The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

Michael Grant

Michael Grant

Sometimes when attempting to demolish the arguments of the Christ myth theory historical Jesus scholars point to a popular biography of Jesus, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by a scholar situated well outside the faculties of theology or biblical studies, the classicist Michael Grant. The reason they point to Michael Grant’s book is to be able to say, “See, even a non-theologian, a secular historian, knows Jesus really existed.” The implication is that the normal methods of everyday historical inquiry (quite apart from anything theologians might bring to bear on the topic) are sufficient to “prove” that the person Jesus is a fact of history.

So this post looks at what Michael Grant himself said about the evidence, his methods and why he believed Jesus to be an historical person.

I wonder how many of these Jesus scholars have taken the time to read Grant’s book since none, as far as I am aware, has ever pointed to Grant’s own argument in that book against the Christ Myth view and his own justification for believing Jesus to have been historical. Or maybe it is because they have read it that they choose to remain quiet about Grant’s arguments.

Who was Michael Grant?

Michael Grant was a classicist specializing in the study of Roman coins who was responsible for over 70 books on historical topics.

Immensely prolific, he wrote and edited more than 70 books of nonfiction and translation, covering topics from Roman coinage and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the Gospels. He produced general surveys of ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite history as well as biographies of giants such as Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Nero, Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul. (Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

His reputation as an historian of ancient history was mixed:

As early as the 1950s, Grant’s publishing success was somewhat controversial within the classicist community. According to The Times:

Grant’s approach to classical history was beginning to divide critics. Numismatists felt that his academic work was beyond reproach, but some academics balked at his attempt to condense a survey of Roman literature into 300 pages, and felt (in the words of one reviewer) that “even the most learned and gifted of historians should observe a speed-limit”. The academics would keep cavilling, but the public kept buying.

(Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

The work of his that I remember most clearly as an undergraduate was a collection of translated readings of Roman literature. This was supplemented by many other more comprehensive readings.

The “notoriously hard and challenging task”

At the end of Grant’s book on the life of Jesus he asks how we know if anything he has written is truly historical.

Yet one large, nagging doubt may well still be lodged in the minds of some of those who have read the foregoing chapters. It is this: what reason have we for supposing that the facts as narrated by the Gospels, and presented — with such explanations as I have felt to be necessary — in the course of this book, deserve any degree of belief whatsoever, from the standpoint of their historical accuracy? If one embraces the fundamentalist view that every word of the Bible is God-given, no such doubts can, of course, arise. But very many people do not subscribe to that view, and they will require some explanation and justification. In particular, they will want to have some account of the principles that need to be followed, and the methods that need to be adopted, in deciding which portions of the Gospels can be accepted as historical fact as they stand, or accepted with due reservations or interpretations, or rejected altogether as fictitious by the evangelists or their sources.

To offer an adequate answer to these demands is a notoriously hard and challenging task — as the discussions in the course of this book have already, surely, shown. But it must now, briefly, be attempted. (Jesus, pp. 195-196. My bolding as in all quotations.)

It sounds as if Grant really does place Jesus studies in a class of their own.

So does a classicist “do history” the same way as historical Jesus scholars? Does he arrive at certainty of the existence of Jesus entirely on the strength of historical inquiry that stands independent of anything found among specialist biblical scholars?

Grant earlier appealed to these same unspecified criteria to prove Christianity really was founded upon a literal empty tomb that is beyond the ability of historians to explain!
The historian . . . cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb. . . . If we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty. . . The early Church would never have concocted [this story]. . . There is no way of knowing [where the body was]. (Jesus, p. 176)

Michael Grant did indeed say so, and his words have been often quoted:

[I]f we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. (Jesus, pp. 199-200.)

We will see if Grant’s words are backed up by what he actually does.

So we appear to have a curious contradiction between two statements by Michael Grant. On the one hand he is saying that it is a “notoriously hard and challenging task” to be of anything historical about Jesus, but on the other hand he appears to be saying that the existence of Jesus is not the least problematic.

Who is Jesus Christ for Michael Grant?

First, let’s see who Michael Grant’s Jesus is. Does Grant think of Jesus like any other person in history or does he consider him unique?

