Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Epistemology and Historicity

I was reading Raphael Lataster's piece in the Washington Post today, and I was immediately struck by two things:

  1. For someone who distrusts the Gospels and the Pauline Corpus as useful in establishing the historicity of Jesus, he quotes from them a bit.
  2. The evidence for his nonexistence is as thin as the evidence for his existence, perhaps thinner.

Of course another thing altogether is this breathtaking dismissal, "Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved." Well, I never like being told what to do ...

But let me take a step back for a moment. It is a perfectly legitimate academic exercise to question to the historicity of religious figures. Did Buddha really exist? Lao Tze? Muhammad? John the Baptist? Herod the Great? More of the latter two in a bit. It is perfectly legitimate to question, because if someone did not exist, that provokes profound questions in and of itself. The first question one has right off the bat is ... if Buddha or Christ didn't exist ... why did their religions come about at all? Dr Lataster seems to offer one possible narratives as to why: the  writers "... eager to promote Christianity," and those willing to edit Josephus.

If Dr Lataster has provided a rubric to test historicity for Jesus, then we should be able to use this rubric with others. I mentioned Herod the Great and John the Baptist. Aside from the Christian Gospels (hmmm....) we only have scant other sources for their existence, and one of them is, you guessed it, Josephus. Cassius Dio is another source for Herod, but as you know ... he was born long after Herod died (160 CE, in fact). John the Baptist is covered a lot more extensively in Josephus than is Christ. Indeed, one wonders if these Christian editors were busy little bees dressing up Josephus and Tacitus, why didn't they edit/excise this oddity? In fact when we really apply this rubric what we're left with is maybe nobody before 37 CE (Josephus' birth) existed. Or perhaps we shall try to apply it to someone else. How about Muhammad? The Qu'ran never actually mentions his name once. There are no eyewitness accounts ... later "biased" writers and so on. Hmm. It seems to me all this rubric really does is show how hard it really is to demonstrate anyone existed (try it yourself on other figures from Antiquity. Are the Phillipics really accurate reflections of what Cicero said, or did he dress them up later after some l'esprit d'escalier? Did he never exist, or did his career as an orator never exist? Especially when you consider some question whether his letters are genuine ... But I could go on and on ). Not, in the end, all that useful, perhaps.

The scholars, it seems to me, have made a conscious choice to take any of these first and second century with a certain grain of salt, but not dismiss them outright either. And in some ways, without realising it, so has Dr Lataster. He dismissed out of hand the "the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them" i.e. Q I must presume, but that same scholarly apparatus that thinks Q must have existed is also part and parcel why scholars think books like Thessalonians were written before the Gospels. He takes those theories with a certain grain of salt, but he still does. Put another way, he himself is guilty of the very thing he chides the other scholars for doing.

No comments: