Sunday, November 30, 2014

Recently overheard at a yard sale

me: (sorting through a pile of books at a yard sale) wow, this book is huge!
yard owner: yeah, it is huge.  My kids liked that book when they were in school.  They thought it was fun.  It helped them learn history.
me: Oh!  This is a history book?
yard owner: yes, but it is done so that the history events look like newspaper articles.  It is full of pictures and catchy headlines!
me: This book is huge though!
yard owner: well, it covers all of world history even into ancient times!  Look, it even has headlines from what might have happened 10,000 years ago!
yard owner: (suddenly pauses and looks at me for fear that he may have offended me)
yard owner: 10,000 years ago .. uh… .unless you love Jesus.
me: (laughing until nearly wetting myself)
It was the best laugh I have had all week.  I am sure he thought I was mad.  I bought the book.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Racism in the Outback

I am finally home in El Paso to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.  After almost a year away from home, I spent the last month in the tropical savannah of northern Australia.  Upon coming home, I had many stories to tell my family from this amazing place on the other side of the world.  But for this blog, I will share a story that I have not yet shared with anybody.

I was picking up supplies in Darwin before heading back into the outback for field work.  This meant a trip to LiquorLand for a crate of delicious and expensive Carlton Draught.  The liquor store was crowded, and I was standing in line with a case of beer and a credit card.  Suddenly I heard a ruckus behind me.  I spun around and saw a young white LiquorLand cashier scold a young black Aboriginal Australian.

“Why are you doing that?!?  Why are you waving your arms around?!?”  The cashier thrust his face inches from the black man and stared him dead in the eye. “Answer me!!”

The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“That is not an answer!!  Why are you waving your arms around?!!?  Are you trying to cause trouble?!!?”

Without saying another word, the Aborigine immediately walked out of the liquor store.  I only noticed the customers in line paying any attention.  All others continued scanning the shelves for their favorite brew.  After chasing the black man out of the store, the cashier went back to his register and faced the young woman waiting at the front of the line.  She was another black Aboriginal.

The cashier’s eyes glared at the woman with razor concentration.  “Are you with him?!!?  What did he do?!!?  Why was he waving his arms?!!? “

 The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“ ‘nah’ is not an answer!!  Answer me!!  Why was he waving his arms like that?!!?  What trouble is he causing!!”

 The Aboriginal woman mumbled.  “He is not with me.”

“Now that is an answer.  That is better.  When you see him, tell him to stay out of this store!!” 

 I have seen small hints of racism in my travels this year.  I felt uncomfortable when my Slovene friends made degrading racial jokes against Serbians.  But this encounter left me dumbfounded.  Worse yet was the reaction, or rather inaction, of all the other customers in the store.  Judging by their casual attitude to unwarranted interrogation of two Aborigines, I figure this scene is still common between the two races of Australia.  I did not know what to do as I stood in line.  When my turn came up to purchase the beer, the cashier was perfectly pleasant and professional.  It is such a dichotomy in my mind when an otherwise likable young man was a blatant, unapologetic racist at the flick of a switch.  How can these two personalities exist under the same skin?  I can just imagine such a scene occurring here in a local El Paso liquor store between a White cashier and a black customer.  All customers would protest and scream bloody hell!  The cashier would be lucky to get away with just a firing but would more likely get a couple of good fists to the face behind the store alley.  The complacency of the Australian customers was what unnerved me the most about the whole episode.

I got the impression that the relation between Whites and Aboriginals in Australia was one of mere toleration and not complete acceptance.  They got along because they had to get along.  While I was escorted by my Australian hosts deep in the Outback, we passed a group of Aboriginal people, including men, women and children, trying to flag us down by their parked car by the road.  The engine hood was up; a sure sign of car trouble.  Although we had a toolbox and an emergency satellite phone, we passed them by.  I have lived in rural regions of New Mexico most of my life, and a rule of hospitality is to stop and help if you are able when you see a person in distress by the road.  There are too many sparsely populated areas up there and car trouble could be more danger for the driver than the car.  

As he drove past them, my host turned to me and said, “Some advice – when you see them trying to flag you down, don’t stop.  Just keep driving.”

I understood the rationale.  It could be a trap.  They could be armed.  They may rob us of our cash!  But  as the days passed, I traveled that same stretch of road numerous times, and while the Aboriginal family had long since left the scene, their abandoned car never left that spot on the side of the road.  Each day we passed, the car lost a little more value due to human scavengers and vandals.  If this were a trap, the thieves were certainly dedicated to keeping up the front, even at the expense of their own vehicle. 

I only stayed in northern Australia for a month, and never spoke to a single Aborigine, so I have a very biased, ignorant and myopic view of the race relations that I witnessed there.   But I do know that the British first colonized southern Australia around 1800, and the northern Darwin region of Australia around 1830 or so.  The invasion of White colonists is extremely recent in the history of the ancient Aboriginal culture.  It is only 200 years or so, give or take, that they have had to share the same land.  At only 200 years of relations, I suspect that the current relation between Australian Whites and Australian Aborigines is about the same relation that existed in the United States say about the year 1830 between American Whites and American Aborigines.  Just a hunch …

With all the traveling I did this year, Rosemary suggested I get a gig on TV like Anthony Bourdain.  Nah, that would not work for me.  My travel show would be too much like my blog articles: instead of writing about the amazing tropical wildlife that I saw, I instead write about what made me nervous and uncomfortable.  Who wants to watch that?  Besides, I can’t eat all the food that he does in his show. 

I am glad to be back home.  Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We grieve to our gods

During my recent European travels, I visited the Narodni muzej Slovenije in Ljubljana.  The ancient Roman artifacts there just whetted my strange fascination with old tombstones and graveyards.

