Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: D.M Murdock - Who Was Jesus Fingerprints of the Christ

I intend for this to be my final post on D.M. Murdock's books for at least a year to come. I like to end stuff on a positive note, so I decided to review Who Was Jesus - Fingerprints of the Christ, which departs from the other works of hers that I have looked into by virtue of being quite acceptable. 

I will still respond to criticism of my posts, if posted in the comment field of the blog - which Murdock's advocates have done very little of. I seriously welcome criticism, as that is how scholarly endeavours progress. 

1. Introduction

Who Was Jesus - Fingerprints of the Christ, published in 2007 by Stellar House Publishing, is more recent than either of The Christ Conspiracy and Suns of God. It is a great improvement on her previous books. A notable improvement is the scarcity of questionable sources. The amount of wildly speculative claims is reduced significantly and the linguistics is generally not bad (but there is not a lot of it), and the interpretation of biblical or patristic material seems more solid and less tendentious. Ultimately, the book offers little new compared to other works of counter-apologetics, and is more of a rehash of standard debunking of Christian claims than it is a thesis about the origins of Christianity. As such, it contains little new for the serious student of these topics.

Some problems did leap out at me, though. I figure I would be remiss not to point these out. Luckily, the problems are significantly fewer than in either of the previous books mentioned.

2. The Book

The book starts off with an overview of the narrative in the gospel of Matthew. On this follows a short chapter about Mark: she mainly points out differences between it and Matthew, and argues for Matthean priority. She argues somewhat unclearly here and I suspect this is so as not to be caught committing to the thesis that Matthew has priority. I have previously seen her advocates revert even fairly firm stances on the basis of technicalities of phrasing. A similar overview is offered for Luke, and finally a longer description of John.

The argument regarding Matthean priority is as follows:
In reality, there are a number of instances in Mark which indicate that in order to follow the tale the reader would need to have been familiar with details of the gospel story that are not presented in that text. For example, neither Mark nor John mention the virgin birth-- if Mark's gospel was the first, which means he may have thought it would stand alone, how could he leave out such a significant event? Another such instance. [...]
Indeed, it has even been suggested that Mark was written in response to criticisms of Matthew's gospel. One example used to craft the case that Mark was composed in order to answer commentary about Matthew occurs in the story of Jesus calling James and John from their boat, after which the two run off and leave their father alone. Perhaps this behavior caused Jesus to look like someone who led children away from their parents, directly contravening Jewish customs [...] [1, pp. 24-25]
The logical option that she omits mentioning is that it also is possible that some of these ideas - the virgin birth and other things - had not entered Christianity by the time or in the region where Mark was written, and thus were not included simply because they were not part of that author's belief system. On the other hand, you also have the possibility that in part, the gospel was not supposed to be read in isolation from a spoken tradition - c.f. how early rabbinic works can be well-nigh impossible to read without having access to an external tradition regarding their content. We too easily forget that writing is not the only way ideas get passed around.

Several times, Murdock seems to think that raising an objection and offering one possible solution is sufficient to show that the suggested alternative is the correct one - even when other possible solutions exist, and even when those are more parsimonious. This fallacy is known as false dichotomy.

However, the chapters on the gospels do serve their purpose well - they summarize the gospel contents, which probably are not entirely familiar to all readers, and point out certain problems with the manuscripts, such as certain known interpolations. Contradictions between the gospels also are pointed out.

A chapter on textual harmonization follows. The chapter is a bit unfocused, as it appears to deal both with attempts to evaluate the original among variant texts of individual gospels as well as reconcile contradictions between separate gospels. The main point of importance throughout the chapter is the sheer amount of variation in the available manuscripts, and the consequential lack of certainty regarding the contents of the originals. Considering the book is written mainly for Christians of various relatively conservative stripes, the inclusion of such a chapter is more than justified, as this probably will be entirely unknown to most readers. Again, though, in a sense it is more of the same as the previous chapters - inconsistencies, manuscript problems, etc. She justifiedly bashes - with some gusto - contortioned apologist explanations. Thoroughness is a virtue in this kind of literature, of course, but pretty much the same compendium of biblical problems can be found in earlier literature.

She spends quite an amount of ink on those who hold the KJV in special regard  - mentioning quite a number of the wildly crazy notions the KJV-only adherents blurt out. Mainly, her argument is aimed at genuine bible-believers of various kinds, and their arguments that indeed deserve debunking but also reveal the significant ignorance of these people.

There is a chapter on the dating of the gospels, with some good refutations of certain apologist claims. The dating seems to fall within the bounds of reason, although religiously conservative scholars probably would object to it. One piece of evidence that she does present is a quote mine, however:
Another similar anachronism in the gospels appears in the description of the "disciples of the Pharisees," as at Mark 2:18 and Luke 5:33. Since the Pharisees were technically not "priests" per se but pious, unlearned laymen, it would be unusual for them to have "disciples" in the clerical sense. 
This phrase may not have come into use until after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD/CE, which would mean that the writers were distanced from the events by a considerable amount of time.[1, p. 81]
The source given for this is Meier's  A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol 2. This is what Meier states:
As just noted, within the question voiced in v 18c, "the disciples of the Pharisees" is a curious phrase. It occurs in this precise form nowhere else in the NT. Since historically the Pharisees were for the most part a pious group of stringently observant Jewish laymen, most of whom were not learned teachers, one would not expect them as a group to have "disciples." The type of phrase one would expect is the one found in Mark 2:16: "the scribes of the Pharisees," i.e., those men within the Pharisaic movement who had formally studied the Torah, became teachers, and could thus act as guides for the other members of the movement. In v 18c, "the disciples of the Pharisees" must be taken in a somewhat looser sense to mean people who were attracted to and adopted the teachings and practices of the Pharisaic movement. This may be the meaning of the phrase when it occurs in Matt 22:15-16: "The Pharisees ... sent their disciples to him [i.e., Jesus]."
Such usage is not necessarily anachronistic or indicative of a poor knowledge of Judaism. Writing in the Jewish Antiquities (13.10.5 $288-89), Josephus refers to the Hasmonean ethnarch and high priest John Hyrcanus I (reigned 134-104 B.C.) as a disciple (mathẽtẽs) of the Pharisees before he switched his allegiance to the Sadducees. This probably does not mean that Hyrcanus, a worldly ruler involved in wars and international politics, carefully observed every detail of the Pharisaic way of life. Rather, the context suggests that he courted the support of the Pharisees, sought their advice and flattered them with protestations of how much he was influenced by them.
Another point should be kept in mind as well: both Matthew and Josephus use the designation "disciple(s) of the Pharisees" toward the end of the 1st century A.D., when the Pharisees (or the early rabbis in their wake) had gained the ascendancy as the leading group in post-A.D. 70 Judaism. Thus, while the phrase may not be dismissed simply as an anachronism, its use by Mark, Matthew and Josephus may have been fostered by developments after the First Jewish revolt.[2, p. 441-443, I have bolded some lines]
Murdock makes quite different implications than the source she is supporting her contention with.  Yes, I agree the gospels probably are written after 70CE. However, 'disciple' is not a word that proves this, nor is her representation of its significance in the context anything like what her source says.

As for the Gospel of Mark, Murdock makes the following statement:
... "Moreover, even though it also appears to have been built upon Matthew in order to answer questions raised by that gospel, the beginning of Mark seems to have been written to follow directly the last Old Testament book of Malachi, since, instead of the birth narrative, Mark begins his gospel with an account of John the Baptist, the "voice crying in the wilderness" and "the messenger" as prophesied "in the prophets," e.g., Malachi. [1, p. 25]
She seems to think the Old Testament was published in volumes with the same order of books as in modern Bibles already in the BCE years. This was not the case. A similar misconception is repeatedly cultivated in The Christ Conspiracy.

Melito's list - one of the earliest canons, has Daniel, Hezekiel and Esra after Malachi; the Canon of Trent includes Maccabees 1 and 2 after Malachi. The Augustinian canon has Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 2 books of Esdras, 2 books of Maccabees following on Malachi.

