The Clueless Search for the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Who Is Jesus Christ?

It is impossible not to smile a little at the quaint, anonymous post Does no one love Jesus anymore? on the new Sheffield Biblical Studies blog.

The poster laments that “less (sic) people are interested in historical Jesus studies than in previous years” and asks what cultural factors might be at play to explain this. It links, by way of some assistant discussion starter, to Scot McKnight post in Christianity Today, originally posted April 2010. (My little discussion of this article for what it’s worth is kept here.)

2 points:

  1. That article addresses the truism that HJ studies have tended to produce a Jesus modeled after the personal interests and predilections of each scholar making the inquiry.
  2. The very idea of a quest for “the historical Jesus” is founded on a wish to find some evidence for something such a person supposedly ever did or said, even for what such a person indeed even was! How often do police start a search for someone when they don’t even know if they’re to look for a rabbi or a rebel, and have only anonymous and uncorroborated reports that the person even exists?

On the first point, there is nothing surprising about this. It is the normal fact of projection we are all inclined to in relation to any person we admire or make a focus of our lives. It doesn’t apply only to Jesus historians. Many historians in many nonbiblical fields have been found guilty of interpreting the world through their own personal politics, or their own psyches. This works at the wider cultural level, too. Ages of imperialism have tended to interpret past heroes or empires as exemplars for their own. In daily life we tend to see or find (even if only in our own imaginations) characteristics similar to ourselves in people we like.

The relevance of this for historians is to be able to recognize the proclivity and acknowledge it in one’s writings, and making allowances for it as much as possible.

But there is a deeper problem here for HJ studies that goes beyond normal biases among historians.

Historians know Bismarck and Alexander were leaders of states or political powers. They know David Hume and Socrates were philosophers. They know Nat Turner and Spartacus were rebel slaves. But they don’t know who or what Jesus was.

Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders’s Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan’s Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg’s Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright’s Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion. We could go on, but we have made our point: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was really like and orient their faith around that reconstruction. (Scot McKnight: The Jesus We’ll Never Know)

No, Scot McKnight’s last sentence there does not encapsulate the problem he has raised in the previous sentences. HJ scholars don’t know who or what Jesus was — not simply “what he was really like”!

It is actually misleading to say that they don’t know what he “was really like”. Such a claim presupposes you know at least who or what he was to begin with. You may not know what your father “was really like” if for some reason you never knew him except through a kaleidoscope of anecdotes. But you would at least know him as your father, as a musician, as one whose photo tells you he looked a bit like you. Knowing what X is “really like” presumes we have a clearly established identity of some form to begin with, and that this identity is grounded in unassailable evidence and grounds for belief.

But there is no such anchor for the HJ quest. How can one begin to find what Jesus “was really like” when we have no way of establishing who or what — or even if — Jesus was to begin with?

It is logically impossible to begin to discover what someone was really like unless you can first establish some person’s identity at some level to begin with.

This leads to the second point, which goes to the heart of why HJ scholars have never and will never get anywhere:

Scot McKnight repeats the mantra in his CT article that NT scholars use the tools of all historians in other fields (e.g. criteria of double dissimilarity), but I have yet to see a single instance of an NT scholar actually demonstrating the truth of that claim. I have attempted to show in other posts that NT scholars do not follow normative historical methodology at all, despite their insistence to the contrary. The difference between what NT historians do and what others do is this:

  1. Nonbiblical historians begin with hard facts based on (a) primary evidence and (b) secondary evidence that is corroborated by independent external controls as to the extent of reliability of its narratives. If and when they use “criteria” (e.g. embarrassment, double dissimilarity) it is to attempt to assess motives and explanations for events known or reasonably secure from the primary and externally corroborated secondary evidence.
  2. New Testament historians begin with no hard facts, but seek to find some “hard” facts by applying “criteria” to secondary evidence that lacks independent external attestation to its reliability as history. Did Jesus teach the golden rule? Depends on the criteria you use. Did he cleanse the Temple? Depends on the criteria you use. Was he baptized by John? Well our criteria grounded in historical assumptions leads us to conclude he was. There is no primary evidence. I speak of primary evidence in the sense used by most nonbiblical historians ever since the days of von Ranke (sometimes called a father of modern history — though at least one NT historian appeared never to have heard of him or one of his most famous sayings about the nature of history in exchanges I once had with him.)