About the time that Jesus was said to have been born in Bethlehem, the region now known as Slovenia was annexed by Roman Empire.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the beautiful country of Slovenia, and I made a point to visit several of the national museums in the short time I was there.

Although all remnants of the Roman Empire are now buried, underwater, or scattered in ruins, traces of it can still be found in various places.  The original castle foundation in the town of Škofja Loka dates back to Roman times.  I wanted to see more Roman artifacts from the region of Emona, as the capitol city of Ljubljana was known at the time.  So I was amazed when I saw the Roman tombstones housed in the Narodni muzej Slovenije (National Museum of Slovenia).  Dozens of tombstones from the Roman era were dredged out from the bottom of the Ljubljanica River and placed on display in the museum.  I was fascinated by these tombstones, because these were the records of ancient common people as they grieved to the pagan gods who carted the dead into the afterlife.  Not a single tombstone appealed to the Christian Deity, which for some reason only increased my fascination.  All the tombstones were inscribed in Latin, but placards gave translations into several European languages including English.  Photographs were not allowed, but I did have a pencil and an old Wal Mart receipt in my wallet.  It was enough for me to scribble the beautiful, sad, and poetic lines written by Atimetus, an otherwise unknown common individual who lived in ancient Emona.  He died two millennia ago, and the only trace he left of himself, was his inconsolable appeal before his gods.  Here is all I had room for on the back of that old Wal Mart receipt:

Urbana, the slave of Iulius Salvine, lies here.  Atimetus, her companion in servitude, had this monument erected.

You have stolen me from my husband, from my children, cruel gods, why have you taken me so soon?  I had only lived for three decades and already a mound of earth conceals my bones and ashes.

Now carry quickly on, traveler, forward where the road leads you!  All will subsequently meet their fate after me.

There were dozens of tombstones in the museum with equally tragic but beautiful inscriptions.  I only bothered to copy one.  I have said many times on this blog that our gods are always there for us to express our profoundest and deepest emotions.  It is true now, and it was true 2000 years ago.  Perhaps my fascination with tombstones is due to this constant reminder that people are drawn to their deities when they have no other way to express their overwhelming grief. 

Is there a point to this article?  Nope.  Just writing this down and putting my thoughts online before I clean out my wallet and lose that Wal Mart receipt forever.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Bone Church

I have been fortunate to travel to several different European countries this year.  I use my Facebook account to keep my family in New Mexico updated on my European adventures.  I am currently in western Czech Republic, otherwise known as Bohemia, enjoying the local historical sites, and indulging in the famed Bohemian food, spas, mineral baths and beer.  I wrote the following short article for my Facebook account.


I have read a lot about the 16th century Reformation in Europe, and while I find the subject fascinating, I quickly forget a lot of it because I have no visceral attachment to the subject.  A lot of that has changed now that I have actually visited Europe, and seen for myself some very small effects of Europe’s dark history.

We visited the nearby town of Kutná Hora, just a few miles outside of Prague.  I quickly got the impression that they were once sister cities, and maybe even rivaled each other in this Bohemian province of the Holy Roman Empire.  A name that I only vaguely remembered from my history lessons, Jan Hus, is all over this town.  He was a Czech priest who lived in this area back in the early 15th century.  It turns out that Hus read a little too much John Wycliffe, and decided that the Catholic Church was corrupt in its practice of Indulgences.  He began to openly preach this and against other Church doctrines.  At the time, Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and to defy the Catholic Church on fine points of dogma was to not only commit heresy, but also treason.  There was a long series of Church Councils, trials and papal schisms during this time, but the short story is that Jan Hus quickly found himself excommunicated.  He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.

After the execution, nearly the entire population of Bohemia remained loyal to Jan Hus, and revolted against the Catholic Church.  During the next 15 years, the Pope instituted five separate Crusades against the followers of Jan Hus, now known collectively as the Hussite Wars.  And this brings me back to my visit in Kutná Hora

I felt like an ignorant hick, looking at all the monuments to the Hussite Wars, and trying to recollect the dim memory of what they were.  We visited the historical museum, and even though there were no guides or signs in the English language, we saw pikes, spears, maces and other weapons, along with contemporary paintings of their use.  Using these weapons to personally crush or impale another human over dogma disputes is savage to me, but history is not a Disney movie.  We visited the silver museum and learned how Kutná Hora gained its fortune and importance from the region’s famed silver mines.  We also learned as an almost trivial fact, that there were so many dead bodies left in the wake of the Hussite Wars, that corpses were simply tossed into the mines.  We visited the beautiful Baroque Gothic church, Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie.  Like most of these old churches in Czech Republic, it still conducts mass, but is today mostly used as a museum and cultural marker.  Inside were hung paintings depicting the Hussite Wars.  Again, no signs or guides were printed in English, but I could make still make out the graphic depictions of slaughter as righteous acts of God.  Just across the street from the Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie was the grim Sedlec Ossuary.

The Sedlec Ossuary - popularly known to tourists as The Bone Church.  I tried to gain an introspective feeling at the Sedlec Ossuary, but for some reason I could not.  I still do not know quite what to feel about the place.  There were signs printed outside the church (including one in English) that warned visitors to remember that the church was now home to between 40 and 70 thousand people who were killed in the Hussite Wars, and to please remember to be respectful on the church grounds.  The small church, now known as an ossuary, or bone box, was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen.  Apparently, so many people were killed in this region during the Hussite Wars, that there was no room to bury them all.  So they were placed where room could be found.  Renovations to the Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie still turn up bodies buried in the church’s foundation, and a couple of them were even on display.  But the small Sedlec chapel in Kutná Hora had won fame because it was the site where a pilgrim had once sprinkled dirt that he had collected from Golgotha, the sight of the Crucifixion.  What better place to bury the countless numbers of dead?  It already had a famous cemetery because of the legendary dirt from Golgotha, so bodies had to be exhumed to make room for the sudden influx of new casualties from the war and placed inside the chapel.  Upwards of 70,000 of corpses were stuffed into the Sedlec chapel.  Beginning in the early 16th century, various efforts were made to clean the Sedlec Ossuary out, but final work was done in 1870 when a woodsmith named František Rint was commissioned to display the bones in an orderly fashion. 

