Testimony about what someone claims to have heard from an eyewitness would not stand up in a court of law today — it is what is known as “hearsay”. Nevertheless, sometimes hearsay is all a historian has, and the rules of historical investigation are not as strict as those of the American legal system. We can utilize any sources available, and the only consequence will be that our conclusions about what happened will be less certain than if we had first-hand accounts written by the eyewitnesses themselves. (James McGrath in The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 37-38)
This is an astonishing admission from an associate professor who presents himself as an historian. It is the sort of admission that one would never expect to hear anywhere except in the cloisters of BIBLICAL history!
Let’s work backwards through this. In McGrath’s’ last sentence he implies that first-hand accounts in and of themselves bring with them, by definition, a certain degree of credibility. The only question is one of degree.
Well of course that must necessarily be so, IF such a first-hand account testifies to something for which we have independent evidence. To show the nonsense of the fundamental logic of this proposition: If eyewitness A accosts me and informs me in his own words, even backed up by a stamped affidavit, that he has just seen a pixie step out from a mushroom and board a flying saucer that zapped him to Mars, . . . . Or what of someone who reported he was eyewitness to a man talking with the devil, who walked on water, who rose from the dead and changed his life from one of fear to one of courage . . . .
I don’t think I have to go any further to demonstrate the logical fallacy here. Damn humanists! They are the ones who we must hold responsible for shunting logic out and away from being a basic requirement for anyone aspiring to be a scholar nowadays.
Then we come to “sometimes hearsay is all a historian has”.
So. At least we have refreshing honesty at work here. What this biblical professor of history means that we have a Gospel. AND that Gospel is a hearsay report. We are not told who the reporters were. Nor are we even told who those to whom they reported were. And yep, we are not even told who is telling us who told the story that was heard hearsay from the reporters! Assuming there WERE any reporters to begin with. It is just as logical to suspect that our reporter is making it all up, and the antecedent reporters are all in our own imaginations and assumptions.
I once referenced a historian who is very famous but who also happens to have sympathies with those evil Reds, the Commies who still lurk just south of Florida plotting incessantly to undermine all godly righteous values. This historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had the devious trickery to admit to a professional error of method in a book he had written. He had written a history of Latin American bandits, but had been challenged over the naive way he swallowed certain testimonies as real evidence — even eyewitness or firsthand reports!
Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:
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. (p.142)
From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)
Slatta himself adds:
Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”
Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)
Here is how McGrath responds to this sinister communist methodology that is surely manufactured expressly to undermine faith in the Gospels as history:
Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?
First, note how this honest professor works intellectual sleight of hand by changing the notion of “independent evidence” to “evidence other than texts”. (Hobsbawm and Slatta would have loved to have had primary textual evidence that they could evaluate with a view to testing the historicity of the narratives they heard.)
Second, it is hard not to note the good professor’s linking of Hobsbawm with a presumed “desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism”! Where that came from I do not know. So rather than address the methodology in question, this associate professor opts, rather, to point to his own gratuitous speculations about the political views of the renowned historian.
A leftist historian publicly confesses he was at methodological fault for relying on hearsay, and a biblical historian who needs to rely on hearsay to make his faith-based case responds by questioning the leftist’s politics!
So let me repeat my challenge to the historical-Jesus historian of faith:
- Produce a rational justification for assuming the Gospels are based on some historical core events.
- Point to any nonbiblical historical enquiry that relies solely on the evidence of “criteriology” applied to an uncorroborated and unprovenanced text for its bedrock historical facts.
- Demonstrate that Albert Schweitzer was wrong when he wrote the following:
Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . . there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of their being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.
From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.
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56 thoughts on “Biblical historian McGrath admits to relying on hearsay and uncorroborated reports”
LOL. Do you seriously think that historians should discard entirely from consideration, for instance, an account from a mother about what her son said happened in a battle he fought in, if we don’t have a first-hand account from the son himself or someone else who participated in that battle? On what grounds?
On the other hand, accounts of the supernatural will be ignored or rejected even if they are in an account that claims to be from an eyewitness.
Thanks for coming up with a better nickname, and for providing yet another illustration of the sorts of petty insults and quote-mining you have to resort to in defense of your pseudohistorical enterprise. I really appreciate it and all it illustrates about mythicism, I really do!
Not to steal Neil’s thunder, but you asked:
Do you seriously think that historians should discard entirely from consideration, for instance, an account from a mother about what her son said happened in a battle he fought in, if we don’t have a first-hand account from the son himself or someone else who participated in that battle? On what grounds?
An historian would assign a lower probability to the mother’s hearsay account, but not discard it. However, if the hearsay account were anonymous, an historian would assign an even lower probability. Should the hearsay account be even further removed, say by several decades after the battle and be anonymous, then he or she would assign it an even lower probability.
If an historian had four anonymous, hearsay accounts of the battle, all written several decades after the event and they all contradicted one other, what do you think he’d do? Imagine that they not only contradict one another, but we have no external evidence — no written inscriptions, no military records, no physical evidence — nothing that can corroborate the anonymous hearsay accounts. What then?
