Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Faking Skepticism: Robert Conner tells Fish Stories About Jesus

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Robert Conner has written an article entitled "Faking Jesus" which purports to thread the needle between radical skeptics like Richard Carrier and those silly Christian apologists.  The basic idea is, while some fellow probably did wander around the Middle East 2000 years ago putting on a miracle show, we really can't know anything much about him, because the sources are all so bad. 

I decided beforehand that I would limit myself to finding 30 problems with Robert Conner's article.  I think the main suspense in this article may be whether I can keep to that resolution! 

Let's begin with the first paragraph:

"That Jesus Studies is rife with flawed scholarship, special pleading, fideism, rank speculation, manufactured relevance, careerism, homophobia1 and the misogyny that homophobia implies, 2 sectarian allegiances, personal agendas, fraud and simple incompetence should come as no surprise to anyone conversant with the field. Indeed,whether Jesus Studies is even an academic discipline as usually understood is debatable, and that Jesus Studies has precious little to do with history is certain."3

1. I've long believed that the word "homophobia" is itself a tendentious argument wrapped in a single word.  The assumption seems to be that people who think sexual acts between men, or between women, are wrong, are pathologically afraid (phobic) of someone like themselves (homo).  Even if one were to grant that the view that homosexual acts are wrong need imply a phobia (of course I don't), the right word would be "homosexphobia," since we are not afraid of other men (or women), but (presumably) of those men (or women) who might wish to have sex with us!  (Or we shudder at the whole phenomena.) 
2. Of course the idea that sexual relations are best carried on between people of opposite genders in no way implies that a man must dislike women.  I am at a loss to even understand Conner's logic, in this case: which doesn't matter, because the fact is clearly wrong.

3. Jesus Studies certainly can have a great deal to do with history, which really is certain.  It is true the field is confused, for which I have my own explanation: anti-Christian ideologies make some scholars grasp at straws to try to explain the evidence away.  But there are also excellent scholars working in the field, with a wonderful grasp of history, doing first-rate work. 

"Mainstream scholars have understood for quite some time that the gospels are not history by any modern definition.4 It is widely conceded that the gospel authors were writing decades after the events they purport to relate5, that the writers were pseudonymous, that they were not eyewitnesses6, that both the provenance and intended audience of each gospel is a matter of conjecture, and that the primary sources on which the gospels are ultimately based are un‑known and unknowable.6 It is universally conceded that no original exists for any gospel and that the gospels that have survived are copies of copies that preserve variant wording."7

I am pleased to see Robert has increased the number of problems per paragraph!  Maybe I won't have to read that much of the article before meeting my quota! 

Most of the problems in this paragraph involve not outright errors, but misleading or marginally relevant factoids. 

4. Here's the first relevant modern definition of history I found, Funk & Wagnalls:

"A record or account, usually written and in chronological order, of past events, especially concerning a particular nation, people, field of knowledge, etc."

The gospels are written accounts, in roughly chronological order (birth-ministry-death-resurrection), of past events.  They are the particular kind of history called biography, or bioi in the Greek sense, as Richard Burridge has shown to the approval of many NT scholars.  The only sense in which Conner's claim might be considered true, is that scholars tend to divide these two categories, history and biography, such that the former is about a "nation, people, field of knowledge," etc. while the latter is about a person.  But that clearly is not what Conner has in mind. 

5. Writing "decades after the facts" is irrelevant to the reliability of the gospels, since human beings usually live for decades, and often remember the most important events of their lives.  Jesus' followers would have been young, and many would have survived (despite Roman attacks) to the time when the first gospels were written. 

6. Richard Bauckham's book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses argues that the gospels were largely based on eyewitness or close second-hand reports.  Leading NT scholars wrote warm blurbs for that book.  So the issue is, at least, a live question, and should not be brushed aside. 

I offer some 30 reasons to credit the gospels as early and credible accounts, in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.  That book is also getting good reviews from qualified scholars. 

Conner has every right to disagree.  But he shouldn't just ignore contrary arguments, as he does here.

7. No originals exist for the gospels?  They're all copies of copies?  Yes, and so is every other book from the ancient world.  (Though, as I argue, there are dozens of reasons to think these books are truthful.)  This is a bizarre point to make: it is like reviewing a book on Amazon by saying, "Richard Dawkins' name appears on the cover, but in fact he never so much as touched my copy.  It was printed by a machine by professional printers from a copy sent by an editor and is not even a copy of a copy of what Dawkins actually wrote!"  Yeah, that's how books work, sorry.

