Search Results for: criteriology


Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science

by Tim Widowfield

In his latest podcast Mark Goodacre turns his attention to the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria.  Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.”  

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time.  History’s much more complex than that.  It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed.  We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways.  And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kind of criteria.  They can be terribly wooden.  They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical.  So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact.  So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing.  It’s often just an appearance.

This kind of honest discussion is a breath of fresh air.  For years now, Vridar has been the lonely voice in the wilderness, warning that the historical Jesus scholars were using their criteria to do too much. Besides trying to use criteria that were designed to assign relative probabilities to determine absolute historicity, we’ve noted here countless times, again and again, that HJ scholars appear to apply the criteria selectively, after the fact in order to prove what they wish to be true.

Kudos to Dr. Goodacre. Maybe the next time we have another friendly tussle with Dr. McGrath, Mark will come to our defense — you know, on the side of right — instead of coming to the aid of a beleaguered fellow member of the guild who has once again gotten in over his head.

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Historical methods postcript: Where criteriology leaves us

by Neil Godfrey

Just to add here what I left assumed in my previous post . . . .

Enough has been written on the contradictory and inconsistent issues arising from the attempts to establish “bedrock evidence” for the life of Jesus from “criteriology”. (I am not addressing the use of criteria in other historical studies where it has a different function.)

Criteriology leaves the debate open whether Jesus was a political revolutionary, an apocalyptic prophet, a rabbi, a mystic, a teacher, a healer, a magician, a timberman (see #4 by Lemche at

In other words, criteriology leaves us not knowing where to even start a definitive exploration of who this Jesus was.

But in addition to failing to establish who or what Jesus was historically, it leads to the greater sin of avoiding the historical question of Christian origins. Christianity was a faith movement, and its origin and spread needs to be explained as such. The Christ that was spread through the Mediterranean and Middle East was a Christ of faith, after all. A mythical construct, in other words.

Historical method worth its salt will work with the evidence as it exists, as faith literature, and through analysis of both it and its relationships with other ideas of the time, seek to understand its origin and appeal.


Conclusion: Ehrman-Price Debate #3

by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes my notes on the Milwaukee Mythicist sponsored debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert M Price. It is based on notes I took as I listened, and since I have not listened to this part of the debate since, I cannot check my notes for accuracy or to add any completeness. Perhaps some readers will find it useful to compare René Salm’s notes. BE = Bart Ehrman and RMP = Bob Price.

There were two ten minute sessions for each of BE and RMP to question the other and this was followed by a Q&A with the audience. I have coloured the topics addressed in BE’s ten minute sessions red, and those in RMP’s blue.

I have inserted my own comments in blocked off sections.

BE did not elaborate and explain how it is that we can know of the existence of Caiaphas and Josephus, or actually compare the evidence for these figures, its provenance, type, authenticity, etc, with what we have for Jesus. A discussion of historical methods requires whole posts. (See Historical Facts and the Unfactual Jesus, also Methodology; Sources; Historiography)

How do we know what happened?

Somewhere either towards the end of Bart Ehrman’s opening presentation or at the beginning of his subsequent allotment of ten minutes to question Robert Price, Ehrman made the following point on the relevance of extant contemporary sources for determining the historicity of ancient persons:

Where do our external (non biblical) sources mention Caiaphas, the most influential Jew of the day, or Josephus? The non-mention of Josephus doesn’t show he didn’t exist.

In responding to Price (RMP), Ehrman (BE) rejected RMP’s argument that scholars pare away the miracles from the gospels to find the historical core. RMP had said stories of the miraculous were said to be beefed up retellings of more mundane events, but BE said that’s not the methodological approach of scholars.

I think BE was implying the use of various criteria of authenticity, e.g. the criterion of embarrassment as the reason we can accept the baptism of Jesus as historical.

Rather, BE insisted, they evaluate every story, e.g. the baptism, to determine its likely historicity. They don’t simply remove the miraculous elements.

Who were the “archons” who killed Jesus? Earthly or heavenly authorities?

Next point against RMP was the claim that “archons” killed Jesus. BE pointed to Romans 13:3 to show that the term archon refers to earthly rulers.

RMP’s point is valid, but it could be coupled with other places where archons definitely means spiritual powers and other accounts of the crucifixion in Paul to undermine the dogmatism of the historicist view.

