Historicist Hocus Pocus (Or, What on earth would happen if a course on logic were introduced into biblical studies!)

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by Neil Godfrey

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Ned Ludd: Image via Wikipedia

Since I now have time to go over older posts critiquing the mythicist view of Jesus, I have decided to address head on some of the arguments against mythicism that appear to have been left dangling. Such an exercise, of course, does not argue “for” mythicism. But it is important that bogus arguments, especially from professional scholars, are exposed for what they are.

I select first of all Mythicist Mythunderstanding simply because it happens to be near the top of my zotero list.

McGrath’s argument is, in fact, a classroom classic in circular reasoning.

James McGrath begins:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly.

I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?”

Yes, a few introductory remarks in an introduction would be helpful. One does sometimes see exactly that sort of information in books about Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, for example.

It is not hard to find scholarly explanations for how it is known that Julius Caesar existed. The primary evidence is fairly conclusive.

This, in turn, raises the probability that certain names and events associated with Julius Caesar and related in certain types of secondary evidence are also historical.

As for Socrates, we have no primary evidence [evidence physically located at the time of the person or event], so the probability of his existence cannot be as high as that for Julius Caesar, but nonetheless, there are strong arguments in favour of his existence that are derived from multiple yet truly independent secondary sources.

Further, not too long after McGrath posted the above, I did demonstrate in detail how a scholar such as E. P. Sanders really does attempt to decide what Jesus said and did entirely on the assumption that he did indeed exist. All the arguments for a particular deed, e.g. the “cleansing of the temple”, being authentic were predicated on the assumption that Jesus existed. One can argue with more justification (fewer a priori assumptions such as the historicity of Jesus) that such a deed in the narrative is entirely the work of fiction. James McGrath never replied to my demonstration of this, or similar posts in which I again demonstrated the same point.He did eventually, when pushed, merely say that he “disagreed” with me. But he at no time demonstrated my argument or case to be false.

It is indeed true that HJ historians do begin with the presumption of the existence of Jesus, and I have demonstrated that, particularly in the case of E.P. Sanders.

The circularity kicks in

McGrath continues:

Such objections reflect a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. I think it is safe to say that there is no historical figure from the past that we know existed apart from evidence for actual things he or she said or did.

Here James demonstrates both

  • an ignorance of “the historical enterprise” beyond the corridors of NT studies, and
  • a confusion of basic logical argument.

It is just as valid to say:

there is no mythical figure from the past that we know was believed to have existed apart from evidence for actual things said or done attributed to him or her.

The mere fact that deeds and sayings are written about (and by definition sayings and deeds are necessarily assumed to belong to some person of some kind), proves nothing about the historicity of whoever is thought to have said or done them. Questions of historicity will hang on investigations into the form and nature of the primary and secondary evidence, corroborating evidence, external controls, and such.

There is a significant difference between the way a biblical scholar like McGrath would seem to respond to such a question about Jesus, and the way a historian of ancient Rome or Greece would respond to the question in relation to Julius Caesar or Socrates.

In the case of the latter I can pretty well say for certain that any scholar worth their salt would give you very clear reasons and levels of probability for accepting certain sayings or events associated with Julius Caesar or Socrates. As a student (and teacher) of ancient history, I would expect such answers to address the nature of the primary and secondary evidence, and cite all the qualifications that must attend to each.

I would begin to lose confidence in any author who responded with: “Such a question reflects a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. We know Jesus Christ and Rama and Julius Caesar and King David and Solomon and God and Solon and Lycurgus and Agamemnon and Achilles and Hammurabi and Menes and Buddha and Ned Ludd and William Tell and Moses existed from the sayings and deeds attributed to them and that are generally considered authentic! . . . Okay, some of those names we did finally come to decide were not real after all, but our method was impeccably sound, even if its results were inconsistent, falsified or culture-specific!”

Begging the question

We know George Washington existed because he wrote documents, because he served as President of the United States, because he slept here or there. There is no such thing as proof of a historical person’s existence in the abstract or at a theoretical level. There is simply evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others.

This statement is enough to demonstrate its author’s lack of awareness of the basic questions of the nature of historical evidence, even the nature of ‘history’ itself, as it is addressed among historians in just about every area beyond the realm of New Testament or Christian studies.

All the evidence James cites in relation to George Washington is primary evidence. I speak of primary evidence in the same sense as Leopold von Ranke, one of the founders of modern historical method, used it — evidence that is physically part of the time of which the historian speaks.