Rint took the commission and created one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, but also one of the most beautiful and disturbing pieces of art I have ever seen.  The chapel is still surrounded by the old graveyard with the legendary dirt sprinkled from Golgotha, and walking past the tour buses and concession booths I walked inside.  The signature of the artist František Rint was plastered to the wall, created entirely out of human bones.  To the left was the Coat of Arms of the artist’s benefactors, again created entirely out of human bones.  The chapel itself was morbid, fascinating, beautiful, disturbing and reverent all at the same time.  Bones from some 70,000 people were artistically arranged, piled, stacked and organized in a way that left me speechless.  Alternating patterns of skulls and crossbones were interwoven along the wall tiles.  Two enormous altars of bone stood in the main sanctuary.  The bones were used with stunning ingenuity.  Hip bones and shoulder blades were fanned in a circular pattern around a group of skulls as a kind of macabre halo. Bone arrangements hung from the ceiling in a way that reminded me of marionettes.  Candle holders were made of arrangements from spinal vertebra.  Everything, the choir loft, the pulpit, even the ceiling tiles, was overlaid with a mosaic of human bones.  The enormous chandelier that was in the center of the chapel was also ingeniously created entirely out of human bones.  Finally, the four alcoves where I would normally see an altar or confession booth in any other traditional Catholic Church were piled to the ceiling with human bones.  Each pile was arranged in a pyramid shape, and included two skulls that guarded a candle holder arranged into the stack of bones.  

Visiting this chapel and wandering around the graveyard left me a little drained.  So we left for the nearest food court and indulged in more of that famous Czech sausage and beer!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review - Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 1

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

Jesus at the Vanishing Point – part 1

Jesus at the Vanishing Point is an article originally published in the collaborative book, The Historical Jesus: Five Views.  I think the idea of that book was to get five biblical scholars to write articles in defense of vastly different theories of who they think Jesus was, then scribble more ink critiquing each other's articles.  Price wrote the essay which defended his radical view that there is no such thing as a historical Jesus.  I have never read the entire book, so I have no idea what critiques or opinions the other scholars gave to Price's article.  Since I currently have no intention of purchasing this book, I guess this pathetic critique of my own will have to suffice. 

Dr. Price begins the article by explaining a few of the basic tools for the historian.  He asks, “What is the greatest commandment for historians?” (p25)

Whoa there, hold the phone for just a second.  Something about Price’s article has been bugging me since I first read it a couple of years ago, and I could only figure out why after thinking about it carefully.  In the previous article in this series, I discussed how Dr. Price prefers to approach the Gospels as a literary critic as opposed to a historian.  Now in Jesus at the Vanishing Point, Dr. Price is going to switch to the same role of historian that is followed by the majority of his scholarly contemporaries.  Before I discuss his method in any detail, let me quickly list what Dr. Price considers to be the greatest commandments of the historian:

1) The principle of analogy
2) The criterion of dissimilarity
3) The ideal type
4) Consensus is no criterion
6) Conclusions must be tentative

(There appears to be no number 5)

I have consulted a couple references on accepted best practices for the historical method, but try as I might, I cannot find anything regarding the ‘greatest commandments’, and I sure cannot find these criteria, particularly the first three, listed outside of the narrow discipline of Historical Jesus studies.  I am certainly no historian, and I fully admit that I am missing a lot of information regarding historical methodology, but in the few that I have read in this genre, I have not seen anything like these ‘greatest commandments’ listed.  True, I have seen the principle of analogy, the criterion of embarrassment, multiple independent attestation, and those kinds of things, but to this suspicious reader, Dr. Price’s particular ‘Greatest Commandments’ seem especially chosen to remove anything that can be possibly known of any historical Jesus.  Even those criteria that Dr. Price shares with his scholarly buddies seem to be deliberately and uniquely formulated by him to whittle Jesus away into nonexistence.  It seems to me to be deliberate.  I do not mind radical reinterpretations of existing data, but to call them ‘greatest commandments’ of a methodology seems to me like a subtle charge against his contemporaries.  Hey, if Dr. Price is using the greatest commandments of historical research and coming to the conclusion that Jesus never existed, why isn’t everybody else coming to the same conclusion as he?  It is so subtle, I doubt Dr. Price even knows that he is doing it.

With that out of the way, let’s look at Dr. Price’s historical ‘Greatest Commandments’ in a little more detail.

The Principle of Analogy

Robert Price asks, “What is the greatest commandment for historians?  The first and greatest is the Principle of Analogy.” (p25)  I am not sure what he means by this principle, because he immediately launches into a discussion of methodological atheism.  “...we weren't there and  thus do not know that natural law always operated as it does now ... but there is no particular reason not to think so, and unless we do, we have no criterion at all.  We will be at the mercy of old stories of people turning lead into gold, turning into werewolves, using magic to win battles…the historian must ask if an old account that does not fit the analogy of present-day experience does happen to match the analogy of legend or myth.” (p26)

Price seems to be mixing two ideas together under category of ‘Principle of Analogy”.  Basically, Price is telling us that if it walks and talks like a duck, it is likely a duck.  If the Gospel stories sound like they have the elements of countless myths from the ancient world, then more than likely, those Gospel stories too are myth.  I do think that this principle, as defined by Dr Price, can be too far-reaching.  We must remember that when dealing with the Gospels, or any other ancient writing, we are reading the words and thoughts from an unknown person, from an uncertain location, written with dubious motives, in an alien and forgotten culture.  The speculation surrounding the origin of many of these ancient myths should convince us that the Principle of Analogy does not apply in many cases.  These ancient people simply thought differently than modern people do.  For instance, why was the collection of mystical discourses and semi-gnostic cosmology, otherwise known to us as the Gospel of John, written?  The Principle of Analogy will be of no use in answering this question, at lease not when it is used in the way that Dr Price describes.

