Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods

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by Neil Godfrey

On 14th January I posted How Historians Work – Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars in which I demonstrated that at least some biblical scholars are unaware of normal historical practices by quoting key sections from works recommended to me by Dr McGrath. On 16th January Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, responded by accusing me of being a fool, either ignorant or obtuse on the one hand or wilfully misrepresenting and wishing to deceive readers whom I believe are gullible and foolish on the other.

Unfortunately Dr McGrath’s reply only further convinced me that he has not read both books in question even though he recommended them to me — though he does appear to have at least read sections (only) of one of them — and that his smearing of my character and intelligence is unwarranted.

Dr McGrath began his reply with:

I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.

Presumably this sort of ad hominem is intended as filler in place of reasoned responses to virtually the whole of the arguments and demonstrations of my post since he repeats such accusations often while never engaging with all but a couple of my points, and even those only tangentially.

Dr McGrath then lands another character attack that he says he will not deliver or will ignore so I will ignore that for now, too — although I did respond to it on his blog at the time.

So to the main point:

But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.

This introduction at the very least leads me to expect that Dr McGrath will demonstrate by quoting Vansina and Howell and Prevenier — just as I had done to make my points about their arguments — and thereby demonstrate that I had quoted them out of context or had misquoted them. I expected from this intro that Dr McGrath is going to point specifically to their arguments that will expose all I said about them to be a blatant misrepresentation.

First, Godfrey quotes Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources and their discussion of Vansina’s work in oral history: “Historians can place trust in oral sources only to the extent that they can be verified by means of external evidence of another kind, such as archaeological, linguistic, or cultural” (p. 26). He then ignores the question of what sort of linguistic and cultural evidence is being referred to and proceeds as though these points had not even been mentioned. He seems to think that his readers are foolish and gullible, and perhaps some are, but not all.

This is, I regret to say, either obtuseness or blatant misrepresentation of Howell and Prevenier by Dr McGrath himself. Neil Godfrey ignored nothing of the context of the quotation from page 26 of H&P. H&P nowhere make any reference here to any limitation or qualification of a particular type of linguistic or cultural evidence. H&P make it very clear they are speaking generically of principles that cross the broad spectrum of cultural and linguistic types.

In the paragraph preceding my quotation, for example, H&P explain that a major contribution of Vansina to oral historiography was methodology. Specifically, H&P address V’s contribution to methodology that can help an oral historian make reasonable assessments of the historical reliability or accuracy of oral reports. They point out that V says oral accounts can be considered reliable if they “meet several tests”.

Vansina’s tests concerned both matters external to the text (is the narrator [or witness] a member of the group that controls the transmission of the narrative? does the narrative come to the researcher via a social institution or via a closed caste?) and those internal (is the narrative stylistically coherent, that is, does the witness’s or reporter’s tale conform to the linguistic, stylistic, ritualistic, and juridical norms of the period  and the place from which his tale is told [or pretends to originate]?

Now those external tests are exactly what H&P elsewhere (see my previous post) identify as information about the provenance of a narrative. Dr McGrath, I suspect on the grounds of other claims about provenance, insist that we do know the provenance of the Gospel of Mark, for example. It is Christianity! Well, sorry, but “Christianity” is terribly vague — it subsumes multitude of possibilities — and tells us nothing of what we need to know about Mark’s origin. I can’t imagine V being content with “West African tribal culture” being assigned as the provenance of any of his oral narratives.

H&P then explain that V points out that pre-literate societies that rely heavily on oral transmission of certain memories and oral witnessing of agreements as part and parcel of their social functioning are often tightly stable societies and far from being anarchic.

In other words, H&P are discussing the generic contributions that Vansina has made to the study of oral history. When I quote their reference to Vansina himself saying that external corroboration of some sort is always necessary to confirm the reliability of an oral narrative, then I am quoting them in context and directly in accord with what Vansina himself has written — and I even quote Vansina’s own words to this effect quite independently of H&P.

No, Dr McGrath’s assertion that I failed to understand or accurately reflect the words and arguments of H&P is mistaken.

Godfrey then writes, “The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”. HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary.” At this point, Godfrey is either being obtuse or deceptive, or has not actually read Vansina’s books (the fact that they are books but he placed their titles in quotation marks, even though Godfrey is a librarian and should know better, is indeed suspicious).

