Daily Archives: 2010-07-07 16:31:48 GMT+0000

Historical Jesus arguments as ad hoc rationalizations

In my previous post I listed the grab bag of arguments for the historical existence of Jesus.

One point worth noting, however, is that the existence of Jesus was presumed long before there were scholars who thought to investigate his real historical nature. When scholars and other point to a passage that they say proves Paul knew somebody who knew Jesus, they are demonstrating that it is their assumptions that prevent them from reading the very text they are pointing to. None of their texts says anyone “knew Jesus”. To think that the texts say this is to read Gospel assumptions back into Paul, and to interpret Paul’s passage in the context of the gospels and against his comparable usages of an expression elsewhere. That this assumption has been inbred subconsciously into us is evident when those same people so often react viscerally when it is pointed out to them that they are reading the Gospels into Paul.

In my earlier posts on E. P. Sanders, for example, I showed how the existence of Jesus is not argued, but assumed.

By way of reminder, here are a few pertinent quotations that alert us to the ad hoc nature of the arguments for the historicity of Jesus:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] 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. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a … circular route …. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so-called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct. (Philip R. Davies, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, pp.35-37 — in other words, scholars have just assumed that the narrative originated in historical events)

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

Arguments for the Historical Existence of Jesus

The following are the arguments for the historicity of Jesus. I have taken them from Dr James McGrath’s various comments to posts on this blog, and they are essentially direct quotations of his words. I want to be clear that none of my engagements with the methodology of historical Jesus scholars misrepresents any of the following arguments.

It should also be understood that simply critiquing each of the following does not establish a case for mythicism. My critiques of the methodology of NT historians do not do that. Whenever I have addressed this point I have always insisted that the critiques mean that additional evidence needs to be introduced to decide either way for the historicity or nonhistoricity of Jesus.

Each of the following has been responded to, in many cases more than once. And McGrath is quite right when he says that merely picking weaknesses in an argument does not prove an alternative case.

My own arguments recently have not been mythicist arguments. They have not been critiques of any of the following. (As I said, each of the following has been addressed amply elsewhere.)

What my arguments have been are a critique of the assumptions and methods of NT historians. They are most comprehensively outlined here.

My view is that an historical enquiry into Christian origins must first address methodology. I have exposed the current methods of NT historians as fallacious and inconsistent with standard historical methods in nonbiblical subjects. I suspect that once this is recognized, it is but a small step to seeing existing sources in new perspectives, and the whole historical/mythical Jesus discussion takes a very different turn from the way it has gone in mainstream biblical scholarly circles till now.

Unlikelihood of inventing a crucified Messiah

The unlikelihood that any Jews would invent a crucified Messiah and seek to persuade other to believe in him remains an important piece of evidence.

And so long as a “historicist” paradigm makes sense of most or all of the available data, admittedly with many puzzles and uncertainties, it is unclear why anyone should even consider mythicism seriously, which has the early Christians inventing a crucified Messiah and then trying to persuade their fellow Jews why that isn’t an oxymoron. read more »