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.
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.)
In the question of Christian origins no-one is talking about archaeological evidence such as coins or monumental inscriptions. But normal rules of evidence for historical facts and probabilities still must apply. Primary evidence remains primary, even if it does not exist for a what we want to investigate. Secondary evidence is always secondary. If we lack primary evidence for an event or movement or person’s activity, we still must accept that we lack primary evidence along with all its advantages. More importantly, we cannot compromise on the disadvantages of the secondary evidence available to us.
I have written about this a number of times now, and here is an edited copy of something I wrote about two years ago on problems of historical methodology in biblical studies. At the time I was addressing another Bible scholar’s comments (those of Craig Evans in his Fabricating Jesus) that make the same sorts of claims as the ones I address here.
This historical-Jesus historian wrote that “no-one trained in history” would entertain “extreme” doubts as to whether we can know anything historical about Jesus at all or even if he existed. (The following is adapted from my earlier post on one of von Ranke’s contributions to historiography.)
Primary and Secondary Sources
“According to Leopold von Ranke, the historian who intends to re-create the past should always concentrated on the acknowledged contemporary sources and delegate all other kind of information to a second place.” (p.22 Lemche, 1998)
An acknowledged contemporary source is also known as a primary source.
A primary source is one which:
- can be dated without problems
- physically belongs to the period about which it is taken to be firsthand information
- An obvious example of primary evidence is an inscription found in Augustus’s temple in Ankara, and that relies on an official document from the days of Augustus (the Res Gestae), and that was placed in the temple shortly after his death, can be considered a primary source.
- I think Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, can be considered a primary witness of Socrates, even though it is not the sort of evidence we would want to dominate our image of him. (Aristophanes lampoons Socrates.)
- The writings of Plato, who was a follower of Socrates, can also be considered “firsthand information”.
Note here that the Gospels and Acts cannot “be dated without problems”. A scholar may argue vehemently that Acts was written by a companion of Paul who failed to finish his account before Paul was tried and executed. But she can do nothing more than argue. There are simply too many other arguments for a later date for the matter to be settled conclusively.
- A text describing the same inscription in the first example above is not a primary source if the text was written, say, in a later generation.
- Livy’s history of the Punic war is not a primary source because Livy wrote about 200 years after the events.
- Suetonius’s life of Augustus Caesar is not a primary source because it is written about a 100 years after Augustus.
- Manetho’s description of the expulsion of the Hyksos is a secondary source, removed by some 1200 years after the event, and preserved in sources even centuries later (Josephus, Africanus, Eusebius).
- Documents from the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt are closer to the Hyksos expulsion event, but are still not contemporary sources to it.
- Gospels about Jesus widely thought to be from a generation or more after Jesus.
Confusing the primary and secondary sources
Sometimes a secondary source will appear to say it contains a document, say a letter, that belongs to a much earlier time. (This is the case in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.) Is that letter a primary source? No. The only way that such a letter embedded in a secondary source can be elevated to primary source level is if there is some confirmation from contemporary sources that it, beyond doubt, really belongs to that earlier period.
“This is a fact often overlooked by biblical scholars who sometimes think that late books like [Acts (my example, not Lemche’s)] include primary documentary material going back to [James of Acts 15 or Claudius Lysias of Acts 23].” (p.29)
Which sources assure us “what really happened”?
This may be a trick question. It is not asking how or why something happened. But what. The difference is huge.
Primary sources may come from a directive of the royal court. They may come from a general in the field. Or from a merchant writing a letter. It does not matter if the evidence is from an emperor or a peasant. Both a king and a peasant will, if writing a letter or inscription for another, be writing with a distinct purpose in mind. We can expect the purposes and information and spin to be different in every case. The slant and point of view will be different.
But still, “contemporary documents may probably refer to events that in some form or the other ‘really happened.’” (p.23)
That is not to say that primary sources — contemporary documents — are infallible. From time to time historians discover they misinform. Lemche refers to a contemporary document from 1167 c.e. proclaiming the foundation of Copenhagen in that year. But archaeologists have since found that the city was there a hundred years earlier. So even contemporary — primary — sources must be used with analytical care.
The Gospels and Acts as Historical Sources
These are not primary sources of Jesus or the founding of the church since they are not preserved in a condition that physically goes back to those times.
The events and persons in the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, in theory, may all have really happened or existed, but that is a completely separate question from the status of the sources themselves. We need to first establish what our sources really can tell us. And that means knowing details about them that — in the case of the gospels in particular — we can only indirectly and tentatively infer. And some things we need to know we cannot even answer by these means.