But I think I understand what Dr Price is trying to get at.  Because modern people agree that our common experience is governed by natural laws, and since there are apparently no observable miracles, we can only establish historical criteria based on what we have experienced.  Miracle has never been observed, thus according to the Principle of Analogy, what may seem to be a miracle on first glance, likely is explained by something more mundane.  History must be studied as a strictly secular discipline, and the study of history must proceed without considerations to the miraculous.  When this subject came up during my physics studies, we sometimes called this methodological atheism.  Even very religious scientists must practice their scientific discipline without recourse to their favorite deity.  Invoking a miracle to solve a challenging engineering problem is no solution at all – and everybody knows it.  The scientific study of history must be conducted in the same way.

Price lays out his standard of methodological atheism: “...we weren't there and thus do not know that natural law always operated as it does now ... but there is no particular reason not to think so, and unless we do, we have no criterion at all.  We will be at the mercy of old stories of people turning lead into gold, turning into werewolves, using magic to win battles.” (p26)

“If it looks more like a legend than like any verifiable modern experience, what are we to conclude?  If the story of Jesus walking on the water bears a strong resemblance to old stories in which Hermes, Pythagoras, the Buddha and others walk on water, mustn't we conclude we are probably dealing with a legend in the case of Jesus , too?” (p26)

I think Price is essentially correct here, but he is arguing with the wrong audience.  Much like the process detailed in the scientific method, the process of discovering the truth of history must assume a natural order.  If the existence of miracles can be included in historical analysis, then there are no boundaries to natural law, and all rules and methodology can be thrown out.  This 'Principle of Analogy' does make sense, but it is an argument against belief in literal miracles, not against a historical Jesus.  Most secular historians will admit that Jesus existed despite the obviously legendary miracles that are attached to his name.  Secular historians are not likely to believe that Jesus historically walked on water, multiplied food, or turned water to wine.  But these same historians will still believe that a historical Jesus did exist, and will likely look for some kind of historical kernel that underlay the embellished, miraculous legends.  Historically speaking, legend is not an 'all or nothing' proposition.

Price compares the accumulation of sayings attributed to Jesus with the number of Hadith attributed to Muhammed.  ”...early Muslim savants simply had no problem with fabricating Hadith if they thought the content was valid.” (p28)  Compare this with the attribution of quotes to Jesus from church signs.  But again - is this an argument against the existence of the historical Jesus?  Disciples of the Great Man would hear a profound saying.  It was so profound, in fact, that surely it must have come from the lips of the Great Man himself!  Because of this common practice, we may not be able to accurately determine what exactly the Great Man said, and even admit that popular apothegms were regularly attributed to him.  Albert Einstein has not yet been dead for 60 years, and even with detailed records of his works, even with the Internet, spurious quotes are commonly attributed to him.  Yet, there is no doubt that Albert Einstein was a real person.

Criterion of Dissimilarity

Price then outlines the remaining “historiographical commandments”.  “The second, the Criterion of Dissimilarity, is like unto [the Principle of Analogy]...The idea is that no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian sayings.” (p28)  Price gives an example. “ for the early church, the contradictions between gospel sayings on eschatology, divorce, fasting, preaching to Gentiles and Samaritans, etc., are most easily explained as the church ascribing their views to Jesus because they thought them valid inferences (or revelations from the Risen Lord).  If the Criterion of Dissimilarity leaves little left of the sayings of Jesus as potentially authentic, Price removes these too.  “...the Criterion of Dissimilarity must be all-devouring because of the central tenet of form-criticism, which is that in order to be transmitted, every gospel pericope must have had some pragmatic use.” (p29)

Immediately, something smells fishy to me.  Price claims that “no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian sayings.”  This argument seems to have too broad of a sweep.  I try to imagine a historian in the distant future who is trying to determine if the abundance of quotes attributed to, let’s say Maya Angelou since she recently died.  If we use Robert Price’s definition of Criterion of Dissimilarity, is there any way for a future historian to attribute any popular and inspirational sayings to Ms. Angelou?  Not a chance.  It is easy to see from a casual glance at her most popular quotes that none of them are hardly unique.  The uniqueness comes from her works as a whole, not from the individual aphorisms that a common, mass audience will find inspirational. 

Price’s definition of the Criterion of Dissimilarity seems like it could be used to remove any familiar saying or any attribution to any person.  Truly unique sayings are indeed rare, especially sayings that appeal to a general population of listeners.  And Price’s unique description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity does not fit any description that I have ever heard.  Since Price attributes the Criterion of Dissimilarity to Norman Perrin, I will look Perrin up to see for myself what he has to say about it.  Luckily, Perrin’s book which is cited by Dr. Price is online (LINK):

Here is what Perrin says:
Thus we reach the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must he built, which we propose to call the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. Recognizing that it follows an attempt to write a history of the tradition concerned, we may formulate it as follows: the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition oriented towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (From Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, p39)
Wait a second; do you see the difference in emphasis between how Perrin defines the Criterion of Dissimilarity and how Price applies it?  Price has cited Perrin in his formulation of the criterion of dissimilarity, but then applied it with reverse polarity!  It is a subtle difference, but Price is using the Criterion of Dissimilarity in the opposite sense from that intended by Perrin.  Where Perrin used the criterion in an attempt to determine sayings attributed to Jesus may be authentic, Price is using it do discard inauthentic sayings.  Paula Fredriksen describes it in even simpler terms:

“The criterion of dissimilarity holds that if the earliest form of a saying or story differs in emphasis from a characteristic teaching or concern both of contemporary Judaism and of the early church, then it may be authentic”  (From Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, p5.  The emphasis is in the original.)

