Can Human Brain Consciousness be Replicated?

Robert Kuhn, an old friend, colleague, and producer of the amazing PBS program “Closer to Truth,” (see my own contributions here) has just published a most provocative piece at LiveScience titled: “The Singularity, Virtual Immortality and the Trouble with Consciousness.” Will science replicate the human brain and thus produce the phenomenon we all experience our conscious “inner-self,”–what Plato and Freud called the “Ego”?

According to techno-futurists, the exponential development of technology in general and artificial intelligence (“AI”) in particular — including the complete digital replication of human brains — will radically transform humanity via two revolutions. The first is the “singularity,” when artificial intelligence will redesign itself recursively and progressively, such that AI will become vastly more powerful than human intelligence (“superstrong AI”). The second revolution will be “virtual immortality,” when the fullness of our mental selves can be uploaded perfectly to nonbiological media (such as silicon chips), and our mental selves will live on beyond the demise of our fleshy, physical bodies.

AI singularity and virtual immortality would mark a startling, transhuman world that techno-futurists envision as inevitable and perhaps just over the horizon. They do not question whether their vision can be actualized; they only debate when will it occur, with estimates ranging from 10 to 100 years. [Artificial Intelligence: Friendly or Frightening?]

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Kuhn, who has his Ph.D. in brain science has his doubts, but takes us through all the various views with clips and interviews from the best and the brightest in the field of the physiology and psychology of the human brain. A fascinating read.

I surely have no expertise in this field but I remain convinced that any such replication, however precise and infinitely complex, would remain as “dumb” as a more sophisticated version of Siri on my iPhone. More is more, but more is not consciousness. 

On the other hand I think the idea of a “non-physical” component or aspect of the brain is perhaps a category mistake. Why denigrate the so-called “physical” to the four forces of physics as they are currently conceived—electromagnetic, magnetism, and strong and weak nuclear—when there might be “other” aspects of reality, whether one wants to use the term physical or not, being manifest through the 3 lb human brain. Many have argued that brain size (100 billion neurons for us humans) relative to body-rate is what seems to distinguish us from other creatures on the planet–but such is not the case, see “The Four Biggest Myths About the Human Brain.”

I am not thinking so much here of the proverbial human “soul,” conceived as a non-physical “entity” somehow inserted by the Divine into our physical world. This view is in fact based on a mistranslation–and thus a misunderstanding–of Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (KJV). The problem is twofold here. First, the term in Hebrew, “breath of life”  (נשמת חיים) is not some mysterious non-physical component–but simply a reference to air-breathing creatures–human or otherwise (see Genesis 7:15 where it is used for land animals in general). Second, the term translated “living soul” (נפש חיה) has absolutely nothing to do with any idea of an immortal soul–it simply means any air breathing creature (see Genesis 1:30).

On the mind/body problem, in terms of this article, I would favor some version of 2 & 3 with openness to 4. I do think we have to distinguish between “consciousness” more generically (“being aware of an outside world”) and a unique sense of “self,” or the Ego. I am pretty sure my dog lacks the latter. With it goes the ability, of course, to think in time, and about time, and thus to contemplate the future and to act by “choice,” with anticipation of outcomes—and thus ethics. This of course goes way beyond “instincts” or learning patterns (i.e. don’t touch a hot plate). Another factor of course is the body itself as mental states are also bodily and can hardly be separated therefrom—hearing music, seeing colors, sensing smells, sexual feelings, various kinds of emotions, including love, kinship, happiness, sadness, well being, et al. I wonder how any computer that “replicates” the structure of the brain would function without a “body,” since the two are one and the same system—impossible to separate out.

I loved the film Ex Machina as much as anyone but I nonetheless think we still have a lot to learn about the proverbial “mind body problem,” and philosophers from antiquity to the present have laid out most of the parameters of the arguments. Read much more on this and related topics at the “Closer to Truth” homepage–five minutes of browsing and you will be hooked!

Why a “Spiritual” Resurrection is the Only Sensible Option

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all affirm the doctrine of “resurrection of the dead” as a central tenet of eschatology–that is, the understanding of the “last things” or how human history is to end. One common misunderstanding, especially among Christians, is that resurrection of the dead is equivalent to the idea of corpse revival, namely that in order to “make the dead live” (which is the literal Hebrew expression), God would somehow revive the physical bodies of those who have long since perished and turned to dust or ashes–or otherwise been completely absorbed into our planetary ecosystem. This view of resurrection of the dead is often given the label of “literal,” which is taken to mean “actual.”  In other words, in the case of Jesus, unless one believes Jesus’ corpse was “literally” raised to life–i.e., his dead and mutilated body was revivified–then his resurrection would not be “literally” true. The alternative idea, that the “old body” is left behind, like a worn out form of clothing, with the dead “returning to life” in a new transformed state or “mode of being,” is often seen as a threat to Christian apologetics–i.e. the faith that Jesus was truly raised from the dead.

