Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical

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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 the 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 the 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 let 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?

Since the discussion of “historicity” versus “mythicism” is couched in assertions from historicists that mythicist arguments avoid the works of establishment scholars, I am consciously opting to rely heavily in this post on published works of reputable scholars. No doubt I am opening myself to the charge that I am not thinking for myself, or that I should instead be addressing the works of those who express the mainstream view, or that I am cherry-picking. I can only refer anyone who thinks the first to a range of other posts of mine on this blog, where I certainly have addressed these and similar arguments in depth in relation to a number of topics. My footnoting others with the same critical views here is a deliberate choice. As for the second potential charge, I must plead guilty. If I were to cite only the mainstream views I would not be involved in any discussion to begin with. As for cherry-picking, I endeavour to represent anyone I cite as honestly as possible. I have never, to my knowledge, given anyone reason to think that an author holds views I myself argue if they do not.

So on with the chase.

Of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Temple episode, there can be little doubt that they originated in the mind of the first narrator reflecting on passages in Jeremiah and Isaiah.

Mark 11:15-17 (New King James Version)

15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?[a] But you have made it a den of thieves.[b]


  1. Isaiah 56:7
  2. Jeremiah 7:11

(From BibleGateway.com)

But what is less widely acknowledged is that these sayings are not the only words that link this story with a rich set of literary themes in the Hebrew scriptures (Thompson, 2005).

Mark sandwiches the Temple Act between a story of the cursing of the fig tree. The fig tree, and the related message of the need to bear godly fruit at all times, and the theme of judgment, was part of the warp and woof of the theological and literary clusters of “memes” of the gospel authors.

Jeremiah 24:2-9

One basket had very good figs, like the figs that are first ripe; and the other basket had very bad figs which could not be eaten, they were so bad. 3 Then the LORD said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
And I said, “Figs, the good figs, very good; and the bad, very bad, which cannot be eaten, they are so bad.”
4 Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans. 6 For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. 7 Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the LORD; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.
8And as the bad figs which cannot be eaten, they are so bad’—surely thus says the LORD—‘so will I give up Zedekiah the king of Judah, his princes, the residue of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. 9 I will deliver them to trouble into all the kingdoms of the earth, for their harm, to be a reproach and a byword, a taunt and a curse, in all places where I shall drive them.

Psalm 1.3-5

He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,

Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.

4 The ungodly are not so,
But are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

Jeremiah 29:17-19

17 thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will send on them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like rotten figs that cannot be eaten, they are so bad. 18 And I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence; and I will deliver them to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth—to be a curse, an astonishment, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they have not heeded My words, says the LORD, which I sent to them by My servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them; neither would you heed, says the LORD.

The same theme of being planted to bear good fruit and being cursed and uprooted for bearing bad, and the lesson to be godly at all times, is repeated in Jeremiah 8.13; 32:36-41; Hosea 9:10-14.

But look again at the source of that second saying from Jeremiah 7.11-15

. . . . Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the LORD.

“But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel.

And now, because you have done all these works,” says the LORD, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you, but you did not answer,

therefore I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.

And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren . . . .

Here the words Jesus used when he began to drive out the traders from the temple are associated directly with God casting out his people for their desecration of his temple.  (Thompson does not make this point, but one might also note that Mark’s use of “drive out” here brings to a readers’ mind — the same for a Greek reader — the earlier acts of God in driving Jesus into the wilderness, and Jesus driving out spirits.)

What did the author of Matthew’s gospel think of when he read Mark’s narrative of the temple cleansing? Historical tradition? Or a related ‘Old Testament’ passage?

Matthew 21:14-16 tells us:

12 Then Jesus went into the temple of God[a] and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’[b] but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’[c]
14 Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant 16 and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?”
And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read,

‘ Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have perfected praise’?

17 Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.


  1. Matthew 21:12 NU-Text omits of God.
  2. Matthew 21:13 Isaiah 56:7
  3. Matthew 21:13 Jeremiah 7:11
  4. Matthew 21:16 Psalm 8:2

(From BibleGateway.com)

Why does Matthew decide to expand this Temple story by having Jesus rebut the priests by  pronouncing blessings on “the babes” who bear spiritual fruit? Because he was reminded of the source passage of Isaiah 56:7 that Jesus quoted:

1 Thus says the LORD:

“ Keep justice, and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come,
And My righteousness to be revealed.
2 Blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who lays hold on it;
Who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
3 Do not let the son of the foreigner
Who has joined himself to the LORD
Speak, saying,

“ The LORD has utterly separated me from His people”;
Nor let the eunuch say,

“ Here I am, a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the LORD:

“ To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
5 Even to them I will give in My house
And within My walls a place and a name
Better than that of sons and daughters;

I will give them[a] an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.
6 “ Also the sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants—
Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And holds fast My covenant—
7 Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,

“ Yet I will gather to him
Others besides those who are gathered to him.”

Matthew recasts Isaiah 56. Isaiah’s song called the one who keeps justice and does righteousness “blessed” . . . . His examples of such a man are the “foreigner who has joined himself to Yahweh” and the “eunuch who keeps my Sabbaths.” These he will “bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer . . . . Matthew’s story of Jesus in the temple closes on a cryptic scene of healing the lame and blind. They have come to Jesus (Mt 21:14), in obvious imitation of Isaiah’s foreigner and eunuch, those whom Isaiah declared should be brought back into the temple. Their identification with the lame and blind opens Matthew’s story to a much larger discourse about temple reforms in 1-2 Kings . . . (p.80)

This last allusion to 1-2 Kings is about how the triumphal entry of Jesus riding on an ass (Zech. 9:9-11, revising Isa. 62:10-12), and then proceeding to cleanse the temple, is drawn from the literary heritage of the good kings Asa, Jehoash, Hezekiah and Josiah “cleansing the temple”.

But note also Matthew’s treatment of the opposing chief priests and scribes and what they opposed. For Matthew, these opponents of Jesus are scarcely seem upset with his temple act. It is the miracles he performs in healing the blind and lame, and how those healed worshiped him as the son of David, that provokes their response:

It is not immediately obvious why our discerning children draw their conclusion from Matthew’s sketch of the double scene of temple cleansing and healing. Nor is it obvious why the high priests and scribes find the children’s recognition of Jesus as son of David objectionable. They do not seem angry at the cleansing of the temple but at “the wonders,” at the healing of the lame and blind. This is what the children’s shouts celebrate, as they recognize Jesus as son of David. What is it the children understand and the high priests and learned scribes do not? The brief encounter with the children captures one aspect of a discourse about the proud and humble that confirms the reversal of fortune and the good news (Mk 1:1), which the saving king brings about when he enters his kingdom. (p. 81)

The origin of the temple action of Jesus is to be found in the heritage of the themes and images of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus enters Jerusalem like a king and, like the good kings of the past, cleanses the temple of God. He restores the corrupt den of thieves to a foretaste of the glory it has in Isaiah 56 – a house of prayer where all the outcasts come for salvation. The gospel authors draw on the images of fruit, particularly figs, flourishing in all seasons, an image of the righteous being reader at all times, in all seasons, for their king.

There is no need to postulate some unverifiable “tradition” going back to an historical event. The gospels are continuing the theological discussions of the Hebrew scriptures, and applying them to a new age, for a “new Israel” now that the temple has ceased to exist.

As Thompson explains of the concept of a “tradition” in another, but related, context:

While the scenario of an expanding oral tradition originating in Jesus’ teaching is necessary to the argument [of historicity], it is not direct evidence of such a tradition. .  . . Little effort has been made to argue that in fact an oral tradition existed that collected Jesus’ sayings. However, whether or not one is inclined to allow Crossan’s argument as likely, his parade example of an authentic saying of Jesus [Mark 10:13-16] can be clearly falsified. It can be shown not to have originated in the teachings of Jesus. (p. 75)

The same can be shown for the temple act itself. It is an adaptation of a motif, indeed a cluster of motifs and sayings, from the Hebrew scriptures. The bracketing of the temple action with the fig tree narrative is Mark’s signal to think in terms of all that anyone familiar with the scriptures already knows: figs and the bearing fruit is an image associated with judgment, and in particular with judgment on the temple, and a judgment that results in a casting out. Jesus, having fulfilled the scriptures by entering like a lowly king on a donkey, next turns to cleanse the temple, the traditional act of a godly king. And the images that spring to mind in Mark and Matthew, are those of the lessons of piety (Mark’s teaching on the power of faith and prayer) and spiritual restoration (Matthew’s extension of the scene to embrace a healing of the outcasts).