The most potent figure, not only in the history of religion, but in world history as a whole, is Jesus Christ . . . Millions of men and women for century after century have found his life and teaching overwhelmingly significant and moving. And there is ample reason, as this book will endeavour to show, in this later twentieth century why this should still be so. (p. 1)

How great the gain indeed: to obtain any information at all about the most important person who has ever lived would be a benefit of immeasurable dimensions. (p. 2)

the principle themes of his mission . . . shook huge parts of the world for all subsequent ages, and transformed the beliefs, thoughts and actions of their inhabitants out of all recognition. (p. 10)

Jesus himself, who clearly possessed extraordinary determination, did not refrain from contentiousness at all. On the contrary he was a stormy personage with a ‘mighty vein of granite in his character’. (p. 76)

He felt an immovable certainty that he was the figure through whom God’s purposes were to be fulfilled. This absolute conviction of an entirely peculiar relationship with God was not unknown among Jewish religious leaders, but in Jesus it became a great deal more vigorous and violent than theirs. (p. 77)

Jesus’ extreme obsessional conviction of a unique relationship with God makes any attempt to fit him into the social, institutional pattern of his time, or into its habitual concepts of thought, a dubious and daunting proposition. (p. 78)

His teaching was crisp, pungent, epigrammatic, ironical. No one has ever known better than Jesus how to express profound thoughts in simple language. (p. 87)

In the eyes of officials, and of many others as well, this [i.e., ’emphasizing his own, personal authority as the inaugurator of the Lord’s Kingdom’] was megalomania — or madness. (p. 89)

This enormous reversal [the conversion of his death “into immeasurable victory”] was due also to altogether exceptional features of his own character. . . . [These exceptional features of his character] were so potent that they have exercised an overwhelming, incalculable influence on all subsequent ages. (p. 192)

One aspect which emerges very strongly from the record is his total unwillingness to compromise. . . . Jesus is not the only personage in history who has claimed that no one can be wholly right except himself because he is uniquely privileged with God’s confidence. Such personages are notoriously uncomfortable to live with and work with. Yet their supreme self-confidence gives them an uncanny strength, and no one has ever felt and shown such impregnable determination as Jesus. (pp. 192-193)

Jesus was expressing his deepest convictions, of permanent value . . . (p. 194)

Certainly, Jesus, a human being on this earth, was like other human beings a product of his age, conditioned by its requirements and limitations. Yet he broke out and away from these limitations with such force, he fulfilled so enormous a role in so uniquely individual a fashion, that it would be absurd to apply the dictum of Montesquieu and Engels [that the spirit of the times produces the great persons of history]. (p. 194)

The immeasurably vast influence exercised by Jesus upon past history is a fact that is incontrovertible and therefore needs no argumentation or demonstration. . . .

Jesus, while on earth, was human, and . . . he gave us a revelation of the maximum effect that one human being has ever been able to exercise upon others. . . . [He] demonstrated, in his own person, the highest level of attainment of which human beings, at any time during the history of the world, have ever proved themselves capable. (p. 195)

Michael Grant is saying that Jesus was the greatest human being who ever lived. No-one has ever been a better teacher or had the same level of determination or been able to break out from the limitations of his age as Jesus did. No human has ever equaled Jesus in any respect. Is this a realistic view of any human being? Or is Grant worshiping Jesus with remarks like these? What does it mean, exactly, to be the “highest level of attainment of which human beings . . . have ever proved themselves capable”? He had more determination than any other human who ever lived? How does Grant measure this?

So Grant is writing not about a historical person but about a supra historical person. One who “broke out and away from” the limitations of his age in order to fulfill “so enormous a role . . . so uniquely”.

Christianity shook the world because of the uniqueness of the character of Jesus. That’s Michael Grant’s message.

One surely must ask how it is possible that such an overwhelming personality and life did not appear in the historical record until at the earliest a full generation after his departure. One can also begin to understand how anyone who views Jesus in the way Grant does must inevitably reject outright any possibility that such a character really is as mythical as he sounds.

But Grant says we can certainly know such a person existed. Here’s how.

How Grant knows Jesus really existed

When . . . one tries to build up facts from the accounts of pagan historians, judgment often has to be given not in the light of any external confirmation — which is sometimes, but by no means always, available — but on the basis of historical deductions and arguments which attain nothing better than probability. The same applies to the Gospels. Their contents need not be assumed fictitious until they are proved authentic. But they have to be subjected to the usual standards of historical persuasiveness. (p. 201, my bolding)

By knowledge of the provenance I mean knowing who the author was, his values, biases, sources he used, and relationship to events narrated. One must always be on guard against the literary-historical legend, however (e.g. see the Schwartz quote in this post).

