Historical Jesus arguments as ad hoc rationalizations

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

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9 thoughts on “Historical Jesus arguments as ad hoc rationalizations”

  1. According to skepdic:

    The first step to evaluating arguments is to determine if there are any assumptions, and
    whether such assumptions are warranted or unwarranted. A warranted assumption is
    one that is either:
    1) Known to be true; or
    2) Is reasonable to accept without requiring another argument to support it.

    An assumption is unwarranted if it fails to meet either of the two above criteria.

    Take the sun revolving around the earth, from the perspective of a medieval man. It is a **warranted** assumption: it’s plain that the earth doesn’t move. If such a large object like the earth was spinning, we would feel it. Ask him to reconsider his position, and he will come to the same conclusion. Of course he would be wrong, but it doesn’t mean his perspective is an unwarranted assumption, in the absence of further information. Jumping up and down and jeering at him might be satisfying, but far better to show him a better explanation. “Better to light a single candle than to jump up and down cursing the darkness.”

    Now, take the historical Jesus. We have Paul, and we have the Gospels. As Dr. Bart Ehrman writes: “Many recent scholars have come to recognize that the New Testament Gospels are a kind of ancient biography.” Few think that the Gospel authors were writing fiction, even if many elements are fictitious. This is not just an assumption, but something that has been debated for a long time. Few think that Paul is writing fiction. Both the Gospels and Paul talk about a crucified Jesus Christ. So of course you are going to read the Gospels into Paul — it is a **warranted** assumption that they are talking about the same person. And of course it is reasonable to assume that Jesus was historical based just on Paul and the Gospels, even if we can’t know much about him with any high degree of certainty, as Schweitzer says. Ask me to reconsider, and — in the absence of further information — I will come to the same warranted conclusion. Provide me with more information and a better explanation, and I would like to think I would change my mind.

    I know you think those assumptions are not warranted. I look over your blog occasionally to see if you have started providing a better explanation, but you are still at the jumping up and down stage. And you seem to be getting meaner and pettier. (How has that been working out for you?) Can one hope that you will soon start to provide a better explanation? A good place to start is showing the evidence that the Gospels are not in fact a subtype of ancient biography.

    1. GakuseiDon wrote: Take the sun revolving around the earth, from the perspective of a medieval man. It is a **warranted** assumption: it’s plain that the earth doesn’t move.

      TvH: This is absolutely correct. Before we had evidence to the contrary, and a better model to supplant the Ptolemaic universe, the most logical explanation of observed phenomena is that the sun revolves around a stationary earth.

      GakuseiDon wrote: Now, take the historical Jesus. We have Paul, and we have the Gospels.

      TvH: You are using a bad analogy. Let me see if I can help.

      A much better analogy would be the Martian canals, and their fervent proponents like Percival Lowell. Now, if you had been alive and reading newspapers back in the late 1800s you might have been tempted to believe that the channels (Schiaparelli’s canali) on Mars had been built by an intelligent species. You might have even entertained the idea that the advanced Martian race had died out, and that their irrigation canals were falling into disrepair.

      However, if you had believed in canals, you were taking it on third-hand reports. As a layman, you would never has seen them through a telescope. You probably saw some drawings, but would you have noticed that none of the drawings matched one another? If you read a little further, you might have found out that other astronomers claimed that they had never saw any canals or channels on Mars. Would that have shaken your faith?

      Now we know, of course, that the canals were the result of an optical illusion coupled with an active imagination. But for several years, there were serious scientific discussions concerning how to explain a phenomenon that didn’t even exist. And during that period, you had three options:

      a. Believe in canals.
      b. Disbelieve in canals.
      c. Suspend judgment while awaiting further evidence.

      Are any or all of the above “warranted” assumptions? I’d like to think I would have been smart enough to pick option c., but I’m probably giving myself too much credit. I just love the idea of Martian gondoliers.

      Please note that the evidence for canals was better than our current historical evidence for Jesus. At the time, we had living eyewitnesses who were presumed to be well educated and trustworthy. They were using the best scientific equipment available. On the other hand, the evidence for Jesus consists of poor, contradictory, late, sometimes anonymous, often pseudonymous writings. Oddly enough, not one writer in the NT saw or heard the pre-risen Christ. (The possible exception, the author(s) of the Petrine epistles, is an obvious fraud.) Oh, and they’re all long-dead.

