Tag Archives: Scot McKnight

Ehrman Confesses: Scholars Never Have Tried to Prove Jesus Existed

Thomas L. Thompson, Professor of Theology, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and editor of biblical studies journals, wrote in 2005 that historical Jesus scholars have always just assumed that Jesus existed:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Now Professor Bart Ehrman has said the same thing. He even says he believes he is the first scholar ever to set out a sustained argument to prove Jesus existed!

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me. (Did Jesus Exist as Part One, accessed 14th May, 2012, my bolding and italics)

Can you imagine a biologist or paleontologist posting on a blog “no-one has ever tried to prove evolution”? Or a physicist saying “no-one has ever tried to prove the laws of physics”?

And note, further, the way Ehrman implies he went about this novel exercise of actually, for the first time in his life, trying to set out “a sustained argument” that Jesus existed. No references are made to historical methodologies. He simply sat down and thought it all up off the top of his erudite head. That he had never thought this through before, his neglect of historical methodology, even elementary logic, shows through when he writes some excruciatingly embarrassing pages in chapter two of his book Did Jesus Exist? read more »

Richard Carrier’s “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus” Chapter 1 (A Review)

Till now I’ve always been more curious than persuaded about Carrier’s application of Bayes’s Theorem to what he calls historical questions, so curiosity led me to purchase his book in which he discusses it all in depth, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Before I discuss here his preface and opening chapter I should be up front with my reasons for having some reservations about Carrier’s promotion of Bayes’ theorem. (Allow me my preference for Bayes’ over Bayes’s.) I should also say that I’d like to think I am quite prepared to be persuaded that my resistance is a symptom of being too narrow-minded.

My first problem with Carrier’s use of the theorem arises the moment he speaks of it being used to “prove history” or resolve “historical problems”. For me, history is not something to be “proved”. History is a quest for explanations of what we know has happened in the past. Historical problems, to my thinking, are problems having to do with how to interpret and understand what we know has happened in the past. The milestone philosophers of the nature of history — von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White — have certainly spoken about history this way.

I have always understood that where there is insufficient data available then history cannot be done at all. Ancient history, therefore, does not allow for the same sorts of in-depth historical studies as are available to the historian of more recent times. Historical questions are necessarily shaped (or stymied altogether) by the nature and limitations of the available sources.

Criteriology (I take the term from Scot McKnight‘s discussion of the historical methods of biblical scholars in Jesus and His Death) has always looked to me like a fallacious attempt to get around the problem of having insufficient data to yield any substantive answers to questions we would like to ask. We don’t know what happened? Okay, let’s apply various criteria to our texts to see if we can find out what “very probably really did happen”.

Carrier’s introduction of Bayes’ theorem has always appeared to me to be an attempt to salvage some value from a fundamentally flawed approach to “history” — the striving to find enough facts or data with which to begin to do history.

I should add that I do like Carrier’s offering of hope that Bayes’ theorem can promote more rigorous and valid thinking and applications of criteria. But I can’t help but wonder if in the end the exercise is an attempt to patch holes in the Titanic with admittedly very good quality adhesive tape.

What is really accomplished if we find only a 1% probability for the historicity of Jesus? Improbable things really do happen in the world. Otherwise we would never know chance and always be living with certainty. Or maybe I’m overlooking something about Carrier’s argument here.

Not that I’m a nihilist. I do believe we have lots of useful evidence to assist us with the study of Christian origins. I think scholars are agreed that pretty much all of that evidence speaks about a Christ of faith (a literary figure) and not an historical figure. That’s where our historical enquiry must begin — with the evidence we do have. After we analyse it all and frame such questions as this sort of evidence will allow us to ask then we can begin to seek explanations for Christian origins. This will probably mean that we will find answers that do not address the life and personality of someone who is hidden from view. Our understanding will address religious developments, ideas, culture, literature, social developments. We will probably be forced to conclude — as indeed some historians do — that if there is an historical Jesus in there somewhere he is irrelevant to our enquiry.

