Lazy Historiography By Tim O’Neill: Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

If you have been following me on YouTube or on Twitter for any amount of time, you’ll know I have been known to say a lot of… let’s just say controversial things. But I have to be honest, I really didn’t think my last post would cause such a reaction! To explain the issue, here’s a bit of context:

As you may or may not know, I’m currently writing a book about the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. In order to answer the question of whether the resurrection hypothesis best accounts for the claimed “historical bedrock”, I have to deal with the so-called minimal facts approach, made famous by Gary Habermas. While I have a number of issues with this approach, in fact, I have at the last count 23 objections to it, one of my problems is that the presentation of this argument often begins with the crucifixion of Jesus as a historically certain event. What is my issue I hear you ask? Well, a number of things! But one of my gripes with this, is while the vast majority of scholars hold to the view that this is a historical fact, I have a number of issues with affirming this as certain fact. While I will describe them in more detail later in a blog post at some point (that is not the purpose of this post today), part of the case that needs to be analysed is that this obviously requires one has to critically look at the writings of Paul in order to see what if anything he knew or at least believed about a historical Jesus. And that’s where we get into the issue of Tim O’Neill and his blog post: DID JESUS EXIST? THE JESUS MYTH THEORY, AGAIN.

Given this context, this means that given what my book is about, I’m not tackling the issue of whether Jesus existed (at least not directly), but merely what Paul knew or perhaps more importantly, what Paul believed about a historical Jesus. Because of this, my last post was not written from any perspective my end: I wasn’t arguing in favour of Jesus’ historicity, nor was I arguing from a position of mythicism, so I was not trying to say that Jesus did or did not exist. Instead, I was merely pointing out a problem with the fact that when we are looking at the Pauline Epistles, one must consider that there is more than one interpretation with what Paul claims in his letters which apparently relate to a historical Jesus, but the most important point I was making, is that one cannot equate Paul saying something, with what he meantIn other words, as I said in my original post:

For instance, when he [Tim] claims that Paul says: “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother” that is an interpretation of the passage in Galatians 4:4. Of course, one can certainly interpret the phrase (as many scholars do) that the phrase used is typical Jewish circumlocution for a human person, but this is still an interpretation…

Thus, to claim that Paul says Jesus was “executed by earthly rulers”, while this may have been what Paul meant that he was killed by earthly rulers, it is certainly not what he actually said. Again the issue is not necessarily that Tim is wrong, but one cannot simply proclaim your interpretation is the only interpretation…

Paul says a number of things which can be interpreted as referring to a historical Jesus, for instance being “born of a woman” or that when he says “none of the rulers of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” and thus interpret this to mean that Jesus had a human mother that gave birth to him and was executed by earthly rulers, I’m not for a moment suggesting otherwise. The issue is, these are certainly not the only way to read these passages.

Given this, in order to answer the question of what Paul knew or believed about a historical Jesus, this fundamentally breaks down to a number of issues, including the related questions of: how much did Paul know (if anything) about a historical Jesus? And if he knew/believed and thus, wrote some things about a historical figure of Jesus, where exactly did Paul get his information from? Both of these are vital questions to ask: but I honestly didn’t think the question of “what exactly does Paul say” in a particular passage would be an issue of such controversy! And this is where we get back into the issue of Tim and my last blog post.

Now I don’t want to recount the entire exchange I had with him on Twitter, but it basically broke down to this. I wrote my article but I didn’t know his Twitter handle, so he discovered my post because (I’m guessing) someone alerted him to it. I apologised because I didn’t know how to alert him that I’d written it and wanted to know if there was anything he disagreed with it and if he did, I would like to hear what it is, or if not, then I was interested to hear why he responded so negatively to it. In response to this, he claimed that I thought there is some hard distinction between some kind of objective facts and interpretations and that I therefore did not know that “ALL historical analysis is based on interpretations to a greater or lesser degree”. Now, in response to this, obviously the problem is my post had literally nothing to do with that.