Perrin and Fredriksen are saying that if a saying of Jesus seems radically different from anything expected in their culture, then that lends it greater probability of being authentic.  I am not so sure that is a well- founded assumption, but it does seem like a cautious methodology for determining what we can know about Jesus.  More importantly, this description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity does not discount any sayings of Jesus that do not fit the description.  Notice how different this is from Dr. Price.  He is saying, in contrast, that any saying of Jesus that appears similar must be inauthentic.  It is a re-definition of the criterion that he cites from Perrin, and it is much broader sweeping in its negative results than anything implied by Perrin’s description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  It is a method that seems designed to show what we cannot know, not what we can know, and to emphasize that since nothing Jesus says appears to be truly unique, he must never had said anything.

But what about those sayings of Jesus that do appear to be unique among his society?  How can Dr. Price discard even these with his own mis-application of the Criterion of Dissimilarity?  I have certainly not read all there is among ancient literature, but I have never seen anything in contemporary literature that is even close to some of Jesus’ most famous aphorisms in the Sermon on the Mount.  Love your enemy?  Salt and light?  The fulfillment of the Law?  These appear to me to be unique enough to plausibly be considered authentic sayings of Jesus.  But this attempt at determining the authentic sayings of Jesus via the Criterion of Dissimilarity is invalid with Dr. Price’s application of the same criterion.  In fact, he takes it one step further by pulling out another bit of arcane historical methodology.  “…the Criterion of dissimilarity must be all-devouring because of the central tenet of form-criticism, which is that in order to be transmitted, every gospel pericope must have had some pragmatic use” (p29). 

Central tenet of form-criticism?  Says who?  Well, let’s not go down that rabbit hole.  Let me instead outline Dr. Price’s methodology that leads to his conclusion that every saying and deed of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels is inauthentic:

1)      Anything that Jesus is recorded as saying or doing can be considered inauthentic if it has parallels among his contemporaries.
2)      The early church had doctrinal reasons for transmitting and preserving their favorite, thus canonical, sayings of Jesus. 
3)      The motives of the early church are apparently close enough to parallels in sayings among Jesus contemporaries.  Therefore everything in the Gospels that relates to Jesus must be inauthentic.

Sorry Dr. Price, but this just seems too easy to me.  The misapplication of these historical criteria seems designed to intentionally rid ourselves of everything we can possibly know about Jesus.  It may be true that Jesus never existed, but I think I understand the suspicion of Biblical scholars when they see methodology like this.  What is the point of years of scholarship, education and training when it can all be discarded with three simple bullet points?  After thinking about Dr. Price’s methodology, I am suspicious too.

The Remaining Commandments

I do not have a detailed commentary on the remaining historical commandments as outlined by Dr. Price, except that I again do not see how they are commandments of historical methodology.  In fact, they too, do not seem to be designed by an impartial historian, but by a person who is accustomed to arguing fringe opinions to more mainstream peers.  Dr. Price asks the reader to remember the definition of an ‘Ideal Type’.  The importance of mystery religions, Gnosticism and Pagan Saviors who were contemporary to Jesus must be considered as part of prevailing culture, and I agree with this.  The facts that consensus is no criterion of truth and that all scholarly opinion must be held as tentative are not so much greatest commandments of the historian, but general principles of any scientific investigation.  Again, I have no disagreement with any of this, but it does seem to be suspiciously applied, not on what we can determine about a historical Jesus, but about why mainstream scholars really need to take Dr. Price seriously.

Wow, I am really giving it to Robert Price in this critique.  But I have to call it like I see it.  So far in this article, his approach is like a bulldozer making quick work of a delicate archaeological dig.  And I am only seven pages in.

Next: Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 2

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rattler for Ruth

Ruth does not like snakes.  I have been running and hiking in the desert for my entire life, and I have seen more rattlesnakes than I can remember.  A friend of mine and I just returned from an 8 mile desert run in Franklin Mountains State Park here in El Paso.  He wanted me to bring a camera so he could show his wife the kind of rough terrain we run on.  As luck would have it I saw a couple of critters along the route.  I immediately thought of Ruth and fired off a couple of shots:

Here is a horned lizard that I almost missed.  Or as Yosemite Sam would call them, a Great Horny Toad!  It does look a bit like a toad, but it is really a lizard.  My friend ran right past this pudgy little fellow, and I would have missed him had he not tried to scurry out of my way on the path, and his movement gave him away.  Their natural camouflage is remarkable!  They blend in with the surrounding rocks, sand and early morning shadows.  Do not worry Ruth, they are harmless.

When I run in the desert I never, and I mean never, take my eyes off the trail ahead.  I have to watch out for hazards like rocks and other things to trip over - but I also have to watch out for critters like the one above.  Do you see him?  I did.  My friend was running behind me.  I stopped to give the rattler a wide berth and held my hand up to stop my friend who is not accustomed to look out for these guys.  They hide with their camouflage almost as well as that horned lizard!

I took a couple more photos.  He was alert.  His eyes were meeting mine, and his tongue was flicking in and out to taste my scent in the air.  I think if you zoom in on the photo, you can see his angry looking face.  I never threatened him, so he never coiled.  These rattlesnakes are extremely dangerous, and if I am ever bit out here in the desert ... well I don't want to think about that too much!  But the good thing is that they are non-aggressive.  So do not be afraid Ruth!  We can watch them from a distance and they will never threaten or chase or attack us.  Just keep out of striking distance, don't bother them, and they will leave you alone and even pose for a photo or two!