So that is where I am coming from.

Let’s see if I am being too narrow-minded. Here is my reading of Carrier’s preface and opening chapter. read more »

Hypocritical Christ-mythers: Cameron’s response to Neil Godfrey at Vridar — & my response back

Русский: Григорий Распутин . English: Grigorij...

Theologian

4 evolutionists (1873)

Evolutionists

Herodotus and Thucydides

Historians

Cameron, a critic of Dave Fitzgerald’s Nailed, has responded to my remarks (Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists) about his accusation that those who reject the historicity of Jesus are hypocritical if they also criticize Creationists for rejecting an academic consensus. As seems to be par for the course with these sorts of attacks, derisive labels and character attacks are deployed against anyone who argues that Jesus was not a historical figure. Hence the generic title of his response: Hypocritical Christ-mythers.

Cameron begins his response thus:

In my review of David Fitzgerald’s book Nailed, I criticized Christ-mythers for ignoring the consensus of biblical scholars on the historical Jesus, while simultaneously attacking creationists for rejecting the consensus of scientists on evolution. Fitzgerald didn’t like the comparison, and neither did Neil Godfrey over at Vridar. But he’s wrong for the same reasons Fitzgerald is. His comments are in quotes, followed by my responses.

“Of course there is one professor who asserts that to the extent that biblical studies does have a degree of certainty (even though only a fraction of anything in the sciences), to that extent mythicists should respectfully submit to this consensus just as creationists should be rational and accept the authority of scientists. That one discipline is the foundation of all our modern progress and the other is a Mickey Mouse course doesn’t matter. What matters is that the most honourable professors in each have certainties. One just happens to have greater certainties than the other, that’s all.”

Of course there’s a degree of uncertainty involved when investigating historical figures, but to call biblical history a “Mickey Mouse course” is to reach a new level of special pleading. People like Godfrey make the entire field sound like a collection crazy, right-wing evangelicals bent on defending their worldview. The truth is that these scholars, whatever their ideological commitments may be, are interested in the truth. That most of them (even those skeptical of Christianity) have rejected the Christ-myth speaks volumes about its lack of validity. Furthermore, if mythicists are aware of the limitations of history, though they exaggerate them, don’t you think historians areas well? Yeah…they are. But somehow the experts rarely throw up their hands and exclaim, “well we weren’t there; Jesus probably wasn’t real!”

Whatever their ideological commitments?

Cameron portrays theologians who study “the historical Jesus” as reasonable enough to set aside their ideological commitments in order to objectively seek out only “the truth” of the matter. This is a naive Pollyannish portrayal of a scholarly field dominated by faith-committed theologians. Let’s break down Cameron’s comment and examine each piece.

Biblical studies is probably the most ideologically oriented of all academic disciplines. Hector Avalos has shown that clearly enough in The End of Biblical Studies. R. Joseph Hoffmann remarked on this blog that the reason the Christ myth theory is not given more attention among scholars has more to do with conditions of academic appointments than common sense. Stevan Davies recently pointed out that a list of the Westar Institute Fellows shows nearly all are or have been affiliated with seminaries and theological institutions. Most of the scholarly books one picks up on the historical Jesus contain prefaces or concluding chapters in which one reads reflections that sound more like homilies or spiritual confessions. James Crossley has publicly denounced the way biblical scholars so regularly open their academic get-togethers (seminars, workshops) with prayers. Blogs of theologian scholars are dominated by spiritual reflections and sayings. Atheists and atheism are generally derided. Ideology is important. The Christian faith dominates the entire field of biblical studies. To suggest that these scholars are all committed to setting aside their personal faith and seeking truth regardless of where it may lead sounds about as plausible as expecting Nazi era scientists to set aside their political ideology in order to study the biological grounds for racial differences.