This discussion and attempt to demonstrate just how different (and UNhistorical) NT “historical” methodologies are from nonbiblical historical methodologies has been done repeatedly, most fully in this older post, so I won’t elaborate any further here.

An online contact recently spoke of the elephant in the room among the comments on the Sheffield biblical studies blog. It is, or course, Steven Carr. He asks the most fundamental question of all: Where are the emperor’s clothes? But the scholarly NT historians maintain their vain dignity by pretending not to hear.

One commenter to the post speaks of the need to

develop an entirely new methodology based on historical plausibility. This will demand a phenomenal knowledge of the broad context in which the traditions evolved, including multiple ancient languages, understanding of literature and the whole writing of and reconstructing ‘history’….

The same commenter wrote of HJ studies that

It has also failed to produce a viable historical methodology. Vermes and Sanders made slight steps in the right direction but these have largely been ignored, dismissed or missed. But lo and behold, waiting in the wings is a paradigm shift. And I dare say no more… except bring on the REVOLUTION!

Paradigm shifts mentioned in the same room as Sanders and Vermes? Understanding “multiple ancient languages” will help do the trick? What I suspect is meant here is the laborious work of Maurice Casey “uncovering” the Aramaic sources for the Gospels! By understanding literature and the writing of ancient history I think is meant the ancient tendency to write biographies that included concocted stories about their subjects.

But the worst part is that the “revolution” in “historical methodology” is apparently to be based on “historical plausibility”. Gosh, even historical fiction — even ancient fiction — is plausible.

When I reviewed some of Sheffield NT historian James Crossley’s work against the rule of historical methods and standards of evidence that is set as the norm for all other (nonbiblical) histories, and that is, I think, even becoming the norm for “minimalist” OT scholars including some at Sheffield!, he was so flummoxed he could only say such a review was “bloody weird”. When I demonstrated to another NT historian that Sanders’ methodology is based entirely on the unsupported assumption that there was an historical Jesus to begin with, and that using his arguments to prove the existence of an HJ was circular reasoning, he withdrew from the discussion. (These are linked in post and comments here.)

Forget the revolution and the radically new. Let’s be reactionary and go right back to F. C. Baur who said anything is possible, but what is probable? This is the heart of Robert M. Price’s arguments in The Historical Jesus: Five Views — and what is probable is determined by the principle of analogy. If the life of Jesus looks like a myth, quacks like a myth, and there is no certificate from the Department of Independent Attestation attached to it saying otherwise, then . . .

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10 thoughts on “The Clueless Search for the Historical Jesus”

  1. ‘What I suspect is meant here is the laborious work of Maurice Casey “uncovering” the Aramaic sources for the Gospels!’

    I would doubt it.

    As Steph said , ‘no, texts are not authentic because they might have an aramaic background. Not even casey says so.’

    But there are a huge number of books which promise to reveal secret knowledge about Jesus and the Bible. You just have to go into any bookshop to see that there is a public demand for finding out secrets and mysteries.

    ‘The Secret Gospel of Mark’ , ‘The Secret Message of Jesus’, ‘The Lost Doctrines of Christianity: The Secret Teachings’ , ‘The Secret Knowledge of Jesus’ , ‘The Secret Legacy of Jesus.’, ‘Jesus and the Lost Goddess: Secret Teachings of the Original Christians’

    If you can find ‘Aramaic sources’ that other scholars do not use, you own a big secret, so that you can be the one person who knows the truth. That makes you a very important person.

    1. If your name is Steven Carr I am sure by definition that you are misrepresenting Steph by quoting her in context, no matter which side of the argument she was making at the time. But it would take a book to explain the details so don’t bother to ask. Wait for Casey’s rebuttal in a few years — we don’t have to bother answering mythicists because he has said he is going to answer it all for us one day. And this is only a blog so it doesn’t matter what we say anyway.

  2. On the contrary, it is historically plausible that I read her posts and represented them accurately every time.

    Isn’t Maurice Casey book on Jesus of Nazareth already out http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=157632

    It is ‘An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching’. Favourable reviews use words like ‘savage’ and ‘caustic’

    Judging by the table of contents, I doubt there is one single thing about the life and teaching of Jesus that Professor Casey has not been able to find out.

    To judge from what Maurice Casey sent me about the Last Supper, the whole book promises to be a wild excursion into fantasy land.

    But I could be wrong.