There is no comparable evidence for Jesus.

James exposes his ignorance of how history works outside his ivory tower of biblical exceptionalism.

This is not James’ fault. He is a product of his (apparently narrowly confined) education. But I am less forgiving if evidence of culpable dishonesty builds up over time.

But let’s also apply a bit of logic to James’ assertion here. He says evidence for a person exists in  some form of record for what a particular character said or did.

This is the stuff of high school games of logic, surely.

McGrath fails to appreciate that words said and deeds attributed (however reliably) to a “person” have no bearing whatsoever on the historicity of such a “person”.

The very exercise of deciding what a character in a work of literature, or on a monument, or on a piece of papyrus, said or did is first and foremost a literary exercise. It is a question of working with the plot and themes and verisimilitude within the literature to decide what is plausible, etc.

If the literature is deemed to be fiction, then the result must be: This is what the fictional character “really” said or did.

If the literature is deemed to be a genuine historical record, then the result must be: This is what the historical record says such a person really said or did on the grounds that it meets certain criteria.

To argue that “evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others” is the equivalent of evidence for historicity is a textbook case of begging the question.

Changing the rules to suit biblical “historians”

And so when historians engage in the tedious but ultimately rewarding process of sifting through the relatively early texts that mention Jesus, and painstakingly assess the arguments for the authenticity of a saying or incident, they are not “treating the existence of Jesus as a presupposition.” They are providing the only sorts of evidence we can hope to have from a figure who wrote no books or letters, ruled no nations, and did none of the other things that could leave us more tangible forms evidence.

Where to start?

Volley 1

Historians who sift through the sayings of Thomas and Q (even Q1, Q2, Q3) and the gospel of the Egyptians or P Oxy fragments etc etc, seeking the ‘sayings of Jesus’ certainly are bringing with them the presupposition that Jesus existed. Their only question is, “Did he really say this or something like this?”

E. P. Sanders lists what he and other biblical historians generally agree are the “bedrock facts” of the deeds of Jesus. Yet a closer scrutiny of each of these shows that there is disagreement over nearly all of them in the scholarly literature. One example is the “cleansing of the temple” episode of Jesus, as I referenced above. There is no evidence for this, only varying narrative claims. “Historians” apply criteria to the literature to determine if they think it might be historical, and the results are inevitably disputed.

But how many historians will debate whether or not Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or whether Socrates engaged in discussions to prompt a questioning of assumptions, or that he tended to neglect his wife? Ancient historians do not apply “criteria” (dissimilarity, embarrassment, etc) to texts to answer first-base questions of what is a strongly probable basic fact or a highly dubious report. Many of their assessments are, in fact, based on a literary analysis of the documents, but McGrath has said in his “Burial of Jesus” that literary analysis is a question that does not overlap with historical analysis.

Volley 2

This statement of McGrath’s is a virtual admission that biblical historians do indeed change the rules of evidence to suit their own purposes.

Ancient historians do not change the rules of evidence when it comes to Socrates who wrote no books or ruled no nation, just because there is not the same sorts of evidence as we find for Julius Caesar. What they do is lower the probability level for Socrates’ existence in accordance with the nature of the evidence.

When a biblical historian insists that the evidence for Jesus is on a par with that for Julius Caesar (or “any other person in ancient history”) he or she is bluntly wrong.

(An aside on the figure of Socrates: Many historians appear to be persuaded there was such a figure, though I suspect most have never really thought seriously to question the other option. That’s because the evidence as we have it does not invite an inquiry into the details of such a person and whether he was historical or not. It is quite possible to doubt the historicity of Socrates (as some historians have done) without impacting in the slightest on the real historical questions about Greek thought and culture.)

The confidence of scholars in the historicity of Jesus:

And so I will state once again what is obvious to historians and New Testament scholars but apparently unclear to some who are not entirely familiar with how historical investigation works. Historians are confident Jesus existed, first and foremost, because we have sayings attributed to him and stories about him that are more likely authentic than inauthentic. We have enough such material to place the matter beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of most experts in the field.

There is no secret about how historical investigation works other areas. The exception is with most HJ studies.

Hindu scholars in India can equally assert that Rama existed for the very same reason: sayings and deeds attributed to him, some more likely to be authentic than others. Just trust the experts.

The same could well have once been said — and no doubt was — of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, William Tell, Ned Ludd.

All of the above were deemed historical because of recorded sayings or deeds that were considered authentic by the experts.

They lacked just one thing: external controls or independent corroborating evidence to apply to those records of deeds and sayings.

Persons in ancient times whom historians generally regard as historical with varying degrees of probability all come with primary supporting evidence and/or truly independent corroboration, or are named in sources that are tied closely with persons for whom there is such corroborating evidence.

Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, William Tell, Ned Ludd never had that sort of corroboration — despite being deemed historical by “the experts in the field” — and have all fallen by the wayside. The evidence for Jesus is essentially no different.

What the “experts in the field” are really doing is attempting to find evidence for Jesus with the magic of criteriology. To explain criteriology again:


HJ and other New Testament historians use criteria to “discover facts”. Examples of criteria:

  • Double dissimilarity — if a detail in the Gospels is dissimilar from both normal Judaism and early Church beliefs it was probably a true fact of the historical Jesus
  • Multiple attestation — if a detail is found in more than one independent source it has a stronger claim to being true
  • Embarrassment — is a detail is thought to be recorded against the interests of the early Christians it is thought to be more likely true
  • Coherence
  • Anything said to fulfill prophecy

And so forth. I have discussed some of these in detail already here and here and won’t repeat the logical and other flaws underpinning these here.

Now I fully grant that the criterion of embarrassment, when applied to certain kinds of basic and public and indisputably “existential” evidence (e.g. the evidence for the fact of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, including diaries or other records of those involved) can very well be useful for assessing the probability of a secondary or private fact, such as whether or not a particular soldier on a battlefield retreated in cowardice from the enemy or not. But it cannot be used to attempt to extract basic and public evidence (e.g. of whether there was a battle in the first place) from a source (e.g. Lord of the Rings) that speaks of an event that has absolutely no external corroboration at all.

For a full discussion of this, and the clear contrast between how “nonbiblical” and HJ historians work, see Historical Facts and Sham Methodology. In other articles (e.g. Constrasting methods, and Review of a James Crossley work) I quote one prominent historian as saying:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific [historical person] merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

Exactly. And this maxim that is taken for granted among nonbiblical historians is what the “experts in the field” of HJ studies refuse to allow.

Student to Professor: I read in the NT lots of things about Jesus. You say some of these are more probable than others. But how do you know Jesus existed at all?

Professor to Student: We have lots of things written about Jesus. Some of these are more probable than others. Therefore it is beyond reasonable doubt for most reasonable people to believe that Jesus existed.

Two commonly repeated false claims

And in order to deny that Jesus existed, one has to posit conspiracies and misunderstandings which, if one is willing to entertain such scenarios, could effectively be used to deny the existence of just about anyone in history.

I have read quite a bit of mythicist material, but I apparently have read none (or only one) of the works McGrath has read. I think I can recall only ever reading one work that suggested a conspiracy. Such a claim only betrays the fact that the person has not read mythicist arguments and is in general ignorance of them.

As for suggesting that the grounds for denying the existence of Jesus can also be used to deny the existence of “just about anyone in history”, the reason mythicists question the historicity of Jesus is because the evidence for Jesus fails to stack up against the evidence historians actually do have for “just about anyone else in history”. McGrath seems to be ignorant of the evidence we have for Julius Caesar, or even for Socrates.

Not more probable?

And even in the case of the most plausible mythicist scenario (not that they ever take the time to make a positive case for how the myth was invented and how it came to be misunderstood so quickly as being about a historical figure) we never get a scenario that is more probable than one that regards there as having been a real historical figure Jesus, however much he may have been obscured by later developments and dogmas.

Recently McGrath reviewed a chapter by Robert M. Price on mythicism and claimed in his review that Price failed to explain why the myth would have been invented. But Price did indeed offer a positive case for this, so readers must judge for themselves why McGrath claimed the opposite.

Many “more probable” scenarios have been advanced than the orthodox one that Jews almost overnight began to worship a crucified man as a divinity alongside God and persuaded thousands of their fellows and gentiles to do likewise within a few short years.

Inconclusive conclusion

And so, in short, the existence of Jesus is not something that can be proven in the abstract. This is simply stating the obvious, and is true of any historical figure. And the reason all mainstream historians and New Testament scholars believe Jesus existed? Because they have found at least one thing that he is purported to have said, or done, or had done to him, that seems very likely to be authentic. And if there is an authentic saying of Jesus, or action by him, or he was crucified, then he existed, because there is no such thing as an authentic historical action by a non-existent person.

