Who does this sound like?

It’s not too often that a quote from a female Rabbi makes one think of a popular, male, dead, ancient Rabbi-like character about whom who have virtually no real knowledge.  But whether or not we have any legitimate record of this guy, we have not been stopped from developing our own fairly deep understandings of who he was, what he did and stood for, etc.  Jesus of Nazareth means different things to different people, and we form our individual opinions largely based on our own needs, wants, experiences, obligations, fears, intellects, etc.  So I wonder who folks out there think this sounds like…

 In a recent interview (for the full article click here), Rabbi Toby Manewith, of Washington D.C.’s Bet Mishpachah synagogue, mentioned that behavior of radical welcome grows out of “[an individual’s] experience of being on the outside.”  She added, “Everyone who comes [to her synagogue], no matter [who they are], everyone is welcomed with open arms.”

 This may come as a surprise to some readers, but that sounds like Jesus to me.  From what I can tell, Jesus was an outsider his entire life.  And his experience on the outside translated into a spirit of radical welcome and inclusion.  By sharing his table with even the most despised in society, Jesus welcomed everyone with open arms no matter who they were.  Sinners and saints of all stripes were welcomed, embraced, and loved by Jesus.  And Jesus emphasized that especially those who are different from us are to be loved, embraced, and welcomed.

 The welcoming congregation about which Rabbi Manewith is speaking is made up primarily of those who are used to being on the outside.  Her synagogue, like the other houses of worship mentioned in the article linked above, is made up of primarily LGBT persons.  Those LGBT persons have shared in Jesus’ experience as an outsider.  And those LGBT persons have heeded (whether they know it or not) Jesus call to love.  Just as was Jesus’ experience, and just as Rabbi Manewith said, these wonderful people’s radical welcome has come from their “experience of being on the outside.”  Not only that, but the radical welcome, embrace, and love expressed by these primarily LGBT houses of worship is seeping into their communities and extending to those people who are different – straight men and women.

 Here are Rabbi Manewith’s exact words: “Everyone who comes here, no matter their sexual or gender identity, religious affiliation or knowledge, everyone is welcomed with open arms.  And she added: “You’d hope that would happen in all religious communities, but the truth is it’s not an easy thing to put into practice.”

 She is right.  It is most definitely not easy to welcome, embrace, and love sinners and saints of all stripes.  It’s so difficult that people have crafted clever sayings to relieve themselves of some of the responsibility.  Take for example the awful phrase, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” which, due to our inherent inability to separate the two, subtly functions – at best – as an excuse to shirk our responsibility to welcome, embrace, and love everyone – at worst it brings us to hate.

 This call to unconditional love is even more difficult when the people we are to love are different from us.  If they’re not us we tend to see others as merely them, and our embrace chills as our love wanes.  And this difficulty is magnified further when the people we are to love are members of a group of people who have persectued us, our friends, and our families – again, just like in the case of Jesus and the LGBT community.  Jesus must have know difficult such love is to express and to mean.  That’s what made him a radical.  Indeed, we know this was difficult for Jesus be even he failed at times in this regard.  But interestingly, the best example we have of his failure in this regard is the result of the behavior of those who would not be so warm and welcoming as Rabbi Manewith and her congregants.  For a moment, Jesus loses his love and lashes out at people who would embrace only those who would conform to their embrace, and shut the doors of their homes and places of worship to outsiders, and forget love for the sake of the specifics of sin, etc.  Jesus who taught the welcome, embrace, and love of all loses his love when he is confronted with those who do not welcome, embrace, and love all.

 It is very difficult to love everyone.  It is most difficult to those who are different from us.  But, if one ever asks with seriousness, What Would Jesus Do, the answer must certainly be welcome, embrace, and love – and all of it unconditionally.  It seems if we were to ask, What Would The LGBT Community Do, we would get the same answer.  Who/what else would give us the same answer?  Would you?  Or does that not sound like Jesus to you?

 

-GCC

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Who does this sound like?

  1. A few questions and comments:

    Are you suggesting that we have very little knowledge of Jesus? If so, compared to what?

    Would you agree that although we may have different perceptions of Jesus, that it doesn’t change who Jesus really was and is, and that there is an accurate perception of Jesus to be had?

    Yes, Jesus did accept and love people no matter where they were at in life, but Jesus also told them to repent from their sins. If you believe that Jesus is a model of someone who accepts and loves, then you should also be able to believe that one can “hate the sin, love the sinner.”

    You say “hate the sin, love the sinner” is an “awful” phrase, so are you suggesting that there is no such thing as sin? Would you prefer to say that we should hate wrong, immorality or unrighteousness? Or, do believe that these things do not exist either?

