In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)
Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence
This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:
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?”
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. 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.
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.
This “historian” (he has no academic background in historical studies of which I am aware) attempts to explain that the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ is of the same nature as for the existence of George Washington, so that to doubt the existence of Jesus is, by implication, as bizarre as doubting the existence of George Washington.
This particular argument is a classic illustration of Scot McKnight’s concern about Jesus scholars’ ignorance of historiography as understood in (nonbiblical) history departments.
The “historian” who wrote the above demonstrates an embarrassing ignorance of one of the most fundamental concepts in (nonbiblical) historical research: that is, the difference between “primary” first-hand evidence, evidence that physically belongs to the events or person being studied, and other evidence that originates at a later time and place of the events or person under study. The former type of evidence is what we have for George Washington. We have artefacts, physical remains, that can be demonstrated as physically belonging to the time — and even the person — of George Washington.
This “historian” attempts to explain that we know George Washington existed “because he wrote documents, etc.”. That particular explanation is not an explanation at all. It is circular to reason: “We know Washington existed because he wrote documents.” That is simply begging the question. It is saying in effect: “We know he existed because he had to exist in order to do this or that.” Yet the criteria that are used to determine what “this or that” details are historical assume from the outset that there was a historical person to perform them. To take a hypothetical case to illustrate:
How do you know Jesus cleansed the temple?
— Because that explains why the authorities killed him.
But how do you know he existed?
— Because he did something that explains why the authorities killed him.
No, the reasons we know Washington existed are many. But the one the historian relies upon is this: We have primary evidence, documents, that can be traced back through witnesses (including archival records) and systems and physical realia to his actual person. The evidence is so palpable that the question about the existence of Washington simply does not arise.
If the only evidence that existed for George Washington was a narrative written introducing him, and claiming he existed from 40 to 80 years earlier, and we lacked any earlier contemporary evidence for him at all — no artefacts, no other records from contemporaries — then we would have a right, even an obligation, to question the historical reliability of that narrative.
In presenting the above “explanation” of the “historical enterprise”, this biblical historian has demonstrated how detached his notion of history is from the most basic principles of historical research as understood in other scholarly history departments.
One distinguished scholar, whose publications did much to turn the tide of Old Testament studies against Albrightian methods that appeared to be finding proof for historicity yet were just as circular as early Christian studies, does himself state that Jesus historians truly have begun with the assumption that there was an historical Jesus in his book discussing the relevant scholarship. See posts here and here for citations. I think any scholar would be exceedingly brave to accuse Thomas L. Thompson, a significant figure in any discussions the Bible (New and Old Testaments) as history, of reflecting “a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise“.
The evidence we have for Jesus is entirely secondary, which is to say it belongs to a time much later than when Jesus is said to have lived. Scholars use “criteriology” in attempts to arrive at what pieces of late narrative can be judged to be “probably” or “plausibly” historical. That is, they do not begin with facts that derive from primary evidence, but are seeking to make judgements about what details in, or supposedly behind, the gospels, might indeed be “facts”.
So I do not find this particular attempt by this biblical scholar to explain the historical enterprise overly convincing.
He did, however, advise readers to read a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method . . . .
Wikipedia demonstrates just how different biblical scholars are from nonbiblical scholars
Is there anything in the method outlined there (or better yet in the books cited if readers know them well or have time to consult them) that is not in keeping with the practices of historians working on the historical figure of Jesus? Or is there any point at which this survey and summary (or the method set forth in the sources the article cites) is at odds with what most historians do?
And the reason he raises this question is:
I ask because mythicists (who deserve to be ignored but, like young-earth creationists and other such groups, cannot be because people who turn to the internet for knowledge listen to them) regularly claim that what scholars investigating the historical Jesus do is different from what mainstream historical study does.
While making patronizing remarks about the naivety of “people who turn to the internet for knowledge”, this “historian” has bypassed the standard works discussing historiography as practiced in nonbiblical areas, and himself turned uncritically to the internet to advance what he believes is a further explanation for “the historical enterprise”. More seriously, he has demonstrated his ignorance of historiographical debates, and own shallow swallowing of anything on the internet that superficially looks like it’s what he wants to find. Without even thinking about the points listed in that Wikipedia article, he is here recommending a series of superficial dot-points that, if anyone stops to think about them for a moment, also allow room for historians to assume that God writes books and to prove miracles really were performed by the saints in the Bible and the Middle Ages.
The source of as many as 17 such points in that article are taken from an obscure historian of many decades ago who was a Catholic apologist for the divine inspiration of the Bible and the reality of historical miracles. (One of the people originally largely responsible for the publication of that Wikipedia article did, incidentally, later convert to Catholicism.)
A historian from the first century could approach many of those dot-points listed with the assumption that Hercules was a historical person, and find in those rubrics grounds to rationalize that belief and so “prove” that Hercules was indeed historical.
