April 24, 2010
HJ scholars have NO basic facts to start with
To repeat: Nonbiblical historians begin with basic and public facts (that are certain and nondebatable) and move on from those to discover more complex and private facts that are less certain and more debatable than the original primary facts. Historical Jesus historians begin with no basic and public facts. They begin with an unprovenanced narrative that contains much myth and literary artifice, and from which they attempt to create their own basic and public facts by means of exegesis. But the basic and public facts so created are as uncertain and debatable as the secondary facts of nonbiblical historians.
In other words, historical Jesus scholars have no objective, existential raw materials with which even to begin to attempt a legitimate historical enquiry.
Historians have corroborated sources and primary evidence for Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. They have nothing but assumption in the case of Jesus. The Gospel narratives cannot be corroborated as history. Conclusions of exegesis are entirely dependent on the skills and interests of the historian. Exegesis of such documents can never produce an existential or basic real Fact…
Christian “historians” preach a hermeneutics of Love for the Gospel to find facts
Some HJ scholars attempt to substitute a “hermeneutics of love” or “trust” in the absence of external corroboration for their Gospel narrative. Whereas other historians (and everyone else) seek external corroboration to verify reports or narratives, McKnight, Bauckham, and others know they cannot match this basic common-sense approach, so complain that this standard is too “sceptical” and call it a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. This means that the HJ historian must take the Gospel narrative on trust at some level as a genuine attempt, again at some level, to convey real history. McKnight explains the Christian morality behind this:
I contend that a hermeneutics of suspicion is fundamentally at odds with the Christian gospel, which is what a theological discipline is most concerned with. In other words, what a Christian needs is not a hermeneutics of suspicion but, as Alan Jacobs brilliantly presents, a “hermeneutics of love” or a “hermeneutics of trust”. (p.36)
Would they use the same trust or love for sources other than the canonical Gospels? Would they ask Christian judges in courtrooms to apply the same hermeneutic to any uncorroborated testimony? …
So where does this leave the “facts” used by the historians of Jesus?
McKnight believes that most historical Jesus scholars go along with the essence of this view of what they are doing (p. 15, Jesus and His Death). They see themselves as discovering facts and what those facts mean, and thus adding to an ever widening single knowledge base about Jesus incrementally.
But in historical Jesus studies facts are not incremental, and explanatory theories multiply, not decrease. Newly discovered facts do not augment established data. New “facts” are created to compete against other “facts”. If Jesus cleansed the temple, here are some “facts” to show that it was to declare that its days were numbered (Sanders). No it wasn’t. It was to speak up for the poor (Crossley). Hang on, I don’t think we can say it is a fact that Jesus cleansed the Temple at all (Fredrikson, Mack). This situation testifies loudly that the very preliminary “facts” in historical Jesus studies are nothing like the “facts” that other historians speak of — e.g. that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, that the first atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. McKnight, as we have seen above, exposes exactly where such biblical “facts” come from — exegesis of the Gospels…
What of the sources we use?
Elton writes a warning for amateur historians:Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p. 60)
Many historical Jesus historians do, at times, apply this principle. But when confronted with alternative paradigms, such as that of Price, Thompson, or Doherty, they do not address the questions raised accordingly, but respond like amateurs by casting around to find a rebuttal with scattered pieces of particular evidence which they think will answer the particular question.
Elton also addresses the critical importance of the provenance of sources, and uses documents from the Tudor period as an example. How our sources came to be produced is of critical importance for knowing how to interpret them and understand what evidence, if any, they yield. It is essential to know how they came into being. They must be subjected to this sort of critical enquiry before we can know what sort of evidence they will yield (pp. 62-63).
Of the sources the historian uses, Elton wrote:
There is no perfect substitute for total acquaintance with the relevant material. . . . If the independent reality of history is ever to be apprehended, the real meaning of the surviving material must be elicited from the surface appearance. . . . Criticizing the evidence means two things: establishing its genuineness, and assessing its proper significance. (pp. 66-7)
I submit that there is no reason to think that the Gospels were written with a view to containing real history at some level, or were written from testimonies of oral sources that went back to eyewitnesses of real events. This view of the Gospels as authoritative sources is entirely an untested assumption inherited from centuries of inherited conventional wisdom. They have never been tested as the documents purporting to be the Donation of Constantine or the Ems Telegram have been. Certainly historians have attempted to argue for their origins in this or that geographical area, but precious few have attempted to test the conventional wisdom that claims they are indeed records ultimately derived from “traditions” traceable back to real historical characters and events.
