Quest Historie 1/2010: Theologian Annette Merz has reached the second stage…
…and inadvertently touches the third.
Here’s a kind of Kübler-Ross model for new scientific truths:
- disregard (theory is ignored)
- combat (theory is fought fiercely and by all means including ridicule)
- acceptance (theory is approved, admitted and accepted)
These three stages do not derive from a revolutionary new insight into the scholarly reception of spearhead science and paradigm shifts. In general they may be based on personal experience, and in this context they are specifically quoted from a 2003 review of Francesco Carotta’s book Jezus was Caesar that Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk published together with this Schopenhauerist paraphrase in Spiegel Historiael,1 an acclaimed and popular journal for history and archaeology. The Dutch magazine Quest however is a totally different kind of beast and belongs to the flashy form of yellow press that publishes popular science as infotainment—or “braintainment”, as the Dutch editors like to call it. On four extensively illustrated pages their offshoot Quest Historie covered Carotta’s theory that the historical Jesus was Julius Caesar, that Jesus Christ is Divus Iulius incognito, and that the Gospel is a diegetic transposition of the historical sources on Caesar’s Civil War.2 And they did so quite well…
…if it weren’t for the context, because the whole Quest Historie issue actually deals with conspiracy theories. It is titled Horen, zien & zwijgen: “hear, see and be silent”. Carotta himself is more into coming, seeing and conquering, but apparently it was not the first time that his research has been slandered as a conspiracy theory, as this review of a piece of televised German “braintainment” shows. Why would people believe that Carotta’s research into the Caesarian origin of Christianity is a conspiracy theory? The reason may be that nowadays the label conspiracy theory has become a face value cop-out, an easy way to discriminate against anything disagreeable and to contain it in obscurity, whether justified or not. The reason may also be false association: A large number of alternative theories on the origin of Christianity—especially those that unlike Jesus was Caesar argue for Jesus’ ahistoricity—postulate a pagan foundation and emphasize the non-Jewish religious environments and pagan pre-Christian religions, legends and mythologies of the Roman empire more strongly, for example those in Greece, Western Rome or Egypt. Many of their authors openly allege that there were conspiracies within ancient imperial power structures to invent Christianity or manipulate its precursors in order to perpetuate and broaden Roman rule. (One famous example is The Christ Conspiracy by the lovely Dorothy M. Murdock who often writes under her pen name “Acharya S”.) So it is feasible that alternate theories on the Christian origin—especially those that postulate a Roman origin—automatically receive an air of conspiracy theory in the public (and scholarly) opinion, even when it is unwarranted as in Carotta’s case: Corruptions in the copying of texts and misinterpretations in translations, the processes that formed the Gospel from ancient Roman sources on Caesar’s Civil War, are not the result of a top-down Roman conspiracy, but a natural scriptural phenomenon that to some degree happened to every text in the course of time and tradition.
The editors of Quest Historie did not delve into the subject and chose to present Carotta’s research as a conspiracy theory, surely because such an approach will sell more copies, fits perfectly into a superficial understanding of science, and follows the four big Ds of journalism: drama, disaster, debate and dichotomy. The lede after the article’s subheading is clear: Complotdenkers zijn vaak net zoals religieuze fanatiekelingen overtuigd van hun gelijk. Nog mooier wordt het wanneer een fanaat het hele christelijke geloof als complot ziet. (“Just like religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists are often convinced of the correctness [of their theory]. It gets even better when a fanatic considers the complete Christian faith to be a conspiracy.” Nota bene: It must be asked if the common postulate of the Jewish itinerant preacher called ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ as the “historical Jesus” without any scientific proof isn’t the real religious fanaticism and conspiracy theory here; see also below.) However, the article itself is much better than is to be expected from the lurid presentation as a conspiracy theory, and author Roberto Lobosco even asked theologian Annette Merz for her opinion—we presume for a better scientific balance than for the aforementioned dogma of dichotomy.