    Is there nothing in life that is worthy of hatred? What do you make of God’s anger towards sin? Is it possible that hate could really be love, but love for righteousness?

    If Jesus is God, then wouldn’t Jesus have anger towards sin, but yet love the sinner? If so, then God isn’t shirking responsibility. Rather, God is setting the standard of responsibility in this matter, and shows us how we ought to hate unrighteousness, hold people accountable for doing wrong, forgive and encourage them to do right – all while accepting and loving.

    How many people do you know or believe accept(ed) and love(d) unconditionally? If Jesus did love unconditionally and existed, and as you suggest is a model to follow, then what do you think is the significance of Jesus?

    In this matter, I’d argue that the word “unconditionally” is about righteousness, grace and pursuit, not the absence of unrighteousness, accountability and repentance.

  2. GCC

    Answers to your questions, T…

    Yes, we have very little knowledge (not including the perfectly valid experiential knowledge that people may have) of Jesus. Not compared to anything.

    I agree that individual perceptions don’t change the reality of the historical Jesus. But there’s more to Jesus than history. To that end, our perceptions may very well change who/what Jesus was/is – and that may happen on an individual basis. I think there is probably an accurate perception of the historical Jesus to be had, though I’m not sure how we could be certain of it at this point. And that uncertainty helps facilitate the “extra-historical” aspects of the reality of Jesus, which would seem to elude an “accurate perception” because they don’t come from Jesus himself.

    There’s no connection between rejecting the “hate/love/sin/sinner” phrase and denying the existence of sin. So, no, I’m not suggesting there’s no such thing as sin. The same goes for wrong, immorality, etc. I think saying, “hate evil” might be OK. But that wouldn’t formulate itself in to a catchy phrase. Actually, a saying like “hate the evil, love the evildoer” is interesting because it seems to do two things: 1.) It underscores the fact that we can’t separate deed from doer; and 2.) it shows us that sin and evil are not synonymous.

    I do think there are things in life that are worthy of hatred and rebuke. Indeed, this is one place where I think Jesus’ teaching was rather deficient.

    When it comes to God’s “anger” toward sin, I think that we first need to remember that we’re dealing with anthropomorphism. Second we need to have a definition of “sin.” Third, it’s important to understand the specifics of what does and doesn’t “anger” God.

    No, I don’t think it’s possible for hate to really be love. (That sounds a bit like, “I hits ’er ‘cause I loves ’er,” to me.) For this to be possible, love would be a necessary component of hate. That is, in order to hate one thing, something else must be loved. I don’t think that’s the case.

    I’m not quite sure how to answer the question about Jesus being God thus having anger toward sin and loving the sinner. If the question is whether or not God essentially “hates the sin and loves the sinner,” then I think I would answer that it’s possible. But that possibility would be predicated on some divine ability to separate sin from sinner that humans don’t have. It seems that ability would stem from the fact that, unlike humans, God creates both sin and sinners. I think though that a deeper, more meaningful understanding of both sin and God would make the answer, “No, God does not hate the sin and love the sinner.” Rather, God loves the sinner as a part of God’s creation – indeed the pinnacle of God’s creation – and forgives the sin as a necessary and important part of the purpose of creation. “Hating the sin while loving the sinner” is really only something that humans could conceptualize (though not actualize), and merely shows how different our perspective is from that of God. Sin does not affect God, so there is no inherent reason (or incentive) for God to hate it – for humans it is the opposite. However, from God’s perspective sin does represent opportunity. (The opportunity is for the abnegation of the self in pursuit of God through a process of return, which actually allows for a more intimate relationship with God than would have been the case if the sin had never occurred due to the fact that any comprehension of God’s essence requires the recognition of the truth that “there is none else beside [God],” which recognition is created by the abnegation of self that was the result of the rejection of a sinful self in pursuit of a relationship with God.) From a created point of view (i.e. human intellect, human heart, and the Bible) sin is negative, but the point of view of the Creator includes a different dimension that is actually positive. So, for God sin is not something to hate, and indeed God does not hate sin. And this makes sense if the psalmist is telling the truth when he says, “evil does not reside with [God].”

    I couldn’t pretend to know who I know who has truly loved unconditionally.

    From what’s written about him, it seems clear that Jesus did not fully succeed in unconditional love, embrace, etc. And I’m not quite suggesting that Jesus is a model to follow. Does that at all change the question about the significance of Jesus?

  3. Interesting. I’m not sure how your subjective statement that “we have very little knowledge of Jesus” has much merit if you do not qualify it when asked. Anyone else agree with me?

    I’m glad to see that you agree that our perceptions of Jesus do not change the reality of the historical Jesus. Would you be willing to expand that to Jesus, or do you want to leave it at “historical” Jesus?

