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Get down off your cross.
June 27, 2010 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Did Jesus die on a cross? A Christian scholar says crucifixion was not an execution method in the time of the New Testament.
posted by empath (300 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oops.
posted by swift at 8:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gosh, they mean the gospel's not accurate??
posted by applemeat at 8:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [22 favorites]


I'm going to make a fortune in "tacky jewelry re-shaping."
posted by ColdChef at 8:36 PM on June 27, 2010 [11 favorites]


He's right, Jesus did not die on a cross, but on a stake or pole or tree trunk, that's all stauros means. This has long been what Jehovah's Witnesses have believed based on our understanding of the Bible. I am really looking forward to reading this thesis.
posted by Danila at 8:36 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


In reality Jesus was chased off a cliff by a gang of hundreds of topless women like that guy in Monty Python's Meaning of Life.
posted by XMLicious at 8:36 PM on June 27, 2010 [13 favorites]


A burglar broke into a home and was looking around. He heard a soft voice say, "Jesus is watching you."

Thinking it was just his imagination, he continued his search. Again the voice said, "Jesus is watching you." He turned his flashlight around and saw a parrot in a cage.

He asked the parrot if he was the one talking and the parrot said, "yes."

He asked the parrot what his name was and the parrot said, "Moses."

The burglar asked, "what kind of people would name a parrot Moses?"

The parrot said, "the same kind of people who would name their pit bull Jesus".
posted by netbros at 8:36 PM on June 27, 2010 [91 favorites]


This will end well.

Still it's odd that this lone voice 2000 years after the fact comes up with this when no one else apparently has.
posted by inturnaround at 8:37 PM on June 27, 2010


Shouldn't it be a historian instead of, you know, a theologian, saying this?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:37 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


applemeat: This reminds me of the time when a jewish friend wanted confirmation that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was factually accurate. I then went on to mock congratulated him for having finally seen the light.
posted by Omon Ra at 8:37 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


He's not the first one to point this out, it has been known for a long time.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:38 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


applemeat: “Gosh, they mean the gospel's not accurate??”

Before we get a lot of unfortunate comments like this from people who haven't read the article, let's please all note that this scholarship presupposes that the gospels are accurate. It consists in pointing out chiefly that the word used for "crucifixion" in the Bible does not actually appear to mean "crucifixion" but rather "hanging and/or nailing a person on a pole or other tall wooden apparatus."

Now I'm off to see what other links there are there, since the main FPP link is very, very weak sauce.
posted by koeselitz at 8:38 PM on June 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


If he'd only remembered his safe word, none of this would be relevant.
posted by Danf at 8:39 PM on June 27, 2010 [33 favorites]


As Henry says, he isn't the first to point this out. Removing a man from a cross once appearing dead (heat stroke and blood loss, I'm assuming) and leaving him in a cool dark cave to find he's "come back to life" three days later isn't too outlandish.
posted by Doug Stewart at 8:40 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Gosh, they mean the gospel's not accurate??

I'd say not particularly, no. However, it should be pointed out that the article isn't saying the gospel is inaccurate - as he points out only a few sentences in:

"the New Testament said that Jesus died some way on something called a staurus ... that's a Greek name for a cross or a pole or something ... I call it an execution device only to be [distinguished] from the common notion that it must be a cross, because it mustn't be a cross--it could be a pole, for instance, or a tree trunk, or something else."

His point is not that the NT text is untrustworthy, but rather that our interpretation of the word staurus (σταυρος) which appears in that text has been incorrectly interpreted. It doesn't necessarily mean a cross-shaped execution device.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:42 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


OK, I think some things need clarification here. As far as I can tell:

1) It's been well known for a long time that the earliest writings about the crucifixion of Jesus don't mention a cross shape (or any other shape in particular, just that he was crucified.) The first writings that mention a cross shape start about 100 years later.

2) However, a cross shape most certainly WAS one type of shape used for crucifixion at that time. Seneca the Younger (circa 3 BC to 65 AD): "I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet."

So, it sounds like a grad student has simply verified something that has been well known among historians for quite some time, and it is not that Jesus was not crucified on a cross, but that there is no convincing evidence that Jesus was crucified on a cross as opposed to one of the other shapes that were commonly used.

I am sure that thousands of church crosses around the world will immediately be replaced with big question marks in the wake of this stunning discovery.
posted by kyrademon at 8:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [38 favorites]


If he'd only remembered his safe word, none of this would be relevant.

...ba...ba...banana...
posted by sourwookie at 8:44 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Or more or less what koeselitz said.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:45 PM on June 27, 2010


Even in Hitchhiker's Guide Douglas Adams wrote "nailed to a tree."
posted by sourwookie at 8:45 PM on June 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


has this thesis been published yet? I agree that the main link isn't so great, I'll try to see what I can find.

Still it's odd that this lone voice 2000 years after the fact comes up with this when no one else apparently has.

This isn't new at all.
posted by Danila at 8:47 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, empath, that whole, "crucifixion was not an execution method in the time of the New Testament" is pretty much a tabloid-style header, no?

Here is the abstract to the dissertation.
posted by No Robots at 8:48 PM on June 27, 2010


I've noticed that in gospel music Christ is often described as having "died on a tree," like in Willie Mae Ford Smith's What Manner of Man is This? (that's a youtube link). The lyrics go, "What manner of man is this, that died upon the tree? What manner of man is this? He gave his life for you and me." I have been idly curious about the usage and where it came from; wondered if it had some scriptural or theological root or was just easier to rhyme than "cross" or was in some other way simply part of the gospel tradition.

I still don't know a thing about its use in gospel music, but hey. This reminded me of that.
posted by not that girl at 8:49 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given that the main link is just a tiny blog link to this Telegraph article with a reference to David Sedaris tacked on, it seems like the Telegraph piece would've made a much better post.

Also, please note this quotation from the author of the thesis at the end of the Telegraph article:

“That a man named Jesus existed in that part of the world and in that time is well-documented. He left a rather good foot-print in the literature of the time. I do believe that the mentioned man is the son of God. My suggestion is not that Christians should reject or doubt the biblical text. My suggestion is that we should read the text as it is, not as we think it is. We should read on the lines, not between the lines. The text of the Bible is sufficient. We do not need to add anything.”
posted by koeselitz at 8:50 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let me know when we have actual historical evidence that Jesus existed in the first place.

It seems to me that religions do better when they unhook themselves from literal historical events. It's kind of limiting, not to mention sad, when your God only exists in the past.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:51 PM on June 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


As Danila said above, Jehovah's Witnesses have long taught that Jesus died on a stake and not a cross. I suspect that non-JWs don't accept that interpretation because it's harder to make a sparkly fetish object out of a simple stake.
posted by amyms at 8:52 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am sure that thousands of church crosses around the world will immediately be replaced with big question marks in the wake of this stunning discovery.

That's ridiculous. The Romans didn't use question marks.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:53 PM on June 27, 2010 [17 favorites]


If I remember right, my Jehova's Witness relatives said that they (as a religion) refer to the crucifixion on a tree and not a cross, since wood for making such a cross was rare and other reasons I don't remember (was five years ago when they relayed this).
posted by hellojed at 8:53 PM on June 27, 2010


Maybe they're stealth pagans trying to convert people to the worship of Odin.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hildegarde: “t seems to me that religions do better when they unhook themselves from literal historical events. It's kind of limiting, not to mention sad, when your God only exists in the past.”

This dogmatic, unquestioning faith in history, in a dialectical framework of human events which is concrete, absolute, and self-evident, is in my mind the great unquestioned faith in our time. I generally blame Hegel for this.

Suffice it to say: "history" is not a great judge or arbiter which can explain to us the truth about the world. We would have to prove rationally that "history" is an unerring guide before we could assume that. And thus far nobody has.
posted by koeselitz at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I suspect that non-JWs don't accept that interpretation because it's harder to make a sparkly fetish object out of a simple stake

Well, it worked for Buffy.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


That a man named Jesus existed in that part of the world and in that time is well-documented.

Yeeeaaahhh it's documented in texts written at least decades if not hundreds of years after he died. There is absolutely no historical evidence that he existed. Doesn't mean he didn't, but we don't have actual proof that he did.

Faith shouldn't be rooted in proof, though. You don't need historical evidence to believe something. But too many people get pretty righteous on the presumption that Jesus is "well-documented".
posted by Hildegarde at 8:55 PM on June 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I remember in the Illuminatus! trilogy, RAW wrote about the peace sign being one of the worst forms of torture in the ancient world. A threat of retributive violence. Victims were crucified on the wheel spokes and spun around on a central pivot.
I don't know if it's true, but it gives me a pause whenever I see one, anymore.
posted by Balisong at 8:55 PM on June 27, 2010


Hildegarde: “Yeeeaaahhh it's documented in texts written at least decades if not hundreds of years after he died. There is absolutely no historical evidence that he existed. Doesn't mean he didn't, but we don't have actual proof that he did.”

What are you talking about? Haven't you heard of Tacitus? That's not exactly a sympathetic witness, considering that he seems to have hated Christians and Jews alike.
posted by koeselitz at 8:58 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have it on good authority that Russell's teapot is actually a coffee urn.
posted by killdevil at 8:58 PM on June 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his favorites by casting lots.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:59 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not important how Jesus died. What is important is that he rose again to become the XIII Archon of the 29th Color Dimension, and will return again one day to restore harmonic convergence to the misaligned Omnibeams.

Confused? It makes as much sense as the rest of Christianity.
posted by Avenger at 9:00 PM on June 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


I suspect that non-JWs don't accept that interpretation because it's harder to make a sparkly fetish object out of a simple stake

Well, it worked for Buffy.


Someone should inform these people.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:00 PM on June 27, 2010


Stump necklace. or ring.
posted by special-k at 9:02 PM on June 27, 2010


This dogmatic, unquestioning faith in history, in a dialectical framework of human events which is concrete, absolute, and self-evident, is in my mind the great unquestioned faith in our time.

Having spent many years of my life studying history at the graduate level, I have no idea what you're talking about there. Historical work is rarely concrete, absolute, or self-evident, and is never presented as if it is. History as a discipline moved away from quantitative approaches years ago, though they're starting to come back around these days.

The way some groups choose to use history: yes, that can be accused of being all those things.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:02 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


There was a recent New Yorker book review / essay concerning recent books about the historical Jesus, which covers much of the territory of this thread: What Did Jesus Do?

"The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic. While accepting a historical Jesus, the scholarship also tends to suggest that the search for him is a little like the search for the historical Sherlock Holmes: there were intellectual-minded detectives around, and Conan Doyle had one in mind in the eighteen-eighties, but the really interesting bits—Watson, Irene Adler, Moriarty, and the Reichenbach Falls—were, even if they all had remote real-life sources, shaped by the needs of storytelling, not by traces of truth. Holmes dies because heroes must, and returns from the dead, like Jesus, because the audience demanded it."
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:04 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: Tacitus was not a witness to Jesus's life or death. Jesus would have been dead at least a couple of decades before Tacitus was born.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:06 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hildegarde: “Historical work is rarely concrete, absolute, or self-evident, and is never presented as if it is.”

Like when people say "Let me know when we have actual historical evidence that Jesus existed in the first place?" As though the lack of historical evidence – which even itself is not actually a lack at all, considering that a tradition exists around Jesus' existence; that 'lack' is just a paucity which you count as insufficient – meant anything whatsoever to the question of what actually happened.

Nobody knows much of anything at all that happened two thousand years ago. There is a tradition which stretches back until that time which claims that this is what was witnessed by the people who were there. The idea that we superior moderns have some evolved, higher notion of what really happened is preposterous – we unfortunately really have no more idea than people did five hundred, a thousand, or fifteen hundred years ago. What's more, considering that all of our knowledge about everything in history also rests on a tradition, the same sort of tradition the Church's notion of what happened rests on, I don't really see how we can stand above that tradition and judge it as lacking.
posted by koeselitz at 9:10 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is a good link with some more on his arguments: http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2010/05/if-samuelsson-is-right-about.html
posted by Danila at 9:10 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Personally, I'm skeptical right out of the gate with the idea that Christ ever existed in the first place. That link is pretty lazy, I know, but you guys and gals are the industrious type. In short, there's not a lot of documentation during his life, and for decades afterwards, and there are a lot of similarities between Christ and various other gods, goddesses, prophets and messiahs preceding that time period. So, to me, anyway, this splitting hairs over crosses and crucifixions seems fairly pointless.
posted by zardoz at 9:12 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every article I have seen is a nearly-verbatim re-post of this press release by the University of Gothenberg.

The only exception is the Telegraph article, which only *mostly* remixes material from the press release.
posted by honest knave at 9:17 PM on June 27, 2010


Did Jesus die on a cross?

Does Santa really come down the chimney?
posted by dobbs at 9:19 PM on June 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


"What are you talking about? Haven't you heard of Tacitus? That's not exactly a sympathetic witness, considering that he seems to have hated Christians and Jews alike."
posted by koeselitz


Tacitus was not contemporary with Jesus. He was writing at the end of the 1st C. IIRC about rioters in Rome, who were apparently followers of "Chrestus" (which just means 'the good' and was apparently a common slave name).

This in no way supports the existence of an historical Jesus, merely that he had followers in Rome at the end of the 1st C. Which we already knew.

There were also followers of Attis and Mithras in Rome at that time. I guess by that logic, Mithras was also an historical personage.

There is ZERO contemporary historical data to support the existence of Jesus as a real human being. NOBODY mentions him at all during his alleged life time, despite there being many contemporary writers active in the area.

Even the dating of his birth is completely open to question, due to the Gospel accounts conflating of historical figures 15 years apart in placing the nativity in a certain era. Census of Quirinius during Herod the Great's reign? Someone made that shit up out of whole cloth in the beginning of the 2nd C.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:21 PM on June 27, 2010 [20 favorites]


Did Jesus die on a cross? Nope, but he got really chaffed and angry. The whips and vinegar didn't do anything to lighten the mood.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:22 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Old Testament: The False Testament (from Harper's, great article)
Not long ago, archaeologists could agree that the Old Testament, for all its embellishments and contradictions, contained a kernel of truth.. That is no longer the case.
My favorite bit:
Judaism appears to have been the product not of some dark and nebulous period of early history but of a more modern age of big-power politics in which every nation aspired to the imperial greatness of a Babylon or an Egypt. Judah, the sole remaining Jewish outpost by the late eighth century B.C., was a small, out-of-the-way kingdom with little in the way of military or financial clout. Yet at some point its priests and rulers seem to have been seized with the idea that their national deity, now deemed to be nothing less than the king of the universe, was about to transform them into a great power. They set about creating an imperial past commensurate with such an empire, one that had the southern heroes of David and Solomon conquering the northern kingdom and making rival kings tremble throughout the known world.
The Bible was a propaganda campaign designed to make a small tribe look like they had a history as big and important as Egypt. It apparently worked, but unlike Egypt, it's mostly just fiction.
posted by stbalbach at 9:27 PM on June 27, 2010 [44 favorites]


What's more, considering that all of our knowledge about everything in history also rests on a tradition, the same sort of tradition the Church's notion of what happened rests on, I don't really see how we can stand above that tradition and judge it as lacking.

I see what you're doing here, koeselitz. You're setting up the Catholic Church as a Tradition while simultaneously setting up science and history as competing traditions with their own holy books, priests and ways of thinking. You want us to believe that science and history are just religions like yours, except possibly less true and definitely not as ancient.

But that's not actually true. There are actually very good reasons why, when we want to learn how many teeth a horse has, we go and count the horses' teeth and don't bother consulting Thomas Aquinas' riveting treatise On The Dentata of Equines And Their Relationship With Virtue And Human Ends or whatever. There are actually very good reasons why, when we want to learn about the Battle of Waterloo, we read primary sources concerning the battle and don't consult Pope Pius IX earth-shattering encyclical Instructions to the Bishops of the Frankish Kingdom Regarding The Vacancy of Future Archdeconates.

Historical interpretations are easier to disagree with than scientific theories, but it's quite disingenuous to suggest that either methods of inquiry are just revealed religions like yours, because, hey man, we all have faith that the sun is going to come up in the morning, so, like, everything is based on faith, man.
posted by Avenger at 9:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [26 favorites]


Also: translations from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek fail to convey the original intent. Easy example: John 21:17-19 - Do you love me? No, do you love me? No, I mean love me? "This exchange between Jesus and Peter is a prime example of how the English translation fails to capture the depth of the original Greek."
posted by filthy light thief at 9:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is somewhat amusing put up against the vampire lore. Why is it that vampires were repelled by the Cross, and religious items in general? It wasn't merely that they were unholy. The Cross represents the unselfish sacrifice of Jesus, which is entirely anathema to the boundless, selfish hunger of the vampire.

So now, it's a stake. Right to the heart. Poor vampires, they can never catch a break.
posted by adipocere at 9:33 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Henry C. Mabuse: “NOBODY mentions him at all during his alleged life time, despite there being many contemporary writers active in the area.”

Name one. Seriously, name just one.
posted by koeselitz at 9:38 PM on June 27, 2010


About the evidence for a historical Jesus, what was going on just before he was born, and what happened in the few hundred years afterward that led to the shaping of the early Christian world -- I enjoyed this multi-part Frontline documentary "From Jesus to Christ".
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:40 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Really not seeing how this is news at all, unless you've never heard of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It's like someone writing a 400-page thesis on how Jesus wasn't really born on December 25th.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:42 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Name one. Seriously, name just one."

Philo Judaeus aka Philo of Alexandrea.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:45 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Avenger: “I see what you're doing here, koeselitz... You want us to believe that science and history are just religions like yours, except possibly less true and definitely not as ancient.”

History is nothing like science. I find it interesting that you're assuming it's the same.

“Historical interpretations are easier to disagree with than scientific theories, but it's quite disingenuous to suggest that either methods of inquiry are just revealed religions like yours, because, hey man, we all have faith that the sun is going to come up in the morning, so, like, everything is based on faith, man.”

I said no such thing. Maybe you should read what I said. I do not use the word "tradition" lightly.

I meant: history, as a study, is the rational consideration of various historical accounts, and the reconstruction of what might have happened in the past based on those accounts. By its very nature it relies on those traditions and tries to pick a path rationally between them. A historian could just as easily decide, based on rational means, that the Christians were telling what they thought was the truth. (They might not even have been really telling the truth for the historian to conclude that they weren't lying.)

