Tag Archives: James F. McGrath

Jesus’s family didn’t think he was crazy

The only place in the canonical New Testament where you might be told otherwise is Mark 3:21, which the popular New International Version translates: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.'” Many other English translations of this verse are similar (link).

The popularity of this unflattering glimpse of the holy family is a mystery. Mark‘s original Greek is thoroughly vague. The verb translated as to take charge of (kratesai) covers both welcome and unwelcome touching, whether for healing (as at verse 1:31), or to make an arrest (as in Gethsemane, 14:46). The verb translated as he is out of his mind (exeste) similarly applies equally well to a variety of mental states, from the positive astonishment at Jesus’s teaching and miracles (for example, verse 2:12) to something negative that contrasts with sobriety or calm demeanor (2 Corinthians 5:13).

It’s even vague whether Jesus’s family is involved at all. The Greek phrase is no more specific than something like those who are close to him (hoi par’ autou). In context, Jesus’s family is one reasonable inference about Mark’s meaning, but many English translations follow the 1611 King James Version here and say his friends instead. James McGrath recently offered discussion of still other reasonable views about who might be close to Jesus (link). Regardless, whether they are friends or family or somebody else, some of those who know Jesus well are often portrayed in translated Christian literature as having prepared a physical intervention based on their appraisal that Jesus’s mental state was dodgy.

This posting puzzles out what Mark intended this verse to convey, and why a master craftsman wrote it so opaquely. Something important is at stake. Christians promoting an unflattering “factoid” about Jesus without support from the source text undercuts a widely cited heuristic used for discerning supposed facts about Jesus’s life, including whether or not Jesus was a real person who actually lived.

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A lay critic’s bill of rights

WW II PosterProfessor James McGrath recently blogged about how academic consensus ought to influence the beliefs of lay people (link). Somebody had recommended to him a book about Moses authored by the non-academic history writer Dorothy Milne Murdock (also known as Acharya S). McGrath declined the recommendation, in part because:

Scholars across secular and religious institutions of learning are fallible human beings held accountable to one another. Their consensus, when they reach one, is more reliable than lone fallible human beings who deliberately avoid being held accountable to that community of experts.

Murdock mostly did “deliberately avoid being held accountable to that community of scholars.” I’d rather not defend her work.

Still, McGrath’s brush paints broad strokes. Every lay critic of the academy avoids accountability to the academy, that’s what a lay person is.

An outsider, even a lone outsider, enjoys warranted prerogatives to criticize the academy’s offerings. Perchance the academy might be even more reliable should lay people insist that scholars respect those prerogatives. Meanwhile, lay people surely ought to respect them among themselves.

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Brothers, Paul’s and James’

Papyrus 46 page

P46’s page with Galatians 1:19

Paul refers twice to “the brothers of the Lord.” At Galatians 1:18-19 (link), Paul meets James,

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. But of the other apostles I saw no one except James, the Lord’s brother.

and at 1 Corinthians 9:5-6 (link) Paul designates a group using the same Greek phrase in the plural,

Have we no right to take along a wife who is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or have only Barnabas and I no right to not work?

Religion professor James McGrath, whose ideas on historical reasoning the Uncertaintist discussed last year (link), thinks Galatians 1:19 “ought to settle the matter” that Jesus was a real historical person (link).

It makes sense that if Paul met one of Jesus’ brothers and knew of others, then Paul’s Jesus was an earthly human being. Moreover, these brothers participate in church affairs. Their activity would help explain what Paul thought a living Jesus had contributed to Christian origins, a topic otherwise missing from Paul’s writings.

But no so fast. As with Josephus’ supposed mention of James (link), authenticating two brief excerpts from Paul’s letters isn’t trivial. However, although uncertain, authenticity is a less urgent concern for Paul’s the brother of the Lord than for Josephus’ the brother of Jesus called Christ.

Looking past authenticity, to lay the two phrases side by side reveals different levels of discourse. Far from a plain matter-of-fact phrasing, Paul identifies Jesus solely by a purely religious construction. That being so, how confident can anyone be that Paul isn’t also designating James and the others by another figurative religious construction?

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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