JRP vs. Bishop Spong vs. Judas Iscariot: Round One

In a comment to a recent post from Chris Price (aka Layman, here), where he and other commentors have taken John Loftus to task for uncritically picking up and simplistically restating an already inept statement from John Shelby Spong’s Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (although I will point out that John has not admitted yet anywhere, so far as I know, to simply picking up this statement and reprinting it in a simplified form--the evidence is pretty strong but is not deductively conclusive), John has “defied” us to say that an excerpt from another of Bishop Spong’s books (The Sins of Scripture, cute title) isn’t well-reasoned and doesn’t reflect good scholarship. John’s reproduction of this chapter (in total, as far as I've been able to tell), and his own defense of Bishop Spong’s arguments (in the comments below) can be found here.

(I will note that Bishop Spong follows up this chapter with another one concerning his theory about the fabrication of Judas Iscariot; and also that he himself signals at the beginning of it that his actual rationale for the theory was concluded in the chapter under consideration here. Henceforth, he asks his readers, we should "suspend our critical faculties" and just "assume" that his "speculation" is true!--while he deals with two more topics. His argument from the preceding chapter had better have been superlatively strong, then!)

I had pointed out at the time (in the comments to Layman’s post) that Bishop Spong’s particular claim in the Myth or Reality book (regarding “every ranking New Testament scholar in the world”) was either not well-reasoned and not good scholarship, or else was merely an unrealistic rhetorical puff which he expected readers to swallow uncritically so that he could seem to be saying something profound--to their detriment. (Since, after all, most readers aren’t in a position to actually check the data for themselves, and may not be trained to assess logical implications very well either. Whereas, a lot of readers do expect someone who insists on holding the title “Bishop” to be accurate in his data and reasoning, if he also insists on writing on such topics as though he can be relied on to give people such accurate data and reasoning. Ironically, this expectation is commonly mirrored among a certain class of sceptical readers who wouldn't usually trust a "bishop" unless he was being radically sceptical in various ways.)

So, is Bishop Spong’s argument regarding the mythical fabrication of Judas Iscariot any better?

(As an aside, Bill Kesatie was also planning to work on this analysis, but then learned I had already gotten pretty far along on it myself; so we decided I would lead on this, with him adding some things in commentary as he thinks appropriate. Bill’s preliminary discussion of Bishop Spong’s theology, such as it is, can be found in this previous Cadre Journal entry. While I think that’s an interesting discussion in itself, I didn’t find Bishop Spong to be appealing in any obvious way, even tacitly, to his own theology as part of his rationale for suspecting the historicity of Judas Iscariot. Consequently, I won’t be including this factor as part of my critique of his rationales.)

Bishop Spong’s “suspicion of the historicity of Judas Iscariot and of his role in the Christian story as the traitor” (which he considers to be part of “the rise of anti-Semitism”) has been created, he says, by “five easily identifiable, documentable facts.”

First: a careful reading of the New Testament reveals the “not-fully suppressed” memory of a man named Judas, in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, who was not evil and who was not a traitor.

Yes; and as with most of the other named apostles and disciples, he doesn’t amount to much in the stories. Moreover, considering that Jude/Judah/Judas was one of the five most common male Jewish names of the period, it would be a little unusual for multiple men named Judas not to show up in the records. Aside from two ancestors to Christ, the New Testament mentions Judas, brother of Jesus; Judas, brother of James; Judas the Galilean (Messianic pretender prior to Christ); Judas bar-Sabbas; Judas of Damascus; Judas the more-or-less loyal disciple/apostle/whatever; and Judas Iscariot.

(I say ‘more-or-less’ because of course all the apostles abandoned Christ during the arrest and then sat around in a funk, until they started hearing about and then seeing things on Sunday, according to the primary texts. Even GosMark’s truncated form contains testimony to this pattern: first the apostles will hear about it, and then they’ll see Him for themselves.)

Aside from Judas the Galilean, it’s possible that the same Judas is being talked about in some multiple different references. But the Gospel texts make clear that Judas Iscariot wasn’t any of those Judases.

This is the data as it stands: the easily identifiable, documentable facts--the facts of the textual data (whether or not the data itself represents historical facts.)