Now, suppose these four anonymous, third-hand, uncorroborated, contradictory accounts of the battle also contain various descriptions of Athena appearing on the battlefield, killing mortals and shielding others? What would a real historian do then?
These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. If you know any real historians, you should ask them what they would do in this situation. You might be surprised.
I think if you read mainstream historical scholarship on the Gospels, and not the popular but unscholarly apologetic writing that masquerades as scholarship, I think you might be surprised too, by the sound of it!
McGrath: …I think you might be surprised too, by the sound of it!
John Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, Bart D. Ehrman, Marcus Borg, Mark Goodacre, Paula Fredriksen, et al. have not surprised me. Well, I take that back. Fredriksen’s recent doubts concerning the turning of the tables in the Temple did register mild surprise.
BTW, if there aren’t any historians nearby to whom you can pose my previous questions, let me know. I’ll see if I can find some who live in Indiana on “teh Google.”
I have plenty of colleagues in the history department, but I’ve only asked two of them about this topic. Both said their impression is that the existence of Jesus is well attested. And when I asked one of them about criteria that can help solidify that conclusion, I was told that being a historian is much more like an art than that. So my impression is that New Testament scholars are trying to be more rigorous rather than less, precisely because the figure of Jesus is much more disputed and prone to attempts at pseudohistorical apologetics of one sort or another.
Ahh. I see. Biblical history as Art. So which school do we use to approach the gospels: realist, cubist, or impressionist?
The practice of fashioning a historical narrative and gleaning historical significance from the available evidence has often been called an art but in my experience “craft” would more accurately describe it.
My hypothetical questions remain unanswered.
McG: Both said their impression is that the existence of Jesus is well attested.
TvH: Before I did the research on my own, I thought the same thing. Like Michael Grant (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels) I considered the it pretty much an open-and-shut case.
McG: And when I asked one of them about criteria that can help solidify that conclusion, I was told that being a historian is much more like an art than that.
TvH: Since there is no primary evidence, but only late, second-hand, anonymous accounts, you cannot use the criteria to “solidify that conclusion.” There is no conclusion, unless that is now a synonym for “presupposition.” You can at most posit plausibility. I think the problem is that most historians aren’t familiar with the embarrassing total lack of external corroboration, and assume that the experts in the field aren’t pulling a fast one with the supposed evidence.
I suspect that you are talking past each other, in that the historian you spoke to thinks you’re using secondary evidence (the gospels) to glean more information and establish historical significance with respect to existing, solid, public, externally verified facts. He doesn’t fully understand that NT scholars use criteria along with the New Testament to create the foundation itself.
McG: So my impression is that New Testament scholars are trying to be more rigorous rather than less, precisely because the figure of Jesus is much more disputed and prone to attempts at pseudohistorical apologetics of one sort or another.
TvH: One can be as rigorous as the day is long. However, without verifiable external evidence, all you’ll end up with is a spectrum of plausibility. Nothing can rise above the threshold into probability. Real historians use criteria to determine what Lincoln was probably thinking on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation. They use criteria to surmise Hitler’s true intentions in proffering a mutual non-aggression pact (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) with Stalin.
But declaring Jesus to be, for example, an “Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” (Ehrman) is going too far. It presupposes an historical Jesus. It assumes that the earliest sayings in the gospels are those of an apocalyptic character. It assumes that just because the sayings are early that they go back to the real, historical Jesus. But this is pure wishful thinking. Even with the best of intentions it is not possible to reveal historical bedrock by using criteria against contradictory, anonymous, secondary evidence.
And I say this not as a mythicist, but as an amateur historian who nonetheless cares about the praxis of history.
Now, what if these four anonymous, third-hand, uncorroborated, contradictory accounts of the battle that had Athena appearning on the battlefield also had a history of redaction, rewriting, and interpolations inserted into them by various different communities at different time periods (that were antagonistic towards each other) to promulgate a particular [political] view about Athena’s actions on the battlefield?
This is a rather poor analogy. Your example states we know who the source is (the mother) and what their connection to the person they speak of (mother to son). The narrative is personal, first-person
For the Gospels, we don’t know who they were, when the wrote, where they wrote, what if any connection they had to the people they describe, and have motivations for writing other than historiography. The narrative is third-person, and the narrator is omniscient (i.e. known what Jesus did alone in the desert or in the garden).
Your example of choice is rather biased in includes information we could only with for. If we had actual letters from the apostles Peter, John, Jesus’ parents, Jesus himself, that would be awesome. If we had someone who actually witnessed anything described that would be orders of magnitude better than our current situation. Equating the testimony of a known person about another they personally knew to the Gospel authors is almost certainly problematic and would erase anything close to historical methodology.
A better comparison: a unknown person writing about another person identified as a soldier who fought in a battle that is unverified in contemporaneous records or archaeological finds; the report also consists of anachronisms and is motivated by convincing the reader of certain philosophical positions. Another reasonable comparison: Plato’s myth of Atlantis. This one at least has a known author, but we don’t trust Plato actually knew of such a lost continent while his purpose is clear–created story to teach a moral. Should we go Atlantis hunting now? If not, why not? There is certainly more prima facie evidence for Jesus than for Atlantis (i.e. Justin Martyr ~100 years after Jesus; Plato thousands of years after Atlantis), but in both cases we lack the sort of evidence a historian wants, and we are left with that which needs to demonstrates its validity, not assumed to have it but needs to be teased out.
