I've been working on this review for a long time, but too many other matters kept taking precedence (especially a surprising flood of appearances I was booked for this year). This turned out to be helpful, as I had more time to reflect on what went wrong. I have to conclude it represents an epic fail for the editor R. Joseph Hoffmann. Prometheus is just the unfortunate victim. I've spoken with several persons involved. But in private conversations about some of the problems I had with the book, Hoffmann was a complete dick to me, and wouldn't own up even to the mistakes I had actual proof he had made. Rumor has it he's like this. But this was my first experience of it. His behavior toward me leaves me with no further sympathy for him, so here it goes...
Summarizing the Suck
The book has enough merits to be worth buying (almost...regardless of its list price, it's only actually worth maybe $15, so if you can find a copy in that ballpark, go for it). But its flaws are frustrating in the extreme. I'll discuss them at greater length below (as well as what's still good), but here I'll just summarize them. First, there is no logical order to the chapters (they are thrown into the book seemingly at random, despite the fact that there is an obvious order to put them in--this is just quintessential lazy editing), there is no evidence that the editor worked with the authors to make their chapters better or more appropriate to the venue, and actual mistakes were made that, despite his being advised of them in advance of publication, were not corrected.
All that would amount to just an amusing defect to chuckle about, in an otherwise excellent book, but the biggest disaster is what makes it not excellent to begin with. Fifteen chapters are included in this book, a third of which were not even presented or even scheduled to be presented at the conference. That alone is shocking, but worse, to include these "surprise" five chapters, three papers that were presented were left out, two of which were in fact among the best papers presented at the conference! In addition to which, two of the chapters that were rightly included are substantially inferior to what was actually presented at the conference. Even the two papers scheduled but not presented (by Hector Avalos and Philippa Carter, who each could not attend due to separate emergencies), despite having been circulated beforehand, were not among the "added" chapters. I wouldn't expect them to be, but adding those would at least make sense, whereas the chapters that were added don't. Adding insult to injury, three of the added chapters (the chapters, remember, that weren't presented at the conference nor ever scheduled to be and thus not circulated or discussed by anyone there) are by...drum roll...R. Joseph Hoffmann. That's more than half of the "added" chapters. All by our illustrious editor. And they all suck. But more on that later.
In short, almost half the book could be torn out without losing anything of value, while half of what would have made this book superb, and required reading by scholars the world over, was torn out instead. That alone renders this book an epic fail. Rumor has it that "perhaps" there will be a second volume that will redress this grave mistake, including the "lost" chapters (and, I suppose, adding even more bogus ones, as if to pad it out for some reason, the way this one was). But no one I have spoken with will confirm this. Not even Hoffmann. It doesn't seem likely at this point.
I still recommend buying it, if you can afford it, since there are at least four chapters in it that are superb and still, IMO, required reading (although one of those is mine, so if you discount my personal bias, there are then only three), and three others that are not required reading but nevertheless worth reading.
So much for my summary. Now for those who want more detail I shall digress...
This book was supposed to be, and in the hands of a competent editor would have been, a superb book, a must-buy for anyone studying Jesus. As one can already conclude from my descriptions and rave reviews of almost all the papers presented at the Amherst Conference in 2008, which had the same title as the book (see my previous blog on the Amherst Conference).
This, in turn, was supposed to be the first of many conferences in the newly launched Jesus Project aimed at working out the correct method for studying the historical Jesus and ascertaining what facts can be known about him (see my previous blog on The Jesus Project). That project has been canceled and (as far as I can tell) completely scrapped. Some have blamed Hoffmann, others Ron Lindsay, for the demise of the Jesus Project, but I doubt either story (no one who tells me either can give me any verifiable evidence, and the stories of infighting are all contradictory). It seems self-evident that it was killed by the recession. CSH (which funded CSER which launched The Jesus Project) literally lost half its endowment in a single year. They had to make massive cuts in spending and projects, and I'm not at all surprised The Jesus Project was among the baggage tossed into the drink so CSH could stay above water. I probably would have axed it myself had I been the one to decide what goes and what stays. CSH has a much bigger mission.