RMP: but Paul says these earthly rulers should be obeyed because they are there for your good, so he would not be identifying the crucifiers of Christ with archons who do good.

BE: What Paul is saying is that yes, the same kinds of authorities who killed Jesus should be obeyed and you should not do anything to upset those authorities or you risk suffering punishment as did Jesus.

The role of gnosticism

Rejecting arguments because of the date of the author is hardly a valid scholarly method. We would prefer to see the arguments from published criticisms of Schmithals. RMP’s points in his opening talk made a lot of sense.

In response to RMP’s discussion of gnosticism, BE insisted that gnosticism belonged to the second century and cannot be used to build a picture of pre-Christian times. BE also dismissed Walter Schmithals (whom RMP had referenced) as now dated, from the 1950s.

Why question the historicity of the empty tomb?

RMP asked BE how he came to not believe in the historicity of the empty tomb.

We ought not begin with the presumption of historicity or nonhistoricity in any text. The genre, provenance and external witness to the narrative ought always take priority. Resorting to details of contrary customs is not a strong argument by comparison.

BE replied that it was standard Roman practice to leave crucified bodies on crosses and later toss them in a shallow grave.

The Evolutionary model of Christianity

RMP asked BE what he thought or Burton Mack’s model that Christianity did not begin with a resurrection big-bang but with many disparate communities with different ideas eventually coalescing.

What scenario is the more probable?

BE’s question is a form of question begging. To ask which of two options is more probable implies that both options are on the same playing field, both are either in the real historical world, or both are in a certain fictional world, etc.

BE addressed RMP’s discussions in his book (The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems) about probabilities. We have no references in our sources about the activities of a Joshua in outer space. We don’t have stories about Jesus in outer space in the New Testament. All our references always speak of Jesus on earth. Is it not more probable that Jesus was on earth and not in outer space?

Again, we have many accounts of Jews crucified by Romans and no accounts of Jews crucified in outer space. Paul does not talk about Christ in outer space. So again, where lies the probability?

RMP replied that Colossians and 1 Corinthians do speak of a heavenly Christ.

Again, on probability and the baptism of Jesus. BE criticized RMP’s sourcing ideas to the influence of Zoroastrianism. Why is it more probable that the baptism is based on Zoroastrian concepts than to a historical baptism by John the Baptist?

BE continued: Mark was not Jewish, he was not a Jew, so he doesn’t use Zoroastrian influences. RMP: Zoroastrianism was built into Judaism at that time. read more »


Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion

by Tim Widowfield

Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes: read more »


Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre

by Tim Widowfield

In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?

What is a gospel?

An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.

As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).

Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.

Are the gospels written “memories”?

However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.

He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains: read more »


We are not historians; we are Christians — (“I know what you mean, but don’t say it like that!”)

by Neil Godfrey
Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, the emerging church and missional church movements, spiritual formation and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. McKnight is an ordained Anglican with anabaptist leanings, and has also written frequently on issues in modern anabaptism. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015)

believeI cited Scot McKnight in my first serious attempt to point out the differences in the ways biblical scholars approach their study of Jesus and Christian origins from the ways other historians handled sources and investigated other historical persons and events. In Jesus and His Death McKnight quite rightly notes the general ignorance among his theologian/biblical studies peers of the methods followed by other historians and their debates over the very nature of their craft. He notes that the reliance upon criteria of authenticity (“criteriology”) is both unique to historical Jesus studies and fallacious. In another early post I quoted McKnight’s view that historical Jesus scholars are in fact fooling themselves when they claim their reconstructions of Jesus are derived solely from the evidence:

While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (Jesus and His Death, p. 36)

McKnight has elaborated on some of his views about historical Jesus scholarship and the nature of biblical source material in a new publication,  I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship.

The Bible is God’s true and living word

McKnight does not hide his view that his historical studies are investigations into “God’s true and living word”. Don’t call him an inerrantist, though. Rather, each book in the Bible adds to the previous one, “sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment.”

