Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dissimilarity, Plausibility, and Miracle

I started The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine.  In this post, I'll highlight what Frances Young says on page 22:

"From this critique came the proposal to replace the criterion of double dissimilarity with a criterion of historical plausibility: [In the words of Theissen and Winter in Quest for the plausible Jesus,] 'each individual historical phenomenon is to be considered authentic that plausibly can be understood in its Jewish context and that also facilitates a plausible explanation for its later effects in Christian history.'  Of course what is plausible to one investigator will not necessarily be plausible to another.  The nineteenth century did not find miracles plausible.  The late twentieth century, exploiting the approach of social anthropology, is more prepared to acknowledge that, in pre-modern cultures, the way the world works is differently conceived and that there are many parallels in ancient literature to the kind of charismatic healer we find in the gospels, and so judge the plausibility issues rather differently.  Indeed, one proposal characterizes Jesus as a magician like the well-attested magicians known from other ancient sources."

I have two musings:

1.  The criterion of dissimilarity says that one way we can identify what is historical about Jesus in the Gospels is to see where Jesus is dissimilar from Second Temple Judaism and also the Christianity that came after him.  I have mixed feelings about this criterion.  On the negative side, I think that something can be historical about Jesus, and yet be continuous with Second Temple Judaism and later Christianity.  Jesus lived in a Second Temple Jewish environment, and so why shouldn't we expect for him to reflect that in areas?  And Jesus was the inspiration for the early Christian movement, so why shouldn't we expect for it be continuous with the historical Jesus as it draws from what Jesus said and did?

On the positive side, I think that the criterion of dissimilarity----as least when it compares Jesus with early Christianity----is useful in that it can refute the charge that the early Christians made everything up about what Jesus said and did.  Why would the early Christians make up things about Jesus that are embarrassing or discontinuous from how they see the world?  Regarding the aspect of the criterion of dissimilarity that contrasts Jesus with Second Temple Judaism, I can't say that I understand that as much.  Perhaps the aim is to find out why Jesus stood out in his environment, and the presumption is that this happened because he presented new ideas.  Scholars who employ the criterion of dissimilarity perhaps sift out the things that are discontinuous with Second Temple Judaism and yet continuous with early Christianity, and what is left is Jesus in his originality.

In my opinion, the criterion of dissimilarity has its limits because I think that something about Jesus can be historical, while being continuous with Second Temple Judaism or Christianity.  And so the criterion of plausibility that Young mentions makes a degree of sense to me.  And yet, the criterion of plausibility does not appear to me to be as tight as the criterion of dissimilarity.  What is plausible can be rather subjective.  But identifying dissimilarities is not as subjective.

2.  I appreciate Young's discussion of how late twentieth century scholars treat Jesus' miracles, in contrast with how nineteenth century scholars did so.  I get frustrated with conservative Christians who act like biblical scholarship is still in the clutches of Enlightenment naturalism and thus excludes the possibility of miracles.  My impression is that many scholars nowadays are open to some of the miracles being historical, but they may attribute them to natural causes.  And, in my opinion, it makes sense that they do not dismiss the historicity of miracles.  Part of scholarship is acknowledging that people in the past had a different worldview from people in the present, and so imposing a notion that miracles are impossible onto the New Testament simply fails to sympathetically understand the worldview of New Testament authors.

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