Tuesday, December 29, 2009

the historical jesus, part two

John Dickson - genial, enthusiastic, but a fatally flawed 'historian'

Canto: Well,I'm discovering that the videos I linked to last time only provide snippets of the Christ Files program, just as John Dickson provides tiny snippets of his various books on his website. Dickson strikes me as a genial, energetic young fellow, keen to give Christianity a good name, but as an already-committed Christian, there's little chance of his being objective. In an excerpt from the intro to his book, The Christ Files, he writes blithely of the numerous mentions of Jesus by other writers in his time, which flatly contradicts the evidence.
Jacinta: Yes, Dickson sneaks his claims in under the guise of ingenuous scholarship. He points out, rightly, that this period [which he extends from 100 BCE to 200 CE] was one of rich literary activity, which was lucky for the small-town preacher Yeshua/Jesus, as he 'happened to rate a mention in several of the writings of the period'.  No mention that this Yeshua purportedly drew a great multitude to him, which would certainly have drawn attention to him, were it true, and no mention of the authors of these 'writings'.
Canto: Yes, well the facts are well known. Let's look at the contemporary mentions of Jesus. First, there was Paul of Tarsus, some of whose letters are generally believed to be the earliest of the New Testament writings. Even so they were written twenty or more years after Jesus's alleged crucifixion. Paul makes no mention whatever of any of the 'facts' of Jesus's life as recorded in the gospels - apart from the resurrection. It is generally accepted that he never met or even laid eyes on Jesus. Jesus seems to be little more than an abstract conception for him.
Jacinta: Yes, not all the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament are now believed to have been written by him, but whoever wrote them didn't know Jesus, it seems likely.
Canto: Letters attributed to 'James' and 'Peter' suggest that they knew him, but this 'knowledge' is only mentioned cursorily - no details of his life, his healings, his trial, anything. Of course, the resurrection is mentioned, as this provides the whole point of the early Christian community...
Jacinta: Well, really, New Testament mentions don't count, as those writers were completely dedicated to claims about Jesus's reality, not only as a person, but as a god. They're anything but disinterested observers.
Canto: Right, so we need to go to non-Christian sources of the time. We should also, just as an aside, discount the so-called gnostic gospels, many of which were first found at Nag Hammadi in the twentieth century. These texts can be traced no further back than the second century CE, and most show all the hallmarks of mythmaking. As to the non-Christian sources, well there are none at all that are exactly contemporaneous with Jesus. All of these accounts, therefore, are based on hearsay. Probably the most important and most controversial mention in the couple of generations after Jesus's supposed death comes from Flavius Josephus, the famous Jewish historian - born a few year after the alleged crucifixion. This mention occurs in The Antiquities of the Jews, written in 93CE, and it's known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Trouble is, this favourable testimonial gets no mention from the early Christian writers until the fourth century CE. Now when you consider that those early writers were obsessed with establishing the authenticity of Jesus as a person and as 'the Christ', this omission is telling. On the other hand there are claims, disputed by some, that the work of Josephus, or at least the Antiquities, was unknown to any of these writers. In any case, there's a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity or otherwise of the Testimonium Flavianum. But even if it's authentic, it's still a hearsay account, as are the mentions in Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, which are all very brief. Suetonius in fact mentions a Chrestus, a common name of the time, and nobody can really be sure if he was talking about Yahweh's little boy.
Canto: So, no historical evidence really, whatsoever, other than evidence, from the second century sources, that the Jesus movement was starting to grow.

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