“Partisanship” in New Testament Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

Utrecht 11 Feb 09 (25)
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In 2006 James Crossley‘s Why Christianity Happened was published. (James G. Crossley belongs to the University of Sheffield, the same whose Biblical Studies program was the subject of international controversy late last year, and with which a recent commenter on this blog was heatedly involved.) As “a sociohistorical account of Christian origins (26-50 CE)” (the book’s subtitle) I found it left much unanswered, but I did find some of his remarks in his introductory chapter on the history of New Testament historiography and its application of social sciences of interest. Here are a few excerpts:

Will always get largely Christian results

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

A dubious academic field

Crossley cites Maurice Casey as noting that, although major British universities do indeed genuinely hire on merit, “when some 90 percent or more of the applicants are Protestant Christians, a vase majority of Christian academics is the natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles . . .  The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one.

Crossley remarks with regret that the September 2000 annual British New Testament Conference “opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer. . .”

should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening . . . ? . . . Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things?

Turning back the Enlightenment

Crossley points to “a particularly significant example”, a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”. Such groups “often require defenses against accusations of reductionism and secularism.” (p. 23)  He remarks on Philip Esler addressing fellow delegates at a 1994 conference with:

Then we too may reach Emmaus, having had the experience described in the words from the Scots version of Luke’s Gospel as read at the liturgy . . . . (p.24)

Despite the diverse views of the delegates at this St Andrews Conference on New Testament Interpretation and the Social Sciences,

crucially, all the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith.

Stephen Barton of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has warned “that the epistemological roots of much social-scientific methodology lie in Enlightenment atheism and so,

awareness of this genealogy should also act as a safeguard against unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God. (p. 16)

I had thought the Enlightenment was a good thing, and secularism in academia the way forward to further enlightenment. Even as a staunch Christian I used to thank both God and the Devil for allowing secularism to bring tolerance for all and the possibility of unfettered enquiry. (Well, maybe I am now thinking I wished I had thanked the Devil too.)

Resurrection and Virgin Birth

Crossley continues:

It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made and most frequently in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth. It is only in the world of NT scholarship and theology that when Jesus’ resurrection is studied, the major historical debates focus around whether or not these supposed events are beyond historical enquiry or if the “spiritual meaning” is more important than the literal understanding. In this context, major proponents (e.g. Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder) of the bodily resurrection not happening are often regarded (rightly or wrongly (sic)) as mavericks.

We recently saw this illustrated almost verbatim by Associate Professor of Butler University James McGrath. (In my Did Jesus Exist on Youtube post I discuss how James made that statement — that “a historian” cannot study the resurrection so he must study “the crucifixion” and explain Christianity with reference to that.)

Historically naïve (twice over)

Crossley comments on a work titled An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus. The “interdisciplinary” should not be confused with contributors coming from fields as diverse as ancient history, history, sociology or anthropology. No, the term covers, rather, the comparatively inbred fields of Christian theology, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies.

Crossley remarks on the historical naivety of one of the contributors of this volume (Gerald O’Collins) when he asks:

What are we to make of the moral probity of Mark in creating such a fictional narrative (and one that touches on an utterly central theme in the original Christian proclamation) and of the gullibility of the early Christians (including Matthew and Luke) in believing and repeating his fiction as if it were basically factual narrative?

Crossley comments on O’Collins’ question:

This is far too rooted in modern concepts of truth and ignores the well-known fact that people in the ancient world created fictional stories of past events, including ones that are utterly central for their beliefs: for example, Joseph and Aseneth on table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles or b. B. Mesi’a 59b on rejecting the legal authority of the wonder-working and divine-voice-supported R.  Eliezar. These are serious issues for the Jews involved, but no historian thinks the stories really happened, no historian should criticize ancient authors of immorality simply on the general point of inventing historical scenarios. (p.25)

So near and yet so far. James Crossley himself fails to see how cocooned his own thinking is in the assumed historical grounding of the Gospel narratives. Gerald O’Collins is addressing a point that needs honest examination at far more than the ethical issue of supposed “ancient concepts of honesty”. But that’s for another post another time.