Merz is clearly an outstanding scholar in her field, and together with her colleague Gerd Theißen she has authored one of the standard works on the “historical Jesus”.3 So let’s see what Theißen and Merz wrote in their meager three-page (!) attempt to deliver some form of biography of what they think was the historical Jesus. After an extensive source analysis on 500 pages they only manage to produce insubstantial bromides, most of which are references to Jesus’ teachings rather than to his actions or verifiable historical events. And what little they allow themselves to allege regarding their “historical Jesus” is even further curtailed, because they mention their “great hesitation” and call their hypothesized biography merely “indicated”, accompanied by “question marks”, “qualifications” and possible “alternatives”.4 So if the only thing they can come up with is in fact Nothing, then how come Merz (and most other Christian scholars) claim that this Nothing was a historical figure—a Mr. Nobody of course, but a living, breathing person? Again: Wouldn’t that be the real “conspiracy” here?
Sure, in the Quest Historie article we are once more being mauled by the usual hopeless references to later Christian interpolations that allegedly “prove” the historical existence of Jesus, here represented by Jos. Ant. 20.9, but these reflexes produce nothing but non-arguments, because the only people left who still believe in them and in similar unconvincing oddities are people of faith. (Nothing against religious faith—on the contrary!—, but please keep it out of science, and especially out of the history of religion, which is quite different from theology and has too often been warped by religious bias.) Merz stated that Carotta would first need to refute the non-Christian sources on the “historical Jesus”, which is preposterous because such refutations are already known from a multitude of scholars starting with 19th century textual criticism, and the most important arguments are prominently reiterated in the chapter “Re-Orientation” in Carotta’s book. Furthermore, Merz here yields to the common misconception that Carotta postulates that there was no “historical Jesus”. This is clearly false because no sane person would doubt that Julius Caesar existed!
At any rate, Merz’ call for refutation of these infamous “non-Christian sources” presupposes that there are no previous rebuttals and no scientific doubts, a notion that disregards the majority of unbiased scholarly opinion. If your complete historiographical construct hinges on brief and dubious passages like “who was called Christ” in Ant. 20.9, which in all probability was just a copyist’s note in the marginalia that at some point sneaked into the main text, you are in serious scientific trouble. The fact of the matter is that for the last century no scholar has been able to squelch the immense doubts and arguments of forgery with regard to these “non-Christian sources”. So any honest scientist would state the exact opposite: It would first be Merz’ duty to prove beyond any scientific doubt and justifiable objection that these sources are not interpolations and later additions. Conjuring up these antiquated apologetic arguments seriously harms any progress toward a fresh and honest scientific debate, and it only deepens the entrenchment and serves to obscure the instability and obsoletion of the whole Historical Jesus framework. We’re not saying that Merz wouldn’t be up to the task, because the Quest Historie article clearly shows that in principle she is willing to concede that Carotta is right, although she also produced a number of errors and inconsistencies:
Merz concedes that the attributes, properties, literary topoi and symbolisms of Christ mirror those of Caesar, but immediately mitigates the argument by stating that they are not “exclusively” Caesarian, like the kiss of Caesar’s and Christ’s betrayers ιουναc and ιουδαc. This is a logical fallacy because it is not important who else derived what from Caesar, or if a Caesarian characteristic—by chance or design—was based on a pre-Caesarian source. The only important things are that everything Christian and Jesuanic can be traced back to Julius Caesar, and that many things Christian were in fact exclusively Caesarian, like the Chi Rho ☧, which can only have developed from the sidus Iulium in the age of Constantine the Great, or Michelangelo’s famous Pietà of the dead Jesus on the lap of his much younger mother Maria, which is not based on any Christian story, but on Calpurnia mourning her dead husband Julius Caesar.
Merz concedes that the story of Christ (i.e. the Gospel) is an ancient hero’s story, and she also mentions that there was a preexisting biographical genre for these kind of stories, used for example in the case of Alexander the Great. With this remark she of course insinuates that there is no specific literary connection to Caesar’s biography, only a general accordance to the ancient biographical genre. This is clearly false because Merz fails to mention that the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, is written in the ancient genre of the Roman vita and is directly connatural to Plutarch’s biography of Julius Caesar, because both vitae are based on a novel genre pattern that originated with the Historiae by Gaius Asinius Pollio, an eyewitness who wrote the first historical account of Caesar’s Civil War.5 So there is not only a direct textual dependency of the Markan Gospel on Roman sources, but specifically on Caesarian sources. (Coincidentally Dormeyer’s research supports Carotta’s argument that Pollio’s Historiae are the hypotext, from which the Gospel of Mark was transposed!)