It was not until many years later that I read Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel when he gave me the best words for what is happening in the Bible and not least in the Synoptics. There is an inner dialogue at work and once one begins to see the dialogue one sees the Bible for what it really is. It is not one self-contained text added to the previous but one text interacting with — sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment. This experience of underlining the Synoptics one word and one line after another led me to think that words like “inerrancy” are inadequate descriptions of what is going in the Bible. I have for a long time preferred the word “true” or “truth.” The Bible is God’s true and living Word is far more in line with the realities of the Bible itself than the political terms that have arisen among evangelicals in the twentieth century.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (pp. 167-168). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

So when Scot McKnight was criticizing the scholarly methods used by his peers to investigate Jesus he was not calling for them to turn their backs on fallacious “criteriology” and turn towards the methods of other professional historians (such a turn would have meant a revision in even the very questions they asked as historians) but he was, rather, declaring that historical inquiry was not capable of uncovering very much of relevance for the Church.

As a Gospels specialist I entered into the historical Jesus debates, first with an invitation from Craig Evans and Bruce Chilton to sketch the teachings of Jesus in the context of his mission to Israel (A New Vision for Israel) but then even more intensively in a book called Jesus and His Death (Baylor University Press). Two things happened to me — at the deepest level of my being — through that decade of study. First, I became convinced the historical method used in historical Jesus studies yields limited conclusions. My “aha” moment was sitting at my desk realizing I can prove that Jesus died but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove he rose for my justification. . . .

Interesting that the two details that McKnight singles out as subject to unequivocal “proof” are the two points central to the Christian faith itself. He follows by affirming the importance of traditional Church belief over the findings of historical studies. . . read more »


“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.” read more »


Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

by Tim Widowfield
Ernst Käsemann

Ernst Käsemann

The limits of historical criteria

Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).

However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):

I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)

Bird’s definition of the CoD

I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.

Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.

For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:

The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)

read more »


Maurice the Pedant Learns Five More Lessons — Tuesday

by Neil Godfrey

jesuscaseyMaurice has handed in a problematic essay assignment. Continuing from after school Monday . . . .


Come in Maurice. Sit down here and we’ll continue to go through your essay and hopefully you’ll understand what you need to do for your next effort. Show me the work I set you to complete last night.

So this is Godfrey’s argument about historical methods that you’ve written here. Let’s see . . . .

. . . . yesss . . . .

but where is the rest? Is that all? It looks like you only looked at one post where he discusses independent controls. You’re not very thorough, are you. Genre and provenance are also very important points to his argument and you haven’t touched those. I’ll give you a list of readings before you leave this afternoon.

Have you had more time to think about the lies you told in your essay

Now what did you find out about Godfrey’s use of those historians?

Leopold von Ranke?

Leopold von Ranke

Yes, you are correct, Godfrey used von Ranke as a starting point to explain the way he uses the terms “primary” and “secondary” with respect to historical sources. When he speaks of primary data or primary historical sources he means those that are physically a part of the time and place the historian is investigating; and he uses the term “secondary sources” for later sources that refer back to that time and place. Can you give me an example of what such an explanation would call a “primary source”? No, Maurice, wrong. The gospels would not be called primary sources according to von Ranke’s definitions.

Keep in mind that we are only talking about definitions of terms here. Different people might use different words to describe the various types of evidence historians use and that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that in any conversation all parties are clear about the terms that are being used. So for Godfrey’s argument a primary source for a Roman emperor would be a coin minted by the emperor, or a monument erected by him.

A secondary source would be a manuscript found much later, possibly centuries later, that appears to be a writing about that earlier time and place. So a Tacitus manuscript would be a secondary source for the emperor Tiberius according to this use of terms because his evidence was produced after the reign of Tiberius.

No, Maurice, Godfrey is not saying that Tacitus wrote in the ninth century in Germany. Yes, that is the date of our earliest manuscript of Tacitus but not even Godfrey says Tacitus wrote in the ninth century. read more »


How Can We Know If the Jesus Narratives Are Memories Or Inventions? (Revised)

by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Le Donne has written a book that I find is both chock-full of many fascinating nuggets in the Gospel narratives and riddled with startling revelations (if only discerned between the lines) about the foundations of “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (This post does not address Le Donne’s main thesis. I have addressed core aspects of that in Searching for a Good Fantasy, though I would like to explore his thesis in more depth in a future post. Here I focus on Le Donne’s foundations for believing there was anything historical at all in the Gospels.) I say “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies in preference to “Historical Jesus” studies for several reasons, one of which is that the term “Historical Jesus” presumes that there was an “historical Jesus” to study.