"Given that an average lifespan in the 1st Century likely amounted to less than fifty years8, that decades had passed since Jesus’ crucifixion, and that a devastating war had supervened9, where were the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and career? Dead, quite likely, or enslaved and scattered abroad.10"

8. Probably life expectancy was much less than 50 years.  But as I explain in  Jesus is No Myth, life expectancy is measured from birth, and the most dangerous challenge was the diseases of early child-hood.  Survive that, and once you reached your teens (we know some who followed Jesus were that young, indeed probably younger), you had a reasonable chance of making it to 60, or even 70, in a few cases 80.  Do the math. 

9. It is unlikely that Jesus' followers would have been much represented among the Jewish zealots who opposed Rome.  As Luke describes, and Rodney Stark shows in detail in The Rise of Christianity, the church quickly became international, as indeed Judaism already was -- most Jews did not live in Palestine before 70 AD.  Like most people in most wars, even most early Jewish Christians would have fled the combat. 

10.  "Scattered abroad" is no barrier to contributing to the gospels.  We know that Luke, for instance, traveled with Paul to many cities around the Mediterranean, visiting synagogues almost everywhere he alighted.  Among a small, tightly-knit new Christian community, Mark, Luke and John (though he was an eyewitness) would have had the opportunity to interview those believers who had seen Jesus for themselves.  Paul had met such people, and quite credibly said most were still alive as of the 50s.  Ten or twenty years later, many still would be. 

"Confabulation is a compensatory mechanism observed in subjects with essentially intact mentation but with serious gaps in memory. Con‑fabulators fill in missing memory with invented narrative that changes with each retelling, thereby revealing the lacunose nature of their memory, and interrogation of the gospel accounts reveals that they are confabulations in this technical sense. The writers of the gospels were basically faking it 11, but lacking eyewitnesses 12, what choice did they have?"

11. This is all too vague and general to deal with on the level of specific claims.  Let me just point out that "basically faking it" seems an attempt to justify the popular style of the title, without offering any clear claim about anything. 

12. We already dealt with this point.  The gospels show numerous forms of evidence that they depend upon eyewitness and close second-hand testimony.  No arguments against the evidence and reasoning cited to make that point have yet been offered. 

"The early communities of believers for whom the gospels were composed had a very imperfect memory of Jesus of Nazareth.13 The gospels contain no account of Jesus’ physical appearance,14 a scant, almost certainly apocryphal, record of his early life, and no coherent explanation of his thinking,15 assuming, of course, that Jesus’ thinking was coherent to begin with."

13. I would say, the early Christian community preserved an incredibly vivid, unforgettable memory of Jesus, which has gripped the world for two thousand years. No one else in the history of world religions whom I have yet encounterd (and this is my field) can be compared with him. 

14. What should we conclude from the fact that the gospels never describe Jesus' physical appearance?  Maybe that they were not willing to make things up.  Novelists often describe the physical appearance of their subjects.  Biographers sometimes do, too.  But I don't think one can conclude anything about the accuracy of the gospels from the fact that they do not. 

15. No coherent explanation of Jesus' thinking appears in the gospels?  What has blinded this man to what most people can see at a glance?

Some of the 55 or so qualities that I argue define the gospels and make them unique, involve Jesus' social, moral, and religious teachings.  It is incredibly coherent: the characteristics cohere with one another, across gospels, and explain early Christian tradition.

Take just one of those qualities, Jesus' claim that he fulfilled the Jewish tradition. Hundreds of passages in the two testaments cohere in that portrait, which agrees across all the New Testament documents, and across more than a dozens complex categories of typology. 

Or take the theme of love.  (Which I also delve into a bit in Jesus is No Myth, in response to Richard Carrier.)  Is it a mere coincidence that the greatest passage on love in all literature is the Sermon on the Mount, and the second greatest -- I Corinthians 13, by one of Jesus' early disciples?  I don't think so.  Even Jesus Seminar skeptics recognize that Jesus' concern for those on the margins mark him out from other ancient figures, which is why Funk, I think it was, argued that the Good Samaritan really did come from Jesus.  Jesus' highly coherent message of universal, bold, society-challenging charity grabbed hold of his disciples and moved them to utterly transform the world for the better, as I have shown many times on this site.  (Follow my series on "How Jesus Liberates Women," for another example.)