Merz concedes that the ancient religion of Divus Iulius, the deified Caesar, was “abolished” when Christianity became the Roman state religion. She also concedes that the one state religion “transitioned” into the other, that previous symbols were adopted (see also above), and that this romanization of Christianity occured in the fourth or fifth century CE. If this were true it would fail to explain the decisively earlier Roman and Hellenistic-Roman characteristics of Christianity, the first century Church Fathers, the Latin Church Fathers, the priority of the Vetus Latina over the Greek text, the earliest forms of the Afra, or the 2nd century christianization of Roman legions in Egypt—just to name a few. If this process of romanization only occured at a later time, it would especially fail to explain why the greatest amount of latinisms is not found in the later gospels, but in the earliest Gospel of Mark, and it would also fail to explain why these latinisms originate from the so-called sermo castrensis, the Latin language of the Roman military camps and veteran colonies.
Merz concedes that Jesus Christ was depicted in a way that is “very similar” to Julius Caesar, but she states that these were only additions—by the way, additions to what?—because Jesus was viewed as a competitor of Caesar. There are several errors in this argument: There is not a single ancient source in support of the notion that early Christians saw Christ as a competitor of the Julius Caesar. It has only been argued that early Christians saw Christ as a competitor of the Caesars, i.e. the Roman emperors. But this is only a theory, because other scholars argue that early Christians “romanized” their religion to be able to better propagate it in a pagan environment, not to protest against the Roman emperor as god. Furthermore, Merz clearly contradicts herself here, because if this process of romanization only occured in the 4th and 5th century CE (as she alleged before; v.s.), early Christians could not have adopted Caesarian symbolisms, stories, iconography, terminology etc. before that time.
In a nutshell, what does Merz tell us here? Like most other Christian scholars she has consistently argued that Jesus was a Jewish Mr. Nobody, an allegedly historical person who is not mentioned by any ancient historian. She further argues that early Christians (which would include the Evangelists) augmented Jesus with Julio-Caesarian characteristics, obviously to the extent that their alleged original historical Jesus became and still remains a complete mystery, a mere hypothesis. According to this argument by Merz, it must be deduced that the early Christians knew that their god-man Jesus was in fact nothing but an insignificant Mr. Nobody, who needed all these implants from Julius Caesar to become a viable and sustainable god for the Roman empire and the ages to come. Now, that is what used to be called blasphemy and heresy, but fortunately we know that this is not true in Carotta’s scientific framework, but it is nevertheless what Merz implies with her arguments. Wouldn’t that be theological schizophrenia? How far will Christians and Christian scholars go to explain (read bury) the multitude of blatant and obvious parallels between Christ and Caesar? It seems as if they do not care about their religion anymore—let alone its history—and are rather willing to crash it into the ground and hurl Christ into nothingness by sticking to the phantom figure produced by their own quixotic endeavors in “Jesus research”, than to revive the historicity (and salvage the historical grandeur!) of Christianity’s divine founder—and thereby also ensure the validity of the largest religion in the world.
Sure, there will always be a place for some theology and pastorals, but what is the faith, what is Easter, what is the Resurrection of Christ without a historical fundament? The theological and religiously biased ouroboros will continue to devour itself—foolish men who don’t realize they are building a new house on sand. At the same time it means that an alternative solution to the Jesus aporia must be ignored, and if all else fails, if the closed loop is disrupted, it is always easy to simply shrug it off as the latest lunatic conspiracy theory of the week, as Merz herself does—obviously “inspired” by the context in which Quest Historie dealt with the topic. But Merz also revealed that Francesco Carotta’s theory has continued to be popular with her students for several years now. So there is hope after all. Maybe education goes both ways.
↑ 1 Von der Dunk 2003, 79.
↑ 3 Theißen-Merz 2001.
↑ 4 Theißen-Merz 2001, 493–95.
↑ 5 Dormeyer 2000, 29–52.
Image sources: public domain; scan