While driving the other day, I listened to Alexander Scourby reading the Acts of the Apostles. I’m always struck by Peter’s confessions of Christ that appear to be from a very old source. I say that because he seems to be confessing a Christ who was a righteous human chosen by God — not simply raised from the dead, but raised to messiahship after the resurrection to be Christ. In this ancient confession, Peter says:
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. — Acts 5:30
And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: — Acts 10:39
Apologists twist these passages into orthodox conformity, but the confession is clear. Peter says he knows (witnessed) that:
1. The Jews killed Jesus, a righteous man.
2. He was slain (most likely a reference to stoning).
3. He was hanged on a tree (after he was killed).
4. God raised him up (from the dead, to the right hand of God, to become Christ?).
Here we see a clear demonstration of the failure of criteriology. We are told that one reason Mark must be the earliest gospel is its low christology. Well, it would be hard to get much lower than this without becoming an Ebionite. (Actually, the Ebionites might have been able to confess this kind of Messiah without too much discomfort.)
Mark says Jesus was charged with blasphemy. All right, then what is the punishment for blasphemy? Stoning, followed by hanging the body on a tree. And the body must come down before sunset.
And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. — Deut. 21:22-23
If they were serious about their beloved criteria revealing truth, NT scholars would admit that the simplest explanation for Jesus’ fate (if he existed) was for the Temple authorities to handle it quickly and without much fanfare. Blasphemy was an internal, religious affair. Why bother Pilate if they didn’t have to?
Despite what they say, NT scholars do not use criteria to discover probable historical events. No, criteriology is nothing more than a polemical, sophistic bag of mumbo-jumbo used to prop up presuppositions and dogmatic faith. It’s worse than useless and fallacious; it’s deliberately dishonest.
Very good point! This very verse is referred to in Galatians 3:13 “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:” Besides that Paul also says in Gal 6:17 “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Paul certainly had no marks from crucifixion on his body, but he did from stoning (2 Cor 11:25) so if Paul meant by having the marks of the Lord Jesus on his body that he literally had marks similar to those suffered by Jesus in his death, then he must have meant that Jesus was stoned and only then “crucified” or hung.
Do you seriously think that historians should discard entirely from consideration, for instance, an account from a mother about what her son said happened in a battle he fought in, if we don’t have a first-hand account from the son himself or someone else who participated in that battle?
You mean historians think battles happened if the only evidence they have is a hearsay account from a mother, and there is no other evidence for this battle?
Well of course that must necessarily be so, IF such a first-hand account testifies to something for which we have independent evidence.
McGrath seems to admit there is no independent evidence for John the Baptist ever having baptised Jesus, as otherwise McGrath would have rubbedd Godfrey’s nose in the evidence.
As McGrath has no evidence, he has to resort to rhetoric, and Godfrey is spared the embarrassment of having tons of evidence dumped on his head.
Empty bluster, no evidence, nothing changes from McGrath.
‘Testimony about what someone claims to have heard from an eyewitness would not stand up in a court of law today — it is what is known as “hearsay”.’
Thank goodness then that the first Gospel is not hearsay – as it never claims to be reporting what eyewitnesses said.
Did you guys frustrate James McGrath again, and is that why he has changed his comment page for http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/06/review-of-historical-jesus-five-views_30.html to moderated, and has stopped taking input right after he called me a troll after he took offense to a pretty simple recommendation I had made to a Boz to seek our people with history degrees instead of people with religion degrees if he was interested in learning about the history of Christianity?
No, it was a different troll that led me to enable moderation. I guy who goes by the name “DM” who hits me with a spam storm every so often. Sorry you had to wait for your comments to be approved. It is set to moderate older posts, and that one must have just passed the time limit!
Comment by timvonhobbyhorsen;
So much of what religion department people do is really simply a carry over from Church dogma. In a large way, theology departments which became religion departments is where the apologists moved as the enlightenment hit. Their attempt was to use the new tools to continue the existing Church dogma apologetics. To in effect try to make Church dogma seen academically sane.
So what you find is that the study of Christian history never really began with a “What do we know about Jesus?” at the outset. As a result, much of religion department work is built on faulty assumptions, and hence leads to garbage result.
This is combined with the apologist attempt to make the world upside down. Meaning, they will either outwardly promote or subtly promote ideas like people rising from the dead. This is not in any way science. Anyone that does not start out with a big “of course the idea of a man rising from the dead is mythology… but the more interesting question for us is how did this belief begin”. A very large portion of religion department people are still in the business of trying to allow the supernaturalist to feel there is some academic sane basis for their supernaturalistic beliefs. Universities, and individuals make HUGE money doing this, and have for many many years.
per your title…
You must remember that James is not a historian. He is a supernaturalistic apologist. His thoughts on history are as relevant and authoritative as his thoughts on square dancing, and rugby. Anyone that wants to study Christian history would not do well to listen to his views.