"The fact that Mark is quoted nearly in its entirety by Matthew Luke—Matthew quotes or paraphrases some 600 of the 661 verses in Mark—and that another primitive gospel, Q,16 appears to have supplied the bulk of the narrative not derived from Mark, indicates that the authors of Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses 17-19, nor did they have access to first-hand accounts. 20 In fact, it is nearly certain that “the greatest story ever told” contains no direct eyewitness testimony from any contemporary of Jesus. 21  Eusebius says of Mark, the putative author of the earliest gospel, “he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him…” 22

Now that's better!  Let's get back to churning out problems at a quicker pace! 

16. Q may or may not have existed.  If it did, it probably was a collection of sayings, with perhaps a few stories, not a "gospel."  "Sayings gospel" is a contradiction in terms, though used by some liberal scholars.  See my "The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,'" where I describe some of the games played with the word "gospel."

17. Who ever claimed Luke was an eyewitness?  Certainly he didn't.  He implies, in his introduction as a careful historian, that he worked from sources.  But he palled around with Paul, who knew eyewitnesses. 

18. Does the fact that Matthew quotes most of Mark, mean he wasn't an eyewitness to Jesus?  Hardly.  I wrote a mini-bio of my father after he passed away.  I knew my father for decades, and like Mark, I was his first biographer.  Yet most of the book depended on other sources.  Perhaps that was inevitable, since the first three chapters recounted his life before me.  But even after I was born, I wasn't there for everything, so relied on other sources.  If another biography preceded my own by someone I trusted, I surely would have made use of it.

19.  And besides, Conner neglects to remind his readers that Mark is much shorter than either Luke or Matthew.  The fact that the latter two cited most of the former, does not mean they didn't include a great deal of other material, perhaps from several other sources, as well.  (And the extent to which they really did cite Mark is debated.)

20. "Nor did they have access to first-hand accounts."  Which assumes that neither Mark nor Q were first-hand accounts (Mark may have witnessed some of the events of Jesus' life, I think he drops a clue that he did), and that Luke never met the apostles, even though his friend Paul did.   

21 Conner ought, at this point, to begin to interact with Dr. Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  (Which comes with warm endorsements from the likes of N. T. Wright, Martin Hengel, James Dunn, and Graham Stanton.  Let's not just ignore scholars of that caliber.) And again, I think my last book adds new layers of evidence for Bauckham's basic contention. 

22. Conner has somehow forgotten to quote the rest of what Eusebius said about how Mark was written:

"This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely. These things are related by Papias concerning Mark."

So if Eusebius was right -- and if he had no claim to be, why was Conner citing him? -- Mark wrote down and ordered the first-hand account of Peter himself, and that he did so with great care. 

Which kind of ruins Conner's whole point, doesn't it?  But such selective quoting, without explaining what principle leads you to do so, or even admitting that you have done so, is a little naughty among scholars. 

"The dates of Jesus’ birth and death can only be estimated, the length of his career is unknown—it may have been as short as a year (23)—and the earliest gospel, Mark, ends with an empty tomb but no trace of the resurrected Jesus.(24) I have suggested elsewhere that the post mortem appearances of Jesus in the gospels of Luke and John read suspiciously like ancient ghost stories (25) and I am not the only person to have commented on that amazing coincidenceAlthough I believe that Jesus was a real person about whom we actually know very little, the claim that Jesus and his career are pure invention persists and however unlikely we may regard it, there is no way to definitively overturn that claim." (25)

23. It is incredibly unlikely that Jesus accomplished all he did in a single year.

24. What we have is a Gospel of Mark with later additions added.  We don't know how the original Mark ended.  We do know that Jesus predicts his resurrection earlier in the book, and that Paul's writing before this time already spoke of the resurrection in clear and unambiguous terms.  Probably the original Mark included resurrection appearances. 

25. Not the ancient ghost stories I've read. I love the one where Achilles comes back as a kind of golden-haired California surfer dude. 

26. I describe 30 ways to "definitively overturn" the silly notion that Jesus never existed, in Jesus is No Myth. many of which were developed by other scholars, some of which are well-known -- and to recognize that the gospels tell the essential truth about him.  Conner has not so much as mentioned any of those ways, yet.  You can't overturn arguments you don't face.

