The relevance of “minimalists'” arguments to historical Jesus studies

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by Neil Godfrey

The arguments of the “minimalists” questioning the historical core of many of the narratives of the “Old Testament” — and ultimately the historical existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon, and the biblical Kingdom of Israel — apply with as much logical force to questions of the existence of Jesus. The minimalists showed that scholarly beliefs in a historical Biblical Kingdom of Israel were based on circular reasoning. The same circular reasoning and assumptions underlie belief in the historicity of Jesus.

“Minimalist” arguments are not just about the archaeological evidence.

They are more fundamental and generic than that. They have, I believe, direct relevance to historical Jesus and early Christian studies — any studies, in fact, that rely on reading the narratives in the Gospels and Acts as if they have some historical basis.

Time gaps and archaeological evidence are irrelevant to the fundamental logic underlying the arguments.

Below are statements by “minimalists” themselves that were originally directed at the way scholars once read the Jewish Bible as a historical source for “biblical Israel”. They are relevant for anyone who approaches the Gospels as historical sources. The Gospels are certainly historical sources, but the narratives they tell are not necessarily historical at all, nor even based on any core historical events.

Philip R. Davies on Tail Chasing

Philip Davies discusses only the study of ancient Israel. He does not address Jesus or early Christianity. It is my argument that his discussion applies equally well to these.

Philip Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel (1992) is reputed to have been the publication that triggered the “minimalist”-“maximalist” debate over the historicity of biblical Israel. In the 1994 preface, Davies wrote of this book:

I feel that this book still makes a good case for an approach to the investigation of the Bible, its authors and creators, which is becoming more widely adopted.

The approach has not impacted New Testament studies, however. I think this is a pity and unjustifiable. But then, Jesus has a more solid iconic status in our culture than David or Abraham.

Read the following critique directed at “Old Testament” scholars back in 1992 and see if it is relevant to scholars of the Gospels and Acts:

Davies wrote (pp. 35-36)

historical research by biblical scholars has taken a . . . circular route, whose stages can be represented more or less as follows:

1. The biblical writers, when writing about the past, were obviously informed about it and often concerned to report it accurately to their readers. A concern with the truth of the past can be assumed. Therefore, where the literary history is plausible, or where it encounters no insuperable objections, it should be accorded the status of historical fact. The argument is occasionally expressed that the readers of these stories would be sufficiently knowledgeable (by tradition?) of their past to discourage wholesale invention.

2. Much of the literature is itself assigned to quite specific settings within that story (e.g. [the time of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Gallio, Gamaliel, Agrippa]). If the biblical literature is generally correct in its historical portrait, then these datings may be relied upon.

3. . . . Thus, where a plausible context in the literary history can be found for a biblical writing, that setting may be posited, and as a result there will be mutual confirmation, by the literature of the setting, and by the setting of the literature. . . .

4. Where the writer (‘redactor’) of the biblical literature is recognized as having been removed in time from the events he describes or persons whose words he reports . . . he must be presumed to rely on sources or traditions close to the events. Hence even when the literary source is late, its contents will nearly always have their point of origin in the time of which they speak. The likelihood of a writer inventing something should generally be discounted in favour of a tradition, since traditions allow us a vague connection with ‘history’ . . .

Each of these assertions can be encountered, in one form or another in the secondary literature. But it is the underlying logic which requires attention rather than these (dubious) assertions themselves. That logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself.

Why these, and not opposing, assumptions?

One might as readily posit alternative assumptions in response to the four above, as Davies himself suggests. As I have previously summarized on vridar.info

  1. Regarding #1, This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up.
  2. Regarding #2, This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.
  3. Regarding #3, Good storytellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”
  4. Regarding #4, This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

The relevance of the time gap (and circularity in dating the Gospels)

Although Davies is addressing a different situation from what we find with the Gospels, the force and logic of his argument are just as relevant to the study of the Gospels. The books of Kings and the Prophets were assumed by scholars to have been contemporaneous with the events they purported to describe (e.g. the lives of David and Solomon, the sins of the Kings Jeroboam and Ahab, etc). If scholars ever thought that those books were indeed written centuries after the events they narrate, then they could have seen quickly and easily that many of the stories may well have had no historical basis.

Thus the time-gap is relevant to the extent that it makes a difference to how easily scholars can recognize the logical flaws of their four-stage set of assumptions above.

And the dating of the Gospels and Acts is bound up with the assumptions of the historicity of their narratives. Scholars begin by assuming the basic historicity of the narratives in the Gospels and Acts, and date the gospels as close as possible to those presumed historical events in their narratives.

If New Testament scholars relied on external evidence for the dating of the Gospels and Acts, they would be obliged to place them up to a full century or more after the supposed time of Jesus.