      I’m tempted just to leave it at that and simply say the only “warranted” assumption is to say, “We don’t know,” but I want to add one more thing. Several scholars over the last few centuries have pointed out an unwarranted assumption that many of today’s NT scholars still hold. They assume that when a gospel or epistle writer talks about a supernatural event, he is not reliable. However, when that same writer talks about mundane matters, they are reliable. This is not a reasonable assumption, and the only rational explanation for it is the will to believe.

  2. As I pointed out to James McGrath, there is prima facie evidence for Jesus, just as there is prima facie evidence for Ned Ludd.

    But many aspects of the Gospels and the Epistles can only be explained by having a Jesus who was found in scripture.

    Jesus didn’t even have apostles. God appointed apostles.

    A leader who never looked for followers is as much an oxymoron as a crucified criminal who was claimed to be the agent through whom God created the world (but not the agent through whom God appointed apostles)

  3. GDON
    And you seem to be getting meaner and pettier.

    Funny that. It often happens that people get annoyed when you poke them with a stick. A campaign of malign slander by Stephanie, ludicrous name-calling by McGrath and Neil got tetchy. How can that be explained?

    1. Yeh I know, I was naughty. But hell, McGrath has been consistently insulting, seemingly deliberately misrepresenting, etc etc that I just couldn’t resist a dig back. I used to be really nice to him, and thought him quite a decent chap. But then he showed his dark side when I dared to critique his core assumptions and methods in ways that apparently left him without a defence. So he “defended” his methods by insulting me and twisting my words.

      And given what I’ve seen since of Crossley and Hoffmann and Watts I figured it’s a waste of time trying to reason with certain folks.

      So I finally figured, along with a few other stresses, what the hell, he deserves it. So I broke Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. Guess I’m going to hell now.

      Maybe if Osiris is at the gate, though, he can weigh my solitary remark against the three bags’ full of them from McGrath.

  4. Oh GDon, you are just as blind as McGrath. Both you and he are so fixated on pigeonholing me into some mythicist stereotype of yours that you simply cannot see what I am arguing.

    McGrath wants to pin me down on whether I think any of Paul’s epistles are genuine, despite my always having expressed doubts either way, and despite such a point being quite irrelevant to what I am arguing. You want me to attempt to argue a water-tight mythicist case. I am not interested in doing that, GDon, for the same reason I am not interested in arguing Paul’s letters are all fictitious or otherwise.

    You simply fail to get what I’m posting about. Try to come out of your pigeonhole thinking and read my words in their own right.

    1. Neil, nowhere did I talk about mythicism.

      You wrote, “In my earlier posts on E. P. Sanders, for example, I showed how the existence of Jesus is not argued, but assumed.” I was dealing with your apparent implication that the historical Jesus is an unwarranted assumption, as though people are just assuming it without good reason.

      In fact, it is a **warranted** assumption, one that is reasonable based on prima facie evidence. You write as though you think that if only people look at things honestly, they will see that the assumption is not warranted. Fair enough. But criticizing people for making **warranted** assumptions is pointless, unless you can show those assumptions are wrong and provide a better explanation.

      1. You missed my point. Maybe I was not clear. Belief in Jesus has long preceded the so-called scholarly dot-points used to justify it.

        How many biblical scholars do you think entered their studies as genuine agnostics on the question and after serious engagement with the arguments on both sides decided to barrack for the apologetic side. Sure there are some, no doubt. But be honest. Most scholars enter the field as believers of some sort, and seek to explore their faith-interest accordingly. Just look at the Prefaces and Concluding chapters of so many NT historical scholars and see how often they make some sort of faith-statement in connection with their work.

        And sure there are some atheists who are the exceptions that always prove the rule. I have addressed those too.

        Compare the “proofs for God”. When I was a believer in God I grabbed zealously at the “proofs” for my belief when I learned of them. Be realistic. How different is it with the likes of — I was about to name about a dozen scholars, but then thought I might sound like I’m opposing some I quite like and agree with on many things — but you know what I mean.

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