Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Scot McKnight (in a discussion of historiography relating to historical Jesus studies, chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) notes the importance of a “fact” for HJ scholars:

[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)

Geoffrey Elton

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):

However, while all the facts of history are theoretically in the knowable category, not all are so known, and as soon as more complex or private facts and events are involved the problem of the observer does arise. Different historians will differently regard the precise course of the battle of Hastings or the precise meaning of Hobbes’s view of human psychology, not because they differently interpret agreed facts but because they see differences in the facts. The reason is plain enough: historical facts are knowable only by the evidence they leave behind, and in many cases that evidence is not clear-cut. To repeat, this is not a question of interpreting fact but of establishing it, and the differences resulting are likely to be differences in the degree and depth of knowledge, no more. [Elton then illustrates this with an example of attempting to discover the fact of total royal income and expenditure by the Lancastrian kings through official records. A face-value reading of these gives a false “fact”. “It takes a deeper knowledge of the material to understand that these totals are meaningless because the records contain quantities of repeated or fictitious entries.”] (pp.54-55)

Historical Jesus scholars misapply this principle — a principle that arises “as soon as more complex and private facts and events are involved” — by applying it to create basic and public facts. Nonbiblical historians have facts before them which they choose to discuss, such as the battle of Hastings in 1066. Complications arise when historians attempt to decide the “facts” of the course of the battle. No historian does or can dispute the basic and public fact of the battle of Hastings in 1066. But sceptical historians sometimes do obliterate certain secondary “complex” or “private” facts such as the particular course of the battle.

Historical Jesus scholars have no primary or basic facts at all to begin with. They begin with no facts to discuss or explore. They do have a traditional set of assumptions about the life of Jesus and Christian origins. From those assumptions, not from “facts”, they proceed to create their basic and public facts (e.g. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John, Jesus cleansed the Temple). They must create the raw materials with which they wish to begin their exercise of constructing their history. But, of course, sceptical minds can always undo those artificially created raw materials.

McKnight gives Jesus entering the Jordan River as an example of an “existential fact” for the HJ scholar:

An example of an existential fact, from the Gospels — which are not themselves without context — would be Jesus entering into the Jordan River near John the Baptist. (p. 21)

But there is not a single line in the Gospels that says Jesus entered into the Jordan River. Two gospels say he was baptized by John. McKnight is playing fatuous micro and pedantic games here. By no means is Jesus entering the river an existential fact. It is nothing more than an inference from an unprovenanced narrative that is assumed — without external corroboration and despite the many unnatural details associated with it in the narrative — to be relating something historical.

McKnight is attempting to raise (or reduce) the evidence for Jesus’ baptism to the same level as the evidence for the Battle of Hastings. But no nonbiblical historian says an “existential fact” is that William the Conqueror trod on sand on England’s shores and that what followed is somehow a matter of how much this or that source subjectively chooses to tell us. The evidence speaks of his crossing from Normandy to England and fighting to win control of a kingdom there. So the Gospel evidence speaks of Jesus being baptized by John. The Gospel evidence, however, is mere narrative for which there is no external or corroborating support. It is a mere story, like Cinderella or Red Riding Hood or Robin Hood or William Tell or the Pentateuch. The only reason anyone even presumes to think the Gospel is some sort of authoritative source is good old “conventional wisdom”, cultural heritage. As Albert Schweitzer himself said, its narrative lacks any sort of external corroboration and therefore cannot be raised to so much as a positive probability.

HJ scholars have NO basic facts to start with

To repeat: Nonbiblical historians begin with basic and public facts (that are certain and nondebatable) and move on from those to discover more complex and private facts that are less certain and more debatable than the original primary facts. Historical Jesus historians begin with no basic and public facts. They begin with an unprovenanced narrative that contains much myth and literary artifice, and from which they attempt to create their own basic and public facts by means of exegesis. But the basic and public facts so created are as uncertain and debatable as the secondary facts of nonbiblical historians.

In other words, historical Jesus scholars have no objective, existential raw materials with which even to begin to attempt a legitimate historical enquiry.

Historians have corroborated sources and primary evidence for Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. They have nothing but assumption in the case of Jesus. The Gospel narratives cannot be corroborated as history. Conclusions of exegesis are entirely dependent on the skills and interests of the historian. Exegesis of such documents can never produce an existential or basic real Fact.

Nonbiblical scholars, by contrast, start with basic facts

Elton is described as a “modernist” historian, and he opposed the postmodernist view of history and facts. He also opposed fellow-modernist, E.H. Carr who had a less sanguine view of the possibility of establishing a truly objective fact. But even postmodernists, and E.H. Carr, all agree that there are real facts or data that exist “out there” and that these are what historians attempt to deal with (or at least think they do, as postmodernists would say) at various levels. Even though Carr argued that a fact is inevitably made into a historical fact as a result of the historian’s values and biases, he nonetheless agreed that there was a genuinely independent real set of facts “out there”. One blind historian might feel the trunk of the elephant, another the ear, etc, but their varying perceptions do not change what an elephant is really like. But HJ historians are all attempting to feel for something behind a curtain on faith that there is something there.

Christian “historians” preach a hermeneutics of Love for the Gospel to find facts

Some HJ scholars attempt to substitute a “hermeneutics of love” or “trust” in the absence of external corroboration for their Gospel narrative. Whereas other historians (and everyone else) seek external corroboration to verify reports or narratives, McKnight, Bauckham, and others know they cannot match this basic common-sense approach, so complain that this standard is too “sceptical” and call it a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. This means that the HJ historian must take the Gospel narrative on trust at some level as a genuine attempt, again at some level, to convey real history. McKnight explains the Christian morality behind this:

I contend that a hermeneutics of suspicion is fundamentally at odds with the Christian gospel, which is what a theological discipline is most concerned with. In other words, what a  Christian needs is not a hermeneutics of suspicion but, as Alan Jacobs brilliantly presents, a “hermeneutics of love” or a “hermeneutics of trust”. (p.36)

Would they use the same trust or love for sources other than the canonical Gospels? Would they ask Christian judges in courtrooms to apply the same hermeneutic to any uncorroborated testimony? Would they permit any a priori criticism of Fox News for broadcasting unsubstantiated reports?

Here we have an outright admission that normal historical methodology can give us nothing about the historical Jesus. What is admitted is that HJ studies are primarily a theological, and not an historical, discipline. Where historical methods fail, then theological preaching will do just as well.

(I have discussed this sort of nonsense in earlier posts in addressing Bauckham’s and Craig’s attempts to make the same point.)


HJ and other New Testament historians use criteria to “discover facts”. Examples of criteria:

  • Double dissimilarity — if a detail in the Gospels is dissimilar from both normal Judaism and early Church beliefs it was probably a true fact of the historical Jesus
  • Multiple attestation — if a detail is found in more than one independent source it has a stronger claim to being true
  • Embarrassment — is a detail is thought to be recorded against the interests of the early Christians it is thought to be more likely true
  • Coherence
  • Anything said to fulfill prophecy

And so forth. I have discussed some of these in detail already here and here and won’t repeat the logical and other flaws underpinning these here.