Things have improved since then (stocks are up, wealthy donors are almost flush again, the endowment is getting back to where it had been), but as far as I hear still not back to pre-2008 levels, and the lessons learned may prevent the CSH from ever trying anything so ambitious again. Unless someone out there starts seriously funding them. No more half-assed donations, but big money. So if you are a megamillionaire and outraged by the cancellation of the Jesus Project, you need to call the CSH and put up some outrageous cash. The CSH is probably right to assume that's never going to happen. And that's the end of it.
The Lesser Mistakes
So the JP is dead. But they could at least have gone out with a bang, producing a fantastic, historic book. And when it comes to figuring out why they didn't, the only suspect I can find is Hoffmann. Perhaps someone at Prometheus Books balked at producing a 400-page book, panicking at the massive losses brought on by the recession, but even if that happened (and I have no evidence it did, and very much doubt it), a good editor would have fought tooth and nail against that reaction and won them over. Because a complete book would have been among the greatest contributions to any field that Prometheus has published, a book that would in fact have become required reading in that field for generations to come. If Hoffmann couldn't sell that fact to PB (or didn't even try), then I call lame.
Here is the actual table of contents (chapters that are essentially the papers presented are in black, chapters that are "sort of" but not quite are in green, and chapters that were never a part of the conference are in red):
- R. Joseph Hoffmann, "Preface: Of Rocks, Hard Places, and Jesus Fatigue"
- Dennis R. MacDonald, "An Alternative Q and the Quest of the Earthly Jesus"
- R. Joseph Hoffmann, "Jesus and the Brothers: The Theology of the Imperfect Union"
- Justin Meggitt, "Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions"
- Richard C. Carrier, "Baye's Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method"
- Robert M. Price, "The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus"
- Bruce Chilton, "Jesus' Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist"
- David Trobisch, "The Authorized Version of His Birth and Death"
- Frank R. Zindler, "Prolegomenon to a Science of Christian Origins"
- Robert Eisenman with Noelle Magana, "'Every Plant Which My Heavenly Father Has Not Planted Shall Be Uprooted'"
- R. Joseph Hoffmann, "On Not Finding the Historical Jesus"
- Ronald A. Lindsay, "Assessing the Evidence: Historical and Legal Perspectives"
- Gerd Lüdemann, "Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus"
- J. Harold Ellens, "Jesus' Apocalyptic Vision and the Psychodynamics of Delusion"
- R. Joseph Hoffmann, "Epilogue: The Canonical-Historical Jesus"
None of Hoffmann's chapters are worth reading. I recommend you skip them, or paint them with pretty colors or something. His last (which appears to have some of what he presented at the conference) at least has interesting things to say, but doesn't even try to prove any of them, and is too brief to be of any use. Chilton's chapter (which isn't even remotely the paper he delivered at the conference) is likewise a waste of time. As with a lot of his opus generally, it starts with assumptions so wholly dubious that his entire argument is not even worth the bother of reading, not least because he doesn't even interact with the scholarship on the topic his chapter is supposed to be about, so it doesn't even have any value as a reference work. And his entire methodology is scandalously defective, practically making this chapter a poster child for how not to argue for historical conclusions. The paper he actually presented at the conference was at least interesting and useful. This one is neither. And Eisenman's chapter can be disregarded for much the same reasons--though at least this chapter is more intelligible than his conference paper (I notice he got a co-author, perhaps to tame his seeming insanity...nevertheless the arguments and assumptions of this chapter remain almost as insane).
Excluding those chapters, the remaining order should be: Lindsay, Zindler, Carrier, on method and basic principles; then Meggitt and Price (and of cut chapters, Droge), on comparative material that must inform the application of those methods; then Trobisch and MacDonald (and of cut chapters, the paper Chilton actually delivered at the conference) on crucial preliminary findings affecting the application of any method; and then finally Lüdemann and (the second half of) Ellens (and of cut chapters, Tabor) on the kinds of results sound methods might achieve. I include half of Ellens here, even though he didn't present at the conference, only because the second half of his chapter is interesting enough to read (the first half could have been cut without loss--so, IMO, start reading his chapter at p. 226), the only "addition" worthy of such a remark. I'll say more about that later.