Well I tend to steer clear of comparisons with the legal industry for various reasons but one good thing that mob have got going for them is a proper respect for evidence.
Until something is proven to be a fact it is not, or at least should not be, referred to as a ‘fact’.
Gosh if that were done a false impression of the validity and credibility of what is under investigation could be gained.
So in ‘legalese’ we get a plethora of words that assign doubt, uncertainity, provisional acceptance at best, scepticism, about whatever is under investigation until a properly considered verdict is reached.
Such as ‘the tomb was empty’ becomes ‘it is claimed that the tomb was empty’ or variations of that wording.
‘Alleged’ [‘resurrection of an alleged character in a work by an author alleged to be the mate of Peter allegedly at the time of …”] is a favourite word for legalists.
All absolutely [to a reasonable degree] unproven statements should be prefaced by qualifiers that show their uncertain status.
Such as : ‘alleged’, ‘claimed’, ‘purported’, ‘assserted’, ‘apparent’ and so on.
One classic example of where this legal rule is ignored, to the detriment of veracity, by scholarship concerning christianity is in the practice of referring to the gospels.
We, even we here, use the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the gospels.
But really we should not.
Its only a convention, a convention that misleads.
Because we, all of us [?], know that the identity of the authors of the 4 canonical gospels is far from certainly having been established as those 4 names and, what’s more, the background [mate of Paul, eyewitness tax collector etc] associated with each.
So every time we mention one particular gospel we should really preface such with a conditional introduction eg ‘the anonymous work’ or the ‘unknown author claims that his character … says in chapter X …..’, or ‘it is asserted that this material was written ….’.
Now there is a problem associated with that practice.
Try it sometime and you will see what I mean.
Write about something arising from the text of one of the gospels [or anything in the NT for that matter] and put in appropriate qualifiers or deviate from your central point to show the background to your discussion is not as certain as tradition would have it and the text because awkward and convoluted.
Instead of saying “In gospel Mark” Jesus says …..” we should in the interests of veracity say:
“In the gospel traditionally assigned to a person named Mark [see footnote for a brief consideration of the discussion regarding the alleged identity of this author] the anonymous author has his character Jesus allegedly speak these words …..”
Boy does it get really clunky quickly.
But we should do it.
Because if we don’t we are tacitly and implicitly, even explicitly, promulgating the unproven, even in the particular context unexamined, assumption that some unknown author writing in an unknown place at an unknown time can actually be so positively identifed as a specific figure from a specific christian tradition.
Agreed. I tend to write “the author of Mark,” but often just abbreviate it to “Mark” because it gets tedious. But the very fact that there are apologio-scholars who use the term “witness” should be incentive enough always to be clear that these are not true witnesses. Each of the four canonical gospels was written:
1. By some unknown guy.
2. In some unknown geographic location.
3. At some unknown point in time.
1. Copied by amateur scribes for an unknown number of decades.
2. Edited by persons unknown at some unknown later date.
3. Manipulated by church fathers to conform to orthodoxy.
4. Given fictitious names.
I have my own names for the 4.
In my notes to myself I refer to them as BigMac, Fred, Lucy and Brian.
It helps me break down the Pavlovian presumption of credibility that comes from constant iteration of the ‘spin’, I actually prefer the word ‘propaganda, and keeps a mental barrier between myself and the propaganda.
In my young, very young I’m afraid, days I did some research on the art of propaganda.
One skilled propagandist [a prominent lawyer] who I interviewed told me one of his propaganda tricks was to get the audience to accept his favoured definition or description of whatever was a key element in what was under discussion.
He told me that if the discussion was couched in terms, concepts and words that he preferred, rather than that of the opposing point[s] of view, ‘you are halfway home to victory cos you have got your audience thinking how you want them to.’
There is a lot of that going on in scholarship re christianity.
I have seen the use of GMark, GJohn… I wonder if that is a attempt to point this out? I mean, i know it stands for Gospel of Mark, but just combining the Letter with the name kind of shows that it is something “odd”. And that might simply be enough to both identify the text you are talking about, while doing so in a way that at least makes an attempt to have it not…. well, you get the idea.
The only problem I have found with that nomenclature is that to a newbie they will instantly say, “GMark?”, and you have to explain the nomenclature the first time. But, in truth, that may be a good thing, since it give the opportunity to give a little mini aside about how the gospels are anonymous, but we have to call them something.
Personally… I am for calling them $gospel, $gospel, etc… this is how arrays are expressed in many programming languages, and then it allows us to perform operations such as $item = ASORT($gospel, date) or $item = ASORT($gospel, len). Since when you think of it the ordering of the gospels is completely wrong, and THIS is a more important issue to educate people on. Most people will list the gospels as; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I think this is a horrible order, and they should almost always be listed Mark, Luke/Matthew, John.
Guess it’s nerdy bible triva night for me. 🙂
Not only the order: Mark, Luke/Matthew, John, but make sure the reader knows that Paul’s letters, and those of his copy cats, were written decades before the anonymous gospels.
And those Epistles are totally incompatible with the idea of a founder of Christianity.
1 Corinthians 12:28
And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.
