Assumptions of historicity (in part a response to James McGrath)

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by Neil Godfrey

This is partly in response to “mythicist quote of the day

Allow me to explain why I think so many arguments for the historical Jesus are based on an assumption of historicity.

Firstly, when I quote Sanders in this respect, it is not because I am faulting Sanders’ arguments for starting with this assumption. I still am a little bemused that my remarks were even seen as controversial. I thought the assumption was obvious, and that what Sanders was doing was arguing for motives and character of Jesus, and even for what we might think were some things he is more likely to have done, given the constraints of the Gospel narrative and what we know of historical realities of the time. All of this assumes an historical Jesus to begin with, and through which to interpret the Gospels. It does not even claim to be an argument for the historicity of Jesus per se.

Why my posts on E. P. Sanders

The reason I have been addressing Sanders is because his work, Jesus and Judaism, was recommended by James McGrath as a challenge to those who argue for a mythical Jesus. He challenged anyone to engage a work like this and come up with different conclusions. The context implied that he was meaning it would be unlikely for anyone to deem as unhistorical what Sanders argued was indeed historical. And the reason for this was, as I understood the original challenge, the methodology of Sanders, including his criteria for authenticity.

So I have been discussing Sanders’ work in particular in the context of those who use it as a basis for the claim that we have clear and strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus. As far as I can see Sanders nowhere addresses any methodology for establishing the historicity of Jesus. He does address methodology for assessing what is the likely character or motive or saying or action of the historical Jesus. So his methodology is built upon the assumption of an historical Jesus.

Responses to the challenge

In response to James’ challenge I first addressed Sanders’ own first point, the Temple Action of Jesus. I engaged Sanders’ arguments here, and demonstrated, I think, that an alternative to historical authenticity certainly is most plausible. (I address more detailed arguments of Sanders for the authenticity of this incident at the end of this post.)

Next, I responded to some very strong claims by Sanders about certain details of John the Baptist. Sanders claimed that even John’s dress (along with other details) was a detail that “correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship”. I attempted to show, again in response to James’ challenge, that such a claim by a scholar like Sanders can be addressed and a different conclusion reached.

James’ responses to my efforts

James has since responded that I did not disprove the historical existence of John the Baptist. But that was not my argument, and is not central to any case for the “mythical Jesus” that I know. I had taken up the challenge to address a scholar like Sanders and demonstrate that it is possible to disagree with what Sanders himself argues is historical.

James has also since said that he does not see the points of my posts on Sanders. So it appears my taking up his challenge has been in vain at least from his perspective.

The assumption of historicity implicit in Sanders

But back to the specifics on Sanders and assumptions of historicity. Here is what convinces me that Sanders is not attempting to address the historicity of Jesus as such, but rather assumes his historicity:

We start by determining the evidence which is most secure. There are several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt. Any interpretation of Jesus should be able to account for these. (Jesus and Judaism, p. 11)

Here Sanders is stating that he is attempting to do no more than start with “facts about Jesus’ career . . .”. His intention is to use these facts as the basis for his “interpretation of Jesus”. His intent is to “account for” the “facts of Jesus’ career” in order to interpret Jesus.

To start with what one thinks are facts about one’s career is to assume historicity before one starts. To use a simplified analogy, I can apply the same analysis to Hamlet to interpret Hamlet. In that case my assumption is that he is a fictional character. But the point is that my ensuing “exegesis” of Hamlet does not itself verify that assumption of fictionality. It builds on it. Ditto for any exegesis of any text.

Sanders further acknowledges that his “facts about Jesus career” are not “facts” in the normal sense of what we mean by “facts”. Facts are normally defined as data on which everyone can agree. They exist quite independently from respective interpretations of them. (Okay, now you know I am not a postmodernist.) But Sanders says of his list of “facts” that can be known “beyond doubt”:

I do not regard any items in the following list as dubious, but some may. (p.357, note 19)

The almost indisputable facts, listed . . . are these: (p. 11 — and I listed these in my previous post).

This tells me that what are said to be facts about Jesus are open to challenge as facts. They are not facts in the sense that “Caesar crossed the Rubicon” or “Sophists appeared teaching in Athens around the fifth century bce” are facts. (Hence my first post to challenge the first of the “facts” Sanders discusses — the Temple Action.)

So we have two levels of “facts” to deal with here. Sanders begins by assuming that there is a historical Jesus. On this assumption he can assert that there are certain facts about what this Jesus did. The next level of “fact” is an exegetical argument based on this assumption. It is at this level that challenges begin to appear. My question is, why only at this level?

Historical methods

James has asked for historical methods that are used by nonbiblical scholars. The principle set of methodologies applied and questions asked by (nonbiblical) historians began with Leopold von Ranke. Others like E. H. Carr have moved things along a bit since von Ranke, but many of the basics still apply. This is where the ‘minimalists’ come in. Lemche discusses methodology at some length with reference to von Ranke. “Minimalist” methods have been castigated by some as overly sceptical, but those making the criticism seem not to realize that this is the standard approach to documentary and other evidence in nonbiblical history. Rather than repeat von Ranke’s relevant points, with Lemche’s application of them, in another context, I have discussed them previously here. The point, and related discussions of historical method and circular arguments, has already been addressed in a previous reply to James.

The key point is the need for external controls in order to establish the historicity of a narrative. They do not exist for the Gospel narratives, as even Albert Schweitzer stated, and as I’ve quoted often enough here but here it is again:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Quest, p.402)

James has also said that New Testament scholars are obliged to use exegesis of texts as their methods for deciding what is historical fact and what not for the simple reason that other evidence is too scarce.

But is it valid to water down the methodologies if the required evidence on which they rely does not exist?

We lack the evidence required to establish the historicity of the Gospel narrative. It does not follow that it is therefore okay to assume historicity and just begin analyzing the texts as if there is some historical core to begin with. I read Josephus’s writings as history because I have reasons external to their text to have some confidence in their value as history. There is truly both independent (external controls) and multiple attestation of the events he writes about.

And problem of assuming historicity of the narrative is highlighted in another context (re the evidence of Papias) but I believe it also applies here:

The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had  no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand. Not once was he able to say anything about the external history of the works of Origen, in which he was genuinely interested, apart from what he found in or among them.

And if in the case of authors who as individuals and sometimes as well-known personalities stood in the glare of publicity there is so little information about their production, how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity?

There is not even a shadow of a hope that their ever existed any trustworthy information about the way in which the Gospels came into being: the Christians of antiquity had other cares than to search out and preserve the history of the inscripturation of the Gospels, and when Gnosticism forced this concern upon them they filled the vacuum with inventions of their own as Gnosticism did before them.

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.

Further statements by Sanders demonstrating the assumption of the historicity of Jesus

No one will dispute the principle that, given the conglomeration of evidence about Jesus and the early church which one finds in the Gospels, one should begin with what is relatively secure and work out to more uncertain points. But finding agreement about the ground rules by which what is relatively secure can be identified is very difficult. One of the reasons for this is, I believe, that most studies of Jesus focus on Jesus as a teacher or preacher — at any rate, primarily a messenger — and thus move to immediately try to establish his message. (pp. 3-4)

A good hypothesis

In the first place, a good hypothesis with regard to Jesus’ intention and his relationship to Judaism should meet Klausner’s test: it should situate Jesus believably in Judaism and yet explain why the movement initiated by him eventually broke with Judaism. (p. 18)

I shall say in advance of the detailed argument that, on my reading, the evidence points towards Jesus’ having had a definite programme. (p. 21)

To conclude with something I cited in my previous post:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Further on Sanders evidence for the historicity of the Temple Action of Jesus

Sanders’ more detailed argument for the historicity of the Temple Action of Jesus

Sanders addresses one particular case against the historicity of the Temple action of Jesus. Sanders sums up an alternative view from Lloyd Gaston (No Stone on Another): Gaston argues that the threat to destroy the temple went back to Stephen, and the Jews used this accusation, along with their other false accusation of blasphemy, to blacken the reputation of Jesus taught by the Church; the Church responded by creating the “Temple Cleansing” scene in the Gospels to rebut this charge.

Sanders counters Gaston’s argument and argues for historicity of the “temple action” by Jesus on the following grounds (pp. 364-5):

  1. Jesus’ threat of destruction of the temple “appears in too many strata”
  2. it “coheres too well with the ‘cleansing’ of the temple
  3. according to the majority of scholars multiple attestation indicates authenticity
  4. the threat and implied renewal of the temple have a setting in Jewish thought

too many strata

The “too many strata” to which Sanders refers (pp. 9 and 73) are Matthew 26:61; 27:39-40; Mark 14:58; 15:29f; John 2:18-22; Acts 6:13-14.

To repeat what I said in my earlier post, it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.

So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we allow the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.

coheres too well

That a saying and a dramatic context should cohere well says something about the competence of a storyteller, but we only find anything more remarkable if we presume historicity and are looking for something apart from the text. In the absence of external controls how can we be sure we are not treating the text as some sort of occult gateway into another imaginary dimension — only our mantra for opening that gateway is guised in academic argumentation. (Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery comes to mind if we are to use this as an argument for the historicity of Jesus per se.)

multiple indicates authenticity

Attestation of multiple witnesses in a courtroom means nothing if the witnesses have been allowed to collude before the hearing. Certainly there are cases where multiple attestation is valid, but the mere abstract fact that multiple attestation is some indicator of the reliability of authenticity is nonsense. The contexts — and in this case the assumptions — need to be examined and the principle justified.

Jewish setting

This works if one assumes a historical Jesus in a Jewish setting to begin with. It also works for any story placed in a Jewish setting.

  • rey
    2010-03-07 12:57:02 UTC - 12:57 | Permalink

    What does one really gain from denying that there was historically a man named Jesus that got crucified in Judea?

    If a Christian denies that a man name Siddhārtha Gautama really lived, has he disproven Buddhism?

    So why the emphasis on a denial of Jesus’ existence?

    Let’s hear from the mythicists if they deny Siddhārtha Gautama ever lived just because supernatural things are said about him, as they do with Jesus.

    • 2010-03-07 14:30:09 UTC - 14:30 | Permalink


      See my comment on Mark Goodacre’s Messianic Secret podcast which addresses your question;



    • Steven Carr
      2010-03-07 15:33:55 UTC - 15:33 | Permalink

      As pointed out many times, all mythicist can show is that there is no good evidence for Jesus or for vast numbers of the cast of people in the Novels.

      But historicists are greedy. They need Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Nicodemus , Mary Magdalene, etc etc to have existed, and not just be characters in a Novel.

      How can you write books explaining how Jesus was buried, if people ask you to produce some sort of evidence for the existence of Joseph of Arimathea?

      It is like producing books on how a second gunman shot JFK, when people are questioning the existence of this gunman.

      Your whole market will collapse if people wonder where the evidence is.

    • Jer
      2010-03-07 22:05:41 UTC - 22:05 | Permalink

      Speaking for myself (and I don’t consider myself a mythicist) I find it a fascinating question. Because if you throw out the assumption that there was a single historical founder that Christianity can be traced back to and assume instead that that founder was originally mythic and historicized after the fact then that changes the entire story of early Christianity.

      Now, I say I’m not a mythicist because I do tend to think that the lazy, simple explanation that there was a guy who was an apocalyptic preacher who was martyred for his beliefs (or for political reasons) seems to have been so rampant through the Palestine area during the Roman occupation that, frankly, it would be very hard to think that one or more of these guys DIDN’T enter into the Jesus story at some point. I don’t necessarily think that the Gospel narratives stand out as reliable history, but the core idea of a preacher killed by authorities is so mundane and so common in the region that it would b hard to believe a few of them couldn’t have been inspiration for the Jesus story.

      BUT. The thing that has shocked me more and more over the last few years that I’ve been reading things as an amateur interested in the field is how certain so many people are when the evidence they provide is so damn weak. And this mythicist debate flaring up is just the most recent example of it. People make claims as if they had 100% certainty of their position when in reality they don’t even have 100% in the very FACTS that underlie their position itself. They often don’t even have 50% certainty in the facts that underlie their position. That’s a fairly tenuous position to be asserting certainty.

      It just astounds me that a scholar would start calling people names and mocking them for a position that, given the evidence, is substantially less unreasonable than their own. I find the position that “We Know With 100% Certainty that there was a Jesus in History” to be as unreasonable a position as just about anything you find on the Internet. And when a person who has that position starts mocking and namecalling against people who hold to a position of “There’s a non-zero probability that Jesus might not have ever been a real person” that’s just nonsense given the evidence. The evidence can’t possibly support a 100% certainty of either case – it just isn’t there.

      If nothing else, the mythic position should force “historicists” to re-evaluate their beliefs and ask themselves why they believe what they believe and if their beliefs in historocity are really so 100% absolute that they can afford to be calling people who believe differently names and openly mocking them. Evolutionary biologists have that security when it comes to creationists – they have a theory of natural selection that has been tested and retested and argued about and examined for over a hundred years. When creationists argue against it they’re arguing against a well honed theory that is supported by centuries of evidence and an ability to make testable predictions. Historical Jesus believers actually do not have that level of certainty and should stop pretending like they do. That’s what this little debate flair up seems to actually be about – certainty. It just isn’t there, and pretending like it is makes the field of biblical studies look ridiculous.

    • 2010-03-07 23:43:46 UTC - 23:43 | Permalink

      I am not surprised that there is irrational and even poisonous hostility. I have seen it before from not a few academics when Earl Doherty appeared some years back on Crosstalk discussions. (There were a few welcome exceptions.) It has surfaced on a few other forums since then.

      What has surprised me is James reaction. I had once thought we had a cordial, if only occasional, rapport. And I had never expected my posts on this topic to get anything like the attention they have been getting. I am not quite sure I really understand why James is giving anything I say such attention. I’m not an academic. I am just a hobbyist in Christian origin studies with an interest in sharing things I find interesting.

      He did remark that I wrote with some assurance or something. Hell, when I first started looking into this topic a bit over ten years ago I knew zilch. I did not even know how to articulate some of my questions. But one thing I did learn after leaving religion was to never assume. Always check. Even, or especially, if there is just a niggling waver of a doubt in there somewhere. So I did check out everything I read with others, especially with academics I found on various discussion lists. It meant asking the silliest of questions many times. And I know I have a reputation at work for always checking something out thoroughly before I speak about it. I suppose I do the same here, now that I have managed to check out a few things about NT history in particular. So if I do write with some confidence at times, it is because I feel I have checked out something about as far as I can go with it. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped checking things out. There is so much to learn, so many questions yet to be explored, and my understanding is evolving all the time. There was a time I really had hoped I might learn a few things from James.

      And yes, I am appalled at how there is a certain amount of such sloppy and fallacious rubbish that seems to pass as erudite publishable scholarship. But there is also some really good stuff, too, obviously. I try to share some of it here, and also from time to time expose any rubbish that tends to attract wide followings.

  • 2010-03-07 15:11:19 UTC - 15:11 | Permalink

    Responding to rey’s original comment above:

    This is the reason I do not like to think of myself as a “mythicist”. I do not think arguments for the historicity or otherwise of any person is a historical question. At least not what is normally defined as the subject of history in the last 150 years.

    The historical question that interests me is the origins of Christianity. The historicity of Jesus is, in my view, a secondary question.

    But obviously the topic is a loaded one culturally, and the question of existence or non-existence does have a wider interest that is something more than “just historical” interest.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-03-07 15:28:01 UTC - 15:28 | Permalink

    ‘Sanders counters Gaston’s argument and argues for historicity of the “temple action” by Jesus on the following grounds (pp. 364-5):
    the threat and implied renewal of the temple have a setting in Jewish thought’

    And if it didn’t have a setting in Jewish thought, it would be historical , by the criterion of double dissimilarity….

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