This is a strange accusation. There is no question that the Gospels are not oral reports. They are literary works and scholars studying their literary artifices and structures have well enough pointed this out many times. Sure most scholars understand the stories are adapted from oral reports in many cases. But the works we have are literary products.

What Vansina speaks of when he refers to written accounts of oral reports or oral traditions is nothing like the literary works of the Gospels. He is referring always to scholarly recordings of oral performances and stories. No scholarly recording or copying of an oral performance will ever look like a literary work that we find in the Gospels.

But most significantly, Vansina is referring always to literary works that declare themselves to be — and are verifiably so — records of oral performances. We have absolutely no external or tangible evidence that the Gospels are themselves this sort of literature. We have only hypothesis. The evidence we do have from the Gospels themselves is that many of their stories are clearly influenced by other OT phrases and plot and thematic ideas. So the tangible evidence that we do have actually points to them as being literary creations from the get-go.

Vansina studies the oral histories of African tribes including for periods before the living memory of those he interviewed. In such cases, the same situation exists as in the Gospels, except that the Gospels can be shown to be closer in time to the events they purport to record than some of the African oral traditions discussed in Vansina’s book.

As I have pointed out in replies to Dr McGrath and in other posts, Jan Vansina is very clear about the difference between oral traditions and oral reports.

The sources of oral historians are reminiscences, hearsay, or eyewitness accounts about events and situations which are contemporary, that is, which occurred during the lifetime of the informants. This differs from oral traditions in that oral traditions are no longer contemporary. They have passed from mouth to mouth, for a period beyond the lifetime of the informants. The two situations typically are very different with regard to the collections of sources as well as with regard to their analysis. . . . (p. 12-13 of Oral Tradition as History, 1985, my emphasis)

Oral traditions do not exist, according to his working definition, within the life-times of eye-witnesses. Why do historical Jesus scholars always speak of “oral traditions” being alive during the lifetimes of eye-witnesses and at the same time invoke Vansina as an authority to support their views?

Dr McGrath has laughed this off by saying that an oral tradition can emerge in an area without access to eye-witnesses. This is surely special pleading. If a community heard of remarkable stories they knew happened in a region where witnesses were still living I imagine that would always have to be considered as a factor in how far oral traditions can mutate from the original reports.

So when Dr McGrath attempts to bolster his case by saying the Gospels are closer in time to the original events than some of the case-studies of Vansina, it appears he is advertizing his failure either to read or to recall the earlier chapters of Vansina’s works himself. (I do not believe he is being deliberately deceptive. Lazy or careless perhaps.) But worse, by placing the “oral traditions” closer to the time of the events they are supposed to speak about, he is falling into a whole lot worse mess when it comes to the interpretation of such stories through the literary works of the Gospels. See my earlier post on the Hopi for the nature of this difficulty — it in facts makes the entire Gospel narrative far more probably a mythical construct from the beginning and not a historical memory at all! — Unless all the miracles, the resurrection, and the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus while alive, etc etc were all literally true as told.

What exactly are the external controls of the sort Godfrey thinks are needed? How does he know that the stories being told by a tribe’s storyteller to Vansina were not originally about celestial rather than terrestrial figures? How does he know that they were not concocted in a conspiracy to rewrite history at some earlier date?

Here, unfortunately, Dr McGrath is not dismissing my arguments but Vansina’s as well as Howell and Prevenier’s. Vansina is clear about the external controls that are needed and so are H&P. Does Dr McGrath even know what their arguments are? He gives us no evidence that he does. My argument is that historical Jesus scholars should be consistent and apply the same standards expounded by these historians.

Vansina says that the sorts of external controls required are known events or reports external to and independent from the narrative in question. This includes a knowledge of the provenance of the narratives: what particular social group and individual, with a knowledge of their relations with others, produced or transmitted the tradition or report. All Dr McGrath has been able to say is that the provenance is the same religious idea that produced gnosticism, orthodoxy, docetism, adoptionism, Syrian Christianity, Roman Christianity . . . the counterpart to Vansina’s reference to “West African culture”.

What Dr McGrath is suggesting here is that external controls are not needed at all in the case of the Gospels — thus contradicting the clear and direct insistence of Vansina and H&P. He seems to be saying that we can assume the Gospels were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses so we have no need for external controls for verification.