Historical origins of the icon we call “Jesus”

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...Further, I believe the question of “the historical Jesus” is fundamentally an ideological or dogmatic expression. Its meaning derives from the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity — that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus. After two millennia of Christian heritage the concept of “Jesus” has come to transcend religiosity and become a cultural icon advocating hosts of idealistic aphorisms. The true question for the historian, then, ought to be concerned with how to explain the origin of Christianity. That includes explaining the origin of its Jesus. If the best explanation leads us to an historical Jesus, then, and only then, will we have a valid rationale for attempting to explore such a figure.

Bultmann’s test for insanity

Readers who find the above line of reasoning far too radical to swallow can find solace in Rudolf Bultmann’s words quoted by Anthony Le Donne:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. (Bultmann, Jesus, 13. Cited in Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus, p. 36)

Bultmann is surely being deliberately provocative here, since in his own day there were several very intelligent (and far from insane) scholarly persons (e.g. Georg Brandes, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Arthur Drews, and several notable others) questioning the authenticity of Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer himself acknowledged. (Robert M. Price has, if I recall correctly, even suggested that Bultmann was cornered into making such “protesteth too much” denunciations because some readers were inferring the non-historicity of Jesus from his own studies.) Theologians have since found a place in George Orwell’s dark visions as the guardians of correct thought who declare insane (or misfits of some variety) any lesser life-forms who question the historicity of Jesus.

Soviet asylum for the insane, that is, for those who expressed incorrect doubts.

“Unfounded and not worthy of refutation”?

Now I could well understand someone saying that doubt as to whether Augustus Caesar really existed is “unfounded”. I would baulk at going so far as to saying it is “not worth refutation”, however. Surely any doubt is worth a valid refutation. Scholars don’t want to isolate themselves into exalted ivory towers out of touch with ordinary folk, do they? If ordinary folk are hearing rumours that Augustus Caesar did not exist, but was a conspiratorial invention of Latin school teachers or whatever, or if they are hearing Intelligent Design advocates arguing that evolution is not true, then I am sure scholars would be happy to open up and spill out all the evidence to reassure them otherwise. In the case of Augustus Caesar they could point to

  • primary evidence (real physical remains testifying to be from the actual time of that Caesar),
  • the secondary evidence of surviving historians whose claims are in varying degrees of validity supported by their record of verifiable identity and provenance,
  • the independently established genre of the above records and what this, on probabilities, indicates about the intent of the authors,
  • the clearly established independence of these sources from one another,
  • the overwhelming explanatory power of all of the above for the events that clearly followed.

Or let’s take a more lowly figure like Socrates who left no monumental evidence. We have relatively strong evidence for his historical existence as a real person, too:

  • Independent testimonies from people who appear to have known him personally (followers Plato, Xenophon) or at least knew of him in their generation (satirist Aristophanes),
  • and about whom we know enough to appreciate
    • their reasons for wanting to write about Socrates
    • and their ability to know anything about him,
  • and whose works/testimonies are in the form of genres not inconsistent with an interest in relaying historical realities.

The evidence for Socrates is far from iron-clad proof but it is enough satisfy most, even those of us who are mindful of the way genres can be turned inside-out in order to write a spoof or otherwise deliberately deceive readers. At the same time one can find reasonable grounds for at least asking if it is possible that Socrates was nothing more than a literary figure. So if doubts about the historical existence of the person Jesus are indeed “unfounded” as Bultmann said, what are the foundations for his existence?

How can we know?

The closest Anthony Le Donne comes to addressing that question directly is when he asks of Gospel narratives:

Does the story have an origin in perception or invention?

That is, are we reading in the Gospels stories that originated in the perceptions of certain eye-witnesses and that were filtered through other ideas, values, beliefs, biases of some of those witnesses, and that were then transmitted through others who also had their own filtering biases and interests? Or are we reading in the Gospels stories that an author or his source completely made up? read more »


The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem

by Tim Widowfield
Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Right for the wrong reasons

A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.

I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.

He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.

As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s a Marxist! — “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”

I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.

[See Neil’s review of this book, starting here.]

This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.

