The circular model of Christian origins

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Circular reasoning was his only gift.
Circular reasoning was his only gift. (Image by Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr)

The model makes sense of the Gospels and the Gospels are the evidence for the model.

What century am I living in? My work ID card says I am in Singapore but my iphone map sometimes tells me I’m in Brazil. This is confusing enough, but I sometimes read books and websites by mainstream scholars that actually claim that the Enlightenment took humanity backwards and that it is rational and preferable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, or at least in “something” that we can’t identify that amounts to the same thing. I’d be happy enough to put this down to just another one of those quirky surveys about the insularity of the U.S., but sometimes I find even UK and European scholars saying the same thing. And most recently, I have learned that a few scholars who pride themselves on their “independent” and “secular” approach to biblical studies have embraced wholesale (and in defiance of secular logical norms for assessing evidence for historical events) the faith-based models and assumptions that have monopolized biblical studies for generations.

Von Ranke and E. H. Carr spinning in their graves

The principle that governs what is historical fact seems to be this: If a name or event is mentioned in the New Testament, then we are entitled (on faith?) to accept that it has some historical core or origin if we can rationalize it within the constraints of what we can assess about Jewish customs, textual comparisons of the story and other literary and linguistic details (form criticism is an optional extra), and if we can find a persuasive role for the detail within the model of how we believe Christianity must have started.

And that model is built (by circularity) upon other details that have gone through the same processes of rationalization.

The Eusebian-Gospels-Acts model is all there ever was and is

Miraculous and supernatural details are to be ignored — or embraced as something “we can’t explain” — even if the stories make very little sense, or are even nonsense, without them. An example of the latter is how biblical historians sometimes try to argue for the rise of Christianity without a literal resurrection. It is said that Jesus came to be worshiped as a result of some “inexplicable” experience of the disciples despite the crucifixion of Jesus as a criminal.

Some historians have attempted a more naturalistic explanation — not of the rise of Christianity per se, but of an explanation of the inherited core Gospel-Acts model of how Christianity is said to have begun. The question of Christian origins is not generally open to a fresh start with a reexamination of what models the evidence might permit. The question of origins is chained to the model of origins that is found at the “core” of the Gospels and Acts.

That is, there was a John the Baptist movement, an ensuing Jesus movement, (the details of this Jesus and the movement are open to as many options as there are imaginations plied to this study, it seems), a crucifixion by Pilate and a belief in a resurrection soon afterwards, followed by a mission to Jews and Gentiles, with various conflicts following until some sort of rough harmony was finally settled (except for all the others who were doomed to oblivion by being rejected from what became the “catholic church”.)

And the Gospels were attempts to record something of this event, with redactions over time, and mixed of course with a lot of theological stuffing.

I gather that that basic model is not open to question by most biblical scholars.

Imagine the whole world was allowed to read only one narrative

Not even the miraculous — and how the narrative relies on the miraculous to make sense of things — can shake confidence in the belief that it has some historical core. In addressing Bauckham’s attempt to argue that the Gospels emulate ancient “historiographical best practice” in his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, G. A. Wells writes:

So because, for instance, Thucydides gave a sober account of political and military situations in which he personally was to some extent involved, the authors of miracle-ridden Christian apologetic treatises “must” have written on the same basis. . . . The New Testament is surely more likely to be comparable with other sacred works of antiquity than with ancient accounts of then recent human history. In the opening chapters of Mark Jesus is addressed by the heavenly spirit as “my beloved son”, is then waited on by angels in the wilderness, recognized as “the holy one of God” by the spirits of evil he defeats, cures a leper instantaneously, has the divine power of forgiving sins, and claims to be lord of the sabbath. Such writing is not comparable with Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian Waror with Tacitus’s portrayal of the struggles and intrigues in the empire in the century before he himself wrote.” (p. 320, “Cutting Jesus Down to Size”)

Despite this character of the narrative of Gospels-Acts, the model of Christian origins described above is based entirely on the self-testimony of its narrative. And as the much maligned Earl Doherty has pointed out, the Gospels (and Acts) were very much a small sample of early Christian literature. But their relatively small sampling has not hindered their ability to so totally dominate (“tyrannize”) the way we read all the other early Christian writings.