Need for verification independent of the Gospel-Acts narratives

Davies wrote this in a chapter-section he titled “Tail chasing”. The above arguments traditionally used by scholars to affirm a basic historicity of narratives — and the dating of their Gospel-Acts sources — are circular.

If either the historicity of the biblical construct of the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken.  But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline — and render it invalid.

One difference

There is one significant difference between applying “minimalist” arguments to biblical Israel and to early Christianity. In the case of the former we have a geographical area and time-layers of archaeological strata to investigate the primary evidence of the Canaanite or Palestinian culture. The study of the creation and nature of the biblical texts is a separate study that may only be indirectly related to this particular archaeological study, if at all. There are thus two different studies to be undertaken.

In the case of early Christian literature like the Gospels, we have only the literature itself to study in its own right. Archaeological studies are of much less relevance since they can tell us nothing about the lives and thoughts of individuals who left no material remains. (Rene Salm’s study of the archaeological evidence for the settlement of Nazareth in the time of Jesus, and studies on the existence of synagogues in early first century Galilee, are relevant, though.)

Niels Peter Lemche on Playing the Von Ranke Game

Another leading “minimalist” scholar is Niels Peter Lemche. I refer to his 1998 book, The Israelites in History and Tradition. (Again, Lemche does not discuss Jesus or the Gospels. But it is my argument that the logic of his discussion applies with equal force to these.)

Lemche addresses the difference between primary and secondary evidence in the study of the history of Israel, and begins with the need to clearly understand the difference according to the “father of modern historiography”, Leopold von Ranke.

According to Leopold von Ranke, the historian who intends to re-create the past should always concentrate on the acknowledged contemporary sources and delegate all other kinds of information to a second place.

By primary evidence Lemche (and von Ranke) means evidence that can be dated without problems as contemporary with the events they describe. It is evidence that must physically belong to the period about which it is taken as firsthand information.

But there is a trap here. There can be a tendency to treat material in late secondary sources as “primary evidence”. For example, many scholars have considered the letters from Persian kings quoted in Ezra and Nehemiah as primary documentary material from the time of those Persian kings – as primary evidence.

Playing the game of von Ranke does not include the splitting of late sources into, on one side, material considered to be contemporary evidence, and on the other, secondary material. Evidence is either secondary, that is, removed in time from the period under discussion, or it is primary, belonging to the period. That cannot be decided on the basis of a majority vote among scholars.

Yet historical Jesus scholars do often attempt to decide what is “primary evidence” or bedrock fact (e.g. sayings of Jesus, particular acts of Jesus) on the basis of majority votes or the extent to which arguments can persuade peers.

Narratives (whether in Ezra and Nehemiah, or the Books of Kings, or the Gospels and Acts) may refer to earlier acts and sayings. But those narrative details can only be elevated to the status of primary sources if it can be proved beyond doubt that they really do belong to that earlier period.

The same need for independent verification of narratives thought to be historical as made by Davies is made by Lemche (p.29):

Although it certainly creates problems for the assumption that the Old Testament is a source for ancient Israelite history [or that the Gospels are a source for a historical Jesus], this verdict has nothing to do with denying the historicity of the events narrated by the authors of the historical literature of the Old Testament [or Gospels]. Everything narrated by them may in principle be historical, but the biblical text cannot in advance be accepted as a historical source or documentation; it has in every single case to prove its status as a historical source.

Many scholars have accused the so-called “minimalists” of hyper-scepticism. But that charge originates from a misunderstanding.

Although it is sometimes maintained that a certain part of Old Testament scholarship is at the present characterized by negative attitude toward the biblical texts as a historical source, this opinion is false. The text of the Old Testament [and Gospels-Acts] is, for the simple reason that it is an old document, a historical source. The question is only about what. It might be that the description of the reign of David contained in the books of Samuel is historically correct, as seen from the perspective of its late author. It cannot be excluded. However, it has to be proved that the narrative is historically reliable as far as the tenth century is concerned. It is not something that can be assumed in advance.

The circularity of “proofs” again

I have demonstrated in earlier posts (e.g. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus) that historical Jesus scholars begin with assumptions about the historicity of Jesus and the basic outline of the Gospel narrative. Their arguments for the historicity of specific events are all a priori arguments based on this assumption. It is circular reasoning for scholars then to claim (as several do) that these arguments “prove” the historicity of Jesus and certain of his deeds and sayings.

