Friday, May 04, 2012

Myth Methodology: How do we determine what is myth? Part One

Dr. Bart Ehrman recently published Did Jesus Exist?” causing a stir amongst the internets. For a sampling, you can review Vinny’s current blog entries or Sam’s blog. Both provide numerous links to other articles, likewise providing more links.

More words have been written about Dr. Ehrman’s book than are in Dr. Ehrman’s book.

My joining the scrum would only add to the cacophony…but as I review the issues, more and more I am in agreement with Dr. Carrier’s forthright assessment: “…the biggest thing I discovered is that every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked.”

In the spirit of the 20 anniversary of Rodney King’s famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I will start with where we agree. Every person who has studied claimed historical accounts regarding Jesus falls into one of only two (2) categories:

1) Everything written about Jesus’ actions on earth are fictional;
2) Some of the things written about Jesus’ actions on earth are fictional.

Notice the universal agreement? Everyone agrees at least some things about Jesus were made up. (We must be careful to not limit our review to canonical works.) We all agree there is myth* surrounding Jesus; we all demark at least some stories as, “No…that didn’t historically happen.”

*There is discussion regarding the difference between “legend” (exaggerated stories regarding a living person, like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree) and “myth” (stories regarding a non-historical person like Hercules’ task.) Vernacular Jesus studies have resulted in this becoming “myth” v “historical” so I will continue to use “myth” even for those stories about an actual 1st Century travelling Messianic apocalyptic preacher.

Since we are already doing it, the next question we have to ask is how?—What method are we using to eliminate [at least] some stories from contention? And, the next step, if we continue to utilize that method, would it eliminate all stories from contention?

I submit the primary method being used—not that we like to admit it—is familiarization; we have become so indoctrinated with cultural Jesus stories those more familiar are called “historical” and those less familiar are deemed “myth.” Take this simple test, or give it to your friends, and think about your initial reaction:

Myth or Fact: Did Jesus say:

1. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
2. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he ties up the strong man. Then he can rob the house.”
3: “Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed.”**

The first one shines out as “Oh, that is a Jesus statement” even though textual criticism has demonstrated it a later addition. The next two are more difficult, right? Why? Because we are deliberately looking for “Jesus-like” statements! Did you catch yourself thinking, “Hmm…is this something Jesus would say?” If so, you are using familiarity as a method.

Myth or Fact: Did Jesus:

4. Appear to Paul on the road to Damascus.
5. Appear to Peter on the road from Rome.
6. Amazes Teacher with knowledge of Greek alphabet.
7. Amaze Jewish Teachers with his answers.
8. Travel to Egypt as a child.
9. Travel to India as a child.**

Like a quiz in Cosmopolitan, we easily pick out the “correct” answers by recognizing the story. Ask the average person on the street about Jesus. Ask about specifics. You will get “born in a stable,” (although no stable is mentioned!) “walk on water,” “the Lord’s Prayer,” “Crucified, cave resurrected,” and “Pilate washing his hands.” Jesus is so familiar in our society, we use his sayings in political cartoons and everyone immediately recognizes who that Jesus is—and the humor in the cartoon. We recognize his face even though he could have looked like Flavius Josephus or this reconstruction.

After living in our society for any time we “know” what Jesus is supposed to look like, we “know” what Jesus is supposed to say (“Yeah poor people! Boo dogmatic religious leaders.”), we “know” what he is supposed to do. Like a song we have listened to over and over, upon hearing someone strike the wrong note we immediately cringe, squirm and cry out, “No—that note is wrong!”

But what if we have always listened to a version of the song with a wrong note, and we happen to be hearing the correct note for the first time? Like asking, ”Why do all those old bands keep copying Glee songs?” We have reached the point where we eliminate dissimilar as being incorrect, and therefore non-historical.

We have bought our own sales pitch.

Lest you think this is limited to “person-on-the-street” the point was driven home rather forcefully recently when Dr. Ehrman indicated James, the leader of the church was identified as Jesus Brother in Acts of the Apostles. Upon questioning, Dr. Ehrman correctly retracted the statement, but why would he even state it in the first place? Because, I submit, he is already familiar with James the leader being the same as James the brother of Jesus, and relying on that familiarity simply assumed Acts stated such.

Alas, he doubled-down by then embracing the familiarity as proof they are one and the same.

We all seem to agree there is myth-making when it comes to Jesus. We likewise (I hope) agree this commonly used method of familiarity is a poor means to determine historicity. Next time I will look at other possible methods to look for myth-making.

**1. John 8:7 (not in the earliest manuscripts)
2. Mark 3:27
3. Gospel of Thomas 6
4. Acts 9:3
5. Acts of Peter 35
6. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 5:8-10
7. Luke 2:47
8. Matt 2:14-15.
9. Life of St. Issa--the lost years of Jesus’ childhood.