Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play

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by Neil Godfrey

gamesA review of Dale Allison’s forthcoming book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, illustrates both in its post details and subsequent comments how far removed Historical Jesus studies are from the way history is practiced in other (nonbiblical) fields.

These comments of mine on this review address

  1. starting assumptions of the reviewer
  2. problems left hanging by the reviewer’s discussion of Allison’s book
  3. the games played by HJ (Historical Jesus) historians when they claim they are doing what other (nonbiblical) historians do
  4. the game of avoidance used by HJ historians in response to radical critiques of their assumptions and methods.

Starting assumptions of the reviewer

This section sets the ground-rules for the games the HJ historians play.

Again, lest we get sidetracked, my point is not whether Sanders’ arguments persuade you this incident [Jesus cleansing the temple] actually happened in some form. But he’s made a case that many find persuasive, and mythicist claims that no one has addressed whether Jesus existed – which can only be addressed using evidence for things he supposedly said or did – treats mainstream scholarship with such disdain that it is offensive. (Sourced from here.)

The reviewer here confuses a number of concepts and is tacitly conceding that HJ scholars work quite differently from other historians. Further, his logic is circular. It is perhaps also worth noting the indication here as to why there is virtually no dialogue between mythicists and HJ historians. The latter may find it offensive if their methods are shown to be invalid.

Evidence? Let’s be rigorous and clear!

When the reviewer speaks of “evidence for things [Jesus] supposedly said or did”, he is talking in generalities and not like a rigorous historian. It is normative for historical research to sort evidence between primary and secondary. Primary evidence is that which materially belongs to the age, place, person that is the topic of historical inquiry. Historians have no primary evidence for Jesus. They only have secondary evidence. Worse, the secondary evidence for the details of Jesus’ life is anonymous and unprovenanced. We can only make educated guesses about when and where it was written, and why and for whom. Worst of all, we have no reliable external or independent controls or corroboration that any of its narrative is indeed historical.

Further note on secondary evidence: Now theoretically secondary evidence can sometimes be more reliable than primary evidence. Later writers might see through the propaganda and lies that sometimes make up the primary evidence. But the secondary evidence is correctly judged for its reliability by the primary evidence it relates to. Alternatively, it may be assessed by other corroborating secondary evidence that is reliably found to be independent. When these secondary sources are literary, then literary criticism must first be applied to them to ascertain their true nature as literature (are they truly historical or something else?) on both internal grounds (e.g. provenance, artifice) and within their wider literary context.

So the “evidence for things Jesus said or did” is entirely based on the assumption (nothing more) that the secondary evidence is at some level historical. Yet this secondary evidence has no primary evidence or reliable external corroboration. It is anonymous and unprovenanced.

Where this leaves the HJ historian

So that leaves the HJ historian beginning with the unsupported and unsupportable assumption that the literary Jesus in the secondary evidence is historical.

There is no historical evidence for the existence of Jesus as there is for Cicero or for Cicero’s slave, Socrates or his wife, Seneca or other philosophers and rhetoricians he wrote about, the family members and court officials of Nero. In all of these the historian has provenanced documentation that can be supported by reliably independent attestation and/or its corroborative relationships to primary evidence.

Historians normatively begin with evidence and use various tools and methods to seek to explain the evidence. HJ scholars use many of the same tools but are using them to try to find some evidence for what their assumed Jesus did and said.

Problems left hanging by the reviewer’s discussion of Allison’s book

The review declares that “this book is an incredibly important contribution to the study of Jesus as a historical figure, with the potential to mark a watershed between the way things tended to be done before it was published and how we proceeded after taking its challenge to heart.” It begins with Allison’s opening chapter on methodology. This contains a discussion about recent research into the nature of memory. As everyone knows, and as scholarly research confirms, people remember the gist of what happened while the details are blurred or mutated, sometimes even manufactured. This leads to the reviewer noting that

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

As one commenter to this review noted, this sort of statement would allow the historian to embrace the story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree as providing a true sense that Washington was interested in being honest. One might add: Does this mean that Jesus walking on water and stilling the storm provides a true sense that he was about rising above the worldly struggles of this life? Mythologists are known to tell us that myths are true, too, because they tell us “truths” about ourselves even if they are not literally true. At what point should one study the Gospels as myth and no longer as history? Hopefully something of what Allison originally wrote has been lost in the review.