Now I fully grant that the criterion of embarrassment, when applied to certain kinds of basic and public and indisputably “existential” evidence (e.g. the evidence for the fact of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, including diaries or other records of those involved) can very well be useful for assessing the probability of a secondary or private fact, such as whether or not a particular soldier on a battlefield retreated in cowardice from the enemy or not. But it cannot be used to attempt to extract basic and public evidence (e.g. of whether there was a battle in the first place) from a source (e.g. Lord of the Rings) that speaks of an event that has absolutely no external corroboration at all.

To Scot McKnight’s credit, he acknowledges that “criteriology” is too subjective to truly establish objective (existential) “facts” (pp. 42-44). As McKnight admits, the criterion of double dissimilarity is, in effect, a criterion of double prejudice; I and others could add that the criterion of multiple attestation informs for us nothing about the ultimate source of what is being testified, etc. Those who devised such criteria (e.g. Norman Perrin) did so as a hindsight rationale to “systematize” what they and their teachers in fact did in their treatment of the Gospel evidence.

But to turn now to a small subset of the historiographical discussion McKnight presents. . . .


The following second part of this post was originally written first, so excuse a few quirks as you read it:

Scot McKnight versus Sir Geoffrey Elton on historical methodology

Scot McKnight is currently controversial for spitting the dummy on Historical Jesus studies (see The Jesus We’ll never know in Christianity Today, April 2010), but what he has written about the historical methods employed by HJ scholars deserves serious attention, and the nonbiblical historians he discusses (in particular conservative modernist British historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, who has significantly contributed to the modern discussion of the nature of history) deserve closer scrutiny than even he himself gives them.

So when one compares Scot McKnight’s discussion of historiography relating to the historical Jesus (chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) with conservative British historian G. R. Elton’s discussion of facts, methods sources and evidence (chapter 2 of The Practice of History), a fundamental gulf between the two becomes apparent. Their respective viewpoints on the nature of the facts and sources used by historians could not be more different. The irony is that McKnight quotes and references G.R. Elton’s discussion extensively (although in one place he has him saying the opposite of what he really writes), so presumably he fails to grasp some very fundamental statements by Elton about the basics of historical method.

Not that I’m a follower of Elton’s views on history. But I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will later summarize what Elton has to do with all of this.) I would consider James Crossley’s history an exception. It appears to follow the views of E.H. Carr rather than Elton’s. Carr saw history as an exploration of “laws” or “scientific” causes of events.

I will first of all give a very broad overview of the different views of history among (nonbiblical) historians, and then zero in on what they have in common in regard to “facts” and evaluation of sources, and then show that historical Jesus scholars do not practice “normal history” at all, and instead of working with real facts are only perpetuating myths through creative and ideological exegesis of texts whose status as sources relies entirely on an archaic and unsupportable conventional wisdom.

How many biblical historians really understand history?

Few biblical historians seem to indicate a strong awareness of the debates about the nature of History as a discipline. McKnight himself notes this:

I’m not so sure most historical Jesus scholars are as conscious of [a modernist historiography to which they unconsciously aspire] as perhaps they ought to be. . . . In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (pp.15-16)

Biblical historians whom I have at times engaged in discussion appear to go blank or apoplectic when I discuss historical methods used by other historians.

So if not even biblical “historians” appear to be strongly aware of what Mainstream Historians (not the biblical subset) understand about the nature and workings of their craft or art, a brief overview of a two names may not go astray.

Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke, a 19th century Liberal/Whig/Bourgeois

Leopold von Ranke, the “father of modern history”, stressed the importance of history as a somewhat naïve collection and evaluation of the facts and evidence. All historians had to do was step outside their prejudices and get the facts (see other posts for his distinction between primary and secondary sources for those facts), compare, accumulate, evaluate and interpret them until a whole and complete objective history was eventually reached. The facts spoke for themselves. The historian had no choice but to write about the facts that spoke for themselves.

E.H. Carr, Leftie of the early 1960’s

E. H. Carr

In What Is History? E.H. Carr argued that a fact becomes a historical fact only when the historian chooses it to be one as a result of the values and interests he or she personally brings to it. Millions of people have crossed the Rubicon stream but the historian only judges Julius Caesar’s crossing of it to be of interest to the historian and therefore a fact of history. This means that von Ranke’s facts really are not so objective as von Ranke assumed. For Carr, von Ranke’s “objective facts” were not so objective at all, but were really only those facts that supported the bourgeois and Liberal view of the world. It was all fine and good for historians to choose facts to show what civilized gentlemen Englishmen were, but for Carr, it was important to balance such a value-laden selection of facts with others. A citizen murdered in a riot showed the other side of the story, and his uncivil murder should also enter the list of historical facts if a historian was interested in true objectivity. To repeat a commonly cited quote from Carr:

Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said `no’. It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little-known memoirs; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford. Does this make it into a historical fact ? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fact appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years’ time it may be a well-established historical fact. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past from which Dr Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it.

But though Carr did believe that facts are chosen according to the value-judgments of historians, that did not mean that all history was always relative. Just because a mountain is seen to have different shapes from different viewpoints does not mean that there is no mountain, or that the mountain really has a many different shapes.

Sir Geoffrey Elton, Tory/Conservative of the later 1960s

Elton (The Practice of History) argued against Carr that certain basic facts of history can be objectively known by historians, and that a historian can recognize and use them quite apart from any personal values or biases. Fact can be discerned objectively. The historian is not free to make history out of this and that fact according to his values and biases. History is “there” no matter who the historian is or what his or her values are. History is about something that “really happened out there”, not just about something the scholar has put together. Elton was certainly capable of a most sceptical enquiry and assessment of facts and sources, so I don’t intend to depict him as two-dimensional.

(Moreover, unlike Carr, Elton disagreed with “grand narratives” or “laws” of history that came with a capital H. The English Civil War, for instance, was not caused (as Carr believed) by longterm social and economic dislocations of the previous decades, but simply by the incompetence of the Stuart kings.)