What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.

read more »


Myths about Christopher Columbus: Why Would Anybody Make Them Up?

by Tim Widowfield
Face Christopher Columbus

The face of Christopher Columbus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What an odd thing to say!*

Recently, while catching up with the second edition of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I noticed something I had missed earlier while reading the chapter on Christopher Columbus. The first time I read the book, now over a decade ago, the grisly stories of conquest and genocide, along with the subsequent whitewash and heroification took center stage. But this time I was struck by the number of myths that at first glance might seem unflattering to Columbus. People inventing stories uncongenial to the hero? How could this be?

History as practiced by NT scholars places a great deal of faith in what can most accurately be described as a thought experiment. That is, if you can’t imagine why anybody would make up a story, then it is probably true.

As Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) puts it:

It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE, p. 236, Nook ed.)


Since Nazareth was a tiny hamlet riddled with poverty, it is unlikely that anyone would invent the story that the messiah came from there. (DJE, p. 219, Nook ed.)

NT scholars find this line of reasoning very compelling. Quoting Ehrman once again, this time from Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (AP):

“Dissimilar” traditions, that is, those that do not support a clear Christian agenda, or that appear to work against it, are difficult to explain unless they are authentic. They are therefore likely to be historical. (AP, p. 92, Oxford paperback ed.)

But how well does this criterion hold up under scrutiny?

From such humble beginnings

Columbus’s origins are obscure. He may have been from Genoa, as your high school history text told you, or he could have been a recently converted Spanish Jew or a Polish heir to the throne. As Loewen notes:

Many aspects of Columbus’s life remain a mystery. He claimed to be from Genoa, Italy, and there is evidence that he was. There is also evidence that he wasn’t: Columbus didn’t seem to be able to write in Italian, even when writing to people in Genoa. (Loewen, p. 48)

The lack of hard facts did not deter Washington Irving from invention. In A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus he constructs a story of humble beginnings from which our hero rises on his own merits. His is the archetypal Great Man. And herein lies the reason for the myth. Irving’s aim was to provide a legendary example to follow. Americans, from humble origins, could achieve greatness if they would simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The humble-origin myth resonates in American history (think of Abe Lincoln as a boy reading by candlelight), but it is also quite common in Biblical legends. Having given up on Saul, God tells Samuel to pick the new anointed king from the sons of Jesse. And so David, the youngest son, a humble shepherd from the village of Bethlehem eventually rises to take the throne.

read more »


Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey

Well, well, well. After all of Dr James McGrath’s attempts to tell everyone that historical Jesus scholars use the same methods as any other historians, and that I was merely some sort of bigoted idiot for saying otherwise, what do I happen to run across while serendipitously skimming my newly arrived Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity? This:

Jens Schröter

The idea of formulating certain “criteria” for an evaluation of historical sources is a peculiar phenomenon in historical critical Jesus research. It was established in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of the form-critical idea of dividing Jesus accounts of the Gospels into isolated parts of tradition, which would be examined individually with regard to their authenticity.

Such a perspective was not known to the Jesus research of the nineteenth century and it does not, to my knowledge, appear in other strands of historical research.

In analysing historical material scholars would usually ask for their origin and character, their tendencies in delineating events from the past, evaluate their principal credibility — for example, whether it is a forgery or a reliable source — and use them together with other sources to develop a plausible image of the concerned period of history. (pp. 51-52, my formatting, underlining and bolding)

That’s by Jens Schröter, Chair and Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Humboldt University.

But don’t misunderstand. Jens Schröter does understand why this difference has arisen and explains his view of the reason. Historical Jesus studies have traditionally been necessarily different because the earliest sources about Jesus’ life (the Gospels) are theological narratives, and as a consequence,

historical data are interwoven with quotations from Scriptures of Israel, early Christian confessions, and secondary elaborations of earlier traditions . . . It has been argued that the faith of earliest Christianity has imposed its character on the historical data and must therefore be distinguished from Jesus’ word and deeds themselves.

It is at this point that Schröter sees historical Jesus studies as having jumped the rails. What has happened is that HJ scholars have taken this starting point as a rationale for trying to locate a more authentic event or saying that lies behind the Gospel narratives. That is not how other historical studies work. read more »


Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

by Neil Godfrey

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:


Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. read more »