Historians indeed often find that a secondary source is a more reliable source for an event than a primary source. Sometimes a king who sets up a monument to commemorate his deeds stretches the truth a little bit. Lemche refers by way of example to the statue of King Idrimi (ca. 1500 b.c.e). The inscription is more fairy tale, narrating how a stereotypical male hero, youngest of brothers, leaves his family, wins a kingdom and princess . . . Historical reconstruction has long since demonstrated Idrimi was really a gangster-like foreign usurper.
“It is . . . almost always the modern historian — and only this person — who is endowed with the methodological remedies to analyze a story like Idrimi’s and to extract historical information and distinguish between this and . . . a ‘screen’ put up by the ancient author to conceal the brutal and unwelcome fact of the assumption of power by a tyrant of dubious origins” (p.25).
Fundamentalists note: the critical acumen and methodology is applied to secular research and subjects as much as it is to claims of biblical history. There is no question of being biased against biblical history. It is a matter of treating biblical sources in the same way as sources used for nonbiblical history.
Lemche then discusses the embarrassing situation of some modern historians who have taken contemporary sources at face value, failing to recognize the realities that provoked propagandistic messages. Biblical historians do have some company in other history departments.
Of course a late text may well contain genuine historical information, even after a series of editors have had their way with it.
“However, the criteria necessary for judging whether or not such a late textual witness may provide information must be severe, as it is unlikely that the producer of a late written source from antiquity would be in the position to present a kind of systematically correct picture of the past. At least such an example has still to be found.” (p.25)
Socrates, Jesus and Paul
The Macedonian and Roman empires are undergirded by primary evidence, including primary evidence for some of their leaders, Philip, Alexander, Julius Caesar. There is no comparable primary evidence for the biblical empire of David and Solomon, let alone for Jesus.
When it comes to great teachers like Socrates and Jesus, they may be notorious for not directly leaving any primary evidence themselves, not even writing down anything for posterity. In the case of Socrates this hardly matters, because what philosophers and historians of philosophy study is the writings of Plato. That he used the name of Socrates through which to express his views is widely acknowledged — the literary Socrates is used to inform us about the thoughts of Plato, not those of an historical Socrates. Even IF — I’m speaking hypothetically for sake of argument — even IF Socrates turned out to be nonhistorical nothing would be lost by that. Not much hangs on trying to sift through Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes to try to discover “the historical Socrates”.
A comparable study in the case of Jesus would mean that historians of theology would study the gospels as sources of theological beliefs of a particular period.
As for the writings of Paul, we have only their self-reference until the mid second century. Without the external controls historians are “trained” to look for when it comes to all other evidence they must work with (that is, evidence-based information about provenance and context of those documents), historians simply lack the tools that will enable them to use documents confidently as a basis for “historical” research. “Trained” historians treat with caution any evidence that appears without controls to enable a proper assessment of its nature and value. This caution has enabled historians to expose forgeries.
Secondary sources in some cases may well tell us more accurately of the past than the primary sources. A king might set up a monument to tell misleading propaganda about his reign, for example. Secondary sources may well help us detect the lies in primary sources.
Applying the standards consistently — to biblical and nonbiblical history
To paraphrase Lemche, adapting his argument to the Gospels and Acts as sources (pp. 29-30):
Although it certainly creates problems for the assumption that the Gospels are sources for the historical Jesus, this verdict has nothing to do with denying the historicity of the events narrated by the Gospels. Everything narrated by them may in principle be historical, but the biblical text cannot in advance be accepted as a historical source or documentation; it has in every case single to prove its status as a historical source. Although it is sometimes maintained that a certain part of New Testament scholarship is at the present characterized by a negative attitude toward the biblical texts as a historical source, this opinion is false. The texts of the Gospels and Acts are, for the simple reason that they are old documents, historical sources. The question is only about what. It might be that the description of the mission of Jesus contained in the Gospels is historically correct, as seen from the perspective of their late authors. It cannot be excluded. However, it has to be proved that the narratives in the Gospels are historically reliable as far as the period and generation in question is concerned. It is not something that can be assumed in advance.