The N.T. Wright phenomenon

Continue reading ““Partisanship” in New Testament Scholarship”


The taming of Mark’s unruly faithful

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by Neil Godfrey

So much in the Gospel of Mark is opaque that I tend to suspect that the author deliberately spoke in riddles, and that his gospel was intended from the beginning to be a symbolic or allegorical mystery of some sort. Who can claim to understand what this author meant when he wrote that the disciples of Jesus, after having been initially terrified at seeing Jesus walking on water, remained “greatly amazed”, having “not understood about the loaves” (6:50-2)? What is it, exactly, about the miracle of the loaves that has to do with the disciple’s reaction to Jesus walking on water? Or what are we to make of this Gospel’s famous inconclusive and ambiguous ending (16:8)? Why did Jesus curse a fig-tree for growing the way all fig trees were made to grow? There are other riddles, too. These are some of the most obvious ones. Its Jesus appears suddenly from nowhere, is possessed by the spirit of the Son of God, speaks in parables and acts incomprehensibly to his followers, then disappears as suddenly and mysteriously as he came. We can speculate and maybe even guess the answers to some of these riddles, but that does not deny how this Gospel appears to have been written as a cipher of some sort.

Image by Steffe via Flickr

Later evangelists stripped the Gospel of Mark of its riddles when they co-opted it in their attempts to write more blunt theological (Matthew) or historical (Luke) narratives. I’ve discussed specific examples before, and it’s time for another now.

Why dig out a hole in the roof?

And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was : and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. (Mark 2:4)

I’ve left the hyperlinks in there from the biblestudtools.com site so one can check the force of the two key Greek words used.

I’m not the only one who has sometimes wondered if the author was in some strange way influenced here by the story of King Ahaziah falling through a lattice (roof) of his upper room and ending up unable to move out of his bed: 2 Kings 1:2-17. He sent messengers to a local god for advice, but they were met with a servant of a jealous God who ensured he died for this snub.

If this was in the back of the mind of the author of Mark, it would probably have been one of a cluster of inspirations from the Jewish scriptures. After all, healing paralytics was part of the job description of any Messiah announcing the Kingdom of God (Isaiah 35:5-6):

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.

(I wonder how the Jesus story and modern healing sessions would have turned out if Isaiah had thought to say something like: “and the one-legged man will grow another leg in an instant; and those who are barren on top will sprout luxuriant growth”.) Continue reading “The taming of Mark’s unruly faithful”


The most improbable history of Christian origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Image by Graham Steel via Flickr

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?

Continue reading “The most improbable history of Christian origins”


How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I presented Luke Timothy Johnson‘s case against to the opening arguments of Robert M. Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Price gives reasons for suspecting there never was a historical Jesus. In this post I am giving both my own views and some of Price’s own “responses” to Johnson’s criticisms. (Price does not really “respond” to Johnson’s “response” in the book. I have chosen to highlight a few of Price’s arguments that I thought Johnson was dismissing too quickly. Most of the commentary, however, is my own.)

Johnson’s evidence for the historical Jesus

So in response to Robert Price’s demolition of any evidence for Jesus, how does Luke Timothy Johnson come back with clear evidence that this Jesus did exist in history?

  1. By saying there is multiple attestation for some things about Jesus
  2. By insisting that not all Gospel stories about Jesus are very like Torah stories
  3. By asserting that one cannot find Jesus stories in the Torah just by reading the Torah
  4. By insisting that it is a fact that Christianity suddenly emerged out of Jews by their thousands being persuaded that a failed messiah crucified as a criminal was the real messiah and now in heaven to be worshiped alongside God, and that Price has not explained how “this fact” happened
  5. By pointing to “the fact” that the New Testament books all talk about the same Jesus
  6. By reminding us that Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian all write about Jesus and early Christians
  7. And by noting that Paul said Jesus was a Jew, descended from David, and took commands from him, and called him by his personal (human) name Jesus.

I said in a recent comment that it seemed those responding to Price were not really taking his chapter seriously enough to really try to muster a decent criticism. But that’s not really true. To come up with seven strands of “evidence” for the historical Jesus certainly demonstrates some serious effort. Each one may look rather flimsy on its own, but, as to be discussed in the next section, there is no denying that when multiple attestation even of insubstantial arguments can find a single point of convergence, it does at least begin to look serious.

(Johnson repeats some of these arguments in his own chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. I will address some of them again in a future post when discussing that chapter specifically.)

The omission of “multiple attestation

Continue reading “How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus”


trying to figure out a new blog theme

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by Neil Godfrey

Trying to find a new blog theme. Expect unexpected changes to layout and links till it’s all sorted.

