Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth


Who was the "real Jesus"? Given the historical unreliability of the gospels and other ancient sources, can this question ever be answered? Is it possible that a historical Jesus never existed? These questions and more are addressed in this collection of expert essays based on the latest research in New Testament scholarship. All of the authors are participants in the Jesus Project, a new investigation into the origins of Christianity. The editor describes the project as a beneficiary of its history, building on ...

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Who was the "real Jesus"? Given the historical unreliability of the gospels and other ancient sources, can this question ever be answered? Is it possible that a historical Jesus never existed? These questions and more are addressed in this collection of expert essays based on the latest research in New Testament scholarship. All of the authors are participants in the Jesus Project, a new investigation into the origins of Christianity. The editor describes the project as a beneficiary of its history, building on the work of prior inquiry and acknowledging important advances in the reconstruction of Christian origins in the last two centuries. It is "new" in advocating a faith-free approach to the sources and greater attention to method than previous inquiries. The scholars represented in this volume are among the finest in the world. Included are not only experts in New Testament studies but also specialists in archeology, legal history, intertestamental Judaism, educational studies, Near Eastern studies, philosophy, and classics. The first fruits of this scholarly collaboration are gathered together in this excellent anthology, which will be a welcome addition to the libraries of anyone with an interest in Christian origins.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616141899
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 8/24/2010
  • Pages: 250
  • Sales rank: 878,079
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 11.80 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

R. Joseph Hoffmann, PhD (Plainfield, VT), teaches at Goddard College. He is the author or editor of many books on early Christianity including Julian’s Against the Galileans and Porphyry’s Against the Christians. He is the chair of the Council for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the cochair of the Jesus Project. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Oxford University, Wells College, and the American University of Beirut.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Of Rocks, Hard Places, and Jesus Fatigue R. Joseph Hoffmann 9

An Alternative Q and the Quest of the Earthly Jesus Dennis R. MacDonald 17

Jesus and the Brothers: The Theology of the Imperfect Union R. Joseph Hoffmann 45

Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions Justin Meggitt 55

Bayes's Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method Richard C. Carrier 81

The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus Robert M. Price 109

Jesus' Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist Bruce Chilton 118

The Authorized Version of His Birth and Death David Trobisch 131

Prolegomenon to a Science of Christian Origins Frank R. Zindler 140

?Every Plant Which My Heavenly Father Has Not Planted Shall Be Uprooted? Robert Eisenman Noelle Magana 157

On Not Finding the Historical Jesus R. Joseph Hoffmann 171

Assessing the Evidence: Philosophical and Legal Perspectives Ronald A. Lindsay 185

Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus Gerd Lüdemann 196

Jesus' Apocalyptic Vision and the Psychodynamics of Delusion J. Harold Ellens 213

Epilogue: The Canonical-Historical Jesus R. Joseph Hoffmann 257

Notes 267

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First Chapter



Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 R. Joseph Hoffmann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-189-9



R. Joseph Hoffmann

Crouching somewhere between esthetic sound byte and historical detail is Michelangelo's famous statement about sculpture. "The job of the sculptor," Vasari attributes to il Divino, "is to set free the forms that are within the stone." It's a lovely thought—poetic, in fact. If you accept the theory of Renaissance Platonism, as Michelangelo embodies it, you also have to believe that Moses and David were encased in stone, yearning to be released—as the soul yearns to be set free from the flesh in the theology of salvation.

You will, however, be left wondering why such a theory required human models with strong arms and firm thighs, and why the finished product bears no more resemblance to real or imagined historical figures than a drawing that any one of us could produce. We may lack Michelangelo's skill and his deft way with a rasp and chisel, but we can easily imagine more probable first millennium BCE heroes—in form, stature, skin tone, and body type—than the Italian beauties he released from their marble prisons. In fact, the more we know about the first millennium BCE, the more likely we are to be right. And alas, Michelangelo didn't know very much about history at all. And what's more, it made no difference to his art, his success, or to his reputation. That is why idealism and imagination are sometimes at odds with history, or put bluntly, why history acts as a control on our ability to imagine or idealize anything, often profoundly wrong things.

