Scot McKnight’s lament and the fallacy of the HJ historical method

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by Neil Godfrey

I addressed Scot McKnight’s chapter on historiography in Jesus and His Death in order to respond to the central fallacy in his article in Christianity Today, The Jesus We’ll Never Know. McKnight is only half-correct when he claims that scholars have used normative historical methods to discover the historical Jesus (HJ). It is the missing half that is at the heart of the failure of the historical Jesus quest. In Jesus and His Death McKnight commented on the general lack of awareness among HJ scholars of historiography, but unfortunately McKnight himself misses a central point of the same historians he discusses, and the reason is not hard to find.

McKnight writes in the CT article:

First, the historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars reconstruct on the basis of historical methods. Scholars differ, so reconstructions differ. Furthermore, the methods that scholars use differ, so the reconstructions differ all the more. But this must be said: Most historical Jesus scholars assume that the Gospels are historically unreliable; thus, as a matter of discipline, they assess the Gospels to see if the evidence is sound. They do this by using methods common to all historical work but that are uniquely shaped by historical Jesus studies. . . .

[C]riteria were developed, criticized, dropped, and modified, but all have this in common: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was like by using historical methods to determine what in the Gospels can be trusted.

I have emphasized McKnight’s key concern with historical methods. The methods used are “criteria” of various sorts to make judgments about the likelihood of any particular detail in the Gospels being historically true or not. (McKnight discusses “criteriology” in Jesus and His Death and is just as critical of its ability to yield objective results there.)

I attempted to address the details from McKnight’s discussion of historiography and the writings of other historians such as G.R. Elton in my previous post. That was meant as a detailed justification for my following observation here —

The fallacy of the HJ historical method

1. The agreed basic facts

History is first of all about facts that are public and known to have happened. The Second World War really happened. We do not need criteria to know that. We have public and primary evidence for it. It is not a fact that any sceptic can dispute. It is an existential fact whose existence by definition cannot be denied or overturned. (It is the same for the Holocaust, I add, since some have suggested my views on history would lead me to deny the Holocaust, too.) This is what all modernist historians agree on. Even postmodernists agree that the facts and events that we have labelled the Second World War really did occur.

2. Where the differences begin

Historians disagree on the extent to which it is possible to objectively know the facts of history. They disagree on the significance of different facts. Some historians see history as a matter of inexorable forces or laws working themselves out through the human experience, others deny such causes and see events happening as a result of much more immediate human whims and frailties.

Historians need to go behind the objective and public basic facts of what happened to find more complex and private facts that are no immediately obvious. This requires study and deeper knowledge of the evidence. Sometimes in the pursuit of this sort of evidence certain criteria are useful within limits. One historian might find an embarrassing admission in a diary to be strong evidence for a certain event, but another might find the same admission evidence of personality disorder or machiavellian deceit or the inauthenticity of the diary.

Such tools (as criteria) are designed to explore secondary or complex or private events that lie behind the primary or basic and public facts themselves. They are not necessary to establish basic and public facts. If they were, then no objective history would ever be possible. (This is explained by well-known conservative historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, as I have discussed in my previous post when pointing out a discrepancy between what Elton wrote and what McKnight cited him as saying.)

Jim West actually demonstrates this vacuity perfectly when he suggests that at least one of the many HJ’s discovered might coincidentally be right — we just have no way of knowing which one. See Zwinglius Redivivus. I suspect he was tongue in cheek.

Facts that depend on criteria or extent of the researcher’s knowledge about the evidence are always subject to revision, even demolition. The primary basic public facts of history are not. These latter are indisputable and all historians agree on them. No historian disputes the fact of the Second World War or the day on which Japan surrendered. The reasons for the war, and the details of some of the battles, are debatable.

3. The fallacy kicks in

HJ scholars misapply normative historical methods by attempting to use tools that were designed to discover complex or private facts, not primary, public and basic, foundational facts.

Historians of nonbiblical topics start with public facts. HJ historians start with NO public facts at all. They attempt to create these basic facts with tools that were designed to discover something else.

HJ scholars start with a cultural figure, and a set of documents that our cultural heritage has exalted to authoritative status. No-one knows who wrote them, or when, or for whom. They can speculate, with educated guesses, but no more. Cultural heritage — nothing else — has informed us that they are indeed some sort of attempt, however unreliable, to record some sort of historical event about an historical person.

Contrast the tools used by nonbiblical historians. The Magna Carta, the Ems telegram, Caesar’s and Cicero’s writings, epigraphy. We can have varying levels of knowledge or reasonable beliefs about these documents, but they all constitute public facts. Their nature is verifiable and the facts to which they testify are indisputable basics of historical enquiry. It is from such documents — from the public facts they are evidence for — that we can begin to ask more complex questions about other events that were related to these.

But HJ historians start with nothing but the cultural authority of a set of documents, and proceed to apply tools meant to uncover secondary facts to discover primary basic public facts. They can’t. The tools are not designed for that work, and are designed to uncover only “facts” that will always be debatable or subject to revision.

In other words, HJ historians are walking on air. They have no basic and public facts with which to start any truly historical enquiry.

They have only faith in the assumptions of a certain cultural heritage.


And the result of such a fallacious, nonhistorical methodology is inevitable, as McKnight summarizes in CT:

During what’s called the “first quest” for the historical Jesus, in the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders’s Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan’s Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg’s Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright’s Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion. . . .

One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian’s genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.

Of course. There are no basic and public facts from which they are working to begin with — as is the nature of all genuine historical enterprise. Faith has driven them to attempt to create their own basic facts to begin with, such as the baptism of Jesus or his cleansing the Temple. The fact that the Gospel accounts of these are clearly derivative for many of their themes and even details from the OT ought to be enough to warn researchers that they are on a one-way road going the wrong way.


The only reason I can see for lamenting is the disappointment that comes from being unable to offer historical support for one’s faith.

McKnight seems to sigh when he writes:

This is what I said to myself: As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb.

This ought to tell us something. Historians do not have to “think they can prove” that there was a battle of Hastings and it happened in 1066, or “think they can establish that” Captain Cook sighted the east coast of Australia in 1770. As to the reasons for William invading England, or the complex immediate and other reasons Cook was sent on his mission in the first place, are all matters of historical enquiry. They know they can. The evidence is public and indisputable. It is the known basic facts that prompt the historical enquiry in the first place.

Historical enquiry begins with basic and publicly known and indisputable facts that will never go away. It then attempts to build on these facts with historical tools.

HJ enquiry begins with no facts, but attempts to create its basic facts with tools that are designed to yield questionable and debatable results. And worse, it applies these tools to a document that has no more verification as a historical source than conventional wisdom.



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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Scot McKnight’s lament and the fallacy of the HJ historical method”

  1. I would say that the existence of the early church is the public fact the HJ should start with. Of course, most of the secondary conclusions are crap.

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