(The sign is the standard one used throughout Singapore — I like the Asian politeness 🙂

Luke Timothy Johnson’s Response to Robert Price

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by Neil Godfrey

In The Historical Jesus: Five Views, Luke Timothy Johnson responds to the 5 principles for historical enquiry as laid out by Robert M. Price in his opening chapter of that book. I discussed these in overview in my recent 5 more commandments post. The five are:

1. The Principle of Analogy

2. The Criterion of Dissimilarity

3. Remember what an Ideal Type means

4. Consensus is No Criterion

5. Scholarly “Conclusions” must be tentative and provisional

Johnson’s strongest criticism is for Price’s failure to include “multiple attestation” among his principles. Johnson refers to the significance of “points of convergence” here.

Of the 5 points listed above, Johnson finds #2 and #3 somewhat questionable. He argues that Price’s ideal type is really another form of the principle of analogy.

He faults Price for relying on this after dismissing #2, the criterion of dissimilarity. Johnson points to the teaching of Jesus on divorce – unlike both Greco-Roman and Jewish practice — as an example of “where dissimilarity actually yields something historically significant.”

In short, Price uses the criterion of dissimilarity to demolish any trace of specific evidence for a historically discernible figure named Jesus, and then appeals to analogy/ideal type to account for the rise of the Christ cult.

He knows that this approach has a long history of its own, and he cheerfully acknowledges that for many, it is considered one of “extreme, even crackpot, theories.” But he does not examine the reasons why such appeals to the ideal type of dying-and-rising gods came to be so regarded by sober historians. It was not, as Price intimates, out of failure of nerve among the apologetically inclined. Rather, it was the failure of such theories to adequately account for the specific character of the Christian movement and its cult figure, as well as the stubborn resistance of certain historical facts to being wished away. (pp. 90-91)

Then Johnson gets to the nub of the matter: “Two interrelated historical facts require explanation.Continue reading “Luke Timothy Johnson’s Response to Robert Price”


The mythicist seeks the historical explanation; many historicists are content with the mythical

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by Neil Godfrey

A standard formula-problem found in historical Jesus works is that the question that needs to be explained is how or why Jesus’ disciples were able to persuade so many Jews that a crucified criminal was indeed the Christ. And of course, to explain why the disciples became convinced of this themselves.

These are indeed extremely improbable scenarios.

One “biblical scholar and historian” who is also a Christian writes:

As we have already seen, what precisely motivated [the disciples] to believe that Jesus had been raised . . . is difficult if not impossible to say from a historian’s perspective. (The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, p. 121)

And again,

There seems to be little hope of gaining access by means of the later written sources to the actual experiences that early Christians had, the ones that convinced them Jesus was alive. Even Paul only alludes to his own direction-changing experience, and never describes it. Perhaps this is appropriate: religious experiences are regularly characterized by those who have them as ineffable, as “beyond words.” The Gospel of Mark suggested that Jesus would be seen, but doesn’t describe the experience, at least not in our earliest manuscripts. . . .

But this much can be said: the act of completely surrendering has transformed many lives. Such unconditional surrender to God seems to have been central to Jesus’ own spirituality. There would be something fundamentally appropriate if it turned out to be central to the rise in the earliest disciples of the conviction that Jesus had been raised, as it has been for Christians all through the ages since then. (pp. 115-116)

This historian is writing for his fellow-faithful. In doing so he has given away his bias that would seem to preclude him from any ability to continue his historical enquiries until he finds a truly historical explanation for the rise of the Christian faith. He is content with an explanation that opens up room to find his faith — the inexplicable, even the ineffable — in history. (And given that this particular faith is dependent upon historical events, Schweitzer’s pleas notwithstanding [- see below], this is surely an inevitable conclusion for a committed Christian.)

This is not good enough for truly post-Enlightenment historiography. History is often enough defined as an investigation into what is human, what can be naturally explained.

If our questions and models bring us up against a brick wall of “ineffability” then it is time for historians to ask new questions and try new models until they do find the natural and explicable answers.

The Gospel narratives, particularly that of the earliest Gospel of Mark, make no sense as history. Read naively they prompt silly questions like: Why did Jews come to believe a crucified criminal was their messiah? Such silly questions are embraced with utmost sober seriousness presumably for the same reasons they were a subject of boast by Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”

They are questions grounded in faith and therefore also supportive of faith. Even non-Christian scholars embrace them because the faith narrative has become part of our very cultural identity.