This is, of course, nothing but empty and unsupported assumption.

Historians can place trust in oral sources only to the extent that they can be verified by means of external evidence of another kind, such as archaeological, linguistic, or cultural. (p. 26, Howell and Prevenier. See also quotes from Vansina in Confessions of a Theologian)

Dr McGrath does not accept that this is necessary in the case of the Gospels but still wants to claim that he does history the same way any other historian does, so he accuses me of misrepresenting H&P. I have not misrepresented either H&P or V but have quoted them and Dr McGrath did not even attempt to demonstrated from either of these authors that my quotations or summaries were out of context or misleading.

There is more, but I will finish here rather than bother to address mere unsupported accusations. The point I have hoped to get across here is that no matter how much a historical Jesus scholar or teacher like Dr McGrath protests otherwise, he has failed to provide any evidence that I am wrong when I point out from sources he himself recommends that HJ scholars don’t do history like any other (non-HJ) historian.

(Of course I am not suggesting that all other historians are perfect. I have pointed this out many times — that there are good and bad, lazy and diligent, professionals in all fields. But we see from works like those by H&P and V what the ideals really are, and how far so many HJ scholars fall short.)

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  • 2012-02-10 00:03:40 UTC - 00:03 | Permalink

    Maybe there should be a more well defined and agreed upon definition of “provenance”. From what I’ve read, “provenance” is basically those W questions that you are taught to ask in 3rd grade whenever you’re doing reports of any sort. Who, what, when, where, why? Surely, the “provenance” — which answers each of these questions — for say, the gospel of Mark, isn’t “Christianity”. That would be effectively a non-answer.

    Unfortunately, we don’t know who wrote the gospel. It seems the working assumption is “some orthodox Christian” (this is why we can apply things like the criterion of embarrassment to it since that criterion assumes orthodoxy), which is most likely wrong. Even if right, it is still vague. We have a large window for when he wrote it. The genre (what) of Mark is still debatable. Where he wrote it? Heh… Rome, Syria, Alexandria, the list probably goes on and on with no one answer seeming to be agreed upon. Why did Mark write his gospel? What sociological or theological need prompted the author to write when he wrote? Again, a multitude of answers which all have their strengths and weaknesses.

    To say that we know the provenance of the gospel of Mark seems, to me, a bit misleading.

    • 2012-02-10 03:47:10 UTC - 03:47 | Permalink

      Steve Allen used to tell this story about the time he and his wife were at a restaurant. While thumbing through the menu he looked up a the waitress and said, “Could you tell me what the soup du jour is?” She trotted off to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with the answer. “It’s the ‘soup of the day,'” she said.

      McGrath’s answer is just as correct and just as useless.

      • 2012-02-10 06:04:31 UTC - 06:04 | Permalink

        I don’t want to take the time to track it down now, but I’ve quoted it at least once in another post here and again on Dr McGrath’s blog another recent instance of the professor’s “just as correct and just as useless” answers. I had asked him how HJ scholars judged whether a document contains useful historical information or can be used as a valuable historical source for events, and he replied, quite seriously, “By thorough examination”! He has even repeated this perspicacious enlightenment since in other comments or posts. His students must feel as enlightened as the clouds by the time they finish his courses.

    • 2012-02-10 06:10:25 UTC - 06:10 | Permalink

      The proof of the pudding here is that there are so many studies among scholars of the Gospel of Mark that are do not begin with the known provenance of the Gospel but are explorations of educated speculations about what its provenance might be! That is, they are attempting to guess the provenance at the tail end of their studies when it should have been the first thing established in order for them to justify using it the way they do use it — as a presumed documentation of oral reports about historical events. The Gospel of Mark, like the other Gospels, is a fantastic historical source for itself and comparable literature and ideas. Its self-testimony is part of this understanding of the source — but without external controls of some sort there is no rationale for treating a self-testimony as a literally true testimony. That does not mean it is necessarily false, either. It means it is not sufficient of itself — other evidence (not speculations) need to be applied to make a valid evaluation of it.

  • Jason Goertzen
    2012-02-10 01:54:03 UTC - 01:54 | Permalink

    Neil, you may wish to edit your second-to-last paragraph. You wrote:

    “…when I point out from sources he himself recommends that HJ scholars do history like any other (non-HJ) historian.”