But when people speak of the lack of evidence, as though the Christian tradition were by fiat rejected and excluded, they're not only speaking from the perspective of history, but also an assumed interpretation of history – a tradition of historical study. And there is nothing wrong or irrational about being part of a historical tradition, at least if you know the grounds of that tradition.
posted by koeselitz at 9:46 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Henry C. Mabuse: “Philo Judaeus aka Philo of Alexandrea.”

If you're under the impression that Alexandrea is "in the area" of Judaea, I've got a few shockers for you about ancient geography.
posted by koeselitz at 9:48 PM on June 27, 2010


I generally blame Hegel for this.

I'd be interested in hearing more about this - I've only come through Hegel tangentially via Gadamer, frankfurt school and hermeneutics more broadly, but I didn't really feel his theses (what I could understand of them) advanced the kind of argument you're characterising. However, it was years ago, so happy to be corrected.
posted by smoke at 9:52 PM on June 27, 2010


Name one. Seriously, name just one.

Off the top of my head.
posted by empath at 9:53 PM on June 27, 2010


If you're under the impression that Alexandrea is "in the area" of Judaea, I've got a few shockers for you about ancient geography.

Folks travelled. He was a Jew. He visited Rome. I'd imagine if something had gone down in Judea, he'd have heard about it.
posted by empath at 9:55 PM on June 27, 2010


This has been well known in theology circles for decades--he was most likely impaled, with his arms above his head, on a long pole.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:56 PM on June 27, 2010


Koeselitz: Ovid? Seneca? Livy? That's just me idly recalling authors from memory while on my phone. I'm sure I can dig up a few surviving authors from the area tomorrow.
posted by boo_radley at 9:57 PM on June 27, 2010


Indeed, why would we believe non christian sources more than christian ones, as far as the factual existence of some dude named Jesus who inspired a cult among Jews?

It's normal that contemporary non christian sources fail to mention Jesus: to them, he was just one more crazy Jew, spouting nonsense about his "One God".
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:59 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Since reading this I have been warding vampires off with a simple twig! Invite me in and I'll tell you all about it.
posted by Sparx at 10:00 PM on June 27, 2010 [19 favorites]


"If you're under the impression that Alexandrea is "in the area" of Judaea, I've got a few shockers for you about ancient geography."

You need to learn a little more history if you think Philo of Alexandria was so-named because he never left Alexandria.

He was living in or near Jerusalem (when he wrote 'on providence'). He was also connected with the Royal House of Judea. He wrote extensively on Jewish politics and religion of the era, and activities in Jerusalem (Caligula's violation of the Temple, etc).

It would also be a pretty weak argument that he couldn't be aware of what was happening in Judea even if he never left Alexandria. Alexandria, in case you weren't aware, wasn't exactly a backwater.

And, of course, he wasn't the only contemporary writer active at the time who was concerned with political or religious issues in the near East. None of them mention Jesus.

Seriously, man, that is some pretty naive shit you're peddling.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:02 PM on June 27, 2010 [22 favorites]


History is nothing like science. I find it interesting that you're assuming it's the same.

History is like science in the sense that history, as understood, takes place in a world that can be described by the physical laws which science has discovered. Again, this is one of the reasons why, when we want to learn about the creation of the Earth, we consult sedimentary rock and asteroids rather than Genesis 1. History as a discipline would loose all coherence if we started including supernatural events in our historical understanding.

Again, you think this is some kind of atheist-materialist "tradition" masking itself as objectivity, but it's really just scientific parsimony as applied to our past. If you want to believe that the Church's version of Jesus' ministry on Earth is the correct "history" of the events, well, I can't stop you, but you're going to have a heck of a time explaining how The Church's tradition is any truer than the Mahabharata, in which some of the events described may have happened millions of years ago.
posted by Avenger at 10:05 PM on June 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


And Koselelitz, Philo *is* a good example; he was related (brother? Uncle?) to a Roman administrator in Judea. There are better reasons to counter Philo than geography, but I leave these as an exercise for the reader.
posted by boo_radley at 10:08 PM on June 27, 2010


Wouldn't historians count the Apostles as primary sources? Regardless of when they wrote, they were contemporaries.

Because they made supernatural claims wouldn't discount them, look at Suetonius.
posted by Trochanter at 10:13 PM on June 27, 2010


The legend of Jesus' death is quite obviously just a re-humanization of that whole kill-a-lamb-instead-of-your-son thing--you'll never guess what day the Last Supper takes place on!--with the added bonus of no longer having to slaughter a lamb every year to ward off the bogeyman.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:13 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't historians count the Apostles as primary sources?

They would, if any of the apostles had written anything.
posted by empath at 10:14 PM on June 27, 2010 [20 favorites]


"Wouldn't historians count the Apostles as primary sources?"

They would if the gospel accounts were written by the Apostles. They weren't. The traditions linking the writers of the gospels with the followers of Jesus came much later.

Even Papias admits that Mark - the earliest gospel - was not written by a direct witness.

The Gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus. They were written in Greek - not Aramaic - by people who had no connection to the lands they describe - that's why there are so many horrendous historical anachronisms and various other blatant errors in the gospels.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:17 PM on June 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


What's your point in saying "Name one," koeselitz?

Because it sounds like you're acknowledging there's not a whit of contemporary acknowledgement of the life of Jesus.

Which I understand is correct. Are you suggesting this doesn't matter?

(FWIW, I fall on the side of believing Jesus existed, but as a minor apocalyptic prophet, virtually unknown in his day, who made no claim to be the Messiah, and who believed the world would end in his lifetime. This is not a radical view: it's what's currently being taught in divinity schools, and it's based on two centuries of scholarship within the church. For anyone looking for a readable, entertaining, and solidly academically grounded summary of how Christianity as we now know it was historically constructed out of this, a good option is Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman, a leading New Testament scholar, originally a Moody Bible Institute evangelical, and now an agnostic. Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)
posted by namasaya at 10:18 PM on June 27, 2010 [25 favorites]


Henry C. Mabuse: “He wrote extensively on Jewish politics and religion of the era, and activities in Jerusalem (Caligula's violation of the Temple, etc).”

This is kind of the key to it, in my mind. You're right in saying that he appears to have visited Jerusalem at least once (I hadn't read On Providence, so I'm sorry I missed that reference) – but it seems like a huge stretch to say he wrote on these things "extensively." Jewish politics wasn't even remotely his chief subject, and while there seem to be two or three very short political pieces he wrote at the time, he was mostly engaged in other things.

It's true that there were lots of strange things going on in Judaea at the time that Jesus existed. Even if you take the New Testament at face value, its own testimony is that Jesus was a relatively unimportant, unnoticed figure who did not cause a sensation or stir in the world at large.

The thing is, if people could produce actual historians or scribes, working in Jerusalem, who were recording the day-to-day events during the Herodian dynasty specifically, we'd have a historical record to fall back on.

I am not saying that Jesus must have existed. I'm saying that no positive evidence whatsoever exists, unfortunately. And a lack of positive evidence can't be the basis of a conclusion.

Avenger: “History is like science in the sense that history, as understood, takes place in a world that can be described by the physical laws which science has discovered. Again, this is one of the reasons why, when we want to learn about the creation of the Earth, we consult sedimentary rock and asteroids rather than Genesis 1. History as a discipline would loose all coherence if we started including supernatural events in our historical understanding.”

First of all, the people who put the book together (the Jews) have always stated in the clearest of terms that Genesis doesn't purport to be a record of how the world began. I'm inclined to agree with them. But that's neither here nor there; the point is that history doesn't have anything like the sedimentary record to examine what happened a thousand years ago. It really doesn't. Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all? They deal with completely separate things, human history and (so-called) natural history; human history by nature has to deal with accounts handed down to us, and has to decide which accounts are trustworthy. Is this really such a scandalous thing to say?
posted by koeselitz at 10:23 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


How do we know Philo actually existed? Seriously. The oldest manuscripts probably date to only 900 AD. So how do we know there really was an actual "Philo". Who else mentions him?
Joesphus. Decades later. Ok, but Josephus also mentions Christ, and so on.
posted by quercus at 10:27 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


namasaya: “... it sounds like you're acknowledging there's not a whit of contemporary acknowledgement of the life of Jesus. Which I understand is correct. Are you suggesting this doesn't matter?”

Yes. I'm saying that there's not a whit of contemporary acknowledgement of anybody in that geographical area who wasn't a Roman liaison for at least a hundred years before and after Jesus' supposed birth and death. There is no evidence whatsoever.

People like to make assumptions about history, and to act as though there are all kinds of certainties where no certainties exist. This whole "Jesus never existed, I have proof" thing is one of them. (And, with all due respect, the "I can see secret historical proofs that there are mystical roots of a completely different and hitherto completely unmentioned belief system that predated Christianity which Jesus stood for" idea is one of them, too.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:27 PM on June 27, 2010


The traditions linking the writers of the gospels with the followers of Jesus came much later.

Jesus H. Chrysler!!! Didn't know that.

I've thought for a long time that a lot of Church Dogma had nothing to do with Jesus, having been cooked up centuries later in Nicaea, but...
posted by Trochanter at 10:27 PM on June 27, 2010


What's interesting is that this seemingly weak post has succeeded in its dubious aim – viz., to touch off a "Jesus didn't exist historically!" debate.
posted by koeselitz at 10:30 PM on June 27, 2010


Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all?

I'm trying to figure out how "archaeology" is somehow not the answer to this question.
posted by chinston at 10:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all?

I might be going out on a limb here, but I've got a hunch that the pyramids were built.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:34 PM on June 27, 2010 [24 favorites]


I am sure that thousands of church crosses around the world will immediately be replaced with big question marks in the wake of this stunning discovery.

It's still a while until Easter, but those Filipino guys should probably start taking yoga classes soon.

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

'Dude, panel pins? Really? - OW!'
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:36 PM on June 27, 2010


This whole "Jesus never existed, I have proof" thing is one of them.

Um. What? Whom are you quoting? Who in this thread has claimed to be able to prove a negative? All I can see are people pointing to a lack of evidence, which is all the evidence required to go on believing something doesn't exist.

For example, I can assume gubbly chumple-wuckers don't exist because there are no verifiable signs of their existence. Perhaps I am wrong, but until proven affirmatively, the negative is a safe bet.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:37 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Some say the cross is a subtle phallic symbol, so I doubt they'll be replacing it soon.
posted by quercus at 10:38 PM on June 27, 2010


*eyes slowly cross*
posted by mlis at 10:38 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


@ not that girl re: the cross and gospel music: I agree with you. I think scenes of crucifixion in gospel music are often about lynching. Consider Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers' rendition of "Were You There?" [When They Crucified The Lord] [SYTL to audio only] . . . "Did he hang there and never say one word? . . . ohhhh every time when I think about how they done the lord!"
posted by egret at 10:39 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Jewish politics wasn't even remotely his chief subject, and while there seem to be two or three very short political pieces he wrote at the time, he was mostly engaged in other things."

... you absolutely have *no idea* what you're talking about.

In context of 1st C. Jewish matters, Jewish religious issues and politics were the same thing. Philo was probably one of the most authoritative voices on these issues at the time.

You're embarrassing yourself with these statements. This is cringe-worthy stuff.


"the people who put the book together (the Jews) have always stated in the clearest of terms that Genesis doesn't purport to be a record of how the world began."

.... Are you serious? That was an incredibly silly claim to make.

I should imagine that someone with knowledge in this area might feel pretty embarrassed about pressing 'Post Comment' after writing that.

Now, if someone were cruel, they might challenge you to cite "just one" scholarly source that would back up the claim that the Jews did not believe the Genesis account was the literal and accurate account of the creation of the world.

You might be able to support the claim that *some* did not think it were literally true.. but all of them? The priests that actually assembled and composed the Old Testament accounts didn't think it was a literal record of how the world began? You really felt confident in making that claim?
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:39 PM on June 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Some say the cross is a subtle phallic symbol, so I doubt they'll be replacing it soon.

No, that's just his abs.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:39 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Anyway, the fact/belief that Christ was crucified is one of the most interesting concepts in the history of religion.
posted by quercus at 10:43 PM on June 27, 2010


I still stand by the essence of my Jesus theory, even if this earthshaking FPP means I have to amend it to read '... some guy nailed to a piece of wood just maybe not the piece of wood shaped the way most people think it was'.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:43 PM on June 27, 2010


Henri C. Mabuse, please. Pants: up; measuring tape: away. TIA.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's interesting is that this seemingly weak post has succeeded in its dubious aim – viz., to touch off a "Jesus didn't exist historically!" debate.

You mean the post that links to an article about a researcher who believes the Gospels are historically accurate?
posted by empath at 10:45 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


First of all, the people who put the book together (the Jews) have always stated in the clearest of terms that Genesis doesn't purport to be a record of how the world began. I'm inclined to agree with them.

But if they did, would you believe their claim over the opposed scientific evidence?

Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all?

Plenty. As pointed out upthread, for example, modern archaeology has been instrumental in strongly suggesting that huge chunks of the "historical" narrative in the Old Testament was really just ancient political propaganda ("And thats why the Egyptians hate us to this very day...") rather than events that, you know, actually happened.

human history by nature has to deal with accounts handed down to us, and has to decide which accounts are trustworthy. Is this really such a scandalous thing to say?

No, it's not scandalous at all. I'm just telling you that accounts which relate an amazing miracle-working demigod in Judea are taken with a huge grain of salt because they happen to go against everything that we understand about the universe as learned from scientific study.

We're talking past each other, I think. You want desperately to believe that the Gospels and Church Tradition describe some events that really happened, but the rest of us have no real reason to believe that. In fact, we have some important reasons to think that many of those events didn't happen at all. Please don't fret. It's not just your favorite tradition that I feel this way about. I don't believe the stories handed down about Ganesh either, not because I find them unappealing, or because I "hate Hinduism" or whatever, but because they violate the broadly understood scientific facts which make up our existence.
posted by Avenger at 10:51 PM on June 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


As Danila said above, Jehovah's Witnesses have long taught that Jesus died on a stake and not a cross. I suspect that non-JWs don't accept that interpretation because it's harder to make a sparkly fetish object out of a simple stake.

The Mormons have got you covered on that front.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:52 PM on June 27, 2010


Here's a relevant snippet from a transcript of Pt I and Pt II of that documentary:
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE, University of Texas, Austin: The problem for any historian in trying to reconstruct the life of Jesus is simply that we don't have sources that come from the actual time of Jesus himself.[...]

Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We have to remember that Jesus died around 30. For 40 years, there's no written gospel of his life, until after the revolt. During that time, we have very little in the way of written records within Christianity. Our first writer in the New Testament is Paul, and his first letter is dated around 50 to 52, so still a good 20 years after Jesus himself. But it appears that in between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus - what he stood for and what he did - orally, by telling it and retelling it. [...]

Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: [...] One could, for example, imagine that the oldest way in which the early Christians told about Jesus' suffering and death was the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2. [Philippians 2:7-8] "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Paul quotes this hymn in the early 50s of the 1st century. He quotes this as a hymn that probably was sung in the Christian communities 10 or 20 years earlier. [...suggesting the early oral tradition included hymns as well as stories]

NARRATOR: The Gospel of Mark is the oldest in the New Testament. It was written soon after the failure of the First Revolt [after 70AD] for a community that was struggling to reconcile its expectations of Jesus with the loss of the temple.[...Its author] took disparate elements of oral tradition and a few early written sources and wove them together to create a new narrative.

Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Mark seems to have a knowledge of at least one and maybe two or three different collections of miracle stories [about Jesus, from the preceding oral tradition]

[...As to other sources that pre-date the Gospels...]
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Scholars observed that there's a part of the sayings in Matthew that are exactly identical with sayings in Luke. In fact, they're identical in Greek- sayings of Jesus. Now, think. Jesus spoke Aramaic. So if you were translating Aramaic and if I were translating Aramaic, they'd come out different, these translations. So you would only have identical- you would only have Jesus speaking identical sayings in Greek if you had a written translation in Greek of his sayings. And so scholars suggested that there must have been, besides Mark, something else written down that would have been a list of the sayings of Jesus, translated into Greek. And they called that "Quelle," which means "source" in German. And they call it, for short, "Q." Nobody ever has found this source written. We can reconstruct it because we guess that there was such a written source.

NARRATOR: "Q" was composed before the war [...]

Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Whoever collected the sayings of "Q" wasn't interested in the death of Jesus, wasn't interested in the resurrection of Jesus, thought the importance of Jesus was what he said, what he preached. Now, other people thought "It's not enough to have the sayings of Jesus. You have to tell about his- about his death and his crucifixion and his resurrection. That's the important thing." Now, somebody put that all together and we call it Matthew and we call it Luke.
Josephus is also mentioned as a person writing about Jesus et al in the late 1st century.
The documentaries also describe the general things we know about the time period from archaeology and other contemporaneous sources.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:54 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is old news that doesn't make any difference anyway. It might be a nice bit of trivia, but it's not like any Christian doctrine depends on one particular method of execution. And maybe this is simplistic of me, but I always thought that this possibility was strongly hinted at in Galatians (which precedes any of the gospels).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."--Galatians 3:13
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:54 PM on June 27, 2010


First of all, the people who put the book together (the Jews) have always stated in the clearest of terms that Genesis doesn't purport to be a record of how the world began. I'm inclined to agree with them.

Oh, and as Mabuse pointed out above, they have certainly not "always" stated any such thing, at all.
posted by Avenger at 10:55 PM on June 27, 2010


And Pt II of the documentary explains in a basic overview the sequence of the Gospels and the differences in the audiences they were written for etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:56 PM on June 27, 2010


You know, I was really considering giving this Christianity thing a go but now that it looks like he wasn't killed on a cross but just a stake, well I just don't know.
posted by scalefree at 10:56 PM on June 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


I suspect that non-JWs don't accept that interpretation because it's harder to make a sparkly fetish object out of a simple stake.

That whole 'Blood Transfusion Is a No-No' thing, same deal?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:57 PM on June 27, 2010


Henry C. Mabuse: “Are you serious? That was an incredibly silly claim to make. ”

Look, I could do without your petty, obnoxious personal insults embedded in every single reply to me. I get the impression you want to tear me down to make it look as though you're some sort of authority on this subject, but it's not really the best way to go about it.