One often reads a study of some detail in Paul’s epistles, for example, being explained by reference to the much later Gospel narratives. Progressions of thought or theology are traced from Paul to Mark and then on through the other Gospels — all as if they are related in evolutionary development of a single species. Rarely is the possibility entertained that such differences represent warring or simply scarcely connected factions. The Eusebian model of organic harmony (as per Acts?) must more or less prevail.

The problem is that without the Gospels and Acts we have no ready-made narrative outline to explain Christianity. It is the only story we have. To question it too radically would mean we would have to start the whole enterprise of understanding Christian origins from scratch.

It is truly a most remarkable thing that mainstream biblical scholars, including “independent” and secular ones, can assert that this Gospel-Acts model is the only one that makes sense of the evidence. It is the only one they know. Any other is routinely ridiculed or worse.


And their reasoning is entirely circular.

They argue that the model makes sense of the Gospels and that the Gospels are the evidence for the model!

One might point to a famous historian who admitted his own faults in a study in which he tended to accept too readily the self-testimony of both oral and written narratives, and who subsequently published a reminder to himself and others that a narrative of itself can never be evidence of historicity. One always needs external corroboration. But Christian scholars might respond that this historian is a communist and not to be trusted, and “independent” scholars might respond that they are simply dismayed that I should even relate such a point to their work.

One might point to famous and other biblical scholars, from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century, who have pointed out the same basic point: that a narrative cannot be accepted as testimony to its own historicity – always external controls are indispensable. But then Christian and “independent” scholars alike might simply ignore them and complain that their work is being misrepresented.

A way out

There is a way out of this circularity, of course. But lives, egos, money and cultural identity have been so heavily invested in what we have that it is not going to be easy to escape it. But there do appear to be a few hopeful glimmers.

Ironically, I find one of many avenues potentially leading to a break in the circuit in a point where (don’t faint) N.T. Wright and Thomas L. Thompson more or less seem to agree. Both acknowledge the nonliteral character of the Little Apocalypse generally used as a key for dating the supposedly earliest gospel, that of Mark. If we lose that bit of internal evidence for dating Mark, we are thrown back on external evidence entirely. By external evidence I mean the earliest attestation of Mark — evidence that it was known at a certain time. In this case it is Irenaeus (or possibly Justin Martyr) in the mid to late second century. (I do not accept the validity of James Crossley’s reliance on what Irenaeus says about Mark’s history. Irenaeus was evidently constructing a genealogical myth for his own brand of Christianity in opposition to other varieties of the faith. Nor do I accept his other early first century interpretations of other internal evidence of Mark.) If Mark is cut loose from the first century, all sorts of new possibilities and questions open up.

But that may well seem too radical as a first step. So let’s just start with something simpler.

Don’t accept anything that cannot be independently corroborated. (And don’t cheat by claiming X can be corroborated if we wait a decade or three or more and find the interpretation we want waiting for us there.)

If that means we lose our lovely Gospel-Acts story, then that won’t be bad for our health, unless we have weak hearts. We will have to do some hard work to see what models the evidence (all of it, not just the minority Gospel texts) supports.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “The circular model of Christian origins”

  1. I think the problem is one that Hector Avalos pointed out. Biblical studies is still largely an apologetics enterprise. But seminaries and other religious institutions are the ones that provide biblical scholars their paychecks, so it would be bad for business so to say if biblical studies were actually studied in a wholly secular manner. They would be out of a job if they actually scrapped the entire Gospel-Acts model and tried recreating Christian origins in some non-traditional way, using actual historiography — not a historiography that panders to the seminaries and churches.

  2. But what to make of those non-religious scholars who claim to be bucking the religious domination of the field, yet who themselves can’t see past the Gospel-Acts model and make a mockery of logic and “historical method”?

    I have yet to read the bulk of Avalos’s book, but I wonder if some universities tolerate biblical studies simply because it would be counter-productive to their reputation within society to ditch it altogether. Is it a kind of necessary evil in order to avoid unnecessary community opposition?