If we apply the same logic to the New Testament, we stumble over what I have once or twice called the Platonic Fallacy in Jesus research. Like it or not, the New Testament is still the primary artifact of the literature that permits us to understand the origins of Christianity. It's the stone, if not the only stone. If we possessed onlyGnostic and apocryphal sources as documentary curiosities and no movement that preserved them, we would be hard pressed to say anything other than that at some time in the first and second century a short-lived and highly incoherent religious movement fluoresced and faded (many did) in the night sky of Hellenistic antiquity. The Jesus we would know from these sources would be an odd co-mixture of insufferable infant à la the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; a hell-robber, like the liberator of the Gospel of Nicodemus; a mysterious cipher, like the unnamed hero of the Hymn of the Pearl; or an impenetrable guru, like the Jesus of the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Despite the now-yellowed axiom we all learned as first-year divinity students (of a certain generation) and later in graduate school (the one where we are taught that "no picture of early Christianity is complete without availing ourselves of all the sources"), I will climb out on a limb to say that these sources are not so much integral to a coherent picture of early Christianity as they are pebbles in orbit around the gravitational center we call the canon. They are interesting—fascinating even—in showing us how uniformity of opinion and belief can wriggle out of a chaos of alternative visions, but they are not the stone that the most familiar form of Christianity was made from. That recognition is as important as it is increasingly irrelevant to modern New Testament discussion.

So, how do we approach the New Testament? What kind of rock is it? We know (to stay with the analogy) that it's "metamorphic"—made of bits and pieces formed under pressure—in the case of the New Testament, doctrinal and political pressure to define the difference between majority and minority views and impressions, once but now unfashionably called "orthodoxy" and "heresy."

Whatever the root causes of canon formation, canon we have. The Platonic Fallacy comes into play when New Testament scholarship labors under assumptions that emanated from the literary praxis of Renaissance humanists and then (in methodized form) fueled the theological faculties of Germany well into the twentieth century (before a staggering retreat from "higher criticism" by neo-orthodox, and then existentialist, postmodern, and correctness theologians). The sequence of Jesus-quests that began before Schweitzer (who thought he was writing a retrospective!) and the succession of theories they produced were honest in their understanding of the metamorphic nature of the canon and the textual complexity of the individual books that composed it. The legacy, at least a legacy of method, of the early quests was a healthy skepticism that sometimes spilled over into Hegelianism, as with F. C. Baur, or mischievous ingenuity, as with Bruno Bauer. But what Left and Right Hegelians and their successors—from Harnack to Bultmann to the most radical of their pupils—had in common was a strong disposition to approach the canon with a chisel, assuming that if the historical accretions, misrepresentations, and conscious embellishment could be stripped away, beneath it all lay the figure of a comprehensible Galilean prophet whose life and message could be used to understand the "essence" (the nineteenth-century buzzword) of Christianity.

Whether the program was demythologizing, politico-liberationist, or poststructuralist, the methods seemed to chase forgone conclusions about what the Gospels were and what the protagonist must "really" have been like. Judged by the standards of the chisel bearers of the Tübingen school, Schweitzer's caution that the Jesus of history would remain a mystery ("He comes to us as one unknown") was both prophetic and merely an interlude in the effort to excavate the historical Jesus. If it was meant to be dissuasive, it was instead a battle cry for better chisels and more theorists. In the latter part of the twentieth century, it has involved a demand for more sources as well—not to mention cycles of translations, each purporting to be "definitive" and thus able to shed light on a historical puzzle that the previous translation did not touch or failed to express. Judas, Philip, and Mary Magdalene have achieved a star status far out of proportion to anything they can tell us about the historical Jesus, let alone considerations of literary merit or influence on tradition. When I say this, I am not asking modern scholarship to embrace the opinions of "dead orthodox bishops" or "winners," but to acknowledge and investigate the choices the church's first intellectuals made and their reasons for making them. The politicization of sources, the uninformative vivisection of historically important theological disputes into a discussion of outcomes (winners, losers) may make great stuff for the Discovery channel or the Easter edition of Time, but it is shamelessly Hollywood and depends on a culture of likeminded footnotes and a troubling disingenuousness with regard to what scholars know to be true and what they claim to be true.

