Daily Archives: 2010-02-09 23:10:34 GMT+0000

Historicist Misunderstanding : a reply to James McGrath and others

James McGrath has expressed his concerns about apparent misunderstandings of the historical process on the part of those who argue that Jesus was probably not an historical figure in his blog post: Mythicist Misunderstanding

I wish to address his post in some detail, because he brings together the sorts of objections one regularly sees raised by “historicists”. Obviously my comments are mine alone, my perspective on things, or my interpretation and application of the words of others.

James writes:

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. I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?” Such objections reflect a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. I think it is safe to say that there is no historical figure from the past that we know existed apart from evidence for actual things he or she said or did. We know George Washington existed because he wrote documents, because he served as President of the United States, because he slept here or there. There is no such thing as proof of a historical person’s existence in the abstract or at a theoretical level. There is simply evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others.

Here is reference to “evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others”, but without any indication what this evidence actually is. Is he referring to letters? diaries? monumental inscriptions? newspapers? pamphlets? By referring vaguely to “evidence of activity” this comment bypasses all serious conversations about historical methodology. The vagueness of the term covers a multitude of sins.

And so when historians engage in the tedious but ultimately rewarding process of sifting through the relatively early texts that mention Jesus, and painstakingly assess the arguments for the authenticity of a saying or incident, they are not “treating the existence of Jesus as a presupposition.” They are providing the only sorts of evidence we can hope to have from a figure who wrote no books or letters, ruled no nations, and did none of the other things that could leave us more tangible forms evidence. And so I will state once again what is obvious to historians and New Testament scholars but apparently unclear to some who are not entirely familiar with how historical investigation works. Historians are confident Jesus existed, first and foremost, because we have sayings attributed to him and stories about him that are more likely authentic than inauthentic. We have enough such material to place the matter beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of most experts in the field.

Here the sins take root. What is it that gives historians confidence that Jesus existed? We are told that this confidence rests on early texts that attribute sayings to and narrate stories about him. Moreover, historians are discerning enough to sift out those sayings and stories that are “more likely authentic than inauthentic”, and this process is said to add weight to the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

But the idea that a document can give us some measure of confidence in the historicity of its narrative just because it is “early” and purports to narrate sayings and deeds of a hero is a baseless assumption. A narrative cannot logically testify to the “historical factualness” of its own tale.

Simply removing the miracles will not work. As others have shown, and as I have also repeated here, that sort of “rationalization” usually only results in destroying stories and their meanings, not in finding some “historical core”.

Sifting through layers of speech to identify what words conform to some criteria such as that of “dissimilarity” can only tell us what words in the narrative are “dissimilar” from some other words. This process can never logically unearth a true artefact of bedrock history. Stripping away everything to reach a “reasonable plausibility” cannot, by itself, bring us any closer to qualitative probability of a “true event”.

Self-testimony of a narrative, alone, can never by definition establish historicity of its own tale. Not even if the same basic tale is told in various ways in several documents. We need first to establish some evidential link or testimony to the narrative from a source that can claim to be an external witness to that tale.

To think that by reaching a “more plausible” narrative in historical terms we somehow magically arrive at a “more probable” historical tale is to think like a child who wishes hard enough for a story be true till she can find enough confidence to finally really believe it. Except that with maturity the child learns to replace “really believe” with “believe it was probably” so.

Here is the heart of an historicist misunderstanding. (But not all historians of the Bible share this misunderstanding. From my lay perspective I have the impression that Old Testament studies have become increasingly aware of this statement’s critical logical and methodological flaws since the advent of the so-called “minimalist” perspectives emanating from the likes of Davies, Lemche and Thompson.) read more »