Taking the historical Jesus for granted

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is my own adaption from Philip Davies’ In Search for Ancient Israel, and is not to be taken as representing Philip Davies’ views on the question of the historical Jesus. In 1992 Davies argued that the scholarly search for “ancient Israel” was at the time always based on the unquestioned assumption that there was an “ancient Israel” to be found. It was always taken for granted. The research was only about deciding how much of the biblical literature was historical, and what this ancient Israel must have looked like. Since I began studying the scholarly works about Christian origins and the historical Jesus, it has struck me that the same flawed assumptions and circular reasoning lies at the heart of these studies, too.

Someone responded that the situations are completely different because the Gospels are written within the same time frame as the events they purport to describe. But it can be shown that the logic of this rejoinder is also circular. (Nonetheless, Davies’ argument about the study of “ancient Israel” is based in part on the ability to set the composition of the literature to Persian and Hellenistic times. Since this is a literature about an entire Kingdom and claims to be set within the time of that kingdom, this is necessary. The Gospels are not about a nation, but about a single person who was said by some sources to have been unrecognized in his time, and do not specifically claim any particular date for composition. They have been dated everywhere from the 30’s or 40’s to the 130’s or 140’s. But as with the Old Testament literature, most of the earlier dates are based on an assumption of the historicity of parts of the narrative itself.)

Nor do I see this as a negative or anti-Christian question. My atheism has not led me to question the Bible or God or religion. It was my questioning of these that led, rather, to my atheism. What I find fascinating is the study of Christian origins. My ongoing interest is an intellectual one and has nothing to do with finding supports for faith or reasons to reject faith. If that study uncovers a historical person at the heart of the process, then so be it. But so far I have seen no methodological or evidential reasons for positing such a person as a satisfactory explanation of the nature of the evidence.

In what follows, I have replaced Davies’ references to “Israel” with references to “Jesus” or “Christian origins”. The page references are to In Search of Ancient Israel. The following are not Davies’ views in this book. They are entirely my own adaptation of a few aspects of Davies’ argument to historical Jesus studies.

Opening up the question, not closing it

Now let me be clear: I am not as yet saying that the literary [Jesus] must be assumed a priori to be unhistorical. What I am saying is that it is literary and that it might be historical.” (p.24)

Seems absurd

The very raising of the question might seem absurd, deliberately provocative, programmatically negativistic. Virtually a whole discipline, after all, is predicated on the existence of an [historical Jesus]. But it is not absurd at all to ask the question. . . . It only seems absurd because scholars have never opened the question, so that it seems entirely off the agenda. It is the kind of question that threatens with a new paradigm, like the absurd idea that the earth orbited round the sun or that slavery was not  a divinely-ordained institution. The student of the Bible gets the impression that [the historical Jesus] really did exist because she or he reads about [him] all the time.  One might doubt that the Bible is not history, but one can surely not doubt a battalion of professors!” (p.25)

Compromise has ruined everything

We have not set about arguing that the literary [Jesus] is an historical entity . . . . we have from the outset assumed it. Literary periodization becomes historical time, literary figures are transmuted into historical figures. There are some exceptions, of course: [the slaughtered babes of Bethlehem, Gabriel] and maybe even [Judas Iscariot and Joseph of Arimathea] (for the daring) are eliminated. But taking these figures out makes matters worse rather than better: the result is something that is neither historical nor biblical, but scholarly rationalisation of the literary and the historical. Literary criticism of the Bible became, for generations of students, an historical enterprise.” (p.24)

Never a hypothesis, never a reason to doubt

The historicity of the literary [Jesus] ought everywhere to have been firstly a matter of ‘whether’ and only then, if at all, ‘how much’. But this has not been so, and with very few exceptions: the procedure adopted by biblical scholarship has instead been to take for granted that what is literary can be deemed historical, and then to make adjustments or qualifications as these were judged necessary. [The historical Jesus as a foundation of Christian origins] was never a hypothesis, a possibility to be reconstructed. It was always taken for granted. And the onus of proof has always been on those who doubted the validity of this procedure, who questioned the hypothesis, who were accused of scepticism and hypercriticism, negativism, minimalism, cynicism. So long as there was ‘no reason to doubt that . . . ‘ there appeared to be every reason to believe, and no obligation to argue, much less prove. Uniquely in this discipline, the raising of doubt seems to attract moral approbation.” (pp.24-25)


It is well known that authentic geographical settings and genuine chronological settings do not of themselves guarantee the historicity of anything described as happening there (remember A Tale of Two Cities). The existence of common names, places and events shared between an historical construct and a literary one does not necessarily make the literary construct into an historical one.” (p.32)

What literary criticism can offer

They (biblical scholars) insist that they are still, as historians, dealing with the [Jesus] of the biblical literature, they accept the self-definition of that literary [Jesus] . . . and pretend to do some history. But what they do is, of course, not history at all: it is a species of fides quaerens intellectum. Biblical historians assume an [historical Jesus] after the manner of the biblical story, and then seek rationalistic explanations for [him], instead of asking themselves what is really there. Instead of trying to understand what is literary in literary terms, they try to give historical explanations for what are literary problems. But here is where the increasing role of literary criticism can make a valuable contribution to historical research, by recognizing and pointing out, as it does, that they reason why many things are told in the biblical literature, and the way they are told, has much more to do with literary artistry and much less if at all to do with anything that might have happened.” (p. 28)

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Taking the historical Jesus for granted”

    There are some exceptions, of course: [the slaughtered babes of Bethlehem, Gabriel] and maybe even [Judas Iscariot and Joseph of Arimathea] (for the daring) are eliminated.

    Remarkably, historicists will not even entertain the possibiity that the latter two are fictional characters.

    Even though nobody has ever even found a town called Arimathea, the historicity of the guy is assumed by people like James McGrath.

    This is what distinguishes historicists from historians.

  2. I think Bishop John Shelby Spong questions Judas (and therefore presumably Michael Goulder?), but he also supports gays in the church, so there you go.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure John Dominic Crossan does not accept the Joseph of Arimathea detail. But that’s just Jesus Seminar once again.

    I was actually surprised to find James McGrath took Joseph of Arimathea as historical. We had an exchange earlier about him and I was always of the understanding we were discussing a literary figure. I’ve been pretty naive about where so many of these chaps are coming from.

  3. James McGrath has explained that the difference between a literary approach and a historian’s analysis of texts is that the former looks at the surface meaning and the latter attempts to dig beneath the surface to work out what actually happened. Digging beneath the surface is what enables Freudian or Marxist interpretations of Shakespeare. It’s nothing more than a different approach to literary analysis and is not history at all, as you say. I don’t think JM ever actually responded to my point about the need for external controls except to imply I was demanding archaeological evidence or direct eyewitness reports. Eric Hobsbawm’s comment about the need for external controls before trusting any narrative (and even being unable to trust eyewitness reports without external controls) is simple, direct, and completely avoided by “biblical historians”.

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