The reviewer informs us of the radical nature of Allison’s method in this new book:

Rather than trying to identify individual sayings and actions that can be proven authentic beyond reasonable doubt, we should focus first and foremost on the overall impression the sources give. If they were unable to preserve the gist intact, after all, then the chances of them having preserved details with accuracy become vanishingly small (see esp. pp.14,16).

The reviewer does not inform us how the historian is to determine whether or not the “gist” we read is really historically “intact”. This is surely of the utmost importance to the historian. Naturally there will always be room for some degree of uncertainty, but there must be clear and valid methods for assessing some data as far more certain than others. From the reviewers’ comments, how Allison goes about this is not yet clear, so I look forward to reading the book to understand more clearly.

But there are two problems the reviewer does not explain that hopefully are explained by Allison.

  1. The first is this. What we have in the canonical Gospels are sets of narratives and sayings that cohere as expressions of unitary theological points of view of their respective authors/redactors. The secretive, vulnerable and faith-emphasizing Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is not the same as the law-teaching Jesus in Matthew’s or the open and invulnerable Jesus in John’s Gospel. This does not suggest that the authors were drawing on whatever extant variant traditions were available, but were constructing (or reconstructing) narrative details and sayings to promote their respective theological agendas.
  2. This is the second problem left hanging by the reviewer. Thomas L. Thompson has charged HJ scholars for falling into the same methodological error as biblical historians once did when they assumed a historical Abraham or a historical David and Solomon. HJ scholars can dismiss Thompson’s criticism by declaring him a nonspecialist in NT studies, but then they would also be dismissing the same point made by Albert Schweitzer and other NT and nonbiblical scholars — that without clearly independent external corroboration of a narrative, the historian is left with zero grounds for accepting any of its plot as based on history at all. To treat such a narrative as historical or based on history is inevitably an exercise in circular reasoning. Historicity is inevitably unsupported and unsupportable assumption.

The narrative might be historical, but unless we have some independent way of confirming this, we cannot assume that it is. But there are other factors that do tilt the scales against historicity:

  1. If the narrative can be explained in terms of literary borrowing or fabrication to meet certain needs, and this is sufficient to explain many of the details, then on what grounds can we justify assuming there is, additionally, a historical character behind the descriptions?
  2. And if the narrative poses implausible explanations for the rise of a movement (e.g. one crucified as a criminal was suddenly believed by thousands of Jews to have been the Messiah and worthy of divine status) then we have less reason still for treating any of it as derivative from real history.

Does this mean that we would have to reject the historicity of most other ancient persons? No. Historians have primary sources that offer very strong reasons to believe that, when they are discussing the history of the Roman empire under Hadrian, Hadrian and his various travels around the empire are historical fact. So when they examine related secondary sources by identifiable historians, and when these secondary sources refer to other people more or less closely connected to Hadrian at some point but for whom there is no primary evidence, we nonetheless have reasonable grounds for inferring the historicity of such people. When Philostratus writes about Apollonius of Tyana, his reference to various sources gives historians some confidence in the historicity of his narrative, but lack of any external corroborating evidence leaves historians with room to doubt its historicity, too.

Nor does the possibility of the nonhistoricity of the gospels necessarily imply that “someone made it all up” within a generation of the supposed events and foisted a myth on an unsuspecting audience, or that a later audience suddenly misinterpreted the myth. Such objections are straw-men.

Let’s Play With Real Historian Tools

Real historians have a number of tools that they use to analyse the known facts, the primary evidence, in order to understand and explain those facts.

Some of these tools are quite sophisticated. One is cross-cultural studies, particularly in sociology and anthropology. These can include studies in epic story telling among certain peoples in the Balkans and parts of Africa. Another is economic modeling, including studies of peasant unrest and class tensions, and shifting socio-economic stresses with new urban developments, and geographical studies. There are also a host of psychological and medical studies into everything from the nature of memory to the various genetic mutations of the plague. And statistics. Always hosts of statistics of raw data.

