2015-06-04

Did Jesus even live? A brief response

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Enns (Rethinking Biblical Christianity) has posted a “brief thought about scholarship, scepticism and apologetics” in relation to this question. It is a quotation from Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz’s The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, and makes a refreshing and welcome read given its avoidance of the hostile tone too often encountered on both sides of the discussion.

My own comments:

Peter’s opening quotation frames those who reject the historicity of Jesus as “radical skeptics”. As I have posted before, I don’t quite understand what is meant by a radical sceptic as opposed to any other type of sceptic, and surely scepticism is a valid and sound approach to any scholarly or scientific inquiry. I sometimes wonder if the term “radical scepticism” is meant to convey the notion of unreasonable and wilful dismissal of “common sense”. But the examples Peter offers of historicity doubters — Bruno Bauer, Albert Kalthoff, Arthur Drews — could scarcely be accused of that in their methods of argument whatever we think of their conclusions.

An interesting point follows:

Here historical skepticism appears within or outside theology, often with a great ethical solemnity, and foists on its critics the ungrateful role of apologists driven by their wishes. This is quite wrong. In discussion of the historical Jesus nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism. 

It is absolutely true that in any discussion (not just of the historical Jesus) “nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism”. However, if it comes to discussions on the historicity of Jesus the last people I would ever be interested in engaging are “apologists”. Apologists ever since the second century have a bad name for lacing their arguments with personal vitriol. No thanks. I’d rather engage with people I can respect as open to scholarly methods and reasonable discussion wherever that may lead.

There is another assumption, then, that may be true of some deniers of the historicity of Jesus but is certainly not true of all:

Outside theology skepticism wants to rob Christianity of its legitimization. Inside theology it is employed for purposes of legitimization.

My quibble here is with the word “wants”. Genuine scepticism doesn’t “want” to demolish Christianity. It “wants” to understand truth, reason, valid argument. If that leads to the robbing Christianity of its legitimization in the eyes of the sceptic then so be it. My scepticism did not begin with a desire to lose my faith. Losing my faith was something of a traumatic and very unwanted experience as a result of my growing scepticism.

Nor would I see scepticism as being “true” or consistent scepticism if it has a “purpose” to justify any faith.

For example, people say: since we only have sources about Jesus which are coloured by faith, an approach to Jesus governed by faith is the only legitimate one; the only alternative is unbelief.

Quiet historical work should rule out such pressure imposed by a single alternative–for the sake of the freedom to be able to come to terms critically with Jesus without having to legitimate one’s faith or unbelief by the results of scholarship.

The author(s) appears to me to here declare a Jesus-centred approach to life and study. That is fine and I respect one’s right to have that approach. It is good to declare one’s position openly as I declare mine openly.

I would suggest that the true sceptic will not approach the question of Christian origins with any committed presuppositions about Jesus at all. If the evidence we have is most economically and validly explained by the work of a historical Jesus then that’s great: I’d feel I have understood and learned something from the evidence that has led me to that view. I think one mythicist, George Albert Wells, came to a view a little like that. Another person of faith, Thomas Brodie, did not seek to legitimize his faith in Jesus through his scholarly scepticism and felt obliged to reframe his view of Jesus without abandoning his Christian devotion. Another scholar, Thomas L. Thompson, has been led by his scholarly scepticism not to deny a historical Jesus at the foundation of the Christian religion but to declare that the evidence does not allow us to know anything of such a person. I think that view is not all that uncommon among critical scholars.

With good will and sincerity on both sides I don’t see why the discussion need be an antagonistic one.

 

19 Comments

  • David Ashton
    2015-06-04 23:03:02 UTC - 23:03 | Permalink

    We must have some idea of the “Jesus” as a real person we think might have existed. Is that a good place to start, or have I missed something?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-06-05 00:57:44 UTC - 00:57 | Permalink

      That starting point is the central discussion of Hal Child’s The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness. I have so many works to blog about and this is yet another one I have only just begun here. I find myself completely in agreement with Childs that such a starting point sets most HJ investigations upon invalid foundations. It’s not the way genuine historical inquiry validly works. Such a starting point pretty much guarantees that the end result is little more than an elaboration or refinement of our personal/cultural mythical idea.

