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:
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
- Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed
- Jesus called disciples and spoke of their being twelve
- Jesus confined his activity to Israel
- Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple
- Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
- After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement
- 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.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- How the Holy Spirit Replaced Jerusalem in a Power Game - 2021-11-05 07:56:55 GMT+0000
- “The war of 70 is not a major issue” in the Gospels? - 2021-10-31 11:10:13 GMT+0000
- Indigenous India-Australia Ties - 2021-10-28 10:00:10 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!