    I’m also glad to hear that you do not deny the existence of sin. Sin and evil may not be synonymous to you, but they are to me in that they are in opposition to God.

    I’m also glad to hear that you think some things in life are worthy of hatred and rebuke. Could you explain to me why you think Jesus’ teachings were deficient in this matter?

    I think sin angers God. God has demonstrated wrath. I’ve already provided a very brief description of sin. I’d also add that sin is unrighteousness – that which it ought not to be.

    So, if your dad beats your mom, and you hate that your dad beats your mom, and you love your dad and mom enough to tell your dad to stop beating your mom, then wouldn’t your love for your dad and mom be a love for righteousness and your hate towards the beatings be tied to that love?

    If God loves righteousness, then what do you think God makes of unrighteousness? Are you suggesting that God loves unrighteousness? That God is indifferent towards unrighteousness? Or, that God is incapable of reacting to unrighteousness? Something else?

    I’d argue that God didn’t create sin, but that God created the possibility of sin as a result of free will. I also think this is a reason why God may be able to be disapointed with our choices and acts of sin, and God desires for us to not sin, thus establishing a reason for God to hate sin (among other reasons). I’m sure this is a contentious issue with some of our readers. It would be interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts.

    I disagree with you analysis and application of the Psalmist that “evil does not reside with God.” However, I agree with the Psalmist that “evil does not reside with God,” which has profound implications, some of which I’ve briefly introduced.

    So, just to clarify, you do not think Jesus loved/loves unconditionally, is that right? What is the basis of your belief on this matter? You used the word “clear,” so I’m curious. Would you say that God loved/loves unconditionally? If so, how would you describe the way in which God loved/loves unconditionally?

    I would argue that Jesus is a model to follow. And, no, none of what you said changes the significance of Jesus for me (and I’d argue ultimately for everyone else), but it may reveal what significance you do or do not ascribe to Jesus. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and beliefs.

  4. John

    We know more about Jesus than most figures in ancient history, and the relative merits of the documents (proximity of the authors; rough contemporaneous dating; a variety of types and perspectives, etc.) enhance the value of the information. Take just one of these aspects: the dating. The books/epistles of the NT were finished by 90 AD; the Didache in the early 1st cent AD; Josephus dies in 101 AD and Tacitus in 120). Thus, these all appeared within 90 years of Jesus’ death.

    Compare that to the sources for another famous ancient, Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC:

    * Plutarch (d. 119 AD)
    * Arrian (d. 146 AD)
    * Rufus (d. 53 AD)
    * Strabo (d. 23 AD)
    * Siculus (d. 1st cent BC)
    * Justin (d. 200s AD; used Torgus’ 1st cent BC account, which is not extant)

    Dating is obviously only one measure of a historical source, but folks rarely claim that we know little about Alexander…despite the fact that our surviving information dates to 200-400 years *after* his death…

    Have fun with the sin/evil thing, y’all–I’m staying out of that one!

  5. GCC

    This got WAY longer than I intended and it was not at all the direction intended for this post (which I suppose we should all get used to), but I must say something about the records of history, despite my mere passing knowledge, “if it be lawful to call [it knowledge].”

    I enjoy the history of Jesus. I find the whole thing fascinating. In relation to my comment that we know very little about Jesus, I’d first add that I can’t quite figure out how knowing very little about someone else makes us know any more about Jesus. Saying we know 1,000 times more about Person A than about Person B is not really significant when what we know about Person B amounts to about zero. Of course, anything times zero is always zero. Or put differently, two negatives don’t make a positive.

    But, back to the historical Jesus…

    Is it really reasonable to say “we know more about Jesus than most figures in ancient history?” Most? I’m not one to suggest that Jesus never existed or something like that, not at all. But this seems like hyperbole to me.

    What about Julius Caesar? Don’t we have writings from him and evidence of his conquests in Gaul and such? Aren’t their coins he had minted with his own image on them? From a glance at good ol’ Wikipedia, it appears Pliny the Elder wrote of him within about 100 years of his death. But one thing that seems very significant are the man’s own writings.