Yet this scholar who calls himself a historian and who accuses “mythicists” and their readers of sustaining their arguments in a shallow internet culture, himself demonstrates his own thoughtless swallowing of internet information solely on the basis that it had an appropriate title, nice easy to read undergraduate-level dot-points, and some citations that looked good.
Scot McKnight’s point about Jesus historians not being aware of basic historiography as it is practiced outside their field is regrettably underscored here.
So I have not been strongly persuaded that this biblical scholar’s recommendation of a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method is very helpful, either.
Do all historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields really agree?
The same pseudo-historian in another place appeals to the authority of the guild when he writes:
I think that all historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields who have examined the scenarios and arguments put forward by mythicists would agree that not one of them makes sense in the historical context and time frame in question, not one of them fails to engage in special pleading or unwarranted speculation, not one of them, in short, is plausible . . .
What is the support for this assertion?
Is it true that “all historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields who have examined the . . . arguments put forward by mythicists would agree that . . . not one of them . . . is plausible”?
This scholar himself does not, as far as I have been able to discover, have any expertise in historical studies. I have also failed to elicit from him any unequivocal verification that he has himself “examined the scenarios and arguments put forward by mythicists” apart from serendipitously skimming a few occasional blog posts and comments. He did read one chapter by Price, but his review of that, analysed here and here, only served to demonstrate how out of his depth he was.
So what about other historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields who have examined the arguments?
I have cited above one of the most renowned historians of the Bible, Thomas L. Thompson, above.
Here are the words of another professor of religious studies:
Of course, there are scholars who are more openly secular humanist, and are willing to depart from the religionism that permeates historical Jesus studies. One example is Robert M. Price, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who provides a devastating critique of historical Jesus studies in his Deconstructing Jesus — and we share many of his conclusions. Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. . . .
That passage was written by Hector Avalos in his book The End of Biblical Studies (p. 197 – my emphasis). Avalos is an “associate professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, author and editor of six books on biblical studies and religion, the former editor of the Journal for the Critical Study of Religion, and the executive director of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion”.
So it appears that we now have two professors with relevant expertise on record as saying the mythical Jesus argument is plausible.
Another, Professor Stevan Davies of Misericordia University, and the author of Jesus the Healer (a significant contribution to Historical Jesus studies), wrote in a scholarly discussion venue (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/5438) the following (my emphases):
I haven’t read [Thomas] Kuhn in a coon’s age, but recall something to the effect that a prevailing scientific paradigm gradually accumulates problematic elements that are swept under the rug until a new paradigm appears, accounting for those elements, at which time it becomes clear (where it did not before) that those problematic elements should have indicated fatal flaws in the former paradigm.
Earl’s paradigm is a paradigm. It’s not simply a reworking of the usual materials in the usual way to come up with a different way of understanding them. It’s not an awful lot different than the claim “there is no such thing as phlogiston, fire comes about through an entirely different mechanism.”
New paradigms are very very rare. I thought that my J the H gave a new paradigm rather than just another view on the subject, but no. Earl’s is what a new paradigm looks like. (And if he’s not the first to advance it, what the hell.) A new paradigm asserts not that much of what you know is wrong but that everything you know is wrong… more or less. Your whole perspective is wrong. The simple thing to
do is to want nothing to do with such a notion, which simple thing has been violently asserted on crosstalk by various people. Indeed, at the outset of this discussion, more than one person asserted that since this is an Historical Jesus list, we presuppose the Historical Jesus, therefore a contrary paradigm should not even be permitted on the list. I think this is cognate to the establishment’s reaction to Galileo.
But it’s not that Earl advocates lunacy in a manner devoid of learning. He advocates a position that is well argued based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge of Greek. But it cannot be true, you say. Why not? Because it simply can’t be and we shouldn’t listen to what can’t be true. No. Not so quick.
The more you think about early Christianity from the perspective of the new paradigm, the more the old paradigm can be seen to be flawed. … and the more the rather incoherent efforts to make those flaws disappear seem themselves flawed. Ptolemaic astronomy does work, sort of, if you keep patching it up. So we can say that the host of Historical Jesus scholars haven’t got it right, but we know that they are going about
it more or less the right way because it’s the only way we know of. Or indeed we say that HJ scholars are going about a task that is just impossible, but still their goal is in theory, however impossible in practice, the right goal. Really?
This isn’t to guarantee that Earl’s arguments are always correct… I’m not at all pleased with the redating of Mark etc. Or that he’s thought of everything… the normative Jesus who is a Galilean Jew whose followers immediately were subject to persecution by the pharisee Paul are huge holes the standard paradigm just ignores… but he’s thought of a lot.
You cannot advance very far in thinking if you simply refuse to adopt a new paradigm and see where it takes you. Even if, ultimately, you reject it, the adoption of it, or at least the effort to argue against it, will take you to places you have not been before. Hence Goranson (an intelligent knowledgeable person, thus the foil for this letter) is wrong.
