How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Discussion about the New Testament, apocrypha, gnostics, church fathers, Christian origins, historical Jesus or otherwise, etc.
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How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Peter Kirby » Fri Feb 08, 2019 11:18 pm

Recently we've been asked to "imagine no interpolations" ... it's easy if you try?

https://vridar.org/2019/02/08/imagine-n ... polations/

It takes the stance that its position is "not based on a handful of proof texts that can be supposedly met by setting up opposing proof texts." Instead they're "more complex, more sophisticated than that, and involve serious questions." Those questions are those of "a priori assumptions, logical validity and research methods." This is usually termed skepticism and, to be clear, since we're asking whether the proof texts would "remove any reason to question the assertion" of an HJ, all we're really asking is whether they overcome our skepticism or if skepticism remains, undisturbed.

What's odd about this, though, is that skepticism is not complex and not sophisticated. It's a very simple thing. We either have evidence that overcomes our doubt, to various degrees, or we don't. We're entirely / mostly / somewhat skeptical, as we acquire more evidence for something we move from a position of total skepticism to one of somewhat-grudging allowance for the strong plausibility to a somewhat-more-agreeable understanding that something is more probable than not.

We might be more stringent with the same set of facts, but stringency with the evidence isn't sophistication. It's more akin to curmudgeonry, more like a state of mind or predisposition than any particular font of insight.

Recall that this was the beginning of the meditation, notably these two points:

* Josephus wrote about Jesus in Ant 18 and Ant 20
* Paul wrote about the Jews killing Jesus

Regarding the Jewish historian Josephus on Jesus:
The Testimonium Flavianum does not appear until at least 64 years after the date usually assigned for the death of Jesus. Josephus does not tell us the source of his information. Now assess that fact in the context of what modern historians (I’m talking about professional historians in history departments, not in seminaries or departments of theology) grant as evidence that is strong enough to confirm the historicity of an event: see, for example, the discussions of Carr, Elton and Evans in my recent post on how historians decide or confirm the historicity of a reported event; another historian, Garraghan, would be even more strict with his criteria as discussed in a post with a title reference to Hiawatha.
Regarding a first century apostle Paul on Jews killing Jesus:
Then 2 [sic] Thessalonians 2:13-16 and the Jews in Judea killing Jesus would follow, if the AoI pocket gospel above or something similar to it had been known to Paul. That pocket gospel speaks of the demons stirring up envy among the Jews to kill Jesus, thus evidently holding the demons themselves, those “rulers of the age”, responsible. Among other beliefs that surfaced (and we don’t know when it started) was one that had Jesus being magically swapped for Simon Magus on his way to the cross. It is nonsense to suggest that any story with an earthly setting and human characters must by some default “hermeneutic of charity” be assumed historical until compelling evidence to the contrary arises.
How sophisticated is this, really? If you encountered someone who took these two points as reasonably well established -- not as a counterfactual, but as the state of the matter -- would you not actually be surprised if they still wanted to argue that the historicity of Jesus is in grave doubt?

And surprised in a bad way -- the kind of thing where you have to shake your head and wonder if a dog just has to chew that bone, come what may, because they've been chewing on it so long they've forgotten how good it might be just to dig their teeth into a steak of evidence right in front of them.

While positioned as scientific skepticism, there is also a tincture of anti-empiricism here, an elevation of the grand idea (the Jesus myth) over dirty details (proof texts, gross!).
"... almost every critical biblical position was earlier advanced by skeptics." - Raymond Brown

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Peter Kirby » Fri Feb 08, 2019 11:55 pm

One particularly sophisticated commenter observed the following:
If the Testimonium Flavianum had actually been written by Josephus, it might cause as many problems for HJ scholars as it purports to solve. The HJ scholars, as we always point out, and as everyone knows, are not in pursuit of the JC of faith, but of someone else–an itinerant preacher, somebody who may or may not have preached the Beatitudes but certainly was crucified, so they say. But this is not the person in the Testimonium. The TF is about the “wonder-worker,” the faith healer, the magician–in short, the NON-historical Jesus.

