Category Archives: Fredriksen: Jesus of Nazareth


More games played by (some, many?) biblical scholars with “research data”, and personal reflection on why I post this stuff

by Neil Godfrey
Linking Open Datasets

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The past few weeks at work have been heavy with getting my head around (1) various requirements for measuring research outputs from universities, and (2) requirements for curating and linking for re-use research datasets. It’s all about measurable data. Citation counts, journal rankings, figures from experiments, surveys, tests. And having an Arts and History background I am always attentive to how the less mathematical disciplines are handled in such processes, too. And when I think of publications by academic historians I know personally I recall the extensive research that they have undertaken to produce stories that are grounded in massive amounts of collected data. It comes from newspapers, police and town council records, diaries, etc. Even ancient histories I read — the development of Athenian democracy, for example — are based on masses of diverse documents and archaeological reports. (One almost gets the impression that topics are chosen, questions are asked, research is undertaken, in accordance with areas for which there is such evidence.)

And then I recall last night I was re-reading a few pages from Paula Fredriksen and Maurice Casey justifying their historical claims about the personal relationship Jesus had with John the Baptist. Neither has any real data about such a relationship on which to ground their discussions. The Gospels in fact don’t speak of such a relationship between them. It is all speculation. Note, for example, how Fredriksen manages to convey a sense of multiple sources for her conclusions, and note the smoke and mirrors at work:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews)

That is a strong statement. But now look at what it is based upon: read more »


Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) read more »


When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

by Neil Godfrey
Execution of John the Baptist

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The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.

There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent of to prison to be executed. (Antiquites 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. read more »


The Fredriksen Fallacy

by Neil Godfrey

1243065_131007094825_Jesusof_001The title of this post is a lazy one. In fact, Paula Fredriksen is only one of many biblical historians who are guilty of this fallacy in their historical reconstructions of Jesus. I am merely using one detail from her book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, to illustrate a basic methodological error that is so deeply ingrained in historical Jesus studies that I suspect some will have difficulty grasping what I am talking about.

Fredriksen begins by declaring that historical Jesus studies begin with one indisputable “fact” – that Jesus was crucified by Pilate, and crucifixion was a punishment usually reserved for political insurrectionists. She then links this to a “second incontrovertible fact” (p.9), that Jesus’ followers, his disciples, were not executed.

Fredriksen sees her task as an historian to explain this paradox: why a leader would be executed as an insurrectionist threat, while his followers were ignored. Fredriksen also believes that one of the “trajectories” that must be explained in this context, is the fact that the same followers began the movement that became Christianity soon afterwards. There is more to Fredriksen’s argument, but I am highlighting these aspects of it for the purpose of demonstrating a basic methodological flaw that no historian should commit.

What Fredriksen has apparently overlooked before commencing her work is:

  1. the external evidence for the date her main sources, the canonical gospels, were extant
  2. the politico-religious matrix in which the canonical gospels made their earliest appearance

If the gospels were composed before the second century, it appears we are left with little reason to think that they found a receptive audience until well into the second century. Many scholars seem convinced that Justin Martyr knew of the canonical gospels and referred to them as Memoirs of the Apostles. For the sake of argument I am willing to accept this proposition. I acknowledge this belief has some excellent support in the evidence. Justin’s successor, Tatian, certainly knew of these gospels and composed a harmony of them.

But what should be of significance to any historian who is assessing the nature of their source documents, in this case the canonical gospels, is the intellectual environment in which they make their first appearance. We know Justin was a propagandist, like most of the other “Fathers” of his century, and that one of his keen interests was to justify his theological views, or the views of the Christianity he represented, by tracing its roots back to Jesus through the twelve apostles.

Genealogies were a political tool used to justify the pedigree of one’s own position, and to demonstrate the error of one’s opponents.

Justin proclaimed that the Christian movement or philosophy he represented was sound because it could be traced back to twelve apostles who were witnesses of Jesus’ mission, and his resurrection from the dead. (He apparently knows nothing of any Judas to confuse things, so whenever he speaks of the twelve, he indicates that the same ones who went out through the world preaching the gospel were the same as who were with Jesus during his mission on earth.)