The historian who is prepared to set aside assumptions and hypotheses that have been found wanting, or that are self-authenticating being found exclusively within the Christian narrative itself, will necessarily be operating from the cultural fringes. But that is the only historian who is likely to stumble upon an answer to the real historical question (how did Christianity begin?) that is completely natural, human and explicable of all the evidence. There will be no need to be content with “the ineffable” or “difficult if not impossible to say” in place of an explanation.

Granted, not all biblical historians do accept the unknown or “impossible to say” in place of a genuinely historical explanation. But they do still work within the culturally rooted paradigm and are up against  a model that has more to do with faith and myth than with human reality. This explains why there is so little in common, and much that is mutually exclusive, among the many Jesus reconstructions by  biblical historians working within the constraints of the model that remains an inheritance of faith. The wildly opposing results generated through their paradigm ought to suggest a new paradigm and new questions are timely. But how to begin with something that is so much a part of our collective identity?

And once again, as quoted here before:

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.

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

From pages 401-402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

The imaginary siblings of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Brothers of Jesus
Brothers of Jesus; Image by djking via Flickr

The Gospel narratives provide strong positive evidence for why their authors chose to write about Jesus’ siblings. They explicitly meet a clear and specific requirement for the portrayal of a man of God who is to both follow and emulate the prophets who came before him. They also serve to illustrate a moral instruction of Jesus in the Gospels. These are positive reasons for thinking the family of Jesus is most probably a creation of the narratives’ authors.

Cain killed righteous Abel; chosen Isaac was persecuted by Hagar and Ishmael; Esau threatened the life of Jacob who was forced to flee; Joseph was disbelieved, scorned and cast out by his brothers; Jephthah was rejected by his tribe; David was also mocked and dismissed by his brothers. The theme of rejection of the righteous and godly man by those close to him, including his own kin, is one of the most pervasive of themes in the Jewish scriptures, including the Psalms and the Prophets.

The dismissive family serves as a foil to enhance the image of the divine calling and godliness of the hero. It is a trope probably as old as folklore itself. There is nothing embarrassing at all about their inclusion in the narrative. The rejection of Jesus by his siblings serves to enhance the readers’ sympathies for Jesus and places him squarely in the literary tradition of the way and the fate of all the godly.

So the narrative itself contains the reasons for the inclusion of the siblings of Jesus. They are portrayed as disbelievers who isolate Jesus on account of his real (hidden) identity.

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)

The Gospel authors also taught the need for a devotion to him that was so total that it excluded room for the affections of normal family relations (Mark 10:29-30). So they presented Jesus as the ideal type illustrative of such an attitude, and delivering teaching on the new affections that were to replace the old:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

In all of this we can see how the authors find a narrative or theological reason for introducing the siblings of Jesus. We can say that the appearance of Jesus’ siblings is plot-driven.

The memorable scene of Jesus’ rejection in the earliest Gospel echoes several other rejection narratives in the “Old Testament”.

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

Again the author has explicitly stated that the reason for introducing this narrative detail about the family of Jesus is to illustrate a prophecy, or at least to place Jesus firmly within the prophetic tradition.

We cannot appeal to later traditions about the siblings of Jesus as evidence for their historicity since these most likely were born out of the Gospel narratives. (And the Josephus reference is worthless as evidence, for reasons summarized here.)

What, no James?

I think that the quick assumption that Galatians 1:19 is “proof” that Jesus had a physical brother is linked to some extent with our familiarity with the memorable (negative) role of Jesus’ brothers in the later Gospel narratives.

If the passage in Galatians referring to James “the brother of the Lord” was really written prior to the Gospels, and if this indeed spoke of a physical blood relationship, and if this same James became the head of the Church itself in Jerusalem, the Gospel authors have chosen to suppress any interest in this James or his destined conversion and future lead role.

I am tempted here to drop in the obvious argument from incredulity, “Why would they not contain a hint of any of this?”,  but I won’t say it (again). It is hardly necessary. We have no evidence at all to justify thinking there was a historical basis to the siblings of Jesus. But we do have strong narrative reasons for assuming they are literary creations.