I do think these snakes, and all desert wildlife, are beautiful animals.  Most are harmless, and snakes do not scare me.  But the poisonous ones must be respected.  I have killed rattlesnakes when they decide they want to live in or near my house.  Yes, I have seen rattlesnakes in the house before.  That is scary!  When I was a boy our house was made of adobe mud-brick.  Rodents would borrow into the walls, and rattlers would eventually use those burrows to find their way into the house.  Yes, kill these dangerous animals when they are in our home!  But there is no reason to fear them in the desert.  We just have to respect them when we venture into their home.

I hope you enjoyed these photos from my desert run!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review - The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

The short introduction to this compilation is credited as an article originally posted on Robert Price’s MySpace page.  It is short, and gives a very brief overview of why he thinks there was no historical Jesus.  Since it was a MySpace post, it offers a simple, radid-fire synopsis of what led Price to reject belief in a historical Jesus.  None of the ideas are developed, no claims are justified and no citations are given – not that I expect otherwise in such a short introduction.  I expect the remainder of the book will go into greater detail on each piece of evidence that is presented here. 

Price admits up front that his views are radical.  Almost no historical or theological scholar accepts the theory that Jesus was never a historical person.  All of these scholars, believer or non-believer, conservative or liberal, accept that there was at least some history behind the person of Jesus, even if that person may not have been a Divine God-Man.  A more liberal scholar may conclude that he was a peasant wisdom preacher.  Maybe an apocalyptic doomsayer.  Maybe a shaman healer or even a failed revolutionary leader in opposition to the Roman occupiers. But a Jesus who started the Christian religion, but did not actually exist?  Not a chance.

Here are the main points that Price touches in his introduction:

* Jesus appears to be one in a long list of contemporary gods who died yet rose again.  The stories of these other gods can all be found in ancient sagas.  If dead and risen Attis, Adonis, Dionysis, Osiris, et al, were all woven in the same mythological cloth, why is dead and risen Jesus held as the one historical exception? 

* The apostle Paul wrote numerous letters that define much of nascent Christian theology, but Paul never cites a historical Jesus for any source quotations.  Since Paul argues against numerous controversies in his epistles, a quote from Jesus would instantly win Paul’s given case.  But Paul never does this.  Why?

* The life of Jesus seems to follow the Mythic Hero Archetype, that is, it seems to follow the trajectory of many well known ‘hero stories’ and His biography can be compared to equally fabulous persons of both literature and undisputed myth.  The story of Jesus follows familiar patterns of fiction.  Is it reasonable to assume that both the outline and details of Jesus’ life are historical if they can be shown to follow established literary techniques?

* Almost every story from the Gospels and Acts can be shown to be re-written or extrapolated material from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Greek poets Homer and Euripides, and the Jewish historian Josephus.  Is it possible that the original Evangelists know what happened in “history” from what they knew of their own revered writings? 

* The central axioms of form criticism cancel each other out.  If what was known of a historical Jesus was transmitted through oral tradition, it had to have been useful to prove some point among the earliest Christians.  Otherwise people would never have bothered repeating and transmitting that oral tradition.    But form criticism also assumes that if a saying attributed to Jesus closely matches the practices of the earliest Christians, it is most likely that those sayings were merely placed into the mouth of Jesus by those Christians, in order to fictively gain Jesus’ approval.

Since Price does not elaborate much on these topics in his brief introduction, I will not expound on them with my own opinions.  I am sure that time will come later in the book.  But for now, it is interesting to compare these items that Price finds convincing with the criterion for historicity that can be found from more mainstream scholars.  I will use the Introduction from Paula Fredriksen’s book From Jesus to Christ as an example.
“To approach our twofold question, we shall read the New Testament texts in three cycles: descriptive, historical, and explanatory contexts… I shall proceed by examining the various images of Jesus conveyed in our chief canonical texts in reverse chronological order … by tracing their backward trajectory, we move chronologically closer to their point of origin, that documentary vacuum inhabited by Jesus of Nazareth.  We stop where our texts leave us, in the Gentile communities of the Mediterranean around the year 50 C.E., some twenty years after Jesus’ execution.” (pp x-xi)
You can catch the methodological category upfront, that the story of Jesus is primarily a matter of History.  We are going to read the Gospel texts, as she says, in their “descriptive, historical, and explanatory contexts”.  We are going to read them, “in their “reverse chronological order” as only a historian could.  We are going to start with the broad and whittle our way back until there nothing left of Jesus except a historical core.  This is a common approach in the few books that I have read on this topic.  We start off with a historian of the New Testament who is qualified to investigate what history can be gleaned from the New Testament.  And with that historian we are going to develop certain criteria, by which we are going to judge certain Biblical texts, and by this process determine a core left over which we can then claim to be what we know of the historical Jesus.  Let us throw away the miracles of Jesus, maybe some of his more outrageous or anachronistic statements, and develop what is left over into some kind of plausible history.  In Paula Fredriksen’s case, the historical Jesus is an apocalyptic visionary of some sort, who predicted the end of the Age by the end of His generation.  Other scholars may see Jesus as a Cynic philosopher or a mystic healer, but in all these cases, the Gospel texts are read as history, by qualified historians in their field, using historical criterion. 