Spiritual BodiesWhat such a view misses is two important things. First, our earliest source for Christian faith in resurrection are the letters of Paul–who clearly affirms a “literal” but spiritual resurrection–for both Jesus and those at the end of history. The dead are raised in an embodied form–but their bodies are no longer “flesh and blood,” but transformed into what he calls a “pneumatikos” body–that is a non-physical “spiritual” mode of being. As Paul puts it–as Adam was “dust of the earth,” so Christ, as a “new Adam,” is a transformed “life-giving Spirit.” Second, the early Christian view of resurrection for the most part developed along similar lines. For most sophisticated Christian thinkers the resurrection of the dead, though seen as “bodily,” was no longer “flesh and blood” and did not necessitate any revival of the literal bones or perished remains of the deceased. After all, only a tiny fraction of human beings who have ever lived on this planet have identifiable “tombs” or graves, from which they might be raised. Clearly the idea of the dead “coming forth from their graves” might be viewed as “actual” but surely not “literal.” Using metaphors to express concepts beyond our physical experience is not robbing the concepts that lie within the metaphor of reality.

I realize that some of the latest gospel accounts of the “sightings” of Jesus present us with Jesus’ physical body–eating meals and displaying his wounds as “proof” that he is no “ghost,” but these have to be laid out chronologically alongside the complex of “appearance” traditions. I have written rather extensively on these subject in both my books (The Jesus Discovery and Paul and Jesus), as well as on this blog, see here. When all our accounts are taken together I am persuaded that Paul’s view of “leaving the old clothing behind” was the earliest–and was shared by the first witnesses he names in 1 Corinthians 15–namely Peter, James, the Twelve, and the “500” brothers.

The discussion of the important differences between the Greek affirmation of the “immortality of the soul,” and the Jewish concept of “resurrection of the dead,” is an essential part of this discussion. Most students of Christian Origins are introduced at some point to Oscar Cullmann’s classic Ingersoll lecture at Harvard in 1955, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?: The Witness of the New Testament,” subsequently published with other essays in an edited volume, Immortality and Resurrection (Macmillan) by Krister Stendahl, now out of print. Fortunately, there is a version of the substance of lecture on the Web. What Cullmann showed so clearly is that one must not gloss over the important differences in these two classic Western ways of viewing death and afterlife. However, a half century of research subsequently has shown that the theological differences Cullmann pinpoints are not as airtight as they might appear, when viewed through the lens of the critical historian of ideas. The magisterial study of Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion changes the entire landscape of the discussion in this regard. Its rich content and analysis is essential to any informed discussion.

If anything one finds that there is a blurring between the sharp distinctions that Cullmann posited, with Jews affirming “resurrection of the dead,” or even “resurrection of the body,” in complex and nuanced ways, often parallel to so-called “Greek” views of immortality. One result is that the literal physical remains of the dead play little to no part, other than in a metaphorical way, in the more sophisticated affirmations that the “dead” experience ongoing existence either in another realm, or in an age to come. Thus in the book of Revelation (20:11-13), the “sea gave up the dead that were in it,” and those resurrected dead “stand” before the throne of God in judgment, but the writer obviously has no interest in affirming a literal recovery of “bones and flesh,” or reanimated corpses, long ago “returned to dust.”
Jews and early Christians were quite aware of the complex nuances of their affirmation of “resurrection of the dead,” and that a literal view of restored “bones and flesh” was not their central concern nor their most fundamental challenge. There was something much more profound at stake that had to do with an “anthropological” view of the whole human person–thus Paul’s category of a “new body,” but a spiritual one, not one of flesh and blood. This was in contrast to the “naked” state of death, before the spirit is “reclothed.” We are essentially dealing with metaphors here but the clothing analogy seems to be a good one, as Paul develops it in 2 Corinthians 5. He apparently likens the body of flesh and bones to old clothing, and one’s immediate “death” as a naked state of the disembodied “spirit,” (i.e., Greek “immortal soul”). Accordingly, putting on a “new spiritual body” is akin to putting on new clothing, with the old shed or left behind. In that system of understanding resurrection literal “tombs” are irrelevant, whether literally in the ground, or symbolically “in the sea.”

