Grounds for excluding historical Jesus studies from university research

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by Neil Godfrey

Today while catching up with what materials qualify as research for funding purposes in Australian universities (my new job requires me to refresh my memory on all this stuff) I came across an exclusion clause that should mean that no Historical Jesus book like Crossan’s or Casey’s should qualify as a research output of a publicly funded university.

It is in the guidelines under the section to do with authored books.

This category also refers to books written solely by the author(s). The publication must be a substantial work of scholarship . . .

The following are excluded:

  • creative works such as novels, which depend mainly upon the imagination of the author rather than upon a publicly accessible body of agreed fact (possibly J1); . . .

Now J1 refers to the section titled “Major Original Creative Works”. So if such a book is to be registered as an output of a public university it must be categorized as an “original creative work”.

Can non-biblical history qualify?

The answer is in that phrase “publicly accessible body of agreed fact”.

Now that’s what historians in nonbiblical studies work with. Niall Ferguson is a very widely read Harvard Professor of History, and all his books are investigations into publicly accessible bodies of agreed facts. Various contemporary attitudes to the Great War and the acts of killing Germans, for example, are described along with the publicly accessible evidence for his descriptions: specific newspaper editorials and news stories and private letters from a wide cross section of participants.

So when I read Ferguson’s discussion of public attitudes towards the War and its cruel violence, I have confidence that he is presenting more than educated guesses and that the account rests on a substantial body of evidence and not just a small sample of a few letters.

Few can argue with the “facts” of a large number of news reports and personal letters from the time. Ferguson is able to write a book that depends on publicly accessible bodies of agreed facts.

The Hitler Diaries were not allowed to enter the pool of facts with which modern historians were able to work until they were thoroughly tested for their authenticity. They failed that test.

One historian wrote about South American bandits using public “facts” known among local populations, but had to retract those portions of his work when his peers pointed out that such “facts” had not been independently verified. (See the post on Hobsbawm for details.)

Can the history of Palestine qualify?

Archaeologists dig up evidence of the history of Palestine. Historians that work with this evidence — publicly accessible bodies of agreed facts — can qualify as authors of genuine research.

The old days of trying to write a history of the Kingdoms of Israel by essentially paraphrasing much of the Bible are gone. The Exodus of Israel from Egypt, for example, is part of biblical narrative but it is by no means an “agreed fact” of history. The archaeological evidence is simply not strong enough, to say the least, to give it that status.

Historical Jesus studies should not qualify

So what publicly accessible body of agreed facts do scholars of the historical Jesus draw upon?

Renowned biblical scholar E. P. Sanders has listed the following:

  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of their being twelve
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple
  6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
  7. After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement
  8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career.

Sanders says that these eight points are “facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known without doubt. . . . The almost indisputable facts . . . are these” (p.11, Jesus and Judaism).

This is a strange way to state the facts. Ferguson did not write of newspaper reports and personal letters that “these are almost indisputable facts” and they can be known “without doubt”. Historians about Palestine can cite where different types of house structures appear and at what strata and in what topography without saying that such finds are “without doubt . . . almost indisputable facts”.

Sanders is defensive about his assertion that his eight-point list are “without doubt . . . almost indisputable”. “He must be defensive because scholars do disagree with such a list, and so can members of the public.

  • Paula Fredriksen and Burton Mack, for example, deny Sanders’ point 5, the so-called “fact” of Jesus cleansing the temple.
  • Professor Stevan Davies wrote a book about the historical Jesus arguing he was a healer but denying, if I recall correctly, that he was a preacher.
  • Maybe most scholars agree that Jesus called disciples, but I know from following exchanges among biblical scholars on Crosstalk some years ago that not all do, and fewer agree he really called twelve of them.
  • It is also reasonable to mount an argument against the historicity of Jesus having been baptized by John the Baptist.
  • There is early Christian evidence denying that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities. (The Gospel of Peter and Justin Martyr testify that Jesus was crucified by Herod under the jurisdiction of Pilate.)

No-one can reasonably disagree with the evidence of multiple newspaper reports all supported by personal letters of participants or with the location of specific archaeological evidence.

Disagreement is quite legitimate about the historical or factual status of narrative claims in the Gospels.

The Gospels after all do not come attached with a certified stamp identifying their authorship or date of composition. Unlike in the case of Hobsbawm’s evidence derived from oral narratives about social bandits, there are no independent sources against which a historian or his or her peers can corroborate (or disconfirm) the narrative.

The only claim to authority that the Gospels have is cultural tradition.