Another class of historical tools is criteriology. In this collection are criteria of coherence, of multiple attestation, or better still, of multiple independent attestation, of embarrassment, of dissimilarity and double dissimilarity.

How nonbiblical history works: So there are lots of tools. Historians in nonbiblical fields take tools such as these (not always with the same criterion labels) and apply them to known hard facts in an attempt to explain those known facts. There was a revolution in France. Why and how did it happen? Why did Justinian only go so far and no farther, and then suddenly retreat from his efforts to restore the Roman empire? Moslem kingdoms replaced large areas of what was once the Roman empire. Why and how? What can be understood about the nature of Roman power and changes within the empire under Hadrian, and of Hadrian’s personal impact on these? How do we account for the rise of Greek classical culture and the wars between Athens and Sparta? We have an abundance of archaeological (ceramics, other artifacts and evidence of various constructions, skeletons), epigraphical, monumental, numismatic, artistic and architectural evidence to supply us with facts; and even moreso the more recent the events — official and unofficial documents, archives, pamphlets, newspapers . . . . The facts are clear. What the historian needs to do is to find a narrative to piece enough of it all together — the famous historian’s “art”. Historians seek to pose meaningful questions to it all this factual data and explain it. Tools are applied to help them explain it. They don’t waste time on questions the extant evidence does not allow them to answer, such as “What was the historical Socrates really like as a person?”

Historical Jesus historians use the same tools, but the problem is they don’t have any on-the-field known facts to start with. They have lots of stories and treatises (a real mix of church rules, fiction, theology, myth, real names and places) but the problem is to sift through that data to find out what is really a fact of history and what is not. So instead of using those historical tools to analyse facts (they don’t know what the facts of Jesus’ life are yet) they mis-use those tools by applying them to unsubstantiated story narratives thinking that by doing so the conceptual tools will somehow perform more like the archaeologist’s trowel and dig up some historical facts.

Case in point: Many HJ scholars use criteria (e.g. narrative coherence) to decide that it is a fact that Jesus did “something” controversial in the Temple not long before his death. But it is a truism that criteria are subjective, so not all historians agree that he did anything in the Temple at all. Paula Fredriksen and Burton Mack argue from other or even the same criteria (e.g. too perfect a coherence speaks of analogy with fiction; analogies with OT passages speak of theological borrowing) that the narrative accounts of Jesus “cleansing the temple” are better interpreted as fiction. In other words, HJ scholars do not have any “facts” about Jesus to begin with (compare the sorts of facts nonbiblical historians work with as described above) and are taking historical tools that were meant to interpret facts and misapplying them to try to find some facts behind an uncorroborated and myth-like narrative.

So by using the same tools as other historians, the HJ scholars can pretend they are also like real historians. The difference is, of course, that whereas real historians seek to explain the facts they have, HJ historians are trying to find some facts to begin with.

This is normally what archaeologists try to do, only their tools and targets are quite different of course. Historians generally then do history on the facts uncovered by the archaeologists.

So the way this game is played is to take the real tools used by the other historians that were designed to be used to analyse and explain the primary evidence, the known facts, and to use these tools to try to find some facts.

So when HJ scholars use normative tools of historians they are a little like children play doctors and nurses with real medicines and needles, only children at least know what the medicines and needles they have furtively acquired are to be used for.

Let’s Play the Avoidance Game

Steven Carr posted the following responses to the above referenced review of Allison’s book:

Steven Carr said…

‘Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.’So Washington did not chop down that cherry tree, but we can glean from the story the true sense that Washington was an honest man.More importantly, mainstream historian scholars should read stories of Washington chopping down that cherry true and use them as evidence about the character of Washington, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.That is what true scholarship involves.

September 20, 2010 4:08 AM

Steven Carr said…

Is this really an echo of Gethsemane, as Allison claims, ‘For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”‘How can it be?Allison claims on page 418 that because Mark uses Abba only once, Paul must be referring to Gethsemane traditions.And the urgency of ‘cry’ suits the description of Jesus in the garden who is ‘distressed’ and

So the passage draws on Gethsemane tradition.

