Jesus Mythicism: Ehrman and Price

I hate being salt in the wound, but one of the more funny things to do, as someone with a background in biblical studies, is watching the flailing and blind waffling of Jesus mythicists.

Mythicism is what happens when untrained, undereducated (in the particular subject being discussed), ideologically naive people gather into walled off groups and discuss the fanciful while pretending they are circumventing the ideology of the academy at large (assuming NT studies is corrupted by Christian practitioners).

Because of the bizarre nature of such debates, I decided I had to stay up until midnight (London Time) on October 20th to watch a nearly three hour event, a debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price. At times I was intrigued, but mostly I knew perturbation. That feeling probably peaked when Price had the gall to suggest that Paul didn’t write Galatians. What?!

I, obviously, had a side. I’m a Pauline scholar with a background working on, particularly, Paul and his reception and possible uses in political philosophy and critical theory. Because of this, I do often find myself in a strange spot where I rely on biblical studies and defend it, while still occupying a marginal space on the boundaries of the discipline.

But, I am also aware of the limitations in method for the work on the historical Jesus. These have been pointed out by plenty, including Ehrman, Crossley, R. Myles, D. Kirkman,  and scores of reasonably skeptical scholars (who note problems with, for instance, criteria like “embarrassment” or dissimilarity)

Because of this, I actually was looking forward to some interesting pushback, either through Price’s grappling with Ehrman, or through the audience Q & A. Instead, I found myself messaging a friend, lamenting that I had stayed up so late (he felt mutual). I also paid £6. I could have gotten 3 beers from Tesco and had enough change leftover for candy. Probably would have resulted in a more fun night.

Every point brought up by Price was easily countered by Ehrman (though he did make some mistakes, and acted a bit authoritative on points that aren’t quite concrete, like the ethnicity of Mark). The audience questions, likewise, were just silly. The type that could easily have been cleared up by reading a few surveys instead of getting one’s feet wet in the subject by  picking up mythicist literature.

Here, then, we can come to the crux of the issue. This is purely ideological, through and through. It isn’t really about scholarship, or finding Truth, or some other romanticized notion. It’s about forming scholarship that finds its guiding touchpoints through the broader cultural form of certain types of atheism.

There was, however, an enjoyable breakdown of the evening with scholars on an online podcast, consisting of James McGrath and James G. Crossley. This was the highlight of the night as they were given chance to discuss the some of the details of the debate. Several minutes in a mythicist joined the ranks, so at times it felt like a second mini-event. This was, perhaps, the saving grace of the evening. 

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Why I am Neither Liberal nor Conservative.

It is rather unfortunate that in the wake of Gospel enaction the new head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is labeled in highly divisive political categories by naive and ignorant reporters. The handling of religion by journalists is generally notoriously bad (want a sample and critique? Head over to getreligion.org) not least because journalists usually deal in generalization and have rather surface level understandings of religion in general, but also  because there is a larger narrative being woven through these markets; journalism is a commodification machine, for the most part,  looking for an angle to sell wherever such an angle can be excised and highlighted. And so, Pope Francis is a flaming liberal. I mean, obviously, right?

Simple statement. But, how true is this? Is this even a part of the Catholic narrative?

Hardly, least because dealing within these categories is just a mishandling of what Christ has called his followers to be/do.  Politics pervades, but to create such a binary opposition between liberal/conservative is both naive and highly contingent. But, contingent upon what? When we speak of contingency we are speaking of a resting on another thing, being dependent on. This binary opposition, a way of orienting public speech and action, depends on something larger that comes before it. it is not that reality is firmly and resolutely defined and oriented around these two terms, liberal and conservative; and further, it isn’t that politics is a way of being within one of these two categories.

The political life is dominated by the liberal tradition coming in after the slowly encompassing Enlightenment narrative, a narrative of autonomy and individualization.  In this understanding of life all humans are radical individuals, unencumbered selves with the ability, and often duty, to abstract themselves from the particularities of their social formation. Individuals are called to this understanding because, since it is an abstraction from outer realities and particularities, it is universal. It’s universality is dependent on total abstraction and “neutrality.” Of course, this understanding is itself highly contingent, and in this there is a sort of delusion that the individual is able to break away and enter into a total abstraction.

