2010-07-12

Gospels and Genesis as historical documents

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by Neil Godfrey

I believe that few “serious scholars” (as they say) see any reason to attribute the first couple of chapters of the Book of Genesis to historical reality. Few actually see any reason to attribute its claims that God fashioned the world in 6 days and created Adam from dust and Eve from his baculum.

But I do observe that many “serious biblical scholars” do attribute historical reality to a New Testament book that claims the heavens split apart and that both God and Satan spoke to a man who was baptized by John in the Jordan River.

Both books reference geographical and human facts on the ground. There really is a sky above, land below and a sea teeming with fish. Human males really do exist, lack a baculum, and generally enjoy the companionship of womenfolk, especially when they serve as dutiful helpmates. There really is a Jordan River, an ancient Jerusalem and Judea, and if we can believe that the received text of Josephus is an honest indicator of what he originally wrote, a John the Baptist.

So why do biblical historians reject the historicity of one yet embrace the historicity of the other?

We don’t want to open ourselves as sceptical inquirers who reject miracles on principle.

(I am amazed at the lengths to which quite a few scholars seem to go to prove they are not somehow biased against the supernatural or the miraculous. They do have very logical arguments — analogy etc — but hell, let’s just cut the crap and say “No way! Miracles are an absurd notion and are not allowed into the discussion!” Anti-supernatural bias? Sure! Why not? I’m also biased against the notion that pixies live under toadstools or that teacups orbit Saturn.)

Okay, so maybe we don’t care about opening ourselves to accusations of such bias. But let’s play the game anyway.

Are the Gospels taken as evidence of a(n) historical person because we have evidence external to the gospels that the story they narrate has some historical reality? When it comes to ancient histories that speak of the life of Julius Caesar we do have an abundance of such evidence. But let’s be fair. Julius Caesar was a famous leader, warrior and politician. We can’t expect the same sort — or extent — of primary evidence extant for Jesus. I don’t mean we can actually prove Julius Caesar existed in the same sense we can prove Hitler was Chancellor of Germany in the 1930s and 40’s. But we can certainly conclude a very high level of probability for his historicity.

What about another ancient figure generally assumed to have been historical yet who did not leave behind any primary evidence? Take Socrates. In this case we have what certainly appear quite independent references to him, even though they are not primary evidence. (Primary evidence as I use it refers to evidence physically located at the time and area of the person/event.) We have Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon to begin with. That is, the sources are as independent as reverential philosophers are independent from bawdy and mocking playwrights. And golly gosh, when we examine the philosopher’s account of Socrates in the light of other ancient literature, or even through literary critical analysis of only his own works, we end up being faced with the possibility that Plato merely used the name or character of Socrates as a foil for his own views. Some few scholars really have opined that Socrates was nothing more than a literary creation, but the question does not matter to a historian. I know of no major scholarly quest to explore who was the real “historical Socrates”. Historians are interested in exploring the answers to questions that the evidence can actually yield. In the case of Socrates the evidence only allows historians to explore the nature and origins of Greek philosophy. The existence or nonexistence of Socrates himself is really a non-issue. Try suggesting anything similar to historians of early Christianity!

Okay, so what about getting a bit closer to the Bible. What about David, or Abraham, or Noah, or Adam?

Where does one draw the line? I accept evolution so Adam is out of the equation. What about Noah? Well, I have enough confidence in geologists, and the published records that demonstrated a continuity of human cultures right across the boundaries where the Flood was supposed to have happened, so I do not accept Noah as historical, either. Besides, one sees too many similar stories analogous to Noah to think that I am entitled to believe that my western version of the myth has to be THE one from which all others derived. I actually secretly believe Deucalion and Phyrrha were historical and that Noah popped up from one of the stones they threw around after the Flood and in some sort of parent-hate thing claimed credit for being the saviour of the human race as compensation for being done over by his son Ham.

