Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jesus is dead, I Presume

Jesus was a failed, apocalyptic, Jewish prophet--and not a prophet in the sense of actually making true prophecies, but just in the sense of saying things about the future.

File:Pologenie vo grob.jpgApparently, if I correctly paraphrased Bart Ehrman from one or more of his many Youtube appearances, this is a broad scholarly consensus regarding the historical Jesus. In his popular books, Ehrman isn't presenting anything that is new to scholars, he is just conveying it accessibly to a broader audience. Of course he will admit that there is disagreement on any number of details, and that there is room for some variety of interpretations. He also admits that history can not comment on the miraculous. By its nature, the discipline of scholarly history can't tell you anything conclusive about one off, miraculous events. But he is convinced enough of his basic analysis of Jesus that he is willing to go around preaching it. He is willing to make claims about Christian belief in the divine based on historical research.

This disconnect between scholarly history and religious experience seems obvious enough to me that for years I couldn't be bothered to pay serious attention to unbelieving scholars. I feel about it a lot like I feel about the psychology of religion. It is worth learning about because it is likely that we each hold false beliefs. Understanding scholarship can help us weed out some of our errors and can enrich our understanding. But when the scholarship goes beyond its limits, it isn't worth much. False hypothesis, arbitrary conclusion. I know revelation happens and God lives. I have data sources I accept that demonstrate this conclusively to my satisfaction. These are not data sources that I could or would use in a chemistry paper, or that I would presume prove these truths to anyone else's satisfaction. We each have to weigh evidence, and personal, internal experience (including trust in specific people, like my ancestors, or Joseph Smith) is not something you can pass on academically. I have this evidence, so I've been happy mostly limiting my scholarly intake as regards religion to scholars who share these beliefs.

My entry into biblical scholarship.

Then I started having friendly and trusting feelings (maybe it's a friendship, but it is really rather one-sided, since I know him much better than he knows me) with a New Testament scholar who is LDS but seems to believe roughly what Bart Ehrman does about Jesus. It made me want to understand, and begin to wonder if there was something more compelling in the dominant conclusions of biblical scholarship than I had imagined. How far do the limits of biblical scholarship extend? Had I been assuming those limits were too narrow, and that scholars really could say more about Jesus' life and teachings than I was giving them credit for? Of course, I knew they could say more about Jesus than I knew, but I mean did they really have something that seriously challenged the validity of my religious views of Jesus? I asked my friend for some substantial recommendations. He gave me several. I'm working my way through the recommendations, now. What follows is my emotional/logical response to one of these books:

In Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders presents an attempt to understand the historical Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism. If you want to understand the methods behind a scholarly approach to understanding Jesus, and you want an overview of major arguments made from about 1900-1975, the introduction alone is well worth reading. Honestly, I'm not much past it, but there are so many things in it that I have to write now, before I've finished the book. I'm going to give you a few examples of things I found valuable or informative.

Apparently there are only a few agreed on facts about Jesus. "The almost indisputable facts, listed more or less in chronological order are these:
  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  7. After his death Jesus' followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul's career. 
End quote.

The problem(s)

The problem scholars face is tying as many of these things as possible together into a coherent story that fits the external facts of history. One difficulty in trying to tell this story is that almost every saying attributed to Jesus is suspect. This will begin to have practical consequences in the very first section of his book where Sanders discusses the temple controversy. I almost laughed aloud at this gem of a sentence on the first page of chapter 1: "Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction." Sanders' discussion is much better than that sentence suggests, but he has really put himself, and all scholars, in a very difficult position. Before anyone can make any claims about Jesus' teachings--the very best potential window into Jesus' thought and intention--he or she must make long, detailed arguments about what Jesus actually said.