If you read this book, do it in that order. For ease, just label the TOC in your copy as follows: X, 7, X, 4, 3, 5, X, 6, 2, X, X, 1, 8, 9, X. Then skip every chapter labeled "X" and read the remaining chapters in the new order in which you just labeled them. That's how the book should have been organized, or something at least like that. Instead, readers will be lost and confused, rambling from one unrelated topic to the next without explanation, wondering why on earth chapters that they should have read first are popping up at random places later on, or why certain chapters are even included at all.
A second problem is that it doesn't appear Hoffmann took any interest in getting these chapters better composed or more appropriately rewritten for this venue. Each author was thus left to his own devices. In some cases this worked fine. For example, Meggitt's chapter is perfect. In others, not. MacDonald's and Trobisch's chapters fall into this category. Ellens' chapter likewise could have been greatly reduced in size and given a clearer thesis statement, two things a good editor would have seen to. Zindler's chapter included controversial material that wasn't discussed at the conference (pp. 143-45), and some of his arguments are patently fallacious, and had I been editor I would have demanded these things be rewritten or excised, but that at least is a judgment call (though it's what any competent peer review would have demanded, and Hoffmann certainly should be qualified as a peer reviewer here, and an editor ought to act as one, IMO).
But those last two are less annoying than what happened to MacDonald and Trobisch. MacDonald's chapter in this book is a highly technical bare-bones survey of the comparative results of his new theory that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all used not Q but a lost "Deuteronomy Gospel" in which the story of Jesus parallels, point for point, the entire book of Deuteronomy (mythically constructing Jesus as a new Moses). As such the chapter is purely a reference work for people wanting to pursue the theory, not an argument for that theory, and most readers will find it unintelligible or unreadable. Hence its being the first chapter in the book, after Hoffmann's indulgently irrelevant "preface," is one of the weirdest editorial choices I've ever seen.
As editor I would have told MacDonald to compose instead of this a chapter more like what he presented at the conference, and circulated beforehand: an actual survey of the evidence and argument for this proposed reconstruction, not the actual reconstruction itself. And this wouldn't be difficult, as MacDonald would need merely excerpt and adapt the pages on this from his forthcoming book, which he precirculated, so I know this excellent material exists, and so should Hoffmann. No editor worth his salt would let this go. As it is, no one is going to be persuaded by MacDonald's chapter that his thesis is correct, and many won't even be able to grasp what his thesis is. And that's a terrible shame, because MacDonald has really good arguments and evidence supporting this thesis, and for it not to be here is a scandal. I wonder if MacDonald was even consulted about this (or if Hoffmann just grabbed one piece of MacDonald's precirculated material and slapped it in), but even had he been and asked this be done, I (like any good editor) would have persuaded him not to go with that, but something more persuasive and summarizing, using the other material I already knew he had. Instead, this chapter is a lost opportunity, and is not really worth reading, unless you are a serious bible scholar keen on reverse-engineering his thesis from a long, raw list of its results.
Trobisch's chapter is likewise disappointing. It is not the material presented at the conference. Instead it's a rather random grab bag of, again, some of the results of his thesis, rather than an argument for that thesis. At the conference he discussed numerous kinds of physical and textual evidence in the manuscripts that only makes sense if the New Testament was published, all 27 books, in codex form, near the end of the 2nd century. He made a pretty convincing case, adding to the case made in his CSER article (issue 2.1, possibly the same as published in Free Inquiry 28.1), which is actually more worth reading than this chapter, as is his book on this subject (The First Edition of the New Testament), and yet there was a lot of material in his conference presentation that isn't in either. None of which is in this chapter. Again, a great loss, as the material actually presented would have made this chapter, and with it the whole book, required reading. I can't fathom any editor not agreeing with that and convincing Trobisch of it and thus getting the best chapter in the book (particularly as it was the actual conference paper), rather than this one, which is mediocre, and won't convince anyone of anything.
