Perhaps the more mystery or inexplicable circumstances there are surrounding Christian origins the healthier it is for the faith business. Not that those of the faith are the only “beneficiaries”. Jesus is, after all, a central icon in the constellations of our broader cultural identities. The inexplicable is his defining asset.
The most improbable “stubborn fact”
Note what is generally presented as “the fact” of Christian origins that historians seek to explain:
Christianity appeared suddenly and spread quickly as a direct result of thousands of Jews being persuaded that a failed messiah, one crucified as a criminal by a Roman governor, was indeed a heavenly Messiah and to be worshiped as a divinity beside God himself.
Now on the face of it, this “fact” would seem as improbable as Protestants in Northern Ireland being converted by their thousands in response to Catholic missionaries proclaiming astonishing and miraculous events surrounding Mary in their midst. If I heard of conversions like that I would have to think that the Protestants really were convinced they were seeing the proof of something overwhelming.
So we would like to have some external, independent (non-Christian) witness to such an unlikely event. We have none in the case of the Christian “facts” above, but the closest we get is to a Jewish history written about sixty years after the supposed “facts” happened. This is not primary evidence that is a contemporary witness to Jesus. It is after-the-fact secondary evidence. So according to the father of modern history, von Ranke, it needs to be examined with extra care. Sometimes secondary evidence can even turn out to be more informative than primary evidence, so let’s see what we find in Josephus in support of the “facts” of Christian origins.
The most improbable testimony of Josephus
Josephus wrote to persuade readers of the superior wisdom of Mosaic customs, and who castigated all fellow Jews who strayed from those archaic customs and followed failed messianic types, but who made an exception in the case of Jesus in that:
- he was completely unperturbed by fellow Jews proclaiming the exalted heavenly messiahship of one crucified by his Roman benefactors as a criminal;
- he suddenly had no censure against Jews who were known to have either abandoned Mosaic customs or instigated divisions among Jews over their observance;
- he found no reason to elaborate just a little for his readers any details of the teachings of this Jesus, even though in every other case when introducing a new Jewish sect or teacher he offers readers at least a few lines of their basic curriculum.
Is it any wonder that the general consensus among scholars before World War 2 was that the testimony of Josephus was worthless as evidence for establishing the historicity of Jesus? Has the evidence changed since then? There have been many changes since then, and many that relate to the status of Jewishness, Judas and Israel in biblical studies and the wider community, but the above inconsistencies of the Jesus testimony with Josephus’s interests and ideology have not changed.
So far we have a most improbable “fact” about Christian origins, supported by a most improbable piece of external evidence.
On Tacitus, see Doughty’s Tacitus’ account of Nero’s persecution of Christians; for the other Christ reference in Josephus, see an earlier post, That brother of Jesus who is called Christ.
But what about the internal consistency within the Christian evidence itself. Luke Timothy Johnson points to this as one of the “facts” to be explained when dealing with the question of Christian origins?
The most improbable evidence of the Epistles
Early teachers (going by the names of Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, and others unnamed) of this heavenly messiah could write numerous letters to their followers without finding any need or interest in referring to the earthly life, sayings and deeds of this Jesus that so compelled his disciples to believe in him even moreso after his crucifixion. At best, when referring to his teachings, they generally hid them behind quotations of the Jewish scriptures or as if they were their own personal proclamations.
Perhaps it is fitting that improbable “facts” are supported by improbable supporting evidence.
So what is the evidence for this most improbable “fact” of Christian origins?
A small subset of Christian documents — Gospels and Acts — that are unlike anything that preceded them, but once known, became the standard narrative throughout orthodox branches of Christianity that stood that opposed other less earthly “gospels” of Jesus.
Not that post-Enlightenment biblical historians read the Gospels and Acts as literal history (apologists excepted). But as Liverani writes of too many historians, it is too easy to accept a ready-made narrative from the past and simply paraphrase it, or pick out its more ‘naturalistic-sounding’ core, and lazily repeat that as “the bedrock facts”.
The very improbability of the so-called “facts” of Christian origins ought to be enough to prompt historians to set aside the narrative of a small subset of relatively late texts and focus first and foremost on the fundamentals of assessing the dates and ‘character’ or nature of the texts we have. To the extent that this is done now, it seems generally to be done within the framework of the narrative elicited from the Gospels and Acts. The core of the narrative’s general outline is assumed to be historical.
Even apart from Robert Price’s list of potential source narratives in the Jewish scriptures (referred to in previous post), it is not valid to bring to any narrative an assumption of historicity. Clear justifications need to be established. We need first to deal with the narrative as a narrative only. It needs to be compared with other literature from the same era, or that we can have reason to believe was known to the authors. It is not a valid assumption that a naive reading of any text can yield reliable historical information. We have these sorts of justifications for reading Tacitus, Josephus and Thucydides as sources of historical information. We have no comparable justifications for reading the Gospels with the same expectations.
Among non-biblical historians it has long been a common saying that history is an art. What is referred to is the interpretation of evidence and the way a historical narrative is constructed. (Sometimes it also refers to history as being an intellectual pastime for intellectual pleasure.) The hard work of unearthing evidence and analysing it to grasp its nature and the sort of information it can reliably yield is all preliminary effort. . . .
Yet biblical historians seem to be struggling interminably with a set of improbabilities that exist entirely because of a failure to have ever acknowledged the methodological circularities (unsupported assumptions made to confirm themselves) from which they have been born.
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