Getting back to the introduction, the problems with sayings are essentially insuperable. To summarize Sanders' stance: 1. We know the sayings have been transmitted by the church, and so have been altered, or at least maintained, in a way that biases them in favor of the church institution (this means the early Christian movement, not a specific denomination). I'm going to pause here for a little preaching about the value of taking scholarship seriously. Latter-day Saints should respect the fact that scripture has changed. According to the Pew Research Center's survey on religion, the majority of Mormons do believe this. While accepting scripture as the word of God, we do not believe in scriptural inerrancy. We save that for modern LDS interpretation as implemented in our policies, lesson manuals, and General Conference. That's from the Pew survey, too, although they didn't ask exactly that question. They asked if there is only one correct interpretation of our doctrine. About half of Latter-day Saints believed there is only one correct interpretation, despite ample evidence that interpretations of many doctrines, both central and peripheral, have changed over our 150 year history. These changes have happened even with our ample access to historical documents and our access to the printing press. Here's a clear case of, if we don't learn history we are likely to repeat it. I'll leave you to judge what we will be repeating.

Back to Sanders. 2. Tests people have used to attempt to objectively determine the original forms of sayings are unreliable. Here's another aside. We do not have sufficient documentary evidence upon which to base truly objective analyses of Jesus' teachings. You can't plug his words into a statistical program designed for assigning authorship and determine anything at all. In fact, you can barely think about doing it with Paul, and I don't think you can even do it with Paul. It's hard enough with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and there are many more thousands of words in documents we have from Joseph Smith. So you can't do it with statistics, but textual critics claim they can do it objectively from inferred original sources that have no direct documentary evidence. I have to say, if there weren't so many of us who revere the Bible, we'd have a lot of out of work scholars.

Sanders again. 3. "In a few instances there is indisputable evidence that a saying has been altered or perhaps created after the death of Jesus, but we can give nothing like a catalogue of the kinds of changes that may have been introduced." In other words, we know a few things changed. We have no evidence of changes in most of the sayings (other than, perhaps, a different way of paraphrasing the same message). About the only thing that can be shown (almost) conclusively is that for the few sayings where changes are clearly documented, Jesus didn't say the later version. So for most sayings we are making our most educated guesses. We are extrapolating, and extrapolating based on subjective criteria. One of Ehrman's favorite Youtube arguments is that since we know a few changes happened later, between 100 and 200 CE, the changes that happened before then must have been much bigger. I say, maybe you're right. My chemistry experience has shown me that extrapolation is the least accurate type of prediction, so show me the algorithm you used to do your extrapolation, and don't assume I'm too dumb to understand the details. This is why I wanted to read the real stuff. I wanted the best, nitty-gritty reviews of what biblical scholars know.

What would Jesus say?

What are some of the ways scholars argue authenticity? Sanders describes one type of test for authenticity of sayings called "double dissimilarity". If a saying is different from what Jews taught, and is different from what later Christians taught, then it pretty confidently came from Jesus. Sanders concludes that this is a little helpful, but not very. I think I agree, so I won't go into his discussion of the problems with this approach.

Another question that biblical scholars have to address is whether Jesus had a plan, and whether he himself knew what that plan was. They have to figure this out without knowing exactly what Jesus said, too. I don't envy them this task. In fact, Sanders claims that all of the major attempts to define this plan and draw connections from it to Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans have major flaws. The flaws he points out seem pretty convincing. I will note here that Sanders does not include among the possible hypotheses the plan as Christians (any Christians, early or late) came to understand it. Apparently it is self-evident that such an understanding was imposed after the fact and could not have been held by Jesus. In defense of Sanders and other scholars, I agree that they can't consider this possibility in their publications and be true to the standards of their profession. I should say, that is true if their funding is secular. I would not permit into a scientific journal a chemistry article that argued based on revelation, on miraculous healings, or on the resurrection of Jesus. I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't even want it as a basis for argument in Book of Mormon studies, necessarily. You can discuss these things as people's experiences, but not as a basis for rational argument. I just don't agree that the resurrection hypothesis is unworthy of examination. Thankfully, there are religiously funded scholars who can entertain and examine hypotheses that incorporate the literal resurrection of Jesus, but Sanders isn't among them (I'm not assuming he wants to be).