  3. Establishing the dating for the oldest available copy of Mark – even if that date were to be post 70 ce – would only be dating the latest version, the updates, possibility the final edition – that there were earlier versions cannot be ruled out.

    Was the Little Apocalypse, the apocalyptic boiler plate, added after 70 ce ? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. Prophecy was a big time interest for the gospel story writers – and not only for the early Christians, for the Jews also. That the ‘second coming’ was somehow tied up with the apocalyptic boiler plate is a theological spin on things – the apocalyptic end time scenario can be understood without this element.

    Whatever which way prophecy was being interpreted by early Christian and by their Jewish counterparts , it is evident that both parties were involved in this exercise. Sure, today, our modern minds would prefer to give this type of thinking a miss – but if we want to get an understanding of how early Christianity got started we may have to go where we would rather not…

    Perhaps later historical events were backdated to look as though they had been predicted earlier – perhaps there were visionaries who read the ‘signs of the times’ prior to 70 ce . Either way, an interest in prophecy is reflected in the gospel storyline – and in Josephus and his understanding of the events of 70 ce.

    War 6.2.1

    “ And who is there that does not know what the writings of the ancient prophets contain in them, – and particularly that oracle which is just now going to be fulfilled upon this miserable city? For they foretold that this city should be then taken when somebody shall begin the slaughter of his own countrymen. And are not both the city and the entire temple now full of the dead bodies of your countrymen? It is God, therefore, it is God himself who is bringing on this fire, to purge that city and temple by means of the Romans, and is going to pluck up this city, which is full of your pollutions.”


    “In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them. All these things did this man leave in writing, as God had showed them to him, insomuch that such as read his prophecies, and see how they have been fulfilled, would wonder at the honor wherewith God honored Daniel; ………… So that, by the forementioned predictions of Daniel, those men seem to me very much to err from the truth, who determine that God exercises no providence over human affairs; for if that were the case, that the world went on by mechanical necessity, we should not see that all things would come to pass according to his prophecy. Now as to myself, I have so described these matters as I have found them and read them; but if any one is inclined to another opinion about them, let him enjoy his different sentiments without any blame from me.”

    The gospels are, as is much of the OT, an interpretation, an evaluation, a prophetic periscope, of a historical time period. A time period from the death of Herod the Great to the apocalyptic end time for Jerusalem and its temple in 70 ce. (a 70 year period from 4 bc to 66 ce, and a 7 year period from 66 ce to 73 ce). It is this historical time period that is relevant for early Christian beginnings. That the unhistorical gospel storyline is set within this historical time period is of secondary interest. The unhistorical nature of the gospel storyline should not distract from the relevance of its historical time period for early Christian beginnings. One should be on guard against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A mythicist position should not be working on the assumption that because the gospel storyline is unhistorical, therefore, the historical context in which that story is set is of no relevance to early Christian history.

  4. I’m not throwing the prophecy out. I am wondering if we are understanding its original meaning/intent correctly. Something about it just doesn’t add up. Maybe I’m overlooking something basic. There is, for example, no evidence of any attempt by early Christians to deal with the failure of Christ to return at the fall of Jerusalem. Crossley denies this with reference to 2 Peter 3:4-7 and John 21:22. But there is no evidence that these are related to the fall of Jerusalem, and their contents and contexts even suggest a 70 ce context is excluded.

  5. Perhaps its the theological spin of the ‘second coming’ that is muddying the waters re the prophetic/apocalyptic end time scenarios. As you say, there seems to be no evidence that the early Christians were in any way concerned about no re-appearance of the resurrected Jesus figure around 70 ce.

    From a mythicist perspective, with no historical Jesus there anyway – the ‘second coming’ is tied up with scriptural interpretations – and as such, will allow for new, spiritual/intellectual, interpretations ad infinitum. Prophecy, apocalyptic end time scenarios, on the other hand, if it is to have any relevance at all, is tied up with historical realities. Which simply means that, sometimes, history repeats itself, that history can be viewed through a prophetic lens ie that historical events, that real changes in the social/political arena, have their own prophetic framework – usually, in the biblical context, using variations, re-applications, of the 70 year symbolic time period.