    I suspect you mean “don’t do history like any other (non-HJ) historian.”

    This trivial nitpick aside, excellent post!

    • 2012-02-10 05:54:30 UTC - 05:54 | Permalink

      That’s not a trivial nitpick. That’s drawing attention to a catastrophic blunder! Thanks!!!!

  • Jer
    2012-02-10 03:39:14 UTC - 03:39 | Permalink

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this already, Neil, but Richard Carrier just announced a new book. It sounds like it’s going to be right up your alley. But I specifically note this quote from him on that blog post:

    “Then I discovered that the field of New Testament studies was so monumentally fucked the task wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped. Very basic things that all scholars pretend have been resolved (producing standard answers constantly repeated as “the consensus” when really it’s just everyone citing each other like robbing Peter to pay Paul), really haven’t been … ”

    And later

    “The end result was that I realized this was going to have to be two books: one resolving the problem of method (because the biggest thing I discovered is that every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked) …”

    That emphasis is mine, but the italicized part is the most interesting to me. Because that sounds exactly BACKWARDS from what certain folks have been claiming. That the methods used in NT scholarship are just like the ones historians use, for example.

    I thought this was interesting, given the recent discussion around here…

    • 2012-02-10 06:02:51 UTC - 06:02 | Permalink

      Richard Carrier’s promotion of his Bayes’ theorem is, at bottom, nothing more — okay, maybe it is quite a bit more really, but there’s a bottom line it draws attention to — than drawing attention to NT scholars that when they so often say we have “this or that fact about what Jesus did” they are simply wrong. What Bayes forces them to confront is that we have STORIES about such and such a “fact”.

      • 2012-02-10 09:04:23 UTC - 09:04 | Permalink

        Neil: What Bayes forces them to confront is that we have STORIES about such and such a ‘fact’.

        I hope it forces them to realize that when they say things like “probably” or “must have” or “indisputable” that they’re making truth assertions that imply probability. In the future, when some scholar writes that a saying or an event was embarrassing to early Christians so it “must be authentic to Jesus,” I’d like to see other scholars who’ve gotten on the Bayesian bandwagon say, “Show your work.”

        • 2012-02-11 00:52:07 UTC - 00:52 | Permalink

          Exactly. As Richard Carrier noted, when scholars form conclusions on probabilistic language, they should be using some sort of probability theory to help them arrive at their conclusions and not just an educated hunch. If one read some literature on cognitive science, they’d know that psychologists have overwhelmingly determined that people are horrible at probabilistic thinking, and this includes scholars. Especially scholars who have no training on the subject.

          It seems to me that scholars assume criteriology has a higher success rate than what it might actually be. In Bayes’ theroem the success rate of some explanation is always juxtaposed by its false positive rate. If the false positive rate is greater than the success rate, then that particular explanation is worthless, and might actually be used against the hypothesis.

          Just to try to give a quick example, let’s say some test detects cancer 30% of the time someone actually has cancer. That same test says that someone has cancer 20% of the time that a person actually doesn’t have cancer. Dividing the first number by the second shows you how much confidence you should have in that particular cancer test. It’s not very good, but it still works. On the other hand, if some cancer test successfully detected cancer 90% of the time, yet had a false positive rate of 95%, then this cancer test is slightly bad; it’s actually slightly better for telling you when you don’t have cancer.

          What is the success rate of the criterion of embarrassment? What is its false positive rate? Carrier brings up the cult of Attis as an instance of a false positive of the criterion. A proper survey of religions in antiquity would get us a better picture of how useful this criterion is, probability wise. It could be that the criterion of embarrassment might be a better test for ahistoricity, just like the bad cancer test above. Sure, the criterion of embarrassment is intuitively true, but intuition and probability don’t mix.

  • 2012-02-10 04:28:41 UTC - 04:28 | Permalink

    Mythicists, secular critics make the very same mistake as the Fundamentalists, however different the conclusions derived therefrom: the writings to the NT constitute our primary if not our sole source for knowledge of the man Jesus.
    Present historical methods and knowledge of HJ research recognizes that none of the Jewish scriptures, the OT, is prophetic witness to Jesus, but also that none of the writings of the NT, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, are apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church mistook them to be. Thus they are not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. Present HJ research further recognizes that orthodox Christianity which is based on the writings of the NT is as well not a reliable source for knowledge of Jesus. The real question is: What is our most reliable NT Scriptural source for knowledge of the man Jesus. Critics, both secular and religious, need to first get straight on just what the real problem of HJ research is about.

