Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Shadows of Authenticity

I was thinking the other day of ways to explain why the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies simply do not work. I have a good intuitive sense of why they do not work, I also have a good theoretical articulation. What I was looking for was some sort of metaphor that could demonstrate why they are just kinda absurd.

And along came Plato.

More specifically, the allegory of the cave. For those residing in an actual cave for the last 2400 years, the allegory of the cave is a classic discussion of epistemological issues located at the top of Book Seven of Plato's Republic. It describes a hypothetical situation of a group of humans who have only seen shadows in a cave their whole lives and then suddenly are exposed into the real world. Such humans would have previously assumed that shadows were the real, and indeed when exposed to the real they would naturally think what they now saw to be less real than the shadows.

Now, the point of the allegory of the cave is not that some of the shadows are real objects whilst others are not. The problem is that in fact none of them are objects but rather the consequences of objects. Likewise is the case with the statements in the gospels. None of them are objects, in the sense of being historical events, but rather the consequences of events. Therefore setting out to decide which statements in the gospels are true and which are false is precisely equivalent to setting out to decide which shadows are objects and which are not. Thus we can see that the criteria did not fail because they did not measure up to the task for which they were formulated but because more fundamentally that task did not measure up to intelligence or reason.

This brings us to Lonergan's altogether heuristic distinction between data and facts. Facts are objects known through judgment operating upon intelligence operating upon attending, and such judgment is precisely that a given statement of fact adequately apprehends the real. In the realm of historiography facts are statements that adequately apprehend past reality. Put less abstractly, they are known events. By way of contrast, data are not that which is known to be true but rather that which is experienced. Now, of course, there is a relationship between data and fact, just as there is a relationship between shadow and object. Wherever I see a shadow I can reasonable suppose that there is an object nearby. Likewise where I see data I can suppose that there are facts to be found. The relationship between data and fact is typically less direct however than even the relationship between shadow and object. It is not unusual to have an one-to-one relationship between shadow and object: the sun striking my body produces a single shadow, such they in common parlance we refer to this as "my shadow." Things are less often the case in historical investigation. A single historical event will often result in numerous data, all of which when considered today can potentially lead to the intelligent and reasonable apprehension of that event. This is particularly the case with historical Jesus studies, where our basic sources remain the data found in four distinct accounts of Jesus' life. All this tells us though is that the effort to convert data into facts is even more absurd than the effort to convert shadows into objects, thus obviating all the more the criteria.


  1. My book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark, analyzes the earliest Gospel as a myth which figuratively reflects history, like shadows in the cave.

  2. By the way, parts of the Bible show extremely strong and direct and systematic influence from Plato's Cave, and especially Plato's related Theory of Forms.

    In effect, Paul in Heb. 8.5 is quoting from Plato in Hebrews and elsewhere. When he says that things, people here on earth, are just "perish"able earthly "copies" of the more "eternal" divine and "perfect" "patterns" or forms or Ideas ("paradigms") in "heaven" (Heb. 8.5 RSV). Or later, we only see "shadows" of the ideal "models" out there. Outside the cave. Or later, in "heaven."

    This clearly Platonistic lecture moreover, comes when Paul is considered the need for a new (in effect, Christian) priesthood, beyond Judaism (7.1-11-15 ff). Just a few years after Philo supported Hellenizing Judaism, in particularly a Platonizing/spiritualizing way. So I suggest here that this in fact was the key adaptation of Judaism - that I suggest, formed Christianity out of Judaism. Christianity I suggest, is best seen in classic Historical terms, as HellenizedJudaism. But even more specifically, Platonized Judais. Or spiritualized Platonism.

    Elements of this also earlier hinted at by Philo, the Hellenized Jew, fl. 10 AD. Essentially, Christianity supposed that things, people here on earth, were just shadows, perishable copies, of the great forms. Or Ideas. Or "logos." Or the forms, "spirits," in heaven. Fortunately it was in effect thought, it seems, that we could in our own minds or spirits, somehow conform our own spirit or thoughts, partially to those external, divine Platonistic models; or the father in heaven, or the Holy Spirit. And in this way, our spirit could share in the great spirit's immortality.

    Christianity in my opinion, is historically speaking: Hellenized Judaism. Exactly as one would expect. Israel had been taken over by Greece, Alexander the Great, around 300 BC. Then by Rome, in 64 BC. After more than 300 years of (even intermittent) foreign occupation, Greek and Roman - "Hellenistic" - influence would have been inevitable. And you can see it clearly, in the Bible itself: in Paul. But more specifically still? It is Platonized, spiritualized Judaism. The Catholic Church by the way, allows that Plato, the Greeks, had some kind of "partial revelation" before Christianity.

    So? If you wanted to suggest a Platonistic or Socratic study of religion? I suggest there are Biblical passages and core Christian traditions, that would support that, even literally. Paul clearly, quotes from Plato. And presents Plato's key theory of forms, as essentially, holy.

    But for that matter, if you want a more direct endorsement of specifically Reason? See that word, and related word in the Bible itself. Or even if you want explicitly and by name, "Science"? See Dan. 1.4-15 KJE; 1 Kings 18.20-40; Mal. 3.10; Deut. 18.20 ff; etc.. As summarized in Dr. Woodbridge Goodman's rough drafts on the Science of God'. Free online.)

    Keep going: you are headed in the right direction! Beyond the biblical endorsement of Plato and Philosophy, even "reason," is the Biblical endorsement of even "science."

    That should give you the tools you need - and the Biblical justification to defend their use to conservative Christians and theologians.

  3. Thank you, Griffin. I think you're spot on here, in pretty much everything you write, and I definitely appreciate your words of encouragement at the end! I am generally more Aristotlean in my thinking, due to my immersion in the work of Bernard Lonergan, who in turn was an Aquinas scholar, who in turn was Aristotlean. That said, I think it safe to say that Jewish and Christian thought shows little evidence of Aristotlean influence before about the 11th century C.E., and that before that Platonism is their primary philosophical dialogue partner.

  4. The book Proving History (by historian Richard Carrier) gives a pretty good analysis of the criteria of authenticity and why they aren't usually very useful.