But to adhere to my primary theme of the nature of facts in history, contrary to a comment by McKnight about Elton’s view, Elton wrote:

[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: one could at best then hope to find an historian learned, wise and sensitive enough to have cooked his materials in such a way that their natural flavour appears in the dish. That would still make the knowledge of history a matter of pure faith which, if it is to deserve the name of an intellectual discipline and to fulfil its social function of promoting the search for intellectual truth, it ought not to be. (p. 53, The Practice of History)

Jim West, Theology Doctor and Petros Baptist Church Pastor

Elton’s here was predicting Dr Jim West’s response to McKnight’s criticisms of the historical Jesus quest. The reduction of history to being a matter of faith is exactly what Jim West is asserting that the historical enterprise has been. West writes in response to McKnight’s complaint that “Historical Jesus scholars construct what is in effect a fifth gospel. The reconstructed Jesus is not identical to the canonical Jesus or the orthodox Jesus. He is the reconstructed Jesus, which means he is a “new” Jesus.”:

How does he know that those scholars have missed the boat?  He’s suggesting, after all, that the entire lot of Jesus Seekers has it wrong.  But again, how does he know they are?  Has he met the Historical Jesus and so knows, without a doubt, who’s right and who’s wrong? (From Zwinglius Redivivus)

Elton feared that some methods would lead to fanciful and contradictory histories without any means of knowing which one might, per mere chance, happen upon “the truth”. And Dr Jim West, right on cue, chimes in that “how does McKnight know any one of the historical Jesus’s ‘discovered’ is not the true one?” With this comment Jim West exposes the sham that the Historical Jesus Quest is in terms of being a valid historical enterprise.

Much more can be written about the philosophy and practice of history, and there are many other very significant names to discuss. But these three are certainly significant and address the central error of most historians of Jesus.

Despite the differences, they all agreed on one thing: Facts is Facts

But both Carr and Elton believed that historians nonetheless work with real “existential” facts (facts that have a real and objective existence independent of any observer). The difference was that for Carr such a fact only becomes an historical fact when a historian chooses to add it to a historical narrative. But facts were facts on which all agreed and there could be no debate. They were there to see and needed no special “intellectual tools” to somehow discover. Intellectual tools like various criteria could could be brought to bear to refine our understanding and knowledge of certain facts, or even be used to augment some of those facts, but they are not there to create new facts ex nihilo or out of uncorroborated (especially only vaguely ‘provenanced’) sources alone.

Elton wrote the following truism:

No matter how many observers may concern themselves with such questions as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, who the eldest surviving child  of Henry VIII was, or where Napoleon confronted the allied armies on a given day in 1813, they will all come up with the same answer. There is, in short, a very large body of agreed historical knowledge on which no dispute is possible . . . . (p. 54)

But what happens when it gets more complex than this? Elton continues:

as soon as more complex or private facts and events are involved the problem of the observer [and his values and biases, as per Carr? or something else? (read on)] does arise. Different historians will differently regard the precise course of the battle of Hastings or the precise meaning of Hobbes’s view of human psychology, not because they differently interpret agreed facts but because they see differences in the facts. . . . and the differences resulting are likely to be differences in the degree and depth of knowledge, no more. Thus, for instance, anyone trying to establish, as Sir James Ramsay did, the totals of royal income and expenditure in the era of the Lancastrian kings, will resort to the receipt and issue rolls of the Exchequer. If, as Ramsay did, he takes them at their face value, he will total them up and suppose that he has the right answer. It takes a deeper knowledge of the material to understand that these totals are meaningless because the records contain quantities of repeated or fictitious entries. (pp.54-55)

Elton shows how obvious this is by looking at the various historians’ works of any major question such as the fall of the Roman empire of the rise of industrial England.

[A reader] will encounter a great deal of disagreement, much proven error, and probably a fair amount of plain nonsense, but if he is at all alert he will be astonished by the way in which the body of agreed knowledge has augmented and by the manner in which variations of interpretation come to be first increased and then reduced by this advance. (p. 58)

So according to Elton, facts (e.g. the archival and recorded amount of income and expenditure of the Lancastrian kings) is facts is facts according to the indisputable sources. To go beyond those facts requires additional research and knowledge to be applied to those clearly established facts. Facts are incremental. The number of explanatory theories reduces.

So where does this leave the “facts” used by the historians of Jesus?

McKnight believes that most historical Jesus scholars go along with the essence of this view of what they are doing (p. 15, Jesus and His Death). They see themselves as discovering facts and what those facts mean, and thus adding to an ever widening single knowledge base about Jesus incrementally.

But in historical Jesus studies facts are not incremental, and explanatory theories multiply, not decrease. Newly discovered facts do not augment established data. New “facts” are created to compete against other “facts”. If Jesus cleansed the temple, here are some “facts” to show that it was to declare that its days were numbered (Sanders). No it wasn’t. It was to speak up for the poor (Crossley). Hang on, I don’t think we can say it is a fact that Jesus cleansed the Temple at all (Fredrikson, Mack). This situation testifies loudly that the very preliminary “facts” in historical Jesus studies are nothing like the “facts” that other historians speak of — e.g. that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, that the first atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. McKnight, as we have seen above, exposes exactly where such biblical “facts” come from — exegesis of the Gospels.

What of the sources we use?

Elton writes a warning for amateur historians:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p. 60)

Many historical Jesus historians do, at times, apply this principle. But when confronted with alternative paradigms, such as that of Price, Thompson, or Doherty, they do not address the questions raised accordingly, but respond like amateurs by casting around to find a rebuttal with scattered pieces of particular evidence which they think will answer the particular question.

Elton also addresses the critical importance of the provenance of sources, and uses documents from the Tudor period as an example. How our sources came to be produced is of critical importance for knowing how to interpret them and understand what evidence, if any, they yield. It is essential to know how they came into being. They must be subjected to this sort of critical enquiry before we can know what sort of evidence they will yield (pp. 62-63).

Of the sources the historian uses, Elton wrote:

There is no perfect substitute for total acquaintance with the relevant material. . . . If the independent reality of history is ever to be apprehended, the real meaning of the surviving material must be elicited from the surface appearance. . . . Criticizing the evidence means two things: establishing its genuineness, and assessing its proper significance. (pp. 66-7)

I submit that there is no reason to think that the Gospels were written with a view to containing real history at some level, or were written from testimonies of oral sources that went back to eyewitnesses of real events. This view of the Gospels as authoritative sources is entirely an untested assumption inherited from centuries of inherited conventional wisdom. They have never been tested as the documents purporting to be the Donation of Constantine or the Ems Telegram have been. Certainly historians have attempted to argue for their origins in this or that geographical area, but precious few have attempted to test the conventional wisdom that claims they are indeed records ultimately derived from “traditions” traceable back to real historical characters and events.

Going this far, I suggest, risks questioning the very rationale for whole discipline of biblical studies.

But none of this, of itself, means that the Gospels might not contain real history. As Philip R. Davies might say, such a question has yet to be established. But Thomas L. Thompson can write (The Messiah Myth) that the idea that the gospel narratives and sayings are derived from real history is falsifiable. He argues that pointing to how the Gospel sayings and actions echo widely known literary sayings and deeds from other periods points to their dependence on their wider literary heritage. My own view is that we can only roll with the evidence we have, and that means comparing the Gospels with the similar literature, or literature that contains similar motifs (e.g. the Jewish scriptures, Book of Enoch and other Second Temple and other Mid East literature, Philo, Euripides, Homer), and seeing where that leads. There are no independent external controls to inform us that the contents of the Gospel narrative are historical. We only have literature to compare with literature. Thompson may not have written the most persuasive book when he composed The Messiah Myth, but he is certainly headed in the right direction with a methodology that pulls on the fewest strings to make it work.