Nor is it unusual for there to be multiple forms (as well as multiple designators) of the name {Iouda}. It was an extremely common name (as was Joshua, i.e. Jesus in Greek.) Multiple forms of the name, whether in Hebrew-Aramaic, in Greek, or in English (long after the fact), would be statistically expected in a sizeable cross-section of real people’s names. It’s far more unusual that we have few instances of Elizear/Lazarus in the New Testament texts (another top-five common male name in 1st century Palestine) than multiple Jud-s.

Nor would it be particularly unusual for Jude the Less (as he came to be traditionally known) to be called “Thaddeus” (a Greek form of a Hebrew surname or nickname) for designation purposes. (Incidentally, the grammar of the two Lukan apostle lists, at GosLuke 6:16 and at Acts 1:13, does not call this Judas “the brother of James”. The term is “of James”, which can mean “son of”. I am not aware of anyone who supposes that the Apostle James, and the Apostle Levi, were brothers “of Alpheus”, for example, but this same phrase is used in close proximity to "Jude of James" in both the Lucan lists.) On the other hand, there is also something to be said for the possibility that the lesser apostles were not particularly well known and so there was confusion in the sources about who exactly constituted the Twelve, especially with other authoritative disciples going around.

Again: the multiple uses of the name "Jud-", in the New Testament, is the actual data as it stands. The not-entirely-successful-"suppression" of one (or more!?) of those loyal Judases, on the other hand, is not a piece of easily identifiable, documentable data. Is the concept of a "suppression" at least a good historical inference from the available facts?

It should be noted that Bishop Spong’s claim of “suppression”, connected to his theory of a “rise of anti-Semitism” in his ”suspicion” of the historicity of Iscariot, runs directly against what he himself considers to be the data (though it’s really more of a theory, too) about the composition dating of the texts. GosMark and GosMatt have Thaddeus instead of (maybe) Judas in their lists of the Twelve Apostles; the later GosLuke (and Acts) and GosJohn have Judas (but don’t mention “Thaddeus”). Shouldn’t “suppression” of a faithful Judas in the inner circle involve, y’know, suppression as time goes on? Not revelation that this loyal apostle in the inner circle was named Judas, too?!

The best that can be said, is that Bishop Spong isn't inferring some sinister conspiracy of suppression from the (supposed) 'development' of these texts, on this subject; because the actual data, in his arrangement of the data, goes exactly the other way.

This point becomes even more problematic, depending on when Bishop Spong allows the Epistle of Jude to have been composed. Most liberal scholars (and plenty of moderates and even some conservative ones) would place its composition in the latter quarter of the 1st century, if not even in the 2nd century (mainly due to its very high Christology, although this is not terribly obvious at a casual glance). If that’s true, then this “suppression” involves creating a non-traitorous authoritative author worthy of canonization named Judas (purporting to pass off Petrine material as his own work, no less, if not the other way around!) as part of the “rise of anti-Semitism” in the Christian canon. Who then spends time inveighing against traditional Old Testament enemies of Judaism, both among and outside the Jewish people in good Old Testament fashion, and who invokes a very popular Jewish legend concerning the body of Moses. And who quotes (apparently) from a very popular 1st century Jewish apocryphal work. All of which is supposed to be accepted by his readers.

(This line of “development” won’t look any better when we move to Bishop Spong’s “second source of suspicion” in the next post.)

Unfortunately, in this chapter Bishop Spong gives no other rationale for suppression than reference to a few (actually real) textual facts--ones which cannot, once someone has actually done some "careful reading" of the sources, be any good ground for a theory of suppression per se.

So, to recap: the easily identifiable, documentable fact, is that there is clearly “an early Christian memory” (as Bishop Spong himself puts it) of at least one (maybe two) faithful Judases in the inner circle of the Christian movement (not even counting other faithful Christian Judases mentioned in the texts, one of which has the distinction of helping convert Saul of Tarsus); and an even earlier (if anything) “Christian memory” (on the same criteria grounds of data, although Bishop Spong implies otherwise) of a traitor also named Judas who wasn’t the same apostle who is (apparently) first called Thaddeus (a Greco-Hebrew nickname or surname) and then in (apparently) later texts is (apparently) called Judas, too. In direct distinction from the traitor Judas Iscariot.