Further, Jewish usage at the time was to have them in scrolls, rather than as single-volume books of modern type. Murdock seems to have been misled by the table of content in modern bibles into thinking that the idea people had of the biblical content was a linear narrative spanning from Genesis to Malachi, and that therefore, a "sequel" of sorts would try and maintain a thematic connection with the final chapter of the previous installment of the series. Clearly it would maintain a thematic connection with the entire thing, but trying to claim a "gotcha" regarding Mark-Malachi connections seems rather unwarranted - a "gotcha" that she has claimed in several books now.

She further makes the same mistake regarding Zacharia, regarding the cleansing of the temple:
On the contrary, when Old Testament scripture is studied, it becomes evident that this part about the temple being cleared of moneychangers is a reflection of the earlier scripture at Zecharia 14:21: "...And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day."  This book, Zecharia, is the penultimate before the New Testament, followed only by Malachi. It is evident that this pericope was included in the gospel story in order to make it seem that Jesus had "fulfilled prophecy," ...[1, pp. 164-165]
Following that, there is an overview of the other sources about Jesus from antiquity. Indeed, she provides reasons to reject most of these as worthwhile sources - and these reasons are all valid. Similar arguments have been voiced earlier, but a book such as this does require such an overview. A comparison of the Jesus narrative and the Elijah and Elisha narratives in 1 and 2 Kings is presented next. As far as I can tell, this list of parallels is due to Thomas Brodie, but I have been unable to obtain a copy of his book, and will edit this post once I have done so. Of these similarities, I only really would question one - viz. "Saves the lost sheep of Israel from foreign influences; is Israel's savior" [1, p 118]. Elisha indeed supposedly did that and the narrative bears out such a description (modulo "lost sheep"), but the Jesus narrative fails to have him save the Israelites from foreign influences - in fact, he seems rather to make them fall deeper into condemnation by foreign as well as their own influences.

As for whose saviour he is supposed to be - although the NT does assign that particular title to him - it seems the NT is more into foreign influences not being that terrible after all and him being a savior of the gentiles just as much or even more than of the Jews. The further use of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to find similarities is a bit superfluous as sufficient evidence of early beliefs about an angry Jesus can be found in Mark. A similar list of parallels between Joseph (son of Jacob) and Jesus is also provided in the same chapter. The point is made that Jesus is an amalgamation of these characters, merged into one character by early Christians who had not witnessed any of the events described for the reason that none of these events took place.

After this, a sample of supposed prophecies Jesus fulfilled and discussion thereof ensues. However, even statements Jesus supposedly made that may have been based on OT texts are quoted as supposed prophecy fulfillment [1, pp. 126, 127, 128]. Some of the particular pericopes she mentions are similar to certain wildly common sayings of the talmudic rabbis as well, and this could suggest that they were just regular, common memes in the prevailing Jewish culture of the time, things preachers of different stripes did say.

On this, a series of questions regarding the gospels follow - the questions form an eclectic grouping, some being merely textual in nature, some regard the logic of the text, some regard the motivations leading up to certain textual changes. One inconsistency that she claims only is an inconsistency if extrabiblical assumptions are granted - viz. the trinity - [1, p.149]. Another supposed inconsistency is Jesus' apparent belief that Moses wrote the Torah - which Murdock interprets as evidence that the Jesus narrative was written by religious Jews wanting to manufacture a messiah [1, p. 161]. Jesus undeniably assumes Moses to be the author of the Pentateuch, e.g.
Mark 1:44: And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
Matthew 19:8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
Indeed, as Murdock quite correctly asserts, scholars have provided quite strong arguments that the Pentateuch cannot have been written by Moses. Hence, Jesus is quite clearly wrong on that count, and thus cannot be omniscient, and thus cannot be God (which, of course, I fully agree with). However, even then Murdock manages to botch the argument:
Yet, at Luke 5:46 Jesus is depicted as asserting as fact this untenable and evidently erroneous idea of Mosaic authorship - if Christ was truly the omniscient Lord, would he not know that Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch? Prior to the creation of Christianity only pious Jews would believe in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Could this entire story largely represent the product of pious Jews attempting to create a messiah?
First of all, and this is probably just a typo on her part, the verse she is referring to is John 5:46, as no Luke 5:46 exists, and the verse in John correlates fairly well with what she claims. However,  why would Pious Jews attempt to create a messiah that is so antithetical to their religion? John is, after all, the most explicitly antijudaic of the gospels. However, the main question should be: how can Jesus agreeing with the beliefs prevalent in his culture be a mark of his having been made up? This entirely evades logic.