What is required of the Gospels before their narratives can be assumed to be evidence for historical facts is a study of their origins, their audiences, their authors at a minimum. These are all matters of speculation, however educated the speculation may be. Their narratives demand external corroboration before they can be taken as serious evidence of historical events. Every historian from Christian Albert Schweitzer to Marxist Eric Hobsbawm knows that truism. Till then, the best any historian can do is to compare their literature with other literature. If that means seeking to explain the origins and nature of the Gospels themselves, and Christian origins more generally, instead of questing for the Historical Jesus “known” to exist by virtue of conventional wisdom and cultural heritage, then we will be making real intellectual and historical progress.


This is enough. If I keep attempting to correct and complete the above I will be here till Doomsday. Since this is a post attempting to collate material from too many sources to count on the fingers of one hand. And I have other things to do. Will publish it now and make corrections later.
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Neil Godfrey

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73 thoughts on “Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies”

  1. WOW… a tour de force, a major event in blogging. Really taking blogging to the next level. This is one of the most complete and direct posts I have seen on the subject. This surely will put the issue to bed for all but the most apologetically supernatural.


  2. Neil, You have outdone yourself!
    That holiday of yours has put a fire in your belly – long may it burn….A major event in blogging – indeed. You have raised the bar so high that others can only follow your lead…..one can but hope!

  3. Doomsday indeed! Such is the whole Historical Jesus search. In the end we are always brought back to the canonical Gospels…just the Four, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! And the Letters of St. Paul (also Acts). Again, in the end there can be no compromise with the limits of mere historicalism (of itself).

  4. PS..”Historicism has no transcendent norm; the best you can do is to support one element of culture against culture.” The only real transcendent is the Incarnational mystery in history. Which is always itself, and existential reality..herein faith is found.

  5. Rich and Mary, stop embarrassing me. I don’t have the time to do a post like that very often. Though wish I did.

    Irishanglican, I’m not quite sure where you are coming from here. Do you mean existential reality is a matter of faith?

    Mcduff, spot on.

  6. JW:
    Mainstream Christian Bible scholarship, including McGrath, is completely backwards on trying to determine HJ. The general qualities of the original Jesus’ narrative “Mark”, significant element of the Impossible, known fictional sources (Jewish Bible, Paul & Josephus) and extreme contrived literary style, leave us with the default position that any individual story in “Mark” is fiction. You can not pick out from this any individual story that is likely historical. There’s no base for it. All you can do is go the other way. Take out what is definitely fiction (impossible) and what is probably fiction (implausible). What is left MAY be historical. Subsequent “witness” with less of these general qualities, such as “Luke” trying to write more like a historian, don’t help historicity, they hurt it because they are based on “Mark”. Understand dear Reader?

    The related problem is say that based on the above there is enough left to make you think there was a historical Jesus but there is still not enough evidence to demonstrate the historicity of any specific in Jesus’ life. So all you are proving is he existed. Isn’t it misleading to say HJ, as that implies a minimum of Gospel Jesus, when you can’t demonstrate any specifics?

    On a related note I’ve posted at FRDB regarding Paul as Markan source:


    It’s generally accepted even by mainstream Christian Bible scholarship that the Jewish Bible was a source for “Mark”. If “Mark” accepted Paul’s theology that what Jesus did was in the Jewish Bible (Elijah/Elisha) than why not accept that what Jesus said was in Paul?


  7. Neil,

    I was seeking a bit of the ‘Encounter of the face-to-face meeting…the I and Thou’, God & Man. Yes, even Bultmaan held to the crucifixion, and thus the death of “Christ”!

  8. Common sense does not equate A-theism ever! (Acts 17:22-32) But belief in God is also well beyond a mental exercise, to that place of the empirical method and mystery!

  9. Even just skimming this I saw a pretty glaring error of bias. The writer states, “But there is not a single line in the Gospels that says Jesus entered into the Jordan River. Two gospels say he was baptized by John. McKnight is playing fatuous micro and pedantic games here. By no means is Jesus entering the river an existential fact.” I’m not sure which “gospels” he’s “reading,” but this statement is false. Where was it that John was baptising? The Jordon. In order to be baptised, Jesus necessarily had to have entered the Jordon. Beyond that, it says clearly that the Jordon River was precisely the location where Jesus met John to be baptised. It’s overreaching of this writer to “play pedantic games” with the words, isn’t it?
    Matthew (ch3) says it pretty clearly, so he doesn’t have to use the English word “entered” exactly to get the point across. See for yourselves: “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. . . . Then Jesus came l from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.”

    1. I think my bias is always clear. And skimming is never a good basis on which to make a refutation — as I was demonstrating to Steph in my previous comment.

      It is obviously a logical inference that Jesus “entered the Jordan River”. But an inference is not a “bedrock fact”. That was the point of my ensuing comparison with the “facts of history” in another field:

      “McKnight is attempting to raise (or reduce) the evidence for Jesus’ baptism to the same level as the evidence for the Battle of Hastings. But no nonbiblical historian says an “existential fact” is that William the Conqueror trod on sand on England’s shores and that what followed is somehow a matter of how much this or that source subjectively chooses to tell us. The evidence speaks of his crossing from Normandy to England and fighting to win control of a kingdom there. So the Gospel evidence speaks of Jesus being baptized by John.”

      In most contexts it certainly would be pedantry to argue over whether Jesus entered the Jordan River. Of course we can assume he did at the narrative and abstract logical level. But McKnight — as my Battle of Hastings comparison attempts to show — is slipping up when he declares the inference to be the “historical fact”, and not the evidence itself as we have it. In this case the inference also supports a popular iconic image of Jesus in the Jordan, too, and draws on a common assumption (certainly a justifiable one, but an assumption nonetheless) about the nature of the baptism.

      The popular image of “entering” the Jordan River derives from our belief that baptism was by full body immersion. And it is this belief about baptism that is read into the narrative. But instructively there is at least one art work on a sarcophagus I think I recall that shows John pouring water from the river on Jesus’ head while it is not clear if Jesus is even in the water himself.

      So inferences are necessarily drawn from our other preconceptions, and while many of these are a matter of inescapable logic, not all are.

      We have historical evidence that William fought the Battle of Hastings. Therefore we have a right to infer he walked on the sands of the beach there. (But in theory we might also allow for him being carried in a litter or such and avoiding this.) We have no historical evidence that Jesus was baptized, and therefore our inference, that is without foundation, cannot be called “a fact of history”.

      This is only a small example. But when the principle is applied multiple times we see how the whole myth is created and assumed to be fact.

