Sunday, 1 October 2017

Of Snake Oil and Titus Flavius

Someone on FB asked me to comment upon the following article, detailing Joseph Atwill's rubbish hypothesis that the "Story of Jesus Christ was 'fabricated to pacify the poor.'" After my response on FB reached its fourth paragraph, I decided to turn it into a blog post.

At the outset, the article requires a basic correction. It erroneously refers to Atwill as a "controversial biblical scholar." This of course is false. He stands to biblical scholarship, the hallmark of which is a commitment to rigourous historical thought, in much the same way that the snake oil salesman stands to medicine: what he peddles is somewhere between useless and toxic, and among those who know better there is virtually no controversy regarding the matter because we can all recognize pseudo-history when we see it. We can see clearly why this is the case by considering his own words, as quoted in this article.
What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus....This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern....The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.
A number of observations here. First, he is committing an elementary error, which sixty years ago Samuel Sandmel defined as "parallelomania." This error consists of the supposition that formal parallels must entail a causal or familial relationship. But correlation is not necessarily evidence of causation or family. One needs to do more than demonstrate such parallels. One needs to explain why we should conclude that the parallels indicate deliberate mimicry.

Second, when thinking about such parallels, the fact that the gospels utilize preexisting elements from prior stories does not mean that what they report is fictitious. In fact, it doesn't mean much at all. Let's say that you tell me a story about your high school prom. Many of the features in that story will be stock. In fact, they will be so stock that I could probably predict with a high degree of accuracy the basic narrative that you will tell. Does it follow that you obviously never had a high school prom? Hardly. While, yes, it could be the case that you are employing such stock story features to bamboozle me, it is at least and probably considerably more likely that in fact you had a high school prom, and that you are simply conforming your story to the standard forms in which such events are narrated. Using a more concrete example, I often tell students about the fact that my first day as a full-time undergraduate student was September 11, 2001. When I tell that story, I intentionally employ many of the stock features of a "starting college" story--how excited I was, how I spent much of the previous week getting textbooks, how early class started that day and how tired that made me--precisely to heighten the impact of the unexpected, namely the way in which the events of 9/11 brought the joy of starting university to an abrupt end. In fact, this makes good cognitive sense. If you use stock features to describe the features of the story that aren't of central interest, that frees you to focus cognitive energy upon composing the feature of the story that are; and conversely, stock features allow me to focus cognitive energy upon that which is not stock and thus (you are telling me) more central. Such stock features facilitate communication in such a way that is probably indispensable. Thinking that the very presence of such stock features is of great historical import probably speaks to an impoverished awareness not just of historical thought but more basically of how humans actually think and communicate.

Third, we can ask whether the parallels he identifies are actually that significant. For instance, Judea is in fact not that big a place, and Galilee (where Jesus spent the bulk of his time) even smaller. Should we be horribly surprised if two persons traveling in the same small area just a few decades apart, using the same system of roads and paths, should go to the same places or even have similar itineraries? Coincidence hardly seems improbable. But that having been said, the accounts in any case actually aren't that coincident. For instance, two of Titus' major victories in the Galille occurred at Taricheae and Gamala: two cities that Jesus is never said to have visited! The only significance here seems to be that, if the evangelists were patterning Jesus' ministry after Titus' campaign, then they seem to have little familiarity with the latter.

Fourth, there is a significant chronological problem. The earliest of the gospels, namely Mark's, probably was written either during or even prior to the Judean War. Certainly, one can make a stronger argument for Mark's Gospel predating the Judean War than vice versa, and the gospel certainly predates Josephus' account of Titus operations during that war. Moreover, the core of Jesus' biography is already found in Paul's writings at least ten years before Titus ever set foot in Judea (in fact, Titus was probably not even a teenager when Paul wrote his earliest letters). As such, given the absolute dates involved, there is good reason to think that the basic outlines of Jesus' biography were in place at least a decade before the Jewish War, and if there is a causal or genetic relationship between Josephus' Jewish War and Jesus' biography empirically it is more likely that Josephus imitated Jesus' biography than the other way around.

Fifth, even if we grant the existence of meaningful parallels between Jesus' biography and Titus' operations in the Judean War, and even if we grant that these parallels indicate that the former mimic the latter, it would not follow that this imitation was carried out by the Romans in order to pacify the Judean population. That part of Atwill's argument seems to be predicated upon neither fallacies nor errors, but in groundless speculation.

As a matter of fairness, we should note that Atwill's hypothesis would perform well if logical fallacies, lack of attention to empirical data, and groundless speculation constitute intellectual virtues. I trust that I might be forgiven for suggesting that they do not.

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