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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

It's a miracle!

One of the downsides of turning 50 years old is the mysterious aches and pains in my body.  I am getting them more often.  I was out on my usual 11km desert run on Monday afternoon.  About midway through, there is a small hill that I have to struggle up.  Every time I hit the top, I touch a large rock that I use as a landmark, then lift my arms and give a victory yell.  Hey, it’s a tough run, and it’s my way of celebrating.

Monday, I ran up the troublesome hill, panted for air, lifted my arms and, before I gave my victory yell I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my left shoulder.  My victory yell was more of a surprised grunt.  I injured my arm by just lifting it?  You gotta be kidding me!  Most runners get injured in the knees and hips.  Not the shoulders!

The pain was too intense for me to get much sleep that night.  I went for another shorter run on Tuesday night, just because I am a creature of habit.  Big mistake.  That night, the pain went up the left side of my neck, down my left shoulder blade and all the way down to my left elbow.  Finding a comfortable sleeping position that night was impossible.

I hesitated going to the doctor because the pain was not severe enough to incapacitate me.  Besides, I knew what the doctor would say.  Just rest the arm, do not strain it, and here is something to ease the pain.  Rosemary convinced me to at least get it X-rayed to see if something was torn.  I went to a doctor that specialized in sports medicine.  I was right.  He told me, “Nothing is torn.  Just rest the arm, do not strain it, and here is some good stuff for the pain.”  Not a big deal.  The biggest hindrance for me is getting comfortable sleep.  The layoff from my usual exercise routine is difficult for me, but I was not able to run.  Running hurts.

Well, it did until this morning.  I woke up with the same nagging pain in my shoulder.  I took a hot shower.  Then, in an instant, the pain vanished.  It simply vanished as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared.  I rotated my arm and turned my shoulder around its full range of motion.  Amazing – the pain is gone!  Now 10 hours later, the pain has still not returned.  I plan on running again tomorrow if I remain free from pain.

Back when I was a believing Christian, how many times did I pray for relief from my headaches, sore backs and common colds?  How many times did I take aspirin, antihistamine and pain killers, and attribute any sign of the drug’s power to my all-mighty Great Physician?  How many times did I thank God for His miraculous power and healing touch?  I did these more times than I can remember.

If I were still a Christian, I know I would have prayed just as fervently for relief from my strained shoulder.  I would have taken any mild relief as assurance of answered prayer.  But a sudden cessation of all pain as I have experienced just this morning?  I would have believed that to have been a miracle.  No doubt about it.  I admit that I have no explanation for why my shoulder is suddenly pain free, just as I have no explanation for why it got hurt in the first place.  But to the Christian, no explanation is the same as a miraculous explanation.  There is no explanation for why this happened!  So Jesus is the only explanation!  Miracles do exist, and I can prove it!  One happened to me just this morning!  I will stand up in church and testify when the pastor asks for a Praise Report.

Now what do I think as a non-believer?  I have no idea, but I called my mom this morning for Mother’s Day, and I think she had the best answer.  “Sudden aches and pains that come and go?  Well, you are 50 years old now…”

Who needs miracles when you have mom?