Going this far, I suggest, risks questioning the very rationale for whole discipline of biblical studies.
But none of this, of itself, means that the Gospels might not contain real history. As Philip R. Davies might say, such a question has yet to be established. But Thomas L. Thompson can write (The Messiah Myth) that the idea that the gospel narratives and sayings are derived from real history is falsifiable. He argues that pointing to how the Gospel sayings and actions echo widely known literary sayings and deeds from other periods points to their dependence on their wider literary heritage. My own view is that we can only roll with the evidence we have, and that means comparing the Gospels with the similar literature, or literature that contains similar motifs (e.g. the Jewish scriptures, Book of Enoch and other Second Temple and other Mid East literature, Philo, Euripides, Homer), and seeing where that leads. There are no independent external controls to inform us that the contents of the Gospel narrative are historical. We only have literature to compare with literature. Thompson may not have written the most persuasive book when he composed The Messiah Myth, but he is certainly headed in the right direction with a methodology that pulls on the fewest strings to make it work.
What is required of the Gospels before their narratives can be assumed to be evidence for historical facts is a study of their origins, their audiences, their authors at a minimum. These are all matters of speculation, however educated the speculation may be. Their narratives demand external corroboration before they can be taken as serious evidence of historical events. Every historian from Christian Albert Schweitzer to Marxist Eric Hobsbawm knows that truism. Till then, the best any historian can do is to compare their literature with other literature. If that means seeking to explain the origins and nature of the Gospels themselves, and Christian origins more generally, instead of questing for the Historical Jesus “known” to exist by virtue of conventional wisdom and cultural heritage, then we will be making real intellectual and historical progress.
September 28, 2009
It seems there is a special copy of a 150 year old book coming out on my birthday – November 19. The book is the one and only Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. I just took a quick glance through my library and couldn’t find a copy of this monumental classic. So I’ve made this special copy my birthday wish.
And here’s a youtube to introduce this special copy I’m talking about:
June 29, 2008
- Is history an actual story (or “narrative”), or is it just seen as one?
- And if history doesn’t, in fact, consist of any type of narrative, what can we lose and gain by revising it as one?
- If.. history is written as a man-made narrative, a fiction, should we only have one version?
December 2, 2006
I just finished three of the four George Orwell essays in my latest purchase from the Penguin Books “Great Ideas” collection. The book is entitled – Why I Write. The last essay I just read (my favorite) is called – Politics and the English Language. It’s an incredible essay. I highly recommend it. Orwell challenges anyone’s use of non-fiction, including his own. Here’s some samples from this essay:
[…] worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. (106)
By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. (112)
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. (113-114)
I must confess, I immediately thought of people quoting scripture when I read the quotes above. But Orwell’s not just talking about church politics here. He says, “All issues are political issues”. This explains the classic fiction he wrote – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Both are must reads. They’ve helped me re-interpret many of my church experiences even though the contents of either books, as far as I can remember, didn’t mention religion or church.
Imagine sitting next to Orwell listening to a speaker after reading this:
The appropriate noises are coming out of his larnyx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.
[…] political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. (114-115)
My obsession to articulate my thoughts and feelings properly just got worse after reading this essay.
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms… (116)
I’ve been bumping into the topic of sincerity alot lately.
And finally, some guidelines I can use to improve my blogging!
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. (118)
I think the following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (119)
August 30, 2006
Here’s something from an article in my latest copy of Philosophy Now written by Grant Bartley (assistant editor):
Advances in rational understanding can be achieved in at least three ways:
- Through novel ideas popping up, their rationale unentangled by old proofs;
- Through the refinement of an existing set of ideas; or
- Through heresy
The article itself is called The Truth about Heresy? An interesting though somewhat muddled read about traditional heresy and contemporary heretics.
April 18, 2006
Have you ever had the feeling, when you read a book, that it’s a book you’ve been searching for, for years? Only, you didn’t know the name of the author or the book title? It’s happened to me before, and this time the book is called The Truth About Stories by Thomas King, a book comprising his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures.
There are so many facets to this book that it seems I need to quote the whole book to do it justice. Legislation, Native Identity, Oral Story-Telling, Social Activism, Native Literature, Personal Ethics – the list could go on. I want to share at least one string of thoughts I see in the book, but consider them mere samples rather than a representation of the whole book. I’d hate to misrepresent the work of art King has communicated.