As far as Genesis not being a literal account: RaMbaM follows the Talmud in pointing out that Genesis could not possibly be a literal account of history, in that anyone who's actually read Genesis is struck, before anything else, at the fact that it gives two contradictory accounts at the very beginning. This has always been supposed, in orthodox circles, to indicate that the account isn't supposed to be literal. Now, maybe you think that means it's actually supposed to be literal; or maybe you think that just means the writer of Genesis is stupid; or maybe you think the Talmud and RaMbaM and all the Rabbis are insane. But you can't deny that they constitute orthodox Jewish opinion; and this is their stated position.
posted by koeselitz at 10:59 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


the broadly understood scientific facts which make up our existence.

Actually, that stuff is far far weirder than a Jew regaining consciousness
posted by quercus at 11:00 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


To not that girl: egret has one great explanation that I don't doubt is very often true. You can't forget that gospel music often had a role as providing hope for the oppressed.

However, there is a scriptural justification for this. Deuteronomy 21:23 we find "cursed is the man who hangs on a tree" (i.e. is literally hung, presumably by the neck, from a tree, as a means of execution). This is referred in many of the New Testament accounts of Jesus' death, such as Acts 5:30, but by far most notably in the heavily theological Galatians 3.

Basically, Galatians 3 is attempting to transfer the "chosenness" of the Jewish people to Christians. Jewish chosenness is derived, in part, from being literal descendants from Abraham, who made the first major covenant with Gd. Paul's idea of chosenness for Christian people is based on their being the 'spiritual descendants' of Abraham, the man of faith (remember, Abraham was the first Jew and one of the first post-deluge monotheists in the Abrahamic tradition), as Christians are the people of faith.

This is especially true as Paul postulates that living under the Law (e.g. the Torah [lit. 'law'] and its commandments) is a "curse" because no one can fulfill every law. There's lots of commandments... the standard rabbinic count nowadays is 613, but that was a post-Pauline count.

Therefore, in order to free Christians (new, spiritual brethren of Abraham) from the "curse of the law," which was passed down to the children of Abraham, Jesus became "cursed" by "hanging from a tree," thereby taking on the curse of Abraham's literal children, but also for all of humanity. Yeah, that's where it gets complicated.

So it provides a nice, neat corollary--the lynching by hanging is related to Jesus' "hanging" and Jesus' taking on of that curse. It provides a neat little shorthand for feelings of both spirituality, discontent, and hope.

I'm a Master's student in late antiquity Judaism/Christianity and this is my brain. I'm so sorry.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 11:05 PM on June 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all?

With that statement, you've seriously damaged your ability to make any convincing points regarding history or archeology, koeselitz. The ignorance contained in that sentence is just stunning.
posted by dbiedny at 11:07 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Avenger: “We're talking past each other, I think. You want desperately to believe that the Gospels and Church Tradition describe some events that really happened, but the rest of us have no real reason to believe that. In fact, we have some important reasons to think that many of those events didn't happen at all. Please don't fret. It's not just your favorite tradition that I feel this way about. I don't believe the stories handed down about Ganesh either, not because I find them unappealing, or because I "hate Hinduism" or whatever, but because they violate the broadly understood scientific facts which make up our existence.”

We're talking past each other precisely because you've assumed from the beginning that I'm trying to insist on the historical truth of Christianity.

What I'm insisting on is the fact that the popular (unscientific, ahistorical) notion that we know everything that happened 2000 years ago is a solid myth. We don't know anything about what happened back then. I don't think any of the claims you've made on this point are actually backed up by the "scientific facts" you keep talking about.

It's just interesting to me; it's a popular view of science which tries to make science say all kinds of things that science itself would never say. Science itself avoids religion because religion is about stuff that can't even be an object of scientific inquiry; so a true, pure scientist doesn't disbelieve religion, she simply disregards and ignores it, not caring about it in the slightest. You seem bent on saying that science can actually say something about the truth or falsity of religion; unfortunately, I don't think it can.

For what it's worth, none of that means that any religion is true. It doesn't even mean that science is "a religion;" it clearly is not, at least not in certain very important senses. It only means that true science knows whereof it cannot speak.
posted by koeselitz at 11:08 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dang, beaten by a Pastor.

Of course, as a Master's student, this is not at all shocking. :P

(No, seriously--big fan of Pater Alethias, add him as a contact if you love reading accurate analysis of the Bible. And I say this as an Orthodox Jew and persnickety student.)
posted by flibbertigibbet at 11:12 PM on June 27, 2010


... the popular (unscientific, ahistorical) notion that we know everything that happened 2000 years ago...

Who the hell said this?
posted by Avenger at 11:14 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


"I get the impression you want to tear me down to make it look as though you're some sort of authority on this subject..."

It wouldn't be hard, given that you make absurd unsupported statements as basis for a priori beliefs. A relatively new student of 1st Century near ME history would look like an authority compared to this.

I don't know you, and I don't intend to personally insult you, but you *have* made silly statements. Your claims astounded me. That you thought someone could not name a contemporary writer to the alleged life of Christ at first made me think you must be a troll. This is such an old chestnut that I couldn't believe someone would make that challenge. I thought it had to be a put on, so forgive me if I couldn't take you seriously.

The reality is that you were called out on your claims, and now you're personally upset. Well, the cure for that is to not emotionally invest in the subject that you're discussing. Based upon what you've written, I think it's a reasonable statement to make that you don't know what you're talking about. That doesn't make you a bad person.. just someone who isn't as well read as they thought they were. Dunning-Kruger and all that.

As for Maimonides, I'm not sure that this can really be used as evidence that 'the people that put the book together' did not believe its literal truth, seeing as Maimonides was around in the 1100s CE, and the OT was finally put together probably in the 6th-7th centuries BCE.

I can assure you that, Maimonides or no, the interpretations of the Pentateuch accounts were many and varied even by the time of the 1st Century, which was basically my point.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 11:16 PM on June 27, 2010


We don't know anything about what happened back then. [2000 years ago]

I'm not a historian, but this is a strangely strong claim. Surely we know some things that happened then? We have various written records and then we have physical evidence that corresponds with what we would expect to see if the records are true, right? (eg, written record of a great battle in place x, we discover a mass grave at place x with skeletons of the right age with armor of the right type) And we have evidence that some records are more reliable than others? We have good reason to think there was a guy named Plato who lived in Athens around 400 BCE, and he wrote a bunch of books that mention other people who seem to have also lived in Athens at the same time or just before. We have every reason to think Plato was a real guy, don't we?

It seems like a bizarrely high standard to impose to say we don't know anything about historical events. More plausible is to say we have quite good evidence on some points, conflicting or weak evidence on others, no evidence at all on others. We can weigh evidence and other epistemic virtues in history just like we can in science; why not?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:25 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


koeselitz writes "or maybe you think that just means the writer of Genesis is stupid"

Well, as you point out there are two creation stories early in Genesis. So there was no single "writer" of Genesis, but rather multiple authors, editors, and compilers. This goes for the Christian Testament as well, obviously.

And arguing that devout Jews don't take their own creation myth seriously (as complicated as it is re: two stories) is pretty damn ignorant however you cut it. Complex? Sure, but complexity has never been something various religious traditions have failed to embrace.
posted by bardic at 11:25 PM on June 27, 2010


Science itself avoids religion because religion is about stuff that can't even be an object of scientific inquiry

Science can and does approach the religion phenomenon scientifically. For example, it is quite scientific to ask why religious faith is the norm around the world despite the lack of evidence that would hold up to scientific scrutiny. How does it persist when belief in equally baseless stuff remains marginal at best? One suggestion:
Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests

God may work in mysterious ways, but a simple computer program may explain how religion evolved

By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish. However, religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out - perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion. [...]
posted by pracowity at 11:26 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


me: “Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all?”

dbiedny: “With that statement, you've seriously damaged your ability to make any convincing points regarding history or archeology, koeselitz. The ignorance contained in that sentence is just stunning.”

I seriously have no idea what you're talking about. What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened? That Elizabeth was ever the Queen of England? Honestly, no physical evidence for any of these things exists in any form. Please keep in mind that "contemporary accounts" aren't physical evidence; no scientist would accept a guy who'd written down "yep, I saw the hydrogen and the oxygen separating all right" on a piece of paper as evidence that water can be rendered into its constituents.

I thought it would be obvious from the context, but I'm not trying to say that history is illogical or irrational, or that history is based entirely on faith, or that history is some kind of religion. What I am saying is that history and hard science are different things, at least as far as the matter they deal with is concerned. You can't extrapolate historical records from physical science; and that's not what historians do (unless they're natural historians, which is not what they've been called anyway for a century, and which is clearly not what we're talking about.)

Most recently I've been rereading Planck's Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics, and what strikes me there is the very specific nature of what science can and can't determine. Science is by definition very careful about defining these things; and the irreversibility of processes and the difficulties surrounding entropy guarantee (if there were any doubt) that it's difficult approaching impossible to say specific, concrete things about events which happened in the distant past. Yes, it's possible to make strong inferences about major, obvious global shifts, like the deaths of whole populations of animals and the changes in geological structures and so on. But how could the observation, theorization, and extrapolation from theory which is science even have a pretention to make concrete statements about whether a person with a particular name existed in a certain population in a narrow hundred-year timeframe two millennia ago? To start with, how could we even say something about the human population in that area in that time based on physical evidence? So far as I know, there isn't any archaeological record of Judaea in that time period at all. And as Thucydides so eloquently pointed out, we shouldn't even expect an archaeological record, even from peoples who were seen as significant within their time (and Judaea at the time was most definitely not seen as significant) – since many peoples seen as significant didn't have significant architecture, landmarks, or artifacts which stand over time, and even those which do often find their works destroyed quickly.
posted by koeselitz at 11:31 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe they're stealth pagans trying to convert people to the worship of Odin.

Next they'll discover a new translation of Revelations which reveals that during Armageddon, Jesus fights an enormous wolf.
posted by homunculus at 11:34 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


So-called deafening silence.

Although the lack of historians is just a beginning to this debate, it is often side-stepped by emphasizing his small cadre of followers, making Jesus common and like so many other prophets at the time (many of them no doubt named Jesus).

Some people point to "internal evidence" about Jesus making so many failed prophecies and feeling forsaken, lending credibility to historicity, but ignoring the tragic literary elements. Most people just assume the fact of euhemerization without knowing it (the ancient idea that myths are based on actual humans). Some will naively cling to a circular time-line argument; that he existed because the first mention of him was within living memory of his existence.

By far the simplest explanation for a living messiah, who was late in coming, is that his life would have been reconstructed as part of a great disappointment. This is typically done through cognitive dissonance, based on the great religious demand for it.

The worship of Jesus has always been waiting around for him, and still is. People really need this god to be defined as a man too, more than the others (Osiris, Mithra, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus). That's why it attracted the ancient Romans, who already had enough saviors, but who best loved the idea of practical evidence for the concept of human resurrection, the proof itself being integral to the Western rational tradition.
posted by Brian B. at 11:34 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


"What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened?"

We have archaeological evidence .. physical evidence .. that *all* these things occurred. We have battlefields strewn with actual, physical remains. We have actual, physical accounts written by contemporaries or even the historical figures themselves ... we have skeletal remains of plague victims and detailed accounts from people living through the events .. verifiable evidence of real people and real events.

Is it your position that there are no physical pieces of evidence for these things? Please clarify.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 11:40 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred?

That's not ignorance, that's outright stupidity. Like I said, stunning.
posted by dbiedny at 11:42 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred?

Photographs.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [19 favorites]


There is no evidence whatsoever.


That seems like an adequately definitive statement, right there.
posted by darkstar at 11:49 PM on June 27, 2010


From the Civil War, we have:
- testimony (written accounts supposedly from eyewitnesses that say "a battle was fought here, at time t")
- other kinds of contemporaneous written records (logistic records eg of troop movements, supply lines, etc, which are not the same thing as testimony)
- photos
- skeletons of men with bullet wounds of the kind we would expect given our records of the kinds of guns they had; say we have a lot more skeletons from this time period where the person died of a bullet wound, we have a lot of gravestones where the writing on the gravestone started weathering in the telltale way in the 1860-65 time period than at other time periods; cloth army uniforms from both sides, with military insignia we would expect to see if the written records were correct
- big fields in Virginia etc that still have bullets from that time period all over them (I'm guessing here)
etc.

A lot of this evidence is physical. If the physical stuff backs up the testimony and the non-testimonial written records do too, what's still missing?

Put it another way:
Presumably you would agree we have much better reason to believe the Civil War happened than we have to believe that, say, the events of Lord of the Rings happened. Part of the difference is physical evidence, isn't it?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:49 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened? That Elizabeth was ever the Queen of England? Honestly, no physical evidence for any of these things exists in any form.


Are .... are you drunk?
posted by Avenger at 11:51 PM on June 27, 2010 [21 favorites]


koeselitz writes "What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened? That Elizabeth was ever the Queen of England? Honestly, no physical evidence for any of these things exists in any form."

I'm sorry, but your brand of stupid truly burns. Got visit a museum for fuck's sake.
posted by bardic at 11:52 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am assuming that your concern is about testimony and the always-partial subjective nature of the stories we tell, as opposed to physical evidence which can only be interpreted one way? (That is, I presume you're not actually in doubt as to whether the Civil War happened, but you're making a point about different types of evidence.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:52 PM on June 27, 2010


What if the photographs and other "evidence" that the Civil War occurred were just placed by Satan to trick people?
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:56 PM on June 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


And can we do away with this seemingly arbitrary 200-year limit, and question whether or not there's any physical evidence that the Holocaust occurred? Because that's about the only way this thread could become more bizarre.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:01 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


They were written in Greek - not Aramaic - by people who had no connection to the lands they describe - that's why there are so many horrendous historical anachronisms and various other blatant errors in the gospels.

I'd understand what you were talking about if you were referring to John, but Mark contains plenty of references to earlier Aramaic stories.

I don't think atheists understand the actual historical consensus on Jesus, which is that he existed as a person but not necessarily as the person recorded in the Gospels. The "Freethought" site linked above is an example of the gross assumption that the only two choices are Gospels or a Greek-style myth. If you want the Jesus who most likely existed, refer to chapter 9 of the Didache, and the commentary on it. That sums up the enormous amount we don't know and tiny amount we do.
posted by shii at 12:01 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


dbiedny: “That's not ignorance, that's outright stupidity. Like I said, stunning.”

I like how you read the first sentence of what I wrote, and then ignored the rest, accusing me of "stunning stupidity." I don't even know if I'm really "stunningly stupid," as you call me; what I do know is that apparently you can't read.

I get the feeling people here aren't really familiar with the way evidence is used in hard science. Fucking hell. Fuck, people, go read Faraday and Millikan and Einstein and then fucking get back to me on this shit. Until then, kindly shut the fuck up about how stunningly stupid I supposedly am.
posted by koeselitz at 12:02 AM on June 28, 2010


Dude, you're on a hiding to nothing. All this talk of physics in a discussion of history is weird and irrelevant. No one is familiar with the way 'evidence' is used in a courtroom, either, but it's not a trial; it's history.
posted by smoke at 12:06 AM on June 28, 2010


Truly, given the subjective and inherently untrustworthy nature of the written historical record, can we even be certain that koeselitz exists?

whoa
posted by Rhaomi at 12:07 AM on June 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


I think people are reading you to say that you doubt these events happened, which sounds like moon-landing-hoax stuff. That's why they're saying "hurf durf moon hoaxer". But, I take it, that's not what you're saying -- but I think the point you want to make is getting lost here because what you actually said is easy to read as "we should doubt these events happened".

But you are making a point about the nature of evidence, I think. I'm just not totally clear on what it is.

Evidence as used in the physical sciences is different from the kinds of evidence available concerning even recent historical events, and you want to point out the difference. But which difference do you have in mind?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:07 AM on June 28, 2010


smoke: “Dude, you're on a hiding to nothing.”

This is probably the most coherent argument I've seen in this thread so far.
posted by koeselitz at 12:07 AM on June 28, 2010


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred?

And JUST up to that point, I was convinced that he wasn't trolling.
posted by cthuljew at 12:08 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, as both a formally trained scientist and a formally trained (former) Biblical scholar, let me say that the limb that you've crawled out on is a pretty weak one.

I get that you're trying to make a point about the rigors of evidentiary proof in the scientific method, such as it occurs, at all. But it seems more like pedantry when applied to the case at hand.

The simple point most folks are making in contradiction to you is that we have physical evidence and contemporary accounts for many historical events and the degree to which they agree, we have a greater sense of certainty that the written accounts actually represent reality. I.e., what actually hapened. Especially if, together, they compose a narrative that makes no extraordinary claims (e.g., divinity).

On the other hand, where we have no contemporaneous writings and no physical evidence to support an event (or person) is asserted to have existed, and furthermore the assertions claim extraordinary feats of the supernatural, not to mention having directly conflicting timelines, etc., then we are on such shaky ground that nothing can be safely stated about the veracity of those assertions.

This is not rocket science and doesn't require references to Milliken or Einstein, much less to Maimonides or Philo, nor does it require an advanced degree in Biblical exegesis or Theoretical Physics. It's just the way we humans tend to process claims about the reality around us.
posted by darkstar at 12:11 AM on June 28, 2010 [20 favorites]


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened?

We have a vast web of internally consistent physical documentary evidence stretching back from now into the past. As you go farther back, the web becomes more tenuous, but still consistent and supported by the other physical evidence that remains. Vast piles of documentary evidence about the (English? US? other? it doesn't matter for this argument) civil war are supported by archaeological evidence. People wrote that they fought in a certain place. People today go dig in those places at the right depth and, sure enough, there are weapons and fortifications and other remains of the era in combinations and positions that aren't easily explained away. To deny the validity of such evidence is to deny the idea of the past and suggest the existence of a hoaxster god.
posted by pracowity at 12:12 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is probably the most coherent argument I've seen in this thread so far.

Now we're finally getting somewhere.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:12 AM on June 28, 2010


I guess I should explain myself slightly better: I understood that he meant to express some point about the nature of evidence, and that he was trying to point out that you can't go into a lab and recreate the conditions for the Civil War and see if the Civil War happens again. However, even as a purely rhetorical point it made absolutely no sense and only expressed a gross ignorance of the type of physical evidence we DO have, even for events 2000 years ago. Now, assuming that someone would be this ignorant of such evidence seems insulting and rash. Therefore, I am forced to conclude that he's just trolling a bunch of non-theists in a convenient topic.
posted by cthuljew at 12:15 AM on June 28, 2010


You know, when Zombie Robert E Lee comes back to save the South, you folks are going to be whistling a different tune.