Scholars can make “educated guesses” about when the gospels may have been written, and those guesses range from the years 35 to 40 through to the years 135-140. They can make educated guesses that they were written by someone in Rome or Syria, and the preferences are likely to swing to and fro over time.

Scholars can assume or make educated guesses that the Gospels were composed from efforts to compile oral traditions, or they can argue that they are creative efforts drawing their inspiration from a range of Jewish and Greek literary works.

But worst of all, each one of the facts that Sanders lists are said to be “facts” entirely on the basis that scholars assume that the Gospel authors really did want to write something based on real history, and that they would not have made up such material. They use “criteria” (e.g. of embarrassment, dissimilarity, etc) to argue what specific details they “would not have made up”.

None of this is “agreed fact”. Even if every scholar agreed that Jesus did go in to the Temple with a whip and cast out the money changers, the only reason they would do so is because they all agreed that “no one would have made it up”.

Given the wide extent to which ancient authors did produce forged literature, especially among early Christian records, this surely is a shaky assumption or induction.

But we know every scholar does not agree, and never has agreed, to all such points of “almost indisputable” facts about Jesus.

Historical Jesus books do not depend “upon a publicly accessible body of agreed fact”.

If that is a criterion for genuine scholarly research, then books about the Historical Jesus do not qualify as genuine scholarly research endeavours.

They may be classified as creative works of the imagination, however.

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Grounds for excluding historical Jesus studies from university research”

  1. ‘publicly accessible body of agreed fact’

    Who needs facts? Australia clearly lags behind when it comes to public standards of research.

    Biblical scholars laugh at the idea that you understand True Methodology.

    Professor James McGrath would shoot you down in flames here, pointing out ‘…Gospels are full of legendary and fictional material, and that it nonetheless makes sense to view the legends and fictions as things that arose from or are based on an actual historical figure’

    ‘He then goes on to explain why, even in narratives that may provide no factual historical data, we may still be dealing in a very real sense with memory about Jesus.’

    Professor James McGrath slays the backward looking people of Australia and their outmoded fetish about facts with the following sentence ‘ Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.’

    This is True Scholarship and if such standards are banned from Australian universities, then clearly Australia has much to learn.

  2. I had forgotten I had used the phrase ‘sham methodology’ in the title of my basic post on historical method, so when our recent friend from Sheffield Biblical Studies blog (Mike Kok?) took exception to that phrase, I should have asked him if he actually moved beyond the title and read the post itself.

  3. “Biblical scholars laugh at the idea that you understand True Methodology.” “Professor James McGrath slays the backward looking people of Australia and their outmoded fetish about facts” Are you the speech writer for Conan the Barbarian? But laughing is the correct response here.

    1. I don’t understand that comment.

      I guess if you quote True Historians, you are going to be unpopular, and people will automatically assume you are mocking them , as in some people’s minds, quoting True Scholars looks very like mocking them.

  4. Making these sorts of expansive statements on behalf of a little cared about position is almost self parody. Particular when the premise it rest on is so clearly false.

      1. The false premise is “Historical Jesus books do not depend “upon a publicly accessible body of agreed fact”.” The publicly agreed facts are the existence of Christianity and the textual works produced concerning its past. No one doubts the existence of Mark, Luke, the letters of Paul, etc. Those are the facts. If E.P. thinks their are other facts, well that’s him.

        Ironically I was going to contrast E.P’s facts with those in a the Encyclopedia Britannica, a big book of facts and found E.P as a major contributor, so those may be the facts. Of course when dealing with such secondary facts there will be those who don’t believe that they are real facts. That an object is a 12th century Minoan clay pot might be an accepted fact, but of course it is possible that someone may dispute that it is Minoan, 12th century, or even a pot, but that it is clay is a fact that can’t be disputed without questioning sanity. So that there is someone who disputes a fact doesn’t mean it is no longer a fact. A significant number how ever would. I disagree with a number of E,P.’s facts, and think a few others don’t quite rise to the level of “no doubt”.

        A historic Jesus is ultimately a theory that seeks to explain the tangible facts, the legends of things attributed to him. The Jesus myth is another theory. Either of those could be considered a fact in their own right if a large enough consensus is reached one way or the other.

        1. The publicly agreed facts are the existence of Christianity and the textual works produced concerning its past. No one doubts the existence of Mark, Luke, the letters of Paul, etc. Those are the facts.

          The gospels and epistles are real things. But we have no “tangible evidence” that they date to the first century.

          We have no evidence that the contents of the gospel narratives are “factual history” at any level at all. There is no external control to give us assurance that any of the narrative is “true”. It is just a narrative. It could be entirely fiction. That does not mean we should therefore treat it as fiction. It means we need accept that we can’t tell if it’s fact or fiction until we bring some other evidence to bear on the question.