This is the most direct, parsimonious explanation for the origin of the contents of the story. Burton Mack demonstrates, further, the narrative need for it, and why it had to be created to meet that need.

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38 thoughts on “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical”

  1. The attack on the temple is clearly historical because there’s no reason for orthodoxy to keep it around otherwise. It runs contrary to orthodoxy. The clear motive is to cause the sacrifices to cease for the day. No animals being sold, no sacrifices being made. The moniker ‘cleansing of the temple’ is orthodox spin as is the addition of the quote from the OT “my father’s house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.” The original statement made by Jesus during the attack on the temple is found in the Ebionite gospel “I am come to abolish sacrifices, and if you do not cease sacrificing then wrath will abide on you.” It being well-known that Jesus made such an attack on the temple, the orthodox could not deny it nor leave it out of their gospels but only spin it in a more pro-OT manner.

  2. “Jesus enters Jerusalem like a king and, like the good kings of the past, cleanses the temple of God.”

    How is getting rid of the very animals that the Law commands to be sacrificed “cleansing”? It is disruption not cleansing.

    This proves it historical. The orthodox are on defense spinning Jesus’ interruption of the temple as “cleansing.”

    1. This most emphatically does NOT “prove” that it is historical. Even if your analysis is right (it may be, I’m only a lay person) the most it might prove is that the orthodoxy was embarrassed by the theological point that Mark was making but couldn’t censor the story entirely and so had to find a way to make it palatable. Without an independent witness to the event its hard to prove that it happened at all, much less what the intent behind the action was.

      If the message of Mark’s Gospel was anti-temple as Burton Mack argues it the above citation then it makes perfect sense that Mark might write something that is anti-temple. It doesn’t have to be based on a historical act at all. It could all just be propaganda.

      1. Anything could be just made up, of course. Jer might not really exist. He might be a character created by Steven Carr. (Not saying I believe this, but it is within the realm of possibility.) That doesn’t mean I will be convinced of it.

  3. The anonymous author of John also places this Temple Incident at the start of Jesus ministry, and does not consider it in any way as leading to the arrest of Jesus.

    If such an incident was historical, as McGrath and Sanders claim, how could early Christians rewrite the history of such an incident that had such consequences for the person they worshipped?

  4. The application of Fredriksen here is potentially a dangerous game for the mythicist paradigm. Or at least an impractical one.

    One of her (probably the) principle points against the historicity of the narrative relies on the practicality of the event. The assumed desired effect would be an obvious pipe dream. This contention doesn’t hold as well in a mythicist paradigm, where practicality is less of a concern. Fredriksen’s argument works because we wouldn’t expect a real person to do it.

    As to the question of her familiarity with Sanders, she describes her Jesus as “very apocalyptic, very Sandersian,” and there’s really no mistaking it as anything else. The line runs fairly cleanly from Schweitzter, to Sanders, to everyone else.

    I’m not sure what McGrath expects to obtain by challenging you with Jesus and Judaism though. First of all there are obviously different accountings of the evidence depending upon the framework one approaches it with–one doesn’t even need to leave the historicist paradigm to see that. So that it can be done shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

    More importantly, much of Sanders’ phrasing and style of argumentation reflects the time the book was written–he’s answering Bultmann. While much of the book, obviously, extends beyond Bultmannians and is still germane, a “point by point” comparison is kind of a silly venture, since many of the “points” aren’t really relevant anymore.

    As a bit of pointless autobiography, Fredriksen was actually the first academic book I read on the historical Jesus (or any other branch of the NT). While I do so less naively now, I still find it to be the most persuasive.