As for Tacitus, he does not even refer to Jesus. Shouldn’t that be a problem for those who cite the passage as evidence of the HJ? Why hasn’t Tacitus heard that Chrestus, the leader of the Christians, has a name?
Which brings simply a note of agreement:
Yes, indeed.
I get that it is no-HJ-friendly, so it is of course very complex and very sophisticated... but, other than that, it's entirely insipid.

May I never be so complex and sophisticated! I'm afraid my head would fall clear off, from turning my neck so far around.

I'm deliberately making the choice not to point out the holes in the reasoning above. If you can't see any, you might just be another part of the problem. And you could actually be very complex and very sophisticated, yourself! Pat yourself on the back, then, and brush me off as an apologist for the simple and crude approach. I will admit it -- I can be entirely primitive -- sometimes I even imagine that the right answer is the obvious one.
"... almost every critical biblical position was earlier advanced by skeptics." - Raymond Brown

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Feb 09, 2019 12:19 am

Some of the commenters are not yet as advanced as the last, so their sophistication lacks the full complexity desired.

One person gets a like for this cheerful note:
My description of Christianity: Sop on top of slop.
Any kind of ruined, unpalatable soup.
Someone offers a what-if alternative hypothesis of his own:
What if all of the holy books were written by agents of Xenu?
Only one strikes a discordant note by deciding to ring the bell that is right there in broad daylight (1 Thess 2:15):
2 Thess would be a little bit more problematic for MJ if it were authentic, but the case against authenticity is strong. I think if that were not an interpolation it would be a point in favor of HJ.
As simple as it may be, someone must say these simple things, or we will eventually stop hearing them.
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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by andrewcriddle » Sat Feb 09, 2019 1:44 am

IMO some types of skepticism about a HJ entail a radical skepticism about our ability to do ancient history at all. That does not necessarily mean that these type of arguments are false, but, if true they have rather drastic implications in an area much wider that the study of early Christianity.

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Paul the Uncertain » Sat Feb 09, 2019 3:05 am

I was encouraged by the Vridar post. There was a recent time when one of the bloggers there seemed unreceptive to such normative staples (Bayesian or "post-modern") as reasoning counterfactually about evidence (e.g. what if TJ weren't altered from whatever Josephus wrote, if anything?).

The same blogger seemed to teach that there were questions that historians couldn't answer, and therefore shouldn't ask. Counterfactuals like "What would be so if what has happened hadn't happened?" seem the epitome of questions which are unaswerable from a siloed historian's perspective. Meh, welcome to the Nineteenth Century, Vridar.

As to the topic question, reasoning about the bearing of evidence isn't fundamentally complex.

You have at least two seriously possible incompatible hypotheses. You observe something. You estimate that what you observed is more consonant with one of the hypotheses than with the other. You adjust your confidence in the consonant hypothesis upwards at the expense of your confidence in the less consonant hypothesis. Rinse and repeat.

For the last two centuries, there have arisen some awesomely sophisticated methods to do what's described in the last paragraph. However, as long as a reasoner consistently does some version of that, then chances are good that the reasoner will invest his or her confidence wisely. The operation is robust.

Out on the street, "skepticism" is as simple and as heuristic as not believing everything you are told. People are fallible observers, fallible reporters of what they've observed, fallible interpreters of what they report, and all of them tell fibs sometimes.

Under those circumstances, IMO, it is inevitable that some people who initially take at face value the entire corpus of evidence bearing on the historicity of Jesus will note that there is no evidence at all except for things that they are being told. What they are being told is scarcely possible and the people telling them this have been caught in fibs.

Alien abduction is comparable in overall credibility.

The only prayer of ever concluding in favor of an HJ is to break the corpus apart, and look at the bearing of pieces that at least report something possible (e.g. that one apostle reports first-hand that he met a brother of HJ). We know from other investigations how that turns out: some pieces of evidence will favor one hypothesis, and other pieces will favor the other. A balance will be struck between the contending possibilities.

Conclude: "Christianity began when a single man recruited disciples who survived him and organized a self-perpetuating religious enterprise focused on him" is uncertain. Contrary hypotheses are seriously possible, and the available evidence is insufficient to dismiss them with high confidence. The balance of the evidence will impress different estimators differently.