By a knowledge of genre I mean an understanding of the conventions of the category of the literature being studied. This can be used as a starting guide (not an absolute rule since genres can be mimicked and creatively blended) to assessing the meaning of the text’s content, and to what extent it can be considered historical. Genre must be assessed through grounded theory and content/thematic analysis (e.g. Vines, et al.) not superficial dot-point parallels (e.g. Burridge).

By external confirmation I do not mean that every datum needs external support, but that our confidence in the historian is supported in proportion to how much in the work does have independent verification. Such external controls need to be contemporary with the events narrated to be secure. Mere background historical settings (historical names and places) are not external controls for historicity of events since such background details also appear in ancient fiction.

Grant begins with the presumption that the Gospels are no different from the works of pagan historians as sources of historical data are concerned. What he has overlooked here is that pagan historians (he’s thinking of names like Livy, Polybius, Tacitus) have acquired their “historical persuasiveness” because they have a lot of qualities and features that are completely lacking in the Gospels. I covered what those qualities and features were in a couple of recent posts. See, for example, That Chart of Mythical and Historical Persons . . .. In brief, knowledge of the provenance, the genre and external confirmation of the writings are the three pillars that enable historians to evaluate the reliability of information found in classical histories.

In contrast with the works classicists draw upon for their more reliable historical information, the Gospels are of unknown provenance, of disputable genre and without external confirmation. As such, they have less standing as historically reliable narratives than the Augustan History.

The only support for historical veracity undergirding the gospels is the hypothesis that they were written within the life-times of eyewitnesses of Jesus and/or relied very largely upon oral transmission of eyewitness accounts of an historical Jesus. This hypothesis has yet to withstand the countervailing evidence that the Gospels are, like other creative literature of the day, composed by means of imitation of popular literary works. (See past and future posts for details.)

In other words, Michael Grant is talking through his hat and relying upon his popular status as a reputable classical historian, along with a sure popular acclaim for his subject matter, to get away with the unprofessional nonsense of equating the Gospels with the histories of “pagan historians”. Classical historians do not work with material comparable to the Gospels in order to reconstruct our views of ancient Greece and Rome.

But let’s continue. Grant speaks of “historical persuasiveness”. So let’s see what this persuasiveness factor actually is in the case of Jesus.

Grant has just addressed the Christ-myth theory that was the main challenge of his own day (i.e. of G. A. Wells) and called upon the “criterion of embarrassment” to argue that the Gospels are full of “authentic” details. (I shall look at Grant’s application of this particular criterion later.) So with that caveat, let’s continue:

In cumulation, these authentic points and others add up to a coherent general impression of Jesus, persisting in spite of the differences between the evangelists. . . . True, once again, one must not underestimate the possibility that this homogeneity is only achieved because of their employment of common sources, not necessarily authentic in themselves. . . . (p. 203)

Hang on! Did you catch that? Is Michael Grant really saying that we can’t rule out the possibility that the four Gospel accounts of Jesus are all derived from inauthentic (i.e. fictional?) common sources?

I’m sorry. I interrupted. Let Michael Grant continue:

Yet, even so, the impression remains plausible not only because the personality that emerges is so forceful and individual and satisfying

Excuse me. One more interruption if I may – – – –

So if a personality who is unique — unlike any other person or certainly greater than any other person who has ever lived in all of history — is possibly the result of fictional sources, yet if that person remains at least “plausible” . . . . .

So if a personality that emerges from a story is so attractive, appealing and satisfying . . . . .

Sorry. Let Grant continue:

but because it conflicts in a number of ways with what one might have expected to appear in productions of the Church after Jesus’ death. As C. F. D. Moule observes,

It is difficult enough for anyone, even a consummate matter of imaginative writing, to create a picture of a deeply pure, good person moving about in an impure environment, without making him a prig or a prude or a sort of plaster saint.

How comes it that, through all the Gospel traditions without exception, there comes a remarkably firmly drawn portrait of an attractive young man moving freely about among women of all sorts, including the decidedly disreputable, without a trace of sentimentality, unnaturalness, or prudery, and yet, at every point, maintaining a simple integrity of character?