    And the same thing would apply to Plato. To this day we have several of his works. I’m sure the oldest manuscripts we have don’t date to Plato’s hand, but I’m not aware of scholarly movements suggesting it’s forgery or something. In contrast, we have no evidence of this type of Jesus, no of his writings, no documentation of his sayings while he was alive. We get fairly close, but to suggest we have a collection of his own words is a stretch. Just as one example, if we accept Marcan Priority (which I do), and that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome, and that it was written in Greek, and that it was written according to Peter’s preaching in Rome, and that Jesus’ life was in Aramaic, we have some major obstacles getting in the way of our view of Jesus’ words. It doesn’t seem we have this problem with someone like Plato. (To be sure, I’m not familiar with studies of our earliest copies of Plato’s works, so it seems possible that there are such problems there too. But it does seem reasonable to assume that in the case of Plato we’re dealing with copies of copies of copies of written word that were likely mostly in the same language, as opposed to a momentary crystallization of the re-telling of stories by someone other than the originator of the words, between various languages, years after they happened.) Also on Plato, apparently scholars can place his birth within about a 6-year span. Isn’t that about the same or even small than for Jesus? And wasn’t Plato born of 400 years earlier?

    And what about other figures in history around the time of Jesus? Polycarp wasn’t that long after Jesus, and we have more from him than from Jesus. And didn’t Irenaeus write about him? The two of them did within about 50 years of each other.

    What about Ignatius? Depending on when you place Jesus’ death, they were technically contemporaries. Don’t we have letters from him that are considered authentic? It’s more than a 100-year gap, but Eusebius writes about him, right? Hey, speaking of Eusebius, what about him? We have a whole bunch of his work that tells us about him, right? Much much more than we have about Jesus, right? It’s his own telling, in his own words, right?

    Going back further again, what about the works of Xenophon? In those we have evidence that his existed, and what his thoughts were, etc., right? Is that more than we have for knowledge of Jesus? Is a collection of works known to be by the historical figure in question worth more in knowing about him than after-the-fact re-telling of stories about him, and two potentially dubious other passing references? I suppose that’s a key here. If we don’t think the pile of work we have from these guys tells us anything about them or works as proof that they existed, then I suppose we could say that we know more about Jesus than about them. But on the other hand, it seems that one work known to be originated by anyone would give us more evidence for and possibly knowledge of that person than we have of Jesus.

    What about other religious figures? The whole thing isn’t as ancient as Jesus, but Wikipedia says there’s a non-Arabic reference to Mohammed that dates to 634, who I think lived and died in the late 500/early 600s. Another article mentions a 7th century reference to him by the Christian writer John bar Penkaye. (My guess is these are the same reference.) And John the Baptizer might get offended that his role in the Christian Scriptures and the writings of Josephus get’s ignored. It seems we have about as much evidence and knowledge of his as we do of Jesus. Actually, the Josephus reference to John the Baptizer may even throw yet more doubt on the accuracy of our accounts of Jesus.

    Hey wait, what about Pontius Pilate? He’s in the gospels, and we have coins of his, and they found that big block with his name on it. I think we have more evidence of him than several of these guys.

    Let me now mention Alexander the Great. I think the reason that it’s easy to say, “folks rarely claim that we know little about [him],” is that folks rarely claim anything about him. People do not care about Alexander the Great the way they care about Jesus (regardless of beliefs). Not mentioning that there are other characters of history about whom we know little doesn’t have any bearing on a statement that we have little knowledge about one particular figure. We also, know very little (I think nothing in fact) about King David. So what? (Also to compare Jesus to Alexander the Great in this way is not logical reasoning as it is a glaring false analogy.)

    Besides, it seems there is historical debate surrounding Alexander the Great (just like there is about Jesus): http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/alexander_the_great_01.shtml

    But what do we know about Alexander? Well, I guess there are the later biographical works. But what do we have from archaeology? Eugene Borza, professor emeritus of ancient history at Penn State, says, “We have several surviving coins from his own lifetime showing Alexander…” There may be more, but I’m not sure. Either way, as far as I know we have no archaeological evidence of Jesus. So physical evidence like that might make up some of the gap in the written record. Apparently a bunch more stuff was recently found that might be attributable to Alexander: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/04/080423-alexander-great.html
    (Naturally, we would not and should not expect to find this type of evidence for Jesus – although we might expect some more evidence for some of the things that supposedly occurred during his story. My point is not to compare the two or say evidence for Jesus should generally be better. Rather I’m just making the point that we know more about Jesus than most figures of ancient history – and probably even Alexander the Great – doesn’t fly.)

    And what about the dynasties that Alexander left in his wake? Didn’t Ptolemy follow as a result of Alexander? Doesn’t that tell us something about Alexander? Also, if any of the references to Alexander offered here constitute full biographies, I think one could argue that they tell us much more about him than what we know about Jesus. And, again if there are ancient full biographies of Alexander, the gaps, contradictions, etc. that we have in the record of Jesus create sufficient confusion and doubt that we may be able to diminish the significance of the time between the writing of any Alexander biography and his death. Again, I’m not a historian, and know next to nothing about Alexander the Great, but it seems to me that the debate surrounding the historical Alexander is indicative that we have at least the same amount of information about him as we do about Jesus. And don’t forget, the fact that we know little about Jesus is underscored by the raging debate about him.