    • 2012-02-10 06:23:54 UTC - 06:23 | Permalink

      Most HJ scholars recognize the Gospels do not testify to a historical Jesus but a Christ of faith. They believe that they have a set of valid “tools” by which they can examine these documents and discover beneath them glimpses of the Historical Jesus.

      Thus they begin with the assumption that the Gospels are based on a historical Jesus though they have lost sight of his original nature and written a highly mythological or theological narrative about him. By applying a range of criteria, such as the criterion of embarrassment, they believe they can break through this Christ of Faith narrative and find hints of the real Jesus who is always assumed to be there.

      So though the crucifixion is written up in a manner charged with theological meaning, by applying one of their tools, the criterion of embarrassment, they believe they can say Jesus really was crucified. This works by arguing that the early Christians would have been embarrassed that Jesus was crucified so they would not have made it up so it had to be a true historical event.

      The obvious rebuttal to that of course is that we know the early Christians, such as Paul, were not the least embarrassed by the Crucifixion. It was their boast and glory and the proud centrepiece of their theology. Irony and paradox are the handmaidens of a religion that needs to present itself as a repository of mysteries.

      • GakuseiDon
        2012-02-11 05:59:35 UTC - 05:59 | Permalink

        Neil: Most HJ scholars recognize the Gospels do not testify to a historical Jesus but a Christ of faith. They believe that they have a set of valid “tools” by which they can examine these documents and discover beneath them glimpses of the Historical Jesus.

        Thus they begin with the assumption that the Gospels are based on a historical Jesus though they have lost sight of his original nature and written a highly mythological or theological narrative about him.

        But in a recent blog, you also said that “the Christian faith dominates the entire field of biblical studies” and suggested that it is very unlikely that “these scholars are all committed to setting aside their personal faith and seeking truth regardless of where it may lead”.

        What is the overlap between the two ideas, in your view? Why don’t most HJ scholars equate the historical Jesus with the Christ of faith?

        • 2012-02-11 07:34:35 UTC - 07:34 | Permalink

          GDon, the master sophistic casuist, yet so innocent he does not even know the meaning of “pettifogging”, would want us to think that the mere interest in a “historical Jesus” behind a “Christ of faith” on behalf of an academic guild dominated by theologians by definition is evidence of an entirely faith-free interest or motivation in historical research!

          Perhaps the answer has something to do with the “Christ of Faith” as found in the Gospels no longer satisfies the faith that is required in the modern age. Perhaps it has something to do with Schweitzer’s analysis long ago that each HJ researcher tends to find an HJ in his own image, just as every god is created in the image required of its human creators.

          To take just one of potentially dozens of examples, here is Marcus J. Borg explaining what the “historical Jesus” — as he himself has discovered him behind the traditional “Christ of faith” of yesteryear — means to him:

          This transformation in my understanding of God began to affect my understanding of Jesus. I now was able to see the centrality of God (or “the Spirit,” to say the same thing) in Jesus’ own life. I began to see Jesus as one whose spirituality — his experiential awareness of Spirit — was foundational for his life. This perception became the vantage point for what I have since come to understand as the key truth about Jesus: that in addition to being deeply involved in the social world of the everyday, he was also grounded in the world of the Spirit. Indeed, as I shall observe from several perspectives in this book, Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was.

          — p. 15, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”.

          • GakuseiDon
            2012-02-11 09:14:43 UTC - 09:14 | Permalink

            Neil: GDon… would want us to think that the mere interest in a “historical Jesus” behind a “Christ of faith” on behalf of an academic guild dominated by theologians by definition is evidence of an entirely faith-free interest or motivation in historical research!

            ??? No question that everyone has biases, and this affects their work. But it is an easy card to play. What I am asking relates to the **observable** impact of that bias in peer-reviewed academia.

            Let’s put it this way: what is the difference in peer-reviewed journals between, say, the secular view, e.g. Ehrman’s figure of Jesus; and the mainstream view of Jesus? Are you aware of any difference?