That is why finding the decayed bones of Jesus in an ossuary, as might well be the case Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem, as I have argued here on this blog and extensively in our book, The Jesus Discovery, does not contradict the earliest faith in Jesus’ resurrection by his first followers. What has happened is that people have conflated the later accounts in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, where Jesus clearly appears as a “revived corpse” and even asks for food to eat–declaring himself to be “flesh and blood,” with the much earlier views the gospel of Mark (with no appearances of Jesus), the fragment ending of the Gospel of Peter, and Matthew–that are much more compatible with Paul’s earlier view (50s CE) of “seeing” Jesus’ spiritual body. The idea those who “sleep in the dust” awakening, or the sea “giving up” the dead that are in it, makes it crystal clear that resurrection of the dead has to do with a transformed “heavenly” existence, not a revival of the scant remains of those long ago turned to “dust and ashes” as the phrase goes (Daniel 12:2-3; Revelation 20:13). One might also recall that, according to Jesus, those who experience the “age to come” and the resurrection of the dead, are transformed into an “angelic” state, no longer male or female with physical bodies (Luke 20:34-38).

Keith Akers, author of The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity, has a thoughtful post from a few years back titled “Implications of the Jesus Family Tomb at Talpiot” at his Website which is as relevant today as when he first wrote it. I really appreciated Akers’s book on Jesus and learned a lot from him. I have found anything he writes to be well thought through and valuable to read. In his essay on the Talpiot Tomb he raises the issue of how diverse groups of early Christians began to formulate their understanding of what was essentially affirmed in the teaching of “resurrection of the dead,” whether that of Jesus, or the raising of the dead more generally at the end of the age.

Rejecting the Supernatural?

In my two recent posts I briefly questioned the assumptions associated with the term “supernatural.” From a philosophical standpoint I would argue that what is needed is not so much a rejection of the supernatural as a redefining thereof. On the other hand, I am not a philosopher but a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. In that role the charge I most often hear from readers who identify themselves as Christian “believers” is that historians “reject the supernatural.” In other words, historians begin with what are labeled as “naturalistic” presuppositions and thus end up rejecting a priori, the very possibility of the incarnation, the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection, and his ascent to heaven–in other words all the theological affirmations of the Apostles’ or Nicean Creeds. I have addressed this issue quite recently here, but want to expand a bit in some different directions.

Prof. Ronald Hendel has an interesting piece in this regard in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “Critical Biblical Scholarship–What’s the Use?,” challenging those who would question the value of historical critical study of the Biblical texts as Christian philosophers. Hendel is the one who opened this “can of worms” back in August, 2010 with an op-ed in BAR titled “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies” (36:04, July/Aug 2010) in which he lamented the increased participation and influence of evangelical and fundamental Christian scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature meetings, many of whom openly oppose standard historical critical methods in favor of a ‘faith based” Biblical scholarship. You can read an on-line version here, and some SBL responses here. I would particularly direct readers to Kenneth  Atkinson’s insightful response here. Hendel’s charge is that essentially folks are mixing categories here, confusing the role of faith with that of reason–that is the scientific investigation of texts and other historical evidence–“Biblical” or otherwise. Hendel wrote:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This famous line from Pascal’s Pensées draws a wise distinction between religious faith and intellectual inquiry. The two have different motivations and pertain to different domains of experience. They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and he did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations. He regarded the authority of the church to be meaningless in such matters. He argued that “all the powers in the world can by their authority no more persuade people of a point of fact than they can change it.”1 That is to say, facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.

I have to side largely with Hendel on this issue. As I often tell my students, good history is never the enemy of informed faith, but I don’t see my job as a historian of religions to sort out the faith issues for people–or even to deal with them at all. This is not to say that people who hold such faith are stupid or uninformed, but rather that faith and history are separate ways of looking at religions. Other than a few clerics, every major scholar of whom I am aware in the field of “studies of the historical Jesus,” shares the same basic historical methods and presuppositions. This is not to say we all agree on conclusions, but we are clear on the methods of historical research and what counts for evidence.

It is quite easy to confuse the roles of the academic historical study of religions as contrasted to Christian faith or theology, but alas, such confusion is quite common. I teach at a state university and serve as chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies. That means our funding is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and when it comes to the academic study of religions we take that most seriously. Obviously, like any large department of Religious Studies, we cover a range of religious traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and so forth. In considering the history, development, and practice of these faiths in all their manifold variety it is absolutely essential that we take an objective academic approach–the very opposite to that of some readers, who obviously think that Christianity and the “truth” of Jesus’ resurrection, virgin birth, divinity, and redemptive role as Savior of humankind are historical facts, self-evident to any “true scholar.” Of course similar claims of other traditions to valid supernatural experiences are viewed as false, or perhaps “demonic.”

