2008-06-11

More criteria for authenticity: Historical Coherence (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from 3 criteria for authenticity . . . . (this little series was prompted by Evans accusation that no historian “trained in history” would ever come to the sorts of conclusions about Jesus that some radical critics have arrived at.)

Historical Coherence

When the Gospels tell us things that cohere with what we know of Jesus’ historical circumstances and principal features of his life and ministry, it is reasonable to believe that we are on solid ground. (Fabricating Jesus, p.48 )

Circularity

I do not follow the logic here. Either something happened or it didn’t. A novelist can create scenes that “cohere” with what is known of the historical period and personalities that are consist the background of their work of fiction. A theologian or preacher may create a moral tale that “coheres” with the historical characters and settings the audience knows. People will often believe false propaganda about an enemy if it “coheres” with what they believe to be known historical facts.

Coherence and/or Historical Fact

A “coherent” story is not any more true by virtue of its coherence. Stalin was known to have distrusted just about everyone. So if I read a historical tale that he trusted Hitler not to invade Russia I can dismiss it, according to the logic underpinning the “criterion of historical coherence”. That the most distrustful of people (as evidenced by the executions and purges of those closest to him) should trust the least trustworthy of men not to commit the thing he feared the most is not “historically coherent”, but of course, it is historical fact. So it is a matter of fact and logic that “historically/biographically incoherent” things can and do happen, and that fictitious events can be and are created that are “historically coherent”.

The criterion of “historical coherence”, it seems to me, suffers the same logical difficulty of circular reasoning as the criterion of Dissimilarity (discussed in previous post).

Is a well constructed plot all that is needed for plausibility? What of authenticity?

Evans continues:

Jesus drew a following, attracted the attention of the authorities, was executed and yet was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son. Deeds and sayings attributed to him in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us understand these major elements should be judged authentic.

This of course is completely circular. It does not help establish historicity. It assumes historicity. It assumes that at least some parts of the Gospels are true, and argues that therefore anything that explains those bits of the Gospels must also be true. We know the widow in this crime novel murdered her husband, so we know it was true that she stood to collect a nice insurance payout if her husband died, because that explains why she murdered him.

Historical coherence can inform us of the plausibility of an event or saying within a given context, but it cannot of itself establish its historical status.

If it were that simple, then it one could say that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus ordered a fish to be caught so it could be opened up to yield a coin to pay his taxes, that he walked on water and rose from the dead simply because these are coherent with other statements in the Bible about him. In other words, even the most implausible claims can be raised to a status of credibility simply on the grounds that they are told within a coherent story narrative.

Logically this means that even the miracle stories of Jesus found outside the canonical gospels — e.g. his miraculously extending the length of a piece of timber that his carpenter father had cut too short — are also “authentic” too. Will Christian fundamentalists allow this criterion to be applied consistently across all surviving gospels?

Historical coherence used to disprove the biblical narrative?

Evans is not alone in using this criterion to assert the authenticity of any event in the Gospels that can be interpreted as giving Pilate a rationale for crucifying Jesus.

I find it odd that many fundamentalist Christians will likewise claim that Jesus was crucified by Rome because “it was believed” he was a political subversive. The way this statement is expressed is necessarily a a bit vague because the Bible itself flatly contradicts the claim. The claim is made because it fits a natural historical explanation for a crucifixion, but it is made in defiance of the Biblical narratives. The one thing all the Gospels are clear about is that Pilate did NOT believe Jesus was a political subversive. They are unanimous in asserting that Pilate found Jesus innocent of any such charge. Pilate crucified him, it is unanimously agreed, to please the blood-lust of the mob. This is doubly emphasized in the Gospel of John where the author points out that the title was over Jesus head on the cross was not a statement of his crime (that “He said, I am King of the Jews”) but an ironic image with theological import for the readers of the gospels, or perhaps a statement that Pilate believed he really was the king, albeit innocent of subversion.

So those sayings and events in the Bible that Evans says are “historically coherent” with Jesus being crucified as a political subversive were judged by Pilate — according to all four Gospel authors — to be not at all necessarily coherent with subversive activity.

Or are such apologists claiming that certain deeds and sayings of Jesus are historically coherent with a secular hypothesis that proposes a nonbiblical reason for Jesus’ death?

It’s a little amusing to think that many fundamentalists who use this criterion to “authenticate” certain deeds and sayings of Jesus because they “explain his crucifixion”, do so in contradiction to the Bible they are seeking to defend. And could there ever have arisen a Gospel narrative about the death of Jesus unless the authors told what some moderns seem to think must have been their “holy white lie” about the reasons for it?

Conclusion

As I concluded my previous post, these sorts of criteria cannot establish historicity, only plausibility — within certain contexts. I by no means say that all biblical scholars think otherwise. This post is meant primarily for those who do place more value on them than they are truly worth.

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Neil Godfrey

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