It is traditionally believed to be a respectable enterprise to try to show that a certain event narrated in the Gospels or Acts really happened and that the narrative is for that reason a valuable source. It is at least as respectable, however, to try to show that the text does not carry any information about the period worth speaking about. In both cases the scholar should employ an identical set of methods and proceed from the same basic assumption, that the text of the Gospels and Acts is not a primary source of the history of Jesus and the church. These are later than the events mentioned in them and therefore secondary sources to the past, the historical value of which has to be demonstrated and not accepted in advance of the historical analysis.
To assume the historicity of a biblical narrative in advance is unscholarly and cannot escape influencing the analysis in a negative direction.
Not only biblical scholars
An Italian historian, Liverani, takes scholars of secular ancient history to task for their methodological laziness when faced with limited source documents. This post is directed at Jesus scholars, but to demonstrate it is not an anti-biblical polemic, let’s compare what Liverani writes about historians of the Hittites.
“Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.
If biblical historians claim to be doing what other historians are doing, they are too often doing what Liverani’s “lazy historians” are doing. Maybe some historical Jesus historians really do believe that the general structure of the gospel narrative really must have been the way “it happened”.
At least the works of “lazy historians” in nonbiblical areas can be more easily corrected than “lazy biblical historians” for a range of cultural, institutional and faith reasons.
“No one would recommend such a procedure on a theoretical level, but nonetheless it continues to be used, especially in fields where awareness of the methodology and aims of history is not great.”
Documents that are not contemporary with the events they purport to describe are necessarily secondary, not primary, sources. These documents themselves are historical “reconstructions”.
Such historical reconstructions are made out of particular political, moral, theological etc assumptions and purposes, and are not intended to simply record “all the pure history” for our benefit.
Liverani then self-consciously finds it necessary to state what should be the obvious:
history is not something that already exists or is already reconstructed, and that can be accepted without question. On the contrary, it is an active engagement, which the ancient authors took up in relation to their own needs, not to ours. (p.28)
The ‘lazy historian’ fails twice, Liverani writes:
- by refusing to take an active role
- and then by preserving the active role of the ancient source without even recognizing the fact.
So what needs to be done?
Instead, we need to take an active role with respect to the passive ‘material’ source. In order to make the ancient documents passive, we need to dismantle them and strip them of their specific ideology. First of all it is necessary to understand them truly — a task not always as easy and automatic as some seem to believe, and a task in need of proper analytical techniques.
Bultmann may have taken a step in the right direction but he did not go far enough. Since Bultmann we have seen the introduction of modern literature studies applied to the gospels and Acts, and even to the ancient epistolary genre. Studies have emerged demonstrating what are arguably characteristics of ancient fables, novels, epics. Was the earliest gospel written as a parable? Regard for historical accuracy was certainly of little import among authors who felt free to re-write the narratives of each other’s gospels and a number of episodes found in the Old Testament. Most of these modern studies, if they address Jesus at all directly, do assume an historical Jesus. They assume that the Jesus of the literature had an earlier origin in the literal landscape of Palestine.
As I cited in a recent post:
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 Liverani is talking about interpretations of what happened. Not whether we need to weigh up whether our documents are theological parables or allegorical reinterpretations of the Old Testament or serious attempts at real biography or history. But it does not hurt to take his admonitions to heart nonetheless.
Mythicist Misunderstanding continued
Back to the original post to which I was responding. It continues:
And in order to deny that Jesus existed, one has to posit conspiracies and misunderstandings which, if one is willing to entertain such scenarios, could effectively be used to deny the existence of just about anyone in history.
This oft repeated “conspiracy” accusation is simply false. It is an uninformed dismissal of an argument that one has, I suspect, not actually read. Maybe some mythicist literature does say this, but if it does I have not read it.
To suggest that the methods of mythicist arguments are so anarchic as to theoretically allow for denying just about anyone in history is another baseless and ignorant assertion.
What mythicists point out is, in fact, that the evidence for the historical Jesus is UNLIKE the evidence for the existence of, say, Alexander. He (or others) may well have overlaid him with the trappings of the mythical Dionysus, but we can all see the undeniable evidence of the wolf beneath the fleece. The mythical associations become part of the study of the nature of the man. But what can one do with a hero who is all fleece with no evidence of any flesh and blood beneath?
What other “historical figure” is there for whom the evidence is so flexible that historians can propose he was anything from a peasant revolutionary to an establishment rabbi? At least Socrates will always be a philosopher of some sort, despite all the contradictions that emerged in his name.