  5. ‘ First of all there are obviously different accountings of the evidence….’

    What evidence?

    All we have is a story in an anonymous, unprovenanced work that later writers changed.

    That is evidence only of the fact that somebody wrote a story.

    Until there is a bit of corroboration, it remains a story that no named Christian in the first century had ever heard of.

  6. ‘ First of all there are obviously different accountings of the evidence….’

    It is strange that when scientists refute creationist, they tend to produce basically the same accounting of the evidence.

    What with them being constrained by facts and logic….. constraints which seem not to apply to people working in , I quote ‘the historicist paradigm’, who seem free to have any Jesus they like, except a mythical one.

    1. Steven Carr wroteIt is strange that when scientists refute creationist, they tend to produce basically the same accounting of the evidence.

      I’m not sure why you’re addressing this to me. I didn’t equate mythicism with creationism. In fact, I condemned doing so. But there’s nothing “strange” about that. Biology is science. History isn’t.

      What with them being constrained by facts and logic….. constraints which seem not to apply to people working in , I quote ‘the historicist paradigm’, who seem free to have any Jesus they like, except a mythical one.

      Is the implication supposed to be that the mythicist paradigm is somehow doing something fundamentally different? I can’t think of another reason for the scare quotes, unless you just don’t know how to use them.

      Is it not one of Doherty’s oft-repeated points that he does nothing that the historicist doesn’t? Does Neil above do anything the historicist doesn’t?

      The term paradigm, as used here, has nothing to do with whether or not you use “facts and logic.” The paradigm is an interpretive one, the same as the mythicist paradigm would be. It pertains to the type of conclusions you draw from the evidence.

      There is no analogue to science from the HJ or the MJ.

      This type of thing really does nothing to help the mythicist case Steven. It’s very, very easy to point to your long list of polemical non sequiturs as a prime example of a mythicist with an axe to grind. Now maybe that describes you, and maybe it doesn’t. But it is how you come across.

      The “paradigm” is an interpretive one. And stays as such even when you throw some scare quotes around it.

  7. Just for the sake of the record, I don’t really expect James McGrath to bother to read a thing I write in relation to Sanders. I’m only using his challenge as a rhetorical excuse to point to mainstream methodological quicksand (nit-picking, as Steven reminds me James would call it) out of my own interest and for anyone else interested 🙂

    It’s interesting that Frederickson, being the first historical Jesus book you read, appears the most persuasive. I wonder if that is the way things are with “first reads”. Mine was Crossan. By the time I read Frederickson I thought it was the worst book I had ever read except for the rest. But Doherty picked holes like Swiss cheese all through Crossan that I could never see without much effort at the time. Maybe our impressions of historical Jesus books tend to reflect our experience with the field.

    I have always wanted to “get back” at Sanders for getting my money for her book at I time I was really looking for something substantial — and it’s been on my “to do” list here on this blog for years! :-/

    One day I’ll get my thoughts of her arguments (without the Temple action) down in text type here.

    1. I have always wanted to “get back” at Sanders for getting my money for her book at I time I was really looking for something substantial — and it’s been on my “to do” list here on this blog for years! :-/

      Heh. That’s how I feel about Pagels’ Beyond Belief. “The Secret Gospel of Thomas” the alluring subtitle reads. And then gives me like three pages about Thomas. It should have been called “The Gnostic Gospels with commentary on the author’s spiritual journey.” Then I’d have known to save my money.

  8. I actually rejected Fredriksen’s position on the temple for the longest time (I’d have “colored it pink” is how I generally described it), though I’ve always thought she provides the best answer to her thesis question–why did Jesus die and his followers didn’t (assuming, of course, that there was a Jesus to do so). It’s the only account I’ve read that considers that last point–why was the movement allowed to continue.

    It was Brody’s work on the Elijah cycle in Mark that finally convinced me against. Though Goodacre had an interesting piece suggesting Mark intends to stress that Jesus is not Elijah returned. In which case Brody’s argument doesn’t necessarily hold (again, assuming historicity), because there had to be a belief prior to Mark that Jesus was Elijah to necessitate the correction, and a reason for that can be historical as easily as it can anything else. Once you’ve put it earlier than Mark arguments about Markan redactive techniques don’t hold anymore.