And so the circular argument turns and turns.

How do we know he exists?

Because some of us think he said and did this, and others disagree and think he said and did something else, but so long as we all think there is something he said and did . . . .

But how do we know it was a historical Jesus who said and did that, and that the sayings and deeds are not theological or pious and beautifully coherent and meaningful fiction?

Because Jesus was a historical figure, and not mythical, and the writers were sincere and that’s who they were writing about, and that’s how the church started, . . . .

And how do we know there was a historical figure and all the rest?

Because . . . . .

Poi spinning. Poi artist: Nick Woolsey
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25 thoughts on “Historicist Hocus Pocus (Or, What on earth would happen if a course on logic were introduced into biblical studies!)”

  1. I suspect you might be disappointed were you actually a student in a class on the history of Rome. Not certainly, but there’s at least a better than passing chance.

    I just listened, for example, to a lecture series (the TMS, A History of Ancient Rome), in which the lecturer informs the listener no less than three times that “Romulus was historical” (Lec. 1,2 and 5) and in one instance stresses it “Make no mistake. . .”

    No reason is given for this, and to my (perhaps jaundiced by virtue of much debate over the historicity of Jesus) view the claim borders on absurdity. Yet this is, at least ostensibly, the same lecture she gives to her undergraduate students.

    Or in the Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus we find Galinsky (p.13), Woolf (p.127, mildly qualified, but no reason given for “maybe a true one,” Beacham (p.173), Favro (p.261) etc. all accepting the obviously apocryphal “last words” ascribed to Augustus by Suetonius. Nobody lists a single reason we should reject them, though it seems self-evident to me that we should (they aren’t even original to Suetonius!). They wouldn’t even pass Vermes’ treatment of the sayings material, which is about as devoid of methodology as possible (always muddling through that Vermes).

    The problem isn’t that “Biblical Historians” don’t have their feet held to the fire, it’s that no historians have their feet held to the fire. Or rather, when the likes of Jenkins, White or Elton do try for some accountability, they’re ignored, marginalized and then misrepresented by virtually all except other philosophers of history (there are exceptions, but they are exceptions).

    Your presentation of other branches of history is perhaps a little romanticized.

    1. When I was a student of history at the University of Maryland (granted, many years ago), my professors treated the whole Regnum Romanum as shrouded in legend. This is still surely the majority viewpoint. I know that Andrea Carandini made some noise awhile back (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/science/12rome.html), but in general most historians still think Romulus is a mythical figure from a legendary past. Carandini reminds me of the kind of biblical archeologists who see proof of David or Solomon in every potsherd or scratched stone they unearth.

      Having said that, I would point out that if the consensus were to be overturned and Romulus became thought of as a real historical figure, primary evidence will be the cause. In other words, we won’t see the majority viewpoint swayed by a cabal of Roman Kingdom Historians who come up with new and clever ways to read Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Instead historians will need to see inscriptions, coins, externally verified king lists (from the Greeks or the Etruscans?), pottery, relics, etc.

      We do from time to time encounter historians with quirky ideas about what is solid fact. However, these ideas tend to be outside the historical consensus. And even when there is a dispute about, say the historicity of Romulus, the experts tend to couch their analysis in probability statements. When asked about Carandini’s finds, Albert Ammerman said, “Just because you find a wall somewhere in Scotland, that’s not enough to call it Hadrian’s Wall.” You see, outside the realm of NT scholarship, historians hold skepticism to be a healthy trait that keeps them from jumping to foolish conclusions. Conversely, if an archeologist or historian posits some ideas that fall outside the mainstream (e.g., Romulus was a real person), they aren’t vilified and compared to Holocaust-deniers.

      1. That Romulus is mythical would still almost certainly be the consensus view (I haven’t done a tally, but the lecturer (whose name escapes me) stood out as such an exception to me for that very reason). But that’s not the point: The point is that sloppy methodology isn’t a problem endemic to Biblical History, it’s endemic to all history. That’s why I followed it up with the numerous references to Augustus’ last words. That the words given in Suetonius are authentic is the consensus, and it’s a consensus that would get the classicist laughed out of an SBL Seminar.

        History is a series of value judgments. Every criteria we come up with to interpret the facts can be boiled down to that. Indeed, even the criteria we use to distill the data to our working “facts” can come down to that. The criticism that the historian is nothing more than a demagogue spewing ideology in an effort to tell a good story wasn’t first issued against the biblical historian. In fact, that isn’t who it is issued against most now.

        In Biblical studies the ideologies are just more transparent, because everybody is familiar with what’s at stake. But it’s fundamentally no different than what we see anywhere else. Just different values produce different skepticism about different things.

        As to the question of comparing them to holocaust-deniers and the like, I certainly don’t encourage that, and don’t count myself in the number that would do so. But is the effort to determine how history should be done? Or just to issue return fire for polemic received?

      2. Rick Sumner: “That the words given in Suetonius are authentic is the consensus, and it’s a consensus that would get the classicist laughed out of an SBL Seminar.”

        If there were a source like Suetonius, however flawed he may be, who had written down the words and deeds of the Roman governors of Judea, you would probably give his words more weight than, say the anonymous author of the gospel of John. A historian is justifiably more suspicious of the gospel writers because:

        1. They’re anonymous.
        2. We don’t know when they wrote.
        3. We don’t know what they used for sources and how reliable those sources were.
        4. They wrote about someone who wasn’t a public figure (hence, no public records).
        5. They frequently conflict internally and with one another.
        6. They frequently conflict with external sources.
        7. They weren’t intending to write history, but the “good message” of Jesus.

        At least we know who Suetonius was, where he lived, and when he wrote. He had access to official records and earlier written histories. We also have external sources to compare with.

        Finally, I must not have the original “Twelve Caesars,” because the quote you say was added (Augustus’ last words) is present in my copy.

    2. The notion that Romulus was historical has suddenly emerged because of the discovery of certain archaeological evidence, as we see in the article by timvanhobbyhorsen. It looks like deja vu all over again with romantic notions seizing a few naturally excited individuals. This was the trap Albright fell into. (I understand he was not a particularly devout Christian — it was a romantic enthusiasm for discovering evidence for the likes of King Arthur or Priam of Troy or David and Solomon that possessed him.) It took a while for the sounder heads to win the day and interpret the literature through the archaeological evidence, and not vice versa.

      HJ studies does not even have the external controls and is “bad history” from the start.

      My knowledge of history is based on majors as an undergraduate at the University of Queensland and a steady diet of reading of historical and historiographical books, articles, papers, since. E.H. Carr and “What is a fact?” were still big debating points in my student days. History — especially ancient history as I have known it — is very much a painstaking gathering of data and source evaluation. Sure some historians are better or more consistent at it than others. And some of the best have had their bad days. Hugh Trevor-Roper was greatly embarrassed over his naive evaluation of the Hitler Diaries. Eric Hobsbawm (who I found one of the most boring and hardest to read of all historians as an undergraduate because the works I was assigned were so full of the details of raw facts and sources) was criticized for his naive lapse in assuming persons of popular narratives were historical — and he admitted his error. When Crossley noted I applied the same critique to his work (and Crossley likes some of Hobsbawm’s research!) he responded that my review was “bloody weird”. So that’s the difference between biblical and nonbiblical historians — well some of them anyway.

      The “history wars” in Australia are over establishing ‘hard facts’ as opposed to various contemporary claims and public narratives. The debate is largely how to interpret the historicity of even certain contemporary claims or narratives. What are the external controls?

      Most ancient history books I read are about things for which historians have been able to uncover raw data, often primary data, and to use this to interpret additional information within texts.

      In my old student day reading of Pliny’s correspondence, Juvenal and some others I think, we were to study for evidence of anti-semitism in that period. In other words, we approached literature as literature, and as evidence for what people thought. The historicity of names and events was another story entirely.

      There are bad historians too, and some who become very popular for their ability to write on topics of public interest without much worry for serious original research. I include of Michael Grant in the latter.

      So there are exceptions, but the basic rules and methods of the best and the mainstream of nonbiblical historical studies are in a quite different dimension from HJ studies.

      1. Can you honestly say, in good conscience, that NT has not involved painstaking gathering of data and assessment of sources? Is it fair to suggest that a Crossan, a Meier, a Wright, a Perrin, a Sanders, a Neusner has not engaged the material? That there is not a wealth of effort behind them? If so, I must confess that to me you sound the ideologue.

        On Carr see the poignant criticisms of Jenkins, On “What is History?” The problem, even when we have “hard facts” or “primary data,” whatever we determine that to be, is that we still have to impose meaning upon them. History is not simply a catalogue of facts; were that the case the entire endeavour–mythicist or historicist–would begin and end with the observation that some texts were written. Those are all the “hard facts” we have. Certainly not enough to support your conclusion any more or less than anyone else’s.

        The problem, as I see it, is that there is no way to interpret those hard facts objectively. It cannot be done with anything other than value judgments, and consequently any conclusion can have a counterpoint.

        No historical claim can be held up to Popperian falsification, for example. White and Jenkins might be wrong–it might not be purely literature–but it also sure as hell isn’t science. Which is why posts about introducing strict rules of logic just seem misguided. They won’t work. In any branch of history.

        For a recent example, what, other than predilection, makes your interpretation of the baptism better or worse than anyone else’s? What tangible measure exists? Perhaps Carrier can pull it off with Bayes, it’ll be interesting to see, but as we stand right now nobody has anything, and the post-modernist is right. History is bankrupt. All history. Whatever your conclusion.

        For reasons like that I find it severely tempting to follow White in concluding that no narrative is more or less “true” than any other, and any effort to find it is worthless. Though that opens up it’s own problems.

        1. Rick: Can you honestly say, in good conscience, that NT has not involved painstaking gathering of data and assessment of sources? Is it fair to suggest that a Crossan, a Meier, a Wright, a Perrin, a Sanders, a Neusner has not engaged the material? That there is not a wealth of effort behind them?

          No, Rick, I don’t say that. I don’t dismiss their histories outright, either. I learn much from their painstaking research.

          Rick: On Carr see the poignant criticisms of Jenkins, On “What is History?” The problem, even when we have “hard facts” or “primary data,” whatever we determine that to be, is that we still have to impose meaning upon them. History is not simply a catalogue of facts

          My reference to debates about Carr was not a claim that I personally accept Carr’s viewpoints. I am very aware of the debates surrounding his views. And yes, I have always understood history to be a process of imposing meaning upon facts. Of couse history is not and can never be simply a catalogue of facts.

          HJ historians like Bauckham and others find postmodernism just the magic bullet they’ve been waiting for. It enables them to catapult their “facts” (more correctly “stories”) on a par with those of the historian of Hadrian etc. I don’t go along with postmodernism.

          You are addressing the point that a fact must necessarily be subject to interpretation. I am addressing the point that HJ scholars have no facts to begin with about Jesus, and no facts that they can all agree on even when they attempt to materialize some facts through the process of criteriology. They have only unprovenanced claims that lack any reliable external controls with respect to their narrative’s historicity; but there is external evidence that does link them with creative fiction.

          Secondary literature for other historical figures also needs interpretation and evaluation, but we have varying levels of probability with the additional supports of primary evidence, genuinely independent sources, and a literature that takes pains to inform readers of its provenance, sources, etc.

          If we lack the same sorts of evidence for Jesus we can’t change the rules or indicators of probability. We need to ask the sorts of questions of the evidence that it can answer, and not bring in a priori historicist (or mythicist) assumptions to it. NT criteriology does have the built in assumption of historicity of the HJ.

  2. Rick: “History is a series of value judgments. Every criteria we come up with to interpret the facts can be boiled down to that. Indeed, even the criteria we use to distill the data to our working “facts” can come down to that. The criticism that the historian is nothing more than a demagogue spewing ideology in an effort to tell a good story wasn’t first issued against the biblical historian. In fact, that isn’t who it is issued against most now.”

    This is in part one of the points I attempted to clarify in my recent Historical methods post.

    This is the level on which biblical historians can no doubt engage with other historians at conferences, as McGrath says they do. Discussions at conferences are often at this level, addressing such issues.

    Every choice of a fact necessarily involves some value judgment. And stories constructed from the raw data of facts necessarily reflect some philosophical or ideological viewpoint.

    I am attempting to address the way historical inquiry generally works at its most basic level — before one begins to even think about selection of facts or interpretation of them within a larger narrative.

    At this level, McGrath’s analogy of the detective or courtroom really is close to the mark — it’s just that the analogy most accurately applies more often to nonbiblical history, and becomes a joke with respect to most HJ studies.

  3. Brilliant debate guys! It was very educational to read. Rick Sumner, you described the problems I have with some of the approaches to history used here, but have expressed them far better than I could. Neil, your experiment in reading each book of the New Testament independent of the expectations placed on it by other works was something I also did a couple of years ago, since January 2007 exactly. It was an eye opener. I started with mistake of begining with Mark before going to Paul, which assumes the mistake of presuming that the life of Jesus proceeded Paul. I would now recommend starting the New Testament with one of Paul’s early letters, work up to Romans, then read Mark. Paul actually sets you up for a number of questions that the later works attempt to answer, what is Jesus, what was the circumstance of his crucification and resurrection? Paul never adequately addresses these concerns. The Gospels also address issues of theology related to Jesus. It is the links from theology that connect the Gospels to Paul. We can recognize Pauline themes in the Gospels, they are products of his intellectual world. The Gospels presuppose Pauline thought. It describes the hinted at fleshly life of the Jesus, the circumstance of the crucifixion/resurrection, what Jesus is.

  4. Also maybe a couple of Non-Pauline letters before Mark, just cue in that there were ideas other than his floating around. I never trust to early a date for them, but they even if late preserve pre-Markan theology.

  5. First, just to clarify my initial point, lest it get lost in the flurry, it was that history–all history–is a sloppy business. The golden rule, whenever convenient, is touch blue to make it true. And that happens whether you’re discussing Caesar or last week’s UFC.

    On your most recent comments, if we can agree that history is inherently ideological (and by extension autobiographical), and can agree that it can only be limited by hard facts, how can you justify any conclusion? You have no more external controls than the historicist, and so your own rope should hang you.

    Hard facts are so scant that we can’t even agree on what is being claimed, much less which of those claims are true.

    That limiting factor, is incidentally why I ultimately reject White. Facts restrict us such that some things are more “true” than others. But applied here it seems to demand agnosticism, which is where I find myself now.

    1. I don’t even know that ideology can be necessarily limited by “hard facts”. Maybe I’m not casting my net wide enough to catch the exceptions.

      I don’t think anyone can justify a conclusion in ancient history in the sense of claiming it true in some absolute sense. Everything will come down to probability, tentativeness, and meaning. (I don’t think this universally applies: I am restricting the point to ancient history.)

      My point (not mine really — I’ve quoted it often enough) is that in HJ studies, we have not even the evidence to raise the level of Jesus’ existence to “positive probability”.

      Agreed there is much written in ancient history that can be censured for lack of caution with the handling of the evidence. But generally speaking ancient historians do work with justifiable levels of “positive probabilities”.

      But we do have evidence for early Christianity: the documents themselves. — I don’t mean their narratives as evidence of a story that is separate from them or having an existence in historical past and outside of the documents themselves. But exploring the nature of the documents and comparing with other documents is the stuff of many profitable studies in ancient history. It’s what the nature of the evidence for early Christianiy lends itself to. Many biblical historians do do this. But the HJ story is still a hang up.

      (Not quite sure if I’m fully addressing your points here.)

      1. Neil: But we do have evidence for early Christianity: the documents themselves.

        For any gospel to survive until today strongly suggests that people kept copying, reading, and saving it. That means one or more communities believed in the truth of the Gospels of Thomas, of Mary, of Judas, etc. There’s a lot the canonical and non-canonical writings can tell us about early Christianity and early Christians. I have no dispute with using the texts to describe the early movement and how things evolved before the Council of Nicea.

        What I have a problem with is people like Sanders and Crossan using the word “fact” when they mean “plausible event.”

      2. I think we think along the same lines here.

        There is a wealth of evidence about early Christianity (not as much as we’d like, and of course there has been a lot of doctoring and fixing and accidental alterations to the texts over time). But for mainstream scholarship to declare that only the HJ paradigm is valid indicates a legacy bondage to the faith of one of the communities you indicate.

        My questioning began years ago when I decided to read each book of the NT as if its author knew nothing about other books or letters, and to study what was being said in its own right. That started the ball rolling for me. But Doherty has shown me that even then I was still reading the epistles with gospel assumptions in my mind. Now when one attempts to clear those out, too, even Paul suddenly becomes as “foreign” to one’s traditional thinking as texts like the Ascension of Isaiah or Odes of Solomon or 1 Enoch have been to most of us.

        The term “fact” is bandied about so recklessly yet it is, as far as I have been able to see, a cudgel in the service of the “tyranny of the gospels”.

  6. As far as I can tell, historicists start with the assumption that every single person mentioned in the Gospels existed, unless they get so embarrassed by that idea that they can no longer sell it even to themselves.

    For example, there are historicists who actually doubt the existence of the ‘magi’ who visited the infant Jesus.

    But apart from that, all is well in the world of historicism.

    If Lazarus is mentioned, then Lazarus obviously existed.

    Lazarus is a figure in a parable in Luke, just like the blasted fig-tree is a parable in Luke.

    Characters and stories about Jesus wandered between real-life and parables depending upon the spin individual Gospel writers wanted to put on them.

    But they are all assumed to have existed, and questioning the existence of Thomas or Judas cannot be done.

    1. It’s called the “hermeneutic of charity” or something like that, as opposed to that carnal unchristian “hermeneutic of suspicion”.

      I have just read another rationale for it that I am compelled to post about soon. The author argues from the principle that in our modern society a basic principle of justice is that a man is considered innocent until proven guilty . . . .

      Ah, yes. Appeal to something that really is so Right and link it to another argument (that is really a set of different concepts) to give it that Pavlov-dog association. Classic technique of the advertizing industry. What’s the name of this particular logical fallacy?

      1. The NT scholarship herd must be a well-conditioned bunch, if they can get away with such poor arguments. We often see them use the courtroom analogy, which is clearly inimical to their case. They’re stuck with ancient, contradictory, hearsay testimony and no evidence. They present a very cold case — a murder that occurred 20 centuries ago — with no body, no forensic evidence, no external corroboration at all. There is no case.

        Tying presumption of innocence to the hermeneutic of charity astounds me. It’s the prosecution that states a positive argument. For example, “The defendant did willfully murder the deceased on the night of June 12th.” The defense presents the null hypothesis. As in a scientific experiment, the defendant’s counsel simply has to disprove or at least generate sufficient reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s hypothesis.

        The presumption of innocence is skepticism put to good work. It demands evidence. It requires the jury to doubt the testimony. It sets the bar very high for conviction. Biblical scholars have it exactly backwards. We don’t presume the text is true. That would be equivalent to accepting the prosecution’s hypothesis as correct before hearing all the arguments. No, we have to presume that the null hypothesis is true and demand that the text be proved.

        In a column called, “Historicity: Does It Matter?,” Tom Hobson (who likely has his PhD by now) writes:

        “Our best approach to the historicity of the Bible is to consider the Bible ‘innocent until proven guilty’ of falsehood (the opposite of a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’). In the case of events that contradict all normal observed experience, I would argue that if Jesus’ resurrection truly happened, then the rest of the Bible’s supernatural claims become more likely and may therefore be given the benefit of the doubt.”

        How did things get this bad? Granted, this drivel came from a seminary student, but we see similar logical train wrecks from supposedly secular scholars all the time.

  7. To who is this addressed? Is this some kind of high five moment like saying, “hey everybody, historicist are nerds!” or something? It is other wise meaningless.

  8. Hi Neil. Just a heads up that I’ve thrown a post up on my blog about the nature of facts.

    I suspect by “positive probabilities” you mean something more like “plausibility.”. Probabilities are a mathematical concept, they require tangible, quantifiable evidences–something to plug into a formula.

    We don’t have anything so useful here (or anywhere else in history–we’ll see what Carrier comes up with).

    But if we are only describing plausibility, then claims to be right in any narrative history are baseless. “Plausible” has about the same empirical worth as “beautiful”.

    I think (most) other branches of history are fortunate in that they have more “facts,” and those facts provide limits closer to their aims. Consequently they also have a better appreciation of the need not to stray too far from the lines. But that doesn’t make them better logicians, just better rhetors.

    I don’t see here so much a search for “positive probabilities as I do a sort of naïve realism. It would seem quaint if people didn’t take it so seriously.

    1. Thanks Rick. Including here a direct link to your post: http://www.dilettante-exegete.com/blog/archives/37 (ETA: Okay — I only saw the pingback later — 2 links now in case one gets lost.)

      I try not to confuse plausiblity with probability. Maybe we need to accept two different concepts of the latter word. I was citing Schweitzer and his use of it means more than plausibility. Maybe its one of those words that belongs to the hocus pocus jargon of much scholarly literature (as per Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery.) How about something more prosaic like “likelihood”? 🙂

      I look forward to catching up with your post.

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