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.
“There are stories that take seven days to tell,” says the Cherokee storyteller Diane Glancy. “There are other stories that take you all your life.” (122)
..Why is the government concerned about defining who is an Indian and who is not? There’s not an Italian Act that defines who is and who is not an Italian. Or a Russian Act. Or a Greek Act. Mind you, in California, in the nineteenth century for a while, Mexicans were legally defined as “White,” while Chinese were legally defined as “Indians.” But even with the French in Quebec, who occupy much the same position in Canada as Native people do, there has been no legislative effort to distinguish between French and non-French. No French Act.
Yet, like Indians, the French float in a sea of English influence. They control an entire province, a larger land base and more resources than any of the tribes in all of America. They seem to annoy the English as much as, if not more than, do Native people. And they have to deal with the attitude of many in this country who believe that the special rights the French enjoy – a distinct language, a distinct society – are benefits that, like Native rights, are unearned and undeserved.
The French, I’m sure, feel that they constantly have to reaffirm their right to exist, but they don’t have to deal with laws that try to get rid of them. There are no legal divisions for status French and non-status French, the concept of the pure laine being a social construct, not a legal one. Consequently if a French woman marries an English man and her children marry Italians and Greeks and their children marry Australians and Germans and maybe even Indians, they don’t, by law, lose their claim to being French.
The only obvious difference between the French and the Indians is that the French represent a formidable voting block, which can decide who comes to power and who does not.
Ah, there’s the rub.
And because there’s no legal distinction, the French can go on creating more French no matter whom they marry. All they have to do is maintain their language and culture, and they will never lose status, while Indians can disappear even with their languages and cultures intact. (148-49)
On page 142, King explains that status/non-status grandparents that have a child who marries a non-status person, who have children that marry full-blooded Indians, are considered to be without a legal Indian identity. I wonder how much value the great-grandparents of these children would put in the goverment’s declaration of their great-grandchildrens’ identity.
And right now about 50 percent of status Indians are marrying non-status folk. No one knows for sure how long it will take, but according to John Borrows and Leroy Little Bear, two of Canada’s leading Aboriginal scholars and teachers, if this rate holds steady, in fifty to seventy-five years there will be no status Indians left in Canada. We’ll still have the treaties and we’ll still have treaty land held in trust for status Indians by the government.
We just won’t have any Indians.
Legally, that is. (143-44)
When I was going to university, there was an almost irresistable pull to become what Gerald Vizenor calls a “cultural ritualist,” a kind of “pretend” Indian, an Indian who has to dress up like an Indian and act like an Indian in order to be recognized as an Indian.
… Not wanting to be mistaken for Mexican or a White, I grew my hair long, bought a fringed leather pouch to hang off my belt, threw a four-strand bone choker around my neck, made a headband out of an old neckerchief, and strapped on a beaded belt buckle that I had bought at a trading post on a reservation in Wyoming. Trinkets of the trade. (45-46)
… a young Native man about my age, dressed in a ribbon shirt, bone choker, and beaded belt buckle, the very markers of race that I had so casually abandoned, stood up and asked me what the hell an “apple” was doing speaking for real Indians. (67)
As long as I dressed like an Indian and complained like an Indian, I was entertainment. But if I dressed like a non-Indian and reasoned like a non-Indian, then not only was I not entertainment, I wasn’t an Indian. (68)
Strange world. But maybe being entertainment isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s what you’re left with when the only defense you have is a good story. Maybe entertainment is the story of survival. (89)
April 11, 2006
Professor: Some believe “history repeats itself.”Student: Of course! That makes so much sense! I’m such an idiot!
There are so many books written on philosophy. If you want to learn about philosophy in general, where do you turn? Years ago I bought a book to help me explore my bent for philosophy. Usually a general view of philosophy means a historical view of philosophy (which is where it gets interesting – explanation below). And every historical view of philosophy is written with its own style. The book I’m talking about is written in a style meant for idiots. That’s right, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy by Jay Stevenson, Ph.D.
[Other historical views of philosophy I’ve purchased and recommend are: Sophie’s World – A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder; A Brief History of the Paradox – Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind by Roy Sorensen; and Evil in Modern Thought – an alternative history of philosophy (I wrote a few posts on this one) by Susan Neiman.]