Finally there are actual mistakes in the edit. I caught some of them long before publication and asked Hoffmann to make the corrections. He never did. Instead, he slagged me off as a liar when I complained about this afterward. Bizarrely, as "proof" that I had not asked him to make this change, he quoted back to me the email I had sent months before publication asking him to make the change. Thereby tempting me to conclude that he must be a lunatic. I was also never shown a galley proof, and thus never had any opportunity to review the edit for further errors. I only caught other errors in the CSER publication of the same chapter and thus informed him of them prior to seeing any galleys. I was expecting to get a chance to do a final error check from a galleys, but I never got one. As I have gotten one on every other Prometheus anthology project I've worked on, the dropped ball here is almost certainly Hoffmann's.
If this is how I was treated, I can only assume other authors may have been similarly treated, so there may be other defects of the chapters those authors would have corrected had they been given the chance. The entire book should thus be read in that light, with charity to the authors. Blame any correctable errors on the editor.
As for my chapter, you should make the following changes to your copy of the book: the first sentence on p. 92 should end with an end- parenthesis (after the "S1"); in the second paragraph on p. 97 every time the word "equation" appears (except the first one, in the first sentence, which is correct), cross it out and write in "expression" instead (doesn't affect anything but it's important to get the terminology right); every time the phrase "posterior probability" appears (in bold on p. 98 and 99, and in the plain text atop p. 100) cross out "posterior" and write in "consequent" (everyone I've spoken with agrees there is still no ideal convention for naming this term here, and in consultation with mathematicians I settled on the latter, the former being too confusing because "posterior probability" also refers to the conclusion of an entire Bayesian equation). Also, on p. 107, my forthcoming book that will discuss Bayes' Theorem will now have a different title, although its present working title is Bayes' Theorem and Historical Method, and On the Historicity of Jesus Christ will later apply the method.
(For convenience, readers who want to keep up with my adjunct materials for this chapter, see my PDF document Bayes' Theorem for Beginners, which I have improved for accuracy, and now my Bayesian Calculator, still in development).
The Greater Mistakes
All that would merely be annoying. What actually all but ruins the book are the chapters left out, and the crap put in in their stead. I've already mentioned the effective losses of MacDonald's and Trobisch's original papers. But several papers were outright cut, for no reason I can tell.
Chilton's actual conference paper ("Aramaic Jesus Traditions: Evidence and Reconstruction") was about the development of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (effectively the Aramaic equivalent of the marvelous Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) and its use to develop a methodology for reconstructing the possible original Aramaic of the sayings of Jesus, and what this could tell us as far as determining their historicity. I think there were flawed assumptions in this, but it was at least interesting, important, and usefully general, i.e. it was an example of developing a new method, and a new technology, for studying the historical Jesus. The chapter that ended up in the book is none of these things, and has nothing at all to do with what Chilton talked about at the conference.
James Tabor's "Leaving the Bones Behind: A Resurrected Jesus Tradition with an Intact Tomb" was a smart work that would have been ground-breaking, and whether you agree with his conclusion or not, it would have become a required reading in the field, so it's absence here is a serious defect of this book. Tabor made a reasonably convincing case that John 21 (often recognized as a later addition) and Peter 14 both derive from the same lost source in which no empty tomb is recorded (or reported) as being discovered, Jesus is just "seen" in bizarre ways in Galilee by Disciples who had long since given up and returned to their jobs after his death. One might make the argument that this "lost source" was the "original ending" of Mark, since it dovetails perfectly with Mark 6:8 (the odd declaration that the only witnesses to the empty tomb never told anyone about it), but that would be speculation. And either way, we still have an appearance tradition unconnected to an empty tomb report, which would logically have to be the earlier tradition. Tabor also presented evidence supporting my two body theory of resurrection as being the original Christian view. The book would have been far more useful if this chapter had been retained.