    1. Ah, so this is the REVOLUTION we have been waiting for? It is interesting to note the “Vermes and Sanders” section heading adjacent to the “American Jesus Seminar” one, — those two exact phrases in conjunction sound remarkably similar to those expressed in various comments by a doctoral student at U of Nottingham. Amazing the way independent scholars can breed equally independent clones.

      (All those references to “independent” — independent from what, I wonder.)

      ETA: I dunno. Someone once very kindly took the trouble to send me pdf versions of Casey’s books on Mark and Aramaic sources, and they were so independent they were off the planet. Should I really bother to spend money on this one?

  3. Independent, but obviously using entirely mainstream historical principles.

    From what I have seen of Casey’s work so far, it does seem remarkably similar to all those books in Waterstone’s which promise the reader the true secrets about Jesus and Christianity that mainstream scholars have failed to see, by using sources that mainstream scholars do not use.

    Sometimes the sources are Eastern religions based on goddesses, or the source of Christianity is astrology or aliens.

    The common theme is that the author has detected previously unknown sources behind the Gospels that only he can see and decipher.

    Casey can promise the reader that he will find out exactly what Jesus said, using only the power of Maurice’s ability to describe events of 2000 years ago as though he had been in the room taking notes.

    ‘We must infer that Jesus gave traditional interpretations of the lamb or goat, and of the bitter herbs, as part of his exposition of God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt. Like Gamaliel, who will have been leading a Passover group elsewhere in Jerusalem, he will have said something to the effect that ‘we eat bitter herbs because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers in Egypt’. Similarly, over the Passover offering, he will have said something to the effect that ‘this is the Passover, for our Father in heaven passed over the houses of our fathers in Egypt’. He may have quoted Exodus 12.27: ‘It is the sacrifice of the Passover for the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians and spared our houses’.

    I love the way Casey says only that Jesus ‘may have quoted Exodus’, as though this fantasy was actually all carefully judged and weighed , and great care had been taken not to rush to conclusions.

    1. I love the way Casey says only that Jesus ‘may have quoted Exodus’, as though this fantasy was actually all carefully judged and weighed , and great care had been taken not to rush to conclusions.

      This is the same tactic deployed by that other independent, Crossley. Tentative conclusions are scholarly, of course, so the more tentative you are in every sentence, no-one can ever pin you down on anything. So you can “advance” the argument ever so very far, but no-one can ever rebut you because they can only pin you on a “tentative” point.

      Independent scholars are really smart.

      1. Neil: Tentative conclusions are scholarly, of course…

        But they are so very scholarly, and they must be addressed. No doubt every other sentence (if not every sentence) in Casey’s fantasy is footnoted, thereby proving that he has “engaged current scholarship.” Of course, mainstream NT scholarship is one big echo chamber, but with so many really smart people repeating the same conjecture over and over, it gathers “weight.”

        Several reviews of Doherty and Price’s work cite the unforgivable of “Not Addressing Current Scholarship” (at least not to the reviewer’s satisfaction). It reminds me of the trial scene in Planet of the Apes.

        “Tell us, Bright Eyes, why do men have no souls?
        What is the proof that a divine spark exists in the simian brain?”

        Unfortunately, Taylor can’t properly engage the current scholarship, and like Doherty, he is not permitted to speak in the hallowed halls of Ape Studies.

        1. The sickness of NT scholarship is plain to all the outsiders. Only those immersed in its mire will never see it. Doherty wrote extensive reviews of several scholarly works, notably of Crossan, and even sent Crossan his book for comment — (and other scholar(s) too) — and most other scholars ignored or ridiculed and insulted him without even reading his arguments (by their own testimony). So what is the result of his efforts and pains? Scholars accusing him of not attempting to engage with mainstream scholarship.

          So when others tell me I am going too far in calling several scholars outright liars, I do not flinch or apologize. Some of the most vocal are outright liars.

  4. Neil, this is off topic, but you frequently use ETA to introduce asides. I have always thought it stood for “Estimated Time of Arrival”, in what way do you use it?

    1. I mean it as “edited to add” — I think I noticed it used elsewhere, looked it up on the web somewhere, and saw it meant those words. If there’s a more widely acknowledged code then let me know. I have a weakness for pushing the send/enter/submit button when I finish my first thought and two seconds later say Oh Shit, I forgot to say X as well. Enter ETA:

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