And even in the case of the most plausible mythicist scenario (not that they ever take the time to make a positive case for how the myth was invented and how it came to be misunderstood so quickly as being about a historical figure) we never get a scenario that is more probable than one that regards there as having been a real historical figure Jesus, however much he may have been obscured by later developments and dogmas.
To claim that mythicists do not “ever take the time to make a positive case for how the myth was invented and how it came to be misunderstood so quickly” is another falsehood that can only come from one uninformed of mythicist arguments and literature, except through critical summaries. I have sometimes recently declined to offer such an explanation, but that was only because I was more interested in focusing on analyzing and thinking about and questioning the evidence on which historicity thinks it rests. Another reason is that I am not really a “mythicist” but am a student of the sources. Ideas I entertain about the likely scenarios, and how such a “myth” may have emerged are in flux. The state of our evidence may not ever allow us to know final answers. (But I do expect some time in the near future to write up my own thoughts on possibilities suggested by the sources.)
The question above that asks how such a “myth” could so quickly have come to be misunderstood is based on historicist presumptions. No-one I know suggests that the gospels were written as parables, say, and that within a generation everyone just somehow forgot that and all started reading them the wrong way alike! We are talking about a “riot of diversity” among the early Christianities, diversities of Christs, apostles, spirit activities, Jesus’s. The gospels were certainly not the earliest forms of Christian literature and by no means represent the earliest Christian thought. And we cannot ignore the fact that they underwent a series of redactions before settling into their canonical status.
As for the comparative probabilities of the historicist and mythicist positions, one must in fairness ask what is the more likely scenario: a historical man who was over time (generations) gradually exalted higher and higher until he reached God-status? ; or a belief in a divinity who for a theological reason assumed a form of flesh before being restored to his God-status — and over time stories emerged that attempted to “flesh out” that time of his in the flesh? Before answering, note that the earliest evidence we have of Jesus (in Paul) portrays him as a God being, and it is the later evidence (Luke) that reduces him to a faithful martyr. Note also the variety of beliefs about Second Gods (Margaret Barker) and even the evidence for a belief in an atoning death and resurrection of Isaac (Jon D. Levenson) in Second Temple “Judaism”.
And so, in short, the existence of Jesus is not something that can be proven in the abstract. This is simply stating the obvious, and is true of any historical figure. And the reason all mainstream historians and New Testament scholars believe Jesus existed? Because they have found at least one thing that he is purported to have said, or done, or had done to him, that seems very likely to be authentic. And if there is an authentic saying of Jesus, or action by him, or he was crucified, then he existed, because there is no such thing as an authentic historical action by a non-existent person.
This sums up an historicist methodology and error. As far as everyday language goes we can say we certainly do have “proof” that Alexander and the Caesars existed. We can also confidently draw the very strong inference that other names of their contemporaries mentioned in the primary and even some of the secondary sources also existed. We have some strong evidence for the existence of Socrates that exists by virtue of the impact he apparently made on his contemporaries and his students.
The closest we can ever come to Jesus in the Gospels, however, is through evident re-writings (at very least a full generation later) of tales of Elijah, Moses, and others. Before the gospels the writings of Paul speak of Christ, but ambiguously. We need also to keep in mind the need to thoroughly understand the nature and external witness to our sources (see above). Apart from one letter that is often dated to the late first century (but not always — sometimes dated much later, such is the uncertainty) we have no external witness to Paul’s correspondence until well into the second century. This is also a time when there is a vital interest in Paul with all sorts of evidence for him suddenly emerging — apocryphal Acts, pastoral epistles, arguably even canonical Acts. We know that the pre-printing press literary culture of the ancients was plagued by forgeries, and “edited” and “corrected” and “improved” and even sometimes “doctored” or just accidentally modified by a drowsy copyist. (A literary culture of interpolations and Forgery in the ancient world.)
The only evidence for “traditions” being the sources of Gospel authors is the conceptual models of historians. These traditions are inferences. They may be true. But we are better off first testing the evidence that we can see calls for nothing more than a copying and rewriting of older stories to meet a new demand, and seeing if that is all that is needed to explain the literary character of Jesus that we have. We have no methodological right to assume a historical Jesus to begin with. That Jesus needs to emerge from the darkness external to the texts to rescue historicist assumptions about those narratives.
In my next post I hope to do a detailed comparison of the nature of “loony fringe” and creationist theories with Jesus mythicist studies. Or maybe first I should outline a few specific case studies in “historicist rebuttals” of “mythicist arguments” to illustrate the points I have addressed in this post. Will see.
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