But given the fact that the presumably later Gospel authors do not demonstrate any knowledge of a brother of Jesus destined to become the leader (or one of three leaders beside Peter and John) of the Church after the death of Jesus, and given the fact that there is no external witness to Galatians 1:19 till the time of Origen (3rd century) despite its apparent potential usefulness in arguments against Marcionites by “orthodox” representatives such as Tertullian (second century), and given the fact that Paul used ‘brothers’ most commonly metaphorically, and given the fact of demonstrated layers and intentional and accidental editings in both biblical and nonbiblical writings of the time, to insist, in the face of these facts that Galatians 1:19 alone is “proof” of the historicity of Jesus, shows more courage than discretion.

(There are other speculations about possible motives for giving Jesus siblings, and these relate to doctrinal disputes over the physical or immaterial nature of Jesus at the time the Gospels were being composed. But I have opted not to discuss these since they also stray from the evidence at hand. It is worth noting, however, that at least such conjectures are based on known evidence. The assumption of the historicity of the siblings is based on no evidence at all. It is entirely a piece of unsupported but highly charged cultural heritage.)

James & Jesus
The historical James & Jesus; Image by trixie via Flickr


Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal

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by Neil Godfrey

I find amusing some of these old passages read again in the light of recent debates about the historicity or otherwise of Jesus. How the world has turned.

Here we have a sophisticated intellectual, Plutarch, writing about the same time the Gospels are often said to be being written, castigating the ignorance of the less educated riff raff for daring to think that the stories about the gods had some human historical foundation to them!

He can even write that these fools were misled by some proto-Joseph-Smithius claiming to have seen some golden lettered inscription that proved his claim, but of course no-one else had ever seen these mysterious tablets! Continue reading “Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal”


Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world

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by Neil Godfrey

The Flammarion woodcut portrays the cosmos as ...
Image via Wikipedia

When reading the New Testament I like being able to relate its thoughts and images with thoughts and images in the contemporary literature of the non-biblical world. It gives the text I’m reading a bit of “body”, helping me see it as part of a culture now lost to us. Establishing relationships like that has the power to enable bible texts to stand on their own feet and tell me where they are coming from. This is a healthy turn around from my reading them as if they are ‘my mystery’ that I must find a way to interpret. It’s as if the books have found courage in numbers to speak up and push me back along with my idiosyncratic manipulations of them.

End of the world

Continue reading “Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world”


Further explanation concerning “mythicism”

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by Neil Godfrey

After my earlier post on Assumptions and Historicity it appears there is still some confusion about mythical Jesus arguments and points I have raised about the need for external controls to establish the historical value of a narrative.

History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. House Me...
History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. Image via Wikipedia

External controls are more than just nice extras

It has been said that my discussion about absence of external controls for the Gospel narratives merely leaves their historicity “inconclusive”, and that “in order to conclude that these stories are most likely not historical, we need some further argument.”

Certainly the absence of external controls renders the historicity of a narrative “inconclusive”, but “inconclusive” in the strongest sense. That means that we cannot begin to assume historicity at all. To suggest that the absence of external controls still leaves open the possibility of the narrative being historical is obviously true. Anything is possible. What we need is a defensible justification for inferring the historicity of a narrative. It is not valid simply to say we need more than the absence of external controls to conclude a narrative is “most likely not historical”. In the absence of external controls we have no way even to begin to work with a narrative as if it were historical. We cannot justify any assumption of historicity in the absence of a justification external to the narrative itself. Continue reading “Further explanation concerning “mythicism””


A Strange Critique of Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

There has appeared recently a blogpost critiquing Doherty’s arguments as found on his Jesus Puzzle website. This post has gained some recognition by an Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University as “worth linking to” because it brings Koester into the “debate” and illustrates “so nicely why [the argument for a mythical Jesus] is problematic.”

The blog poster, Metacrock, quotes Doherty from his website:

“Scholars such as Helmut Koester have concluded that earlier “allusions” to Gospel-like material are likely floating traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels. (See Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels and his earlier Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern.) Is it conceivable that the earliest account of Jesus’ life and death could have been committed to writing as early as 70 (or even earlier, as some would like to have it), and yet the broader Christian world took almost a century to receive copies of it? (Jesus Puzzle, part 3:Evolution of Jesus Of Nazareth”

Metacrock responds:

The problem is Koester himself says that people were writing Gospels as early AD 50.(Ancient Christian Gospels)
Moreover he’s already distorted what Koester says. Nowhere does he argue that the early Gospel traditions blew in from non Christian sources, or merely “floating traditions” that found their way in late.