      1. Of course, not one single named Christian in the first century ever wrote a document claiming John the Baptist had had any association whatever with Jesus.

        All we have are anonymous, unprovenanced, plagiarising works.

        A Real Historian would not assume that John the Baptist (a good man, according to Josephus) , had had any association with Christians.

      2. Thanks for the clarification and I’m sorry to have merely skimmed! However, I was referring mainly to your comment that there is not a single line declaring Jesus’ entry into the river so we can’t imply it. I think this would be like saying that if a story of my life were written in which during one event at a one gas station town I went to get my car filled up with gas we could not safely imply by necessity that I went to that one gas station in the town. I disagree. I think that without the writer ever having to be verbose with explicit claims, that implication would be very historical (if the biography itself was not fabricated, a different issue). Since the text I quoted of Matthew says that people were “baptized by [John] IN the river” we are not over reaching to say the least to assume (if one wants to call it an assumption) that the writer’s intent presupposes that Jesus, having “gone to the Jordon to be baptized by [John]” also would have been IN the river and by necessity would have to have “entered” it. In addition, this follows regardless of traditions about baptism by just going on what the text explicitly says. So then there is at least a single mention that he had entered it. That was my point. Whether the text itself can be taken for historical fact is a second matter. So your claim about your example is flawed as far as I can see, and I would only point it out that you might be able to use a better example in place of it. If your argument against McKnight holds water (and I’m not now debating either way but we both know the Bible contains historical facts and why not something so mundane as a baptism?), it isn’t supported well by a mistaken example (I won’t assume it was intentionally misleading).

      3. Thanks Erik. I will think through what you have said. After I responded to your post yesterday I was already thinking it was not the best example, but that it was chosen simply because Scot McKnight opened his comments up as a ready foil. But there is more to it than that, too, — and I was attempting to write an easily readable blog post for as wide an audience as possible and avoid too many of the side-discussions generally needed for a more specialist audience. Carr, Elton, and just about everyone else addresses the question of what is an “historical fact” as opposed to any “fact” per se. This is getting into a more nuanced philosophical discussion, however. And I can see with readers like yourself this obviously needs up-front attention. For Elton, an inference such as this might be considered an historical fact, and I admit I was addressing Elton’s views primarily. (Also, this particular example is a silly one in the real world — I am only discussing it because it serves as a ready-made theoretical template.) Carr would not consider it an historical fact at all — only the fact of the baptism would be a fact in his view of “what is history.” Apparently a smaller number of biblical historians would opt for Carr over Elton in general, such as Crossley, I think.

        ETA: But I would imagine Carr’s’ thinking is more preferable than Elton’s to most historians in nonbiblical fields. And this is veering into other conceptual issues now. (McKnight seemed to acknowledge this in the way he justified his focus on Elton in his chapter.)

        I admit I was taking a small liberty in eliding over this distinction when I wrote my original post in my attempt to simplify. At least I hope it is considered “small”. But I think I might be prepared to consider a revised version in which I re-write that section if not — I don’t know. Will think some more about it.

  10. Can we assume that Jesus entered the river, when people like Boyd and Eddy would castigate people for antisupernatural bias in assuming that Jesus could not walk on it?

  11. neilgodfrey,
    the way I see it, there are two ways for the proponent of the historical Jesus to justify his claims. Either by relying on external controls or by overcoming the literary construct hypothesis. There are no external controls for the Jesus narrative so only the second option is available. Now my question is what does it mean to overcome this hypothesis? Is it enough to show that it’s improbable or must it be shown that it’s false altogether?

  12. Without external controls of some sort the question of historicity cannot arise in the first place.

    I think often we mean “plausible” when we say “probable”. Much fiction is plausible, so the mere fact a narrative is plausible does not give us any reason at all to think it may or may not be historical. Eric Hobsbawm conceded he made the mistake of taking plausible narratives about some “social bandits” and writing about them as if they were historical fact.

    But the gospel narratives are not plausible at all. There’s nothing plausible about walking on water or talking to demons or rising from the dead. The only way we can make them plausible is to change them. Once we remove their implausible details, we are left with a narrative that makes no sense as a foundation story of Christianity. The only explanatory power the narrative had was in the implausible details. So once we remove the implausible elements, we are left with a tale that has no explanatory power, and nor is it any closer to having a right to be seen as historical fact, either. So we are getting further and further behind the eight ball once we go in this direction in attempting to explain Christian origins.

    If, however, you really do mean “improbable” and not merely “plausible”, then on what grounds can anyone say a narrative is “probably” historical true unless we have some external controls in the first place? We have none.

    If all we have is a plausible narrative, and no external controls to help us decide its historicity, then we simply have no way of deciding one way or another. The question cannot arise except in some childlike wish-fantasy. As a child I used to really want Robin Hood to have been real. Some Swiss nationalists deplore the mythologizing of William Tell.

    The reason I think the gospel narratives are fiction is not because they lack external controls, but because, having seen that they lack external controls to indicate historicity, I can further see evidence that the narrative details are constructed so entirely from other literature, that once one removes all those borrowed elements, there is simply nothing left of the narrative. The borrowed elements are not there to decorate the Christmas Tree. Take them away and you find no Christmas Tree was there at all.

  13. How is the Battle of Waterloo 1855 a basic fact? You found it in the worlds most awesome encyclopedia ever? If I asked you to prove such an event took place in 1855 you would have to turn to written accounts, possibly some old veterans, did Vampire Lestat fight in that one?, archeology, inscriptions memorializing the event and so on. That is basic facts not encyclopedia entries, they don’t get their information from God you know.

    1. It isn’t a fact in 1855. It is a fact in 1815.

      There is nothing wrong with written accounts when they are primary evidence. (It appears you have read and rely on James’ repeated misrepresentations of my argument — he always twists my reference to “primary sources” to “nontextual” sources, even though he knows better.)

      We have primary evidence for Waterloo. Artefacts, documents, memorabilia, primary reports.

      Are you seriously suggesting that there is no primary evidence for the Battle of Waterloo????

      Do you know what I mean by primary evidence? I mean evidence that is physically from the time and area being investigated. We have it for Julius Caesar, etc. We can’t go and change the rules and just make up “bedrock facts” out of “criteria” just because there is no primary evidence for Jesus. That is what we call intellectual dishonesty.

  14. Wow, quite a damning indictment of history prior to the middle ages and minor events prior to the industrial revolution. All that time wasted on pursuit of history that can be disputed. Good luck with that catching on.

    1. You do not know what you are talking about.

      I have just completed reading a book about a history of the middle ages, and the historian refers always to primary sources. I am preparing a post on it soon.

      Classical historians do the same with ancient history. Primary sources yield the bedrock facts. From there, historians ask questions and write histories that the nature of their sources allows them to. That is why we have very detailed histories of modern events, and broad overviews of ancient periods very often. The sources do not allow an equal treatment of all eras.