The resurrection

I noticed in the introduction that the resurrection of Jesus is a key part of understanding the success of early Christianity. Whether or not it happened, scholars recognize the importance of the resurrection experience as understood by early Christians. This experience (real or perceived) changed how Christians understood Jesus' sayings. Whether it also caused them to modify or invent sayings is a question that must be asked. Ah, how the waters get muddier! Already in the first chapter, this will become a problem, and the implicit assumptions of scholarly history will hijack Sanders' discussion of Jesus. He will still have interesting things to say, but their appeal to someone like me will begin to wane.

Implicit assumptions

Scholarly history requires naturalistic explanations. Jesus may have healed people, or people may have thought they were healed by Jesus, but the explanation that is not allowed is that Jesus did it inexplicably. As Latter-day Saints, we can go along with that because of people like Brigham Young who taught that all miracles obey the laws of nature, but that's not really what scholars are assuming. They are assuming Jesus couldn't have done his miracles (or perceived miracles) through the power of God. So they are rejecting the Mormon view of miracles, too. Another example. Jesus died, and the tomb might have been empty on the third day. Jesus' followers might have experienced his resurrection (hallucinations, lies from power or fame seeking leaders, self-delusions, or something), but His actual, physical resurrection cannot be part of the scholarly discourse. Let's look next at prophecy. Jesus might have had good foresight, and he certainly was a prophet, because he said things about what would happen in the future. However, Jesus can't have known that he would be resurrected (he wasn't resurrected, so he couldn't have known he would be), so the statement that the temple would be destroyed and built again after three days can't have been referring to Jesus' death and resurrection. In his first chapter, Sanders doesn't discuss this possibility. The result is an entire chapter that can't conclude anything. Sanders' conclusion is that every major naturalistic explanation of Jesus statement about the destruction of the temple is even more flawed than the one he favors. Sanders is quite good about recognizing weaknesses in his own arguments, but as Sherlock Holmes says, when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the answer. The hypothesis that remains is that Jesus thought the end of the world was coming quick. Someone would destroy the temple, and three days later (maybe) God would bring down a newly built temple (made without hands).

I got to this point and thought, wow, I'm done. We've already proved that Jesus was a failed (his prophecy didn't come true), apocalyptic (he thought the end of the world was almost here) prophet. All that's left is to show that he's a product of 1st century Judaism, and I don't really care if that's true once I know he failed. I know Joseph Smith was a product of 19th century America, so why should it bother me if Jesus was a Jew? As you might imagine, my interest in this book declined, at this point. Sanders ignored as a possibility the very interpretation of this saying given in the Bible--namely that Jesus knew he would die and be resurrected. He was forced to ignore it by the historical method, even if it wasn't his inclination (I can't speak to that). It is possible that Sanders was right. What is not possible is that his scholarship has anything to say about the resurrection of Christ. He assumed a priori that the resurrection did not occur and that prophecy can't be more than intelligent foresight or wishful thinking. And he's not doing it in some clever mathematical way, like assuming A and showing not A, so A can't be true. He's assuming not A and showing not A. I think the word for that is tautology. As far as I know, tautologies are only proof that definitions exist. Maybe there are going to be more relevant, thoughtful discussions of the resurrection hypothesis later in the book, but I doubt it. You see, Sanders laid out his plan. He would start from the agreed on event that is most revealing of the historical Jesus--the controversy in the temple--and build on that to create the most accurate depiction of the historical Jesus. Already at his foundation he has ignored the hypothesis I favor. I'm skeptical about my ability to respect his subsequent conclusions, and there isn't really anything Sanders can do about it. His professional standards prevent it. Maybe his hypothesis is better than mine--it's certainly better informed--but they weren't ever compared.

