The Bible says it, biblical historians believe it

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by Neil Godfrey

Well, they don’t believe all of it, of course, but they do believe enough of it (they would deny faith is involved) to use as a skeletal framework in their various reconstructions of Christian origins.

Mainstream biblical scholarship (both Christian and secular) for most part bases its reconstructions of Christian origins on methods that would find no place in any other historical disciplines.

This argument is not about mythicism versus historicism. It is about methodology pure and simple. It is not about being predisposed to reject the historicity of the Gospels. It is about not bringing any presumptions about either historicity or mythicism to the texts, and seeing where standard justifiable approaches to any evidence lead us.

Nor is it about literary criticism versus historical criticism. Everyone reading a text inevitably brings to their understanding of it some “literary critical” views. If I believe a text is valuable as a source of historical information, then I am making a literary-critical judgment about that text. This is unavoidable.

I am sure this is not only my view — I was first made aware of it after reading the works of the likes of Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam, Mario Liverani, Thomas L. Thompson and others in relation to the ‘Old Testament’ literature. Not that any of these, as far as I know, discuss the historical Jesus. So I have no idea if they themselves would extend some of their discussions on methodology to New Testament studies. (Even Thompson in his book The Messiah Myth does not attempt any historical reconstruction or address “the historical Jesus”. His book “is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature”, and how this “has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.” p.16. Thompson does nonetheless make some pointed comments about methodology of historical Jesus scholars, and I do quote him in these instances.)

Two books I have within reach at the moment are Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen, and The Date of Mark’s Gospel by James Crossley, so I use snippets from each of these to illustrate the flawed method on which so much Christian origin/historical Jesus studies are based. I will conclude by showing that my views are not nihilistic, but open the way to a constructive and justifiable historical enquiry.

Comparisons from nonbiblical studies

Little People

On Flores Island in Indonesia there have long been “oral traditions” about little people. Anthropologists and others rightly used the principle of analogy to give no credence to any literal truth at the source of these narratives. We had no analogous experience with which to compare the notion of real “little people” in these stories, but we did have much analogous experience with the genre of fanciful folk tales.

In 2003 the first remains of a new species of human, homo floresiensis, was discovered on that island. They were little more than a metre tall, around three and a half feet, and have been nicknamed “The Hobbit”. Suddenly there is plausibility to the idea that the narratives had some “historical core” to them. What made them plausible was the discovery of external evidence for the existence of the ‘character type’ at the centre of the tales, and, of course, the fact that this evidence obviously pre-dated the known stories.

Robin Hood bandits

In another example, a famous Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who published a study on “social bandits” in South America, was criticized (by Richard Slatta) for being too willing at times to accept as historical the key actions and words of characters portrayed in popular oral and written narratives. It appeared he was at times too willing to take the historicity of some of these person’s stories for granted. After all, they supported his hypothesis. Hobsbawm read the criticism about his flawed treatment of evidence and agreed with it. He subsequently wrote that no narrative, oral or written, ought to be accepted as historical without external verification. (Details here.)

The mere fact that a narrative included a real geographic place name, or that it had a role for the name of a historical landlord or magistrate, was not enough to justify belief in the stories of another Robin Hood type character.

The justification for reading ancient histories as histories

The historical value of a document has to be demonstrated. It cannot be assumed. It is unscholarly to simply assume it, or to assume it is “probably” true. (See earlier discussions of this simple fact by Lemche and Schwartz.)

A primary source is a document or artefact that is contemporary with the time being studied. No copy of Herodotus or Josephus is a primary source for any event because all our copies of these historians date much later than the events they describe. They are secondary sources at best, and historians know they must allow for some variation among copies as they were transmitted over the centuries, so there can never be absolute certainty about how close our copies are with their original autographs. Nonetheless, we can use primary sources to help us assess their value as sources of historical information. Archaeological remains, including epigraphic inscriptions, are forms of primary evidence.

John Bodel, Professor of Classics at Rutgers University, wrote in Epigraphic Evidence: ancient history from inscriptions (p. 1):

Most would concede that the history of classical antiquity could not be written without epigraphy.  .  .  .  The father of modern historiography, Barthold Georg Niebuhr . . .  recognized that inscriptions were to the study of antiquity what documents were to modern history: essential primary sources (Niebuhr 1815).

Herodotus, often labeled the “father of history”, wrote a mixture of myth and fact in his account of the war between Greece and Persia. Like Israel’s Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings), he begins with mythical tales. His origin of the war goes back to Paris, Helen and the gods. Once again, historians apply the principle of analogy to dismiss these stories as lacking any historical origin. But despite many tales of dubious historical value in Herodotus, historians have reason to accept much of what Herodotus writes as having some historical basis. They can do this where there is external primary evidence that offers us a historical anchor to some of his narratives.

It does not follow, of course, that every detail Herodotus wrote about the Persian war, and every character to whom he attributed some dialogue and action, must therefore be historical. But once we have an anchor for some key characters and events, we have a reason to have some degree of confidence that he is attempting to write about something that really did happen. It may well be that many of his details are entirely fictitious. He was, after all, writing from a certain philosophical (even “theological”) perspective, and with a desire to entertain as well, and these motives must be considered when reading his stories. He writes in a narrative voice that conveys to readers the mind of a man who is diligent and careful with his facts. Where he has two variant accounts of an event, he will offer both. If he writes about something perceived by some to have been a miracle, he expresses some scepticism. But this is all part of his literary narrative voice — the persona he adopts as an author. It would be naive and contrary to all our experience (analogy) to assume without evidence that such a narrative voice expresses the real mind of the author. Historians cannot be naive and simply accept his words at face value. Judgments need to be made. But without the controls of external evidence, we have no way to even begin to treat anything he writes as “historical”. It could be read, after all, as a series of imaginative, entertaining and morally instructive tales about humanity’s right attitude towards the deities and its own self-worth.

Ditto for any histories we have about Alexander, Julius Caesar and Socrates. We have primary evidence for the former two to give us confidence that when we read narrative histories about them, that we are indeed reading about people who we know to have existed and who did certain things. With Socrates, it is a little less certain. We only have secondary evidence. But this hardly matters, because there is no historical question about whether or not he existed. The historical questions are about the origins of Greek philosophy, and it hardly makes any difference to this historical enquiry whether such a person literally existed. There may well have been such a person — – we have good reasons for assuming there was. But we can go no further than that.

Unfortunately, most historians of Christian origins do not approach their topic in the same way. They do not seek to understand Christian origins from primary sources. We don’t have any. But that does not justify treating secondary sources as if they were primary. Most historians of Christian origins begin with the assumption that the core narrative of a select few of many secondary sources — the handful that eventually attained canonical status — is historical. That is, that Christianity began with a single man, Jesus, who was crucified by Pilate, and who had followers who began a movement that gave him a unique role. This is assumed to be historical fact despite

  1. there being no primary evidence for it,
  2. other secondary evidence telling a different story (e.g. that he was crucified by Herod or ambiguous “powers” or, as in Hebrews, slain in heaven),
  3. the very late (mid to late second century) external testimony to the existence of the Gospels,
  4. the fact that many of the Gospel narratives are clearly derivatives of other tales such as those of Elijah and Elisha,
  5. the fact that many of the sayings in the Gospels were earlier than the Gospels and probably known to their authors,
  6. the fact that the Gospels came to represent branches of Christianity that are not clearly original,
  7. the fact that ancient authors created narratives falsely claiming to be by or about historical or otherwise genuine persons, so that the importance of external controls are always necessary before accepting the historicity of the narratives in classical literature.

So we have biblical historians writing the following —

Bible Facts

The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.

The Gospels’ emphasis on Jesus’ popularity .  .  .  . makes Pilate’s decision to crucify him that much odder.

a second incontrovertible fact we have from the earliest movement: Though Jesus was executed as a political insurrectionist, his followers were not.

Further, earliest Christian evidence, Paul’s letters, written midcentury, depict the disciples as ensconced comfortably in Jerusalem, directing a Mediterranean-wide mission without the slightest hint of constraint from Rome — or, for that matter, from Jerusalem’s priestly hierarchy. Clearly nobody in power was much worried by this movement. Why then did its leader die the way he did?

This is a crucial anomaly.  .  .  . it is established by two absolutely secure historical facts .  .  .  .

(Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 8-9)

The “two absolutely secure historical facts” are nothing more than Gospel narrative. Fredriksen brings Paul’s evidence into the fray, but in doing so she has taken the reading of the Gospel narrative and transplanted it into the background of Paul’s letter to Galatians — even though she probably accepts that the Gospel narrative was first penned at least two decades after Paul wrote.

There are no external controls to enable any historian to declare that these narrative details are historical. To replay the following quote for the zillionth time:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of there being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

Fredriksen’s “most solid facts” are nothing more than a single narrative tale retold (with variations) three times – or 4 times if one adds its summaries in Acts. It is cultural and religious heritage that has declared these narrative details to be “facts” and not scholarly method or judgment.

The clearest evidence that there is no evidence other than the self-testimony of the narrative to substantiate these “facts” is Fredriksen’s total silence in offering any external evidence at all in their support. It is as if the only way to truly settle in readers’ minds how factual these details are is to repeatedly assert how factual they are.

The Most Important Evidence

Crossley argues for a very early date for Mark’s Gospel (mid to late 30’s) largely on the basis of interpretations of three legalistic disputes (over the sabbath, divorce and handwashing) Jesus is said to have had with religious authorities of his day. One of these interpretations depends on handwashing before meals being a widely acknowledged practice among Jews of Jesus’ day. The only evidence we have for such a practice among Jews generally is from late rabbinic sources. Crossley discusses all this, but then comes down on the side of the argument that such a practice was widely practiced in Jesus’ day — because of “the most important” evidence of all – the Gospel of Mark itself.

Rabbinic Judaism as we know it and as the source of the rabbinic writings was a response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. Its initial focus was on establishing religious norms in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Rival “houses” or followings of rabbis sometimes attempted to add authority to their teachings by attributing them to famous names from the Second Temple era. In reality, however, Second Temple Judaism was never as monolithic in its views as later rabbinic rules and debates might imply. Its Talmudic and other writings were composed over a period of some centuries after the fall of Jerusalem.

