Thursday, June 11, 2009

Examining The Pagan Christ: Part Six

This is a dissection of certain sections of chapter eight of the book. At this point, Mr. Harpur begins to exhaust his information, as a lot of the chapter basically repeats the same claims he has already made numerous times in earlier chapters of his book. Thus, I will concentrate mainly on the claims that are more specific to this chapter. First:

As scholars of the controversial California-based Jesus Seminar have pointed out, some twenty gospels of various kinds have come down to us either in whole or in pieces from the first three centuries of the common era, but only four ended up included in the New Testament. The seminar, founded in 1985 by Robert Funk, now consists of a group of over seventy-five internationally recognized biblical scholars who are experts in a wide variety of fields, from ancient history to archaeology. Sifting through the Gospels and the Book of Acts, grading the various sayings and deeds of Jesus according to their probability of authenticity, they have produced a very different “man” from the figure that is the icon of orthodox Christianity. In their findings, Jesus had a human father whose name may not have been Joseph; he was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth; he was an itinerant sage who liked the company of social outcasts; he healed many psychosomatic illnesses; he did not walk on water, feed the crowd with miraculous meals, change water into wine, or raise the dead. In their view, there was no empty tomb; belief in the Resurrection is based on the visionary experiences of Peter, Mary and later, Paul. Jesus did not, in their view, preach that he would come again. [1]

The Jesus Seminar is pretty far out there when it comes to biblical scholarship (though to be fair, they're nowhere near as bad as some of the really, really fringe writers I've encountered). If you're not familiar with their "scholarship" methods, they basically vote on the authenticity of the Gospel texts using different coloured beads, with the different colours representing different views as to each verse's authenticity. The texts that they identify as "authentic" are based on preconceived ideas that Jesus could not have done such-and-such an act or have said such-and-such a saying, and thus you arrived at a very skewed position that doesn't even reflect the views of the consensus of scholars. [2]

Of course, this does not bother Mr. Harpur at all, as he is willing to grasp at anything he can in order to try and vindicate his ideas regarding Jesus and the Gospels. Funny enough, he praises the Jesus Seminar when their findings support his conclusions, but he reproaches them when they disagree with him on the historicity of Christ:

The chief flaw in the entire Jesus Seminar approach, however, is that like the fundamentalists, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar seem stuck with the mistaken view that they are ultimately dealing with history. If they could only strip away all accretions and get back to the kernel or core1 But myth treated as history invariably falls apart. Instead of a powerful spiritual message, they have ended up with scraps of “stones for bread.”

The truth is that the earliest documents available to the seminar scholars are some tiny fragments of a papyrus copy of John’s Gospel, dating to about 130 C.E. The first substantial physical evidence for the four Gospels comes from near the end of the second century C.E., about 170 years after Jesus’ demise. But even then, as the seminar’s leaders point out, “hard information” is lacking as to how, when, and by whom they were actually composed or edited. [3]

Mr. Harpur, does it not bother you that the majority of scholars--even these supposedly far-left liberal ones who scoff at the idea of a supernatural Jesus--admit that Jesus Christ really is a historical figure? This is the reason why I find the Jesus Mythicist position to be so untenable: There is simply no foundation for it, historical or otherwise. Only by stretching the facts beyond any reasonable interpretation can somebody even come close to the kind of position that Mr. Harpur is espousing, and rebuttals to his work such as these bear witness to that fact.

Also, Mr. Harpur tries to make much of the fact that the earliest complete codices we have of the Gospels appear nearly two centuries after Christ. If you compare this with other ancient works that have an even greater age disparity (not to mention fewer manuscripts to back them up), the reliability of the Gospel texts is actually very impressive. As biblical scholar K.A. Kitchen writes:

Among works of classical (Greek and Latin) literature, the writings of the New Testament--4 gospels, 21 letters, the history of Acts and visions of Revelation--have a manuscript attestation second to none, and superior to most. No one blinks an eyelid at depending for the Latin text of Julius Caesar's Gallic Ware (Composed within 58-56 BC) upon manuscripts all of which are 900 years later than Caesar's time, only nine or ten of the manuscripts being good textual copies. No-one doubts that we still read the real text of the works of Herodotus or Tucydides (450 BC), even though the oldest available full manuscripts (only eight or so) date from 1,300 years later! For the New Testament, how different and how vastly superior is the manuscript evidence. Some 5,000 Greek MSS (whole or fragmentary) are known, not a mere eight or ten. The most notable MSS are the Codexes Vaticanus and Sinaiticus of c. 350 AD--only 250 years after the end of the New Testament period (100 AD), not 900 or 1,300 years! Older still are the Chester Beatty and Bodmer biblical papyri, including six new Testament MSS of the second and third centuries AD, only 150 years after the New Testament period. Further back still, there is a Rylands fragment from a manuscript of John's Gospel (18:31-33, 37f.) datable by its script to about 130 AD--little more than a generation after the New Testament period itself. As this fragment came from Egypt, it is evident that John's gospel had been composed, recopied and begun to circulate well beyond Palestine before 130 AD. Hence, on this evidence alone, it must have been composed (at latest) by 90/100 AD, and more probably earlier. [4]

If you are going to cast doubt on the Gospel texts, you might as well be completely consistent and cast doubt on pretty much everything else that had also been written during that time period. Next:

Notice that the Gospel of Thomas, discovered with other Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, was purely made up of sayings attributed to Jesus. It had no Passion or Resurrection story. The same is true of the hypothetical “Q,” a “sayings” source believed to have been used by both Matthew and Luke. [5]

As Mr. Harpur has himself just admitted, "Q" is just a hypothesis. We have no manuscript evidence of such a writing actually existing, so one can hardly make a good case out of it. Also, most of the so-called "Gnostic Gospels" are written way after the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Thomas is dated to around the middle of the 2nd century. The other Gnostic gospels are much later than that. It should be obvious from reading these "gospels" that they contain a lot of late (not to mention heretical) ideas, speculations and blatant mythologizing that is conspicuously absent from the canonical gospels. Finally, Tom Harpur takes issue with the Gospels being biographies:

The point is that while on the surface the Gospels appear to be a form of biography combined with proclamation, closer examination reveals that they are not biographies at all. They are extraordinarily imprecise or vague just at the places where we would most expect explicit details. We know nothing about Jesus’ appearance from these texts—the colour of his skin or his eyes, his approximate height or size, whether he was bearded or clean-shaven, whether he had long hair or was balding, and so on. We’re left wholly guessing about his date of birth and the year he died, even about whether he was married or single. Because of the vast silence about the years between his birth and the beginning of the ministry (apart from Luke’s legend-like story about Jesus’ visiting the temple at the age of twelve for his bar mitzvah), volumes have been filled with speculations that grow wilder with passing time. There are legends about supposed visits to England; mystical sojourns in Egypt, Tibet, India; and much more. Credulous souls who have great difficulty discerning evidence from fanciful conjecture flock to buy each latest embroidery on this theme.[6]

That's how they wrote biographies back then. The writers didn't feel the need to represent every detail of every part of a person's life, or even place the events of their lives in chronological order. They only concentrated on those important details that they wanted to highlight and make known to readers. The plain fact of the matter is that the Gospel writers only wrote as much as was necessary for them to convey. [7]

Also, The last sentence of this paragraph I can actually agree with. A lot of people nowadays are very gullible, and will buy into the latest fad theories that they encounter (case in point: The movie "Zeitgeist"). That aside, I'm still not seeing a solid case being presented by Mr. Harpur. If there is any compelling reason why anybody should accept his thesis, I have yet to see it.

End Notes
1. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 138.
2. Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Zondervan, 1998. p. 114-118.
3. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 138-139.
4. Kitchen, Kenneth Anderson. The Bible and Its World. InterVarsity Press, 1977. p. 131.
5. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 140.
6. Ibid, p. 144.
7. Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Zondervan, 1998. p. 25-26.

Further Reading
(Since Mr. Harpur cites Elaine Pagels as a source in this chapter of his book, I thought I'd post a couple of critiques on her work as well.)

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