It was God who called apostles, not Jesus.
As McGrath often points out, early Christians never thought of Jesus as God.
Jesus did not have any apostles. Paul’s writings are the sort of testimony that a True Historian like James values greatly.
What kind if history department fools does Butler University have? MCGrath asks them and they say “their impression is…” WTF? I am beginning to wonder if this James McGrath character is a internet joke. Let’s face, if you go to a REAL scholars (or scotsman) you would ask them to give you copies of articles they know of in their field that have addressed this issue in a peer review journal. Was McGrath so incompetent as to not to understand how to frame the question if he was going to a historian, [Vridar comment: offensive remark removed]
I am beginning to think more and more James McGrath and his Matrix blog is a 11 year old kid attempting to make people on the internet looks like idiots.
What kind if history department fools does Butler University have? MCGrath asks them and they say “their impression is…” WTF? I am beginning to wonder if this James McGrath character is a internet joke.
This is very unfair on McGrath.
If you ask an historian about something in history that is outside his main field, all he can give you is his impression of what he believes the mainstream historian’s view is.
Not if you ask them “can you do me a search on one of your databases and give me a copy of the articles where historians have written about any demonstrable Jesus data they have?” They the historian will go to whatever databases system they use and will do a simple search, and give you result. That is how one would do something if they were actually looking for a real answer. To ask one or two historian friends their impressions on some topic, is not research, or looking into the topic very seriously. The fact that McGrath felt that including a off hand conversation with a historian friend of his simply about their impression, was relevant in any serious discussion about known jesus data in the field of history, tell me a great deal.
Dear Steven Carr,
Just an aside. Here is one point I would like to make. I don’t think you will find many if any historians publishing in peer review journals articles where they put forth a thesis or claim about a historical Jesus. Historians (those that get degrees from history departments, not religion departments) seem to understand that we don’t actually know jack shit about Jesus. And few if any of them are going to put their professional reputation on the life makes statements with no data. Plus… even some crazy history department person DID submit such an article, i don’t think you are going to get peer reviewers to destroy their credibility by OKing such articles. I have found that while religion departments do promote all kind of supernaturalistic mumbo jumbo, you will will not find history departments people making fools of themselves or their industry like that.
Also… check out this quote from McGrath that he actually published, not just on a blog, but in a book
??? not be able to proven with certainty? “beyond reasonable doubt”? WTF? If anyone can show that the resurrection of Jesus has more than a 1% or .001% or ANY chance that would be amazing. Notice the apologetic strain to that quote. Would you think such a statement would ever be published in a history department journal? I think not. That is pure apologetics, not history.
You might was well say “History deals with evidence, and with degrees of certainty, and Americans cannot afford to ignore historical investigations including the idea that Rich Griese actually owns both Jupiter and Uranus which we may not be able to be proven with certainly, beyond reasonable doubt….
See the way I see it that sentence would in reality go more like this. We have found zero evidence for Rich Griese’s claim that he owns Jupiter and your anus.
See the difference. One implies the claim is reasonable while not yet completely demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt, the other makes it clear there is no evidence. In the case of dead men or women coming back to life. We have zero evidence. To imply anything else is pure apologetics, not history.
Ah, but a recently discovered papyrus fragment from the back room of my local church containing some letters that are actually nearly decipherable and dated confidently by paleography to early 53 ce, possibly written in an outer suburb of Goreme by a follower of Paul contains words that eccentric scholar Cattle Feed claims include ‘costly’, ‘oil’ and ‘rear’.
Surely it is plausible, nay even almost absolutely certain, that you Rich Griese are a time travelling space lord.
Or something like that.
You seem to have a warped view of what constitutes evidence in support of a proposition. Hearsay is evidence, eye witness accounts are evidence, the report of a laboratory on DNA analysis is evidence and the value of the evidence depends on all sorts of other factors. What it does not depend on is whet here the proposition in question is true. It is to determine whether the proposition is true that we evaluate evidence, not vice versa. If we dismiss someones claim to have been carried away by pixies into a UFO it is because as an extraordinary claim it requires an extraordinary evidence. A persons claim that they are thirsty might be a lie as well but most people are not inherently distrustful because the person is not expecting us to to believe anything difficult. We have all been thirst and we are so frequently. Few of us have seen pixies or UFOs, we cannot even conjecture why such a thing would be.
The debate on whether Jesus was an actual person in history is essentially debate over the answer to the following question, “is the subject “Jesus” described in Christian literature based on a real or fictional person?” there is no answer must presume in order to answer this question. That he is a real person is a hypothesis as much as he is fictional. The hypothesis that they are discussing a real person happens to have better evidence to support it than the hypothesis that this is a fictional person.
mikelioso: The hypothesis that they are discussing a real person happens to have better evidence to support it than the hypothesis that this is a fictional person.
Assuming the his epistles have at least some degree of reliability, the apostle Paul wrote that he received his gospel directly from Jesus. He learned it from no man; rather, he got it directly from the savior’s mouth. Since the historical human Jesus was already dead for some time before Paul converted, then he must be talking about a reanimated messiah. This is fiction.