These twelve disciples make their first appearance in the evidence as tools or foils to prove the truth of the Christian message being taught by Justin. They serve an ideological or narrative function.

And that is how the disciples appear in the canonical gospels, too. They serve as dramatic foils in the first part of the synoptic gospel narrative to make Jesus look all the more insightful and righteous beside their own ignorance and cowardice. They are always there to ask the right question, or perform the right act, to bring the right answer needed for the edification of the gospel reader.

They are also there to demonstrate or witness the “fact” of the resurrection. In John’s gospel, we can be excused for thinking that the original author of that gospel only thought of 7 disciples. The few bland and disconnected notes of their being twelve could be later redactions.

So from the very first times we see reference to the disciples of Jesus, they are always there to perfectly fulfill a dramatic, narrative or theological function.

Now it could well be that in real life, in real history, this is what the disciples did really do. And it could be a fact that the only details that survive about the disciples from this time just happen to be those that do serve these most functional purposes.

But then again, one has to wonder. Paula Fredriksen rejects the historicity of the Temple Action (“cleansing of the temple”) by Jesus, and part of her reason is that its details fit too neatly into the dramatic plot structure of the gospels.

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210)

If all the details of the temple action fits the plot so perfectly, then I suggest the same can be said for all the details about the disciples we read in the synoptic gospels.

Fredriksen’s fallacy is not in accepting the disciples as historical, but in accepting them as historical persons without clearly addressing her rationales for doing so. And part of that rationale needs to address the fact that every detail we read about the disciples serves a narrative or theological function. Why not presume, therefore, that they have been created for these purposes?

Historians often reject the historicity of a particular detail in a narrative, such as a miracle, or a fulfilled prophecy, if they can see that its inclusion is tendentious for the sake of a particular doctrine or narrative function. Why not apply the same logic to the disciples themselves?

When one reads history or biographical details of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, one encounters many details and characters that do not necessarily fulfill any plot requirement or serve any political or propaganda interest. We have, therefore, plausible grounds for accepting the probability of the existence of these people. Of course, sometimes additional and seemingly incidental details are created by fiction writers to create an air of verisimilitude. But when we are dealing with writings about which we have corroborating primary evidence, we can feel confident we are in the realm of reading something more or less close to “real history”.

I wish I had time to illustrate the particular points I have made with direct quotations from Justin and the gospels to support the argument I have made. Unfortunately, time constraints just don’t allow that at the moment. So maybe this post can serve as an outline draft for a more complete one some time in the future. Meanwhile, reference to Justin’s statements about the disciples can be found at my site.

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Evidence for the UNhistorical “fact” of Jesus’ death

by Neil Godfrey
Naked Chocolate Jesus
Image by Chuckumentary via Flickr

The evidence historians use to assert that Jesus’ crucifixion is a historical fact does not match the evidence for the death of Socrates. Normal guidelines for secular historians that are used in their approach to sources are very rarely followed by biblical (in particular historical Jesus and early Christianity) historians.

Paula Fredriksen, in her Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, speaks of “facts”.

We have facts. Facts about Jesus, and facts about the movement that formed after his crucifixion. Facts are always subject to interpretation — that’s part of the fun — but they also exist as fixed points in our investigation.  .  .  .

So let’s put our facts up front in order to begin our search here. What do we know about Jesus of Nazareth, and how do these facts enable us to start out on the road to a solid and plausible historical portrait of him?The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for Roman insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion. (pp.7-8)

I wish I could quote what she says about the evidence for these facts but this is left implicit. This is a shame, because the evidence itself is worth serious discussion and analysis in order to establish its nature and value to the historian. Surprisingly in the light of her very strong assertions of the existence of “facts” about Jesus, Fredriksen at no point explains how we can know or believe that these really are the “facts”. She does not explicitly explain to readers the evidence for what she insists so strongly is “the single most solid fact about Jesus’ life”.