Dixie, perhaps.
posted by darkstar at 12:15 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


There is no physical evidence that you ate breakfast this morning! You are just a floating brain in a jar being tricked into thinking you're a brain in the jar in the past being tricked into thinking you're living in the 21st century! The pyramids were built by stagehands for photo ops! The moon doesn't exist and Neil Armstrong is voiced by Mel Blanc! YOU CAN'T UNPROVE IT I DOUBLE DOG DARE YOU
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:16 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Non-Christians, sorry.
posted by cthuljew at 12:17 AM on June 28, 2010


I'm always deeply amused at how quickly Christians adopt postmodernist positions and arguments in defense of their own truth. It's like shooting someone in pursuit of pacifism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:18 AM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Therefore, I am forced to conclude that he's just trolling a bunch of non-theists in a convenient topic.

And why? I'm afraid we've been duped! While we've been wasting our time shadow boxing here, somewhere on the Internet a fundamentalist Christian is winning an argument we could have countered!
posted by pracowity at 12:26 AM on June 28, 2010


"...but Mark contains plenty of references to earlier Aramaic stories."

Mark is the example of historical anachronisms and errors that I was referring to, actually.

What earlier Aramaic stories does Mark refer to? Do you mean Q? That document is no longer extant and has been theoretically rebuilt based on the shared sayings in the synoptics.

I'm trying to figure out what you mean. Aramaic stories.. there aren't any surviving stories from Judea pertaining to Jesus that predate Mark that I'm aware of, unless you want to bring in the infancy gospels and all that stuff, which don't have a background older than the earliest gospels anyway. None of that stuff can be said to be definitive or evidence of any strong foundational material.

Aramaic folk tales, is that what you mean? I'm not sure I understand. Do you mean Jesus quoting Hillel the Elder?

Mark was written by a Greek speaker unfamiliar with the Judean milieu. Clearly he's basing his work on earlier material, naturally, but we are in the dark as to what form that might take, and there are many theories even among the Jesus Seminar as to how this whole thing got started.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 12:28 AM on June 28, 2010


I'm always deeply amused at how quickly Christians adopt postmodernist positions and arguments in defense of their own truth. It's like shooting someone in pursuit of pacifism.

Er, what do you mean by that term?

Are you accusing koeselitz of wanting to reproduce the 1000 de La Gauchetière or something?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:31 AM on June 28, 2010


I'm thinking about what koeselitz wrote above:

Honestly, no physical evidence for any of these things exists in any form. Please keep in mind that "contemporary accounts" aren't physical evidence; no scientist would accept a guy who'd written down "yep, I saw the hydrogen and the oxygen separating all right" on a piece of paper as evidence that water can be rendered into its constituents.

I actually don't think this is true. Scientists rely on each other's testimony all the time, as to the results of tests.

Nothing would ever get accomplished if each scientist had to go back to the start of modern physics or chemistry and do each of those experiments again, distrusting the testimony of those who did them before. They couldn't even rely on instruments made by others, they'd have to go back and do the experiments to validate the theories that the instruments are based on.

Sometimes scientists do replicate experiments, but not always by any stretch. That's not to say they take all testimony at face value, though. The whole edifice of modern science is built on having institutional structures (like grad school, peer review of journal articles, hiring/promotion/tenure based on publishing in good peer reviewed journals, giving heavier weight and more grants to scientists from more prestigious schools, etc) that are meant to make testimony more reliable, and make its reliability easier to assess. Assessing other scientists' papers is a major skill of science, lots of different types of assessment go on (did they use the right methods? right stats to analyze the results? are the results independently plausible? how do they fit with the other evidence we have? etc)

These kinds of structures for assessing the reliability of testimony are in place in history too. We can judge based on what else we know about the time period and the specific author etc, does this person have incentive to misrepresent things, or what existing beliefs does he have that might lead him to see things a certain way? does the text show signs of tampering? what language was it composed in? who's the audience? etc.

Just musing about it, I wonder how much difference is left over, in types of evidence. One difference is the goal; science seeks generalizations that will cover future cases, whereas history (or the type of history we're talking about in this thread) is concerned only with past particular events.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:35 AM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


*sigh*

I will try to say what I meant, as patiently, calmly, and briefly as possible, though it might be a mistake.

I care about history. I care about history a lot. And I think it's a rational, logical, necessary study. I think it's one of the most difficult studies human beings can undertake; and I think there are a set of laws that great historians must follow carefully in order to practice their art well.

The practice of being an historian is a rational, careful practice. However, I still stand by the idea that it's very different from a scientific discipline. For some very good reasons, a scientist – a pure scientist, one who deals directly with physical reality, sorry if I've caused confusion on this point – necessarily rejects 'anthropomorphic' explanations, which is to say previous explanations and accounts of what other people think happened. James Millikan would never have accepted the account of a romantic poet about what sunlight looks like passing through raindrops; he cast aside these anthropomorphic ideas about what was happening and tried to purify observation by watch as carefully as he possibly could for himself what happened in certain situations. And even so, by the time of Boltzmann it was already quite clear that we were never going to be able to say with precision exactly where a particular atom started and ended during an experiment.

If it's impossible for the most careful scientists among us to say through physical observation where an atom is at the beginning and the ending of a tiny, very carefully measured experiment, how in the world can we expect to say anything coherent about what happened hundreds of years ago through purely physical means? This is all I meant in my now-infamous "no physical evidence" statement: that through purely physical means, it is not only impossible but inconceivable that we might detect exactly what happened in this or that so-called historical event.

History is apart and distinct from all this. In fact, history can be quite decisive on certain points. But it is not decisive by proving things physically, by tracking out actual physical matter and proving causes and effects therefrom. Yes, history observes the basic principles of scientific physics; but it doesn't rely on them solely, and it doesn't use them for discover but for verification. The task of history is to collate the different historical accounts available to us and to determine through careful, rational consideration which accounts are worth believing. History might try not to act as though it's being definitive, but it should hope and strive to be. And often it is.

That's all, anyway. Flameout over. Maybe I'm the biggest idiot in the world, but though it hurts to be called so, I don't want to further derail this thread by making it all about that. I'll step out now, and let it move of its own accord. I'm sorry to any and all, and particularly to empath; while I was caught up in stabbing outward blindly, I think I swung at him, too. It really was not a bad post. Particularly the title – which I'll read as advice that I'm going to follow henceforth.

posted by koeselitz at 12:47 AM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Indeed, why would we believe non christian sources more than christian ones, as far as the factual existence of some dude named Jesus who inspired a cult among Jews?

Because they would have little incentive to make one up?
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:06 AM on June 28, 2010


Get down offa that cross,
and dance 'till you feel better,
Get down offa that cross,
and dance 'till you, sing it now!
Get down offa that cross,
and dance 'till you feel better,
Get down offa that cross,
and try to release that pressure!
posted by pracowity at 1:19 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred?

o_O ?!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:19 AM on June 28, 2010


I dunno whether he was nailed to a cross but having followed the discussion I feel ready to assert that he wept.
posted by Phanx at 1:40 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Having concluded that no actual crucifix was involved, perhaps the author of the Torygraph piece could now contemplate the possibility that nobody called Jesus was involved, either?

Jesus is a greek translation; the actual name of the man concerned would be something like Yeshua ben Yusuf. And he would have looked nothing like the 16th century Spanish upper-class/noble man depicted in most Catholic artwork.

(And this invisible sky daddy thing? I'm pretty sure it was a pink unicorn. But I digress ...)
posted by cstross at 2:01 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


For the second coming he will have to head for Saudi Arabia (the allow crucifixion but ban crosses)
posted by rongorongo at 2:05 AM on June 28, 2010


well there goes my favourite Jesus joke. Jesus walks into a hotel, throws 3 nails down and says "can you put me up for the night?"

its all a load of rubbish anyway. cannot believe people still insist it is real and accurate.
posted by marienbad at 2:45 AM on June 28, 2010


I'm not a religious man, and (as soon will become apparent) woefully lacking in knowledge about the world's major religions...but is there any "major" religion whose writings are taken from the get-go as metaphor and have not or cannot be interpreted as fact by the followers of that religion?

Sort of an "Aesop's Fables" approach to laying out the religion's major tenants? Or do people generally need "it really happened!" water walking, white salamanders, aliens, etc. to really get behind it?
posted by maxwelton at 2:53 AM on June 28, 2010


Okay, I realize I'm coming to the party pretty late, but I'd just like to stick up for this koeselitz character for a moment.

So the argument was presented a little stupidly, that doesn't mean it should be entirely dismissed; imho it just went down completely the wrong road. There's currently an extensive discussion going on about the nature of history, specifically our modern tendency to want to narrativize (I'm seeing that's not a word in English, forgive me) it. The problem is, this narrativisation creates a mountain of all the regular inaccuracies that come with human subjectivity, and even as we move away from "history as story" towards a more scientific approach, the status of the "event" as something special to be put on a pedestal is still inherent, even crucial, in our popular rhetoric. For instance, it is apparently quite difficult to find any reference in ancient Greek to a sky with a color, but rather the dominating idiom seemed to be a "serene" sky. Who's to say this fact is any less important than, say, which of Napoleon's exiles was his last? No way to tell, yet we try to hierarchize these Events, and they gel into a cultural hierarchy that is often taken for granted. Perhaps Hegel is to blame, but let's not forget thinkers like Ricoeur and the firm, religious belief in teleology that begs such structuration.

Perhaps that is more the point we should take away from this lengthy firefight. And I will also remark how panicked this community became when the "traditional", concrete and structured view of history was (albeit poorly) challenged.
posted by Mooseli at 3:43 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's currently an extensive discussion going on about the nature of history

Currently??? Come on, this is so naive. Augustine was debating this stuff ffs.
posted by smoke at 4:00 AM on June 28, 2010


Mooseli: we try to hierarchize these Events, and they gel into a cultural hierarchy that is often taken for granted. Perhaps Hegel is to blame, but let's not forget thinkers like Ricoeur and the firm, religious belief in teleology that begs such structuration.

Can you translate that into English, please?
posted by cstross at 4:07 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I will also remark how panicked this community became when the "traditional", concrete and structured view of history was (albeit poorly) challenged.

"Panicked" sounds like that old "became hysterical" dismissal unsexed. No one here panicked as far as I can see. Most people here simply countered (with a large dollop of snark sauce, as is our way) the weaker points of his argument (that there is no evidence that things happened in the past, etc.). A lot of people jumped in because a lot of people have the same opinion and people here like to voice their opinions, but no individual seemed to be in a panic from my point of view, and I don't think a lot of unpanicked people agreeing on a point makes for a "panicked" community.
posted by pracowity at 4:11 AM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


Jesus diiiiied
on somebody's tree
but not mine...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:30 AM on June 28, 2010


If such a thing happened -- and similar things did happen, right? -- what sort of tree might it have been? Seriously. If that's the sort of thing one can speculate on, I'd like to know exactly what sort of wood (tree or cross) is likely to have been used.
posted by pracowity at 4:49 AM on June 28, 2010


I have this love/hate relationship with waking up in the morning, heading onto Metafilter to see what posts occurred since the night prior, & finding a long, largely respectful & informative thread to read while I eat breakfast. And then, 20-30 minutes after finishing breakfast, realizing that I've read much longer than I should have, have to make the decision to shower or be at work on time.

"Why were you late?"
"There's this place on the internet where articulate people like to argue minutiae."
"And you were arguing with them?"
"No. I mostly just quietly gawk."
posted by Hesychia at 4:49 AM on June 28, 2010 [63 favorites]


heading onto Metafilter to see what posts occurred since the night prior, & finding a long, largely respectful & informative thread to read while I eat breakfast.

Which thread was that?
posted by empath at 5:29 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


...through purely physical means, it is not only impossible but inconceivable that we might detect exactly what happened in this or that so-called historical event.

History is apart and distinct from all this....


koselitz, what about archaeology? That's a whole branch of science that you've thrown under the bus because it's inconvenient to your beliefs. I'd say that archaeology is a perfect mix of science (yes, at times purely physical science) and history, but I'm curious how you'd describe it.
posted by zardoz at 5:31 AM on June 28, 2010


If it's impossible for the most careful scientists among us to say through physical observation where an atom is at the beginning and the ending of a tiny, very carefully measured experiment, how in the world can we expect to say anything coherent about what happened hundreds of years ago through purely physical means?

I don't think that you can get from that antecedent to that consequent without the intermediary conclusion that there isn't any such thing as physical evidence, which some might think was the more interesting result, and others might think wasn't being quite fair to the concept of physical evidence operative in a discussion like this.
posted by Kwine at 5:35 AM on June 28, 2010


"No. I mostly just quietly gawk."

posted by Hesychia 51 minutes ago [has favorites +]


Eponysterical
posted by Dr Dracator at 5:43 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Which thread was that?

Well. No one's flaming out in MetaTalk.

It's possible my standards have lessened.
posted by Hesychia at 5:45 AM on June 28, 2010



Mooseli: The problem is, this narrativisation creates a mountain of all the regular inaccuracies that come with human subjectivity, and even as we move away from "history as story" towards a more scientific approach, the status of the "event" as something special to be put on a pedestal is still inherent, even crucial, in our popular rhetoric...

It's difficult to say things without being misunderstood in a charged thread like this, so let me just preface that I'm not trying to call you out on anything. But you seem to know something about what's going on in terms of current discussions (I'm assuming you mean in academia, but please correct me or broaden my understanding of how these discussions work) about history, and also I agree that the modern tendency to rely on narratives is problematic - so I have a couple of questions:

First, are we moving away from "history as story" towards a more scientific approach? How so? Even in academia, how so? How are we going to apply a scientific approach to anything that we can't observe - let alone observe together - as it happens?

Second, wasn't this narrative approach embraced specifically because we realized or accepted, to whatever extent, that there is no such thing as an scientific approach to history (if we understand scientific theory to be an attempt to move as close to objective reality as possible) and that assuming that we can access an objective version of what happened is both foolish and dangerous? Weren't writers like Foucault, who called into question things like events and narratives, making the point that interpretations of what has already happened (based on memory or evidence) are always charged and fraught with assumptions which are deeply cultural and woven into the very fabric of our individual and social processes of understanding? Unless we come up with a way to make memory scientific or make subjective interpretations objective, I can't understand what it means to move towards a more scientific approach to history. I mean the project of narrativization seems to me above all an attempt to Free history from narrow (usually power-driven) interpretations, not to encapsulate or capture it. The problem, as I see it, is not narrative or science, but that we can only Reflect and Interpret, and never be transported back.

I mean that is my interpretation of what koeselitz was trying to say but clearly failed to communicate: that a "scientific" approach to history does not quite work because we cannot observe history or come to any agreement based on accepted laws of reality, the way scientists do, about causes and effects. Certainly, we should take a broad view of what we're trying to interpret and to deny nothing, including the evidence of science (that Jesus could not have been the son of God anymore than you or I), but in history and other social sciences the modern challenge is to question our own interpretive apparatus in the process - which is by necessity subjective. So this is not a failure of history as a subject, it's just how we process reality and use the Past to understand why we are here, socially speaking. (Science on the other hand is guided by laws which are based on non-contradictory, affirmative and repeatable observation – so it’s a project of the present, although of course those laws are also applied retroactively to understand fossils and what not.)

That said, I'm not sure why koeselitz’s making that point was relevant in the context of this FPP, because the prevailing issue here is not between science and history but between history and lore. (I'm guessing it all started when he misinterpreted hildegarde's comment about the problems of contradiction in religious lore, and began focusing on the Shortcomings of History instead.)
posted by mondaygreens at 6:10 AM on June 28, 2010


Danila: "Jesus did not die on a cross, but on a stake or pole or tree trunk, that's all stauros means. This has long been what Jehovah's Witnesses have believed based on our understanding of the Bible."

Prince was a great admirer of Sly and the Family Stone - whose multi-racial, multi-gender band served as a template for The Revolution. So at one point Prince hired Sly's legendary bass player, Larry Graham.

Graham, a JW, evangelized his faith to Prince - who apparently found it a congenial outlet for his well-documented crankiness. Prince then began doing mid-song patter about the evils of blood transfusion. (As documented on One Night Alone.)

He also began performing "The Cross" - his great spiritual from Sign O The Times - as "The Christ".

True story.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:18 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


is there any "major" religion whose writings are taken from the get-go as metaphor and have not or cannot be interpreted as fact by the followers of that religion?

Back in my divinity school days I learned that Judaism's first few volumes are in fact exactly this. But we would call metaphor was a bit more than that. Actually this was one of my favourite new bits of knowledge from divinity school. It has to do with the way we express what we believe to be true, and what elements of truth are most important.

At the time, the best way to explain a truth to an audience was to take a well-known story and twist it. The direction in which you twist the story contains all the insight the storyteller is trying to convey. This makes sense if you remember that books are expensive and inaccessible, few people can read, and there's no way to take notes or photographs to help memory along. So the mnemonic device of choice was the well-known tale, twisted in a particular way.

So the stories of the tower of the garden, the flood, the tower of babel, etc. are all rooted in regional folk tales of the era, just twisted to get across something new. Adam and Eve didn't waltz out of the garden of their own will; they were expelled for going against the will of God. Building the great Tower wasn't an amazing human achievement, it was the thing that made it impossible for us to communicate with each other. Without knowing the many other versions of these stories that the first listeners would have known well, it's impossible to see what's being communicated and highlighted in these particular versions. But seen this way, you get the impression that the major message of Judaism was about being humble, being grateful, and overwhelmingly, the ways of God are not the ways of man and can largely not be guessed at or entirely understood. (It seems that anyone in the hebrew bible who is convinced that they know what God really wants are invariably dead wrong.)

I think it's really cool and interesting that the things we think are most important to convey seem to have shifted; if a modern-minded person had written these crucial early documents, they might have been point form powerpoint slides with key dates and facts on them. But at that point in history, this nebulous moral meaning was clearly far more important than any objective fact. (Perhaps objective facts are just too hard to remember.)

