The Fredriksen Fallacy

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by Neil Godfrey

1243065_131007094825_Jesusof_001The title of this post is a lazy one. In fact, Paula Fredriksen is only one of many biblical historians who are guilty of this fallacy in their historical reconstructions of Jesus. I am merely using one detail from her book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, to illustrate a basic methodological error that is so deeply ingrained in historical Jesus studies that I suspect some will have difficulty grasping what I am talking about.

Fredriksen begins by declaring that historical Jesus studies begin with one indisputable “fact” – that Jesus was crucified by Pilate, and crucifixion was a punishment usually reserved for political insurrectionists. She then links this to a “second incontrovertible fact” (p.9), that Jesus’ followers, his disciples, were not executed.

Fredriksen sees her task as an historian to explain this paradox: why a leader would be executed as an insurrectionist threat, while his followers were ignored. Fredriksen also believes that one of the “trajectories” that must be explained in this context, is the fact that the same followers began the movement that became Christianity soon afterwards. There is more to Fredriksen’s argument, but I am highlighting these aspects of it for the purpose of demonstrating a basic methodological flaw that no historian should commit.

What Fredriksen has apparently overlooked before commencing her work is:

  1. the external evidence for the date her main sources, the canonical gospels, were extant
  2. the politico-religious matrix in which the canonical gospels made their earliest appearance

If the gospels were composed before the second century, it appears we are left with little reason to think that they found a receptive audience until well into the second century. Many scholars seem convinced that Justin Martyr knew of the canonical gospels and referred to them as Memoirs of the Apostles. For the sake of argument I am willing to accept this proposition. I acknowledge this belief has some excellent support in the evidence. Justin’s successor, Tatian, certainly knew of these gospels and composed a harmony of them.

But what should be of significance to any historian who is assessing the nature of their source documents, in this case the canonical gospels, is the intellectual environment in which they make their first appearance. We know Justin was a propagandist, like most of the other “Fathers” of his century, and that one of his keen interests was to justify his theological views, or the views of the Christianity he represented, by tracing its roots back to Jesus through the twelve apostles.

Genealogies were a political tool used to justify the pedigree of one’s own position, and to demonstrate the error of one’s opponents.

Justin proclaimed that the Christian movement or philosophy he represented was sound because it could be traced back to twelve apostles who were witnesses of Jesus’ mission, and his resurrection from the dead. (He apparently knows nothing of any Judas to confuse things, so whenever he speaks of the twelve, he indicates that the same ones who went out through the world preaching the gospel were the same as who were with Jesus during his mission on earth.)

These twelve disciples make their first appearance in the evidence as tools or foils to prove the truth of the Christian message being taught by Justin. They serve an ideological or narrative function.

And that is how the disciples appear in the canonical gospels, too. They serve as dramatic foils in the first part of the synoptic gospel narrative to make Jesus look all the more insightful and righteous beside their own ignorance and cowardice. They are always there to ask the right question, or perform the right act, to bring the right answer needed for the edification of the gospel reader.

They are also there to demonstrate or witness the “fact” of the resurrection. In John’s gospel, we can be excused for thinking that the original author of that gospel only thought of 7 disciples. The few bland and disconnected notes of their being twelve could be later redactions.

So from the very first times we see reference to the disciples of Jesus, they are always there to perfectly fulfill a dramatic, narrative or theological function.

Now it could well be that in real life, in real history, this is what the disciples did really do. And it could be a fact that the only details that survive about the disciples from this time just happen to be those that do serve these most functional purposes.

But then again, one has to wonder. Paula Fredriksen rejects the historicity of the Temple Action (“cleansing of the temple”) by Jesus, and part of her reason is that its details fit too neatly into the dramatic plot structure of the gospels.

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210)

If all the details of the temple action fits the plot so perfectly, then I suggest the same can be said for all the details about the disciples we read in the synoptic gospels.

Fredriksen’s fallacy is not in accepting the disciples as historical, but in accepting them as historical persons without clearly addressing her rationales for doing so. And part of that rationale needs to address the fact that every detail we read about the disciples serves a narrative or theological function. Why not presume, therefore, that they have been created for these purposes?

Historians often reject the historicity of a particular detail in a narrative, such as a miracle, or a fulfilled prophecy, if they can see that its inclusion is tendentious for the sake of a particular doctrine or narrative function. Why not apply the same logic to the disciples themselves?

When one reads history or biographical details of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, one encounters many details and characters that do not necessarily fulfill any plot requirement or serve any political or propaganda interest. We have, therefore, plausible grounds for accepting the probability of the existence of these people. Of course, sometimes additional and seemingly incidental details are created by fiction writers to create an air of verisimilitude. But when we are dealing with writings about which we have corroborating primary evidence, we can feel confident we are in the realm of reading something more or less close to “real history”.

I wish I had time to illustrate the particular points I have made with direct quotations from Justin and the gospels to support the argument I have made. Unfortunately, time constraints just don’t allow that at the moment. So maybe this post can serve as an outline draft for a more complete one some time in the future. Meanwhile, reference to Justin’s statements about the disciples can be found at my vridar.info site.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “The Fredriksen Fallacy”

  1. Neil asked, “Why not presume, therefore, that they have been created for these purposes?”

    All right, I’ve debated with myself whether I wish to go down this road, but I think it needs to be said. If you’re a mainstream NT scholar, you are permitted one quirk with respect to the historical Jesus, so long as that “one quirk” isn’t the unforgivable sin of deciding it’s all myth ‘n’ midrash. With Crossan, it’s his unique trust in the fragmentary Gospel of Peter. With Goodacre, it’s the (gasp) shocking notion that Luke had access to Matthew, thereby calling Q into question. I’m not sure what Dale Martin’s deal is, other than a slavish devotion to whatever Ehrman says on the subject.

    You’re permitted to move the furniture around the room, but you’re not permitted to call the room into question. So a scholar might be so “bold” as to say, “Maybe John’s chronology was right!” And the audience falls into hushed silence. But in no case is it ever permissible to say, “I think all four gospel writers made it all up, based on interpretation of the Scripture, and I’m pretty sure the later three all cribbed off Mark.”

    Having said that, I still have to give credit to Fredriksen for knocking out one of E.P. Sanders’ pillars, namely: “Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.” Sadly, after boldly (and correctly) calling the disturbance in the Temple a load of fiction, she retreats and clings to the remaining “historical facts.”

    As you said, the enigmatic group of “Twelve” bears all the earmarks of myth. First of all, it’s a mythologically significant number — months, tribes, signs of the zodiac, etc. Second, the first time we encounter the term in 1 Corinthians, they’re anonymous. (One thinks of other anonymous characters like Potiphar’s Wife, which point to mythological types.) Third, once they begin to accrue names, the gospel writers can’t seem to agree. John doesn’t even care to name them all. Note this well: What the orthodox churches would later claim to be of utmost importance — viz., apostolic succession — is based on characters with invented names and no external external evidence for their existence.

    Finally, as you rightly point out, they provide dramatic and rhetorical props for the Jesus character. The “disciples” tell the kids to run along and leave the master alone, but Jesus says, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of God.” The disciples are often stand-ins for later church members and leaders who say and do things that the gospel writer disagrees with. I think Oscar Cullman was exactly right when he said that the “suffer the little children” speech has everything to do with the controversy over infant baptism in the late first- and early second-century church and nothing to do with an historical Jesus.

    In fact it’s the maddening refusal of modern, mainstream NT scholars to see the text for what it is — i.e., myth, midrash, and exhortations to faith — that keeps the field stagnant. I think they’re worried that if they admit the gospels contain practically no useful historical information about the “real Jesus” that they’ll be out of a job. (That, and be branded a fool.) Not at all! The New Testament contains excellent historical information about the history of the formation of the church and the creation of Christianity, which is every bit as interesting as (if not more than) the question of the historical Jesus.

    1. “The New Testament contains excellent historical information about the history of the formation of the church”–not when you accept it at face value. You have to delayer it like an onion. Otherwise you’re just accepting the propaganda of the author of Acts.

  2. “Fredriksen sees her task as an historian to explain this paradox: why a leader would be executed as an insurrectionist threat, while his followers were ignored.”

    In the Oxyrhynchus fragment thought to be from the gospel of Peter the disciples are being sought by the authorities “as wishing to set the temple on fire.”

  3. BTW, Neil this is off topic but I am wondering if you’ve ever noticed how two of the main themes of the Baal Cycle (1. Baal wanting to be king but Yam being chosen instead then Baal bashing his head in; 2. Baal building a ‘house’ then dedicating it with thousands of sacrifices) tie in so well with the story of David versus Saul over the kingship and then of David/Solomon building the temple. Just as David says “I dwell in a house of Cedar but Yahweh dwells in a tent” the Baal is about Baal not having a house like the other gods and of a desire to build the house using Cedars of Lebananon (actually they do, then Baal somehow transforms the Cedar into gold and silver). Just wandering if you’ve encountered any comparisons of this material your research on David.

  4. One sometimes sees Meier referenced as an authority who has established a sound case for the historicity of the twelve, and I’ve addressed his argument in depth. There are so many reasons to see them as fiction and the arguments for their historicity are, well — I was reading a book with a chapter discussing the wrongs of western intellectuals in relation to the Israel-Palestine atrocities, and came across the word “pseudoscholarship”. My mind began to wander with that one back to the biblical scholars.

    Another word I think comes in handy as an apt descriptor in relation to a number of issues is “intellectual snobbery”.

    1. On the subject of “intellectual snobbery,” I’m reminded of the way NT scholars will frequently fall back on what one might call the magnum corpus or huge-pile argument. It goes something like this:

      There is a huge pile of evidence that I’ve examined closely for several decades. To understand that huge pile, you would need to have a expert knowledge of Greek, Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. Also, you’d have to be really smart, like me. It is terribly unfortunate that I cannot express my arguments in brief, logical statements backed up with clear evidence (even though that’s my job). That’s because I’ve come to my conclusions via a kind of Gestalt. I can see the entire sweep of NT studies in my mind’s eye. So in the end, you’re going to have to trust me. I know the New Testament contains material that goes back to the real, historical Jesus. It’s all a matter of applying historical criteria to the text; with them we can separate the treasure from the trash.

      While watching the Ehrman v. Evans debate (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2010/05/bart-ehrman-vs-craig-evans-on-does-new.html) recently, I couldn’t help noticing a few curious bits. First, Ehrman, a middle-of-the-road NT scholar is presented as some kind of radical. He doesn’t see himself that way, but the general public does. So he stakes out the boundaries of the left. Craig Evans, the pretend-scholar and apologist, stakes out the “reasonable right.”

      Partway through the debate, Ehrman says he’s been working with the texts for decades and he knows where the problems lie and he also “knows” that some parts of the New Testament go back to what Jesus really said and did. It’s a big pile, you see…

      Of course I agree with a lot of what Ehrman had to say. His unanswered question about the historical Jesus claiming to be divine is a good one. How could one avoid being stoned by the angry mob after having said, “I and the Father are one”? But Bart simply has far too much faith in his historical criteria. In the end, they leave him with plausible, not probable, events and sayings. Chaining plausible events together does not make them more probable, and this might be the most common fallacy in NT scholarship today. If I lay out a series of dependent plausible events with low or unknown probability, they don’t magically become more probable. In fact, improbability and error are multiplied.

      “What’s the purpose of the Yellow Brick Road if not to lead to the Emerald City? And why would the Emerald City exist if not for the great and powerful Oz?” Hang on here. I think we have a problem of putting too much stock in plausible assumptions. (Paraphrasing Price.)

  5. Nice post Neil, nice comment timvonhobbyhorsen [it needs to be said].

    I view the disciples much as Lou Costello viewed Bud Abbott and Eric Morecombe viewed Ernie Wise.

    “Straight men” that suppplied the openings and the responses that allowed the comic partner to go into his routine [except this is not comedy, is it?].
    They are there to lubricate the plot, literary devices, McGuffins if you wish, [see link below] to allow the authors to have Jesus answer their questions and provide him with the opportunities to expound the ideas of the authors.
    If they didn’t exist it would have been necessary to invent them.

    I remember reading one commentary, on “John” I think, maybe by Ernst Haenchen, whose response to his own question as to why the pharisees were wandering about in the wheat fields when JC’s disciples were plucking grain was that they were required to be there so the author could set up the exposition by JC that follows.
    Necessary literary devices, fiulfilling the same basic function as the disciples do so frequently.


    1. Thanks, mcduff.

      On the question of why the Pharisees were wandering amid the wheat, I’m reminded of the tortured argument for the chronology of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics. If the disciples were plucking ripened grain, then we can determine how many months it was until Passover, etc.

      But to me it’s like over-analyzing a joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister walking into a bar. We shouldn’t infer from the joke that “in the late 20th century, clergy of various stripes used to visit saloons, engaging in civil, albeit jocular, conversations.” No, it’s just a joke. The lead-in and the window dressing aren’t the point; they’re there to get us to the punch line.

      1. Speaking of tortured arguments, I had to re-read the arguments of Crossley and Casey about why Jesus was not accused of plucking corn on the sabbath while his disciples were, and why Pharisees were in the same corn field at the time. I had to re-read them to be sure I had not misunderstood since they are so over the top. I am sure if Steph or Crossley themselves see them summarized here out of the context of their scholarly journals they will immediately blast me for misrepresenting them. But they seriously argue that Jesus was not as poor as the disciples, and so did not qualify as “one of the poor” who were entitled to pluck grain from fields when hungry. (So why did Jesus not foresee the problem and share his packed lunch with them, or return to the house or accept hospitality from his many followers. — One scholar replied to my facetious reply that my packed lunch analogy was an anachronism! Duh!) And the Pharisees were there because they also had a right to be there too, just like Jesus, (why not?)– and also they were only being reasonable in thinking it wise to keep a close eye on what Jesus and his disciples might be doing given past controversies.

        And all of this is meant to be more plausible explanation than that the author set up the scene as a “macguffin”.

        Creationists and Moon landing hoaxers tend to avoid the scientific guilds and concoct their fancies in their isolation from them, and scoff at those whose scholarship they ignore or do not understand. In biblical studies we seem to have some reversal of this: the looney mainstream and the serious outsider.

  6. ‘But they seriously argue that Jesus was not as poor as the disciples, and so did not qualify as “one of the poor” who were entitled to pluck grain from fields when hungry.’

    Were tax collectors generally poor people, reduced to scrounging food from fields?

    But surely a serious scholar like Casey or Crossley would examine all alternatives.

    Crossley’s book, being the work of a serious scholar, would explain why he considered the hypothesis of the story being a set up, and what led him to reject that hypothesis.

    That is what scholars do. They weigh and judge possibilities, giving reasoned arguments why they reject certain possibilities.

    Or perhaps it just never occurred to James Crossley that the story might not be historical?

    If it never occurs to you that a story is possibly not historical, not even the greatest scholar can explain why he rejected a possibility that never occurred to him.

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