      (Childs demonstrates that this starting approach you describe is a much at work among serious HJ scholars (e.g. Crossan as a representative) as it is among those working with cultural archetypes (e.g. Jung). Childs, by the way, does not question the historicity of Jesus in his book.)

      We start with the data, the manuscripts. We examine the their nature and provenance. Only then are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably ask of these manuscripts and related “primary” materials — that is, we cannot know what sorts of questions they may be capable of answering until we undertake that examination.

      • David Ashton
        2015-06-05 01:49:04 UTC - 01:49 | Permalink

        I take your point & will get hold of Childs.

      • Scot Griffin
        2015-06-05 07:40:28 UTC - 07:40 | Permalink

        “We must have some idea of the “Jesus” as a real person we think might have existed.”

        Why must we? What is the imperative for starting with the assumption that Jesus was more real than all other gods, which we have dismissed as myth?

        And there are lots of ideas of the historical Jesus, which is a major reason for questioning his actual existence. The “some idea” seems to be largely subjective . . .

        Perhaps a better question is asking why Christians place so much emphasis on Jesus having been an actual person. If you believe in the teachings, why do you care if the mouthpiece for the lessons is a purely literary character? Either you believe in what is taught or you don’t. If your belief turns on Jesus being an actual (the only?) god, perhaps you are motivated by fear of god and not your own capacity for reason? Thomas Brodie’s approach is the most sane.

        • David Ashton
          2015-06-05 10:34:02 UTC - 10:34 | Permalink

          The word “must” in my original sentence had a slightly different application. Even so, the character depicted in the synoptic gospels has more “human” than “divine” features, whatever the reasons for their actual composition. I do not approach them as a worshiper, but as someone who still thinks there could be one (or more) real persons in history “behind” for some of their content, and this suspicion survives even the impressive work on “OT midrash” by R. M. Price which I have been recently studying.

          I can think of answers Christians and others could make to your last paragraph, but it doesn’t apply to me. That people have made all sorts of different “Jesus”es out of NT & non-“canonical” literature by largely subjective pick-and-mix is something I have said myself on Vridar.

  • 2015-06-05 01:15:10 UTC - 01:15 | Permalink

    You may wish to frame this discussion in such a way as to note that the blog post is (almost 100%) a straight quotation out of “The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz, pp. 90-91; my formatting).” Peter Enns worded the title and this citation at the end.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-06-05 01:47:04 UTC - 01:47 | Permalink

      Oh my gosh! I was too hasty! Thanks for notifying me.

      • 2015-06-05 02:01:56 UTC - 02:01 | Permalink

        I must say I am envious of Peter Enns’ ability to get hundreds of shares with a few quoted paragraphs.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2015-06-05 05:49:26 UTC - 05:49 | Permalink

          At least it was a nice opportunity to spread the attribution of a nonpolemical tone to a wider field. Hopefully that much at least won’t go astray in the long run.

  • 2015-06-05 01:27:12 UTC - 01:27 | Permalink

    Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz wrote: “Here historical skepticism appears within or outside theology, often with a great ethical solemnity, and foists on its critics the ungrateful role of apologists driven by their wishes. This is quite wrong. In discussion of the historical Jesus nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism.”

    Neil Godfrey wrote: “However, if it comes to discussions on the historicity of Jesus the last people I would ever be interested in engaging are ‘apologists’. Apologists ever since the second century have a bad name for lacing their arguments with personal vitriol. No thanks. I’d rather engage with people I can respect as open to scholarly methods and reasonable discussion wherever that may lead.”