That most of such scholars have rejected a model that undermines the entire ideological and faith foundations of this scholarly field tells us absolutely nothing about its lack of validity. read more »

Scholarly attempts to “explain” historical methods for Jesus studies (1)

Scot McKnight of recent controversial article fame, devotes an entire chapter in his book Jesus and His Death to a discussion of the historiography of New Testament scholars, and writes:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)

Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence

This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. read more »

Observations on McGrath’s “review” of Robert Price on mythicism

History is Myth
Image by LU5H.bunny via Flickr

I place “review” in quotation marks because Associate Professor of Religion of Butler University James McGrath simply avoids addressing Dr Robert Price’s arguments. I used to think McGrath was not very bright, but I have recently come to understand that he is as subtle and smart as a serpent when it comes to those twisting and avoidance manoeuvres whenever confronted with challenges to his most fundamental — and obviously never at any time in his life seriously  questioned — assumptions.

I am referring here to Robert Price’s “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, the first chapter in Beilby’s and Eddy’s The Historical Jesus: Five Views, and McGrath’s “review” of same. (My own earlier comments on Price’s chapter at 5 commandments and at Johnson’s response. A little of what follows assumes some acquaintance with these earlier posts.)

To keep this post within reasonable limits, I address but a few of McGrath’s responses to Price’s chapter.

Before getting into it, I must admit to being surprised by one omission from McGrath’s review. Even though McGrath complains that Price’s chief fault is merely making a case for something that is possible but not probable, and even though McGrath has elsewhere charged mythicists who fall into this “trap” as thinking “just like Creationists”, McGrath strangely fails to publicly accuse Robert Price of being “just like a creationist”. I would not like to think McGrath is somehow being selective in whom he chooses to public insult, or that he allows a person’s academic status to deflect him from making insults he quite liberally casts out to non academics who make the very same arguments.

I hope to see in future McGrath have the intellectual consistency to publicly accuse Price and Thompson of being like creationists in their mythicist views.

But now on to what McGrath does say in his review:

McGrath argues that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to the evidence for anyone else in ancient times read more »

Scot McKnight’s lament and the fallacy of the HJ historical method

I addressed Scot McKnight’s chapter on historiography in Jesus and His Death in order to respond to the central fallacy in his article in Christianity Today, The Jesus We’ll Never Know. McKnight is only half-correct when he claims that scholars have used normative historical methods to discover the historical Jesus (HJ). It is the missing half that is at the heart of the failure of the historical Jesus quest. In Jesus and His Death McKnight commented on the general lack of awareness among HJ scholars of historiography, but unfortunately McKnight himself misses a central point of the same historians he discusses, and the reason is not hard to find.

McKnight writes in the CT article:

First, the historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars reconstruct on the basis of historical methods. Scholars differ, so reconstructions differ. Furthermore, the methods that scholars use differ, so the reconstructions differ all the more. But this must be said: Most historical Jesus scholars assume that the Gospels are historically unreliable; thus, as a matter of discipline, they assess the Gospels to see if the evidence is sound. They do this by using methods common to all historical work but that are uniquely shaped by historical Jesus studies. . . .

[C]riteria were developed, criticized, dropped, and modified, but all have this in common: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was like by using historical methods to determine what in the Gospels can be trusted.

I have emphasized McKnight’s key concern with historical methods. The methods used are “criteria” of various sorts to make judgments about the likelihood of any particular detail in the Gospels being historically true or not. (McKnight discusses “criteriology” in Jesus and His Death and is just as critical of its ability to yield objective results there.)

I attempted to address the details from McKnight’s discussion of historiography and the writings of other historians such as G.R. Elton in my previous post. That was meant as a detailed justification for my following observation here —

The fallacy of the HJ historical method

1. The agreed basic facts

History is first of all about facts that are public and known to have happened. The Second World War really happened. We do not need criteria to know that. We have public and primary evidence for it. It is not a fact that any sceptic can dispute. It is an existential fact whose existence by definition cannot be denied or overturned. (It is the same for the Holocaust, I add, since some have suggested my views on history would lead me to deny the Holocaust, too.) This is what all modernist historians agree on. Even postmodernists agree that the facts and events that we have labelled the Second World War really did occur.