(Skipping more selectively): "The early Christians, nearly two millennia closer to the source than we, hardly knew what to make of Jesus. (27) The orthodox trinitarian position was not hammered out until the early 4th century(28) and even then it was not universally accepted (29) . . . "


I appreciate the fact that Conner recognizes it as an advantage to be early --- not everyone writing of ancient scholarship makes it that far. 


27. Conner appears to be confusing biographical facts with theological constructs built upon those facts.  The fact that later Christians "hardly knew what to make of Jesus" theologically in no way impinges on the historicity of the original records of his life.  Jesus was, and remains, astounding.  He shattered sheltered paradigms then, and does so still today, which is why modern scholars still don't know what to make of him.  (As Conner correctly records.) 

28. Conner's claim about the Trinity is grossly misleading, even baldy in error.  The idea of the Trinity is already present in Matthew 28 and in John 1.  It is assumed by Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr already early in the 2nd Century, indeed by Paul in a less formal sense in the 1st Century.   That Greco-Roman theologians felt the need to define and refine what they had already come to see for centuries, has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Jesus was recognized as in some sense divine, in some sense the visitation of God, from the very earliest Church on. 

29.  What idea is "universally accepted?"  That standard is the definition of irrelevance.  No idea is universally accepted, not even that the universe is real. 

"Obviously Jesus can mean nearly anything to anyone, but an icon that can stand for anything ultimately stands for nothing.28 'Who do men say that I am?' could be amended to 'What haven’t men said that I am?'”

30. This is basically just a cynical updating of Pilate's own "What is truth?"  Truth, like America, like democracy ("People's Democratic Republic of Korea!") has also become an "icon" in this sense: all things to all people.  It does not follow that truth per se is a vacuous concept, or what does Conner imagine he is writing about?

Conner is confusing history with psychology or sociology.  Jacques Ellul recognized that every era produces its "myths" such as "democracy" or "socialism" which everyone appeals to, because without such appeals, no one will listen.

Yes, Jesus has also become such a token.  From which absolutely nothing about the "real Jesus" follows.  Jesus himself, after all, warned that "Many shall come in my name" but without integrity.  Why should we be surprised that Jesus' own prophesy has come true, or treat that as evidence that he was not a prophet?  The argument is too paradoxical to follow. 

(Well, we've reached 30 problems with Conner's piece, but it's hard to stop here.  Just a little further . . . )

"However, I strongly suspect the historical truth of the matter is prosaic in the extreme, to say nothing of depressing. Based on the evidence of the gospels, and possibly more importantly the writings of the era, I believe Jesus of Nazareth was a person of scant importance from a village of no importance, a man of humble beginnings who achieved a brief regional reputation as an apocalyptic preacher and exorcist‑cum‑healer. (31) He became a disciple of John the Baptist, and like John he drew excited crowds as well as the surveillance of the Jewish authorities. At Passover he went to Jerusalem, raised a ruckus in a potentially explosive atmosphere, and being marked as a trouble‑maker, got himself arrested, handed over to the Romans and executed. Literally that simple, but hardly the end of story in Jesus’ particular case."

(31) Conner attempts to reduce Jesus to two elements here: miracle-worker and end-times prophet.  Which begs dozens of questions raised in Jesus is No Myth and elsewhere.  This is Occam raised to the level of Hokum, dispensing with too much of the evidence to be credited.

"The historian Josephus reports several rabble‑rousers of this type, (32) among them Theudas, described as a “sorcerer” or “impostor” as well as a “prophet,” and another man, “a magician,” who led at throng of followers into the wilderness, and yet another, the “Egyptian false prophet,” (33) also described as a “magician,” who gathered an immense mob and led an unsuccessful attack on Jerusalem. (34) Josephus also reveals the Roman response to such magician‑prophets: kill them."

32. Josephus actually "reports" no "rabble-rouser" like Jesus.  He reports Jesus, twice, and seems to give him surprising respect. 

33. Such socio-religious movements are common around the world.  In China, there represent enormous and sometimes successful rebellions.  Hong Xiuquan was the most famous modern rebel like that, and he even borrowed from the Bible.  But Hong was nothing at all like Jesus.  (I wrote one of my MA papers on Hong: the historian Vincent Shih included a history of such movements in his work on the Tai Pings, though many other writers have also described the phenomenon.)