Is this because the environments in which the traditions were preserved and through which they were transmitted were peculiarly favourable to such a portrait? On the contrary, it seems that they were rather hostile to it.

The consistency, therefore, of the tradition in their pages suggests that the picture they present is largely authentic.

By such methods information about Jesus can be derived from the Gospels. And that is what this book has tried to do. (pp. 203-204)

So that’s it. There you have it. Jesus Christ was historical, surely, because all the Gospels portray him consistently as a superior human being! Consistency is what it’s all about.

If Michael Grant’s criteria for historicity are to be taken seriously, then maybe you really should start to doubt that Julius Caesar really existed. But the best is yet to come.

In the next post in this little series I will show what biblical or New Testament scholars themselves have said about Michael Grant’s arguments and methods. I will also present his specific arguments for particular historical actions by Jesus and his arguments against the main Christ-myth theorist of his day, George Albert Wells.

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  • Blood
    2013-02-25 23:33:17 UTC - 23:33 | Permalink

    Why is the empty tomb story real? Because the early church wouldn’t have made it up.

    Why is the crucifixion real? Because the early church wouldn’t have made it up.

    Why is … you know where this is going.

    Absolutely ridiculous. One could “prove” the historicity of any god or folkloric tale by using this completely arbitrary set of rules. The locus classicus of special pleading.

    • 2013-02-26 06:01:22 UTC - 06:01 | Permalink

      Michael Grant explains why the Church would never have made this up: “The early Church would never have concocted, on its own account, the statement that this most solemn and fateful of all discoveries was made by women, including a woman with an immoral record at that. Perhaps John’s version is the original one, and the other women were added to the story later to make it slightly less shocking. . . .” (p. 176)

      Of course, the legend that Mary had an immoral background long post-dated the Gospels. Grant is more often than not quite superficial. This flaw, as I pointed out here, was not overlooked by some of his scholarly peers.

      • Blood
        2013-02-26 09:55:48 UTC - 09:55 | Permalink

        Not to mention the utter arbitrariness of “perhaps John’s version was the original one.”

        Or, perhaps, Mr Grant, the Iliad book 24 was “the original one”: you know, the one where three women anointed Priam’s dead body and lamented his death.

        Isn’t it remarkable how ultra-classicists like Grant just happened not to notice Mark’s reliance on Homer? If people who spend their entire lives studying this stuff cannot notice parallels to Greek mythology, what chance Joe Sixpack? It just shows the utter, complete failure of academia in dealing with this subject. A failure that becomes increasingly embarrassing with each passing month.

    • KevinC
      2013-02-27 17:18:08 UTC - 17:18 | Permalink

      Attis chopped off his own balls. You can’t explain that! Therefore, Attis was a historical figure. Osiris had his penis chopped off and it ended up getting eaten by a fish. So Isis had to make him a goldmember after she put the rest of him back together (!) so she could conceive Horus with his Frankenstein-like reanimated corpse. Osiris-worshipers would never have made that up! Therefore, Osiris was real. Etc., and so forth.

      Furthermore, most of the “Embarrassment Criterion” stuff would only be embarrassing to Roman elites. Christianity started as a movement of the marginalized. So, an account of “female witnesses” would not have been an “embarrassment” if your movement was recruiting women. A crucifixion would not have been shameful to people who admired the Maccabee martyrs and identified with those crucified by Rome, rather than with the Roman authorities. Considering the tremendous appeal the crucifixion has had for Christians at least since Paul, and that it is arguably the most powerful meme on Earth, it’s pretty much the last place anyone should be trying to apply an Embarrassment Criterion. For the EC to indicate higher probability of historicity for an event, the event has to be shown to be embarrassing to Christians. That people like Celsus or Lucien considered some element of the Christian story to be ridiculous doesn’t count. They weren’t the target audience.

      • 2013-02-28 07:24:52 UTC - 07:24 | Permalink

        Any really embarrasing facts about the historical Jesus would have been erased from Christian memory before he had been cold in the grave.

        Instead we are told that ‘Mark’ and early Christians had 30 years to try to find a way of putting spin on embarrassing things like the baptism, and couldn’t come up with anything except Mark accidentally blurting out that Jesus had been baptised.