It isn't inherently complex. Sophistication will vary among estimators, in both camps. Whether that's a good thing or not, it's how it is. What resolves uncertainty with widespread interpersonal secular agreement is dead-mouse-on-the-kitchen-floor convincing evidence. We don't have it for Jesus, historical or mythical, and I doubt we ever will have it.

Godfrey is correct. The probability of altered crucial documents is only one source of uncertainty among many in this problem. Therefore, even if that possibility were eliminated, the story still doesn't add up entirely convincingly. Skepticism is a disposition to accept only stories that do add up when the sums are checked. Skepticism is warranted in this problem. Let us pray.

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Giuseppe » Sat Feb 09, 2019 8:07 am

Forgive the my intrusion in this thread. My native Language is not English, and so I can't like fully the nuances of the Peter (not Apostle) 's post.

From what I understand, he is reproaching Neil for the his description of the his survived skepticism, in the face of the (hypothetical) realization that nothing is interpolated, as something that can be appreciated (and meant) better by the equivalent, in the field of historical studies, of a Nobel Prize of Physics!!?

Clearly Peter is right, if that is what he would be arguing. Even if Neil is interesting in the specific analysis of what would be ''complex'' (I am talking about Vridar !, afterall), in my modest view, my survived skepticism seems one of the things more simple of the world...
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by JoeWallack » Sun Feb 10, 2019 4:13 pm

Peter Kirby wrote:
Fri Feb 08, 2019 11:18 pm
Recently we've been asked to "imagine no interpolations" ... it's easy if you try?

https://vridar.org/2019/02/08/imagine-n ... polations/

It takes the stance that its position is "not based on a handful of proof texts that can be supposedly met by setting up opposing proof texts." Instead they're "more complex, more sophisticated than that, and involve serious questions." Those questions are those of "a priori assumptions, logical validity and research methods." This is usually termed skepticism and, to be clear, since we're asking whether the proof texts would "remove any reason to question the assertion" of an HJ, all we're really asking is whether they overcome our skepticism or if skepticism remains, undisturbed.

What's odd about this, though, is that skepticism is not complex and not sophisticated. It's a very simple thing. We either have evidence that overcomes our doubt, to various degrees, or we don't. We're entirely / mostly / somewhat skeptical, as we acquire more evidence for something we move from a position of total skepticism to one of somewhat-grudging allowance for the strong plausibility to a somewhat-more-agreeable understanding that something is more probable than not.
JW:
The problem with Godfree's article specifically and with his treatment of the topic in general is that he switches back and forth between the positions:
  • 1) The evidence for HJ is much weaker than supporters of it think.

    Vs.

    2) The evidence makes MJ more likely than HJ or at least a comparable conclusion.
In the offending article note that up to the last two paragraphs he is just arguing that the evidence for HJ is much weaker than HJ supporters think. In the second to last paragraph he than switches to the reputation of the MJ conclusion:
Much nonsense (read falsehoods) has been levelled at those who argue for the gospels and references in Paul’s letters being best explained by something other than a gospel-like narrative about a historical figure. Most of those who argue that viewpoint come across to me as bending over backwards to limit the number of interpolations they concede, and those they do admit are only done so with permission of a substantial body of the reputable scholarship. As you can tell, I think they are far too strict. But then if I were trying to argue a case a fortiori as they are then I would probably do the same.
What Godfree is leaving out is an analysis of the position he favors. Is the evidence for the MJ position also much weaker than MJ supporters think? And more importantly, how does the evidence for each position compare? It's possible that even though the evidence for HJ is much weaker than supporters of it generally think [absolute measurement], it is still much better than the evidence for MJ [relative measurement].

Specifically Godfree writes:
James the Brother of the Lord has generated so much wasted discussion, in my opinion. I don’t believe the passage was original (for reasons set out here) but let’s suppose I am wrong. Richard Carrier also granted this passage the status of being very strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Be that as it may, the passage simply does not refer to Jesus at all, certainly not explicitly. The Lord, when used alone, is usually a reference to God, not Jesus, I thought, in Paul’s writings. Given that context it is surely reasonable to keep a back door ajar to allow room for questions to enter. It would certainly be perverse dogmatics worthy, I suppose I have to admit, of graduates of seminaries and theology departments, to insist there can be no room for doubt of any kind about the passage. But once we allow permission to ask a question about a passage we have firmly decided cannot be an interpolation, then my reasons for believing the passage to be an interpolation can be modified easily enough to demonstrate that it is very unlikely in the extreme to refer to a literal sibling of Jesus.
Compare the weight of this to the evidence Godfree proposes to take away from the MJ argument:
What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)
Trying to invoke AoI as quality evidence for MJ is symptomatic of the weakness of the argument for MJ.