      Historians do not ask questions like “did Julius Caesar exist?” or “did Socrates exist?” They work with the evidence they have and frame questions that the evidence will help them answer. So in the case of Socrates, they discuss the rise and nature and development of Greek philosophy — not the “historical Socrates”. In the case of Julius Caesar, they have primary evidence to give them sound reason to accept certain secondary sources such as the literature of Caesar probably derived from primary ones. None of them invents basic facts from “criteria”!

      What I was asking for on James’ blog was an intelligent response to my post.

      It seems you are prepared to pooh pooh Scot McKnight, Elton, Carr, von Ranke just to make some fatuous point in defence of indefensible historical Jesus scholarship.

  15. I should add, if you want some idea of what might happen to Christian origin studies if normal historical methodology is applied to the sources, have a look at the minimalist impact on Old Testament studies. That was all about applying standard von Ranke type basics about the difference between primary and secondary evidence (thus Lemche), and using the norms of logic that avoid circularities (thus Davies) — it means we can still talk about a history of Israel, but a very different one from the biblical portrait. Nothing wrong with that. It is justifiable history.

    Just because David becomes irrelevant in such a history, doesn’t mean we don’t make progress with understanding what really happened.

    Applying the same standards to the origins of Christianity may lead to something similar. Jesus may become irrelevant as an historical individual, but we can focus on understanding the milieu and relationships of the texts to the environments that best explain their emergence. Just as in OT history we no longer focus on rationalizing some historical origin of the narrative of David, etc, but on the most likely environment and conditions that gave rise to the narratives, we will be doing real history if we apply the same methods to early Christian documents.

  16. I read the Scott McKnight article in Christianity Today you linked to and that helped me to get a grasp on what I think you are trying to communicate. I agree with him that folks like Funk, Borg, and Crossan have not, in my opinion, provided us with the undisputed and accurate portrait of Jesus. If they had I suppose I would be less interested in the topic. I also feel that Jesus currently inhabits a kind of black ball that it is impossible to peer into, we are only dealing with impression of those that have interacted with those who have been in the circle and emerged. i think, due maybe to the way you entered the conversation and what was being discussed that I had the mistaken notion that you were arguing for a non existent or mythical Jesus. I think I’m wrong on that and you only have a suspicion, and there is nothing wrong with hunches so long as we promote them as such. There is a lot of noise generated by people that feel they have some kind of assurance that there was no such person as Jesus, and I don’t think any of the evidence they provide can support such a conclusion. I had thought you were saying that we had no evidence to make any informed statements about Jesus the person, and if that were so, it seemed to me that a large number of other areas of study in the ancient world would be placed in the realm of uneducated guesses. For instance it would be pointless to speak on whether Celts practiced the wicker man sacrifice.

    I disagree, for now any how, about the deadness of the Historical Jesus study. I may end my own study banging my head into a wall and throwing in the towel. I’m not sure that the statement that their are no facts about Jesus is completely true. His existence seems beyond dispute except for the most outlandish sorts of conspiracies, and the emergence of Christianity in the first century seems beyond dispute. The actions, words, and philosophies of its founder though are open to considerable dispute. I think though that we do have enough material and tools to begin making informed hypotheses.

    1. Not very long ago I did a few posts on the evidence for the historical Jesus as discussed by E. P. Sanders. This was in response to James McGrath’s inference or challenge that a scholar such as Sanders argued a watertight case that could scarcely be overthrown. I demonstrated that in every case Sanders begins by assuming the existence of Jesus. He then proceeds to use criteriology to arrive at “bedrock facts” about what Jesus actually did. I think I have shown that each one of his conclusions is open to challenge.

      We have very sound logical and evidential reasons for believing there was a Julius Caesar. We have good reasons for working with some of the surviving texts that claim to be both by and about him, and making positive assessments for their historical basis.

      We have no more reason, I believe, to think that Jesus was any more historical than King David. If David was historical, we cannot prove it, and the question is irrelevant in the bigger picture of what we can know about the history of Israel.

      If I am wrong in any of this, then I am open to argument.

  17. We can not now prove it (David), it’s not unprovable, it just depends on what evidence pops up. When you say historical do you mean that as opposed to mythical or merely legendary? There are good grounds I think for believing David, and Jesus as well to be historical, “real” people. Further more if the David and his status as a legend or actual king is irrelevant to the bigger picture of what we know about Israel, then wouldn’t any monarch be irrelevant to the history of the nation they ruled? This may hold well in Marxist circles, but a lot of historians are really interested in who the heads of state of ancient societies were and what they did, not just Bible nuts. David occupies a space like Lucius Brutus, founder of the Republic of Rome. Roman chroniclers believe he was the founder of their state but we can hardly prove he existed , but we would be obtuse to start a Roman history with Scipio Africanus and say we don’t know enough about earlier personalities to discuss or mention them and they are irrelevant to the historical study of Rome.

  18. What I mean in reference to David is that the archaeological evidence testifies against the possibility of an Israelite Kingdom of anything like the scale we read of in the Bible. Jerusalem was, I think, not much more than a trading post. Evidence for population figures, infrastructure, material evidence for extended influence, along with evidence for greater economic and political dominance of other city-states and peoples at the time — all of this is evidence that the biblical Davidic (and Solomonic) Kingdom of Israel did not exist. Some attempt to salvage something of David by suggesting he could have been a local tribal chief who conducted a few raids on neighbours. But there is no evidence for this. It is a postulate to try to hold on to some historical core for the biblical story.

    So the history of Palestine that can be written is reconstructed from the archaeological evidence. We can see certain city states were dominant economically and politically, and historians can describe this situation. But they cannot talk about David at all.

    The archaeological evidence also indicates that the few inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time did not have the social structures, the material resources, etc to create the biblical literature. That sort of thing requires a scribal class, educational institutions, — and that requires a critical mass of people of leisure, wealth, and learning, etc. The narrative of the literature also does not relate to what we know of the conditions of the time.

    But archaeological evidence does yield a situation where we do have all the requisite conditions for the creation of the biblical literature, and explanations for its particular themes, by the time we reach the Persian and Hellenistic periods. (The constant themes of exile, migration, settling among heathen, etc etc are also explained by the experiences of the Jews from the Persian period on.)

    Some historians disagree and say the time of King Josiah met the conditions of the creation of the literature. But my view is that there is some circular reasoning going on here in order to save something of a “biblical Israel”. See the “In Search of Ancient Israel” pages on my vridar.info for details.

    Hope this clarifies a bit where I am coming from and what I mean by relying first on primary evidence, and then assessing the value of secondary evidence accordingly.

    It’s not about subjective guesswork about whether we think someone might have been legendary or not. It’s a matter of making the best judgments from the hard evidence we have. And assessing the literary texts in the light of the conditions and influences that go into their making.