I’ve been asked in the past, “Jerry, what’s with the ‘Idiot’ books on your shelf?” (I have three other Idiot Guides). And here’s my reason: I feel challenged to be able to explain to anyone with the greatest clarity and most common uses of language, complicated ideas. And observing others do it (or attempt to do it) is truly a treat for me.
So, anyways, I decided to read the Idiot book again just to see how far I’ve come in my understandings of philosophy. The book looked entirely different. And it still had plenty to teach me! I am such an idiot. It seems I’ve become less mystical and more scientific about philosophy. I use to think of myself more of a Platonist than Aristotelian, and this still may hold true. But metaphysically speaking (or fundamentally speaking), I am Aristotelian.
[Plato believes essence precedes existence (in the past, my religious leanings led me to believe God’s foreknowledge of his future creations was similar to Plato’s perfect “forms”. Who knew I had gnostic leanings?). And I’ve mentioned before in my post on existentialism (existence precedes essence) that I don’t believe existence nor essence precede the other. Apparently, this is Aristotelian.]
Back to history – I consider a portrayal of the history of philosophy, such as this Idiot book, interesting because of all the available philosophies of history that are out there.
Philosophy has been considered a pursuit of the “big picture” or “bird’s eye view” of things. In fact, the first chapter in the Idiot book is called “The Big Picture.” But the term “big picture” can have some interesting connotations when you move your direction of thought from looking at ideas to looking at people. As soon as I look for a big picture of people, I automatically diminish (to some extent) the diversity within the community. Looking for a big picture of a community or nation, without a regard for our innate inability to perform true empathy, will result in destroying our attempts to understand ourselves better, the very reason we look to our history!
I come to the position that we should be able to recognize a continuity in our personal history while questioning the reliability of a described history as a continuity of a people. This is huge for me! It makes me see written histories of nations and religious communities in a different light; and it effects my groundwork as a wanna-be novelist. What is story-telling if not some sort of meta-narrative, a story about the story we see in our world? It makes me wonder how much of the subjective fiction we find in novels can also be found in history books. Interesting, no?
April 4, 2006
I'm in the mood for starting new books, a lot of new books! I don't know why. I just am. And I'm really excited! I've updated my "Currently Reading" page somewhat, but I know there will soon be more titles and names added to the list.
There are times when I choose to read one book in one sitting, but sometimes, a lot of the time, I like to meet new books, new authors before finishing my conversation with other books. I know, I know, books cannot hear your response to them. But there is plenty of response, and at times, after reading a book again, it corrects my response!
I suppose, in a sense, I'm a book extrovert.
My understanding of extrovertedness is that if a person is more extroverted than introverted, they are more likely to be drained of energy first by being alone than by being surrounded with people. I'm usually a strong introvert. And I know books are not people, duh! But when I read books I never read them without being consciously aware that I'm reading something about the author. So, in that sense, maybe I'm an extrovert with books.
Some books on my reading list have been there for awhile, which is no slight on the books. I enjoy picking up these books now and then, returning to the author when I'm in the mood to listen to him or her. And yes, there are times when I stop listening to a book and never come back to that book.
Becky asked me which books I've never gone back too. I couldn't think of them off the top of my head, considering the lack of an impression they made on me. But when we looked at our library, she started naming a couple of books she couldn't finish and both of the books she named first (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig) were ones I couldn't finish. Others I
haven't couldn't finish are Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer, Utopia by Thomas More, Enneads by Plotinus, and City of God by Augustine (but I loved his Confessions). I'm sure there are more, and I may end up coming back to these books (not likely), but these give you an idea of books I've rejected mid conversation.
To end on a positive note, I will eventually list in my "About Me" page my top ten (or so) favorite books. I haven't yet because I think I want to read them again before I do (and maybe write posts about them).
April 1, 2006
I just finished reading Camus' existential essay Myth of Sisyphus, recently published by Penguin Books in their Great Ideas selection. Before I (as usual) throw out some quotes of interest, I should explain my bias about existentialism: I have a love/hate relationship with existentialism. I love everything about existentialism except its most fundamental tenet – existence precedes essence.
I have a hard time believing that there are no essential meanings in existence, and that we are fated to create meaning out of nothing. I think existence is simultaneously essentialist (intrinsic meaning), and from this actuality, meaning can be retrieved. The problem is, if people asked me to retrieve intrinsic meaning from our existence, I would not be able to satisfy them.