So presumably no one in the original audience would have believed that the story of Adam and Eve as recorded in Genesis was literal, given that they'd heard variations of the story all their lives used as a vehicle to convey something entirely different and the names (Adam, Eve, Eden, etc.) themselves are entirely metaphorical. They're like the cast of Pilgrim's Progress (Christian, Hopeful, Obstinate, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Lord Hate-Good, etc.) That doesn't mean the story isn't true to them. It's just true in a different way than we generally mean as "true".

This is all really the history of fiction: it went from from being able to convey the ultimate truth to being a synonym for a lie.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:20 AM on June 28, 2010 [14 favorites]


What a depressing thread.

1) It's a shitty post, a link to a three-paragraph blog post about some guy's doctoral thesis in which he makes a claim that's been made many times before. If it were about any other subject, it would have been snarked for a few comments and then ignored. But because it's about LOLXIANS, oh boy, we have a chance for another long thread in which we LOL and snipe at each other!

2) I can't believe the asshole things people are saying about koeselitz. It would be bad enough if he had just joined and was an unknown quantity, but at least there would be some excuse for it (not moral, but intellectual: "We know nothing about him, so he could just as well be all this bad stuff we're saying"). But koeselitz has been a member since 2004, he's made a ton of comments here, and anyone who's calling him a troll or (for god's sake) stupid is either illiterate or simply spewing slander in complete bad faith. However awkwardly he may have phrased his comments at times, his point about the competing nature of scientific and historical evidence is perfectly clear and, frankly, obvious to the point that it should hardly need saying. But because people can't read or prefer snarking to thinking, they leap to various idiotic conclusions and attack him with a two-by-four. I'm just glad he's a sensible person who knows enough to back away from a no-win situation. But a lot of you should be ashamed of yourselves.
posted by languagehat at 6:27 AM on June 28, 2010 [31 favorites]


1. So what? It's about faith and symbology.

2. It is amazing how much non-believers get worked up about other people's religions. I mean sure, when they do bad things, criticize them. But "oh, he didn't really die on a cross, and he probably didn't exist at all, haha ur dum" is kind of silly.
posted by gjc at 6:37 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The idea of Christ being nailed to "a tree" has great metaphorical ramifications. For one, it links the crucifixion with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was the occasion for the Fall—which was the occasion for Salvation. In fact, there is this great traditional story I'll paraphrase (I think I got it from Bayle, and I know I'm probably altering it slightly):
After the fall and expulsion, Adam lay dying. He bade his son to go to the Garden and ask for seeds of the tree of life. His son went and asked of the angels at the gate to be allowed this last request. God looked down and assented. Adam's son was escorted to the Tree of Life and took three seeds. When he got back, Adam had died. He put the three seeds under the tongue of his father as he was buried. The seeds took root and over the grave of Adam three stout trees rose and over many years grew tall. In time they were cut down and timbers were fashioned from them, which were used to make three crosses on which were executed two common thieves and the so-called King of the Jews.
posted by adoarns at 6:41 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


languagehat: let's be clear about this, when someone says that there is no physical proof of historical events such as the American Civil War, I'm sorry, that is indeed the essence of ignorance. As others have pointed out, the evidence speaks for itself, there's more than a little of it floating around. I doubt that any native European would feel any differently about the original statement regarding "no physical proof of historical events more than a couple of centuries old", hell, their history surrounds them, and much of it is a heck of a lot older than 200 years. I have no horse in this race, I don't personally know koeselitz, they could be the nicest, smartest person in the world, but to make a statement that completely ridiculous, well, I'm going to call it for what it is - ignorant. No judgment of the person - note that I state that the ignorance is contained "in that last sentence".

Personally, I'm someone who is fascinated by history, technology and belief systems, and I've done more than a little research into the notion that much of the history of our species - and this planet in general - is completely unknown to us. I've long been fascinated by the true origins of current religious belief systems, in order to comprehend the nature of human irrationality and mystical thinking. Some of my thoughts about these matters are public record, via an internet radio show I used to co-host, and while I consider myself to be a hardcore rationalist, some of my current thinking is also influenced by growing up Jewish, going to Cheder, learning the ancient texts in Hebrew (which I still read and write).

Bottom line: when someone says something patently ridiculous, on a forum brimming with smart folk, they should expect to get grief, especially if they continue to defend a position that is simply absurd - and completely wrong.
posted by dbiedny at 6:52 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm on the fence about that, gjc. On one hand, I have to wonder about the impulse to deconstruct Jesus. The faithful will continue to believe anyway; those of other faiths or no faith at all will continue to doubt, deny, or downplay. Are there that many on the fence that dismantling Jesus matters in any practical sense? Is it just a bit of slightly mean-spirited fun, a little smackback from folks who are sick of washing off the blood of the lamb, thrown upon them so often?

On the other hand, one of the tacks taken in the many attempts to convert me to Christianity was the absolutely historical nature of Jesus — that no doubt existed that Jesus was a real person living in that area and at that time. That wasn't a theory which would be even whispered aloud when I was little. So, I wouldn't entirely have minded hearing that we have precious few accounts about this whole Jesus character written during the period he was supposed to be alive. It would have made a nice bit to throw back at the people who dogged me as a teen.

However, at the remove of two millennia, your chances of proving a given person did or did not exist drop drastically, for any person who was not local royalty. No pyramids or proclamations for the common folk. I'm calling a mulligan on the historical Jesus. A century from now, even if anyone cared to look, I imagine a scholar will have a hard time proving my grandfather lived.
posted by adipocere at 6:59 AM on June 28, 2010


Hildegarde, at that point in history I don't think there was an understanding yet of objective fact - which might in any case be better phrased as scientific fact, because it is science that has demystified reality. Also the original audience must have preferred this specific (Christian) interpretation of already existing stories as a better (although propagated as truer) explanation of their reality than the ones which came before, or else why would they participate in its propagation, especially to the exclusion of all other explanations?

I have not read much about the history of how Christianity spread, but the fact that it empowered those who were, in that original context, powerless and oppressed says a lot about why the public might have been so attracted to it and why those that it made powerful were so increasingly fanatical about its truthfulness (and are, to this day). I mean a lie has to be enforced or it will weaken at every questioning of its contradictions, and its foundations - which are not based in reality but in story and belief - can be shaken every time an alternative explanation (or story with a twist) pops up and starts to gain momentum.

So that's where we can probably learn from history: that we tend to accept the explanations which are best suited to our purposes. Historically, that purpose has been to survive, to be free, to gain power in the world. In that light, the fact that stories can always be twisted to illuminate a different angle (while obscuring others) should definitely make us more skeptical about stories which claim to be true. And to be careful about what stories we ourselves propagate as truth. I don't think that makes fiction a synonym for a lie, necessarily, just that we know now that a story is only a story - a necessarily narrow way of looking at things. They did not have Science yet, we no longer have Truth.
posted by mondaygreens at 6:59 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


dbiedny, surviving physical artefacts are not proof of anything, per se. Historic evidence cannot speak for itself - it's either lifeless or dead, and we cannot go back in time to repeatedly observe it. Hell, I can't speak for myself without always having to clarify what I meant in light of how other people interpret what I've said. It is we who have to make connections and create theories about how things happened, and try to make them as logical and in keeping with all that we already know and accept. But all of us don't know and accept the same things, especially when it comes to human history. That's the meaning of subjectivity.

When you cannot go back in history to observe and test, you cannot "prove" anything per se. I'm not suggesting that what survives isn't useful - it is the only thing we can use and we must rely on it and use it as the basis for our reconstructions. But saying that "this is what we think happened based on what we know and what has survived" is the same as "this is what Really Happened" is both wrong and dangerous.

History is not objective or scientific and those who distrust your (or even the most commonly accepted) version of things don't deserve to be reviled. I've read a lot of threads on which koeselitz has participated, and I really think that's all he was trying to say. The Civil War thing was intended to be illustrative, not particular. Yes, there is evidence that is in keeping with the left-overs of war, and there are personal stories and histories that we can still read and understand, and we've used it to construct a narrative that's pretty reliable. We should continue relying on it until a better, fuller theory (based on new or contradictory evidence) comes to light. But that does not mean that it can't, or that we know the truth of what happened.

His point is a very basic one - and probably irrelevant here. But there is a difference between skepticism and ignorance, and I do think that in this case you've confused the two.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:34 AM on June 28, 2010


This video explains what science, theology and mainstream religion has thus far failed to.
posted by watercarrier at 7:37 AM on June 28, 2010


I'm on the fence about that, gjc. On one hand, I have to wonder about the impulse to deconstruct Jesus. The faithful will continue to believe anyway; those of other faiths or no faith at all will continue to doubt, deny, or downplay. Are there that many on the fence that dismantling Jesus matters in any practical sense? Is it just a bit of slightly mean-spirited fun, a little smackback from folks who are sick of washing off the blood of the lamb, thrown upon them so often?

On the other hand, one of the tacks taken in the many attempts to convert me to Christianity was the absolutely historical nature of Jesus — that no doubt existed that Jesus was a real person living in that area and at that time. That wasn't a theory which would be even whispered aloud when I was little. So, I wouldn't entirely have minded hearing that we have precious few accounts about this whole Jesus character written during the period he was supposed to be alive. It would have made a nice bit to throw back at the people who dogged me as a teen.


I see what you mean. One of the problems of faith is that it is circular; it is a manifestation of our tribal instincts. It makes us a little crazy when people around us believe different things. So we try our best to make sure the others around us believe what we do. People who try and evangelize their faith by using facts are doing it wrong. Faith is about believing and trusting in the unknowable, and historical facts have nothing to do with that.

I am an atheist in that I don't believe in any kind of superior being or afterlife, but I was raised Catholic and consider myself culturally Catholic. I have seen the good that Christianity has done for people, and I recoil when I see people trying to shit on other people's religious beliefs. I guess I see (or imagine) a bright line between faith and actions. Plenty of people have done stupid and horrible things in the name of religion, but that doesn't make religion a bad thing. It makes them bad people. If Christianity didn't exist, the Crusades would still have happened. They would have just found some other excuse for doing it.

In other words, yes, I think it is mostly mean-spirited "fun". Blaming religion for the acts of people is just as bad as using religion to justify one's own acts. Each is as intellectually dishonest and lazy as the other.
posted by gjc at 7:45 AM on June 28, 2010


Unlike languagehat, I found this thread to be a lovely example of MeFi. The original post may have been weak, but the subject is emotionally and intellectually charged for many people, and thus naturally incited many opinionated responses. The discussion of "history" and the erudite comments from the community were enlightening and entertaining.

I, apparently like many others here, was confused and baffled by koeselitz's comments. (And while I don't condone personal attacks, snark and badgering are hallmarks of MeFi, and I would have to say dont dish it out if you arent prepared to eat it up.) He seems to argue that history and science are separate, but my understanding is that history has at least this element in common with science, that they both rely on accumulated evidence, which is what separates history from, say, literature or myth. Because there is limited evidence of the existence of Jesus or other biblical events, we might argue the Bible is literature and the stories about Jesus are myth, rather than history, whereas information we have about Plato is historical.

I guess what Im getting at is that I disagree with the implication that history is independent of evidence.
posted by Illusory contour at 7:50 AM on June 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


> This video explains what science, theology and mainstream religion has thus far failed to.

I'm not going to sit through a three part video on a poorly formatted site. If you're going to make a sweeping point like that, do you at least have an executive summary of it?
posted by Burhanistan at 7:58 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The article is a bit thin, but isn't there fairly reliable evidence that crucifixion was used in other circumstances at about the same time? I am thinking specifically of the stories of Crassus crucifying slaves (the typical number is 6,000, although perhaps this is exaggerated) along the Appian Way after the defeat of Spartacus in the Third Servile War. That story is repeated as though it is fairly uncontroversial, and given the scale of the execution I would imagine there might be some evidence of it remaining if indeed it did happen the way it is told.

Would the difference have been the relative scarcity of wood in the the southern Mediterranean region versus Italy? Or is our entire idea of Roman crucifixion flawed, and the slaves as well as Jesus (if he existed and was indeed executed in this way) actually hung on straight poles or trees rather than perpendicular beams?
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:11 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


So Jesus was executed upon the Tree of Woe?

Huh.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:22 AM on June 28, 2010


> I found this thread to be a lovely example of MeFi. The original post may have been weak, but the subject is emotionally and intellectually charged for many people, and thus naturally incited many opinionated responses.

It's one thing to challenge what seems like an odd or poorly stated point and get the person who posted it to clarify, revise, reformulate or even recant their position. That's well and proper, and I think posters like LobsterMitten have the correct approach, whereas the previous poster clearly did not. Calling a long time poster "stupid" and other insults is just on the level of junior high. It's not a "hallmark of MeFi", and I don't really like it when anyone presumes to speak about what "MeFi" supposedly is about, especially when what is being labeled as such is simple dickishness.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:27 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe, Jesus.
posted by electroboy at 8:28 AM on June 28, 2010


ChurchHatesTucker, you sonofabitch.
posted by electroboy at 8:28 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are there that many on the fence that dismantling Jesus matters in any practical sense? Is it just a bit of slightly mean-spirited fun, a little smackback from folks who are sick of washing off the blood of the lamb, thrown upon them so often?

I think that for many participants it's neither.

Look, for the past twenty years or so there's been a serious pissing match going on between evangelicals and atheists/secularists/skeptics of various kinds (lately, the New Atheists) over the role religion should play in our society, what ethics is and where it comes from, and any number of important derivative social issues in our society. This debate has become widespread enough that most people, not just the intellectual figures (philosophers, scientists, theologians, social commentators) directly involved in the argument, have taken a side - or at least acquired a bias to one side or the other, usually for reasons quite unconnected with the details of history itself. Yet history, because of the way we tend to decide such issues as human beings has a very powerful role in this debate.

The historicity or fictionality of Jesus Christ is simply one more piece on the board in this debate. Like the debate over how religious or irreligious the Founding Fathers were, or Einstein's "religion" - or, in a darker register, whether Communism and Nazism were essentially "atheistic" or "Darwinistic" in nature or were simply new and only ostensibly "secular" religions. Which is why I keep encountering atheists who bring up the fact that Hitler's family was Catholic or that Stalin was a failed Orthodox seminarian as critical points in the debate.

History suffers from this, and suffers regardless of which side is doing the examining, because quite frankly the stakes are high enough - both in reality, decisions made over the treatment of sexual minorities, the role of religion in our government and judicial system, the rights of women (or, if you're on the other side, the unborn); and in the minds of the activists on either side, who seem to view this fight as a last battle for the salvation of Western civilization, either from a new Dark Age of religious fanaticism or from a Darwinistic dystopia of eugenics, and repression of freedom of conscience* - that exaggerations in a good cause are not only acceptable but mandatory.

Sorry for that last sentence, it got somewhat out of hand.

I say exaggerations because I don't think that most people actually consciously lie in these battles over history - rather, they take the most extreme point on the range of possibilities offered by the historical evidence, and insist that anyone who takes a different point is patently dishonest. There's a wide range of perfectly reasonable positions to take on the historicity of Jesus, and most scholars (secular and religious, Jewish, Christian, or whatever) seem to fall between the extreme positions (he was provably real, there's no evidence therefore he didn't exist) that are on show here.

/social analysis

Okay, so my own opinion is this - Jesus was, as one historian put it, a "marginal" figure. He was an apocalyptic prophet in a time and place where such were a dime a dozen. Neither Philo of Alexandria nor any other elite member of society would have cared enough about his life to write down details until his peculiar sect grew to significant importance, which was well after he was dead. If there had been any serious doubt that he existed at all, that probably would have been pounced upon by hostile commentators, Jewish or Greco-Roman, in the same way they took up the rumors that Jesus had been born to a prostitute, or sired by a Roman centurion, or had been an Egyptian-trained sorcerer.
As for the connection between Jesus and various mythological dying kings - well, the parallels between can be found in any number of other indisputably historical figures. Julius Caesar took divine honors, sought kingship, and was murdered for it (and divinized after his death), Alexander the great was both king and god in his own time and died a young and tragic death. The fact is that the patterns of mythology and the patterns of actual human life tend to intertwine a great deal anyway - I don't doubt that Greco-Roman myth colored the Jesus myth, but there are enough deviations (he was a carpenter, a pacifist, arguably failed to establish his kingship and divinity with the proper authorities, many of his prophecies didn't come true and he tended to be both obtuse and irritable even towards his disciples) suggests to the historian in me that there's something else there.
I think that's a reasonable position to take.

But not the only reasonable one.

This is a bit of a derail, but Genesis' two Creation tales doesn't necessarily rule out a literal interpretation. I've read high school physics books which say something like "many scientists think that the Big Bang went something like this, others think it may have happened another way..." The Jewish authors/compilers may have simply put down conflicting traditions of the Genesis tale on the principle that "these are divine revelations, but we're not sure which was goes back farther or is more authentic, so we'll preserve both."

* Both of these are paraphrases of actual statements I've heard given in, respectively, a local freethinker/atheist social group, which I attended for some time before moving to Chicago, and the church I went to for several years. Both were from otherwise thoughtful people.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:29 AM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


If he wasn't (supposedly) crucified on a cross, then someone needs to learn what the word "crucifixion" actually means.
posted by grubi at 8:30 AM on June 28, 2010


> I guess what Im getting at is that I disagree with the implication that history is independent of evidence.

That's not what he said, but don't bother trying to figure out what he was saying, because snarking is so much more fun.
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on June 28, 2010


As Jesus once said, "Romani ite domum."
posted by Mister_A at 8:39 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why is it that so many people who claim to be rational skeptics are unwilling to examine the New Testament in the context of Jewish literature? The New Testament is most closely related to the Talmud, which was not written until much later than the New Testament. No one questions the historical reality of prominent figures within it like Hillel, who’s biography is embellished in much the same way as that of Christ in the New Testament. In my view, the Christ myth theory is just part of what has been called, “the ultimate Western fantasy - that Christ had not, in fact, been a Jew” (Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race / Robert Young, p. 85).
posted by No Robots at 8:41 AM on June 28, 2010


'People called Romanes they go the house'?
posted by grubi at 8:44 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why is it that so many people who claim to be rational skeptics are unwilling to examine the New Testament in the context of Jewish literature? The New Testament is most closely related to the Talmud, which was not written until much later than the New Testament.