Humans are contingent beings, and our adoption of the Enlightenment story is just that: the adoption of another story, one which provides a narrative of abstraction and universality while having its basis within contingency and particularity! As Stanley Hauerwas notices: “Ironically, the most coercive aspect of the liberal account of the world is that we are free to make up our own story. The story that liberalism teaches us is that we have no story, and as a result we fail to notice how deeply that story determines our lives.” While this is a simplification (this is a blog post after all…), it is a fair, in my mind, understanding of the modern political system.  This is the modern liberal West, a politicization based in political abstraction, decisionism, and economic market capitalism.  And Christianity cannot fit within either one of these categories properly. Now, both sides of the same coin will co-opt Christian rhetoric in order to further their agenda, and many of those who co-opt religious language believe themselves to be staying true to Christianity, but the problem is that they have given into a very different metaphysic. Choice is the answer. Decision is the key. The abortion debate, for instance, is often syllogistically displayed with reference to primacy of choice. In either decision someone’s possible choice is contradicted. Either the unborn child, or the female, who is considered as an abstract entity who is to be granted the privilege of choosing, based on a deontological ethic, what is correct.  In the case of the Pope being anti-abortion, the reason has very little to do with this deontological ethic. It isn’t on the horizon, I would think.

Religion has, also, been a consistent commodified reality, particularly since the alignment of conservative capitalists and neoliberals with big Religion.

When it comes to the poor, it also has very little to do with a modern liberal-democratic understanding of what is right. Instead it is based on tradition in light of the work of the Christ of the Gospels who exhorted his followers to care for the widow, the orphan, the leper. There is no prior political point, when we speak of the liberal politic. But, there is a political point when we consider that politics (communal formation) is Christianity. As Hauerwas, Stephen Long, David Horrell, Doug Harink, John Milbank, MacIntyre, Yoder, and others have shown in the years of post-liberal theology, there is a primacy of communal moral formation that is found within the narrative of Christ. I cannot find myself within this usual spectrum of “liberal or conservative” because it is a narrative I eschew based on my prior allegiance to a different Kingdom. This Kingdom is of peace, something the modern liberal order continually breaches. The poor, the hungry, the widow, the uncared for, the broken, the dalit, the “illegal,” the confused, the dying, the meek, the powerless; they are the kingdom of life.  They represent what the liberal and the conservative never can bcause these post-Enlightenment political orders are concerned with domination and the commodification of persons; their priests are the economists, their sacred writings of justice are found in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Locke, and Rawls; their lives oriented around false universals.

A Kingdom of Justice: Part 1

Justice? Competing Visions…

Evil acts are committed.

Reaction(s) occur.

The audience applause.

These are the bare minimums, the bare occurrences, within plots; problem, reaction(s), and ending solution. We watch a movie and the plot is introduced with an initial problem. Someone has to do something! Some person must solve this problem which often concerns some sort of evil or immoral act, or other such problem. Stories are ripe with the fruits of cultural engagement, engagement which transcends the story and reaches also into the metaphysical concerns and beliefs of  a culture or cross section of a culture. Thus, perhaps we can look a bit into story to see what seems to me to be the norm when it comes to how justice is understood by our culture.

Take, for instance, a really simplified version of Gladiator. Certainly this film has been seen  by many to be a modern-day classic, and a film which has helped bring about popularity of historic biopics with similar scenery (like Troy and Alexander). It is an amazing piece of cinema and holds up to a variety of interpretations and artful analyses. However, taking an extremely simplified analysis allows one to see the usual good vs. evil motif, or perhaps less strongly, right vs. wrong. Justice must be done, and even if Maximus is not able to see fulfillment in this life, he will meet his family in the next. The ones who did wrong against him are ultimately accounted for and there is vindication.

War movies have similarly been popular in recent decades, especially ones that pit the Righteous Allied against the Evil Axis, or perhaps the Good Western democracies against the Bad Communists. It is all very black and white. It is all very simplified; evil must be defeated ultimately through persuasion or force. Evil is given ontological reality, it is a thing that must be encountered and defeated.

Christians often do the same, especially when aligned with the state or other prominent powers. The Spanish Inquisition, though actually quite limited in scope, sought to bring about the ultimate good through persuasive force. The ultimate goal was to save the soul of the pagan or mistaken Jew, even if they must be forcibly baptized or made to recant their prior faith. We can also see here the separation between the material and spiritual, though such is relatively absent in New Testament literature.

Modern Christians have done similar. Following H. Richard Niebuhr it has become the norm to view Christ’s commands (or imperatives) as unlivable. After all, we live in a fallen and sinful world.  But also, after all, we live within Christendom, right? A sort of civil religion still exists whereby American nationalism and patriotism are seen as connected intimately with Christianity. What is good for America is good for the church.

In fact, when evil is done to America or seeks to dominate swaths of land or influence culture, the American/Christian must intercede. When terrorists cause havoc it is an imperative that we become involved and punish those that do evil acts so that further destruction may not occur. Or so that those who have died are avenged. The soldier is fighting for the country, and for virtues that are at the heart of both America and (supposedly) the Christian faith.

This is the dominant paradigm. Justice involves engagement, and engagement is usually through mediums of force or persuasion.

Do these contentions hold up? Is this the biblical paradigm that Christians are called to live by? Certainly it is rationally justifiable, but which rationality and whose justice are we navigating under? 

Such questions will be further pondered in the second part of this blog.