After taking some time to think about this, I can only assume the point Tim seemed to think I was making, is that I was claiming that he is wrong about what he was arguing because it is an interpretation. In other words, that by the sheer fact that he is offering an interpretation of a passage, he must necessarily be wrong, because historians work on the basis of historical facts not interpretations. So by the fact that he’s offering an interpretation of a passage, then he’s automatically wrong. I can only assume this is what he thought I meant because I’m honestly not sure how he could object to what I was actually saying. Fuck knows why he thought I was saying that. He never actually quoted anything which would lend to the notion that I was arguing anything like that. But hopefully for anyone who actually read what I actually said (because given our exchange, I am beginning to doubt whether he actually read it, but it felt as though he merely read my post on Twitter and title of my last post), hopefully it was obvious is not the point I was making at all. In case it wasn’t there, let me spell it out now.

Obviously all historical analyses are based on interpretations. I’m not for a moment suggesting otherwise. Instead, I was pointing out what I thought was obvious and uncontroversial point; that you cannot say that Paul said something he didn’t say. In other words, if we take the first example Tim mentions, he claims that Paul says: “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.” Yet if you open up the Bible, turn to Galatians 4 and go to the fourth verse, this passage is nowhere to be seen. How can that be? Well because that is an interpretation of the passage in Galatians 4:4, not what Paul actually says. Of course, one can certainly interpret the phrase (as many scholars do) that the phrase used is typical Jewish circumlocution for a human person and therefore what Paul meant was that Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother, but this is still an interpretation and not what Paul actually said. Thus, Tim seemed to be equivocating the word “says” to mean that Paul “meant” and that in his post, he meant that “the majority of scholars interpret what Paul says to mean…”. So to make this clear, I drew the distinction between what Paul meant when he said any number of things in his letters, but you have to be honest and say this is an interpretation of what Paul says and not what he actually says. You can’t just settle the issue by performing lazy historiography like this!

Again I want to stress, I want to point out all the things I’m not arguing. So:

  1. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the reading Tim was offering is not the most common interpretation of the passages I mentioned (so Galatians 4:4, Romans 1:3, Galatians 3:2, and 1 Corinthians 2:8)
  2. My objection was not that his reading of each was wrong because it’s an interpretation.
  3. Nor was my point that these are the wrong interpretation of what Paul meant.

I was merely pointing out two things:

A) That the interpretations which Tim cites are not necessarily the only interpretation of these phrases.

But more importantly

B) You cannot equate the interpretation that Paul meant something with that Paul said it. In other words, you cannot just settle these issues by claiming that Paul said “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother and born a Jew” or how he was executed by earthly rulers.” Instead, in order to claim that Paul meant something in a particular passage, such a conclusion can only be made on the basis of a careful and critical analysis of the evidence and examine all of the available evidence and understand Paul’s writings in their own historical and literary context. But to merely claim that Paul said this or that about a historical Jesus is not something that one can quickly or easily do and must expressed that this is an interpretation, not what he actually says. Because without this, however, you cut it, to do what Tim did was lazy historiography.

Speaking of lazy historiography, the next issue is that Tim offers the following reason for why he wrote what he did. I started by saying:

I’m not saying it’s dubious, incorrect or an unreasonable interpretation. I’m saying you can’t settle these issues by equating your interpretation with what the author originally said. You can’t just say “Paul said X” when he didn’t say X, but merely you interpreted X as Y.

To which he replied:

Again, that is how we say “this is the best interpretation of what Paul said” in historical analysis

The trouble is, he claims that’s how historians deal with these issues like this, is to say that the interpretation which one holds to about a particular topic, is to say “Paul said X”. However, this is simply not true. For instance, let’s look at James Dunn, you can read his analysis of the passage in Galatians 4:4, in talking about this passage, he makes this point clear:

He [Paul] mentions that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4.4), a typical Jewish circumlocution for a human person.