So should Abraham be the dividing line? Well, Thomas L. Thompson pretty much demolished the possibility of his historicity way back with a thesis that was later published as The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Little details like being able to establish that Abraham’s camels were not domesticated till around six centuries after he was supposed to have lived sort of knocked him out of the annals of history.

Okay, David then? Okay, you can have David as historical. But on one condition. Your historical David is so insignificant and unlike any David we read about in the Bible that he is classified as an entity totally unlike anything found in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Oh, and one more condition. You have to acknowledge that your historical David is just as possible as Robin Hood, and with as much historical evidence.

But Jesus Christ, what about Jesus?

Now this is where things get tricky. There actually happens to be as much reliably independent evidence for Jesus Christ outside the Gospels as there is for Adam.

If I am wrong in making that claim, then I am sure someone will politely correct me. But I feel I am entitled to some confidence in making it when I read Albert Schweitzer saying exactly the same thing:

More than once in the writings directed against [a mythicist] it is stated that even what is self-evident can nevertheless be made clear only if the will is there to be swayed by the evidence available. The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing, that is, if they do not console themselves with the idea that nothing can be revealed to him who will not see. In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him 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.

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. (p.402 of the recent publication of his Quest.)

Only hypothetical? But wait on, Schweitzer is speaking of pure logic here. So we have an out, don’t we? Surely Jesus is one in whom we are called to have faith. Not logical assurance. Faith.

I mean, I can have logical assurance in the existence of Julius Caesar. Not 100% proof but something not too far off that in terms of probability. As for Socrates, I have a lower threshold of probability. But no matter. I am a free agent and if I like to think he exists then I can find good reasons in the testimony of Plato and Aristophanes that he quite probably did. But no one is going to insult or kill me over the question. But Jesus? We don’t even have the same quantitative or qualitative evidence (i.e. reliable multiple independent external controls) for Jesus as we do for Socrates, let alone Julius Caesar.

We have about as much evidence for Jesus as we do for David, or Abraham.

I add Abraham in here, because just as Thompson demolished his historicity largely through detailing the anachronisms in his tale (recall the camels appearing around 600 years ahead of cue), we find similar anachronisms in the tales of Jesus (e.g. Pharisees and synagogues and villages called  Nazareth all through Galilee in the early first century).

But but but, wait on. How can you explain Christianity if there was no Robin Hood to start it all rolling?

Good point. Let’s take it seriously.

Christianity is true, and we know that because many people today are said to have the same spiritual experiences they suspect led to it all in the first place. Besides, even if it’s not true, even non-believers get attached to cultural icons as useful as Santa Claus and Elvis. And Jesus has been the iconic mouthpiece for every high and noble ideal from class struggle to the war on scaring people.

So how could Christianity or the Earth and humankind possibly have started in any way at odds with the Gospels or Genesis?

That is, there can be only one conceivable origin for this faith that has any degree of “positive probability” — Schweitzer, go eat your hat.

And that is this: a failed prophet who was rejected by the bulk of his nation was crucified as a criminal and insurrectionist against Rome; those who had once rejected him in his lifetime turned around after his death and believed the teaching of a small band of his followers that he was the messianic mediator between them and God, and was worthy of worship as a divinity alongside God himself. Shortly thereafter, many gentiles also believed, and pretty soon he was declared to have been the very agent through whom God made, and sustained, the world as per Genesis.

Wow. Now I understand Tertullian! I have no choice but to believe when I am confronted with a narrative so bizarre!

I hope no NT scholar can detect any sarcasm in my explanation. If any did, they may well wonder what alternative I could possibly propose in its place, and must surely assume that any alternative must be less plausible than “The Gospel Truth” (TM). Well, several alternative plausible scenarios have been offered for some time now. But if you want to understand them, I suggest you read them in the words of their authors. Relying on reviews like those of McGrath will confuse the issue because such scholars seem to have a compulsion of avoiding the arguments and twisting the words and meanings of whatever they cannot answer. And if a novice ever notices this unpleasant trait of theirs and points it out publicly, and does not humbly submit to their distortions and avoidance, they will respond that such a novice is thinking just like someone who has the naivety and ignorance to believe that Genesis is a document from which real history can be gleaned — if one uses the right criteriology!

One day, maybe, even NT scholars will wake up to the difference between “claims” and “evidence”, and embrace the same approach to documents that we find among most historians in nonbiblical studies.

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Gospels and Genesis as historical documents”

  1. But the Gospels have all sorts of incidental detail , of the sort historians love.

    Like the cross being carried by Simon of Cyrene, father of Rufus and Alexander.Simon was passing by at the time and was forced to carry the cross of Jesus.

    After all the followers of Jesus scattered at the crucifixion,and Simon of Cyrene went back to Cyrene-land, do you know how much effort it took later to track down the person who had carried the cross and travel to meet him to ask him what the names of his sons were?

    Or perhaps Simon of Cyrene woke up one day and thought ‘Hold on.I was probably carrying the cross of the Son of God.I had better see if he had any followers and tell them the names of my sons.’

    Anyway, what gives sceptics the right to think it implausible that a random passer-by at one of the many crucifixions was tracked down by the earliest Christians, who were intent on finding out the names of his sons?

    1. And the only group of Christians who learned their names were those in Mark’s audience. No-one else. But maybe Mark wasn’t really sure they did know, so he told them in his Gospel. Imagine the amazement of his audience when they discovered 2 of their associates were the sons of that guy who carried the cross.

      So when Matthew and Luke read about them, they had never heard of them, and neither could think of a reason to bother recording names if they only happened to live in the neighbourhood of Mark’s audience.

  2. If I’m not mistaken, Plato even said that he had Socrates as his teacher, so Plato’s writings were probably written well within 40 years of Socrates’ life. No early Christian writer claims that Jesus was their teacher.

    I think most of the rage agains the idea that Jesus didn’t exist is due to nearly 1/3 of the planet following the religion created in the guy’s name. The staggering incredulity that a 1,900 year old religion with billions of followers was founded upon a non-existent person. Sort of an appeal to consequences fallacy.

    If Christianity were some cargo-cult instead of the dominant religion of the West then no one would be thrown into an apoplexy questioning his existence. Maybe NT historians should try looking at things from that perspective; analyzing Christian evidence from the point of view of an impartial observer looking at some weird cult? How likely would it be for a Christian to arrive at a conclusion that Jesus didn’t exist? Isn’t that spelling out the bias right there?

    1. One aspect of this that I find interesting is how sociological shifts affect what is considered reliable evidence.

      McGrath and Crossan take Price to task for not revisiting in depth the question of the evidence of Josephus for Jesus. Today there is a general assumption that Josephus really is reliable after all as a witness — he must have said something!

      Yet when one looks at the history of scholarly views of the reliability of Josephus as containing any reliable evidence at all about the existence of Jesus, it emerges that this view only became widespread after the Second World War. Before then, it appears that the general scholarly “consensus” was that Josephus was useless as a witness in the historicity question. But after the war this changed — curiously at the same time as the vindication or excusing of Judas, and while scholars began to discover just how “Jewish” Jesus himself was after all.

      No new evidence regarding Josephus and his evidence has emerged. All that has changed is how scholars interpret it, and when one sees that shift in interpretation coinciding with the wider shift in attitudes towards Jews and things Jewish since the war, one does at least pause to wonder.

      At the same time, however, if I understand Hoffmann correctly, scholarship also was reacting savagely against the mythicist threat that had been born out of liberal theology, and pulled out all stops to establish the security of the historical ethical teacher as the foundation of their religioin. As you say– the fear was that Christianity risked becoming “just another religion” without such a figure. So we have added motivation for a shift in the way they interpreted Josephus, too.

      And this brings us back full circle now to Bob Price’s explanation for the orthodox church’s motive to historicize the spiritual/philosophical Jesus idea — it was about authority of their religion against rival sects and beliefs. Being able to trace one’s genealogical pedigree through a “pure line” of right-teaching apostles was important (and their were rival genealogies). Now which one is likely to carry the strongest weight in the long run — those genealogies that traced back to witnesses of a visionary Jesus? Or those who could trace their chain of authority to a historical person who gave his teaching even before his spiritual appearances?

      1. The rehabilitation of Josephus is especially instructive when it comes to history as practiced by NT scholars. Here we have a source that has obviously been tampered with, but the scholars pretend they can tease out the parts the deem reliable.

        Not only is the Testimonium Flavianum corrupt, but the “chain of custody” has been compromised, having been in the hands of industrious Christians over the centuries. Of course, the Jews had no use for a turncoat, so they didn’t preserve Josephus’ works independently.

        Here’s the “scholarly” procedure in a nutshell:

        1. Tell the audience we have to be very careful when doing this. (“Being careful” means the layman is not smart enough to do this, but they are. “Don’t try this at home.” It has nothing to do with actually taking care.)

        2. Remove the implausible bits that make Josephus sound like a third-century Christian.

        3. Highlight the remainder with your big ol’ yellow highlighter and announce, “This is plausible!”

        4. Imply that plausible means historically probable.

        5. Imply that since it is historically probable, it must be true.

        As Doherty points out, if we lived in an alternate universe in which we had lots of early external attestations of Jesus, the Testimoium would have remained in the trash heap. But since it really is practically the only thing they have NT scholars aren’t about to give it up.

        It’s ironic that these crypto-apologists are so strongly attracted to Eusebius’s pious fraud. They’re drawn to it like flies. It’s such a familiar . . . fragrance.

  3. ‘Plausible’ means Josephus calling Jesus a ‘wise man’ using words he only used for Solomon and Daniel.

    Josephus only used the phrase wonderful works about Elisha. So it is plausible he used it about Jesus.

    In Mark 6:2 , Jews praise the wisdom and miracles of Jesus. So it is plausible that Josephus behaved just like Christians independently of Josephus knew that Jews had behaved, because the Gospel of Mark told them that Jews praised the wisdom and mighty works of Jesus.

    This is called ‘multiple attestation’. Jews in Mark 6:2 praised the wisdom and miracles of Jesus, and Josephus attests to the wisdom and mighty works of this crucified criminal.

  4. So why do biblical historians reject the historicity of one yet embrace the historicity of the other?

    I guess because they bothered to read them. It isn’t necessary of course, but it is a good start before doing research.

    1. Josephus is considered to have written much (certainly not all) that is historical narrative by any and all historians for very sound reasons. We have primary evidence for the events he describes, for a start. He informs us of his identity, and he explains how he came to know certain things he writes about. What he writes about others in many cases coheres with what we know about them from other independent sources. So we have some good reasons for accepting that in his own way he is writing a real history of certain events.

      Compare the Gospels. They meet just about every requirement that Josephus said is sham history. See my post, What Josephus might have said about the Gospels

      The gospels are anonymous, we can only guess when and where and to whom (and even to some extent why) they were written. They are without context. They do not even inform readers the sources of any of their narratives. Compare my comparison of the Gospels with other histories.

      Literary analysis demonstrates that the Gospel narratives are re-writes of other stories in other literatures, mostly Jewish, some Greek.

      We have no independent external controls to verify their historicity as we do in the case of Josephus.

      The reason we are entitled to read one as “history” and the other as “nonhistory” is not arbitrary or some sort of anti Christian bias. The reasons for the difference are sound, reasonable and justifiable.

  5. Religion is a human economic enterprise. When viewed as a natural phenomenon it can only be market forces that cause changes in the religious economy.

    It seems that the goal of this website is to show how little can be known given the evidence that we have. That does not seem like a good way to try to discover the origin of Christianity.

    We have lots and lots of evidence. It is a literary creation. Multiple attestation proves that it is more likely that the Holy Virgin appeared to wealthy families in the Renaissance than anything we could prove from the Bible. Piece of crap as methodology. But I’m not so sure we can throw out the criterion of embarrassment. It just shouldn’t be applied with theological blinders, as is the custom.

    My hobby for twelve years has been to try to discover the origin of Christianity and I have chosen you guys to check and see if I have done so. The pros can’t do it because they have to worry about their next paycheck. Even if they work at a public university, it is funded by the state which is appointed by the voters who may or may not re-elect them if they are found to be funding knowledge that the people don’t want to hear. Religion is a slice of overall human enterprise that is not neatly separated from the rest despite the alleged separation of church and state.

    I don’t know why you want to talk to them. Maybe there is some personal reason. Why try to get the correct answer from them when it’s clear that they don’t know and they don’t necessarily want to know? They might vote against any person who offered you or me funding. Good thing we don’t need it. That gives us an advantage over them.

    I wonder sometimes whether revealing the man behind the curtain with regard to Christianity might not be an anti-social enterprise. Many people get comfort and social identity from their supernatural beliefs, and when discussing a topic like this are not able to separate out the pursuit of pure knowledge from their fear of death, their own and their loved ones, the perception of healing in times of sickness, moral instruction of succeeding generations or where their next paycheck is coming from if there livelihood depends in some way on the religious economy.

    I asked a whole bunch of questions, Socratic dialogue-style, and I would like you to answer them and read my argument so far.

    Unless you would rather spend your time being called a liar.

    (Oops, should have been ‘liars’. That’s ‘you’ plural.)

  6. Rich Griese has set up an excellent venue for exploring Christian origins from a nonreligious perspective. I suggest his site lends itself more to an organized layout of various arguments. In a blog the comments tend to be listed more like stream of consciousness and the posts hop from one thing to another. I like sharing stuff I find of interest on my blog, and it’s encouraging to see there are some interested enough to offer their comments. But looks like just the sort of venue for more organized and systematic discussion, with its wiki and resources pages etc.

    It’s only a new-born baby at the moment, but I’d love to see it grow.

    The sorts of questions you pose, Russell, are not ones I can respond to off the top of my head, and unfortunately my blog time is very much an off the top of my head enterprise. Everything deeper than that is all work and real-life related.

    I will need some time, I think, to consider responses to your questions and posts. And I look forward to the time when I can also be more actively involved in Rich’s webulite.

    Maybe webulite’s a good place to raise some of your thoughts and invite discussion and comparisons with alternative explanations.

    1. Thanks, Neil!

      I discovered Ricco’s site several years ago and that was how I found yours. I have a very hard time navigating his website. It keeps changing. I have it bookmarked and I see I got bumped out again. My new account is currently pending approval.

      I have not had much web presence. Working solo with the NT data. Horsley & Eisenman have been of great help to me, but none like Rodney Stark. I’m interested in your opinion of Stark if you’ve read him.

  7. Thanks, Steven. I have yet to read the full article, but I find passages like this (near its conclusion) thought-provoking — or at least they should be, imho:

    Indeed, the author may have thought that an appearance-narrative would have detracted from the sharp focus that he intended to place on Jesus as the sole valid model, as well as the basis, for Christian existence.

    As you note, this is indeed literary analysis through and through. But what it also tells us is that the author of the gospel is primarily writing about a literary Jesus, not a historical one. The author is not interested in relating the obviously human interest questions that must inevitably accompany any real historical “resurrection appearance experience” — he is interested only in crafting a clearly limited Jesus for a particular theological message. He is not even writing to foster belief in Jesus, but only in order for his readers to have the correct idea about Jesus for a particular lesson-of-the-day.

    Now that may be all fine and good for the spiritual welfare of his readers. But it is as far removed from an “eyewitness” or “oral tradition” of reported experiences as anything can be.

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