The suspicious innuendo, on the other hand, is that the memory of this non-traitor Judas in the inner circle is “suppressed” so that it can be supplanted with a newly created "Judas" so that the name "Jud-" (and its cognates) can be thus be promoted among Christians as something to be only derided with connotations of treachery. An innuendo that Bishop Spong presents as though it is just as easily identifiable and documentable as the other textual characteristics, but which when examined runs entirely against the thrust of his own beliefs about the progression of the data’s composition (at least in regard to the Gospels and Acts, and maybe also EpistJude as well).

This suspicion has not been read from the data--not in any remotely competent way, anyway. It’s being read (rather blatantly, on examination) into the data.

[Next up: beginning an examination of source data development in regard to Judas Iscariot.]



Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking. Although I'll also add that it just occurred to me that the only time the lesser Apostle Judas has any dialogue at all, is a couple of times in GosJohn: at the tail end of the supposed development scheme of suppressing him out of Christian memory.

This can't help Bishop's Spong first line of reasoning either, to say the least. Not to someone who considers a theory of a process of suppression to require, y'know, a process of suppression. {g}

(Maybe a few years from now, J'Spong will release an amended version of the book claiming GosJohn was written first, and then Luke/Acts, with EpistJude maybe even earlier, so that he can get a process of suppression for his theory about the fabrication of Judas Iscariot as a character.)

Anonymous said…
Nice reasonable job, Jason. I look forward to reading more of what you write.

But keep in mind that one's "suspicions" depend on the background knowledge a person has already accepted. I don't expect you to have the same suspicions that Spong and I have because we don't agree about that prior background knowledge. We see things differently because we have different background control beliefs, something I argued for with regard to my skeptical control beliefs in over half of my book.

But I'm interested nonetheless.

Jason Pratt said…
Quite true. But since he presents his case (in this chapter at least) as standing or falling on its own merits of textual analysis, it only seemed fair that I assess his case on a similar level--at least insofar as not calling in whatever theological constraints he has against him. He doesn't appeal to his theological worldview for grounding, so I won't criticize it in connection with his theory.

There are of course other background beliefs than theological, or the equivalent thereof, which he can be shaping his own analysis in accord with. To give the example most relevant to this Round, his analysis is explicitly dependent on (maybe even totally dependent on) holding to a widely popular theory about Gospel composition order (and, to a lesser but still important extent, also the dating typically used in that theory). While it's worth pointing out that this popular theory is not actually quite as settled among scholars across the ideological spectrum as is commonly perceived (and I'll continue to point this out in passing as I go along, occasionally), my immediate concern is to check whether his use of it synchs up very well with his own argument; not to debate that theory in itself.

As to my own background control beliefs, I think I can honestly say that I would have arrived at this same result even as a rank atheist. I'm self-critical enough to keep tabs pretty well on when an analysis of mine actually requires appeal to my religious beliefs, for which I habitually alert readers in order to carefully delineate points of potential disagreement.

Jason Pratt said…
On the other hand, as a rank atheist I might or might not be giving Jesus a divine Cap for His pronouns; depending on whether I thought the textual data was trying to present Jesus as ultimately divine and depending on whether I thought the pronoun trail was clear enough without it. {lopsided g} But, even as a theist, my main reason for capping the pronoun is to help distinguish pronouns referentially from one another. (Plenty of perfectly pious Christians don't, after all.) My analysis hardly relies on Jesus being divine.

(In fact, I can't think of anything offhand in my 20000 words worth of notes on this topic that requires Jesus to be anything more than merely mortal. But since I am a theistic Christian, and since it's a handy punctuation scheme to use, there it is. {s})

BK said…
As Jason points out, I planned to type up my own version of arguments against Spong's analysis of Judas Iscariot, but since Jason had prepared so much, I am going to sit back and read through all of it and comment towards the end (if I have anything to add).

Good work, Jason. I have only had a chance to glance through this first installment, but it looks good so far.

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