    That type of thing–the various layers that come into play with each response (including, with no offense intended, the kind of thing in your post)–leaves me increasingly tempted to pack the NT in. The arguments become so convoluted, the interpretations so elaborate, that it almost inherently has more to do with the presenter than what’s being presented. The problem permeates the entire discipline, but alas it would take a better philosopher than me to fix it.

    As I noted on my ‘blog recently, the most convoluted commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid comes short of nuance against even the most straightforward commentary on Mark at this point. And when we consider the care in authorship and literary quality of each work, that seems ridiculous. We scarcely look for the right answers anymore, we’re looking to come up with the most creative use of the texts. Which might be the more fruitful route to take, but then we should probably regard it as such.

  9. Oops, forgot to add at the start of that one (give me a break. . .it’s 4:00 AM). Fredriksen does not accept some form of the temple act. She rejects it outright. She expands her views somewhat in a paper available online:


    It’s what she offers that makes her theory “unique.” Otherwise it’s just a rephrasing of Sanders. She has Sanders’ Jesus, but without the temple.

  10. Rick, can we imagine ancient Roman scholars, having lost all knowledge of Virgil, and believing the Aeneid was based on real historical reminiscences of their origins, engaging in the same sort of complexities as we do today with the Gospel of Mark?

  11. I think it’s a tough call, but I’m a far cry from a Roman scholar so it could be that it has its own frustrations I just haven’t come across. But even if we look beyond historical commentary–a theological commentary, for example, worried about what Mark is trying to say to his audience is just as bad. The “Messianic secret,” as a riddle, pales in comparison to Virgil’s door of false dreams, but in the case of the latter we are far more restricted in how we handle it. There are limits to how far we’ll push it. We’re dealing with purely literary criticism, even if it necessarily includes socio-historical understanding to engage in it, and it’s graded on literary-critical terms and engages a literary critical world.

    Even when the Aeneid is employed historically, or at least quasi-historically, as a sort of window into Augustan Age Rome, we would never dream about making the sort of specific claims we do about the “Markan community,” or the (God forbid) “Q Community.” Part of that doubtlessly owes to the scope of Vergil’s audience. But the bigger part is that we recognize the limits of what we can realistically conjecture.

    But even if we allow that Mark is ostensibly a biography or a “history” of sorts, and therefore different, that doesn’t justify this, because we’re employing both texts the same way; a window into the world of the author.

    I think all of this goes back to the sort of interplay that started with the Enlightenment. The point/counterpoint that perpetually increased the complexity of the responses. The “rules” we laid out by people protecting their theologies in a sense I don’t think any other discipline was. And even as move increasingly to a more secular mode of inquiry, we haven’t done the “reboot” that I increasingly think that should require. We just build off of that paradigm.

    So to get back to your original question, I think we might attempt to discern history from the Aeneid (some things we’d probably even get right), at least to some degree. But we’d hedge our bets a lot more, and probably wouldn’t develop the same exhausting list of ten thousand interpretations of five verses. We’d be a lot more willing to say “We don’t know.”