Compare Fredriksen’s historical criterion with Price’s.  Although he does not lay out a clear methodology, compare Fredriksen’s methodology, stated above, with what Price has to say:
“There is no secular biographical information about Jesus.  Even the seeming “facts” irrelevant to faith dissolve upon scrutiny…when we are done, there is nothing left of Jesus that does not appear to serve all too clearly the interests of faith, the faith even of rival, hence contradictory, factions among the early Christians.” (p 19) 
Then later:
“I have not tried to amass every argument I could think of to destroy the historicity of Jesus.  Rather, I have summarized the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory.  There may once have been a historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer.  If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.” (p 23) 
“The present volume contains the major essays and papers I have written to set for the case for the Christ Myth theory as well as my best attempts to deal with the major difficulties scholars have pointed out with it.” (p 23)  
In major contrast to Fredriksen and most other Jesus scholars, Price is not compelled by history, and does not appear to approach the Gospels as historical documents.  Price treats the problem of Jesus, not by the criterion of history, but by the criterion of literary analysis.  From reading the introduction and initially browsing the entire book, it appears to me that everything that compels Price to believe that Jesus is a myth is due to his approach of the Gospels as literature, not history.  The history that can be gleaned from the Gospels is not gained by analyzing the text as if it were eyewitness testimony of historical events, but rather by analyzing the motives, and the social and religious societies in which they were written.  The historical value of the Gospels is by studying the authors and their communities, not by studying the stories as history.  The true history of in the Gospels lay behind the scenes.

I am not criticizing either scholar, Price or Fredriksen, for their different approaches to the Gospels.  The historical paradigm is automatically assumed by most Biblical scholars and a historical method is then used on the Gospels.  That seems reasonable to me.  But it seems to me that employing literary analysis on the Gospels should be equally as reasonable, especially in dealing with ancient sagas from alien cultures.  I am sure that there are historians out there who try to dredge some kind of history out of the Beowulf epic, just as Beowulf is analyzed with equal scrutiny by literary critics.  Can each paradigm be applied to the Gospels with equal validity?  I don’t see why not.  Why do we assume that the only people who can study the Gospels in scholarly manner are historians? 

Again, Price does not use this introduction to delve too deeply into any single argument in his case for the Christ Myth theory.  But as I briefly mentioned in my previous article, Price does not use his introduction to properly define what exactly he means by the Christ Myth theory.  I do think this is important in a book entitled, The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems.  As I said in my previous article, the only definition that I found in this book is on page 388,

“The Christ Myth theory maintains that the Christian Jesus was originally a god who eventually became flesh in the imaginations of believers.”

But as I look at all the arguments presented in this introduction, even though none are intended to go into any depth, neither are any of them an argument that addresses Price’s actual definition of Christ Myth Theory.  All of them are de-constructionist in approach, that is, they all pretty much show that Jesus is not as he is presented in Scripture.  Price argues fervently that Jesus could not have done this, He could not have said that, His life seems to fit legendary hero archetypes, everything about Him seems to have parallels in earlier material, etc.  But none of these arguments, that I can tell, directly address the actual claim of Price’s Christ Myth Theory:  that Jesus was originally worshipped as a heavenly deity before the stories of his earthly ministry developed.  The introduction to this book is interesting, and I can get behind a lot of it.  I am particularly intrigued with the literary approach to the research as opposed to the historical approach.  But it is something else to have a theory of the actual origins of Jesus but to not actually address it.  I think that if one were to attempt to demonstrate that Jesus did not exist as a historical person, then the chore of de-constructing the Gospels is only half the battle.  We still have this thing called the Christian Religion that has lasted around 2000 years, and the origins of this religion revolve around alleged historical events involving this guy named Jesus.  If it is demonstrated that those events never happened, the origin of the Christian religion must then be explained.  And from what I understand, this is where The Christ Myth theory fits in:  the origins of the Christian religion began with the worship of a divine Being that in later legend became canonized in our Gospels as a historical man.  If Price is to effectively persuade the reader to take the Christ Myth Theory seriously, he must go into some depth on this pre-Christian worship of a heavenly being named Jesus.  Unfortunately, he did not touch this very important topic in his introduction.

If I have one criticism of the book so far, it is this oversight.  I do not think it is a shortcoming that can be easily ignored.

Next: Jesus at the Vanishing Point

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

My initial thoughts
I’ve got this book in front of me.  It has been daring me to read it for a while.  It is one of these historical Jesus books left over from a time when I could not get enough of that kind of book.  There was once a time when I read science texts almost exclusively, with the occasional novel thrown in for fun, until I discovered books that were under the general heading of ‘religious criticism’.  I read furiously in that genre for a couple of years, but I have since tapered off.  If anything, I have learned from them an appreciation for literature and history that I never had before.  But I have decided to revisit a book that I read early last year.  At the time, I read the first few chapters so fast and with such apathy that I shelved it and everything like it in favor of something a little more relevant to practical living.  But from time to time, the interest crops up again in my favor, so I am willing to take a second look at Robert Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems.  And oh joy, in order to keep my focus centered on the book, and to keep my apathy in check, I thought it might be fun to share all my thoughts on the book with you, Dear Reader.  Yup.  I am going to slog my way through this book and type a running commentary as I go.  It should be fun – I don’t know if I will lose what few readers I have to absolute tedium, but let’s see if Price persuades me with his arguments by the time I finish! 
From what I remember, about a year or two back Bart Ehrman wrote a book in which he defended his belief that a historical Jesus actually existed.  This caused an online back and forth blogging battle that I purposefully stayed away from.  I did not read any of the books involved, and frankly I did not care to sink into the quicksand of internet Jesus drama.  And I still do not care one way or the other.  Yeah – I don’t care whether Jesus existed or not.  Strange coming from a guy who remembers gasping when Pastor Skip told his shocked congregation that this atheist gal named Madalyn Murray O'Hair did not believe a historical Jesus existed!  The effrontery!  The arrogance!  The horror!  Even if you are not a Christian, you must be insane to tempt everlasting hellfire and entertain the opinion that Jesus never even existed!  At the very least, he is one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization!  I do not remember the first time I ever heard about Jesus.  Neither do you, Dear Reader.  We do not remember the first time, because we were born into a culture that is saturated with Jesus.  Like it or not, Jesus is burned into our cultural DNA!

