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Political Talk Show Host and Internet Radio Personality. My show, In My Humble Opinion, aired on RainbowRadio from 2015-2017.
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Friday, September 10, 2010
My and Steeve's conversation about the origin of Christianity...
First, Steeve's email from 26 August:
Sorry about the extreme lateness of this. It proved to be difficult, thus my laziness kicked into overdrive. I don't have a blog, and you're welcome to use this on yours in whatever way seems fit -- ignoring it, abridging it to the part that you find most relevant, deciding that such long rambling has no place on a political blog, whatever.
Most of N T Wright's book on the resurrection of Jesus deals with the religious context that existed before the rise of Christianity. His central assertion is that when a Jew of the period used resurrection-type language, they always, always, meant a physical, tangible, bodily return from the dead. Not a ghost or vision or disembodiment or a mere entering into heaven or a vague sort of exaltation.
This assertion might not bother you enough to find it worth questioning, but if it holds it virtually destroys modern scholarship on the rise of Christianity. They say that the bodily stuff morphed out of exaltation traditions. But instead we find that right from the beginning (see particularly I Corinthians 15:3-8), the core belief of the earliest Christians is the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Wright's second assertion about the religious context is that no non-Jew believed that this sort of resurrection was possible, and that among the Jews, only one branch (the Pharisees) believed it was possible, and that branch believed that it would only happen one time, to everyone at once, at the end of the world. Early Christianity is thus an innovation, modifying Pharisaic Judaism by splitting the event in two (first Jesus, then everyone) and postulating that the resurrection body is glorified and transformed (yet still very physical), and centering that notion of transformation into their theology.
(Other "resurrection" stories like Lazarus in John 11:43-44 lack the element of transformation, so Wright suggests the term "resuscitation" to refer to them. And I might be having a brain fart here, but I think that even stories of this type are absent from the religious context, thus their appearance in the gospels postdate (and are influenced by) the rise of earliest Christianity, solidifying the assertion that early Christianity represents an innovation.)
The centrality and innovation of the resurrection in early Christianity suggests that its inception was caused by external events, not the psychology of the believers. There are many strange ways in which people cling to a false belief, but early Christianity represents the apostles being wrong, and modifying their beliefs.
Though the contradictions in the Jesus resurrection stories in the gospels are a problem for a Biblical inerrantist, they are a boon for a historian. Four accounts that agree on everything reflect a single source, removing the value of having multiple accounts. Four accounts that disagree work like 3D glasses, allowing a historian to focus in on the underlying tradition. That underlying tradition defies hypotheses of fictionalization and invention, most notably in the prominence of female witnesses (who were categorically unacceptable to Jews of the period) and the strange nature of Jesus's body (particularly the way that it didn't shine brightly as the religious context would have demanded).
Wright contends that the early Christians were driven to modify Pharisaic tradition by historical fact. An empty tomb by itself is insufficient -- resurrection simply didn't happen except at the end of the world, and a mere puzzle wouldn't change that. Appearances of Jesus are insufficient -- ancient people were comfortable with notions of visions and would not modify tradition just because it happened again. But the empty tomb and appearances of Jesus together are sufficient. If they are also necessary to explain the rise of Christianity, then the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus are historical fact. The main evidence that they are necessary is the lack of counterexamples. If any other set of postulates is sufficient to explain the rise of the very specific early Christian belief under consideration, then neither would be necessary. No such counterexample exists.
The conclusion is that the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus are historical fact. There is still a gap between this and belief in the resurrection, but that gap will probably have to be bridged by philosophy, not history.
To which I replied:
Hey, I really appreciate that you took the time to pull this together. However, I maintain that it does little to convince me. I'll try to keep in mind that you're giving me a (very) brief of someone's extensive work summarizing many other works - I'll accept that there's obviously a lot more than just what's is posted here. That having been said, I have several problems, and still many of the same problems, with the argument being put forth:
1) It still hinges on there being anything resembling a consensus when it comes to "modern scholarship on the rise of Christianity." A quick look in wiki will reveals that there is at least a DEBATE on the matter, and little in the way of consensus as he seems to suggest/assume. So when you say (presumably based on what he's saying) that "none of the secular scholars" agree with me (for example) that the apostles were either deluded, frauds or some combination thereof, that's simply false. As I see it, this deals only with ONE school of thought: The "morphed out of exaltation" school.