It is unfashionable to say this sort of thing in Biblical studies, but I have to come clean: I don’t believe for one second that Paul talked to a real, resurrected Son of God. I know Bart Ehrman and the rest of the lot keep telling us that history has no way of evaluating miraculous claims, but let’s be serious. I don’t believe that Gilgamesh was two-thirds divine and one third human. And neither do you. I don’t believe that Isis reassembled Osiris from thirteen dismembered bits. And neither do you.
Paul’s Jesus is a fictional Jesus. Even if there was an historical Jesus who lived before Paul’s conversion, every visitation after his execution is a fictitious account. The question before us is not whether Jesus is fiction, but how much of the Jesus character is fictional. And this is precisely why Price calls Jesus “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.” Because once you peel away the incongruous, the impossible, the contradictory, and the embellished — there’s nothing left.
James, this is a good example to explain to others what I am attempting to address. If you are talking about a letter from the civil war, we have a wealth of primary evidence for the historicity of its many battles. And we probably would have primary evidence for the provenance of the letter itself. The letter may even be the original primary source if we are not dealing with a copy. Now what the son says about the battle in which he participated will be of considerable interest to the historian. How they interpret its historicity will depend on a number of factors. But it’s the primary evidence we have that contextualizes the letter and it is this that gives us its historical significance.
But if we have a letter of no known provenance, no contextualizing information whatever, and nothing but the letter itself, then it is virtually useless as historical evidence for anything.
The letter exemplar is apt for another reason, too. It has always been a popular genre for writing fiction under the guise of fact. So it would be naive to make any assumptions about its value as historical data without first establishing a provenance and context from external controls — primary evidence.
Neil: “The letter exemplar is apt for another reason, too. It has always been a popular genre for writing fiction under the guise of fact.”
That reminds me of pseudo-Paul’s overdoing it in 2 Timothy, chapter 4:
11. Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.
12. And Tychicus have I sent to Ephesus.
13. The cloke [sic] that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.
14. Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works:
The whole passage wreaks of overanxious attempts at verisimilitude. “Say, Timothy? Did I forget to turn off the gas? Oh, and please feed my goldfish.”
Comment by timvonhobbyhorsen — 2010/07/07 @ 7:20 am
It would seem there is a logical reason to make this story up. If paul wanted to be a leader in this new religion, but James & Peter were the known leaders, he need some claim to authority. What better way than to say, “you may have been followers of jesus, BUT… i got the poop from Jesus after his resurrection and ascension, so in ways, my authority is superior to yours”.
‘As McGrath has no evidence, he has to resort to rhetoric, and Godfrey is spared the embarrassment of having tons of evidence dumped on his head.
Empty bluster, no evidence, nothing changes from McGrath.’
It seems James McGrath was upset by this, but he is far too much of a gentleman to resort to rubbing Neil Godfrey’s nose in the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels.
Contrast that with rude New Atheists, who love to expose the ignorance of creationists , bu examining their arguments and refuting them.
Rich, your scenario envisages a historical Jesus that Peter and others followed, does it not?
Steven, I think Paul’s reference to Jesus as “descended from David” and “born from a woman, born under the Law” are evidence that Paul, our earliest source, believed Jesus to be a historical human being. Could Paul have been mistaken? Sure. Could these texts be interpreted in some other way? Of course, if one is willing to work strenuously to try to make less straightforward interpretations of the language sound plausible. After all, in theory the words “Descended from David according to Flesh” could mean that Paul believed Jesus came down from a space ship named “David” and was told this by someone else named “Flesh”.
But it seems to me that mythicists are putting a lot of effort into avoiding a straightforward reading of our earliest sources. And that still seems to me to indicate that what is going on is apologetics: first one believes, for whatever reason, that Jesus did not exist, and then one finds ways of explaining away inconvenient data. And that’s not that different than what conservative Christian apologists do with the Bible.
‘After all, in theory the words “Descended from David according to Flesh” could mean that Paul believed Jesus came down from a space ship named “David” and was told this by someone else named “Flesh”.’
So McGrath is basically playing silly games, and has no intention of demeaning himself by having a serious discussion, taking on board Doherty’s arguments.
He cannot refute Doherty’s arguments so he resorts to ridicule.
Or even Wells who argues that Paul did believe in a Jesus existing on earth, but that this Jesus did not exist.
How come evolutionists can actually quote real arguments from creationists and refute them, while McGrath shows he is scared of real arguments and has to resort to that sort of thing?
In reality, the evidence for Jesus is as strong as the evidence for Ned Ludd.
Which is why McGrath cannot produce evidence for Jesus any stronger than the evidence for Ned Ludd.
There is prima facie evidence for Ned Ludd, just like there is prima facie evidence for Jesus.
But claiming that mythicists are like creationists because they KNOW about the evidence for Jesus, and KNOW that it is no stronger than the evidence for Ned Ludd, is simply McGrath resorting to ridicule, because he cannot refute the arguments.
‘But it seems to me that mythicists are putting a lot of effort into avoiding a straightforward reading of our earliest sources.’