Moreover, it is one of the reasons why a hundred years after the heyday of the Radical School of New Testament scholarship—which certainly had its warts—the questions of "total spuriousness" (as of Paul's letters) and the "nonhistoricity of Jesus" are still considered risible or taboo. They are taboo because of the working postulate that has dominated New Testament scholarship for two centuries and more: that conclusions depend on the uncovering of a kernel of truth at the center of a religious movement, a historical center, and, desirably, a historical person resembling, if not in every detail, the protagonist described in the Gospels. This working postulate is formed by scholars perfectly aware that no similar imperative exists to corroborate the existence (or sayings) of the "historical" Adam, the historical Abraham, or Moses, or David—or indeed the prophets—or any equivalent effort to explain the evolution of Judaism on the basis of such inquiry. We are prone to think that the Jesus we excavate with literary tools is more historical than the religious icons Michelangelo released through his sculpting. But why?

The Platonic Fallacy depends on the "true story" being revealed through the disaggregation of traditions: dismantle the canon, factor and multiply the sources of the Gospels, marginalize the orthodox settlement as one among dozens of possible outcomes affecting the growth of the church, incorporate all the materials the church fathers sent to the bin or caused to be hidden away. Now we're getting somewhere. It shuns the possibility that the aggregation of traditions begins with something historical, but not with a historical individual—which even if it turns out to be false, is a real possibility. Even the most ardent historicists of the twentieth century anticipated a "revelation" available through historical research. Thus Harnack could dismiss most of the miracles of the Gospels, argue for absolute freedom of inquiry in Gospels research (a theme Bultmann would take up), and insist that "historical knowledge is necessary for every Christian and not just for the historian"—all, however, in order to winnow "the timeless nucleus of Christianity from its various time bound trappings."

The so-called Jesus Seminar of the last century was perhaps the last gasp of the Platonic Fallacy in action. Formed to "get at" the authentic sayings of Jesus, it suffered from the conventional hammer and chisel approach to the sources that has characterized every similar venture since the nineteenth century, missing only the idealistic and theological motives for sweeping up afterward. It will remain famous primarily for its eccentricity, its claim to be a kind of Jesus-vetting jury and to establish through a consensus (never reached) what has evaded lonelier scholarship for centuries.

The Seminar was happy with a miracle-free Jesus, a fictional resurrection, a Jesus whose sayings were as remarkable as "And how are you today, Mrs. Jones?" It used and disused standard forms of biblical criticism selectively and often inexplicably to offer readers a "Jesus they never knew": a Galilean peasant, a cynic, a de-eschatologized prophet, a craftsman whose dad was a day laborer in nearby Sepphoris (never mind the Nazareth issue, or the Joseph issue). These purportedly "historical" Jesuses were meant to be more plausible than the Jesus whose DNA lived on in the fantasies of Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis. But, in fact, they began to blur. It betimes took sources too literally and not literally enough, and when it became clear that the star system it evoked was resulting in something like a Catherine wheel rather than a conclusion, it changed the subject.

As long ago as 1993, it became clear that the Jesus Seminar was yet another attempt to break open the tomb where once Jesus lay. It was then that I commented in a popular journal, "The Jesus of the Westar Project is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor." I was anticipated in this by none other than John Dominic Crossan (a Seminar founder) who wrote in 1991, having produced his own minority opinion concerning Jesus, "It seems we can have as many Jesuses as there are exegetes ... exhibiting a stunning diversity that is an academic embarrassment." And Crossan's caveat had been expressed more trenchantly a hundred years before by the German scholar Martin Kaehler: "The entire life of the Jesus movement," he argued, was based on misperceptions "and is bound to end in a blind alley.... Christian faith and the history of Jesus repel each other like oil and water."