        Surely after 30-40 years of Christians (allegedly) having their noses rubbed in the ’embarrassing’ fact that Jesus had been baptised, Mark would have had to be as dumb as a box of rocks not to do what John supposedly did and eliminate all traces of it ever happening.

        Of course, mainstream Biblical scholars have an explanation for why this happened. Not only was Jesus incredibly obscure, but non-Christians knew he had been baptised.

        But how? Did John the Baptist keep records of people who had been baptised? Jesus was supposed , even in the Gospels, to be a nobody when he was baptised. So who noticed at the time that one more Galilean peasant had been baptised?

        Did Jesus hold a press conference after he had been baptised?

        How the hell could anybody know whether or not Jesus had been baptised, unless Christians decided to tell people that he had been? But the baptism was supposed to be embarrassing.

  • Will
    2013-02-26 03:43:14 UTC - 03:43 | Permalink

    great post Neil! it’s so useful to actually break down the reasoning of the historicity supporters. I had heard of Grant but never knew his arguments concerning Jesus.. very interesting indeed.

  • 2013-02-26 05:58:09 UTC - 05:58 | Permalink

    This perfect man, Jesus, being sooooo much better than any ordinary human (probably able to leap tall buildings in a single bound) is how he ended up being God incarnate. The empty tomb is where the original story (written after 70 AD) ended – with the Jews rejecting their messiah, his own disciples betraying, fleeing, denying him. The women being afraid and keeping silent about the empty tomb meant that they understood that God would be coming to smite the earth with a curse in fulfillment of Malachi 4:6. They understood that judgment day (70 AD) had come.

  • Ed-M
    2013-02-26 10:59:34 UTC - 10:59 | Permalink

    The women being afraid and keeping silent about the empty tomb meant that they understood that God would be coming to smite the earth with a curse in fulfillment of Malachi 4:6. It also shows that the author of Mark is reporting this scene for the first time. If one reads the Pauline epistles, and even the Petrine and Pauline speeches in Acts, one will encounter the fact that there is no indication anywhere that the writers even heard of the women visiting the tomb.

  • RoHa
    2013-02-26 12:08:43 UTC - 12:08 | Permalink

    “The most potent figure, not only in the history of religion, but in world history as a whole, is Jesus Christ . . . Millions of men and women for century after century have found his life and teaching overwhelmingly significant and moving.”

    Replace “Jesus Christ” with “Muhammad”, “Buddha”, or “Confucius”, and the rest of the passage still applies.

    • Solstice
      2013-02-27 00:32:33 UTC - 00:32 | Permalink

      Grant really seems like he’s in “Worship Mode” by writing that.

      BTW – Neil or Tim, slightly off topic – with Ratzinger retiring this week, perhaps you should make a blogpost about him rejecting Thompson’s Phd project back in the 70’s:


      • 2013-02-27 08:38:28 UTC - 08:38 | Permalink

        A nice idea. A modern case of how the church(es) vainly strive to stop the progress of the inevitable tide of reason. I’ve long wanted to do posts on more of Thompson’s books, in particular his one on the historicity of the Patriarchs. Unfortunately, some posts for some reason seem to take a lot longer to prepare to present well in a blog format.

  • Richard
    2013-02-26 20:47:47 UTC - 20:47 | Permalink

    “Jesus, while on earth, was human…” This phrasing seems representative of the bias involved. How often do “secular” historians make this type of remark about historical figures who are not the objects of their own religious devotion?

    • 2013-02-26 21:03:59 UTC - 21:03 | Permalink

      Glad you noticed that. Grant wrote lots of books about Roman emperors who also became gods (before and) after sloughing off their mortal coils. I haven’t read any of them but I’d be willing to wager he says nothing comparable in those biographies. His protestations that he was tacking Jesus “as an historian” begin to sound like protestations overdone.

  • Ed
    2013-03-01 03:09:59 UTC - 03:09 | Permalink

    Grant using the same axiom of apologists … this is not history, it’s fantasy literature.

  • Pingback: Godfrey on historiography 1: Polybius & Livy | Christian Studies

  • Sili
    2015-02-12 01:01:48 UTC - 01:01 | Permalink

    Interesting how one minute Richard Carrier is unqualified to write about Jesus because he’s only a classical historian and not an NT scholar, but the next minute this guy is held up as an example of how a classical historian can perfectly well study Jesus.

    I wonder what the difference could be …

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