‘descended from the sperm of David according to the flesh’ is only a straightforward reading of a flesh and blood Jesus existing on earth, if you think that a phrase almost unparalled in history is ‘straightforward’
‘descended from the sperm of X according to the flesh’ is obviously not straightforward, because it is almost unparalleled.
It is not straightforward.It is outlandish.
He didn’t say “sperm”. The fact that our term “sperm” comes from the Greek word for “seed” may be what confused you.
Is there reason to think Ned Ludd didn’t exist? If your point is simply that there are historical individuals who probably existed, but for whom the evidence is not completely decisive and does not take the form of tangible archaeological evidence, then there might well be something to the comparison. But I really couldn’t say, as I’m neither an expert on Ned Ludd, nor a Luddite. 🙂
A straightforward reading of our earliest sources?
We have Paul claiming God appointed apostles,when McGrath claims Jesus appointed apostles.
We have Paul claiming the Romans were god’s agents to bring punishment to wrongdoers, when McGrath claims the Romans crucified Jesus.
We have Paul claiming the Jews could not be expected to believe because they had never heard of Jesus apart from Christians sent to preach about him.
These are the straightforward readings.
To be fair McGarth does not deny them, as he has proved himself unable even to admit that these passages exist. He never mentions them….
Someone reading this exchange might well come to believe that our past conversations never occurred, since we’ve talked about this before and you just repeat the claim and say you have not been answered.
Why would diaspora Jews have heard about Jesus without someone telling them about him? Please explain what’s behind your question for the benefit of those here who missed the other time(s) this has come up.
You might also want to look up what apostle meant, and what Paul says about it in his opening to Galatians.
Meanwhile, I encourage those who want more detailed answers to these points to spare me having to repeat them and look at our previous exchanges.
Fair enough about the translation.
Is McGrath one of these historians who don’t know the actual evidence for the existence of various figures in history,and just rely on their impressions of the evidence?
There seem to be a few of them at Butler University….
James is not a historian. It is best to avoid using that term in reference to him. Jamnes has a degree from a religion department.
After awhile of personal attacks I had forgotten what started this series of blogs. I took a look back at Neil’s original post, by the way Neil, quit a bit of novel stuff on your site, it will take awhile to go though all of it.
I will try to make as concise a commentary as possible of the original post.
“We can utilize any sources available, and the only consequence will be that our conclusions about what happened will be less certain than if we had first-hand accounts written by the eyewitnesses themselves.”
“Let’s work back wards through this. In McGrath’s’ last sentence he implies that first-hand accounts in and of themselves bring with them, by definition, a certain degree of credibility. The only question is one of degree.
Well of course that must necessarily be so, IF such a first-hand account testifies to something for which we have independent evidence. To show the nonsense of the fundamental logic of this proposition: If eyewitness A accosts me and informs me in his own words, even backed up by a stamped affidavit, that he has just seen a pixie step out from a mushroom and board a flying saucer that zapped him to Mars.”
Not to put words in McGrath’s mouth, but I think he is referring to the hearsay and the firsthand account of all having varying degrees of certainty. Otherwise McGrath would believe anything anyone said concerning their experiences.
Neil, your comment seems to imply a first hand account, let alone a hearsay account, can only carry any credibility if it is supported by independent evidence. If you apply that criteria to all textual sources from antiquity, you will find that the amount of material to consider drops quite a bit. I see very little evidence in modern history of of all the text that might be untrue simply being ignored as evidence.
Now given the example Neil used to to show the fallacy of allowing first hand accounts to carry credibility, it is possible that there is a misunderstanding. He could mean that a claim of seeing pixies and flying saucers stands on the same ground as a claim of going to the store to buy eggs, both are groundless until proven.
Or He could be making the case for extraordinary claims require extra ordinary evidence. In which case the going to store for eggs does in fact have some supporting evidence in the form of we know that they are places that sell eggs and people buy them all the time so there is no reason to discount this claim unless we find some reason for them to be lying. On the other hand we have no substantial evidence for pixies or flying saucers so we have good reason to doubt claims involving them.
In any case I would like a clarification on whether Neil gives any credibility at all to unsupported first hand accounts or hearsay.
mikelioso: Not to put words in McGrath’s mouth, but I think he is referring to the hearsay and the firsthand account of all having varying degrees of certainty. Otherwise McGrath would believe anything anyone said concerning their experiences.
TvH: No, not “anything,” just the stuff that confirms his biases. Such is the state of NT scholarship today.
mikelioso: If you apply that criteria to all textual sources from antiquity, you will find that the amount of material to consider drops quite a bit.
TvH: I’m sorry to tell you that’s just the way it works. Consider Suetonius. We know he had access to official records, earlier accounts, and eyewitnesses (such as Pliny the Younger). Even so, the careful historian has to keep in mind that Suetonius had an axe to grind, and some of the more outlandish things we read in The Twelve Caesars could be explained as pro-Hadrian propaganda. The Julio-Claudians had to be portrayed as larger-than-life monsters to add to the legitimacy of the “Good Emperors” who followed them.
Even the best history we have from the ancient world has to be read carefully and evaluated against external evidence.
mikelioso: I see very little evidence in modern history of of all the text that might be untrue simply being ignored as evidence.