I want to step aside and make some things clear. I am really liking the care with which Sanders presents his arguments. He has put all his cards on the table and is not shy about pointing out the limitations of his own conclusions. The one thing he hasn't said is that all his arguments are founded on this strict, atheistic naturalism. I believe in natural explanations for things. I'm committed to it, professionally. I'm also committed to it as one of those Mormons who thinks all truth, religious and scientific, can be reconciled into one great whole. I suspect we might be children of evolved Gods that came into being, innumerable generations ago, through semi-random events. But Sanders' strict naturalistic explanation has already led him away from even discussing any possibilities I could believe in. It looks like most of the rest of the book is dedicated to supporting the hypothesis that Jesus is a failed, apocalyptic, Jewish prophet, but without comparing it to the hypothesis that Jesus was a successful deity. If, at the end of the day, he concludes that he has accurately shown who the historical Jesus was, all I can say is, you didn't even examine the Jesus I know.

I'll finish with Sanders' own conclusion to his introduction:
That the problem we have posed is not susceptible of a rock-hard answer which absolutely excludes all others is shown not only by the difficulties which can be brought against any hypothesis, but also by the very large number of hypotheses. It is almost a foregone conclusion that a fresh attempt to unravel the problem--or rather set of problems--which we have posed will not come up with a totally new answer. There are no totally new answers (except for fictional constructions) to be offered. We shall, however, investigate the most pertinent points in an effort to come up with the best answer. One is looking for a hypothesis which explains more (not everything), which gives a good account (not the only one) of what happened, which fits Jesus realistically into his environment, and which has in view cause and effect.
Is it beating a dead horse to add, a hypothesis that fits the naturalistic assumptions of the historical method?

My conclusions

  • I like the care with which Sanders approaches his work. I assume many other biblical scholars take similar care.
  • If something in the Bible or in our beliefs is subject to measurement, we should not only be unafraid to measure it, it is incumbent upon us to do so. The Gospel is all truth, so if we want to believe the Gospel, we better be willing to throw away falsehood as we uncover it. This means that we should be looking to these careful scholars for answers where their methods are justly applied. Growth requires restraining our defensive instincts.
  • Biblical scholarship is inherently limited by naturalistic assumptions. So is science. That shouldn't stop us from doing it, but Reader Beware when you turn to history asking it to speak on subjects outside of its scope. If you assume Jesus is dead, it should be no surprise that your conclusions agree with your assumptions.
  • If you can't identify the assumptions behind the scholarship, you don't understand the scholarship. It may not be your fault. The experts may not have told you what they assume. Some assumptions may be such integral parts of their thought that they don't even recognize them anymore. That's what makes them experts. If they had to start from the ground up with everything they wrote, no progress would be made. But don't think that because there is scholarly consensus it means that the story is over. Especially when the scholars themselves are giving answers to questions they say that scholarship can't conclusively answer.
  • I don't think I have the patience or interest to seek out the good in biblical scholarship and reexamine it in light of the things I "know" about God, revelation, the temple, and the plan of salvation.
  • I hope Latter-day Saints who do have the patience and the interest will carefully examine the work of these scholars and communicate the best of it to me. I can't imagine that my religious experience and understanding will be anything but enriched by such efforts. 
  • To scholars: if it's important to you that I understand the work of scholars, don't tell me to go read a synthesis by an unbeliever. I'll see his assumptions and constantly be fighting suspicion of his conclusions. I'll be wondering  Write it yourself with assumptions of unbelief weeded out. Show me how your conclusions aren't predetermined by unbelieving assumptions. I'll hear it better.
I'll continue a while longer working through my reading list. There has already been lots of interesting stuff in the first parts of the first two books (I haven't written about the other). Maybe the books my friend says are from "a more faithful perspective" will be more interesting to me. I don't have time or patience for scholars who look for the historical Jesus while assuming He's dead.

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