Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars have boasted that they use the same sorts of methods as scholarly historians of other (nonbiblical) subjects, but this is a misleading claim. When it comes to the basics of the nature of “facts” and “evidence” this claim is simply not true. Historical Jesus scholars use a completely different standard to establish their basic facts from anything used by nonbiblical historians, as I will demonstrate here by comparing discussions of historical facts by both an HJ and a nonbiblical historian.
[F]or our purposes, what kind of history is the historical Jesus scholar doing? First, history begins with “facts” that survive from the past as evidence. (p.20)
So far, so good. McKnight explains that even though it is the values and biases of the historians that guide their choices and interpretations of facts, the facts themselves have a real existence quite apart and distinct from the historian himself.
Cookery and Exegesis
But then McKnight gets murky and ambiguous in his explanation and covers up the multitude of sins of the bulk of historical Jesus scholars. At one level it sounds like he is saying nothing different from how nonbiblical historians work, but he is meaning something quite different behind the same words:
[Facts] genuinely exist even if they have to be sorted out through a critical procedure. . . . To be sure, apart from perhaps archaeological remains, all external facts have been through what Elton calls “some cooking process,” noting that no external facts are “raw.” (pp.20-21)
This is misleading. Firstly, Elton said the opposite of what McKnight claims for him here. Here is what Elton actually said (with my emphasis):
[It is] at present virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials [facts] of the past raw: some cooking process is supposed to have invariably intervened before the historian becomes even conscious of his facts. If that were so — if there were no way of knowing the knowable in its true state — historical truth would indeed become an elusive, possibly a non-existent, thing. (p.53, The Practice of History)
I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will explain Elton in more detail later.) What McKnight is doing here is justifying a procedure used by biblical historians to create facts to suit their theories and beliefs. He does this by claiming the HJ scholar’s fact-creation is consistent with what nonbiblical historians do. Nonbiblical historians do not do what McKnight and many HJ historians think or at least seem to say they do. Later McKnight is more specific and explains exactly how HJ historians come to discover these supposedly “existential facts” of theirs. They do so through exegesis of the gospels:
In other word, history involves three steps. . . . They are (1) the discovery of existential facts — in our case the discovery of the gospel evidence by exegesis, or of archaeological data, or of political contexts. Then (2) there is criticism of existential facts. . . . An existential fact often becomes nonexistential at the hands of a skeptical historical Jesus scholar. . . . (pp.23-24) (Point 3 is about interpreting and making meaning of facts.)
This is all bollocks. It is here where biblical scholars totally jump the rails and part company with nonbiblical historians. McKnight says that facts can cease to be facts when scrutinized by sceptical minds. But nonbiblical historians say that this is true only in the case of “secondary” or inferred “facts” that are derived from other more basic facts. In the case of the basic facts there is no question as to the possibility of their nonexistence. They are there and cannot cease to exist. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is a basic fact that can never cease to exist. But secondary facts derived from that basic fact, such as the precise course of the battle, or the actions of particular individuals in that battle, may only be able to be indirectly inferred. Such secondary “facts” are often disputable and may not always survive. Secondary facts are derived from some “cooking process”, but Elton is clear that these are not the foundation of historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with raw, uncooked, existential facts. (Epistemology, the question of whether these facts are “knowledge” or “belief on the basis of very good reasons” is another question.)
Basic and public Facts versus complex and private “facts”
Here is what historian G.R. Elton wrote about facts, “existential facts”, facts that by definition as facts cannot cease to exist as facts (as McKnight admits HJ “facts” can and do), such as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the occurrence of the war itself:
Without the simple details of accurate chronology, genealogy and historical geography, history would have no existence. And of those simple facts an enormous number are presently known. (p.14)
And here is what he wrote about the other kind of inferred facts (again my emphasis):