2010-02-21

The Gospels: Histories or Stories?

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by Neil Godfrey

Historical Jesus scholars in the main seem to write their history or life of Jesus as if this can be done simply by cherry picking bits and pieces from the gospels that they feel make the most sense.

They assume that there is an historical Jesus to begin with. And then they ask questions about this and that episode in the gospels in an effort to come to some conclusion about why the author would have written about Jesus in that particular way. The result is claimed to be evidence for the “historical Jesus”. The process is entirely circular, however.

Associate Professor James McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E. P. Sanders for the historical Jesus, and I have begun to do so with my discussion on the Why the Temple Action by Jesus is Almost Certainly Not Historical.

How historical Jesus research works

E. P. Sanders indeed offers a classic case study for the circular method of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a list of “facts” about Jesus that he believes are bedrock, although he does not demonstrate or argue why his list should be considered bedrock. One of these is the “cleansing of the temple incident”. He then proceeds to discuss various plot-related questions about how this incident is handled in the gospels, and what the authors may have been thinking as they wrote. He finally concludes that there was a real “temple action” but that it was not quite carried out for the reasons the gospels narrate. He can imagine a more plausible “historical” motive for Jesus’ action than that presented in the gospel stories. This is how he constructs his “historical Jesus”.

In other words, the historicity of Jesus is assumed from the outset, and then that assumption is made to justify itself by a process of what is in effect Sanders’ attempts to make better “historical” sense of the narrative.

This is not “proving” the historicity of Jesus. It is assuming that there was a Jesus to begin with, and then finding a more historically plausible narrative for him than the one we read in the gospels.

I am reminded of the critique of that branch of biblical studies that dealt with the history of Saul, David and Solomon and the kingdom of Israel that appeared around 1992 in Philip Davies’ publication, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have discussed this before and in other places, but it is timely to start to revisit a few basics of historical methodology given a series of recent posts by James McGrath:

More mythicist creationist parallels

Is there evidence for mythicism?

Mythicism and John the Baptist

Assuming the gospels are (or contain) history

Most Bible scholars have traditionally assumed that the Bible is basically a true record of the history of Israel. But Davies observes that their reasons for believing this are in fact only circular arguments:

#1 The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up. (Historical Jesus scholars will insist that the story is not one that anyone would have made up. But this is another logical fallacy (argument from incredulity) that I have discussed elsewhere in detail and will do so again.)

#2 Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past — or in the case of the gospels, customs and theological debates in the apparently more recent past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.

#3  Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”

#4 Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed across generations and new audiences.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

Arguments for historicity of the gospel narratives are circular

All of these reasons for believing that the Bible contains real history are circular arguments. They say, in effect: “We know the Bible is true because its authors were careful to tell the truth, and we know they were careful to tell the truth because what they wrote was true ….” and so on.

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It also means comparing the Bible with other literature of the era that shows some similarities with its narratives and rhetoric.

It is naive to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know:

  1. WHEN it was WRITTEN
  2. IF its stories are TRUE.

To settle for anything less is to imply that when it comes to the Bible we do not need to follow the standards of historical enquiry and handling of source documents that are generally found among historical disciplines. We cannot excuse historical Jesus studies from sound historical methodologies.

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  • rey
    2010-02-22 04:09:18 UTC - 04:09 | Permalink

    One story unlikely to be made up is the rich young ruler. Its always been an embarrassment for all Christians of all types that Jesus told this guy he could be saved simply by keeping 5 or 6 moral laws. That’s why Matthew’s versions where man himself thinks he lacks something had to be changed to Mark and Luke’s where Jesus volunteers to him that he lacks something. The historical Jesus must ave taught justification by morality alone. Otherwise, if this story hadn’t been widespread historical knowledge or gospel writers would have got rid of it.

    • rey
      2010-02-22 04:12:08 UTC - 04:12 | Permalink

      “To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself.”

      When Eusebius speaks of relatives of Jesus being questioned by a later emperor on what they believed, he has them say that in the end Jesus will return to judge all men by their works (no mention of faith). So, we have cooberation that Jesus taught justification by morality alone

    • 2010-02-22 22:02:04 UTC - 22:02 | Permalink

      But how can you be sure what the gospel authors were thinking? It may have had nothing to do with what later Christians thought, yes?

  • Steven Carr
    2010-02-22 04:35:21 UTC - 04:35 | Permalink

    ‘Historical Jesus scholars in the main seem to write their history or life of Jesus as if this can be done simply by cherry picking bits and pieces from the gospels that they feel make the most sense.’

    Here is an abject admission that this is exactly what they are doing.

    http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/john1357917.shtml

    ”On the other hand, several features of the Johannine presentation of Jesus have long seemed to possess their own claims to historicity, even over and against the Synoptics. Jesus’ traveling to and from Jerusalem in John seems more realistic than the single visit to Jerusalem of the Synoptics. Likewise, Jesus’ ministry over a two- or three-year span seems more plausible than the Synoptic partial-year ministry, leading up to a singular Passover festival at which Jesus dies.’

    ‘Seems more realistic’….

    Gosh, there are bits of Harry Potter which ‘seem more realistic’ than other bits of Harry Potter.

    Harry Potter goes to a real station in London. Surely that ‘seems more realistic’ than Harry meeting a unicorn.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-02-22 04:50:15 UTC - 04:50 | Permalink

    Here is another wonderful passage from that article, laying bare the techniques employed by Biblical scholars – techniques that would be laughed at in other history departments.

    ‘ Fredriksen asks why Jesus was not arrested immediately as a political threat. Answer: he had been there before—as presented distinctively in John—and his presence was not perceived as dangerous because they’d seen him in Jerusalem before. This reasoning not only seems plausible; it seems probable. The Johannine rendering of the multiple visits to Jerusalem, and thus a ministry lasting more than a part of one year (as presented in the Markan Gospels) thus favors John’s historicity/

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  • Steven Carr
    2010-02-28 16:11:18 UTC - 16:11 | Permalink

    Mainstream Biblical historians claim the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist must be historical because it was so embarrassing to have Jesus baptised by a lesser figure.

    Of course, if Mark had written that a complete nobody had baptised Jesus, then that would be OK, I suppose.

    Or if Jesus had baptised himself?

    Who was Mark supposed to have baptising Jesus , if not John the Baptist?

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