Genuine historical method exposes the fallacies of biblical “historians”

I will show in this post that a justifiable historical approach to sources and evidence leaves the historian with NO evidence for Jesus’ death as a fact of history. Only by lazy assumptions about their sources can biblical “historians” declare Jesus’ crucifixion a “fact of history”.

Biblical “historians” actually begin with theological claims and tales of the supernatural and miraculous that have absolutely no historical value, and proceed to infer that these fancies arose from interpretations of a real historical event, and on this basis assert that the “fact” is truly historical. (Supposed testimony from Josephus and Tacitus can be shown to be an afterthought.)

In other words, Paula Fredriksen is but one of a host of biblical “historians” who “do history” according to the  analogy of the silly detectives in my earlier post.

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Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical

by Neil Godfrey

I intend to demonstrate in a series of posts that there is legitimate room for informed, rational, scholarly debate over the historicity of certain events in the so-called life of Jesus. To disagree with E. P. Sanders and “mainstream scholarly opinion” is by no means to be equated with failing to engage the views and arguments of E. P. Sanders and other scholars sharing a majority viewpoint.

Yet public intellectuals from the field of biblical studies have disgraced themselves by declaring that if so-called “mythicists” disagree with the conclusions of the likes of E.P. Sanders and “the mainstream” they are comparable to “Young Earth Creationists”. (It is Intelligent Design advocates who misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and fail to engage directly with the substantial thrust of the literature they oppose, while “mythicists” do indeed engage seriously and with “mainstream literature”, while “historicists” have tended to remain apparently lazily ignorant and willing to distort and misrepresent mythicist arguments. So if the insulting comparison is to be made at all, it would seem to apply more to the “historicists” than to “mythicists”.) Associate Professor James McGrath inferred that the arguments of E.P. Sanders in chapter 1 of his book, Jesus and Judaism, are of sufficient strength and repute to justify ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with the historicity they supposedly affirm. Hence this post as the first of a series.

Before beginning, for what it’s worth, I do not see myself as a “mythicist”. I cannot see the point of taking such a stand — either mythicist or historicist — in any debate. (I don’t like adversarial debates anyway. I’m more an exploration and testing type of guy.) What surely matters is the examination of the evidence in attempting to understand Christian origins. The point is to be as intellectually honest as we can wherever the evidence and out testing of our hypotheses lead.

E. P. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus

Image by djking via Flickr

I will not at this point address all the arguments of E. P. Sanders over what is more widely known as the “cleansing of the temple” scene. Most of his argument is, in effect, an analysis of various proposed reasons or motives for the temple act of Jesus. As such, it assumes historicity of Jesus. To the extent that his argument does address historicity, Sanders is arguing that Jesus must have done something in relation to the temple, otherwise we are left with no explanation for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. I see this sort of analysis as an exercise in exposition of a literary narrative. It is misguided to assume without external supporting evidence that such an exercise necessarily yields up “evidence” of an “historical fact” external to that text. But for now, I will focus on the assumption of historicity per se, and not address each and every one of Sander’s “extremely common” ‘aprioristic’ points (i.e. ‘if Jesus did X, he must have done Y’) (p.9). I will reserve these for a future post when addressing Sander’s discussion of his method and the nature of a “good hypothesis”.

Sanders “establishes” the historicity of the Temple Act before commencing his attempt to explain its specific nature and motive. Indeed, it is its “indisputable” historicity that he claims is his justification for his chapter 1 discussion.

Sanders begins by noting the problems with gospel passages that narrate the temple incident (p. 9, my formatting):

  1. there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
  2. nor is there absolute certainty of the authenticity of either or both of the sayings about the destruction of the temple.

Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. (p.9)

To justify his assertion that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that a real historical event lies behind the narratives, Sanders explains:

The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable. (p.9)

This is called in the literature an example of “multiple, independent attestation”. We have three sources (the synoptic gospels, Acts and John), all presumably independent of one another, saying something like the same thing. This, it is argued, strongly suggests that we have three independent witnesses to a tradition that must be traced back to something Jesus really did do or say.