Lemche addressed the same point in relation to Old Testament studies (pp.29-30):

It is traditionally believed to be a respectable enterprise to try to show that a certain event narrated by the Old Testament really happened and that the narrative is for that reason a valuable source. It is at least as respectable, however, to try to show that the text does not carry any information about the period worth speaking about. In both cases the scholar should employ an identical set of methods and proceed from the same basic assumption, that the text of the Old Testament is not a primary source of the history of Israel. It is later than the events mentioned in it and therefore a secondary source to the past, the historical value of which has to be demonstrated  and not accepted in advance of the historical analysis. To assume the historicity of a biblical narrative in advance is unscholarly . . . .

Thomas L. Thompson on Confusing Stories with Historical Evidence

Thompson is another well-known heavyweight “minimalist”. Unlike Davies and Lemche, however, he has ventured into the edges of the question of the historicity of Jesus. I quote from one of his works primarily addressing the Old Testament literature, The Mythic Past (also published as The Bible in History). The same arguments apply to the Gospels, and in this case I think I can safely say that Thompson himself has in effect said as much.

It hasn’t helped that those who are interested in the development of historical research in this region have avoided the implications of the mythical and literary overtones that are a constant of all of the Bible’s stories. They have chosen rather a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity. For example, even when speaking of stories filled with literary fantasy, they speak of a ‘biblical record’ and of the Bible’s ‘account of the past’. The rhetoric of archaeology avoids the useful scepticism that historians usually have ready at hand whenever iron is reported to float on water. (p.38)

James Crossley was outraged when I used his work to illustrate how Thompson’s point about the rhetoric of historicity is used also by scholars of the Gospels.

Many scholars think that by rationalizing the tales of the miraculous in the Gospels is the way to get at the (assumed) real history behind them. Thompson would reply:

Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (p.44)

A fundamental error of method

It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians have often done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales. (p.45)

If David and Solomon are narrated as tall tales, where does that leave the man who had conversations with Satan and walked on water and out of a tomb?

History or parable?

To bring in some comments from Thompson’s The Messiah Myth here:

That the stories of the gospels are about a historical person is a difficult assumption. To what extent does the figure of Jesus — like the figures of Abraham, Moses and Job — fulfill a function in a narrative discourse about something else? Is Jesus rather — like so many other great figures on ancient literature — the bearer of a writer’s parable? The question does not refer to our knowledge of a historical person. It asks about the meaning and function of biblical texts. (p.9)

The problem with the Gospels as historical sources

In reiteration of the points of Davies and Lemche on the need for sources independent of the biblical texts to confirm the historicity of their narratives, Thompson writes:

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for in the ancient world apart from monumental inscriptions and gravestones, . . . . (p.9)

This problem, as Thompson goes on to address, has led to the importance placed on oral traditions. (Or in the case of Maurice Casey, an Aramaic source for the Gospel of Mark.)

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus. (p.11)

So once again we see a circularity at work. Historicity is an assumption and Jesus historians use arguments built on that assumption to claim they can prove that assumption.

I have discussed Thompson’s comments on the historicity of the existence, sayings and deeds of Jesus in an earlier post and won’t repeat any more of those here.


Are the above arguments confined to “the minimalists”?


Albert Schweitzer recognized their fundamental logic and methodological soundness before Davies, Lemche and Thompson were born.

The lack of external controls — independent verification — of the Gospel narratives means that, logically, the Church must always be prepared to address the possibility of the nonhistoricity of Jesus:

In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation. (Quest, p.402)

Critics caught out a modern historian, Eric Hobsbawm, for basing some of his research on the assumption that narratives he had heard about certain bandit figures in Latin America were indeed historical. He accepted the criticism and noted:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

This methodological problem of assuming the historicity of a narrative is highlighted in another context (re the evidence of Papias) by a biblical scholar back in 1904:

The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

It is no different with Christian authors.

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.

Wider relevance of the “minimalist” methods

So the arguments of the minimalists are nothing other than an attempt to extend the logical and methodological consistency we should expect of any historiographical enterprise to the study of the Gospels.

Some other posts addressing this topic

  1. Historical Facts and the Very Unhistorical Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ sham methodology
  2. Contrasting methods: nonbiblical historians vs biblical historians
  3. Assumptions of historicity
  4. Evidence for the Unhistorical “fact” of Jesus’ death
  5. Historicist misunderstanding
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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “The relevance of “minimalists'” arguments to historical Jesus studies”

  1. Aren’t the minimalists doing history in such a way that leads to people denying the Holocaust?

    This is a view that has been expressed on this site by some commentators….

  2. As one Anglican cleric and scholar once remarked to me, it appears that Judaism can get along without a historical Abraham, so presumably Christianity might find a way to carry on without a historical Jesus, too. (Not that he thought Jesus was mythical — he was responding to a hypothetical I put to him.)

    And then lo and behold, I finally catch up with reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest, and find that he actually called for a Christianity that left the historical Jesus to the side and built a more “metaphysical” foundation not built on the historical person.