Now, over 20 years later, have I become over-educated into cynicism?  I don’t know.  But no, I am no longer shocked when somebody claims that there was no historical Jesus.  Since Jesus is embedded in our culture, I do see the opinion of Jesus as a myth it as a very contradictory idea, but let’s read The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems and see what evidence there is that can back this claim up.  Will that evidence be convincing? Even if I end up finding it fully convincing, it will be ultimately unimportant to this nonbeliever.  After all, I doubt any Christian would lose sleep if he discovers that Gautama Buddha never existed.  Life will just continue on as it always had and no harm will be done.

So, let’s get to the book.  The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems is a compilation of mostly previously published articles from biblical scholar Robert Price.  Because it is a compilation, it often overlaps familiar material, but overall it summarizes the scholarship that led Price to accept the Christ Myth Theory.  I think it is fair to say that most of the scholarship that is found in this book is assembled from dozens of other scholars, most whom do not themselves hold to the Christ Myth Theory.  The major contribution of Price is to assemble the existing scholarship and argue that this cumulative research ultimately points to an originally mythical figure at the core of the Christian religion. 

Price emphasizes up front that he is not dogmatic in his position that Jesus never existed.  He does not insist that the evidence is airtight.  He never claims that anybody who looks at the same evidence is unreasonable if they do not come to the same conclusion as he.  At this point, I must put in my own disclaimer.  In this and the next series of articles, I will attempt to review and critique Price’s book, The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems.  It should go without saying that I am not in any way a scholar of the New Testament, religion, history, or any other relevant field.  I am a hack compared to many of my other blogging buddies.  I am merely an interested, and somewhat informed, layman.  But the arguments presented by Price invite review and scrutiny, and I will do the best I can with my meager background knowledge.  I am neither an advocate nor adversary of the Christ Myth Theory.  The existence of Jesus has no bearing one way or the other on my personal life.  At the end of it all, I have no idea or not if Jesus really existed.  If he did exist, I have no idea what kind of character he really was.  I believe that it is 2000 years too late to know one way or the other, and the best we can do is piece together what meager scraps of evidence we can from an ancient, alien and forgotten culture, and fill in the gaps with speculations of varying degrees of plausibility.

If you are a believing Christian, you may think that topics surrounding the Christian religion are among the most important and crucial things you will ever be forced to consider.  But please remember that to me it is just a hobby.

So with all that said, let’s get to it.  First off, what does Price mean by ‘The Christ Myth Theory’, or even “that Jesus hadn’t existed, that he was mythic all the way down, like Hercules.” (p17)  This is a more complicated question than it may initially appear.  By itself, this does not tell me what Price is arguing for, and this is one of the first criticisms I have of the book.  When I write a paper for work, I must be precise and state definitions and assumptions up front so that the intended reader and I will speak the same language.  In the particular study of Robert Price, words like myth, historical, exist, even Jesus can be a bit ambiguous.  Was Jesus a myth?  Was he historical?  Did he really exist?  Well, the answer will be yes or no, depending on what these words mean.  I tend to think there is next to nothing in the Gospels that can be considered to be reliable history.  If I whittle the stories of Jesus away one by one as fictional, does this still mean that there is a historical character at the core, or is this good enough to say that there was no historical Jesus?  Is there a historical Jesus in the same sense that there was a historical Robin Hood?  You know, the stories about him are legendary, the deeds he performed exaggerated, we may not even have the right name for the guy, but, at the end of the day, there must be some kernel of wheat buried under all that chaff!  Right?  Well I guess so, but do unverifiable leftovers from de-constructed legends really count as history? 

I was hoping to find in the introduction a statement as to what Robert Price meant by ‘Christ Myth Theory’.  I need him to define what he means.  I did not find anything there, so I skimmed the remainder of the book.  I did find anything really approaching what he meant by this until nearly the end of the book at page 388:
“The Christ Myth theory maintains that the Christian Jesus was originally a god who eventually became flesh in the imaginations of believers.” (p388)
OK this helps, but nothing like this definition is put near the beginning of the book – at least nothing that I noticed.  What Price means by Christ Myth Theory is not just denying historical veracity to the Gospel stories.  It is maintaining an opposite timeline than that held by most historical scholars.  Most of these people work under the assumption that Jesus started off as a human character that walked the earth, only later to be deified into a god by Christians.  What Price means by the Christ Myth Theory is that Jesus started off as a god, only to become a man by the gospel writers.  Then the ironic twist of history is that the Christian church eventually turned Him back into a god from where He originally came.  Well, if this is what Dr. Price is arguing for, then to merely demonstrate that Gospel stories are fiction is not enough to make the case.  The book suffers because a clear definition of Christ Myth Theory is not presented up front, nor consistently defended.  This criticism may seem trivial, but I will probably be referring to it again and again in this series of reviews. 

But whether we use Price’s particular definition of the Christ Myth Theory or not, unless we are like the inflexible, Fundamentalist Christian who believes that every word of the Gospels is the literal, historical and unquestioned Truth, I think most reasonable people can agree with Dr. Price when he states, “there may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer.  If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.” (p23)  Medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, who I think was the model of a modern Christ figure if there ever was one, and who certainly believed Jesus was a historical person, said much the same thing over 100 years ago in his book Quest of the Historical Jesus.
Those who are fond of talking about negative theology can find their account here. There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.  The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb. (p396)
Or, if I may dare paraphrase the great Schweitzer, even if Jesus did once walk the earth, he no longer walks the earth for us.  For the modern, mundane and rational people outside the world of the sacred, mythical and magical, Jesus must remain an object of Faith.  He may not have been myth then, but he is certainly myth to us now.

Next: The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems - Introduction