This is a strange criticism. If Doherty had argued that the Gospels were written as early as AD 50 then his point about their lack of impact for such a long time would be even stronger. Metacrock is actually strengthening Doherty’s case with this criticism. Equally dismally, Metacrock has failed to notice that Doherty does indeed allow for his argument to include dates as early as 50 ce when he writes, “or even earlier, as some would like to have it”.

Secondly, Metacrock faults Doherty for apparently distorting what Koester says, and explains: “Nowhere does he argue that the early Gospel traditions blew in from non Christian sources”.

This is a most strange reading for someone who boasts that he is a PhD student. Doherty himself does not say that any “Gospel traditions”, floating or otherwise, blew in from “non-Christian sources”. That is really quite bizarre. Doherty’s whole argument is about the variety of Christian sources that went into the creation of the Gospels. (When Doherty does discuss “non-Christian sources” he identifies them as Josephus and Tacitus.) Continue reading “A Strange Critique of Doherty”

Introduction to Earl Doherty

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I recently received Earl Doherty’s new book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. The Case for a Mythical Jesus, and have finally caught up with a chance to begin reading it. It may take a little while since I have a vicious habit of reading several things at once and a need to attend to real life occupations at the same time. But I have made a start by reading the Introduction and have been reminded why I have in the past found exchanges with Doherty both informative and stimulating gateways to knew perspectives. We often disagree, but then again I also tend to find I disagree with myself when I take a re-look at what I wrote a year or more ago.

I cite here a few quotations from Doherty’s introduction to his new book that make me look forward to entering new explorations of the evidence with him, and no doubt in dialogue with him, as I read further.

First, however, I might remark that I do not see this particular question — the existence or otherwise of Jesus — as a historical question. It is certainly important for history, but my personal interest is in engaging with the arguments and evidence presented by Doherty with a view to seeing how they might fit in the broader (and more historical) question of Christian origins. Doherty is certainly essential reading for that question. But his focus is, naturally and justifiably, primarily on the cultural question of the origin of what is possibly our central icon.

Enough preliminaries. On to a selection of quotations with a few comments. . . . Continue reading “Introduction to Earl Doherty”

Assumptions of historicity (in part a response to James McGrath)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This is partly in response to “mythicist quote of the day

Allow me to explain why I think so many arguments for the historical Jesus are based on an assumption of historicity.

Firstly, when I quote Sanders in this respect, it is not because I am faulting Sanders’ arguments for starting with this assumption. I still am a little bemused that my remarks were even seen as controversial. I thought the assumption was obvious, and that what Sanders was doing was arguing for motives and character of Jesus, and even for what we might think were some things he is more likely to have done, given the constraints of the Gospel narrative and what we know of historical realities of the time. All of this assumes an historical Jesus to begin with, and through which to interpret the Gospels. It does not even claim to be an argument for the historicity of Jesus per se.

Why my posts on E. P. Sanders

The reason I have been addressing Sanders is because his work, Jesus and Judaism, was recommended by James McGrath as a challenge to those who argue for a mythical Jesus. He challenged anyone to engage a work like this and come up with different conclusions. The context implied that he was meaning it would be unlikely for anyone to deem as unhistorical what Sanders argued was indeed historical. And the reason for this was, as I understood the original challenge, the methodology of Sanders, including his criteria for authenticity.

So I have been discussing Sanders’ work in particular in the context of those who use it as a basis for the claim that we have clear and strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus. As far as I can see Sanders nowhere addresses any methodology for establishing the historicity of Jesus. He does address methodology for assessing what is the likely character or motive or saying or action of the historical Jesus. So his methodology is built upon the assumption of an historical Jesus.

Responses to the challenge

In response to James’ challenge I first addressed Sanders’ own first point, the Temple Action of Jesus. I engaged Sanders’ arguments here, and demonstrated, I think, that an alternative to historical authenticity certainly is most plausible. (I address more detailed arguments of Sanders for the authenticity of this incident at the end of this post.)

Next, I responded to some very strong claims by Sanders about certain details of John the Baptist. Sanders claimed that even John’s dress (along with other details) was a detail that “correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship”. I attempted to show, again in response to James’ challenge, that such a claim by a scholar like Sanders can be addressed and a different conclusion reached.

James’ responses to my efforts

James has since responded that I did not disprove the historical existence of John the Baptist. But that was not my argument, and is not central to any case for the “mythical Jesus” that I know. I had taken up the challenge to address a scholar like Sanders and demonstrate that it is possible to disagree with what Sanders himself argues is historical.