    ETA: I’ve also discussed some of the historical evidence in a set of posts archived here.

  19. Archeologist may not be able to talk about David but historians can, the archeology modifies the history but is not a substitute for it. I’m not sure that Finkelstein and Silberman threw in the tribal chieftain bit to soften the blow of the rest of their work or make they feel better as Jews. I think the thinking here is it would be unlikely for the Israeli’s and Judeans to attach so much importance to a non existent figure as the founder of their dynasty . The gap between the Judean works and the character of David is not as long as that of the first Roman histories and the supposed founding of Rome. And that is picking up the idea that nothing was written until the Persian period, and I don’t think many will call that a sure position. I think it likely to have been only two centuries between David and the first written tales of his kingdom.

    The gap between the greatness of the literary David and the real state of affairs in Judea in his time presents a problem, since the time separation is same as between us and the War of 1812, or Waterloo for the Non American. But writing of anything must have been new and so the the shepherds of Judea wouldn’t be able to rely on text to fix their recollections. If David had a kingdom and city then it must have been greater than their own because he ruled (they thought) all the Israelites and Judeans. They envisioned him as King like the King of Assyria or Egypt. For purpose of propaganda he could not be less than the King of Israel.

    I would be exited to see a work arguing for the Persian era date for the Samuel-Second Kings. Could you direct me?

    The Work you recommended “Early History of Israel”, was very interesting, I’ll have to look into getting the full copy. The Google books version is missing pages and any how, who wants to stare at a computer screen 5 hours? As so far and as much as I’ve read, its methods are not different from those I feel confident in. It seems to make more use of the ancient Jewish text than you would think useful if understood you right. Thompson does not use them as an unskeptical man would, a believer. However, he understands the connections between people’s tales and their histories. You just have to have an understanding for what kind of people made the book, and why. He seems to agree that the stories of the Patriarchs are fictive legends but agrees with the notion in principle that they can reflect historical realities of their age. They tell us about how the people who wrote them viewed their relationships with each other. Their thoughts on their relationship, I think can also give us clues to their past.

    What are your thoughts on how to use a text from antiquity as a source of evidence for history?

    1. Historians work from the evidence supplied by the archaeologists. Before they can use the texts, they ideally need to understand when and where and by whom and for whom and why they were written. The story of Abraham, for example, has been understood as a myth created by settlers in the Judean province in Persian times — the reason for the creation, to oversimplify it, was to have a story that justified and mirrored their own migration from Babylonia into Canaan. It was created as a foundation myth, so to speak. This is what we find among Greeks and other peoples — myths of heroic founders being created to explain their origins. In the case of the Jewish population, they also needed to explain how they came to be in Babylonia in the first place, yet were still the rightful inhabitants of Canaan. This may have been the impetus for the story of their original migration from Abraham, their exile then through sin and punishment from God, and then their final liberation and return.

      Thomas L. Thompson cites various ancient texts where ancient kings (Babylonian, Assyrian) like the Persians, deported populations from one part of the empire to another, but sometimes did so by claiming they were not really being “deported”, but “restored” — that they were the descendants of the original inhabitants of a land that had been exiled years before. They told them they were restoring them to their true identities and their original gods in their ancestors land. It was a propaganda myth. Stories had to be created to justify it.

      So the stories of ancient Israel may well not have been attempts to write real history of the past. They have have included a few snippets from some of that past history, but the overall story was a fiction. It was all a theological tale of how to submit to the priests and the God of the land.

      Some historians have also suggested that the story of David’s conquests were fictional creations to justify the wars of expansion under the Maccabees even later. The lands the Maccabees conquered have an uncanny similarity to those “recorded” of David.

      As for the use of texts from antiquity as historical sources, they are indispensible. (Just ignore everything James McGrath says I supposedly believe about this.) The hard questions about texts, though, is establishing their provenance, when they were written, by whom, etc. And we must also ascertain their nature. What sort of information do they give us? History? Myth? Fiction? A bit of both? etc etc. (Again ignore everything James accuses me of in this. He has attempted to mislead his readers over what I actually believe and argue in this matter.)

      And the answers to these questions will involve drawing on a vast knowledge of the culture and other literature around the same time frame.

      I have discussed the role of texts as historical sources in a couple of other posts, comparing how nonbiblical historians use them with the way NT historians use theirs.



      They are not complete discussions, I have not covered everything in them. But they are starters to what I think about how they should be used anyway. Feel free to question anything I write, though. My own views are always in flux.

  20. Could you recommend some books on the late dating of the Biblical text? I have heard people say that they thought it was Persian or even Hellenistic era work but haven’t read anything presenting that argument. I’m aware of the “P” being from the second temple era and am familiar with the arguments for that. I’ve heard that some scholars see a a late Persian/Hellenistic Bible as a counter argument to the Documentary Hypothesis, and as a fan of the Documentary Hypothesis, I would like to see a good counter argument. It seems a bit far fetched especially to put as far out as the Seluecids but I would like to see the arguments.

  21. As we all know,President Obama was born in Kenya.

    Scholars even now are reading the stories of President Obama being born in Kenya, and using them to try to work out when Obama was born. Some favour one date, some favour another,although almost all of them agree that the stories of Obama being born in Kenya contain historical impossibilities and blatant anachronisms, and even contradict each other.

    There is nothing wrong with doing this. This is cutting edge scholarship.

    As we all know, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

    Scholars even now are reading the stories of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, and using them to try to work out when Jesus was born. Some favour 5 BC, some favour 4 BC.

  22. I get what you are saying and it’s a very widely-held viewpoint by lots non-Christians and anti-Christian, but I do think you are missing the multi-dimensional essence of the point!

    There is more evidence for Jesus Christ than any other ‘god’, God or conception of god, and also a lot of evidence has been destroyed by those with an interest in refuting the credibility of Christianity – for example, a lot of documents held in the location of Hagia Sophia were ruthlessly destroyed by a Sultan or Caliph (apologies that the name currently escapes me but I can look this up if required).

    I think it’s also important to remember that esoteric Christianity is very much a mystery religion and faith – often a leap of faith – is required of Christians before they can truly ‘know’…..seek and ye will find?

    To examine any religion from a purely historical standpoint will yield very dry results and also call into question whole reams of information that are habitually taken as ‘facts’, it’s very important to consider the inner spiritual and cultural implications/influence, as well as the fact that the history of spirituality itself is an ever-unfolding story and flowing stream that has places Jesus Christ at the turning point of history, whether or not you believe he walked the earth….

