by Neil Godfrey
I post the following in good faith after having attempted multiple times to elicit advice from a New Testament scholar on its accuracy.
Historical Jesus scholarship is unlike other historical studies in the following way:
Historical Jesus scholars (or “historians”) set about applying a set of criteria (embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, etc) to the Gospels for the purpose to trying to find what is factual (or “very probably factual”) about anything that Jesus actually did.
This is different from what other historians do since other historians, as far as I am aware, are much luckier. They have public records and eye-witness and contemporary accounts and documents of verifiable provenance to work with. They have sufficient data to be able to interpret to give them assurance that they have a body of “historical facts” to work with. No historian can get away with suggesting Hitler or Napoleon or Julius Caesar did not become leaders and wage wars and institute major political reforms and a host of other things that are known facts about them. I am not saying we know everything there is to know about them, or that some things we think we know may not be apocryphal, but I am saying that we have clearly verifiable substantial numbers of facts about their lives to enable historians to study them. History is not about simply recording known facts, but about explaining, interpreting, and narrating those known facts.
In the cases of ancient figures lacking a body of verifiable facts in the historical record, historians do not bother to address their lives as matters of historical inquiry at all. Their names may appear in the history of ideas, but that is quite a different matter. If it wasn’t Hillel who really did say something, it is the fact that the ideas are attributed to someone or some group that is significant, not the specific historicity per se of the name.
Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, do not work like this. They have no commonly agreed facts about Jesus. The only datum they seem to agree is a “fact” is that he was crucified. But as I intimated in my previous post, even that “fact” is based on circular reasoning. But scholars seek to understand his personal history (“the real Jesus”, the “historical Jesus”) by trying to FIND some facts about his life by means of criteriology.
I submit that no other historian in any other field works likes this, or at least I would be very surprised if any others do. Maybe I can be brought up to date with historical studies that work in the same way as historical Jesus studies.
Indeed, as I pointed out in another recent post, historical Jesus scholars even appear to be able to claim that they sometimes pioneer the field of history by using
- fabricated material to get to a more truthful or accurate understanding of a historical person;
- defined criteria to establish probabilities of what happened where other historians rely much more on intuition and instinct.
I suggest that no historians of ancient times use “intuition and instinct” — nor the criteria used in HJ studies — to establish a basic fundamental set of historical facts about ancient persons. There is a significant difference between using hunches and criteria to interpret data and facts on the one hand, and using criteria — particularly in the absence of any external controls — to try to find out what happened on the other.
Historians do sometimes use literary analysis of to interpret inferences about historical persons, but only in the cases where there is clear objective evidence (external controls) of the life and career of a historical person to begin with. They do not use such criteria to try to establish all that can be known about a person from the get-go. I will demonstrate how one modern historian works this way in a future post.
On the other hand, for a justifiable approach to the historical study of Christian origins see my previous post.