A.J. Droge's "Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What's in a Name?" both as presented and pre-circulated was one of the most important papers in the field of Jesus myth studies ever produced, and its loss here is a disaster. Even just its inclusion alone (when added to the other good material retained) would have made this book's list price just about warranted. In it Droge thoroughly documents and analyzes the case of Ned Ludd ("founder" of the 18th-19th century Luddites), providing source citations and scholarship, demonstrating that he did not exist, and yet an entire movement was credited as having been founded by him, complete with biography, tales, and teachings, within a generation of when he was supposed to have lived (about thirty years of his supposed techno-sabotage, and thus within his very lifetime, had he lived, and lived to a commonly reached age). This establishes a useful case to compare with Jesus, to ascertain how likely the same may have unfolded for him (and, of course, it refutes the claim that such a thing can't happen).
In his actual conference paper, I thought Hoffmann made an extensive and well-organized argument that the New Testament documents were produced by a faith community for preaching and propaganda, and not as disinterested (or even interested) biographies or memoirs. We see no indication in them, or in the first two centuries, any discussion of sources or reasons to prefer one account to another. They all just make Jesus do or say whatever they want. Which seems an obvious point, but laying the evidence out really drives home the implication: they weren't even interested in knowing what the truth really was; they were only interested in the "truth" being the way they wanted it to be, and then just declared it so. This is a radically different situation to be in than for any other ancient historical person.
Hoffmann discussed how the nativity stories were invented to make a point (as is proved by their being completely contradictory, but also by the obvious symbolic and propagandistic elements in them), and not constructed from historical sources or analysis (as neither sources nor analysis appears in them), and if the Gospels can invent such elaborate historical narratives, we can have little hope anything else in them is any more factual. Similarly, the process of deciding the canon proceeded according to circular and dogmatic criteria rather than any objective method of determining document reliability. Hoffmann's main theme was to illustrate the use of these documents to fight sectarian ideological battles, so that to expect them to also be reliable historical sources is like expecting a man to serve both God and Mammon.
That's what I remember. Potentially a much better paper than any of the chapters Hoffmann produced for this book. All of which are lame, indulgent, and useless...
Hoffmann's "preface" (so called) is really just a random chapter rambling on (yet saying very little) about the history of the Quest and the Jesus Seminar, yet (strange for a "preface") never once even mentioning the Amherst conference, the Jesus Project, or any of the authors or chapters in the rest of the book. He says nothing about how the book came together, what's in it, or how any decisions were made in regard to either. And even as a random editorial on the subjects it does discuss, it's inferior to anything else written on them, almost any of which are far better, more comprehensive, and more useful as a reference or introduction to the issue.
Hoffmann then throws into the midst of the book two chapters that make no sense here. One rambles almost randomly on evidence from the NT of Christians inventing traditions about marriage and attributing them to Jesus, his conclusion being that "the Jesus community did not engage in marriage," "they did not regard it as a sacrament," but as "a moral expedient for the spiritually weak." Of course, Paul says "the brothers of Jesus" and even the supreme apostle Peter were married (1 Cor. 9:5), Ephesians declares marriage a divine mystery ordained by God (Eph. 5:28-33), and Hebrews outright declares marriage honorable and important (Heb. 13:4), which are some things that could challenge Hoffmann's conclusion (and which Hoffmann himself never even mentions, nor does he interact with any of the scholarship on this question, two facts alone rendering this chapter fatally defective). Sure, he might say Ephesians and Hebrews reflect 2nd century attitudes projected back onto the earliest churches, but we should expect him to at least make his case for that, as well as discuss what some other scholars have concluded about all this. Moreover, Hoffmann puts far too much confidence in what Paul says as being representative of all Christianity in Paul's day and before, when we have ample evidence to be sure it was neither (indeed, on marriage especially, Paul may have been particularly idiosyncratic). But even granting Hoffmann's conclusion, what has it to do with ascertaining what we can say are facts about the historical Jesus? This is a chapter about the early church, not Jesus. Hoffmann doesn't even discuss how he decides that the relevant sayings were assigned to Jesus rather than actually said by him, which at least would have entailed a relevant discussion of methodology. What we get instead is simply useless.