Further, Murdock's knowledge of the linguistics of antiquity is weak:
Moreover, if Jesus is the omniscient Lord, who knows all languages perfectly, why would he speak Aramaic and not Greek- did Christ only come for the relatively small and isolated population of Aramaic-speaking Jews? [1, p. 180]

Greek indeed was the lingua franca of the eastern mediterranean, but Aramaic was far from spoken by a 'small and isolated population' nor was it spoken exclusively by Jewish people. True, its modern descendants have fewer than half a million native speakers, almost all of whom are bilingual in some major language - mostly Arabic - but Murdock still misrepresents the importance of Aramaic in the relevant time. The same mistaken claim is made in The Christ Conspiracy as well. Aramaic was widely spoken in one of the most densely populated regions of the world at that time.

This chapter changes focus to manuscripts at one point - and herein a significant portion of the criticism against the KJV-only movement resides as well. That criticism is mainly well presented, although it feels a bit out of place. Many of the arguments that represent the KJV-only movement seem to suggest that it would even be superfluous to strawman them: they are good enough at genuinely being worthless. However, this mixes several issues - the issue of the terribly bad manuscripts the KJV relied on, the general problem of manuscript reliability and evaluation, and finally, the genuine stupidity of the KJV-only mindset.

As for textual criticism, she seems simply to use a comparison of the RSV and KJV as a basis on which to say whether some verses are spurious. It would probably be better to use actual research on biblical manuscripts carried out by scholars! That way some kind of actual knowledge would be possible and not just pointless pontification on English translations.

The chapter entitled "Apology Accepted" is somewhat good, but a more nuanced view on metaphor contra literal is called for [1, p. 210] | The chapter History or Propaganda provides some occasional insight into potentially politically based changes in the text. However, some such arguments are very weak, and downright dumb:
Another glaring example [of politically-motivated interpolation] stands out at Mark 3:32, where the crowd is telling Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside. Some ancient authorities include "and your sisters" after "brothers." Which is it? It is a shock enough to discover that Jesus had brothers- as we have seen, a whole debate in itself - but sisters as well? Why would the Holy Spirit have some authorities reveal that Christ had sisters, while causing other authorities not to mention them? It would seem that the omission of the "sisters of the Lord" may exist specifically to emphasize a bias against women, a prejudice present in other parts of the bible as well and quite common throughout much of history [1, p 224]
So, by not having Jesus explicitly reject his sisters - which happens just a moment after the crowd informs him of his relatives' arrival - they were being biased against women? Best would be to provide an overview of the manuscript evidence - in which manuscripts do we find these sisters mentioned? How old are they compared to manuscripts that do not mention them? How numerous? Murdock's approach to evidence is still sub-par.

A weakness of her presentation of her argument is that she nearly never analyses the function of any pericopes - she does not attempt to parse their meaning, she latches on to isolated words, and thinks those are sufficient to establish parallels.

4. Conclusion

In closing, Who Was Jesus is a great improvement on The Christ Conspiracy and Suns of God. Indeed, had I not read them first, I would be under the impression that Murdock was a completely regular scholar - and this book ensures me she has it in her to be one. I would probably not even have spotted the lesser mistakes in a cursory reading, but having read her previous works my eyes have been quite opened to how easy it is for an author to sneak bad reasoning into a seemingly reasonable text. I am convinced a similarly close investigation of very many highly respected scholarly works would turn up a comparable number of problematic arguments and claims.

This book does not contribute a lot - you would find similar conclusions from Thomas Brodie among others. However, if you have no such book in your bookcase and feel the need for one, you could do worse than Who Was Jesus. If you are capable of tempering your reading with some skepticism, it does offer some value.

[1] D.M. Murdock, Who Was Jesus - Fingerprints of the Christ, 2007, Stellar House Publishing
[2] John P. Meier -  A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol 2., 1994, Doubleday

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