If we add to the work of the Jesus Seminar the "extra-Seminar Jesuses," magicians, insurgents, and bandits, we end up with a multiplicity that "makes the prospect that Jesus never existed a welcome relief."

Some contributors to this volume are chastened expatriates from that experience, wary of further projects and either "minimally" hopeful of further results, or at least realistic in making claims for what can be known for sure about Jesus. Others are quite openly skeptical of the sources and the story they tell, and alert us to the contextual possibility that the Gospels are the products of the Christian imagination. All, I believe, think that the era of breaking rocks and piecing them back together to create plausible Jesuses, as Michelangelo created a plausible Moses for the Italians of the sixteenth century, is over. In fact, one of the benefits we inherit from the Jesus Seminar is a record of success and failure. It raised the question of methodology in a way that can no longer be ignored, without, however, providing a map for further study. Its legacy is primarily a cautionary tale concerning the limits of "doing" history collectively, and sometimes theologically—a caution that must taken seriously. For that reason, the reader of this volume will find no consensus but an anthology of ideas, no finality but an interesting batch of possibilities.

Jesus research—biblical research in general—through the end of the twentieth century was exciting stuff. The death of one of the great Albright students in 2008, and a former boss of mine at the University of Michigan, David Noel Freedman, reminds us that we may be at the end of the road. Albright's scholarship and research, and his general refusal to shy away from the "results" of archaeology, were accompanied by optimism in terms of how archaeology could be used to "prove" the Bible. In its general outline, he felt, the Bible was true; there was no reason (for example) to doubt the essential biographical details of the story of Abraham in Genesis. A "biblical archaeologist's" job was not to test the Bible against the evidence but to test the evidence against the Bible.

Albright's pupils were less confident of the biblical record, and as William Dever observed in a 1995 article in The Biblical Archaeologist, "His central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum.... The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer 'secular' archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not 'Biblical archaeology.'

New Testament archaeology is a different house, built with different stones. It is even more susceptible to the hazards, however, than the house of Albright. Every story about lost tombs and the discovery of the house of next door to the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth is a sad reminder of how piety fogs the brain and muddies conclusions. To be perfectly fair, the biblical appendix—the New Testament—lacks the geographical markers and vivid information that suffuse the Hebrew Bible. If the Old Testament landscape is real geography populated by mythical heroes, the New Testament trends in the opposite direction. For that reason, New Testament scholars in my opinion have tried to develop an ersatz "archaeology of sources" to match the more impressive gains in Old Testament studies. We learn more with each passing decade about the contexts of the so-called New Testament period. We have not learned correspondingly more about the inhabitants of the story.

The reasons for the "new sources" trend in New Testament research are multiple, but the one I fear the most is Jesus fatigue. There is a sense that prior to 1980, New Testament scholarship was stuck in the mire of post-Bultmannian ennui. Jesus Seminars and Jesus Projects have been in part a response to a particular historical situation. Five Gospels are better than four. The more sources we have, the more we know about Jesus. Q (a) did exist, (b) did not exist, or (c) is far more layered and interesting than used to be thought. Judas was actually the primary apostle. No, it was Mary Magdalene. The scholarship of whimsy, of course, is not unique to the study of this ancient source, but in the study of no other ancient material are scholars able to get by with more that is plainly absurd.

As a Christian origins scholar by training, I am not even sure how one would go about the task, if it is a necessary task, of "proving" that Jesus existed. The fact that the majority of sayings attributed to him were not his is not an encouraging beginning to determining the status of a man who is otherwise known chiefly for his miraculous deeds. I am not certain that such a task can be taken seriously, even if it were worth performing, because the evidence continually recedes in front of us. We have established an enviable science of sourceology, but without visible improvement in our knowledge of its purposes.


Excerpted from SOURCES of the JESUS TRADITION Copyright © 2010 by R. Joseph Hoffmann. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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