3 Unquestioned Assumptions of Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

In The Burial of Jesus James McGrath gives an introduction to the methods of scholars who study the Gospels as sources of historical evidence about Jesus.

Note how, throughout, this method assumes:

  1. That there is an historical Jesus to talk about;
  2. That there was an oral tradition that relayed information about this historical Jesus to other audiences;
  3. That the gospels relied on these traditions, at least in part, for their narratives about Jesus.

As stories were retold in and applied to new contexts, they were often shaped by that process, and sometimes the use to which a saying or story was put in between its first telling and its being written down has left its mark on some of the details. Thus there are different levels to the gospels incorporated in the Synoptic Gospels:

(1) There is the teaching of Jesus

(2) which was retold and passed on orally (and/or in written form) in the church before

(3) being placed in the written form accessible to us by the authors of the Gospels.

We need to keep these different levels in mind if we want to understand the Gospels. Similarly, in every story there are two levels that we may relate to, one or both of which may have influenced the present form of the narrative in important ways:

(1) The historical level, in which Jesus said or did such and such, and

(2) the contextual level, in which the Gospel writer (or someone at an earlier time) applied this tradition about Jesus to needs and situations in his own time and church.

. . . .  The historian is interested in getting back behind the text, using the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier.

. . . . The historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind a text to see what if anything can be determined about actual historical events.

. . . . If one wants to ascertain what we can know about Jesus as a historical figure “beyond reasonable doubt,” then historical study is the only way to accomplish that.

. . . . The aim of all this is to uncover a core of information regarding Jesus that most historians, regardless of background or religious upbringing, should be able to agree is authentic. (pp. 55-58)

When it is said that the historian seeks to get back “behind” the text of the Gospels, what is implied is that the text is itself an attempt (at least in part) to record information derived from traditions that are to be traced back to the historical Jesus.

These assumptions, according to this method, are prerequisites “if we want to understand the Gospels”.

Certainly form criticism can claim to have traced certain Gospel sayings back to “originals”. But this method is not evidence of the hypothesis of oral transmissions, but a conclusion based on its presumption.

An Alternative that is thus excluded

The same evidence discussed through the form critical methods (attempting to analyse a saying or story in order to discover its original form) can be discussed within the paradigm of literary or doctrinal dialogues and evolutions. This method dispenses with unsupportable assumptions of who was behind the various earlier layers (e.g. a tradent in a historical line traceable to a historical Jesus). It makes no assumptions about the historicity of the narrative itself. It examines the evidence we have (which is literary) and compares it with other evidence we have (either literary or deductions of earlier layers of literary texts). The only assumption that is brought in to play is the assumption that similarities in textual content are evidence of some form of borrowing (whether direct or indirect) and dialogue among the authors of the texts.

This alternative deals with the Jesus of the evidence we have — Jesus the literary construct. If there is any other Jesus behind this Jesus — a historical Jesus outside the narrative itself — we cannot use the testimony of the narrative to confirm this. That is circular reasoning. We need external controls to enable us to justify treating the narrative as an attempt to point to (and be sourced from) real history.

Historical Jesus scholars are still operating at the same level as Albrightian scholars once were in relation to King David and the history of the united Kingdom of Israel:

So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a … circular route …. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so-called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct. (Philip R. Davies: In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, pp.35-37)

It hasn’t helped that those who are interested in the development of historical research in this region have avoided the implications of the mythical and literary overtones that are a constant of all the Bible’s stories. They have chosen rather a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity. For example, even when speaking of stories filled with literary fantasy, they speak of a ‘biblical record’ and of the Bible’s ‘account of the past’. This rhetoric of archaeology avoids the useful scepticism that historians usually have ready at hand whenever iron is reported to float on water.


It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians often have done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales. (Pages 38 and 45 from T.L.Thompson’s The Mythic Past.)

A hundred years ago New Testament scholars issued the same warnings that have gone unheeded:

This warning about the need for New Testament scholars to understand the nature and provenance of their sources was issued over a century ago by E. Schwartz in a discussion about the evidence (still) used to support the claims of Papias about gospel traditions — and which applies equally to the unsupported assumptions underlying Gospel historical studies:

With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place. The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had  no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand. Not once was he able to say anything about the external history of the works of Origen, in which he was genuinely interested, apart from what he found in or among them. And if in the case of authors who as individuals and sometimes as well-known personalities stood in the glare of publicity there is so little information about their production, how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .  (the underlined portion is Abramowski’s emphasis)

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

And more recently Albert Schweitzer had enough understanding of historical methodology to write:

In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability. (From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

Schweitzer was by no means a proponent of a mythical Jesus argument, of course. This quotation comes from a book in which he critiques arguments for a mythical Jesus in his own day. (He did so in a strangely civil and knowledgeable manner quite foreign to how we see academics tackle the arguments today.)

But he did at least recognize the methodological problem of relying on documents without external controls to support the historicity of their narratives. This point appears to be lost on modern historical Jesus scholars. McGrath and Sanders and others simply assume that history is to be found simply by analysing the plot and narratives of the Gospels.

And earlier (pp. 9-10) section McGrath explains that

The tools in question are the methods of historical study, and they work precisely because they proceed by assessing evidence in a way that, while not capable of being completely unbiased or impartial, can nonetheless be considered fair, and treats all sources and all claims about the past on an equal basis. Particularly for Christians, for whom past events are central to their religious beliefs and doctrines, history is important and cannot be ignored.