No one, in the Greco-Roman world or in China, describes an "rabble-rouser" like Jesus of Nazareth, as recounted in the gospels.  Conner's reductionism therefore fails. 

34. Now aside from reducing Jesus to just two elements, he invents another: Jesus was a general, too.  The problem is, there is no evidence of that, and a great deal of evidence against it.  (Despite Reza Aslan: again, see Jesus is No Myth for my rebuttal of his "zealot" argument.)

Inventing evidence is even worse than throwing out evidence.  

Conner goes on to cite (or cherry-pick) incidents and sources from centuries later to support his hypothesis, following Morton Smith.  

And speaking of the devil: 

"Morton Smith’s great sin against Jesus Studies was to look behind the theologized Jesus, 35 to situate him in the popular culture of his time, to contextualize his actions, even his reported vocabulary, and reveal that the clothes had no Emperor, that there was no there there, that the Jesus of the gospels had embarrassingly little of substance to say 36 to those who struggled against the surge of the crowd to touch the hem of his garment. In short, if Smith’s evaluation of Jesus were true, it mean the academy would have to come to grips with the evidence and stop faking Jesus." (37)

35.  Actually, Smith's "great sin against Jesus Studies" was to invent an apocryphal book called The Secret Gospel of Mark, and pawn it off as real.  (Probably.) 

36. Smith is right in supposing that you can't remove miracles from the gospels.  They are to be found in every source, at every level.  Jesus was not just a liberal secular humanist who taught us to be nice to one another.  The fact that miracles really do occur, around the world (Craig Keener is helpful here) should help us overcome any modern prejudice against Jesus on Humean grounds. 

But the Jesus Seminar, and Jefferson, and Tolstoy, and Gandhi, and the crowds around Jesus, are right also.  "No man has taught as this man."  Morton and Conner may choose to chuck all that evidence -- the founding words of western civilization, which have done more to reform and improve the world than any other words -- but that is their own problem with the evidence, or "sin against Jesus Studies." 

Yeah, Jesus had "embarrassingly little to say."  And we're still just starting to come to grips with it.  Poor little Mark, scoffed at as a fool by so many, made it all up, don't you know!  That was his secret power! 

37.  By "evidence" Conner means "the evidence I choose to keep, not the evidence I throw away when the game warden motors up to my boat." 

"In my opinion any two pages chosen at random from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contain more insight than the entire New Testament."38

Sorry, I kind of fell asleep reading Meditations.  Chesterton also found him rather platitudinous and self-important. What did he say, again?

This comment marks Conner, I am afraid, as some pitiable form of fool. I am inclined to respond that I Corinthians 13, by one of Jesus' disciples, in itself carries more weight than any Greek, Roman, or Chinese moral writing. (Though I love Zhuang Zi, Confucius, Lao Zi, Epictetus, and some parts of Plato and Aristotle.)  It would be better to simply say that Mr. Conner seems to be badly lacking in taste, sense, or some other important faculty, that he fails to see what almost all the rest of the world sees so easily. 

Image result for fish story
The Hebrew prophets are among the greatest moral geniuses in human literature: yet Jesus stands, even as a man, far above any of them.  It is no surprise, really, that geniuses like the great reformers of 19th Century and early 20th Century India and China, Dickens and Tolstoy and Pascal, abolitionists and great missionary reformers and educators, were so often captured by the words of Jesus.  What is surprising is that skepticism has descended to such a level, that an intelligent man like Robert Conner to say something so incredibly thick as:

Given the sheer ordinariness of Jesus in the 1st century, I can offer nomore reason for why Christianity should today be at least nominally believed upon by a billion people than to quote the 19th century folk‑lorist Cheales: “Unlooked for often comes to pass.” In fact, I can thinkof few topics under general discussion that are of less relevance in this, Anno Domini 2013, than the life and career of Jesus. In my view ,the Jesus of the gospels has nothing much to say to us . . . "

Meanwhile, the son of one of the founders of Hamas can pour through the gospels and say, like one of the leaders of the Democracy Movement in China (I paraphrase), "When Jesus says, 'My sheep hear my voice,' I understand what he means, because I hear that voice, and it goes right to my soul.'"  And the great Chinese man of letters Lin Yutang, having anthologized the great teachings of India and China, can write of Jesus, "Blow out the candles!  The sun has risen!" 

But as usual, no one put it better than Jesus.  Scholars of this ilk truly are the "blind leading the blind."   

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