TvH: Contrariwise, we should not assume that shaving away what we know to be wrong (or at least impossible to believe) leaves us with material that we can trust. This is especially true of NT writings, since they so frequently contradict one another.
If you were a detective working for the police, and you had several witnesses (all of whom had lied to you on at least one occasion) whose testimony conflicts both internally and externally, how would you know what was true and what was not? Presumably some of what any witness says is true. “I got up that morning at 7:30 AM.” That could be true. But how could you assign any probability? With no external corroboration, you could only surmise that some bits of what they said were plausible while others were not.
mikelioso: …so there is no reason to discount this claim unless we find some reason for them to be lying.
We can say the claim is plausible, sure. But that’s about all we can say. In the case of NT scholars, far too often the claim is made that “there is no reason why Mark would make up a story like this.” For example, some scholars (seriously, these guys have doctoral degrees) say it is unlikely that anyone would invent a story of Jesus calling fishermen to be his disciples. So it’s plausible. And to them, plausible means likely. By the time you turn the next page, they’re treating it as an established bedrock fact.
For all you know, your egg-buyer was actually lying in order to establish an alibi. Or it could be the anonymous author who invented the egg-buyer told the mundane, happy little story about buying eggs in order to create verisimilitude, to help us suspend our disbelief.
On the other hand we have no substantial evidence for pixies or flying saucers so we have good reason to doubt claims involving them.
Yes, and if you’re a prosecuting attorney and one of your witnesses talks about seeing pixies or flying saucers, you’ll be reluctant to put him up on the stand. How do we know when he’s hallucinating and when he’s lucid? “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it’s true that Mr. Jones sometimes sees pixies, but if you simply edit out the crazy stuff, you’ll find he is providing useful, trustworthy testimony. I believe you will find the defendant guilty!”
“We can utilize any sources available, and the only consequence will be that our conclusions about what happened will be less certain than if we had first-hand accounts written by the eyewitnesses themselves.”
Of course.McGrath is right.
We can use the Gospels and the only consequence will be that our conclusions will be pure conjecture, far less certain than if we had sources which did not have a vast cast of characters that no eyewitnesses have ever been found for.
Liars and snitches are put on stands all the time. One simply cannot categorically deny evidential value to whole classes of testimony and literature. When you read Suetonius you keep in mind his bias and try to read between the lines, but it would be unwise to dismiss every thing that cannot be independently verified. If there are a number of New Testament scholars who are too credulous, and they are, it does not dismiss the possibility of serious work being done on the subject.
Of course the egg buyer could be lying, but can I presume it? Wouldn’t i have to answer why I don’t consider any ones un verified statements? As Stone Cold Steve Austine said, don’t trust anybody, but I say have a reason for not considering them.
mikelioso: Liars and snitches are put on stands all the time. One simply cannot categorically deny evidential value to whole classes of testimony and literature.
In cases where there’s circumstantial evidence — a corpse, fingerprints, motive, opportunity, etc. — you might put a dicey witness on the stand. If his story is internally and externally consistent, the liar’s testimony might add weight to the case. But if that’s all you had, there would probably be no indictment to begin with.
mikelioso: Of course the egg buyer could be lying, but can I presume it?
Perhaps I’m not being clear. Let me say it more directly. I do not presume the egg-buyer is lying. I do not presume he is telling the truth. Such presumptions are wrong. All we know is somebody said somebody else bought eggs. It’s plausible. But as long as that’s all we have, it can never be probable.
So since you have to keep an open mind about the account of the egg buyer you have to ask what else do we have. All text are like this, and there is always something else you have. You just have to look closely.
Suetonius discusses people for whom we have primary evidence and we have many reasons to be certain of their historicity. As for what he says about those people, we need to be able to come up with reasons to accept this or that as likely, and there will rarely be any absolute certainty. This is where comparisons with other clearly independent texts come in. It also helps us to make judgments about reliability if we consider genre, his sources, his identity and motives, and the overall flavour or bias we can glean from his work as a whole. Suetonius, many historians conclude, surely wrote a lot of gossip and hearsay. But we can have some measures by which to make some assessments for some of his work as history. We have nothing comparable in the case of the Gospels. For a start, most of their narratives are clearly rewrites of OT fiction anyway! That is not the same as saying they are history written with an OT embellishment. If there was only that sort of thing as an embellishment, then there would be some non-embellishment core to identify as well. No, the Gospels simply don’t compare as historical sources with even an entertaining gossip like Suetonius!
Neil: It also helps us to make judgments about reliability if we consider genre, his sources, his identity and motives…
Exactly so. When NT scholars attempt to characterize the gospels as a variety of biography, I have to think (a) they haven’t read enough Plutarch and (b) they haven’t sufficiently taken into account “identity and motives.” Specifically, we need to ask, “What is the purpose of this work?”
Unlike a classical biography that asserts that some guy in the past was really great, and that we can learn form his virtues, the gospels tend to focus on what you need to believe and why you should believe it. John seems to be the exception, in that he inserts stuff from the Signs Gospel, so besides what to believe he relates how you can believe it to be true.