Later, Sanders again writes (p. 73):

. . . the tradition contained in [John 2.19], Mark 14.58, Matt. 26.61, Mark 15.29, Matt. 27.40, and Acts 6.14: Jesus threatened the destruction of the temple (and perhaps predicted its rebuilding after three days).

We seem here to be in touch with a very firm historical tradition, but there is still uncertainty about precisely what it is.

I will unpack the assumption of the “tradition” as the common source below. For now, I will note only that it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.

So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we allow the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.

Paula Fredriksen’s on the “scholarly consensus” in relation to the Temple Act

Paula Fredriksen certainly accepts some form of temple act as historical, but also has the honesty to write:

In research on the historical Jesus, however, no single consensus interpretation ever commands 100 percent of the scholarly opinion. . . . Other critics, rightly observing the crucial role played by the Temple incident in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ story — without it, Mark would have difficulty bringing Jesus to the attention of the priests — question whether it ever happened at all. Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – my emphasis)

Fredriksen is not ignorant of E. P. Sanders’ views. She cites Jesus and Judaism in her biography and makes frequent use of his ideas throughout her work. I suspect she is thinking in particular of Burton Mack when she writes: “Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.” Mack’s A Myth of Innocence is also listed in her biography.

Burton Mack’s’ argument for the Temple Act being fiction

The act itself is contrived. Some gesture was required that could symbolize both casting out and taking charge with some level of legitimacy.

Demons would be too much, since Jesus is about to be taken. It would, in any case, have been implausible. But filthy lucre would do just fine. Taxes and the temple treasury had been hot political issues underlying much of the history of conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. The citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah could put Jesus on the safe side of the conflict, motivated by righteous indignation. Jewish authorities (scripture) could be used against Jewish practice. The subtheme of temple robbery, moreover, given with the citation from Jeremiah, was also most convenient. Temple robbery was a stock image of temple degredation in the popular imagination, combining criminal activity with impiety.

The first use of the theme in Mark is Jesus’ application of Jeremiah’s charge to those who brought and sold in the temple (that is, animals for offerings and money at foreign rates of exchange). This subtheme occurs at the arrest where Jesus chides the arresters coming after him as though he, not the money changers, were the temple robber (Mark 14:48). This develops the theme somewhat, playing on the symbolic significance of the temple act and putting the countercharge in his opponent’s mouth. At the trial the question of Jesus’ authority is the more important theme, but the temple act has not been forgotten. Jesus’ authority is related to the kingdom, the substitute for the temple,  thus builds (sic) upon the temple act as symbolically having taken charge. The hearsay about destroying the temple pushes the symbolism of the act in the direction of an exorcism (casting out as destroying). And underlying the charge of blasphemy is desecration, also related allusively to the temple act. When Jesus is crucified then, he is positioned between two robbers, that is, as one who desecrated the temple (Mark 15:27). Thus the subtheme is carried through to the end. It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.

The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his “instruction” and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (pp. 291-292, my emphasis. I have also broken up the first paragraph into three parts for easier web-reading.)

(Mack’s statement, “If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence”, addresses a point too rarely absent from “historicist” discussions about Jesus. Remove the scriptural embellishments and other plot devices and there is no ‘person’ left for history to see. This is why it is fallacious to claim that, since mythical associations do not discredit the historicity of ancient characters like Alexander or the Caesars, so therefore they should not discredit the historicity of Jesus. This argument misses the point: remove the mythical associations from Alexander and the Caesars and there is still plenty of ‘historical person’ left over to see. This is not the case with Jesus. But I am addressing here the correct logic of Mack’s argument. Mack himself accepts that there was an historical Jesus. One wonders, however, how Fredriksen or other “mainstream scholars” might have reacted if it had been a “mythicist” who expressed the above argument.)

The Origin of the story: Historical Tradition or Textual Tradition?

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