Here appears to lie another fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of ancient historical source documents.

I suspect what is meant here is that the Gospels can validly be compared and analyzed as historical sources in the same way as histories by, say, Josephus and Tacitus. This is a major blunder. We have no way to justify any assumption that the Gospels were in any way intended to be written as historical reports. Their anonymity, their lack of independent attestation to the content of their narratives, their failure to identify any of their sources, their clearly different ideological aims, do not allow for any such a priori comparisons at all.

The citations from Schwartz and more recent authors above show that we have had – and still do have – biblical historians who can see the fallacy of any such comparison.

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)

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Neil Godfrey

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  • Gingerbaker
    2010-03-01 14:56:44 GMT+0000 - 14:56 | Permalink

    Hi Neil

    I am a complete amateur who has recently been interested in this issue of the historicity of JC. Having stumbled onto your blog via postings at FRDB, I just wanted to say I am enjoying your posts a lot, and finding a lot of sympathetic vibrations here to my inchoate impressions on the subject.

    Todays post touched on a topic I have been thinking about of late – this idea that the NT has a historical credibility based upon an oral tradition. Is there much evidence for this, for it doesn’t seem to pass the smell test to me?

    When I see the texts bandied about in discussions, parsed out sometimes to the level of individual characters in a word, I can not escape the impression that there is often no indication of an actual oral tradition being preserved there at all. Much of the NT contains enormous amounts of detailed testimony that would be impossible for ordinary mortals to remember accurately for more than two minutes without screwing up.

    Look at the Gospel of Thomas. It is unusually portrayed as being written by a scribe listening to a first-hand witness of JC himself. It is perhaps the most highly attributable attestation to the word of JC himself in the entire NT, the closest transcription to the supposed actual words of the HJ available. It claims accuracy.

    It also is the most exquisite conglomeration of incoherent gobbledy-gook available at discount prices without actually taking a hit of window-pane acid. There is no human being on the planet, save perhaps a Rain Man idiot-savant who could possibly remember even one hundredth of that sing-song nonsense poem. Remember, they didn’t have tape recorders back then! 😀

    Now, this is a best-case scenario with Thomas. We supposedly have an immediate transcription of recently-heard remarks, from one witness. And what is recorded for posterity is simply impossible to believe as being an oral (and aural) history. Try it – have someone read ten verses of those self-contradictory pearls of wisdom to you, and then try to recall them with any accuracy in an hour, let alone the following day.

    Imagine what would happen with what we expect to be the usual case for an oral tradition – a chain of people retelling their recollection of the story to the next person in the chain. And these are people who drank wine. 😀

    It just seems to me that it absolutely buggers belief that oral tradition plays any kind of important historiographical function outside of a very basic rendition of events, which might have relevance to one percent of the text, and almost no relevance to the sort of material bandied about trying to tease evidence of the HJ out of texts that may well not have been written within decades of the supposed events.

    It seems to me that the NT texts can not possibly have anything resembling a reliable relationship to an oral tradition, and can not tell us anything reliable about the HJ. They tell us way too much to be anything other than fiction.

    Best regards,


  • steven carr
    2010-03-01 15:41:55 GMT+0000 - 15:41 | Permalink

    One thing is certain. If a holy man existed, the you can guarantee that the wildest of stories would be circulating about him.

    Even the earliest Christian record indicates the wild nature of oral tradition. Just read 2 Corinthians 11-12.

    If the Gospels are to be believed, then some people were claiming Jesus was Jeremiah returned from the dead.

    With that sort of oral tradition about Jesus circulating widely among the populace, then you really do need external controls for anything the Gospels say, including the claim that people were saying Jesus was Jeremiah returned from the dead.

  • 2010-03-01 20:45:35 GMT+0000 - 20:45 | Permalink

    Hi GB,

    There is a wealth of scholarly literature devoted to studies in orality and oral traditions in relation to NT/Gospel studies — and beyond, even to early second century patristic literature. It has even been suggested that the entire gospel of Mark is a string of pericopes tied together with keywords to enable recall.

    As for the Gospel of Thomas, Nicholas Perrin (Thomas and Tatian) has argued that it was all originally strung together by a series of catchwords that are a mix of puns and homonyms and other wordplays that tie it all together as an organic unity. He notes that the earlier argument that it was based on oral transmission was the result of the perception that it was a disjointed hotch potch of sayings. But if his own analysis is correct (he attempts to reconstruct the original Syriac version behind the surviving text) then the hotch-potch disjointed perception is no longer valid, and it is best explained as a literary composition from the get-go.

    The Gospel of Mark has been analyzed through every which orifice and while some have concluded that it is a disjointed, barely literate string of one thing after the other, others have concluded it is one of the most coherent, subtle and powerful of unities in the history of literature.

    So much can be made of the evidence used for orality, and the same evidence can sometimes be used to argue for written endeavours.

    But even arguments for orality that do exist do not of themselves establish that whoever was repeating the oral “traditions” did so as part of a train of tradents back to an historical Jesus. (We don’t want to be like “creationists” who argue that one fossil stretching across multiple strata is enough to prove the Flood theory. 😉

    I tend to side with the sorts of arguments you list. Thanks for tossing them into the ring here.

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