Can somebody explain the logic of Allison’s argument here?

Jesus prayers to be saved from death are heard (Hebrews 5, which Allison cites as referring to Gethsemane).

But Jesus’s prayer was not ‘heard’. The cup was not taken away from him.

How can Allison claim that Hebrews 5 is about Gethsemane when it claims that Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death and his prayer was heard.

When Mark has Jesus praying to be saved from death and realising that his prayer was futile?

All Allison is doing is matching up adjectives in a literary analysis -‘cry’, ‘distressed’, ‘agitated’ -, and claiming he is an historian.

Just where is the primary data?

The sort of primary data that historians use?

September 20, 2010 4:27 AM

There was (at time of this post) no response to Steven’s first criticism.

As for his second post, the problematic logic and method of the way the reviewer presented Allison’s work was avoided. No response.

But the reviewer did respond to the Carr’s pointing to the conflict between the prayers of Jesus as described in Hebrews 5 and in the Gospel Gethsemane scene.

James F. McGrath said…

Steven, I doubt that the authors of the Gospels would have understood Jesus’ prayer not to have been heard.I would try to explain further, but past comments suggest that your questions are attempts at sarcasm, and although they often betray a failure to understand the primary and secondary sources, any attempt to treat them as genuine questions will witness the person kind enough to explain your misunderstanding being subjected to a barrage of scorn and ridicule.
September 20, 2010 7:18 AM

Not much of an explanation. But presumably that’s because of misbehaviour on Carr’s part. But when one looks at a little history of exchanges between Carr and others on that site, one sees a regular pattern of avoidance of radical criticism. One also sees a general direction of scorn and ridicule from the HJ mainstream scholar against the one with the radical questions: e.g. Why I find mythicism disturbing in a nutshell. That particular link is dated July 2010. It contains references to where the particular critique had been discussed earlier, with the implication that the HJ scholar had answered the criticism and was met with ridicule and scorn for his efforts. One can see that original discussion for oneself at Review of doubting Jesus’ resurrection (January 2010) and assess for oneself the nature of the mainstream HJ scholar’s representation of it. I suggest that the evidence points to the reverse of what is imputed.

On the avoidance of the methodological question that Thompson and Price (and Schweitzer, too) have raised in relation to the historical Jesus being nothing more than an a priori assumption according to basic theoretical principles of logic and historiography, the reviewer has written:

Has any mythicist even bothered to engage Sanders’ argument for the authenticity of the temple incident? Has anyone among the mythicists even shown themselves to be aware of it? . . . .

The reviewer here is betraying his own avoidance of mythicist literature. He has not read Wells or Doherty or he would not need to ask his questions. When I pointed out that even mainstream non-mythicist scholars are not persuaded by Sanders’ argument that there was any such “temple incident” by Jesus (e.g. Fredrikson, Mack) my efforts met with no response. Avoidance.

On other instances of false assertions and avoidance, one reads from a mainstream HJ scholar (from the “doubting Jesus’ resurrection” link above):

As for Doherty’s arguments, I absolutely support their being considered carefully by historians. But when they are so reviewed and found unpersuasive, and the response is then to blame it on a conspiracy to cover up the truth, mythicism starts to show itself to resemble young-earth creationism and all sorts of crackpot theories that use the same tactic.

Carr then asked where one can find where Doherty’s arguments have been reviewed as claimed here:

So where are the peer-reviewed articles by historians reviewing Doherty?

The HJ historian avoids being called to account on his original claim by using the tactic of opening up a second front for attack:

I’m having trouble finding Doherty’s own peer reviewed publications which would supposedly then have been responded to by others in a similar venue. Can you please list at least some of Doherty’s peer-reviewed work, so that I can more effectively search for responses to it?

In other words, the HJ historian simply concocted a fiction when he claimed that historians have reviewed Doherty’s work and found it unpersuasive, and that there was some response to blame these reviews on a conspiracy to cover the truth. Such tactics are all part of the avoidance game.

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