            • 2012-02-11 09:53:01 UTC - 09:53 | Permalink

              The question we are addressing, GDon, is the irrational hostility on the part of bibilcal scholars against mythicism. Remember the wood, GDon, that you want us to no longer see as we look at this and that tree.

              • GakuseiDon
                2012-02-11 12:53:08 UTC - 12:53 | Permalink

                I see. And you are showing there is an irrational hostility by writing post after post after post attacking McGrath? Good stuff.

                I don’t think there is hostility on the part of biblical scholars against mythicism. Most are unaware of it, except for perhaps the most popular version (“Mithras/Krishna/Dionysus/Osiris were virgin-born and crucified between two thieves”). No-one is hostile to that form of mythicism, because it is (frankly) stupid.

                One of your readers wrote to you almost two years ago: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/how-and-why-scholars-fail-to-rebut-earl-doherty/

                “Neil, I think you might get a more impartial hearing for your case if you would hold back on the ad hominems against McGrath, Casey, Crossley, Fredriksen, Gibson, Hoffmann, Steph, etc. You seem to accuse your critics of covert apologetics or not being able to free themselves from the Christian myth (interesting that this list, besides McGrath, are secular or Jewish scholars, as the huge majority of Jewish or secular biblical scholars agree on the question of historicity)”…

                Anyway, let me put an underline to this and make it my last post on this subject, at least for now: To me it seems that the mainstream view of the figure of Jesus, the Bible, etc, is consistent with a secular view. This suggests the biases of the overwhelming number of biblical scholars are not coming through.

                I don’t think there is an irrational hostility against mythicism, which seems based on the assumption that scholars somehow understand the strength of the mythicist case and so are threatened by it. But in fact most scholars don’t know anything about mythicism, so why would they be hostile to it? And those that know something about it usually find it unimpressive. So again, why should there be hostility? Let me suggest that there is hostility against some **mythicists**, but that comes down to the individual mythicist and how they interact, rather than to their mythicist position.

                Anyway, I’m taking time away from you writing another post attacking McGrath. Carry on.

              • 2012-02-11 13:19:54 UTC - 13:19 | Permalink

                Attacking McGrath or exposing the fallacies in his arguments and his hostile ad hominem responses to reasonable requests that he support his scurrilous and ignorant assertions with evidence? I have not resorted to calling Dr McGrath insane or physically ill or deliberately deceptive and knowingly lying. Yes you might find some half statements from a long time ago that I have never repeated. And despite my many efforts to ask Dr McGrath for us to start with a clean slate he has continued to attack my character and the intelligence of anyone who supports mythicism. Your critique of my addressing Dr McGrath’s arguments in this way reminds me of Dr McGrath’s own double standards on his blog. Other commenters could insult me in the foulest manner on his blog but the moment I showed the least impatience or sarcasm he regularly jumped on me for my tone of speaking! No, I am not attacking McGrath in the way McGrath is attacking me personally. (I note that you would deny me the right to defend myself from his public attacks against my character.)

                I am simply trying not to let him get away with outlandish and specious arguments that are couched in vitriolic accusations of dishonesty and deceit. Let’s stick to the arguments themselves.

                But you are right on your fist point, GDon. When I have spoken of hostility on the part of biblical scholars against mythicism I of course was completely wrong to make it sound I meant to include every biblical scholar on the planet including those who have never heard of mythicism. You win on that one.

              • Havok
                2012-02-14 10:42:10 UTC - 10:42 | Permalink

                GakuseiDon: To me it seems that the mainstream view of the figure of Jesus, the Bible, etc, is consistent with a secular view. This suggests the biases of the overwhelming number of biblical scholars are not coming through.

                That doesn’t seem to follow GDon.

                It could be, as Neil tries to point out, that HJ scholars assume there simply must be a real historical Jesus, due to their faith, but due to methodological issues, this historical Jesus cannot be the same as the Christ of Faith. The HJ then becomes compatible with a “secular view”, as you put it, and the Christ of faith is then rationalised in some other fashion.

                Just because the view of Jesus put forth by HJ Scholars appears “secular” does not mean that the religious biases of the majority of these scholars is not having an impact – it could well be that they’re willing to go this far and no further, and the reaction of McGrath and others to Neils general observations about methods seems to me to support this contention rather than your own.

              • 2012-02-14 10:53:04 UTC - 10:53 | Permalink

                Agreed. Modern sophisticated faith of the intelligentsia is naturally going to be compatible with modern reasoning and contemporary values. GDon’s efforts to single out specific peer reviewed articles — and ignore the clear statements of scholars in the prologues and epilogues of their books — means nothing. It’s the silencing of dissident views that is built into the system — and as has been pointed out elsewhere, people are not accepted into the guild unless they have been conditioned to think the right way and never give the time of day to specific ideas.

    • exrelayman
      2012-02-10 06:32:20 UTC - 06:32 | Permalink

      “The real question is: What is our most reliable NT Scriptural source for knowledge of the man Jesus.”

      Hidden in your question is the assumption of a man Jesus.

      I think the real question is: what is most likely true given all the evidence we have? At least if you care more about seeking the truth rather than furthering an agenda.

  • 2012-02-10 08:31:42 UTC - 08:31 | Permalink

    My 2/10/12 @ 4:20 am Comment should make it clear that the writings of the NT as well as orthodox Christianity are off the table as sources of Jesus reconstruction.

      2012-02-11 01:04:23 UTC - 01:04 | Permalink

      This is the same discussion as on Feb 7-8. Declaring that.”the writings of the NT as well as orthodox Christianity are off the table as sources of Jesus reconstruction” renders it impossible to even define who or what that “jesus” we are talking about is. And what is that inquiry that we think is “the real problem of HJ research”.

      It’s fine and dandy to say that all those writings define the “Christ of faith”, but that is all we first deal with.

      Researching the origins of that “Christ of faith”, the origins of Christianity itself is a vast detective story on a quest for a perpetrator who would be “behind” the stories around the “Christ of faith”.

      As it is, there’s no guarantee that there’s one perpetrator. All the assumptions are on the table, with different degrees of probability.

      The so-called “criterion of embarrassment” has never struck me as an effective “tool” to decide which events “must” be real. There are no objective standards that allow us to measure the degree of embarrassment to ancient people, who operated in a mental landscape totally different from ours, for whom the supernatural was very “natural”, and whose feelings certainly were very different from ours.

      What may embarrass us is no guarantee that it was embarrassing to them. Using our feelings as a criterion for spotting the veracity of a story strikes me as a deep illusion. If Constantine could order the execution of his sons, and that of his wife, who’s going to explain his feelings then? No way for us to connect with the feelings of ancient people. As Godfrey mentions, no way to spot embarrassment in Paul. And who sees any embarrassment in the character of Jesus when he rebuffs his mother or his family? Or, more exactly, in the feelings of the writer who finds the story entirely acceptable?

      So, once again, whatever we may say about Jesus is, before anything else, related to our perception of the “Jesus Christ” of the ancient writings. Sure, we think we can excise the “Christ” portion and get a residue that’s going to be Jesus, or at least to point “towards” Jesus, or what we assume may be a “real”, i.e. historical Jesus behind everything.

      Whichever way we cut it, it seems to me that Exrelayman’s formulation is the correct one. As detectives, we are faced with “all the evidence we have”, and we have to determine “what is most likely true given all this evidence,”

      And the first layer of evidence is the “now available texts”, which, willy-nilly, remain our starting point in our inquiry and research. Our perception of “Jesus” is phenomenologically based on the documents we have currently available.

      We’d love to have a Sherlock Holmes on our team, but so far the trail does not lead to any certain origin. We have no objective standards to evaluate degrees of likeliness of truth, and our final conclusions rely on our personal appreciation of probability. Unless we ever got the famous “primary sources” of the NT writings, with external corroboration, which again is probably unlikely, we remain dependent on our subjective evaluation of the data. Which is where expertise, credibility, and personal intuition, come into play, as well as denouncing the credibility and the intuitions of other experts or would-be experts.

  • 2012-02-11 00:37:04 UTC - 00:37 | Permalink

    McGrath is a well known for telling some people he is a christian and other people that he does not believe in the supernatural. He is one of those religion industry folks that wants to keep his job, and wants to hear himself talk, but has the problem in that each time he opens his mouth, he makes a fool of himself.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

      2012-02-11 02:30:11 UTC - 02:30 | Permalink

      Which again does not seem to embarrass him at all, whereas many of us would be terribly embarrassed by such behavior. This seems again to invalidate the practical value of the criterion of embarrassment.

      • 2012-02-11 07:55:58 UTC - 07:55 | Permalink

        Since Dr McGrath has certified me as insane and in need also of physical healing for insisting he respond with direct and unequivocal answers to questions and for pointing out contradictions and factual errors in his own comments, and on those grounds must walk away from engaging with me at all, I will have to leave it up to others to try to elicit responses from him on these sorts of (embarrassing?) points.

  • 2012-02-14 18:42:13 UTC - 18:42 | Permalink

    What a scandal it is that professors who speak as professors should be so fixated on slandering and lying about those who hold views they despise that in the process they quite carelessly advertize their own ignorance of what they claim to be sources they rely upon for their own scholarly work. We know that Dr McGrath accused me of misrepresenting Jan Vansina, who is something of an authority on oral history (at least in the past tense), because I pointed out that Vansina argued for a methodology that flatly contradicted what he (McGrath) believed he argued. I have continued to follow up my reading of methodology in oral history, in particular with an effort to find more recent scholarly publications. Sure enough, there are major oral historians in the field, even covering the same Africanist history as Vansina himself often did, and who — guess what — disagree with Vansina’s methodology and models for oral transmission. Actually, some of them say, in part (but only in part), what Dr McGrath himself wrongly believed Vansinsa argued, and they even criticize Vansina for espousing the very views McGrath insisted he did not hold!!!!

    So other oral historians acknowledge Vansina argues the very things I pointed out to McG and for which McG accused me of ‘misrepresenting’ Vansina! Other oral historians confirm I was right and McG is making a fool of himself by exposing his ignorance and willingness to slander.

    But lest McGrath ever hear about this comment via the grapevine, it should also be noted that what other oral historians put in the place of Vansina’s models does nothing more to help the wishful thinking of Dr McGrath, either.

    What this shows — and I will later do a more detailed post explaining the arguments and criticisms of Vansina by other oral historians — is that NT scholars, and not just one of them since McG is defended by some of his colleagues, are sometimes so irrationally set on slandering, even lying about mythicists that they are simply looking for faults and don’t care how they think they find them. Their preconception is so set that mythicism is a sham that they go crazy and make fools of themselves when they try to argue against it as such.

  • Evan
    2012-02-19 23:58:12 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

    Occasionally rereading Schweitzer does reward one with the occasional gem:

    “For the problem of the life of Jesus has no analogue in the field of history. No historical school has ever laid down canons for the investigation of this problem, no professional historian has ever lent his aid to theology in dealing with it. Every ordinary method of historical investigation proves inadequate to the complexity of the conditions. The standards of ordinary historical science are here inadequate, its methods not immediately applicable. The historical study of the life of Jesus has had to create its own methods for itself. In the constant succession of unsuccessful attempts, five or six problems have emerged side by side which together constitute the fundamental problem. There is, however, no direct method of solving the problem in its complexity; all that can be done is to experiment continuously, starting from definite assumptions; and in this experimentation the guiding principle must ultimately rest upon historical intuition.”

    Is there a biblical scholar who has proven Schweitzer wrong in this proposition since he first put it down? It would seem that this directly contradicts McGrath.

    • 2012-02-20 02:54:24 UTC - 02:54 | Permalink

      Schweitzer failed to recognize his contemporary state of historical NT studies. He took the Gospel of Matthew to be the first gospel. He failed to recognize the implications of the fact that the writings of the NT were not reliable sources for knowledge of the man Jesus. He further failed to recognize the historical fact that we have not only a chronologically first, but as well an alternative, NT Scriptural source to the writings of the NT for knowledge of Jesus. This happens to be a common failure of a wide majority of present NT schholars. Schwitzer’s primary mistake was to assume that historical knowledge of the man Jesus, began not only with the writings of the NT, but that Christianity itself was our first and primary source of this knowledge, for obviously Christianity was based on the writings of the NT. For all of his genius he was guilty of these fateful mistakes. Such is fallible human nature, even that of the genius. How rare that one comes to “know”, experience, Ultimate Reality with its enormous implications for meaning! Such judgments can only, at the very least, come from present historicall methods and knowlede as it exists within the discipline of NT studies – not from secular historical disciplines.

    • 2012-02-20 20:27:10 UTC - 20:27 | Permalink

      Nice one, Evan. What is the source for that?

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