This isn't my area, but that last sentence seems a bit odd - why would the NT be most closely connected to something so far from it in time?
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:46 AM on June 28, 2010


That's not what he said, but don't bother trying to figure out what he was saying, because snarking is so much more fun.

Way to take the lead on the not snarking, languagehat.

Perhaps Your Eminence could explain for the rest of us lowly creatures what in the world koeselitz was trying to say?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:49 AM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


why would the NT be most closely connected to something so far from it in time?

The Talmud and the NT originate within the same cultural context in the same time period. They originate primarily as oral literature, and are later written down.
posted by No Robots at 8:50 AM on June 28, 2010


> The New Testament is most closely related to the Talmud

Which part? I'm assuming you mean some of the Epistles since those are mostly what ostensibly lay down loose guidelines for the fledgling Christian religion. Those are very much not like the Book of John or Revelation. But, can you clarify what you mean there?
posted by Burhanistan at 8:51 AM on June 28, 2010


when someone says that there is no physical proof of historical events such as the American Civil War, I'm sorry, that is indeed the essence of ignorance.

Look, just admit that you completely misunderstood what koeselitz was saying. If you think that what he meant by "physical proof" is refuted by Civil War era photographs, then I don't know, get a dictionary. "Proof" has different meanings in different contexts.
posted by straight at 8:51 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Talmud and the NT originate within the same cultural context in the same time period. They originate primarily as oral literature, and are later written down.

Okay. So we're talking the Gospels, then, and perhaps Revelation, but not the epistles, presumably.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:54 AM on June 28, 2010


Henry C. Mabuse, the whole "Philo never wrote about Jesus" is a pretty weak argument. Are you claiming that we have surviving copies of everything Philo wrote?
posted by straight at 8:55 AM on June 28, 2010


Let's just look at the case of Hillel:
In Sifre, Deut. 357 the periods of Hillel's life are made parallel to those in the life of Moses. Both were 120 years old; at the age of forty Hillel went to Palestine; forty years he spent in study; and the last third of his life he passed as the spiritual head of Israel. Of this artificially constructed biographical sketch this much may be true, that Hillel went to Jerusalem in the prime of his manhood and attained a great age. His activity of forty years is perhaps historical; and since it began, according to a trustworthy tradition (Shab. 15a), one hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem, it must have covered the period 30 B.C. -10 C.E.
Here we clearly see a biographical embellishment similar to that which we see in the NT, yet no one questions the existence of Hillel simply because of the embellished biography that appears in the Talmud.

As for a more general comparison between the Talmud and the NT, I could suggest no better starting place than the work of Birger Gerhardsson, and particularly his book, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition (chapter available online here).
posted by No Robots at 8:59 AM on June 28, 2010


If he wasn't (supposedly) crucified on a cross, then someone needs to learn what the word "crucifixion" actually means.

What term would the ancient Romans have used for the method of execution applied to the followers of Spartacus on the Appian Way?

And really, whether Jesus was killed on a cross or a stake has little bearing on the lesson you're meant to take from the story. The method of execution Jesus suffered was one reserved for the lowest of the society. (Being a high born Roman entitled you to have your head cut off.) The point was the degradation.

And just to add, I've been aware of the pole vs. cross thing since I was a child. I might have even learned it in Sunday School.
posted by Trochanter at 9:08 AM on June 28, 2010


Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe, Jesus.

I read this in Schwarzenegger voice.
posted by EarBucket at 9:18 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Then Jesus says, "Ah'll be Bawk."
posted by Trochanter at 9:20 AM on June 28, 2010


Look, just admit that you completely misunderstood what koeselitz was saying. If you think that what he meant by "physical proof" is refuted by Civil War era photographs, then I don't know, get a dictionary. "Proof" has different meanings in different contexts.

Personally what I took from koeselitz's comments was not that he was denying the existence of the Civil War, but that he meant that there are human elements, motivations, etc that we're forced to rely on the written record for, and that the victor writes the history books, etc... so the physical evidence doesn't tell us anything. I don't know where he was going with this in relation to the FPP, frankly, but whatever.

It's not unusual for intellectual types to get obsessed with pet theories about a subject and, in their haste to test those theories out on others, sometimes apply them to ongoing debates where they're not really appropriate. It seems like maybe that's what happened here.

It also seems to me that the civility level on Metafilter rises and falls with the equality between the pros and the cons. If there are roughly the same number of people arguing both sides, it tends to stay pretty civil, but at the moment it becomes one sided and people sense easy prey... let the circling of the carcass begin.
posted by squeakyfromme at 9:20 AM on June 28, 2010


He was crucified on Friday and rose again on Sunday, i.e. he took Saturday off. Of course he was a Jew.
posted by quercus at 9:25 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do get (I think) the point that koeselitz was trying to make regarding the differences between historical evidence and scientific evidence. However, that point was a) poorly expressed and b) an oversimplified half-truth even if it had been better laid out.

Some scientific fields are inevitably historical. Cosmology and paleontology, for example, both attempt to construct a complex narrative of the past based on theory-laden interpretation of indirect and incomplete evidence. If you don't consider the history of 10th-century France to be "scientific" or "based on physical evidence", then you really have to say the same about cosmology and paleontology. I don't consider that viewpoint to be particularly useful or accurate.

I do think it's worthwhile to understand the limitations of these narratives. They're always going to be provisional and uncertain. (We can't recreate the Civil War or evolve whales from land animmals or watch the Big Bang in a laboratory.) Furthermore, the story-telling aspect of the human psyche will always provide the temptation to put more into the narrative than we can really back up from the evidence. (See Henry Gee's In Search of Deep Time for some discussion of how this pertains to paleontology.)

Even laboratory-based, controlled, replicable experiments are often based on indirect evidence and a mountain of pre-existing theory. You can't walk into a physics laboratory and directly see the atomic orbitals of carbon. The most you might see are some numbers on an instrumental readout which, along with a ton of pre-existing data and theory, can be interpreted as saying something about the nature of atomic orbitals. The controlled, replicable nature of these experiments does offer many advantages in developing theories, but it can also be problematic in some fields for generalizing to the more complex world outside the laboratory. (See psychology for a prime example of this.)

None of this means that historically based investigations are "unscientific" or "not based on physical evidence". It does mean that our understanding of the world is always based on incomplete information, and we need to accept the limitations of what we know. Our knowledge of political events in Jerusalem 2000 years ago is less certain and complete than our knowledge of the American Civil War, which is less certain and complete than our knowledge of how fast a rock will fall if you drop it right now.
posted by tdismukes at 9:30 AM on June 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


Truly, given the subjective and inherently untrustworthy nature of the written historical record, can we even be certain that koeselitz exists?

I don't even know if these mashed potatoes are real!
posted by cereselle at 9:36 AM on June 28, 2010


Mondaygreens: Sorry to continue being a bit irrelevant, but actually, there was a movement in the late 20th Century (if you want references I can go flip through my bibliography for you) to attempt to bring history into the realm of science, a movement that I believe continues to this day. This is particularly because of the problems inherent in writing History (grand narratives) instead of history (an "objective" chronicle of the past): for example, the narrative creates main characters ("Freedom", "The Revolution", etc.) and hyper-values certain ideas or movements that may have not been so concrete at the time. There's also the problem of history's lacunae being filled in artificially, making it seem that periods from which we don't have very much information were just periods where not much happened (almost never the case!).

In response to the question how can history be scientific, it all comes down to human sciences (as opposed to hard sciences, it's really here where I disagree with our much-abused friend), which relies on a completely different kind of observation, as we know. Have you not noticed, for instance, that a lot of historical studies in recent times are not necessarily written chronologically, but more as groups of relevant information? And there are some who have decided to continue to write history as a narrative, but who have chosen to include an honest account of their work in the fabric of the story, i.e. "and here I can no longer find any information as to how the conference concluded", etc.

Now, I'm no historian, so I very well could be spouting nonsense, but color me convinced by one very clever professor of mine!
posted by Mooseli at 9:37 AM on June 28, 2010


Metafilter: I mostly just quietly gawk.
posted by cthuljew at 9:38 AM on June 28, 2010


If he wasn't (supposedly) crucified on a cross, then someone needs to learn what the word "crucifixion" actually means.

What term would the ancient Romans have used for the method of execution applied to the followers of Spartacus on the Appian Way?


Were they nailed to a cross? If so, then crucifixion. If not, pick a different word, or invent one.
posted by grubi at 9:39 AM on June 28, 2010


I read this in Schwarzenegger voice.

No love for the deep, ringing baritone of James Earl Jones?
posted by electroboy at 9:39 AM on June 28, 2010


It is amazing how much non-believers get worked up about other people's religions.

If this is really amazing to you, then you probably haven't been paying much attention to the political efforts of the U.S. evangelical movement in the past forty years and their use of the Bible as a literally true blueprint for how all of the rest of us should live.

/gay man
posted by darkstar at 9:42 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


We have reason to believe that Hillel existed, though, other than the desire of people to believe he existed. There is no reason to believe that there ever was a particular individual, Jesus Christ, who did the things attributed to him in the Bible, other than the desire of Christians for Jesus Christ to have been real. "I want" is not an epistemic statement.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:44 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


To clarify, I believe that the Jesus figure was probably put together as a composite of apocalyptic figures in the way that people get conflated when people are just telling stories instead of writing things down and paying close attention to detail. Ieshua might have been one of their names, or it might have just been a name that got attached to the stories.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:49 AM on June 28, 2010


In my view, the Christ myth theory is a “want,” the ultimate Western fantasy, as I mentioned above. The theory of evolution, which has replaced religion as the dominant popular superstition, can no more abide a purely human genius like Christ than could religion. The latter cast him into heaven, the former casts him out of history.
posted by No Robots at 9:49 AM on June 28, 2010


Were they nailed to a cross? If so, then crucifixion. If not, pick a different word, or invent one.

Not really. If, in the environs of Rome, the implement used was a cross, because there was lots of wood and money, that could have become the term for the method of execution. Then, out in a desert province, the same term could be used, even though they didn't have any wood or money, so they just used a stake.
posted by Trochanter at 9:50 AM on June 28, 2010


Did Jesus die on a cross?

Maybe not. Some people believe he died of natural causes at the age of 106 and is buried in Shingō, Aomori:

"When Jesus Christ was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33 and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ's preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross. His younger brother, Isukiri casually took christ's place and ended his life on the cross. Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village, and died at the age of 106. On this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri. The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ."

More details are available in Land of the Rising Son and The Japanese Jesus Trail.

If someone wants to believe he died on a tree and not a cross, power to them. If someone wants to believe he lived a long life in Japan, let them. Beliefs are personal. Who am I to tell another person what to believe?

If someone wants me to accept their version as fact, however, I kindly refer them to a popular meme (that may have been created by our very own Ptrin):

Pics or it didn’t happen.
posted by stringbean at 9:50 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


If, in the environs of Rome, the implement used was a cross, because there was lots of wood and money, that could have become the term for the method of execution. Then, out in a desert province, the same term could be used, even though they didn't have any wood or money, so they just used a stake.

Stakefixion.
posted by grubi at 9:51 AM on June 28, 2010


This is making my head hurt. I am heading to the library, they called and said that the new Phillip Pullman book I put on hold is finally in.
posted by cgk at 9:56 AM on June 28, 2010


We have reason to believe that Hillel existed, though, other than the desire of people to believe he existed

What reasons? Honest question - the only evidence that I'm aware of is from traditions only compiled and recorded far later (again taking the oral to written route). As Wikipedia puts it:

Nothing definite, however, is known concerning his origin, nor is he anywhere called by his father's name, which may have been Gamliel.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:58 AM on June 28, 2010


The theory of evolution, which has replaced religion as the dominant popular superstition, can no more abide a purely human genius like Christ than could religion. The latter cast him into heaven, the former casts him out of history.

Absurd. Even assuming that everything attributed to Jesus was said by him, there was almost nothing original in it.
posted by empath at 10:04 AM on June 28, 2010


Not everyone discerns the unique qualities of Christ. For many individuals, he must forever remain an unearthly enigma, to be, as I said, cast into heaven or stricken from history. For others, Christ's personality will remain an endless source of fascination. As Rabbi Hyman Gerson Enelow puts it in his book, A Jewish View of Jesus:
One to whom Jesus is but a miracle-monger, a controversialist on the obligatoriness or futility of the law, or a metaphysical concept, might neglect the study of his Jewish environment. But he to whom Jesus is the great dreamer, the spokesman of the spiritual ideal, the appraiser of the essential values of life, the man who discerned the difference between show and reality, between the fleeting and the eternal, and tried to fix the eyes of his fellow-men on the real and the eternal, — to such, an appreciation of the environment of Jesus is an inevitable prerequisite to an appreciation of Jesus himself.
There are many other such testimonials from free spirits of all kinds: Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists. Fortunately, we are free to choose with whom we would stand.
posted by No Robots at 10:16 AM on June 28, 2010


Fooled you all. It was really just a nasty bender.
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:17 AM on June 28, 2010


I can't believe the asshole things people are saying about koeselitz.

koeselitz was a full participant in creating the tone of, "No, YOU'RE stupid and wrong and don't understand history." He chose to fight a losing battle to the absurd reductionist end. I hope no one's feelings are hurt, but let's not have this fucking finger-wagging shit.

I'm all for a generous reading, especially for people who uh, put their cases far too strongly. But seriously: "No physical evidence exists in any form"? Oof. That's a hard one to sweep under the rug.
posted by fleacircus at 10:32 AM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


There's a lot to what languagehat's said: koeselitz is probably a model of Metafilter Member of Good Standing, and I'm not too pleased to see that other members that I also respect call him a troll because his points aren't immediately clear or because they're elementary or perceived as remedial.

There are a couple things that make discussion hard on metafilter. While (to pick an arbitrary example) Henry C. Mabuse and koeselitz might, given a direct conversation, come to some agreement or compromise, it's not as easy when there's 100 other voices blurring people's theses and opinions. We get comments like straight's, that reply to a rebuttal to koeselitz's challenge to name one, any one writer contemporaneous writer with Jesus. When HCM refers to Q, it's probably a clear sign that he knows that existing records aren't complete by any means, and thus implicit in his answer is a "as far as we know".

Finally, I think it's important to remember that most everyone here is an autodidact in some sense, and to make accommodations for them, and realize that this applies to you. Unless you're comfortable in disclosing your bona fides, it might be more civil to accept that you could stand to learn something from dissenting opinions.
posted by boo_radley at 10:36 AM on June 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


tdismukes: I do get (I think) the point that koeselitz was trying to make regarding the differences between historical evidence and scientific evidence. However, that point was a) poorly expressed and b) an oversimplified half-truth even if it had been better laid out.

I disagree. History and science are fundamentally very different things, with usually different forms of evidence, different methodologies, and different claims to knowledge. That doesn't mean that History isn't rigorous, just that it does something very different from biology and cosmology.

Some scientific fields are inevitably historical. Cosmology and paleontology, for example, both attempt to construct a complex narrative of the past based on theory-laden interpretation of indirect and incomplete evidence.

This is a big misunderstanding of how both fields work. The goal in science isn't to construct a narrative of a specific event, but a theory of how a large number of similar events might work. The fact that the Big Bang theory tells a narrative is just gravy, the purpose of the theory is to provide a framework for explaining a variety of disparate phenomena which we can observe in our current universe.

And in evolutionary biology, narratives are extremely problematic. Unless you can track gene and phenotype frequencies within a population in real time, you can't assert that two different fossils or living species have more than a "common ancestor" relationship. Perhaps Australopithicus was an ancestor of Homo, or perhaps there is an undiscovered common ancestor of both. Designating ancestor/descendant relationships is a speculative leap of interpretation, and the goal of unique cases is to evaluate and modify theories about how natural and/or sexual selection might work within a given problem.

History, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with explaining individual cases with as much detail as possible. While a cosmologist might generalize from a sample of hundreds of galaxies to estimate the mass of the neutrino to a degree that might be possible to verify with other experiments, a historian looking at WWII isn't going to find anything else that's similar enough to permit more than loose generalizations.

None of this means that historically based investigations are "unscientific" or "not based on physical evidence".

Well, here you are conflating two very different things. But history isn't science because it doesn't use the scientific method. And furthermore, advocates of qualitative research have taken huge pains carefully justify exactly why they are not doing so. That doesn't mean that historic evidence is less valuable than scientific evidence, but claiming the two are equivalent is rather ignorantly ignoring the five decades of methodological criticisms that have happened on this very issue.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:42 AM on June 28, 2010


> koeselitz was a full participant in creating the tone of, "No, YOU'RE stupid and wrong and don't understand history."

Really? Here's his first comment:
Before we get a lot of unfortunate comments like this from people who haven't read the article, let's please all note that this scholarship presupposes that the gospels are accurate. It consists in pointing out chiefly that the word used for "crucifixion" in the Bible does not actually appear to mean "crucifixion" but rather "hanging and/or nailing a person on a pole or other tall wooden apparatus."

Now I'm off to see what other links there are there, since the main FPP link is very, very weak sauce.
posted by koeselitz at 11:38 PM on June 27
I'm scrolling down from there and trying to find his "Bring it on, motherfuckers!!" moment, and not having much luck. Perhaps you could help me out.
posted by languagehat at 10:44 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a non-believer, I always approach these arguments with a big "Meh." Even if the case for the historic fact of Jesus was strong, his status as the son of God and the Messiah depend critically on both Genesis being true, and Noah and Moses wrong about God's covenant with mankind. Christian eschatology doesn't strike me as compatible with the prophetic tradition it retroactively claims.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:47 AM on June 28, 2010


it's not as easy when there's 100 other voices blurring people's theses and opinions

I would also add that expressions of incredulity don't really further the discussion, and are often the jumping off point for name calling. If you have to ask "are you REALLY saying ? Really???" then no, they probably aren't saying that. koeselitz may or may not have been saying anything relevant - his intentions still seem kind of vague at this point - but I really think the attempts to paint him as some sort of Holocaust denier are pretty much character assassination and no more.
posted by squeakyfromme at 10:53 AM on June 28, 2010


languagehat, things kinda build up starting with "Name one. Seriously, name just one." It's not a BIOMF moment, but that's like the opening chords of dueling banjos on the internet, and marks to my mind where things got fighty. Not blaming koeselitz, just saying.