2. Where the differences begin

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Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies

Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars have boasted that they use the same sorts of methods as scholarly historians of other (nonbiblical) subjects, but this is a misleading claim. When it comes to the basics of the nature of “facts” and “evidence” this claim is simply not true. Historical Jesus scholars use a completely different standard to establish their basic facts from anything used by nonbiblical historians, as I will demonstrate here by comparing discussions of historical facts by both an HJ and a nonbiblical historian.

Scot McKnight (in a discussion of historiography relating to historical Jesus studies, chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) notes the importance of a “fact” for HJ scholars:

[F]or our purposes, what kind of history is the historical Jesus scholar doing? First, history begins with “facts” that survive from the past as evidence. (p.20)

So far, so good. McKnight explains that even though it is the values and biases of the historians that guide their choices and interpretations of facts, the facts themselves have a real existence quite apart and distinct from the historian himself.

Cookery and Exegesis

But then McKnight gets murky and ambiguous in his explanation and covers up the multitude of sins of the bulk of historical Jesus scholars. At one level it sounds like he is saying nothing different from how nonbiblical historians work, but he is meaning something quite different behind the same words:

[Facts] genuinely exist even if they have to be sorted out through a critical procedure. . . . To be sure, apart from perhaps archaeological remains, all external facts have been through what Elton calls “some cooking process,” noting that no external facts are “raw.” (pp.20-21)

Sir Geoffrey Elton

This is misleading. Firstly, Elton said the opposite of what McKnight claims for him here. Here is what Elton actually said (with my emphasis):

[It is] at present virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials [facts] of the past raw: some cooking process is supposed to have invariably intervened before the historian becomes even conscious of his facts. If that were so — if there were no way of knowing the knowable in its true state — historical truth would indeed become an elusive, possibly a non-existent, thing. (p.53, The Practice of History)

I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will explain Elton in more detail later.)  What McKnight is doing here is justifying a procedure used by biblical historians to create facts to suit their theories and beliefs. He does this by claiming the HJ scholar’s fact-creation is consistent with what nonbiblical historians do. Nonbiblical historians do not do what McKnight and many HJ historians think or at least seem to say they do. Later McKnight is more specific and explains exactly how HJ historians come to discover these supposedly “existential facts” of theirs. They do so through exegesis of the gospels:

In other word, history involves three steps. . . . They are (1) the discovery of existential facts — in our case the discovery of the gospel evidence by exegesis, or of archaeological data, or of political contexts. Then (2) there is criticism of existential facts. . . . An existential fact often becomes nonexistential at the hands of a skeptical historical Jesus scholar. . . . (pp.23-24) (Point 3 is about interpreting and making meaning of facts.)

This is all bollocks. It is here where biblical scholars totally jump the rails and part company with nonbiblical historians. McKnight says that facts can cease to be facts when scrutinized by sceptical minds. But nonbiblical historians say that this is true only in the case of “secondary” or inferred “facts” that are derived from other more basic facts. In the case of the basic facts there is no question as to the possibility of their nonexistence. They are there and cannot cease to exist. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is a basic fact that can never cease to exist. But secondary facts derived from that basic fact, such as the precise course of the battle, or the actions of particular individuals in that battle, may only be able to be indirectly inferred. Such secondary “facts” are often disputable and may not always survive. Secondary facts are derived from some “cooking process”, but Elton is clear that these are not the foundation of historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with raw, uncooked, existential facts. (Epistemology, the question of whether these facts are “knowledge” or “belief on the basis of very good reasons” is another question.)

Basic and public Facts versus complex and private “facts”

Here is what historian G.R. Elton wrote about facts, “existential facts”, facts that by definition as facts cannot cease to exist as facts (as McKnight admits HJ “facts” can and do), such as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the occurrence of the war itself:

Without the simple details of accurate chronology, genealogy and historical geography, history would have no existence. And of those simple facts an enormous number are presently known. (p.14)

And here is what he wrote about the other kind of inferred facts (again my emphasis):

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