    From my earlier quotes from Josephus, it is pretty clear that he is referencing prophecy, Daniel in particular, to the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 ce. That was the real show down year. After that things would never be the same. Once the temple was destroyed, any later prophetic interpretations would be related to its re-building (as from 586 bc to the temple being re-built in 516 bc).But, as the bar Kokhba revolt clearly demonstrated, there was going to be no re-building of the temple this time, 70 years from its destruction. The times had changed – the new spiritual temple (Christian theology) was already up and running even prior to the destruction of the last literal Jerusalem temple.

    Seeking to apply the gospel apocalyptic end time scenarios to the bar Kockbar revolt, for instance, is purely wishful thinking – probably in order to place early Christian origins into the second century. The synoptics are date stamped. Josephus has applied prophecy to the events of 70 ce. Any prophetic interest in the bar Kokhba years would be restoration prophecies not apocalyptic end time scenarios. Fine from a Jewish perspective – but not from a New Testament prospective. Indeed the gospels seem to connect the ‘second coming’ with the apocalyptic end times – a new ‘instant’ death and re-birth storyline (as in the crucifixion and resurrection story). But are we not here entering a purely intellectual, spiritual, context and have left behind the whole Jewish history of prophetic end time and later restoration prophecies? Double meaning, interpretations, reading between the lines, let the reader use discernment etc…

    Anyway, whichever which way things will develop – a new model for investigating the gospel storyline will have to take cognizance of its prophetic leanings…

  6. Mark plays with metaphors. He uses them as portray the spiritual blindness of the disciples. His Jesus rebukes them for thinking bread (as in the feeding of the multitudes) means bread – Mark 8:16-17. The miracle of Jesus walking on water is only astonishing to those who do not understand the miracle of the loaves (Mark 7:52) — what on earth does that mean? So Mark plays with both his disciples and his uninitiated readers. He hides from them (not always, but often) the metaphorical meaning of literal images.

    Are we falling into a “Markan” trap by reading the prophecy of Mark 13 literally? Would Mark have his Jesus say of us, I’m not talking about figs and stone and temples, Are you yet blind? How is it you do not see?

    ETA: Would he chastize modern readers, as he did Peter, for still wanting him to return as a king to be served?

    1. No trap at all…

      Whether its prophecy or metaphor, the double meaning, the many meanings, are all within the bounds of interpretation. Sure, the new, the Christian, take on things was most probably interested far more in the spiritual, in the intellectual or philosophical meanings. But the literal meaning would not be negated – just as Matthew has Jesus fulfilling the Law but did not negate it. After all, in the real world, there is need for both. Law for an orderly organizing of society and Freedom for intellectual evolution etc. (The Jewish Law, the Mosaic covenant, was as Paul sets down, the ‘child’ of the slave woman and the new covenant the ‘child’ of the free woman – but within that new covenant the Christ figure is both the body and the spirit, the law and the freedom.)

      To live we need real bread and real water. Spiritually, intellectually, we need ‘bread’ and ‘water’ – we need the ‘laws of logic’ and the free floating abstractions of intellectual speculation. GJohn has Jesus as the bread of life and as the source of the ‘living water’. Walking on water – yes, intellectually we ‘walk’, we live within that intellectual, spiritual, world we create.

      It’s easy to go the Gnostic type route and spiritualize everything – but we do have the gospel storyline and its historical date stamp with its prophetic/apocalyptic content. A spirituality devoid of any ‘bodily’ component is not a reflection of who we are – physical beings alongside our capacity for intellectual, spiritual, concerns. And, at the end of the day, it is our intellect that is the mechanism by which we create not only our spiritual world but also our social and political world. Its not a question of choosing one world over the other but of creating both anew – a new heavens and a new earth…

      (no historical Jesus means no ‘second coming’ of such a figure in any historical sense – but what was the first coming? At the end of the day it was a new intellectual, Christian, spiritual world view – and the apocalyptic end of the Jerusalem temple. Any ‘repeat’ would, surely, involve both new intellectual, spiritual, insights alongside a corresponding change, reflection, within our current religious structures – so, Neil, keep up the good work…….perhaps the historical Jesus ‘temple’ will end up with the same fate as did its physical counterpart in 70 ce….)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading