Detectives make biblical historians look like Sherlock Holmes

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by Neil Godfrey

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of months ago I tried to spotlight the fallacious circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies by describing what it would mean if detectives were to use the same starting assumptions in relation to their evidence as biblical scholars use when studying the historical Jesus. (Biblical Historians Make Detectives Look Silly.) One biblical doctoral scholar regularly complained that my analogy was not valid because I “made it up”.  Well, of course I made up the analogy. I had no choice. Detectives are not really so silly as to approach evidence the same way HJ scholars do. They would only be that silly if they approached criminal evidence the way historical Jesus scholars approach biblical evidence.

Now on my iPhone some months back I downloaded the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and I have since read quite a number of them commuting to and from work. After reading a dozen or more of them I am getting a feel for how to predict where and among which characters Sherlock Holmes is going to find his culprits.

The stories all start with either a mysterious set of facts or a narrative that seems on the face of it to point to but one conclusion but that Holmes realizes is not the solution at all.

It’s all clever stuff. Holmes pieces this little clue here with that little clue there. Generally, he will go out of his way to do extra research that takes him away from the immediate scene of the crime and return with fresh insights that astound the mystified.

What he is attempting to do is re-create what happened.

Sherlock Holmes is attempting to solve fictional narratives. And I’m not the only reader, no doubt, who attempts to enter the game and attempt to solve things before they are all revealed at the end.

Historians, on the other hand, can generally see what has happened, and seek to explain why or how it happened.

Historical Jesus historians are confronted with a narrative that makes little historical or natural sense. (Unless you believe miracles make sense of and explain everything.) Like a puzzle at the opening of a Sherlock Holmes story. They attempt to do a Holmes and solve the riddle and explain what must have happened to produce the (senseless) narrative points we have.

Historians start with the facts of what has happened. The rewarding research is in exploring why or how it happened. That might uncover new facts, but they will be facts with newly exposed evidence, not speculative guesswork.

Historical biographers will attempt to explore the motivations and makeups of historical characters, but they will work with the evidence at hand. They don’t set up a bunch of criteria to try to decide, point by point, all the things that the character actually did or said!

So let me make amends for my earlier post that made detectives look silly. Let’s conclude that Historical Jesus scholars look as good as Sherlock Holmes!

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Detectives make biblical historians look like Sherlock Holmes”

  1. If I’m following your thought process correctly, you seem to be saying that NT scholars infer too many “facts” from the actual facts that we have.

    I would suppose that an undeniable fact is that Christianity happened. The individuals/communities that produced Christian literature factually existed. How Christianity happened and what the motivations of the communities that produced Christian literature is not so factual, but based on interpretations of those primary facts.

    Historical Jesus scholars infer from the two facts I wrote (I’m not implying that those are all of the possible “facts”) that an actual Jesus existed based on a biased sampling of Christian literature. After inferring such, they presuppose the “fact” of Jesus’ existence to explain the existence of Christianity and Christian communities. This winds up with a dog chasing its tail scenario, the circularity of New Testament and historical Jesus scholarship.

    1. Hi J.Quinton,

      That’s sort of what I’m trying to say. I’m also trying to address the issue of exactly what is a “fact”. Much has been written about that question by historians, but here’s where I’m coming from. The gospels are narratives about people and events, and unless there is some evidence outside those narratives for any of those events/people, then we have no way of deciding if the narrative is “historically factual” to any extent or not. (But there might be other reasons that favour the argument that the narrative is fiction.)

      So when historical Jesus scholars conclude from a “biased sampling of Christian literature”, they are doing something a bit more than just making inferences from that sampling. They are making assumptions that that literature is about real history to some extent. But there is no evidence to justify that assumption. It is just a “faith declaration” that a set of literature is based on historical fact. They make this faith declaration without appeal to reliable corroborating evidence. (I stress “reliable”.) Someone else, with as much logical justification, can simply declare (make a faith declaration) that the literature is all fiction.

      We need to have justifiable reasons — additional evidence — to enable us to decide if a narrative is based on history or is totally fictitious.

      I can think of evidence that does point to the latter option. I know of none that suggests the former. And my recent experience with the more learned of biblical scholars is that they will go bananas before they give you any evidence for the former.

  2. Sherlock Holmes was based on a real person.

    Therefore, a Real Historian concludes that Sherlock Holmes existed, and that if you deny that Sherlock Holmes existed, you are also denying that Julius Ceasar existed.

  3. ‘Historical Jesus historians are confronted with a narrative that makes little historical or natural sense.’

    That means that it must be true.

    Why would anybody make up a story of a crucified Messiah?

  4. Steven,

    1) I am still reading Sherlock Holmes stories, and in nearly every one I am astonished that biblical scholars have not published the clear evidence that they are all absolutely historical and factual. Just about every short story appeals to the newspaper headlines, famous names, street addresses, police records, that are all clearly contemporary and within the geographical range of many of the readers. No author could possibly have gotten away with fabricating such references if everyone of his audience could test them out merely by consulting recent newspapers and nearby street addresses etc.

    2) Every time I make some comment like “an impossible story” I do have a twinge that I am touching on the weak spot of my argument. I fully acknowledge each time that many biblical historians would use such descriptions as the strongest evidence that they are the most possible. :-/

    1. It must have been embarrassing for the author to have Sherlock Holmes as a morphine and cocaine user.

      The later stories have Watson claiming to have weaned Holmes off drugs,proving how embarrassing it was to the community that produced those texts.

      Therefore, we can be certain that Holmes drug habit is a historical reality.

    2. Sexton Blake had 200 authors writing stories about him.

      200 independent sources! John Dominic Crossan would kill to have 200 independent sources of information about Jesus.

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