    And, of course, we hardly touched on the record of Jesus. These I actually know something about! So here goes…

    Josephus: There are two references. The first, the Testamonium Falvianum is widely regarded as a later Christian interpolation at best and a complete forgery at worst. The other reference in Antiquities 20.9.1, the name James is the subject and the name Jesus comes up as way to identify which James. The later in the passage, the name Jesus comes up again and indicates that this person is the son of Damneus and was made high priest. So, is this evidence for a Jesus son of Joseph? Tough to say. There does seem to be a reference to a Jesus brother of James, so that works. And in that context, it says that this Jesus “was called the Christ.” That’s pretty good. But that passage isn’t even about Jesus, so if Josephus really though someone was called the anointed one, it seems strange that it would only come up in passing. And just a few sentences later, Jesus comes up again and is identified as someone other than our Jesus son of Joseph. So what does this mean? I’m not sure. Could be that neither Jesus nor James were sons of Joseph. It could be that the whole Christ bit is also a later gloss. I personally don’t dismiss this second reference as unauthentic. But it is still dubious, so hardly something that helps our cause in believing that we know more about Jesus than “most” of the characters of ancient history. It seems in Josephus we’re left with about half a reference to Jesus. Josephus did write quite a lot about other things, however. From what I read, it doesn’t seem he missed much.

    Tacitus: There’s one reference. It gives reference to a “Christus…[who] suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…” There are reasons given to cast doubt on the authenticity of this passage, but I also do not dismiss this one. One notices at least one curious thing from a careful reading of this though and it’s worth pointing out. Tacitus’ use of the religious title of “Christus,” rather than, a name might indicate that what he is reporting here is information he learned from Christians at the time and not some sort of independent corroboration of their story. If that’s the case, this reference would be (like the majority of other supposed extra-biblical references to Jesus) confirmation that there were Christians, but tell us really nothing of significance about Jesus.

    These passages – from Josephus and Tacitus – actually don’t tell us anything about Jesus. The only thing they do is serve as potential evidence for his historical existence, something I do not dispute. But I also don’t debate the historical existence of Alexander the Great. Thought I might have serious doubts about some of the more fanciful stories about each of them (though I don’t know any of them for Alex), their existence is pretty much set for me. So, unless the debate is strictly around historical existence, I’d say these references do nearly nothing for our knowledge of Jesus.

    Let’s compare what we seem know about the two from non-religious documents. Jesus existed, was probably called the anointed one by his followers, and died under Pontius Pilate. Alexander the Great existed, his image was minted on coins, he left the Ptolemaic dynasty in his wake, and he died (probably of disease I read). Based on that we know more about Alexander.

    But I left out all the religious documents about Jesus! Right, and the relative merits of them have been mentioned, but their biggest demerit (as far as historical knowledge goes) was ignored. The simple fact is that the documents of the NT (and the extra-canonical stuff) were written from faith, to faith, for faith. Ignoring all of the complications, the supernatural events, the different pictures they paint, the contradictions, and all the other things that cast doubt on the historical accuracy of those documents, the simple fact is that they are unreliable as history because they were not written as history. Paul is honest about his willingness to tell falsehoods and misrepresent things in the name of the gospel. That is wonderful for the faithful, but it’s not history. Later scribes also weren’t interested in accuracy, as evidenced by the numerous textual variants in existence. So, all the debate about gospel authenticity, dating, etc. aside, one cannot overlook the fact that they are religious documents and not historical documents. They are not biographies, even though they may contain some biographical material. The four canonical gospels (and their extra-canonical half sisters) are no more books of history than Bill Clinton’s “My Life” is a religious document, they were never intended to be. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve and to miss the value and truth that may very well lie in those books. And when must not forget that when determinging how much more we know about Jesus than other historical figures.

    I knew that this Alexander the Great thing would come up, and from what I can tell, it is the result of poor Christian apologetics in reaction to unwarranted charges that Jesus never existed. It’s not an argument that makes any sense, the two don’t compare, it doesn’t really work, and it’s more or less a straw man as it simply distracts from the plain fact that we know very little about Jesus (Which, by the way is not a comparison, but rather just a statement.) It would be good if we could move beyond this sort of tired and tiresome apologetic attempt at justifying beliefs to embrace the reality of this stuff. It’s about faith. Whether faith is placed in the historical accuracy of the stories about Jesus, or in the truth in the stories about Jesus, we are still talking about faith. There shouldn’t be a fear of recognizing that there’s little historical information about Jesus. There should be no need or desire to compare his historical record with that of anyone else. When we go down that road we start missing the point of faith, Jesus, and God in general (and this blog post!). There are intellectual reasons to have faith, but the fact that we know just as little about Alexander the Great as we do about Jesus is not it.