Godfree has the broader problem of avoiding/ignoring the relationship between opposing sides which is best illustrated in The Israeli/Arab conflict. He claims evidence that Israel (and therefore its supporters) is guilty of genocide, apartheid, murder, crimes against humanity and lying and ignores/minimizes the other side of the relationship. What Israeli security measures are reacting to.


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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Bertie » Mon Feb 11, 2019 8:18 am

Right.

Skepticism is suspicious when an idea needs to be propped up by a complicated intellectual framework ("Big Ideas").
Skepticism is suspicious when an idea needs a bunch of ad hoc carve-outs to protect it from being overthrown.
Skepticism is empirical and would err on the side of being too naive rather than too incredulous.
Skepticism is Popperian.
Skepticism is Ockhamian.
Skepticism privileges the null hypothesis.

I'm a skeptic and part of the reason I've lost interest in the mythical Jesus is that it became apparent to me that the historical Jesus position requires less intellectual framework, has fewer ad hoc carve-outs, and is more falsifiable (in a looser, social science compatible definition of that word) than the mythical position.

(Skeptics are wrong, sometimes, of course. Sometimes conspiracy theories do happen, and sometimes science resists reduction to the ontologically minimal and the easily falsifiable. If the mythicist position had at least moderately stronger explanatory power over the evidence than the alternative, I might put skepticism to the side and at least take a fence-sitting position. But the Schweitzer, apocalyptic Jesus position is just too good; it has vast explanatory power over the evidence in addition to winning on skeptical grounds.)

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Giuseppe » Mon Feb 11, 2019 9:06 am


The question, “What do you put in its place?” is often addressed to the destructive critic of a belief, not with any philosophic perception of the fact that complete removal is effected only by putting a tested or tenable judgment in place of an untested or untenable, but with a sense of injury, as if a false belief were a personal possession, for the removal of which there must be “compensation.”

mythicist J. M. Robertson (The Jesus Problem, p. 3)
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: How "complex and sophisticated" is the No-HJ argument - and is that a good thing?

Post by Irish1975 » Mon Feb 11, 2019 11:14 am

Peter Kirby wrote:
Fri Feb 08, 2019 11:55 pm
One particularly sophisticated commenter observed the following:
If the Testimonium Flavianum had actually been written by Josephus, it might cause as many problems for HJ scholars as it purports to solve. The HJ scholars, as we always point out, and as everyone knows, are not in pursuit of the JC of faith, but of someone else–an itinerant preacher, somebody who may or may not have preached the Beatitudes but certainly was crucified, so they say. But this is not the person in the Testimonium. The TF is about the “wonder-worker,” the faith healer, the magician–in short, the NON-historical Jesus.

As for Tacitus, he does not even refer to Jesus. Shouldn’t that be a problem for those who cite the passage as evidence of the HJ? Why hasn’t Tacitus heard that Chrestus, the leader of the Christians, has a name?
Which brings simply a note of agreement:
Yes, indeed.
I get that it is no-HJ-friendly, so it is of course very complex and very sophisticated... but, other than that, it's entirely insipid.

May I never be so complex and sophisticated! I'm afraid my head would fall clear off, from turning my neck so far around.

I'm deliberately making the choice not to point out the holes in the reasoning above. If you can't see any, you might just be another part of the problem. And you could actually be very complex and very sophisticated, yourself! Pat yourself on the back, then, and brush me off as an apologist for the simple and crude approach. I will admit it -- I can be entirely primitive -- sometimes I even imagine that the right answer is the obvious one.
I take the point that rhetoric about being "complex and sophisticated" in one's argument is not that useful or effective.

I'm not sure what other point of substance or logic is here. At least the Vridar post and commentary has interesting things to say about Josephus, etc.
Sub Tiberio quies.

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