2) As I was saying in (1) he's assuming the Apostles were in fact telling the truth and are reliable sources. I'm not sure why I (or anyone) should accept that when were looking into the veracity of their own claims! And again, don't give me "modern scholars don't agree with you" because the fact is SOME DO. (And even if NONE did, that's hardly relevant, since your;e saying "they're all wrong" anyway!) But just because he chooses not to deal with them doesn't mean that they're not out there.
3) There are some other leaps of logic that I question. For example:
a- "An empty tomb by itself is insufficient." (Agreed - it could have simply been pillaged by bandits or desecrated by the Romans or the other Jews.)
b- "Appearances of Jesus are insufficient." (Agreed - People see Elvis all the damn time. Not to mention the Virgin Mary in their French Toast, etc...)
c- "But the empty tomb and appearances of Jesus together are sufficient." (HUH?! How the hell do you concluded THAT?! How is it not still 100% probable - and in fact considerably more likely - that (a) the grave was plundered and (b) someone had an Elvis sighting?! And (c) the Apostles, seeing this golden opportunity, decided to run with it?) (And not to be judgemental of them: Perhaps they were so inspired by the man (Jesus) that they felt his legacy HAD to go on, and just could not bear the "failure" that his death would rep[resent.)
The logic doesn't follow because he deals only with one or two competing hypotheses. It still ignores the simplest explanation. As to why "most scholars" don't argue as I do? (1) I still don't care - that doesn't make it an unreasonable hypothesis; and (2) I guaren-goddamn-tee you that SOME DO.
I'm sorry. maybe I'm just being too narrow in my focus, (or maybe you were in yours,) but there are two necessary assumptions to buy into all of this that I see no good reason to accept: (1) That the apostles were both honest AND reliable sources and (2) That there is anything resembling a consensus when it comes to alternative explanations. The one he chose to shoot down here is only one. Well done. I'll give you/him that. He did a fantastic job annihilating the ONE alternative explanation. But other, perfectly reasonable explanations are go unchallenged. Plus: He's speaking for others who are not there to make there counterpoints. Unless you've read the work of the men he's citing (and I HAVE NOT) you cannot assume that he is truly representing their work and their evidence accurately.
I still see someone who interpreting the evidence to make an argument. IMHO there's bias at work here. He does well, but I don't see why I HAVE to accept his interpretations over others. He's just one voice of many in a debate, only he seems to be imply that there IS no debate - just him proving everyone's consensus wrong.
(end part, the first)
In any case, I'd still very much like to post it (as well as my response above in the comments section). There's certainly no rule that says my blog is strictly political. Considering the little amount of research I do into current events (LOL) it's closer to say that it's a blog about "political philosophy" than strictly politics. And religion - especially in THIS country - is for better or worse a key component of Political Philosophy. So I'll probably put it up sometime next week, unless you really don't want me to, in which case just let me know and I'll keep it offline.
And either way: THANKS AGAIN. I never fail to appreciate anything that really gives me something to think about, and I wouldn't want you to be under the impression that I consider my response above to be any kind of "final word" on the matter. Religion remains something that really interests me, so I intend to keep digging, keep reading, keep trying to understand it, even if only from an academic / hobbyist standpoint.
If you post, I'll have a response. The first two sentences will be something like: the apostles aren't being trusted to tell us that the resurrection happened. They're being "trusted" to tell us the precise nature of early Christian belief, which once established needs to be explained.
If you're able to cite people who specialize in the field promoting significantly different theories, particularly the "apostles were frauds" one, I'll appreciate it.
So... I'll put my reply here, rather than emailing it, and if there is more to yours, I know you'll feel free to let me know.
First point - that "the apostles aren't being trusted to tell us that the resurrection happened. They're being 'trusted' to tell us the precise nature of early Christian belief, which once established needs to be explained."
WTF? Look, the two are one and the same if their explanation for the "precise nature of early Christian belief" happens to BE that "the resurrection happened." Which is pretty much what I see being presented here. Christian belief is ROOTED in the belief in the Resurrection. I'm sorry, but you lost me again. I just can't follow the logic of trying to separate the two, especially when this is in response to the original point of Stephen Roberts that: "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." If the resurrection didn't happen, then there's no need for further debate. And you're playing logic games in trying to avoid that point.
So... PLEASE: Clarify. Because I have no problem admitting that I just don't get it.
Second point - Now, you almost had me with this one. I was this close to challenging you to prove that there aren't any "people who specialize in the field promoting significantly different theories," but of course that burden of proof is not on you at all. And as one who'd like to occasionally think of himself as a critical thinker, I KNOW THIS. So... shame of me for even thinking it.
That being said, I don't know who you'll consider a person "specializ[ing] in the field" but I found several "different theories" just on Wikipedia:
Under "Resurrection of Jesus" there is an "Origin of the Narrative" section about halfway down.
It starts: The ultimate origin of the Apostles early belief in the resurrection of Jesus is debated by theologians, scholars and lay persons alike.
So... right off the bat one cannot claim that there is a single consensus to debunk, as Wright appears to do. (At least in the material you have presented. Again, admittedly, I have not read his book.)
It gives some evidence against the idea of a deliberate fraud (though without citation).
It then goes on to reference E.P. Sanders, who argues that "a plot to foster belief in the Resurrection would probably have resulted in a more consistent story, and that some of those who were involved in the events gave their lives for their belief. However, Sanders offers his own hypothesis, different from the supporters, claiming that "there seems to have been a competition: 'I saw him,' 'so did I,' 'the women saw him first,' 'no, I did; they didn't see him at all,' and so on."
This is bot as blunt as the "frauds" argument I laid out, but the logic is the same. It continues:
"James D.G. Dunn writes that where the apostle Paul's resurrection experience was "visionary in character" and "non-physical, non-material" the accounts in the Gospels are very different. He contends that the "massive realism'...of the [Gospel] appearances themselves can only be described as visionary with great difficulty - and Luke would certainly reject the description as inappropriate" and that the earliest conception of resurrection in the Jerusalem Christian community was physical."
I'm not claiming to understand the ultimate point here, but there fact of there being a contradiction present in the Gospels or, at a minimum, differing interpretations about the claims being made, is, to me, self-evident.
Helmut Koester writes that the stories of the resurrection were originally more like the visionary experience of Paul and that they were interpreted as physical proof of the event at a secondary stage. He contends that the exact details of the resurrection story are also secondary and do not come from historically trustworthy information but belong to the genre of the narrative types.
Now... THIS does seem to be along the lines of what Wright is arguing directly against, but Koestner's point is the same as mine: Why should we believe the Apostles? Even if they aren't necessarily "frauds" at a minimum they gained a large and dedicated following from pushing this narrative. It doesn't mean their intentions were BAD per se, but their accounts are too self-serving to be taken at face value.
Moving on to "Resurrection Appearances of Jesus" we have James A. Keller "question[ing] the reliability of the resurrection appearances, claiming: "All we have is other people's accounts of what the eyewitnesses purportedly saw, and these accounts are typically sketchy and were written many years later. Thus, the historian who wants to understand what the resurrection event was must use later, sketchy, second-hand accounts of what the eyewitnesses saw, and from these accounts he must try to determine what theresurrection event was.
Origins of Christianity offers many alternate explanations. None are specifically relevant, but I contend that it's evidence that there is, in fact a debate, and that Wright continues to deal with the issue as if there were a consensus rather than a variety of opinions, beliefs and arguments being put forth.
There was another one - and I'll ammend this post if I can find it, but so far I'm coming up empty - that claimed that the apostles were so taken with Jesus and his teaching that they just could not deal with, or accept, the failure that his death would represent, relative to Jewish prophecy. So they concocted the Resurrection story as a way of continuing his legacy and ministry.
Personally, that last one is the one I find most likely.