  6. blraatikka

    I’m sure John will have a much, much better response, but separating ancient documents into historical and religious is a luxury historians simply do not have, nor would it seem to follow sound historical method.

  7. John

    I hesitate to get into this because I think it is quite off-topic from the original post. However, I rather dislike seeing my words described as a “tired and tiresome apologetic attempt.” I prefer to be more civil in my discourse, but my tone here may come across here as rather harsh, and for that I apologize.

    Grant, I never drew an analogy between Jesus and Alexander, nor did I argue that absence of evidence for one person increased our knowledge of another–you are putting words in my mouth. I was simply pointing out an evidential difference between two famous historical figures. Sure, we know a lot about other ancient figures–but then again, I never said we knew the *most* about Jesus, did I? Comparatively, we simply know more about him than most others. All those post-apostolic folks you mentioned–Polycarp, Irenaeus, etc.–actually strengthen my argument because they too reveal information about Jesus and were well-positioned to record oral traditions.

    There are multiple historiographical errors in your post. A few examples:

    1) “…folks rarely claim anything about Alexander.” This demonstrates an ignorance of the scholarly conversation on the Hellenistic Period. I could pile books and articles with sound and/or dubious claims about Alexander around your room and fill it to the ceiling.

    2) You assume that different types of evidence have equal merit. I have studied numismatics and archaeology–coins and physical remains are useful to historians but are no substitute for written evidence, without which they cannot be fully explained. Artifacts must be analyzed in context.

    3) Your comments on self-authorship are problematic. Self-authored works do not necessarily provide much biographical data, usually because it was not the writer’s intent to do so. Take the Roman strategist Vegetius. His manual _De re militari_ was incredibly influential, yet we do not even know when he lived or for which emperor he composed the book; even so, you will find few better descriptions of late-Imperial military operations. Socrates and Jesus never wrote; Mohammad and Charlemagne were illiterate (though the latter are medieval, not ancient), yet we know a great deal about all of them. Moreover, self-authored works suffer from issues of bias and proximity. Caesar’s claims are routinely questioned, and half of Herodotus has been dismissed outright as fanciful invention. Moving to outside accounts, at least the apostle John knew Jesus personally. Plutarch met neither Julius Caesar nor Alexander; Homer was blind; and Virgil sure as hell never met Aeneas! Proximity to the subject is a critical facet of textual analysis. In any case, sweeping claims like yours have little critical value: each document (whether biographical, literary, record, financial, narrative, etc.) must be studied for its veracity and approached with healthy skepticism. This is neither an easy nor a fast process.

    4) “…unreliable as history because they were not written as history.” This view is rejected by the discipline—it is more suited to philosophy, although even then it is open to debate. Historical data need not have been intended to be a historical record. Nothing Plato wrote was intended as history. Boccaccio never meant to write a history of the Black Death, but _Decameron_ is widely regarded as one of the best descriptions of that plague—despite it being a work of literature. St Benedict’s _Rule_ is most certainly not a historical account, but we would know little about the history of monasticism without it. And so on.

    5) You claim the NT must be regarded with suspicion and cannot be historical because it was written on the basis of faith. I disagree with that standard, but were we to run with your idea Plato, Caesar, Pliny, and most other ancient authorities would necessarily be dismissed as historical sources. Greco-Roman documents are chock-full of religious references. Herodotus was the so-called “Father of History,” yet read his foreshadowing of the fall of Croesus of Lydia: “a dreadful vengeance, sent of God, came upon Croesus, to punish him.” Cicero referenced myth in his legal orations. Turning to Hebraic history, we’d also have to toss out every shred of the data from the OT: Babylonian Captivity—never happened, I guess. And so on. I would propose instead that religious texts reveal historical data but, of course, must be read in a different way than, say, a report on Athenian grain supplies.

    Conceptions of what history is and how it should be written have frequently changed over the centuries. I’m afraid that you are arguing from a distinctly nineteenth-century premise that only accepted traditional, overtly-written narratives as acceptable evidence for historical interpretation. This is a view that has been shattered repeatedly over the course of the last 100 years. As you are not a historian I of course do not expect you to have studied historiography to any great extent; however, I will recommend to you Ernst Breisach’s _Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern_ as a sound introduction to the subject.