Historical descriptive work in the area of religions is not in the business of evaluating truth claims, but in honestly and objectively tracing and reporting the rise and development of such views. In other words, it is not my role as a historian to say “Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, and those testimonies in Paul’s 1 Corinthian letter, and at the end of Matthew, Luke, and John are verifiable historical truth and I urge others to believe them so they can have eternal life.” Such personal testimony of faith would surely not make me a “true scholar,” in fact it would be quite the opposite. Imagine if a professor teaching the history of Islam began a class by endorsing Allah as the one God, Mohammed as his infallible Prophet, and the many “undeniable proofs” of the Koran’s perfection. One could hardly call such an approach “history” and any good university would never hire such a teacher, and rightly so. The historical investigation of Christianity, or any religion for that matter, should be no different.

There are many places and situations in which such faith affirmations are appropriate but certainly not in the academic study of religion. Both my two latest books, The Jesus Dynasty, and The Jesus Discovery,  reflect the methods and assumptions with which historians commonly operate as they describe and trace the history and development of a religious tradition. Our job is not to evaluate and endorse spiritual truth, but rather to offer the best possible account we can of the history and development of a given tradition.

In point of fact, I do not “reject the supernatural,” (so much as “redefine” it) but such personal philosophical or theological views have nothing to do with my work as an historian. The guiding question of my recent work has been–what can be responsibly said about the historical Jesus? Affirming a belief that Jesus had no human father or that he rose bodily up to heaven in the clouds following his death, would take one totally out of the realm of what can be investigated historically. In my books I wanted to “come clean” with the reader in this regard and be clear about the differences between history and faith.

What is rather frightening is to imagine such views of the supernatural becoming a part of the wider academic world–or God forbid, our Republic government, where Christian faith and dogma are treated as historical fact, and thus “required” as part of legislation and curricula. Thank God for the Enlightenment and the skeptical “deism” of our founding fathers and mothers in formulating the 1st Amendment. Unfortunately about three quarters of the world has still not learned the lesson of separating “religion” and the “state,” and even in Europe, which is surely proud of its secularism in contrast to the United States, still nonetheless has retained the fetters of a Church based system. Ironically, as witnessed by our own culture, a “secular” Republic does not mean the end of religion–far from it. In fact the free exchange of all ideas allows religions of every stripe and measure to thrive. Thank you John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and all the rest.

The Confusing Category of “The Supernatural”

I think the main problem in discussions between theists and atheists is the assumption that static categories like “the Divine,” the “supernatural,” the “natural,” and the “material” exist other than as our dualistic semantic projections upon the whole of reality as we can perceive it. Our experiences are never reductionistically “materialistic,” even in the proverbial “hard, cold” lab. Process theism, by whatever name (Whitehead, Hartshorne) seems a better way of thinking about our “reality” even if “God” might not be the word one choses to use given the connotations from “Classic” theism (omniscience and omnipotence).

Bottom line: the very nature of reality presents us with what appear to be “mechanistic” “time and chance” “atoms and the void” phenomenon (as per Jacques Monod), but also “mind” “thought” and other transcendent “spiritualist” phenomenon as well, that seem to exhibit will, reason, and the aesthetic–hence this very blog, this topic, and the any discussion thereof. It is a simple truism that there is no way to step outside of things and make “meaningful” nihilistic declarations about the non-meaning or hyper-subjectivity of our existence. As the old joke goes: “There are no absolutes?–Are you absolutely sure of that?”

“Mind and Matter”are no opposing realities but of one whole “panentheistic” reality as witnessed by our every thought and word. Most of us agree that “magical” thinking is not a credible casual factor in our universe (angels, demons, fairies, and projected illusions) but who among us can reduce to the “normal” or the purely “material” (i.e., the four forces/fields of gravity, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear) our wondrous and marvelous minds and our common as well as not-so-common experiences of reality? In other words, all natural phenonema are by definition supra-natural, if by “natural” one means a truncated mechanistic view of both our inner realities and all that we experience in our world of “nature.”

 

The Ancient Gnostics–Were They Intellectuals or Hawkers of Pop Esoteric “Mumbo Jumbo”?

