic dogma, at least for the sake of the discussion, put on your magical thinking cap, and try to follow the argument and the full panoply of the evidence. Your dogmas are up for grabs: reality is what it is.