    My original post was meant to be observational, not argumentative. There is objectively more documentation on Jesus than most other ancient figures: this is not an innovation on my part but rather a position accepted by historians working in the relevant fields. It may not be the type of documentation you would prefer; it may have dating issues, questions of bias or authorship. But it is still *evidence*. This is not to suggest that the evidence for Jesus is *better* than evidence for others but simply to say that there is more of it to be found.

  8. GCC

    Real quick. I thought about this right after I posted but was away from the computer. I wasn’t at all clear enough about the “apologetics line.” I didn’t mean to say or imply that it was your words specifically that were tired & tiresome, John – though I realize how it may seem that way. What I was trying to get it is that I’ve seen/heard the same reference numerous times before and assume that it has it’s source in a particular apologist (though I don’t know who) and is repeated unknowingly because it sounds good and does appear to make some sense. In any case, I apologize for the perceived insult. It wasn’t my intention and I’ll do my best to be more careful in the future.

  9. GCC

    OK, now that I’ve had a chance to read your whole comment, John…(this is also too long)

    I’m having very hard time accepting the statement that we know more about Jesus than most other ancient figures. Is there some place you can point me to for corroboration? As I think about it, it seems to be a somewhat subjective statement because to arrive at it, one must determine what makes records more or less reliable, quantity v. quality, proximity, etc. etc. etc. Is this one of those things on which credible historians can and do disagree? Hold on, I just re-read your most recent comment and noticed a key difference from the first one. In the first one you said we “know” more about Jesus, in the second one you said we “have more evidence” for Jesus. That’s a big difference. You go on to say that you’re not saying the evidence is “better” for Jesus than for others. I think I’d agree that we probably have “more” evidence for Jesus. But that doesn’t mean we know anything more about him. (Though it might tell us a great deal about his followers.) Obviously, knowledge is not based merely on quantity of evidence but also quality. And of course, the context of my statement about our knowledge of Jesus was related to our own images of him, which are not derived from the extra-Biblical historical record.

    Anyway, this is all fascinating to me, so now I’m just going to pick your brain if that’s OK. A bunch of questions for you (feel free to ignore them because this wasn’t the point of the post!):

    If the Christian Scriptures were completed by 90 CE, and the post-apostolic guys were after that, how can we say that they add credibility to the Jesus story? Don’t they really just add credibility to the Christian story? And how does their transmission of the oral tradition corroborate the accuracy of the oral tradition? As evidence of Jesus how would these guys rate – any better than any other reader of Christian Scriptures who wrote letters to other Christians?

    It seems that artifacts would corroborate the written record. So, how does a written record of distant proximity to its subject that is corroborated by archaeology relate/compare to a written record in close proximity with no such corroboration? It seems to me that written corroboration would be of significantly less value, as mistakes can be passed on easily in both written and oral form.

    Is there reason to think that self-authorship carries great risk of puffing than does third-party authorship if written by someone either under the charge of or devoted to the subject? To that end, doesn’t self-authorship at least give us evidence that the author really was there, and wrote (or dictated I suppose), while third-party authorship give us neither? It seems to me that third-party authorship and self-authorship carry similar problems, but the latter provides us something that the former cannot.

    Do we know that the apostle John wrote anything about Jesus? I think there’s at least some debate over the authorship of the works attributed to him. Thoughts?

    I’m not personally familiar The Decameron, but what I just saw of it (God has blessed us with the internet) looks interesting. My question is this: while is seems reasonable to think the account of the plague is good (though I would think we should always remind ourselves that it’s in a work of fiction), do we also think the 10 characters in it and the stories they tell are true and historical? Or like in modern times when we have movies set during historical events (e.g. WWII), do we recognize that the setting of the story is essentially historical, but the characters and their stories are not really historical? Couldn’t/shouldn’t we apply that to many other works, e.g. Greek dramas, all the Bible, The Odyssey, etc. – There’s a term I like that sort of fits this: “history metaphorized.”

    Doesn’t The Rule of Benedict work more as a guidebook? As usual, I’m not really familiar with the work, but it seems it’s more of a starting point for monasticism, rather than a history. Thoughts? But even if it references the practices of prior monks, isn’t there an significant difference between a general statement of “this is the way life was” and a much more specific statement, “this is the way a specific person was?” (To be clear: I’m not trying to pick apart examples you gave so you have to give others or something.)