For being what it is, communicating on the internet is hard.
posted by boo_radley at 10:56 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Does this mean Mel Gibson is going to have to redo "Passion"?
posted by mazola at 11:00 AM on June 28, 2010


This community never fails to impress and to infuriate me, usually at the same time and in just about equal measure.
posted by kryptondog at 11:10 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


> languagehat, things kinda build up starting with "Name one. Seriously, name just one."

Yeah, that's true, and he was being a little pushy, but still, the leap from there to the kind of shit people were dumping on him is a huge one. I just would have expected/hoped that a well-respected poster who'd been around a long time would have gotten a little more benefit of the doubt. "You're ignorant/a troll/stupid" is not ordinary MeFi snark, and it's not a useful way to interact.
posted by languagehat at 11:10 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened? That Elizabeth was ever the Queen of England? Honestly, no physical evidence for any of these things exists in any form.

I haven't finished the thread, but this stopped me cold in my tracks. I have to say that you embarrass yourself here. You are profoundly, shamefully ignorant of so many subjects at the same time it is assaulting.

You may want to speak with your healthcare provider because you have stumbled into borderline dementia. And I'm not joking, and I'm not being funny. To say we have no evidence that the Civil War happened is someone who is bordering on losing touch with reality and needs to have an intervention.

You are well known around here, but this is somewhat akin to finding out one of your friends is actually a deep-seated racist or that your brother has turned into a devoted bigfoot hunter.

You have basically lost all credibility in this forum. I will never look at anything you posit ever again with an unjaundiced eye. I imagine I am not alone in this assessment.

On preview, I did try to look for some sort of respite from this ridiculous assertion, but all I saw was languagehat basically defending him because he's been here a long time, he's a nice fella, and that clearly wasn't what he meant, with a nice dose of condescension thrown in, which of course is how we know its really languagehat and not someone who stole his account.

Until koeselitz retracts his own statement, and admits he went off the rails in blind pursuit of some sort of ridiculous pedantic point that had no application to anyone except himself and his misconstrued understanding, I cannot trust his input any further and have to dismiss him as an unreliable and perhaps bad faith commenter.

I really think a full retraction is the only reasonable solution to this.

Sorry guy, you seem alright, but this is quite literally Crazy Talk, and just having the bully of the playground stand up for you ain't gonna cut it.
posted by discountfortunecookie at 11:19 AM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


"You will have a summer. Your lucky number is pineapple."

What the hell does that mean? You're awful, this is awful.
posted by boo_radley at 11:26 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


"You're ignorant/a troll/stupid" is not ordinary MeFi snark, and it's not a useful way to interact.

I dunno. Sometimes smart people say stupid things. He made some outrageously stupid comments in this thread. I'm not sure how people are supposed to respond, other than to call them what they are. I've said some pretty dumb stuff on metafilter from time to time, and I've been called on it. That's just the way things go here.
posted by empath at 11:27 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


So the mnemonic device of choice was the well-known tale, twisted in a particular way.

This sounds like everything I've seen on TV or at the Movies or read in a book in my life. Are you sure we're so different?
posted by ServSci at 11:28 AM on June 28, 2010


I don't see what's outrageous about the following:
This is all I meant in my now-infamous "no physical evidence" statement: that through purely physical means, it is not only impossible but inconceivable that we might detect exactly what happened in this or that so-called historical event.
You can't describe the Civil War or the reign of Elizabeth I (or Elizabeth II) through entirely physical evidence because they are socially-constructed political and legal realities. Counting bodies or bullets in battlefield graves won't necessarily tell you who fought whom in the Civil War and why. Identifying the Queen of England requires interpretation of socially-mediated symbols and documents. You can't, along the same lines of the science fiction Doctor or Philip K. Dick, feel or measure the historicity of an object.

It's not an outrageous thing to say about the methods of history when advocates of history have said exactly the same thing with passionate and well-reasoned arguments as to why history isn't a science and shouldn't necessarily be tied to science as a methodology.

empath: Sometimes smart people say stupid things. He made some outrageously stupid comments in this thread.

I'm having trouble spotting them.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:47 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


And regardless, accusing someone of dementia for a distinction that many people in history and the social sciences actively embrace is beyond the pale in terms of debate.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:53 AM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


You have basically lost all credibility in this forum.

Well, thanks for making it all official-like.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:55 AM on June 28, 2010


discountedfortunecookie, all you saw in what you bothered to skim before demanding a retraction and maligning a person as demented and in need of intervention was languagehat saying that the poster in question's been here a long time? You think the one sentence you pasted makes him like a racist? God damn.

Koeselitz’s last response to clarify what he meant, and then -
Mooseli, myself and several other people explaining what we think he meant: here, here, here and here and here, and here, and here.

Your hasty interpretation is not only not the only one on this thread, it's narrow and mean-spirited and downright wrong. I will not look at anything you post in the future with a jaundiced eye or think you're just a mean person in general. You're just totally wrong and mean about this. For future reference, read words fully before judging, and don't judge people.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:02 PM on June 28, 2010


He phrased a interesting, legitimate point of view horrifically poorly, now please lay off of him.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 12:04 PM on June 28, 2010


Sorry, wrong kind of quotes on those links. Here:

Koeselitz’s response
Mooseli, myself and others: here, here, here and here and here, and here, and here.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:09 PM on June 28, 2010


Kirk: I want to see some evidence from you that historians would say there is no physical evidence for the Civil War. That is what he said. He said, quote:

Do you really think that there's physical evidence that any particular historical event before two hundred years ago occurred at all?

Then further he said:

What physical evidence do we have that the Civil War occurred? That the Crusades happened? That the Black Plague happened? That Elizabeth was ever the Queen of England? Honestly, no physical evidence for any of these things exists in any form. [emphasis added]

NO physical evidence of ANY historical event, ever? EVER?

Also, his statement would imply he believes there IS physical evidence of things that have happened in the last 200 years. What in this weird realm of imaginary usage of the term "physical evidence" would be different?

From his rhetorical vantage point, giving him a preposterous amount of benefit of the doubt, there is no physical evidence that anything has ever happened, ever. How do you prove what happened yesterday?

And that's even forgiving the comments about there being no contemporary observers of Jerusalem in the supposed time of Jesus, which honestly were the catalyst for this whole thing.

He painted himself into a semantic and logistic corner, and refused to cry "uncle" and instead spouted clear nonsense that anyone would regret.

That's the long and short of it.

On preview: someone denying physical evidence of the Civil War would indeed be a sign of dementia. You can walk up and touch it with your own hands in numerous locations around the United States.

It would be like someone who denies the moon landing, except they can actually walk around the moon and touch the lander and the flag and the rover with their own hands.
posted by discountfortunecookie at 12:11 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


If it's impossible for the most careful scientists among us to say through physical observation where an atom is at the beginning and the ending of a tiny, very carefully measured experiment, how in the world can we expect to say anything coherent about what happened hundreds of years ago through purely physical means? This is all I meant in my now-infamous "no physical evidence" statement: that through purely physical means, it is not only impossible but inconceivable that we might detect exactly what happened in this or that so-called historical event.

I think that's much clearer. koeselitz's point has to do with the type of PRECISION scientists aspired to when studying the atom. Given that we can't get perfect precision even in looking at samples that are right in front of us, we can't hope to have precision when trying to figure out exactly what happened (i.e., which atoms were where) 2000 years ago. Okay, I think that's very plausible.

It's not what we usually mean when we talk about "physcial evidence" in history, because we are usually looking for a much broader view of what happened - we're not interested in which atoms were precisely where, we're interested in whether there was a battle or a person, at roughly the time we expect, in roughly the place we expect. I think this is why people misunderstood what koeselitz said about "no physical evidence" - he was talking about a level of precision of evidence that we don't normally seek in history, and saying that we're right not to seek it, because we can't get it.

But he wasn't saying we can't do history, and he wasn't saying we should not believe the Civil War happened.

So - how does this relate to the question about whether Jesus was a real guy? I think this point came up in response to people who were saying "there's no evidence he DID exist, and the burden of proof is on the people who want to say he did".

I imagine the reply is supposed to go like this: Look, there's some evidence from shortly after his death (text written 20 years or so later), and we think those texts are relying on earlier sources, and that's pretty fair evidence. If you really want to ramp up the burden of proof, and the level of precision you're requiring before you'll believe in something, you will end up in the absurd situation where you won't accept evidence of any historical event. But that's a hard-scientific standard of proof; it's an appropriate standard of evidence for science but not for history, because in history the types of evidence we have to rely on are different.

So the conclusion is, don't write off the evidence of texts that come 20 years after his death. Yes they're imperfect evidence and it would be nice if we had better evidence from his lifetime, but the fact that the texts come from shortly after his death still counts for something, and often in history that's as close as we can get.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:11 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


You can't describe the Civil War or the reign of Elizabeth I (or Elizabeth II) through entirely physical evidence because they are socially-constructed political and legal realities. Counting bodies or bullets in battlefield graves won't necessarily tell you who fought whom in the Civil War and why.

Who ever said it was possible? However, if you're going to suggest that the historical accounts of, for example, the Civil War are accurate, you should also believe that if one were to go to Antietam, that one should be able to find historical evidence of a battle there, and that the lack of such evidence should cast some doubt that the accounts are true, and that existence of physical evidence should reinforce the veracity of the historical record. Obviously as one goes further back into history, the physical record will likely become more scant, but for important events in history, they are generally backed up by extensive physical evidence.
posted by empath at 12:11 PM on June 28, 2010


Well, thanks for making it all official-like.

Slow down a sec, cowboy. He still hasn't filled out the requisite paperwork nor gotten it stamped and signed by the notary we store in MetaBasement.
posted by grubi at 12:12 PM on June 28, 2010


The title of this thread keeps getting funnier.
posted by Trochanter at 12:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


> On preview: someone denying physical evidence of the Civil War would indeed be a sign of dementia. You can walk up and touch it with your own hands in numerous locations around the United States.


Hey, congrats on not grokking what he was on about. And double good for being so douchey when making your misguided point!
posted by Burhanistan at 12:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Identifying the Queen of England requires interpretation of socially-mediated symbols and documents.

How is this in any way a useful conception? It is axiomatic that all our understanding requires interpretation of data. "Identifying" Elizabeth I from documents she wrote is no different from identifying, say, the President of the USA from speeches he wrote. The fact that he is alive today and she is not does not affect the need for interpretation. If you say we cannot ever know the past (true so far as it goes) you must also say we cannot ever know the present either for the same reasons.
posted by binturong at 12:14 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Setting aside the derail of discussing a particular MeFite, as I think we should, this debate reminds me of previous attempts by Mormons to find an archaeological confirmation of the historical veracity of the Book of Mormon. Although there are quite a few Mormons who do believe that the archaeological record does indeed support the historicity of the Book, there's been a lot less emphasis (and funding) by the LDS of digs and other projects recently.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:17 PM on June 28, 2010


Made me think of rood, one of my favourite words from early Anglo-Saxon devotional poetry (IIRC), which wiki tells me is indeed a word for a pole and "originally the only Old English word for the instrument of Jesus Christ's death."
posted by Abiezer at 12:22 PM on June 28, 2010


KirkJobSluder - "I disagree. History and science are fundamentally very different things, with usually different forms of evidence, different methodologies, and different claims to knowledge. That doesn't mean that History isn't rigorous, just that it does something very different from biology and cosmology."

I don't actually think that history and science are exactly the same thing. I do think that practitioners of those sciences which seek to identify and explain events that happened a long time ago are working under many of the same constraints as historians when they try to determine what happened based on the available evidence. koeselitz made the rather strong claim that we don't have "physical evidence" of the Civil War because we can't watch the actual event in the laboratory. I'm simply pointing out that if you want to claim that we have more physical evidence for whales evolving from land animals then we do for the Civil War, then you have stretched the term "physical evidence" out of all recognition.

"The goal in science isn't to construct a narrative of a specific event, but a theory of how a large number of similar events might work. ... History, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with explaining individual cases with as much detail as possible."

In general, I suppose you're right. However, there are plenty of individual cosmologists, geologists, and evolutionary biologists who have devoted their careers to figuring out those specific events while leaving someone else to construct the bigger picture theory of those large number of similar events. (In the case of the Big Bang, it's highly debatable whether there ever were any similar events.)

Also, I suspect it would be a mistake for all scientists to be exclusively concerned with finding these universal laws to explain a large number of events. Physics has been very sucessful in explaining a great deal with a fairly small number of universal laws. That doesn't mean this success can be duplicated in all domains of scientific knowledge. Evolutionary biology has one great overreaching theory (natural selction) which explains a great deal, but it also deals with a huge number of historically contigent events. If a biologist tries to explain all those historically contigent occurances exclusively in terms of the big theory, I think that's a problem.

"And in evolutionary biology, narratives are extremely problematic."

Henry Gee makes this very point in "In Search of Deep Time, which I referenced earlier. Nevertheless, I've read plenty of books by well-regarded evolutionary biologists which do explicitly lay out these narratives. You might believe that to be a mistake on their parts, but they are indisputably scientists laying out narratives.


"That doesn't mean that historic evidence is less valuable than scientific evidence, but claiming the two are equivalent is rather ignorantly ignoring the five decades of methodological criticisms that have happened on this very issue.
"

Do you have any recommendations for books which discuss the differences between scientific and historical methods or which review some of these five decades of methodological criticism? That sounds like the sort of thing I would enjoy reading up on. (I've read a certain amount regarding the scientific method, but not so much on historical methods and nothing comparing/constrasting the two.)
posted by tdismukes at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2010


It's a view that I first encountered in J. H. Hexter. But the knee-jerk reaction here makes me want to beat people with my volume of The Handbook of Qualitative Research

discountfortunecookie: Why are you dredging up earlier statements that he admitted were sloppy and not addressing his later statements?

But no, you can't use battlefield artifacts to support the theory that the Civil War started when states passed Ordinances of Secession, seized United States military installations, and ended with the surrender at Appomattox Court House.

This narrative can't be derived from anthropological analysis of battlefield remains, which will only tell you how and where people died, and possibly what they had with them at the time. You can't infer from the physical remains the legal and political circumstances. You can use the legal and political documentation to provide an explanatory framework for the physical remains. You can't do the reverse.

On preview: someone denying physical evidence of the Civil War would indeed be a sign of dementia. You can walk up and touch it with your own hands in numerous locations around the United States.

He doesn't deny that evidence exists. He points out that evidence doesn't do much to create the kinds of narratives on which historical narratives are created. We can point at Trojan War scholarship as a great example where such evidence is treated with profound skepticism. We have evidence that settlements approximately where Homer places Troy were sacked repeatedly. This doesn't necessarily confirm Homer's record as a historian of Agamemnon's military campaign.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:39 PM on June 28, 2010


Jesus always seems to bring out the best in people, doesn't he?
posted by scalefree at 12:43 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Jesus always seems to bring out the best in people, doesn't he?

Matthew 10:34, etc.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:45 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


[few comments removed - folks you're taking a so-so post and making it worse. If there's a MeTa thread that needs to be made, go make it. thank you]
posted by jessamyn at 12:46 PM on June 28, 2010


To follow up on my last question, I'd be particularly interested in any books or other materials laying out methodological differences between history and what you might call "historical" sciences (cosmology, paleontology, geology, archeology, evolutionary biology, etc). Most overviews of the scientific method default to describing laboratory-based sciences where controlled experiments are possible. It's easy to show the differences between the methods of chemistry and history. I'd be interested in an examination of the differences between the methods of paleontology and history, with an explanation of why one is more scientific than the other.


KirkJobSluder - "It's not an outrageous thing to say about the methods of history when advocates of history have said exactly the same thing with passionate and well-reasoned arguments as to why history isn't a science and shouldn't necessarily be tied to science as a methodology."

I'm curious - who were these advocates of history arguing against? Other historians? Scientists? I'd be interested in hearing the other side of the argument as well.
posted by tdismukes at 12:52 PM on June 28, 2010


binturong: How is this in any way a useful conception? It is axiomatic that all our understanding requires interpretation of data. "Identifying" Elizabeth I from documents she wrote is no different from identifying, say, the President of the USA from speeches he wrote.

Of course identifying Elizabeth I as head of state is no different from identifying Barack Obama as head of state. That's not at issue here.

But let's break things down to basics:

Science creates generalizations based on analysis of data which has ideally been homogenized by minimizing the impact of extraneous variables.

History creates rich descriptions of singular events based on triangulation of multiple forms of data, much of which might be biased and unreliable.

Documentary evidence isn't physical evidence, and noting that the two are different and need to be handled differently isn't a radical notion in looking at history and other social sciences. Of course everyone agrees that Elizabeth I was Queen of England. But historical claims about Elizabeth I are not necessarily scientific ones.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2010


KirkJobSluder - was your mention of J. H. Hexter in response to my question? The Amazon link doesn't give any details about what the book is about.
posted by tdismukes at 12:58 PM on June 28, 2010


He points out that evidence doesn't do much to create the kinds of narratives on which historical narratives are created.

Yesterday I thought this is what his point was. But in light of his most recent comment, I think it isn't. (Though I think this is a perfectly fair point, maybe even a better point to raise in the context of figuring out whether there was a historical guy Jesus; and we could talk about whether scientific evidence needs the same kind of story-building interpretation.)

I think his point is about the standards of precision used in studying the atom -- I think he used the term "physical evidence" to mean something like "evidence that would be accepted by someone studying fundamental physics, like atoms etc". I.e., he didn't mean evidence like bullets, clothing, photos, etc. He meant evidence that would let us pin down which atoms were where (so we're doomed to a certain amount of uncertainty at the micro level). And probably we all accept that we can't get that kind of precise evidence for historical events.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:58 PM on June 28, 2010


I believe Elvis was Jesus (to which my profile pic will attest.) Prove me wrong.
posted by ob at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2010


tdismukes: Well, there are a couple of issues at hand here, and I have to admit I'm going from memory.

Hexter particularly had a bone to pick with Marxism, but in general his view was that attempting to perform history as a reductionistic factor analysis to figuring out some mechanism that explains both the Roman Empire and Hitler was largely a futile endeavor and misses the point.

The Grounded Theory folks argue that while science is great at hypothesis testing, it's not very good at systematic hypothesis formation especially in looking at complex or singular events. This is generally the thrust of the qualitative criticism of science in regards to human activities or behavior.