    You are welcome to your opinions of and approach to “apologists,” naturally. But this reply shows a poor understanding of what is being quoted. Few people would describe Thiessen (or Merz) as an “apologist,” and neither would I. The point being made in the quote is that any and all “critics” are _cast in the_ “role” of so-called “apologists” in the rhetorical scheme _of the skeptics_ of the historicity of Jesus (or, presumably, this is done by some of them that Thiessen and Merz have encountered).

    What Theissen and Merz is saying is that this is inaccurate, unfortunate, and/or unappreciated–they are no more dastardly and wantonly biased (when they favor the conclusion of the historicity of Jesus) than the people that they are criticizing (when they favor the non-historicity of Jesus).

    Or, to put it yet another way, if the claim is that the non-historicity proponents are necessarily more objective than the historicity proponents, Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz are rejecting that claim.

    • Bee
      2015-06-06 12:32:44 UTC - 12:32 | Permalink

      Thiessen and Merz seem to identify skepticism as an emotional bias found in both supporters and critics of historical Jesus. Skepticism regarding the ” world” is part of religion, say. But scientific questioning is not similar to that. It just looks at the preponderance of the material evidence. Which shows there are no resurrections of long-dead people, and so forth.

  • 2015-06-05 01:33:17 UTC - 01:33 | Permalink

    Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz wrote: “For example, people say: since we only have sources about Jesus which are coloured by faith, an approach to Jesus governed by faith is the only legitimate one; the only alternative is unbelief. Quiet historical work should rule out such pressure imposed by a single alternative–for the sake of the freedom to be able to come to terms critically with Jesus without having to legitimate one’s faith or unbelief by the results of scholarship.”

    Neil Godfrey wrote: “Peter Enns appears to me to here declare his Jesus-centred approach to his life and study.”

    This completely misses the mark again. This statement is plucked out of nowhere. What Thiessen and Merz are saying is that historical scholarship should be able to reach a critical conclusion without any special concern to ensure that the conclusion validates or invalidates any faith or unbelief position. Thiessen and Merz are advocating a historical-critical-centered approach to study.

    Neil Godfrey wrote: “I would suggest that the true sceptic will not approach the question of Christian origins with any committed presuppositions about Jesus at all.”

    If you reviewed the books by Thiessen again, you might find that he largely (or entirely) agrees on this. (I cannot say I’ve read everything that he’s written, but what I’ve read suggests general agreement.)

  • anon
    2015-06-05 07:46:38 UTC - 07:46 | Permalink

    Actually—if the west followed the “standards” of their own scholarship—only Non-Western scholars (such as Chinese or Indian) could have a serious opinion on the “origins” of Christianity as only they could be considered unbiased!–that is pretty much how the west goes about doing “scholarship” of other cultures….

    In the case of Christianity—the very question–did Jesus exist?—is theologically loaded even though everyone pretends it is not…..this is because underlying this question is the other question does God exist—-since Jesus IS God/Son of God….the two questions cannot be disconnected.—which is why everyone is left with an either/or position(presupposition)….Either God does exist (Theologically important—so Jesus has to exist) or God is a Myth (in which case Jesus does not have to exist)

    The very idea that “evidence” (historical/archaeological) needs to be found to legitimize a theology seems strange? …and its opposite—that lack of “evidence” de-legitimizes theology is also equally strange….Perhaps it is our very modern paradigms (worldview) that bring about such perspectives…..?……

    I don’t see the importance of HJ outside of Christian theology…because regardless of HJ, the character of “Jesus” does exist in Christian literature and the authors construct particular paradigms using this character…..that this character actually did “xyz” in history is of less importance than why this is constructed….what historical/social/political or economic factors necessitated such a construction and how such a paradigm was used to legitimize power or counter power in the larger socio-economic/political power structures… concentrating on HJ simply derails and detracts from the larger history of the development of Christianities…

    Muslims also have a “Jesus” but it is used/reconstructed to fit a different paradigm than that of Christianity…..