  12. I know this post is over 13 years old by now, and the following paper 32 years old, but I’m curious. Neil, did you ever read this paper by Robert J. Miller: “The (A)Historicity of Jesus’ Temple Demonstration: A Test Case in Methodology”? It’s in the ‘One Hundred and Twenty-seventh Annual Meeting Seminar Papers’ from the Society of Biblical Literature from 1991.
    He argues that E. P. Sanders and the lot have not properly argued for the temple tantrum being historical at all and that many just agreed with Sanders without giving good reasons why (one of them is Paula Fredriksen, who has changed her mind on it later when actually seeing the temple complex with her own eyes). I don’t know how fair he’s representing Sanders & company though, since I don’t have good access to all these sources.
    The paper also makes the interesting point about what we can assume about when Jesus died:
    “The connection hypothesis [that Jesus was put to death because he posed some threat to the authorities] assumes that Jesus’ death requires an explanation
    based on well-formulated intentions of Jesus, his Jewish opponents, and the
    Roman authorities. The connectionless hypothesis questions the need for a Big
    Reason in accounting for his death. The first assumes that the Romans crucified
    only those who “needed crucifying,” after an investigation to establish the
    individual’s “guilt.” The second assumes that at least some people got crucified
    and then he wrote a whole paragraph about ways someone could be crucified in the Roman Empire through no fault of their own. And then another asking all sorts of questions regarding the plausibility of the ‘high drama’ of the events leading up to Jesus’ death.
    He criticizes others discussing the temple tantrum too, giving some praise to Burton Mack: “Conversely, it is a strength of Mack’s position that he explains why Mark tells the story in just the way he does.” (as opposed to Sanders).
    I wonder if this is another example of Biblical scholars not knowing their own field widely enough, if they make arguments in 2010 based on a book from 1985 that got so heavily criticised in 1991. Or maybe Miller got refuted and I just don’t know it, I’m not an expert after all and I don’t have fancy libraries at hand. Do you have any insights in this?

    1. Speaking of scholars generally (excluding the biblical ones for a moment) and in particular their engagement with lay audiences, I have found that on the whole they are up front and very open about where their personal views and theories fit within the range of views in their field, and will be quick to point out if they themselves represent a fringe or majority view. I have found most of them to be quick to put their own views in context of others in their field.

      Biblical scholars, far too many of them, on the other hand, seem predominantly to expound their own theories to lay audiences as if they were the “right” ones and thereby leave their lay listeners/readers often unaware of the extent (or even existence) of alternative views. I consider this approach unprofessional, but there it is — though I am not saying that ALL biblical scholars take that approach with their public readers. I have come across some very refreshing exceptions to what seems, in my experience, to be “the rule”.

      When I attempted to engage some biblical scholars with alternative views of others in their field that I had read, I was all too often dismissed as “ignorant” — it really did appear to me that even well-recognized names like Hurtado and Erhman and McGrath simply had a poor grasp, sometimes no grasp at all, of certain published and peer-reviewed alternatives to their arguments. As I studied their works (all biblical works I read, not just those of the three names above) and followed up footnote references and citations of work in other fields (especially various fields of historical research) I became quite dismayed to find that all too often they had merely “quote-mined” and sometimes seriously misrepresented the sources to which they were referring.

      I have found a lot of certainty among biblical scholars where I would have thought — like most scholars in other fields — I would find a much greater awareness of the theoretical foundations of their work and humility in the frank acknowledgment of various uncertainties and alternative interpretations.

      So much of the conclusions and arguments of so many biblical scholars are grounded in taken-for-granted assumptions and circular reasoning — I guess deep-down such poor foundations require the scholars to come across as more certain and dogmatic than is warranted in order to deflect anyone, including themselves, from drawing attention to those fragile foundations.

      But back to your reference. I have ordered a copy of that Miller article, thanks. As for the temple-cleansing episode, I am currently beginning to see that episode in a new light as I am currently exploring hitherto untranslated German scholarly works about Jewish and Roman views of the temple. I hope to post something more specific before long, but I am currently in a reading splurge that is taking me into whole new perspectives.

      1. Ooh, thanks for the quick reply! Sorry for the atrocious formatting of my comment. Didn’t see all those line breaks.
        I was actually caught in a reading splurge of this blog (and so many articles it pointed to) for like a week a while ago. Thank you and Tim for putting all this information out there for everyone to read! You also got me to pick up Tolbert’s ‘Sowing the Gospel’ again. I’m still at the (sometimes boring) first part, but I was amazed to find a casual mention in the footnotes that Mark and Luke-Acts are ‘tied to’ “Greek literature with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey at its apex” and a little bit further she mentions the shift from tribal, traditional religions to the individualistic mystery cults at the time.
        And this book is from the 80s? What has the field been doing all this time? (That one was rhetorical.)

        Looking forward to your new article, but I also appreciate your recent articles relating the war going on between Israel and Palestine, and by now I’d be surprised if I didn’t enjoy whatever you got inspired to write after a reading binge.

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