          (This is not “my” argument, by the way. It goes back to even biblical scholars themselves of the early twentieth century whom I have quoted. It is the standard methodology of historians. The only “historians” who don’t acknowledge it are those who are condemned by their peers as lazy or naive or whatever, and theologians who think they do history but who don’t understand history.)

          The Encyclopedia — any encyclopedia — is not necessarily (just because it is called an “encyclopedia”) any more “factual” than any other writing thought to be written by an authority.

          Your analogy of the 12th century Minoan pot is muddled thinking. The fact is the piece of clay found at a certain layer and with certain attributes. The interpretation — not the fact — is that it is a 12th century Minoan pot. Scholars disagree over interpretations. They agree on known facts.

          But if a piece of pottery is securely carbon dated to the 12th century and features distinctively Minoan decoration and pigments as understood throughout the scholarly guild, then in that case it is a ‘fact’ that it is 12th century Minoan pottery.

          (The only thing that can remove it from the status of being a fact is if it is later found that there was something faulty with the carbon test or the pigments and decorations were later forgeries.)

          1. But the Gospels and other such literature are facts around which theories can be formed to explain, whether that they are meant as fun reads for Christians, parables, frauds, whatever. I would say the Historic Jesus theory is built around the same facts as the Jesus Myth, an attempt to explain why these books and those institutions are the way they are.
            I don’t think the Minoan pot argument was muddled, you have effectively just restated it. Just add to the list of things that can be disputed beyond the items genuineness is whether we really know what a distinctive Minoan style is. The understanding of a scholarly guild can be incorrect or challenged.

  5. The theologians are so narrowly focused that they seem unaware of what secular authors, contemporaneous with the compositors of the Christian texts, wrote. This suggests they are not serious unbiased researchers after all.

    Maybe winning the approval of their peers and making tenure is dependent on not finding anything that is either new or potentially controversial. They are so busy searching for non controversial eye motes to expend ink on, that they are missing the planks in their eyes which actually might have some significance.

    See comment 3 on the 010/08/21 entry: How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar for another textual parallel that the university based scholars appear not to have noticed.

    The arrest of Jesus episode has Jesus one upping Vitellius.

    Did Tacitus and Suetonius plagiarize Luke, or did Luke borrow from the classical historians? Does this influence how gospel texts are dated? Why have the common themes of arrest and earectomy gone unnoticed when the university scholars are able to find and write long journal articles about subtle parallels the non specialist is incapable of discerning ?

    1. I have been catching up with reading Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus for the First Time” and for some reason it has helped me see a little more clearly (even sympathetically) why there is this disconnect between theology in the guise of secular historical studies and genuine historical studies. Have drafted a post on this which I intend to post soon(ish).

      Neils Peter Lemche said somewhere that real historians have no business engaging in professional communications with theologians, and by doing so they are discrediting their own standards. I think many of us here would fully agree.

      Thanks for the post on Vitellius. I took the liberty of reformatting it to make it easier reading in a comments page. There are a few comments I would like one day to present as posts — another was a series of comments detailing the many arguments for a dating of Mark’s gospel.

  6. RE “The false premise is “Historical Jesus books do not depend “upon a publicly accessible body of agreed fact”.” The publicly agreed facts are the existence of Christianity and the textual works produced concerning its past. No one doubts the existence of Mark, Luke, the letters of Paul, etc. Those are the facts. If E.P. thinks their are other facts, well that’s him.”

    This is an incorrect assumption. I think that there are many that see the gospel characters as mythical or legendary characters, and not real people. But if anyone knows of any historians that have demonstrated that any of these characters existed, I would appreciate them getting in touch with with that demonstration. Either by email or Twitter. Thank you.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    1. Rich wrote: But if anyone knows of any historians that have demonstrated that any of these characters existed, I would appreciate them getting in touch with with that demonstration.

      Mike wrote: Either of those could be considered a fact in their own right if a large enough consensus is reached one way or the other.

      I wonder if it takes a supermajority to affect reality. It would seem unsportsmanlike to change the past based on a 51% majority.

      1. Mike is confusing two concepts of “fact” — social facts and objective/scientific/testabe facts. Sometimes the two coincide, but that is because of either coincidence or good communication, effective education. Most of us cannot verify personally many of the facts we are taught at school. We accept them as fact because they come from the right social authorities. What we are attempting to get at here in these discussions are the testable objective facts. How much of what we accepted “socially” can we really establish as another order or kind of “real” fact?

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