James has also since said that he does not see the points of my posts on Sanders. So it appears my taking up his challenge has been in vain at least from his perspective.

The assumption of historicity implicit in Sanders

But back to the specifics on Sanders and assumptions of historicity. Here is what convinces me that Sanders is not attempting to address the historicity of Jesus as such, but rather assumes his historicity:

We start by determining the evidence which is most secure. There are several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt. Any interpretation of Jesus should be able to account for these. (Jesus and Judaism, p. 11)

Here Sanders is stating that he is attempting to do no more than start with “facts about Jesus’ career . . .”. His intention is to use these facts as the basis for his “interpretation of Jesus”. His intent is to “account for” the “facts of Jesus’ career” in order to interpret Jesus.

To start with what one thinks are facts about one’s career is to assume historicity before one starts. To use a simplified analogy, I can apply the same analysis to Hamlet to interpret Hamlet. In that case my assumption is that he is a fictional character. But the point is that my ensuing “exegesis” of Hamlet does not itself verify that assumption of fictionality. It builds on it. Ditto for any exegesis of any text.

Sanders further acknowledges that his “facts about Jesus career” are not “facts” in the normal sense of what we mean by “facts”. Facts are normally defined as data on which everyone can agree. They exist quite independently from respective interpretations of them. (Okay, now you know I am not a postmodernist.) But Sanders says of his list of “facts” that can be known “beyond doubt”:

I do not regard any items in the following list as dubious, but some may. (p.357, note 19)

The almost indisputable facts, listed . . . are these: (p. 11 — and I listed these in my previous post).

This tells me that what are said to be facts about Jesus are open to challenge as facts. They are not facts in the sense that “Caesar crossed the Rubicon” or “Sophists appeared teaching in Athens around the fifth century bce” are facts. (Hence my first post to challenge the first of the “facts” Sanders discusses — the Temple Action.)

So we have two levels of “facts” to deal with here. Sanders begins by assuming that there is a historical Jesus. On this assumption he can assert that there are certain facts about what this Jesus did. The next level of “fact” is an exegetical argument based on this assumption. It is at this level that challenges begin to appear. My question is, why only at this level?

Historical methods

James has asked for historical methods that are used by nonbiblical scholars. The principle set of methodologies applied and questions asked by (nonbiblical) historians began with Leopold von Ranke. Others like E. H. Carr have moved things along a bit since von Ranke, but many of the basics still apply. This is where the ‘minimalists’ come in. Lemche discusses methodology at some length with reference to von Ranke. “Minimalist” methods have been castigated by some as overly sceptical, but those making the criticism seem not to realize that this is the standard approach to documentary and other evidence in nonbiblical history. Rather than repeat von Ranke’s relevant points, with Lemche’s application of them, in another context, I have discussed them previously here. The point, and related discussions of historical method and circular arguments, has already been addressed in a previous reply to James.

The key point is the need for external controls in order to establish the historicity of a narrative. They do not exist for the Gospel narratives, as even Albert Schweitzer stated, and as I’ve quoted often enough here but here it is again:

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 be raised so high as positive probability. (Quest, p.402)

James has also said that New Testament scholars are obliged to use exegesis of texts as their methods for deciding what is historical fact and what not for the simple reason that other evidence is too scarce.

But is it valid to water down the methodologies if the required evidence on which they rely does not exist?

We lack the evidence required to establish the historicity of the Gospel narrative. It does not follow that it is therefore okay to assume historicity and just begin analyzing the texts as if there is some historical core to begin with. I read Josephus’s writings as history because I have reasons external to their text to have some confidence in their value as history. There is truly both independent (external controls) and multiple attestation of the events he writes about.

And problem of assuming historicity of the narrative is highlighted in another context (re the evidence of Papias) but I believe it also applies here:

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?

There is not even a shadow of a hope that their ever existed any trustworthy information about the way in which the Gospels came into being: the Christians of antiquity had other cares than to search out and preserve the history of the inscripturation of the Gospels, and when Gnosticism forced this concern upon them they filled the vacuum with inventions of their own as Gnosticism did before them.

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. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.

Further statements by Sanders demonstrating the assumption of the historicity of Jesus

Continue reading “Assumptions of historicity (in part a response to James McGrath)”