Prof. Larry Hurtado, retired professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, recently asserted in his popular blog that the ancient Christian Gnostics were hardly intellectuals, but akin to modern devotees of popular “esotericism” who lack any kind of academic training:

It’s perhaps a natural mistake [i.e. thinking of the ancient Gnostics as intellectuals, JDT] for people who haven’t read the texts, given that “gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, which means “knowledge.”  But in the case of those called “gnostics,” the kind of “knowledge” that they sought wasn’t “intellectual,” but (to put it kindly) what we might term “esoteric,” secretive truths expressed typically in cryptic, riddling form, deliberately intended to make little sense as expressed.  Put unkindly, one might characterize it as a bunch of “mumbo-jumbo” with no attempt to present them reasonably and in terms of the intellectual climate of the time.

There are modern equivalents to the ancient “gnostics,” people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves “special” in some way, such that, without the sort of academic training most of us think necessary, they can leap into some mystical “truths.”  Just go to the average bookshop and scan the “religion & magic”  section (yeah, I know, “religion & magic,” says it all).  You’ll likely find many (perhaps most on the shelves) catering to such tastes and positing such ideas.

You can read his entire post, “Ancient ‘Gnostics’: Intellectuals? Not Really!” here.

Gnostic Cosmology

Prof. April DeConick has offered her response on her blog “The Forbidden Gospels” just this morning, boldly asserting the opposite–namely that the Ancient Gnostics were indeed intellectuals. You can find her response here.

You won’t want to miss this very informative exchange.

The Top Seven Fateful Passages in the New Testament (6) “Look to the Things Unseen”

The New Testament has been the most influential collection of documents in history. Taken by both commoners and those in power as the inspired and infallible  “Word of God,” and interpreted ofttimes outside its historical context, its fateful influence has often emerged from single passages with far-ranging consequences:

platos-caveWe look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

This rather striking quasi-Platonic sounding admonition of the apostle Paul seems innocent enough on the surface, especially given the deeply embedded “dualism” in our Western philosophical and religious culture, but it has surely had fateful consequences. As with so many of Paul’s admonitions–regarding women, slavery, honoring the Emperor, or “Jerusalem above” rather than “Jerusalem below”–the element of apocalypticism is dominant. For Paul the end of all things is at hand, so in this case, anything “seen” or “earthly” is in the process of passing away–including all social, gender, ethnic, religious, political, or gender categories and distinctions. Why would it matter if one is slave or master, male or female, oppressor or subject, rich or poor? All these things are temporal and passing with no enduring consequence. His world view is not strictly Platonic, but effectively so, in that nothing temporal has enduring importance since the heavenly Christ will soon appear in glory:

Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…when Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:2-4).

Paul and his successors became the conduit for this kind of Platonic dualism spreading into every nook and cranny of our cultural heritage.  The disastrous results for the countless disenfranchised ones of our social and political order, or those on the wrong side doctrinally of the Christian imperialism that emerged, enforced by emperors and councils of bishops, are incalculable.

James Tabor on PBS: Imagining Immortality and Eternal Life

One more in this three-part series of conversations about the “Afterlife” on the PBS show “Closer to Truth” with the ever perceptive host Dr. Robert Kuhn. Here we explore more specifically the “Imagining Immortality and Eternal Life,” click on the video image here for the link:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

For further background reading on this topic see the links in the first post here.

James Tabor on PBS: What Is Immortality?

Here is a continuation of my exploration with “Closer to Truth” host Dr. Robert Kuhn regarding the concept of “Afterlife.” Here we explore more specifically the question of immortality. Click on the video image here for the link:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

For further background reading on this topic see the links in yesterday’s post here.

James Tabor on PBS: The Afterlife

One of the programs I did on the PBS Show “Closer to Truth,” hosted by Dr. Robert L. Kuhn was on the “Afterlife.” I have also published an article dealing with the same subject, “What the Bible Says About the Future,” which you can download free as a PDF here. Enjoy the interview by clicking the video image here:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable creation of Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

While I am on the subject of the “Afterlife” I wanted to also recommend some past posts for new readers of this blog that I think will shed much light on this fascinating but complex subject–including the oft misunderstood concept of “Resurrection of the Dead.” As you will see there is a lot of in-depth material archived here, much of which I regularly present in my university classes and I am pleased to share with my blog readers.

The Earliest Account of the Discovery of Jesus’ Tomb: What It Says and What It Does not Say

Easter Morning: Sorting Through the Sources and Traditions

Resurrection Means Participation

Making the Dead Ones Live

What Really Happened Easter Morning?–The Mystery Solved

Why People are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

Death as Life and Life as Death

Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?

One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude  the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”

For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?

My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynasty and in all of my academic work, are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.

Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.

When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.

As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.

Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof a a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. A recent reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, or a host of others and seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.

The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.

As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not exclude religious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.

We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.