  • Gingerbaker
    2015-06-05 14:38:21 UTC - 14:38 | Permalink

    “I would suggest that the true sceptic will not approach the question of Christian origins with any committed presuppositions about Jesus at all. ”

    I don’t think this is fair. We have zero examples of any God existing. We have found that 100% of all humans claiming to be gods are frauds. We have zero confidence that any so-called prophets actually talk to gods. We have very poor evidence that the founders of any religion were reliable or even existed. Our reliable evidence is that religious prophets who found religions are con men.

    I would think that the presuppositions that Jesus either did not exist at all, or was a conman with little to no resemblance to legend, would be completely justified. I don’t think the historicity of any founding religious character, especially one with supernatural attributions, should be given even the smallest benefit of the doubt. Their proponents should establish their historicity the old fashioned way – they should earn it.

  • David Ashton
    2015-06-05 15:05:18 UTC - 15:05 | Permalink

    There is a difference between a non-existent personality and a deluded and/or deceptive personality. Some of us think that “historicity” issues in the case of Jesus, John the Immerser and Saul of Tarsus are interesting enough to pursue, and likewise the origins of Christianity.

    • Bee
      2015-06-06 12:41:39 UTC - 12:41 | Permalink

      But in either case, the personality would have been defined by fictions.

      I look at both. But favor the nonexistence thesis, by the way.

  • Tim Widowfield
    2015-06-05 21:25:06 UTC - 21:25 | Permalink

    Neil: I sometimes wonder if the term “radical scepticism” is meant to convey the notion of unreasonable and wilful dismissal of “common sense”.

    Back when I supported Jerry Brown (now governor of California) in his candidacy for president, I recall his embrace of the term “radical,” which he took in its original sense, viz., getting to the root of things, thus seeking fundamental change. Unfortunately, I think most people take in the other sense — extremist, hard-core, perhaps even irrational.

    I think of myself as a skeptic, but like you I suspect that when some people use it, they mean it in a pejorative way. Skepticism should be about looking for and evaluating empirical evidence. In the context of the Theissen and Merz quotation, they’re implying that skepticism can “go too far.” So that, ironically, the term “skeptic” gets turned on its head. Instead of a philosophy that evaluates all evidence and denies unprovable claims, it becomes (so they insinuate) a perverse, illogical mindset that denies all evidence.

    In the complete quote, we see what they’re getting at:

    Time and again the study of Jesus has been swamped by waves of radical scepticism — to the point of denial of this historicity of Jesus.

    A bit later they discuss the “motives for scepticism,” which shows which meaning they attach to the term. My “motive,” such as it is, for skepticism is that it works, and I’m not sure what I would replace it with. But they’re not talking about my kind of skepticism. They’re talking about denialism, a point of view that sets the bar irrationally high for things we don’t want to be true.

    I do like what they say at the end about —

    . . . the freedom to be able to come to terms critically with Jesus without having to legitimate one’s faith or unbelief by the results of scholarship.

    But I find it curious that they have pre-excluded Jesus’ non-historicity as a rational alternative. We can “come to terms” with Jesus, as long as we recognize that he obviously existed. After all, nobody wants to be a “radical skeptic.”

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-06-05 22:37:29 UTC - 22:37 | Permalink

    I’m reminded of my journey out of religion. I would question one belief at a time, as I recall. I’d discuss the question and my doubts with other believers. I’d be reassured and somewhat impressed if I found a trained pastor acknowledging and respecting my doubts and even concurring with them. Then another question would arise. And I’d go through the same process, and again enjoy discussions with one trained in the field. And again, and so on.

    But then there came a point where I found others would stop questioning and I found I was in a very lonely place indeed. It’s okay to question up to this point, but dare not go any farther. Yes, you can even question the divine inspiration of the Bible, but you dare not question God’s existence.

    It’s fine and sophisticated to be a sceptic but only up to a certain point.

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