Because trying to minimize error by controlling extraneous variables is difficult to do in naturalistic settings, qualitative research focuses on credibility and triangulation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:04 PM on June 28, 2010


I just saw jessamyn's post on preview of a long post and nixed it. I also just exchanged some memail with koeselitz, who, like everyone says, is a nice fella. In fact I would say exemplary.

First, am I being a jerk? Yes. And I'll be happy to say that my fervor got the best of me and made me angry and made me be verbally aggressive, and I am sorry for it. So koeselitz, I apologize for my tone and my aggression. I do not apologize for calling out your comment, because it is still flat out wrong.

I made the sadly common error that I should be past by now of forgetting that there is a real person on the other end of that username, and I regret it.

He doesn't deny that evidence exists.

Kirk, I simply see it otherwise, because he most certainly did say exactly that. In fact, he said it verbatim. Twice. I have no evidence that he didn't say exactly what he meant. Why this ex post twisting of what he said into what you wished that he said? If you respect him, why not allow him to make his own points, and allow his own words to stand?

There is the distinct impression in this thread that the people defending him are not defending a viewpoint, but a person. I don't cotton to that on MeFi, and I always thought others didn't either.
posted by discountfortunecookie at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


We get comments like straight's, that reply to a rebuttal to koeselitz's challenge to name one, any one writer contemporaneous writer with Jesus.

I'm sorry if that came across as a drive-by non sequitur. I was trying to make a serious point about the general argument that Henry C. Mabuse and others were making about the so-called "silence" of contemporary authors about Jesus.

We don't have anything like complete collections of the works of such ancient authors. Google is failing my fact-checking here but I believe the oldest copies of Philo are hundreds of years after he wrote. Our oldest copies of the gospels are much older and closer to the original events (and even those are at least a generation removed). The oldest Greek manuscripts of Josephus date to the 10th century, almost a thousand years after he wrote them.

Regardless of the exact details, some of Philo has probably been lost or altered and we have no way of knowing how much. For all we know he wrote a bunch of stuff about Jesus, none of which survived.

So my point is, given the extremely fragmentary record we have of the period, it seems really silly to argue that Jesus probably didn't exist because we don't find him mentioned by writers of his time period.
posted by straight at 1:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


BTW, KirKJobSluder, if I'm understanding you correctly you seem to be interpreting koeselitz's argument as simply saying that if we excluded all documentary evidence (including eyewitness accounts and photographs) and had to work strictly from physical remains the we would have a very limited understanding of the Civil War. We could tell that some people fought and died (and approximately when), but we wouldn't know who they were or what they were fighting for.

If you're correct, that is certainly an uncontroversial statement. I can't imagine anyone here would argue with it.

If that's what he meant, however, he did a remarkably poor job expressing it. It's not surprising that people would argue with what he appeared to be saying. That's okay. We all have days when we can't seem to get across what we mean.
posted by tdismukes at 1:14 PM on June 28, 2010


discountfortunecookie: "There is the distinct impression in this thread that the people defending him are not defending a viewpoint, but a person. "

People are defending the man, because people have been attacking the man, not what he said. I'm not going to hash this out in detail (again), but the short form is that koeselitz has said enough credible, intelligent things here that it's clear to me that the problem isn't in the man, but how things are being said. If things were more clearly "this is a 'what-you-said' thing and not a 'what-you-are' thing", there'd be fewer crabulent comments overall, and a smaller mod headache.
posted by boo_radley at 1:18 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Kubrick's ghost is not amused.
posted by meehawl at 1:19 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, people. I was kind of trying to abide by a little promise to myself elsewhere to take time off, but I don't want this to go further south, so... well, here. A few clarifications: (a) discountfortunecookie is cool. No ill will there. You'll notice I favorited her/his last comment; if anyone's wondering why, see favoriting reason number four (and maybe a little bit of number six, but that's just because I like fortune cookies in general.) If anybody thinks I'm insane, I hope they respect me enough to say so. I'm glad discountfortunecookie did. (b) I'm not retracting my position; if I changed my opinion every time someone said they thought I was insane, I'd probably break Twitter. (c) Summary feelings at the end of all this: at the time I was quite vexed by the Thousand Sighs of Doctor Mabuse, but honestly we were riffing back and forth, and I probably should have taken it in that spirit, given that I dished it out just as well. Sorry to smoke, whose comment I shouldn't have used to make a stupid point. Most of all, I really am sorry to empath, whose thread I really and truly jacked; "I didn't mean to" is weak shit, even if it's true. I owe you more than one - at least two or three.

On preview:

Wow, discountfortunecookie – thanks. And seriously, I mean it when I say it's behind me. It really doesn't bother me; and I value your directness and honesty much more than I would simple "niceness" or comforting lies.

Finally:

tdismukes: “If that's what he meant, however, he did a remarkably poor job expressing it. It's not surprising that people would argue with what he appeared to be saying. That's okay. We all have days when we can't seem to get across what we mean.”

Yeah, that's what I meant; and yes, I did a terrible job of saying what I meant. Yesterday was indeed a very strange and vexing day for me, but I don't intend to flame out quite like this again any time soon.
posted by koeselitz at 1:24 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


nah, you don't need to apologize to me, i enjoy threads like these.
posted by empath at 1:31 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


"The Grounded Theory folks argue that while science is great at hypothesis testing, it's not very good at systematic hypothesis formation especially in looking at complex or singular events. This is generally the thrust of the qualitative criticism of science in regards to human activities or behavior. "

I hadn't heard of Grounded Theory before. The Wikipedia entry looks interesting, I'll have to do some research into it.

If I'm reading the entry correctly, though, this is a movement within science, in particular the social sciences. Is that correct? If so, how does it relate to the delineation of the line between history and science? Or is this in response to my question concerning who the advocates of history were arguing against?

Regarding the scientific method. I have a suspicion that by the time you can come up with a definition of the scientific method which is broad enough to encompass all the real life methods used in chemistry, physics, paleontology, social psychology, cosmology, meteorology, evolutionary biology and everything else that might be considered science, you end up with a very abstract concept which presides over a domain with rather fuzzy boundaries. I'm not certain that those boundaries are free of overlap with the domain of history.
posted by tdismukes at 1:33 PM on June 28, 2010


discountfortunecookie: I have no evidence that he didn't say exactly what he meant. Why this ex post twisting of what he said into what you wished that he said? If you respect him, why not allow him to make his own points, and allow his own words to stand?

Perhaps it's because I've spent way more money than is prudent on courses that discuss the philosophical and methodological considerations that underly considerations of different kinds of methods and evidence. So I pretty quickly understood exactly what he was trying to say.

Furthermore, you have no grounds to complain about "twisting" his words when you 1) dishonestly dropped the key qualifier "physical" to imply that k. said no evidence at all, and 2) keep braying "he wrote it twice" when he gave a clear and relatively uncontroversial explanation of what he meant by that. This makes you not only a jerk, but a probably dishonest and certainly mistaken jerk.

But, that's the limits I'll go to in defending k. from a jerk.

There is the distinct impression in this thread that the people defending him are not defending a viewpoint, but a person. I don't cotton to that on MeFi, and I always thought others didn't either.

Well no. I'm defending the point of view that by necessity, physical science methods often have very little to say about historical narratives. Thus far, you've not offered much for your bold statement that such a view is just plain wrong beyond a very ugly and nasty personal attack on a person who expressed it.

So, to what degree are advocates of qualitative research methodologies as important to the field of history just plain wrong enough to inspire such frothing outrage?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:34 PM on June 28, 2010


Wha... ?

I came to this thread for persecution and crucifixion, not reconciliation!
posted by mazola at 1:36 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


There is the distinct impression in this thread that the people defending him are not defending a viewpoint, but a person.

I think it's a principle of charity in interpretation, and it's based on knowing a little about the person from having seen him around Mefi for a long time. For my part I know that koeselitz generally has something worthwhile in mind. So even if he says something that seems laughable to first glance, I was assuming that there was a coherent viewpoint behind what he said, and was trying to sort out what that might be based on what he had said.

"Well, he can't mean that the Civil War was a hoax, so what could he mean that would be reasonable?" rather than "What kind of idiot are you, since you believe the Civil War was a hoax?"
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:36 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


tdimukes: Oh, you can use the scientific method in history. But you can't say that history is necessarily science and therefore, all historic claims say the same things as scientific claims. The strength of Kahn's Codebreakers or Laquer's A Cultural History of Masturbation rely on triangulating disparate sources to support their narratives rather than their powers of generalization.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:44 PM on June 28, 2010


"Oh, you can use the scientific method in history. But you can't say that history is necessarily science and therefore, all historic claims say the same things as scientific claims."

I certainly wouldn't argue with that - especially with emphasis on "necessarily" and "all".

BTW - If you (or anyone else with an appropriate background in methodological issues) happen to come up with answers to my other questions above, I'll gladly reward the comment with a favorite. I suppose I could use an AskMe question to gather information on the subject, but I need to use my question this week for a tech support issue.
posted by tdismukes at 2:13 PM on June 28, 2010


I came to this thread for persecution and crucifixion

Persefixion.

Crucicution.
posted by grubi at 2:20 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pedantic racists are going to be leaving the KKK in droves.
posted by ob at 2:32 PM on June 28, 2010


Having to have proof for something to exist is kinda the opposite of faith, isn't it? Faith means you believe without proof.
Don't look at me that way. I'm an agnostic and therefore neutral on this subject. But I do think that all the quibbing about scientific theory and historical records mean dick to a die-hard Christian.
posted by From the Fortress at 2:34 PM on June 28, 2010


Speaking as a pastor here, after having read koeselitz and the rest, I guess my response is still, "who cares?"
In one of our church book groups, we're reading Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God." This is probably my most scholarly group - we regularly tackle source material and they're a pretty fearless group of progressive Christians. We're only through the fourth chapter - and already she has laid out the case, once again, that the historical events surrounding Jesus are questionable and church politics have long poisoned the canonical well, so to speak. One of the folks marveled at yet another academic attempting to dissuade people from reading the bible literally - "The people who take canon literally will never read this book! She's grinding her axe in a room full of axe grinders!" In reality, progressive Christians are just as guilty as conservatives in attempting to justify their current agenda based on accounts and reconstructions of the "historical" Jesus. (See, for example, the nauseating pomposity and general tomfoolery of the Jesus seminars.)
Who cares? Is some first century Palestinian rabbi going to haul you out of your entitlement and self-inflicted trauma, or is Christ going to do it?
It's a fun game to play - to imagine that one group is worshiping Jesus "properly" because they feel they have a monopoly on the "original intent."
I prefer Naim Ateek's approach in "Justice," he writes about how he doesn't need the history, the archaeology, the genealogy and all the rest of it to know that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is an affront to God. He knows God. And God saved his life. And that's good enough for him to step up to the pulpit and speak the truth. His experience of God's grace and goodness is sufficient for him to claim prophetic witness.
So what if Jesus never existed? It has practically zero bearing on my daily labors as a pastor. If this causes you a painful degree of cognitive dissonance, "How the hell can someone worship a man when there's no proof he ever existed?" then I apologize - but for me and for many of my faith family members - the important part isn't really the history.
It's the community - the sense of kinship - the feeling that we love another unconditionally and are unconditionally loved by someone wholly other than ourselves and that love can never, ever be taken away - no matter how shitty things get.
That's good enough to inspire prophetic voices and give rise to profound faith experiences. Since we worship a still-speaking God, we try to be attentive to God's voice in our lives, and sometimes it doesn't line up with the canon. (I've done more than my fair share of same-sex marriage ceremonies where Biblical texts were used, I don't know how brother Paul would feel about this but frankly I don't give a damn.)
God is still speaking, we'll never have a historical record that's truly worth its salt, and it doesn't matter because when we come together on Sunday we experience something transcendent. Sorry for the rant.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:59 PM on June 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


I came to this thread for persecution and crucifixion, not reconciliation!

Sorry, this is reconciliation! Persecution and crucifixion are down the-

*is beaten senseless by the Quote Police*
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:04 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: "I thought it would be obvious from the context, but I'm not trying to say that history is illogical or irrational, or that history is based entirely on faith, or that history is some kind of religion."

Dude, next thing you'll be telling me that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery, that those organisations that outlast all others get to write the accepted history, and that we can't trust any religious people's stories about who did what, to whom, or when.
posted by meehawl at 3:12 PM on June 28, 2010


> I don't intend to flame out quite like this again any time soon.

You call that a flameout? Bah, I've seen better flameouts on knitting blogs.

posted by languagehat at 3:26 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's the community - the sense of kinship - the feeling that we love another unconditionally and are unconditionally loved by someone wholly other than ourselves and that love can never, ever be taken away - no matter how shitty things get.

So why the church and not a bar?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:52 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


FAITH

Son: Dad, where do people go when they die?
Dad: Some Christians go to Heaven. Most of them will go to hell to suffer and burn for all eternity.
Son: Why?
Dad: Because God wants them worship his Son, who he killed.
Son: Who is his son?
Dad: He is his own son.
posted by mullingitover at 4:22 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Jesus always seems to bring out the best in people, doesn't he?

"For two thousand years, Jesus has revenged himself upon us for not having died on a sofa."- E.M. Cioran

I actually don't have quite such a negative opinion of Christianity myself, but given both the topic and the general trend of this thread, that quote seemed appropriate in so many ways...
posted by a louis wain cat at 5:23 PM on June 28, 2010


I've seen better flameouts on knitting blogs.

Reminds me of the time Daphne Rose of Mooloolaba blogged her experiments with synthetic yarn on custom steel & flint knitting needles.

posted by UbuRoivas at 5:30 PM on June 28, 2010


Christ, what a beanpole.
posted by effluvia at 6:05 PM on June 28, 2010


AdamCSnider: "he was a carpenter"

I always like the theory that during Jesus' lost middle years he work as a carpenter building crucifixion crosses for the Romans, and then later rebelled against the suffering this occupation caused and was then hoisted on his own petard. If he was just nailed to a tree then that ruins this story.

Though there is little evidence that he was a carpenter. One gospel says he was a carpenter while the corresponding text in another says he was the son of a carpenter, and none of his "wisdom" uses carpentry or building metaphors.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:11 PM on June 28, 2010


none of his "wisdom" uses carpentry or building metaphors.

"The wise man built his house on a rock..."

"First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your neighbour’s eye."

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?"
posted by straight at 11:04 PM on June 28, 2010


All I can say is, this is going to play merry hell with the Union Jack.
posted by Phanx at 11:31 PM on June 28, 2010


Did carpenters in those days have anything to do with building? Because I'd be guessing that adobe was the main building material, not some kind of wooden or wood-framed structure, and most buildings would only include any wood to the extent that doors & lintels were required.

Of course, at least part of the answer would be found in the archaeological record.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:33 PM on June 28, 2010


One gospel says he was a carpenter while the corresponding text in another says he was the son of a carpenter

If your dad was a carpenter, you'd probably be trained to be a carpenter, wouldn't you? I could see this Jesus dude (probably smarter and more articulate than his father) being raised a carpenter, maybe halfheartedly practicing the family business, but not really taking to the whole blue-collar thing and eventually wandering off to make a living with his mouth. He might claim to be a common carpenter and the son of a common carpenter, just as modern politicians like to assert their common roots, but he bootstrapped himself up and out of his poor background to become a big star on the evangelical circuit.
posted by pracowity at 12:02 AM on June 29, 2010


"If your dad was a carpenter, you'd probably be trained to be a carpenter"

Maybe, though in Jesus' reported "wisdom" I find little framed in terms of building or carpentry metaphors. This is contrasted to the Masonics where much internal symbolism has leaked out to the general public in terms of phrases like "are you square", "you are one the level", "you are plumb right".
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:54 AM on June 29, 2010


This is contrasted to the Masonics where much internal symbolism has leaked out to the general public in terms of phrases like "are you square", "you are one the level", "you are plumb right".

Are you joking?
posted by empath at 6:08 AM on June 29, 2010


When people nitpick over whether Jesus existed or not, or even how he was crucified, worrying whether he was a carpenter or not seems somewhat of less importance.
posted by Atreides at 6:24 AM on June 29, 2010


When people nitpick over whether Jesus existed or not, or even how he was crucified, worrying whether he was a carpenter or not seems somewhat of less importance.

Who knew, for instance, that Odysseus was also a carpenter?
posted by Brian B. at 6:41 AM on June 29, 2010


As far as that's concerned, even if Jesus did exist, surely debating whether his crucifixion pole had a crossbeam has to rank right up there in nitpickiness with how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

If this is how easy it is to get doctorates in Sweden, maybe I went to grad school in the wrong country.



/not Swedenist
posted by darkstar at 8:18 AM on June 29, 2010


On the surface, sure, it seems stupid to care what sort of cross he might have been hoisted up on (if he existed, etc., etc.), but it's the central symbol of a giant religion, so it is worth having a close look at. If it turns out Jesus was more likely nailed to a tree trunk -- if you can show that convincingly to Christians -- this research is going to be of interest to about two billion people.
posted by pracowity at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2010


"The wise man built his house on a rock..."

"First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your neighbour’s eye."

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?"


These don't prove Jesus was a carpenter. An architect, yes, and maybe also an ophthalmologiest.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:05 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Of course it doesn't, infinitywaltz. I was just calling out MonkeySaltedNuts for his "Jesus never used carpentry or building metaphors."

(Or maybe he meant that those are all passages that the Jesus Seminar has blackballed.)
posted by straight at 2:12 PM on June 29, 2010


Oh, I know, straight. I just thought it was funny to be all like "THE TEXT CLEARLY STATES HE WAS, IF ANYTHING, AN OPHTHALMOLOGIST."
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:41 PM on June 29, 2010


Actually, the text states he was the SON of an ophthalmologist. Hence we get the "eye" of the needle proverb.
posted by Atreides at 3:45 PM on June 29, 2010


infinitywaltz: "These don't prove Jesus was a carpenter. An architect, yes, and maybe also an ophthalmologiest."

Jesus, you're the ophthalmologiest!
posted by boo_radley at 9:20 AM on June 30, 2010


You're righteous
You're righteous
You're righteous
You're always so right
There you are nailing a good tree
Then say forgive me, forgive me
Why
posted by bwg at 11:55 PM on July 5, 2010


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