Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?

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by Neil Godfrey

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James McGrath, biblical scholar, historian and Christian, has written that historical studies of Jesus cannot explain what happened that gave rise among early Christians to the belief in the resurrection. Whatever they experienced — and clearly he believes the evidence confirms that they certainly experienced something unusual — is beyond the ability of history to explain. The reason is, simply, that history deals with “the ordinary” (to use McGrath’s words), and the resurrection is not an ordinary event.

Result: Historians must simply not touch this topic of the resurrection. They cannot. It is left to be a mystery. One of the unexplained or unanswered questions historians so often have to face. McGrath in blog comments has literally insisted that this “inexplicable” is no different from a host of other questions historians in any field cannot answer! I suggest that historians in other fields do not construct models that can only be explained by a miracle.

One might say that his is a bit like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. One tries to sound like a “man of the world” for whatever reasons, and to prove to others that one is a “man of the world”, but at the same time one secretly believes that one is really a part of another world.

But John Dominic Crossan has written that this approach (and McGrath is representative in this of very many of his peers, I am sure) is unethical. Before citing Crossan, here are McGrath’s words from The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith

[H]istorical study will never be able to state that it is more probable that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb for miraculous as opposed to ordinary reasons. Historical study deals with the ordinary . . . . And since most religious believers would agree resurrections are both unusual and improbable events, for that very reason no historian will ever be able to say “the body was probably missing because God raised Jesus from the dead.(p.95)

[I]f historians fail to account for the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, the appropriate conclusions for them to draw as historians is that we do not know for certain what happened to Jesus’ body. This is as far as historical study can take us with respect to this particular matter. (p.96)

Obviously, historical study by definition cannot hope to study that which lies outside the bounds of historical existence. (p. 99)

As we have already seen, what precisely motivated them [the earliest Christians] to believe that Jesus had been raised (the disappearance of the body, visions of angels, visions of Jesus himself, encounter with a living person they believed to be Jesus) is difficult if not impossible to say from a historians perspective. (p.121)

An empty tomb can always be explained in various ways; it is only the experiences of the early Christians (and many others since) which indicate that something out of the ordinary may have happened. (p. 125)

When I cited that second last quote earlier McGrath disingenuously protested that by “impossible to say” he did not mean anything miraculous or ineffable at all (even though the theme of his whole book was how believers with faith in the miraculous need to understand history), but simply and quite innocently was referring to a situation confronting historians “all the time”. Yeh, right. Of course. Nonbiblical historians are always confronting situations that just happen to be resolvable only by the intervention of a Christian miracle although every nonChristian really does think it is just a matter of lack of evidence for a natural explanation.)

Compare Crossan’s discussion of what McGrath is doing here. Crossan think it is unethical for Christian historians to use the rhetoric of “impossible to say” or “we do not know for certain what happened” or “something out of the ordinary may have happened” in order to bracket off certain miraculous events from discussion. Why? Because it is a rule they reserve for their own faith sources and do not apply to the claims of non-Christians.  They do not read of the mysterious circumstances of the death of Romulus and say that since one “tradition” says he was taken up to heaven in a cloud, and another “tradition” says there was a secret conspiracy to murder him, that we cannot know what really happened to him! The do not say, in response to the “traditions” of the miraculous deaths and heavenly ascents of Heracles and Asclepius or Apollonius of Tyana what happened at their deaths!

This, then, is my problem, and I repeat that it is an ethical one. Anti-Christian or direct rationalism says that certain things cannot (or, more wisely, do not) happen. They are so far beyond the publicly verifiable or objectively provable consistencies of our world that, whatever their value as myth or parable, fable or story, they are not to be taken as fact, event, or history. It is easy, of course, to mock that attack, but we all live by it every day, especially where others are involved. (Where are you on aliens or Elvis?) Pro-Christian or indirect rationalism admits that those same types of events usually do not occur but insists that in one absolutely unique instance they did. A divine conception of a bodily resurrection, for example, has happened literally only once in the whole history of the world. To Jesus. When Christians as historians bracket from discussion or quarantine from debate those specific event but not all other such claims, post and present, they do something I consider unethical. (p. 29, Birth of Christianity)

Some might be kinder and say they are being logically inconsistent rather than unethical. But then maybe logical inconsistency can be considered a euphemism for intellectual dishonesty among those who can be expected to know better.

But one must not take sides. As for Crossan’s less than full and open frankness with evidence he uses, see my previous post. Who was it who wrote something recently about

The rationalizations, the apologies, the ‘buts’, the tortured exegesis, the negative labeling, the side-stepping, the illogical claims accumulate until they create an insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy . . . .  ?

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?”

  1. I can’t see why James McGrath’s views on historians would be of meaning or value. James McGrath is not a historian. James McGrath is employed and paid to promote interest in the supernatural. Why would anyone care about his views on the work historians do? What will be next, is he going to comment on what chefs or brain surgeons do? Seriously, McGrath is not a historian, so I can’t see why his comments about historians do would be of importance to anyone.


    1. James is not important in himself as an historian, but he does infer that he speaks on behalf of many HJ historians generally when he explains to those of “the faith” what “historians” do and how they do it. He articulates the approaches of HJ/early church biblical historians generally. It’s his articulation of their methods that I am really wishing to address. And in this case, since I happened to be re-reading some of Crossan, I was reminded of a basic conflict between what such historians do or think and what they say they do or think.

  2. First, you screw up the apostrophe in reproducing my words where the apostrophe is used correctly.

    Then, you say I’m disingenuous when I point out that you misunderstood and/or misconstrued my point.

    Then, you make a false dichotomy between Crossan and myself where in fact we both would agree. I don’t think Crossan would say that we can recover the psychological experiences that are never recorded in detail and which led the very first Christians to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead. And both Crossan and I agree that, with respect to those things that can be studied historically, historical tools and methods should be brought to bear on them.

    I don’t care that you draw strange conclusions. But it would be nice if you could at least be fair and accurate in your depiction of the views of others.

  3. I am quite sure Crossan’s ethical dilemma is more academic than personal. And I am quite sure everything you say about Crossan’s and your positions in your reply here is quite true.

    What you mean by fair and accurate, I think, is that you’d rather I do not notice and publicly comment on the logical and methodological inconsistencies riddling biblical historical studies and exposing it for the sham they are. You should be grateful I quoted you and Crossan in detail and set the two side by side in order to be fair and accurate on this particular point.

  4. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, if Jesus was historical, then we do not know what happened to his body, althogh we DO know for certain that he was NOT resurrected from the dead.

    1. That would be more accurate. But my contention is that we have no reason to think that the narrative has any historical basis at all. It would be more profitable and justifiable if real historians would do what Finke and Shichtman have done with the King Arthur narratives: investigate why a set of narratives about Arthur/Jesus suddenly emerges full-blown, virtually from nowhere, as important orthodox documents from about the mid second century, and why they became the foundation of the orthodox Christian story. (Paraphrasing Hector Avalos from The End of Biblical Studies here.)

  5. Is it impossible , even in theory, for a historian to say why Scientologists came to believe what they do?

    Or is it impossible to say why Joseph Smith would read from the Book of Ether for comfort in times of trouble for him?

    Are these just out of bounds for responsible historians?

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