  23. Neil! How could you have missed the following from McKnight:

    ” the majority of historical Jesus scholarship can be categorized as Rankean, post-Rankean, and modernist. That is, they are concerned with finding facts, discovering what those facts meant at their time and in their original context, and then setting out an interpretation of those facts in a way that best corresponds to the originals. Perhaps the most representative modernist historians in early Christian studies (with footnote referencing omitted) would be scholars like Martin Hengel, E.P. Sanders, J.P. Meier, Richard Bauckham, and David Aune. They aim to be scientific—hence preoccupied with method and neutrality and objectivity, and they breathe the air of the hopeful—hence convinced that proper methods, intelligence, and the suppression of one’s own views can lead to an ever enlarging knowledge base about the past and its value for the present and future. This is a modernist historiography at work, though I’m not so sure most historical Jesus scholars are as conscious of this as perhaps they ought to be. What modernist historians assume is that language is not simply self-referential but is also other-referential” (p. 15)

    There you go.

    1. I am sorry your comment got held up in moderation. I would love it to be given highest attention and form the start of a new post.

      I certainly did not miss this claim by McKnight in Jesus and His Death: the claim is unfortunately shot through with error and misunderstanding. (I was using the positive bits from McKight’s discussion.

      I often see this sort of criticism and unfortunately it only goes to show anyone who does know Rankean methods and what “scientific” history involves how far off the mark biblical “historians” — even McKnight — really are. McKnight first of all quotes the popular translation of Ranke’s famous maxim which is in fact a mistranslation. (“To show what really happened” is the common translation but anyone who seriously know Ranke knows he was saying “To show the essence of what happened”.)

      He misunderstands the real legacy of Ranke when he speaks of “post-Rankean” and “modernist” history — because in reality Ranke’s contributions to historical method pervade virtually all historical writing up to today. Sure the positivist philosophical underpinning has been modified but his methods of relying first upon primary sources (and analysing and testing these) are still paramount — except in the studies of Christian origins.

      Sanders, Meier, Bauckham — all approach the gospels as if they are historical or biographical records of known provenance. They put them on the same level as the historical works of Polybius or Tacitus, in effect. They do make allowances for mythical trappings but they all just assume that the gospels are the same types of writing and that they are based on events that stand apart from the texts.

      It is the methods of Sanders, Meier and Bauckham that I have demonstrated are so very far from anything followed by other historians that there is simply no comparison. McKnight himself falls into the same trap. They don’t know the very first rule of historical research: establish the nature and provenance of one’s source material and accommodate one’s questions to that material accordingly.

      Yes, biblical scholars do generally think of history in the “Elton” sense as McKnight himself rightly says. That is, they are interested in finding facts. But they don’t even get to the same starting block as other historians. They must assume the gospels can be studied in a manner comparable to other historical documents — with the only difference being that a few more layers of myth need to be peeled away first.

    2. I would encourage you not to take people’s words at face value. I see this regularly on James McGrath’s blog. McGrath makes many wild and unsupported assertions about mythicists and mythicism and when I challenge his posts his supporters quickly jump to his defence saying “McGrath has exposed the core errors of mythicism” — apparently for no other reason that McGrath says that’s what he’s done. Then I’m the one attacked there for daring to ask for substantiating evidence for his assertions. 🙂

      What McKnight says and what he says Sanders and others do is one thing; what they all really do is another.

  24. You have given voice to many thoughts that zapped around while reading Mcknight’s book. Your response is spot on!

    McKnight switches to full theology mode as the book goes on. Trying to establish what Jesus thought about his death. An alarm bell sounded when he started to laud N.T. Wright’s work – I said “oh boy, here comes theology garbed in historical speak”.

    I did not take his statement at face value (they were quoted tongue in cheek all the way).
    When you start looking for historical Jesus scholars in the main to apply the Rankean methods they claim to use, a totally different picture emerges.

  25. Another book (or books) for your reading list

    Historical Evidence and Argument – David Henige

    From the “further reading” section of another history book ‘The Pursuit of History’
    comes the following recommendations :

    “The best introduction to oral tradition is David Henige, Oral Historiography (Longman, 1982), which can be supplemented by the classic account, Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition As History ( James Currey, 1985).”

    I was not able to track down Oral Historiography(yet) but came upon Historical Evidence and Argument .


    “Thus it is that historians strive heroically to demonstrate—or just assert—the
    independent status of sources on which they depend. Pondering the historicity of
    the Acts of the Apostles, Joseph Fitzmyer writes that “[t]here are a number of
    incidents that Luke has recounted that find confirmation elsewhere.” 47 It turns out
    that “elsewhere” is seldom farther away than the epistles of Paul. For many, this
    will seem too few degrees of separation. Nonetheless, welcome confirmation
    sometimes does occur.” (p. 54)

    “The load-bearing capacity of an argument based on a string of unconfirmed
    sources is dangerously modest. The probability that such an argument is correct
    founders on the axiom that probabilities multiplied are probabilities diminished.” (p. 55)

    “The Copper Scroll is only a single piece of evidence, but the case
    is a relevant microcosm of the way in which scholarly debate often works itself
    out—the less the evidence, the greater the scope for free-based guessing, the
    greater the allure.” (p. 59)

    “Special care is needed when one of the partners is scripture, particularly the
    scripture of the interpreters. At a symposium honoring W.F. Albright, one of his
    students conceded that “Albright’s great plan and expectation to set the Bible
    firmly on the foundation of archaeology buttressed by verifiable data of many
    kinds seems to have foundered, or at least floundered. After all the digging done
    and being done, how much has been accomplished? . . . Archaeology has not
    proved decisive or even greatly helpful in answering the questions most often
    asked by biblical scholars and has failed to prove the historicity of persons and
    events especially at the early end of the scale.” 9 That such a statement could be
    made after a century of the most intensive archeological work ever carried out
    speaks eloquently about the limitations of both evidence (too little) and interpre-
    tation (too much) in the field. ” (p. 68)

  26. I read through your blog article and it was good and informative and on just the right points about “facts” and “evidence”. However, I suspect that some of your points about McKnight might be out of context in that his view is based more on the standards as applied to ‘ancient’ history instead of modern history. McKnight was wrong to a degree to compare his standard to that of Elton’s. T

    The later in history we get, then the more evidence we tend to have or expect which then influences our methods, accordingly. I can dismiss much of ancient history using some of the standards that you mention. Although, you did not really break down how or why the Battle of Hastings or the Battle of Waterloo were considered “external” or “basic” facts other than to imply that there was external or corroborating evidence (on every detail? to what extent?). There is also corroborating evidence for Jesus’s existence and execution, as well.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think anything I have said changes with respect to ancient history, however. The difference with ancient history is that we are obliged to ask different sorts of questions from those we commonly address in modern history simply because we don’t have the documents etc that would allow us to know comparable details in ancient times.

      Can you give an example of something in ancient history that could be dismissed using some of the standards I have mentioned?

      (I do concede that we can be a lot less certain about some things in ancient history: e.g. the causes of the Jewish War of 66-74 CE compared with the causes of World War 2. But nothing about ancient history is dismissed. Conclusions are treated with a more acute awareness of the need for caution, however.)

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