Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as “history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »

All Bible Scholars Agree . . . (so what?)

No scholar employed by a major university doubts Jesus existed. 


Is all scholarly consensus equal?

One sometimes reads a claim like this by a theologian or bible scholar although generally they will more modestly say only that no scholar employed by a theology or biblical studies department holds this view.

How should we evaluate such a claim?

The intention behind the claim is to persuade us to accept the authority of biblical scholarship in the same way we might accept the authoritative claims of scientists, engineers or doctors.

But the difference should be obvious to all. The sciences are about universal physical facts; biblical studies are a culturally limited and ideological area of interest.

What if we were to read an Islamic scholar saying no scholar of the Koran or Islam at a reputable university believes Jesus was crucified or doubts Mohammad rose to heaven on a flying horse?

Look, also, at the Who’s Who table to see who in relatively recent years have confessed to doubts about the most fundamental claim of biblical scholarship. Highly respected linguists, philosophers and scientists as well as a broad range of literature scholars, psychologists, engineers are on the list.

These are people who do know how to evaluate claims and are not going to be fobbed off with authoritative declarations about what “bible scholars believe”. These are not people who are somehow perverse eccentrics who are just as likely to be found wondering if Young Earth Creationists are right after all.

People know biblical scholarship does not hold the same universal authoritative status as the medical sciences. It is not hard to find scholars in the sciences even mocking the whole discipline of theology for its ill-informed pretensions to accommodation with evolution.

All authority should be held accountable and welcome challenges if it is to validly justify itself.
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One more free ride on Richard Carrier’s blog: Did Jesus Exist? (A metapost)

Lately Richard Carrier has been providing me with excuses not to post new material myself here. Carrier’s latest post addresses an article that had also come to my attention some weeks ago, one that at the time I chose somewhat reluctantly to ignore. With this post I’m making an easy compromise and posting on Richard Carrier’s posting about it.

In recent weeks two scholars have posted approvingly the link to an article published in an archaeological journal making the surprising argument, in depth, that Jesus did exist.


It is surely odd that such a journal would dedicate a lengthy article to this question. Does anyone seriously have any doubts? What audience did the editors and author have in mind? Are serious scholars really so concerned about passing fads like “mythicism” among a small sector of the public? Surely they can ignore “kooks”. Or perhaps it’s not just “kooks” who are raising serious questions. A look at who’s who among mythicists and mythicist agnostics known on the web today shows a good number of serious scholars (in areas like philosophy, literature, sciences) and others who have passed through the academic system who do give serious attention to the Christ Myth theory. Perhaps some scholars are sensing that it’s not just a few “kooks” who are open to the question.


Certainly the two scholars who brought this six months plus old article to my attention through their blogs appeared to find it most reassuring. There was Michael Bird who describes it as a “great article”:



and who heard of it through George Athas of the With Meagre Powers blog who describes it as a “neat article”:  read more »

Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

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Richard Carrier Replies: McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype

Richard Carrier continues his response to James McGrath’s criticism of Carrier’s On the Historicity of JesusMcGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype. He begins: 

Yesterday I addressed McGrath’s confused critique of portions of On the Historicity of Jesus (in McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy). He has also published a second entry in what promises to be a series about OHJ, this one titled “Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype” . . . . This entry is even less useful than the first. Here are my thoughts on that.

Once again Neil Godfrey already tackles the failures of logic and accuracy in the very first comment that posted after the above article. Which he has reproduced, with an introduction, in better formatting on his own blog: Once More: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus.

I could leave it at that, really.

TL;DR: McGrath doesn’t understand the difference between a prior probability and a posterior probability; he uses definitions inconsistently to get fake results that he wants (instead of being rigorously consistent in order to see what actually results); and he shows no sign of having read my chapter on this (ch. 6 of OHJ) and never once rebuts anything in it, even though it extensively rebuts his whole article (because I was psychic…or rather, I had already heard all of these arguments before, so I wrote a whole damned chapter to address them…which McGrath then duly and completely ignores, and offers zero response to).

That’s pretty much it.

But now for the long of it…

McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype


McGrath on Richard Carrier’s OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy

From Richard Carrier’s blog post, McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy:

In preparation for my upcoming defense of On the Historicity of Jesus at the SBL regional meeting, I’ve set aside time to publicly summarize my take on James McGrath’s critique of (parts of) the book for Bible & Interpretation: “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.”

Critics have already adequately shown the problems with McGrath in understanding facts and logic, so I don’t need to reproduce their work. I fully concur with the responses of Covington and Godfrey (any quibbles I have I’ll mention here).

As Godfrey correctly shows, McGrath not only botches logic and facts, he misreports what my book says, such that “uninformed readers are falsely led to think McGrath has simply identified errors in Carrier’s work.” When in fact he did not identify any. And Covington rightly concludes that when you compare what McGrath says with what my book says, “he hasn’t said anything an agnostic onlooker of the debate should take note of.” They both show that McGrath gets my arguments wrong, makes obvious logical mistakes, and incorrectly reports what experts have said in key matters. This does not make historicity look well defended. It makes it look like it needs rhetorical warblegarble to survive.

The most detailed response to McGrath’s paper is that of Neil Godfrey [who discusses issues of method and fact]. But for a good brief response to start with, see Nicholas Covington, which is ideal for anyone who wants a TL;DR on the matter. . . . . 

About time

About time I catch up with this blog again. Not feeling on top of things health wise lately and have not even read the comments here the last few days. Hopefully back into full swing again soon. Maybe even another post later this evening. Or maybe not quite so soon.