    Is there a difference between a document that contains religious references and one that is a specifically religious document? Do historians regard them differently? For instance, are records of Christopher Columbus that might make references to God treated differently that say the Book of Mormon? It seems both would contain stories of a boat ride to the Americas. Do we not take the Book of Mormon seriously as an historical document only because we have no ancient copies of it? Or is there some other criterion? Certainly it contains some things that people believe to be historically true, i.e. that there was a Jerusalem and that Babylon conquered it. So what’s different? I assume the fact that it is a specifically religious document plays a huge role in our rejection of it as history. To be clear, I think the same thing probably does and should apply to the Hebrew Bible. It is a specifically religious document. It may very well contain some historically accurate material, but it should first be understood as a religious (and political) document, written to a particular people at a particular time for a particular purpose – and that purpose casts serious doubt on the literal, historical truth of the document. Any time we start referring to something as the Word of God, it ceases to be history for me – although it may be “history-metaphorized.” I see references to God simply as evidence that people believe(d) in God(s) – it’s a part of the overall historical account. On the other hand, a document that has God as a protagonist, written specifically to support belief in that (version of) God, is not the same thing – it’s telling something more/different than history. That’s not to say the things in such works are necessarily inaccurate. Just that we can’t rely on the records to speak to things with “faithless” certainty. I think we agree on this – we have to approach such documents differently. And I assume Brandon didn’t mean to say that it would be sound historical method to approach specifically religious documents the same way as we approach all other document. The question is, What do we take with a grain of salt? The existence of key figures? I think that’s probably in as reliable history. The specifics of their words and deeds? I think that’s probably out as reliable history and in as faith. Locations, background, etc.? In. Supernatural events like the Revelation at Sinai, or scores of long dead saints walking around Jerusalem, or some dude and his family going from the Holy Land to the Americas by boat around 600 BCE (WTF?!?)? Out. Again, that’s not to say those things didn’t happen. It’s just that to be believed as history I think they would need some sort of extra-religious corroboration. (Remember the warning against puffing?) What are your thoughts on this as a historian? What of the religious record of Jesus seems historically credible? And then to bring things back to the post a bit, how does history affect your image of Jesus? Is that Jesus reflected in the article above?

    Thanks for the book tip. I’ve bounced off of a couple references to the importance of historiography recently, so I’ll add it to the list.

  10. John

    I don’t have citations at hand for the evidence question but will grab some the next time I’m on campus. This is the problem with having to split books between offices! On the “know” point, I causally typed the word but really just meant “have more evidence for.” Don’t read anything into it–I don’t believe the evidence for Jesus gives us a fuller biography than, say, Alexander, just that there are more contemporaneous sources for the former.

    On your other questions, they are too varied and multi-disciplinary for me to reasonably address in a forum such as this. Learning how to critically read historical documents takes years of experience and study. What I will say is simply that there are multiple ways to read and use different types of evidence. No artifact or document clinches an issue by itself, and everything must be considered in context. The worth of, say, a bill of sale vs. a jar found in the sand really depends on what research questions one is asking. When one has more evidence, one is able to ask additional and different questions. History is interpretation, and interpretations tend to shift with each generation because the research questions change. But never reject something as potential evidence—it may become the missing link down the road when your knowledge and interpretive abilities have increased or if the direction of the conversation has changed.

    Most of your questions are good ones. They are the sort of questions one should ask of a document. The key is to not let your assumptions color your analysis: scholars let the evidence lead them, not the other way around. That also means *reading* the evidence *before* asking your questions, which was also my point on the Pascal discursion.

    Feel free to email me if you’d really like one of your specific questions answered. I am familiar with most of the subjects you bring up and can provide the status of current debates.

  11. Peachey Carnehan

    Terrence and John have said pretty much everything I came here to say short of this: Grant, you are trying so hard to be po-mo it is staggering. That is all.

  12. GCC

    Does “po-mo” have a good definition? Or is it like what “liberal” and “conservative” have become?

  13. Joseph

    To simply label Grant a po-mo and leave it at that does the discursion a disservice; I don’t know all of the arguments against Grant’s positions (or those that perhaps Peachey has assumed) when framed that way. Perhaps there are some of his ideas that fit that framework, and then in that case perhaps there are arguments against them. But I have not heard these arguments, and even if I had, have not seen them presented specifically in the context of this discussion. So please, if you could, spell out a) why you think Grant is being a post-modernist here, and b) what the problem is with his particular position.

    Thanks in advance!

  14. Christopher

    Hey Guys,

    Just happened across this PBS “Frontline” edition on the Historical account of Jesus the Christ, as well as the early Christians.

    It’s well-worth watching!

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/watch/

  15. czfinke

    Not to mention Pseudo-Dionysius theAreopagite! Am I right or am I right? Huh? Guys?

  16. John

    Constantine did *not* make Christianity the “official religion of Rome.” The Edict of Milan merely legalized the practice of the religion. It was Theodosius I who outlawed paganism.

    For shame, Frontline. I expected bette…no, never mind.

  17. Peachey Carnehan

    So much to say, but… I would only be a clanging gong.

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