The Theology of Paul the Apostle (p. 183)

Notice how Dunn describes this passage, particularly notice what is not happening: Dunn does not say, as Tim seems to insist that historians do, that Paul said that “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.” Instead, he quotes what Paul says and then offers his interpretation afterwards, textbook historical analysis! Equally, when John Shelby Spong recounts this, he says:

Before any Gospel was written, before theological doctrines designed to interpret Jesus came into being, before any tradition concerning Jesus’ birth had been articulated, Paul had written: But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4, 5) These were the first written words to be preserved by the Christian community describing the birth of Jesus… A chapter written on Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ origins would be a very brief chapter indeed, for Paul was unconcerned about these things. In this Galatian text there is no hint of a miraculous birth or of supernatural parenting. That issue simply had not yet been raised for Paul, nor was it an interest for this first generation of Christians.

Born of a Woman (p. 23)

Again, notice that Spong does not say that “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.” He again quotes what Paul says. Equally, Raymond Brown says:

In Gal 4:4-5 Paul says, ”When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law.”… The phrase “born of a woman” is meant to stress what Jesus shared with those whom he redeemed, precisely because it is applicable to everyone who walks this earth.” 
The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (p. 518-519)

Notice again, Brown does not say that “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.” He again quotes what Paul says and then offers an interpretation afterwards. Even those who do not believe that Jesus existed do not write their accounts in the way Tim describes. For instance, G. A. Wells says:

The weakness and obscurity of the earthly Jesus is surely also implied when Paul insists — in a context where he equates keeping the Jewish law with ‘slavery’ — that Jesus was ‘born of woman, born under the law’ (Gal. 4:4).

See Did Jesus Exist? 

In fact, isn’t it interesting that when you google “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother” the only things that come up are Tim’s own writings on the subject? This is because there is a difference between careful scholarship and whatever you want to call what Tim does! So hopefully this important point is made clear; what sober, lucid and careful scholars do, is say what Paul said by quoting him and then offering an interpretation of what Paul meant afterwards. While what Tim does, is… not that!

To get back to the bigger issue, of course, we can argue all day about what Paul meant when he said any number of things. But the point I was raising, is that is a huge difference between saying something is the best interpretation of what Paul meant but that you cannot therefore say that Paul said that.

To make this point clear, I was explaining that does not say that “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.” In other words, if we open up a Bible, it will not say that Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother in Galatians 4. While this may be what Paul meant but that is not what he said. He merely said: when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. Now scholars who argue that Paul means when he uses the phrase “born of a woman”, this means that Jesus was born as a human and of a human mother might well be correct, but that was not my issue. My issue is, the line of reasoning employed was:

P1) Paul says “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4 NIV)

P2) When Paul says “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”, the consensus of scholars interpret this phrase as “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother”

C) Therefore, Paul says “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother” (404 ERROR: QUOTE NOT FOUND)

This is therefore an equivocation because the word says is being used to refer to two different things: what he says in the sense of what he specifically writes in the passage in question and interpretation of what he means.

The upshot of this, is my entire point is that when Tim claims “He says Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother” that comes across as him saying that Paul literally says these words which of course he doesn’t! Or it would seem that this is the only interpretation of the passage Galatians 4:4 which again, it is not! Instead, what he meant is that when he says Paul “says” this, he actually means that while this might be the best interpretation of what he meant and might well be the what the consensus of scholars argue Paul meant, all of this does not detract away from the fact that Paul does not say that he was “born as a human, of a human mother.” 

All of this means, is that it is incredibly easy to do lazy historiography. While you might argue this is all about semantics, and in response to that I’d say… you’re absolutely right. It certainly is! The reason being, we are trying to understand what someone means, in this case Paul, when he says a particular thing and that is a pretty much textbook example of semantics in action! The bottom line ism Tim wants to claim that:

in historical analysis, EVERYTHING is interpretation to a greater or lesser degree.

Of course, when performing historical analysis one must analyse each piece of evidence and this necessarily requires an interpretation from a historian. However, what this therefore means, is that Tim seems to think that his “interpretation” is that Paul says in Galatians 4:4 “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.” And while this may be an interpretation of what Paul meant, this is not the same thing as saying that Paul says that.

If you want to read my exchange with Tim on Twitter, click here but otherwise, maybe I should move onto a less controversial topic in my next post…

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