There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. p.30.
There are famous people considered by Gabriel Marcel to be Christian Existentialists (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Tillich); however, Atheist Existentialists consider "Christian Existentialists" to be an oxymoron (and "Atheist Existentialists" redundant) because Christianity customarily assumes – God gave meaning to His/Her creation when She created it because meaning is found in God. And yet, how many Christians have you heard unintentionally describe themselves as existentialists in the manner of the next quote?:
For the existentials negation is their God. To be precise, that god is maintained only through the negation of reason. (footnote – Let me assert again: it is not the affirmation of God that is questioned here, but rather the logic to the affirmation.) p.40.
This book is introduced as an "..argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning" (synopsis on back cover). Camus says –
…belief in the absurd is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality. If I convince myself that this life has no other aspect than that of the absurd, if I feel that its whole equilibrium depends on that perpetual opposition between my conscious revolt and the darkness in which it struggles, if I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living. p.58.
To men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one's life, one's revolt, one's freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. p.60-61
..The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. p.61-62.
March 25, 2006
Just finished reading On Desire – Why We Want What We Want by William B. Irvine.
We are awash in desire at virtually every waking moment. If we fall asleep, we temporarily subdue our desires–unless we dream, in which case our dreams will likely be shaped by our desires. p.1 (introduction)
Banish desire from the world, and you get a world of frozen beings who have no reason to live and no reason to die. p.2 (introduction)
Those who know me, know I like to know "Why". I like to know the root cause of things, the first mover, the original initiator, and the ultimate goal. Many of the desires we experience, Irvine explains, are "Instrumental desires, wanted not for their own sake, but so I can fulfill some other desire," what Irvine calls a "Terminal desire." p.57.
In the past, I wanted to know if my beliefs were just human constructions. So I tested my faith by asking myself, "What is the real reason I believe what I believe? What do I want to gain from it?" Eventually I ended up at "just because," wondering if the "just because" was a result of divine intervention. (I still ask myself these questions. I don't trust myself to maintain my faith as a terminal desire.)
I find it interesting that the practical purpose for intellect (creating instrumental desires that will direct a person to the fulfillment of terminal desires) ends when my terminal desire is fulfilled. It reminds me that there is something beyond the rational and irrational.
And then there are the unwanted desires. Irvine devotes two chapters to explaining what kind of religious advice is available to deal with unwanted desires. I found it interesting when he talked about the Amish…
Anyone who wishes to deal with desire must adopt semiarbitrary rules for living. Indeed, if we look at our own lives, we can discover any number of self-imposed, semiarbitrary rules. With respect to alcohol, we might forbid ourselves to drink alone, to drink before sunset, to drink hard liquor, or to drink wine costing more than a certain amount per bottle. With respect to credit cards…. ….with respect to entertainment…. …It is, to be sure, difficult to justify the exact place at which we draw the line with respect to our behavior, but slippery slope reasoning can be invoked to show the importance of drawing some line–even an arbitrary one–in order to prevent a gradual deterioration of our lifestyle. p.218-219 (italics Irvine's, bolded mine)
I bolded the word "our" because that word can include those who need the "semiarbitrary rules" and those who don't. I get frustrated anytime I belong to a group or community that patronizes me or others with "slippery-slope" and "err-on-the-side-of-caution" arguments that others may legitimately need. Of course, if the context is an emotionally sensitive one, I will try to comply for awhile, but if the context is just a matter of idealogies and weak will power trumping my complete lifestyle, I will want my healthy desire for freedom to be met. If not in the group, then it will have to be outside of the group (while still belonging to the group?).
Is it lacking compassion to want to remove myself from the restrictions of others' weaknesses in order to allow my strengths to mature? In Irvine's portrayal of the Amish, if you don't comply to the semiarbitrary rules, you are breaking up the community. Does this mean – when I don't maintain a self-denial of who I am, I'm anti-community?
I admit I often have a problem with authority, that is, people who consider themselves to have authority over me without my consent. But I do value community, that is, a community that values everybody belonging to said community. I know self-sacrifice is often a pre-requisite to belonging to any family/group/community, but there must be a limit. I have a hard time imagining a healthy community wanting its members to be ingenuine or inauthentic. Besides, can a community of ingenuine individuals mature spiritually?