Later Hoffmann tosses in another random chapter vaguely arguing that we can know nothing for certain about Jesus apart from perhaps that he was "a man of no prominence, living in a widely illiterate age in a backward province even by Roman standards, with few friends who could have told his story," and then hints that we can't even be sure he existed at all. These are extremely bold claims that he doesn't even come close to adequately proving in the chapter (which is barely just twelve pages). After reading it, in the margins of its lead page I wrote, "argument is unclear, and when clear is unconvincing, and overall is of no practical use in reading."
Finally, Hoffmann added some dim reflection of his conference talk as an "epilogue" that again never mentions the conference, the Jesus Project, or any of the contents of the book (not even to ruminate over their significance), and instead just lists a series of unproven hypotheses.
Summarizing the Good
So much for what sucks about this book. Let me close with what's nevertheless good about it. It contains, of course, my chapter "Bayes's Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method," which is a nice brief introduction to historical reasoning, and Bayes' Theorem and how it might be applied to that (and also sampling some of the evidence that, by contrast, the usual "criteria" used in Jesus studies are fatally defective, which is not a novel finding: as I show, every scholar who has published specifically on this subject concurs). But were that all, I still would not recommend this book to anyone, because one chapter just isn't enough (and this chapter still needs the corrections made that I noted above). So fortunately there's a lot more...
Lindsay's chapter makes some nice points about the semantics of the question "did Jesus exist?" (showing that philosophers do have something to add to the debate). Not essential reading, but worth a read. The second half of Ellens' chapter, as I noted before, is also worth reading. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, he makes an interesting case that many elements of the Jesus story (such as his age when he begins his ministry, his atonement role, the transfiguration) were invented to characterize him as an ideal Levitical priest, in accordance with patterns established by Ezekiel, Daniel, and texts at Qumran. An example of the kind of analysis historians need to explore.
Zindler's chapter makes a very important point about the serious technological defects of Jesus studies as a field intending to make any progress. Everything he says about that subject is spot on, and not something you will have thought of before. It's just that rectifying it would require the dedication of millions of dollars a year for many decades to develop the required databases, and no one is going to foot that bill for a dying, profitless field that fewer and fewer people give a shit about (indeed, my own primary field, ancient science, has even more dire prospects, yet IMO is objectively far more worth studying). However, there are many defects to Zindler's chapter, which I mentioned before, making it a flawed contribution (I counted eight fallacies and four dubious claims before p. 149, where his good material begins, after which point there are no serious flaws).
But the three most important chapters in this book, which alone make it worth having (if you can get a cheap copy), are Justin Meggitt's "Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions," which very informedly surveys the actual context of Christian discourse and mythmaking and how this changes the way we look at the Gospels and Apocrypha (this chapter is so well referenced it's a must-read); Robert Price's, "The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus," which, like Droge had done, teaches by example, taking the case of how quickly and shamelessly entire lists of sayings and stories were invented for Mohammed and his successors and showing that we can have no reason to believe Jesus was treated any differently, and given the evidence he presents, it's hard to deny that conclusion, making this another must-read; and Gerd Lüdemann, "Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus," the most important chapter of all, surveys the supposed evidence in Paul's letters of knowledge about a historical Jesus and finds in fact there is none. Such a conclusion, demonstrated by such a widely respected scholar , carries particular weight, and makes this yet another must-read.
So Sources wasn't a complete failure, but it could have been vastly better, and to the extent that it's good at all, that would seem to be wholly despite Hoffmann's involvement. I recommend you buy it only if you find a good discount price, and aren't pressed for space in your home library (and then take into account all its defects when reading it).