There are a number of anachronisms in the Gospels and some of these I have put down to the Gospel authors, such as Mark, being more familiar with “Judaism” as expressed by the rabbis after 70 ce than with how it was practiced early in the first century. One of these is the idea that Jews generally practiced handwashing before meals. This custom is traceable to the rabbinical sources post 70 ce. Crossley acknowledges this.

Most importantly for our study is, however, the fact that the practice of handwashing before ordinary meals by at least some Jews is discussed in the rabbinical literature. . . .

Handwashing is attributed to Aqiba around the time of the Bar Kochba revolt where it is mentioned that he had been observing it since his youth. . . .

And it is attributed to the first-century Houses where details are disputed thus assuming general practice at the time.

(Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel, p.183)

This, of course, does not take us back to Jesus. So we still lack confirmation of Mark’s claim that it was a general practice then. So when the external controls fail us, the self-witness of the narrative in question is suddenly elevated to a function almost comparable to that of primary evidence itself:

The most important evidence for handwashing being practised around the time of Jesus should be that from Mark. Sanders, however, believes that Mark was mistaken. He argues that Mk 7.1-5 may be reflecting a practice of handwashing before prayer in the Diaspora. This is unlikely not least because Mark explicitly discusses washing before food, a practice clearly found in later rabbinical literature. The gospel evidence should therefore be regarded as decisive for a first-century date for handwashing before meals. It would be a remarkable coincidence if Mark had invented or misunderstood a Jewish custom only for it to appear in later Jewish literature. (p.184)

Other Christian Gospels are then brought introduced to add to the effect of a cumulative argument.

Matthew 15.20 alters Mark 7.19 to explicitly attack handwashing before eating ordinary food – so very likely (given Matthew’s knowledge of law) that such a practice existed. . . .

John 2.6 – six stone water jars for rites of purification were surely used for handwashing. . . .

This is now an argument of powerful collective weight for handwashing before ordinary food being an established practice around the time of Jesus.

What has made the evidence that originally derived from the self-testimony of the narrative of Mark so powerful? Matthew’s attack on the practice of handwashing — even though Matthew does not repeat Mark’s explanation that it was a widely practiced custom among Jews (though it might be inferred from Matthew.) And also the narrative detail about 6 water jars “for purification” — leaving it up to readers to imagine what sort of purification ritual was intended. Plus some rabbinical sources that spoke of it later.

Why not take the line of least resistance and tentatively consider Mark to have been written at the time the rabbinical rules were coming into effect? This would seem to me the most justifiable explanation of the evidence. It relies on interpreting Mark through the known details of the external evidence we do have.

Crossley is assuming that the narrative details are sufficient for deciding that the narrative itself is evidence of its own historicity – without external corroborating evidence. Merely applying Matthew’s or John’s Gospel narratives as supporting evidence is circular, since it means that one must assume the historicity of those narratives, too, without external controls.

Circularity and method

All the criteria that biblical historians use to determine historicity of the narratives are built on a circular fallacy. They assume that there is history behind the stories, and they do so on grounds that are not justified in other historical studies. Other historical studies justify their approach to secondary sources by first establishing the external controls of primary evidence (coins, epigraphs, artefacts, etc). This does not mean that only those details that primary evidence points to directly and specifically can be considered historical. As discussed above, it does mean that historians have some foundation and justification for asking texts questions about the historical value of their narratives.

In the absence of external controls we are left with nothing but the self-testimony of the narrative itself. To assume that this narrative is based on historical events is to make an unwarranted (literary-critical) judgment about the nature of that narrative and it’s author’s intent. It really is a leap that is more akin to faith than scholarly method.

None of this means an end to the study of Christian origins. It only means an end to the tyranny of the Gospel model of Christian origins. The Gospels are, after all, a small subset of the early Christian literature. The study of Christian origins needs to be explored through the texts that we do have. And maybe we can add archaeological evidence, (such as early grave sites in Asia Minor, what is known and not known about Galilee, for example) to help guide some of our interpretations. Maybe we don’t have enough evidence to arrive at the answers we would like to know. But maybe the questions and answers will lead into possibilities that have yet to be seriously explored. Wherever they lead, we can at least have the confidence that they are not based on unjustifiable assumptions about the evidence we use.

Historical Jesus/Christian origin scholars today, for most part, are repeating the same error as their counterparts who studied the history of ancient Israel up till the last decade or two. As Philip Davies highlighted in his In Search of Ancient Israel, their method was to assume the core historicity of the self-witness of the biblical narratives, and to interpret any other evidence through that assumption. The Jesus of the Gospels is, by definition, entirely a literary figure, just as is the Israel of the Primary History. For any figure or narrative within literature to attain an existence independent of that literature requires evidence external to that literature itself. This does not mean every single event or person within a text needs their own specific external corroboration. But questions of probability for the various details can only begin to be asked once we have some justification (not just assumption) for judging a text to be a valid source of historical information.

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Neil Godfrey

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