Stephen Carlson’s objections to Earl on the grounds that Mark is evidence for an historical Jesus just takes the
standard paradigm and asserts it. That’s one way of going about it, as pointing to the self-evident fact that the sun
goes around the earth will nicely refute Copernicus. But it’s not that simple.
But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come across anywhere. I went along with Mark Goodacre, and learned some there. Refusing to go along, refusing even to argue against, being happy that nothing new is being discussed except widgets of modification to the standard paradigm, that’s where you really learn almost nothing.
Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn more?
And another professor in the field of biblical studies who is critical of Doherty (though I have yet to see evidence of his having read Doherty’s work), yet who speaks positively of “common sense” in relation to taking up the thesis of the non-historicity of Jesus, is R. Joseph Hoffmann:
I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.
I have enjoyed immensely R. Joseph Hoffmann’s dissertation on Marcion, which is a serious and “real” historical study of early Christianity. He is described as “a historian of religion” in the Wikipedia article about him.
The first three scholars and historians with expertise in relevant fields who have examined Doherty’s arguments specifically find them plausible. The fourth scholar has read the arguments of another mythicist, G. A. Wells, and is on record as at least indicating their plausibility, too:
In addition to the following books by the most visible contemporary champion of the myth theory, the British scholar G. A. Wells, a number of older studies can be recommended. Of Wells’s many titles, The Jesus of the Early Christians (London: Pemberton. 1971) is the most tightly argued; Did Jesus Exist? (London: Pemberton, 1986) is also worth mentioning, as is The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988). (R. Joseph Hoffmann in the introduction (p. 39) to “Jesus the Nazarene: Myth of History” by Maurice Goguel.)
On pages 15-16 of the same book R. Joseph Hoffmann sums up, with a clear intent to convey their plausibility, the arguments that some mythicists would consider their core points:
First, the earliest Christian literature, the letters written by Paul, is completely silent about Jesus as a historical figure. The six or seven “genuine” letters of Paul, written mainly in the fifties of the first century, know Jesus as the kyrios Christos (Christ the Lord) who died for the sins of the world, gaining forgiveness of humanity and a form of “immortality” for those who believed in him. There is little — one almost has to say no — reference in these letters to a Nazarene who taught by the sea of Galilee, healed the sick, and spoke in parables about the end and judgment of the world. There is next to nothing, and certainly nothing on the order of a historical narrative, about a public crucifixion and resurrection, merely a reference to a “deliverance,” death and resurrection as events of his life (see Galatians 6.14) which were understood to have bearing on the life of believers within the cult or “church.” Problematically, indeed, the most explicit of these references (Philippians 2.5-11) is a hymn which seems to locate these events in a cosmic dimension that bears closer resemblance to Gnostic belief than to what emerges, in the end, as orthodox Christianity. There is nothing to suggest that anything found in the Jesus tradition as Paul knew it in the fifties of the first century is significant or pertinent to being a Christian, beyond the bare datum that the overcoming of death by Jesus (or God raising him from the dead) provides a reason for the Christian to be confident of salvation and everlasting life. While the whole meaning of Christian “faith” was predicated on the acceptance of a single event located in time (Paul does not specify the time, and seems to have an eschatological view of the days nearing completion: Romans 8.17-20), the earliest form of Christianity we know anything about yields not a historical Jesus, but a resurrection cult in search of a mythic hero. It is found in the divine-man (theios aner) cult of Hellenistic Judaism.
So I remain unpersuaded by the biblical scholar’s appeal to some implied authority of the scholarly guild as grounds for dismissing the mythicist arguments.
This post has covered only a few of his “explanations” of how history works. Maybe will post more in future.
Since drafting the above, I have seen an exchange between Maurice Casey and Philip R. Davies (see vridar.info for my notes on his contributions to exposing the mythical character of much of the Old Testament’s history about Israel) on Yahoo’s “biblical studies” scholarly list. In response to Maurice Casey’s new book in which he argues that “the historical Jesus” can best be reconstructed through hypothesizing an original Aramaic text behind the gospels, and that Jesus believed he foresaw his own death written in Aramaic scriptures, Davies asks what strikes me as the most sensible questions of all: How would Jesus have found this in the scriptures? Were there Aramaic translations available? When and where would Jesus have read them, and which texts would he have seen as pertaining to his own death?
Maurice Casey’s reply began with the remark that such a question “reflects to a considerable degree a more radical view of the Jesus tradition than I have suggested,” and continues: “Your question reflects some things which we really do not know. . . ” But Casey follows with several lengthy paragraphs of what he imagines “could have been” the situation. Not a single shred of evidence is drawn upon — it is all arm-chair mind-games.
This is not historical methodology at work. Davies’ questions are in the genuine spirit of the need for historical inquiry to rely first and foremost on empirical data. This was the topic of my earlier post referencing the (by now archaic father of history) Leopold von Ranke’s discussion of history as both a “science” and an “art”.
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