    But I read quite often Christian scholars today insisting that Christianity must at all costs be founded on the historical Jesus. So much for Schweitzer.

    So I don’t think it is a question of rationalism versus something else. Rational enquiry has a place, and a rational inquiry into the Gospels is legitimate. I see no need to fear rationalism sucking all into its cold brain. There is always the inevitability of mystery, wonder and awe as part of the experience of life. Music and metaphor are bound up with our very existence. Most people find some form of religious outlet for all of these parts of our nature. I don’t know if that is just the nature of humans or if it is something that the species will or can eventually outgrow.

    I find so much wonder and magic in the world that is opened up by reason and reality — it is not a matter of either/or, one or the other.

  3. ‘One of the confusions of the damned will be that they will be condemned by their own reason, with which they have claimed to disprove the Christian religion.
    Two extremes: to rule out reason, and then to admit nothing but reason.
    If we submit everthing to reason, there will be no mystery and no supernatural supernatural element in our religion. If we violate the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd, and we will be laughed at.’ – Pascal, The Pensees, 1. 2-4

    1. I don’t see how anyone at this point in time could prove or disprove “the Christian religion”. But claims of fact can be challenged. Actually, historically there were Christian religions (plural). It’s not clear that all absolutely depended on the historicity of a man, Jesus, considering there were docetic portrayals of this Christ figure and mythologies with meaning not dependent on historical veracity.

      We all use assumptions. Lots of modern-day Christians have faith in a historical Jesus, etc. Others who use a Christ figure either don’t place emphasis on historicity or don’t even care one way or another.

      We have modern historians who study biblical history. So, what presuppositions should they accept? Should biblical historians assume historicity of Jesus on faith sans independent verification of biblical narratives, or should they assume the same standards used by historians in other fields?

      Bottom line: What is the purpose of a biblical historian? To perpetuate religion or to research actual history?

  4. I remember reading Schweitzer’s thoughts on St. Paul’s mysticism, and it was somewhat “metaphysical”, but also placed the effort on the philosophy of reverence and mystery “itself”. Note St. Paul’s 2 Cor. 5:16, but this hardly negates the “historical”, but presses the spiritual in great emphasis. There must be honest balance in both the historical and what Paul would call the greater and certainly “Christ Jesus” spirituality! The so-called Pauline “historical” is also very great!

  5. Neil,
    I really like your blog coming from a level headed and well reasoned atheist perspective but seemingly civil without an axe to grind. As to this post, I think that if one applies a rigid modern historiography to the gospels, there can be no certainty of an historical Jesus. One of the main problems that Christianity has faced over the past 150 years or so is the reluctance of a Christian religion formed amidst the ancient worldview to conform to modern scientific, reason oriented, historical fact based worldview. The gospels for the most part fit into Greco-Roman historiography, or more specifically the Greek “bios” (biography). Unfortunately, for the typical modern, Greco-Roman biography has completely different goals than modern historiography, only partially attempting to represent the “facts” of history. This has led skeptics to reject ancient historiographical documents entirely, and conservatives (fundamentalists) to fully accept the gospels as “modern history” and to deny all naysayers by hiding their heads in the sand. Is there any middle way?

  6. Should there be a “middle” way? The so-called “minimalists” are not nihilistic sceptics. They have established the texts in contexts that explain their origins and contents much better than any other. “Hyper-sceptics” are reacting to fundamentalists or any faith-perspective. Secular and rational historical inquiry is not about reacting against faith any more than it is about serving as an apology for it.

    Unfortunately some faiths depend upon a belief in a particular set of events in history.

  7. Yes, Christian Existentialism! With Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps first both Pascal and Kieerkegaard somewhat. For Bultmann the “Death” of Christ was the foremost reality!

  8. Neil,

    You Sir are hardly “neutral”, your presuppositions “smolder” just like mine. They are just different! And anyone who really cares about St. Paul’s “Mission”, must read the new book edited by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Terry L. Wilder: ‘Entrusted With the Gospel. Paul’s Theology In the Pastoral Epistles’.

      1. Neil,

        Indeed we can see St. Paul’s style of the “indicative and imperative” or “gift and task” in both Galatians and the Pastorals. (Gal.1:4-6, etc. / 1 Tim.1:4-5; 6:13, Gal.5:23/Tit.1:6 / 1 Tim.1:12/Gal.2:7. It is St. Paul’s moral and spiritual teaching, as Titus 3:1-7, etc. But one must be reading the biblical text in the lens of the pastoral, and not just some position of the critical mass, etc. If you really care? The said book edited by Kostenberger and Wilder should be required reading!

  9. It covers both those “for” and those “against”, but the two editors do argue for the real Paul! As I do myself, but ya knew that one I suspect, lol.

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