“Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus. Pa...
See the introduction linked in this post for the relevance of this image. Image via Wikipedia

The introduction of Thomas L. Thompson’s and Thomas Verenna’s edited volume, Is This Not the Carpenter?A Question of Historicity has been published on The Bible and Interpretation.

The first essential step in any historical inquiry

This is a heartening introduction to the essential basics of valid historical methodology that has been very fudgy in the field of historical Jesus studies. The first thing any historian needs to grapple with when undertaking any inquiry is the nature of his or her sources. While probably most biblical scholars have acknowledged that the Gospels are theological narratives that depict a “Christ of faith” rather than a “Jesus of history”, there has at the same time been an assumption that that theological layer has been created to portray what the “historical Jesus” meant to the authors and their readers. Given this assumption, it has been believed that it might be possible to uncover some facts about the historical Jesus nonetheless. Historical Jesus studies have in this way been confused with the question of Christian origins.

The contributions in this book are from a diverse range of scholars. The introduction explains the purpose of the volume:


The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.

This sounds a little like an approach I have been suggesting on this blog and elsewhere for some time, so I find such a statement personally encouraging.

Historicity is an assumption

On the question of the historicity of Jesus itself, and how it is always assumed — never argued (despite strident assertions by some scholars to the contrary) — one reads in the Introduction:

For some time, New Testament scholarship has avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus. Their assumption of an historical Jesus has been secured within a debate about the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life, as referenced in the New Testament, reflect either Jesus’ own life and teaching or a construction of early Christianity. The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.

Did that last sentence say “Paul”? (It’s looking even better.)

Although no effort has yet been made to respond to recent efforts to focus on the question of historicity, the question as such is dismissed without argument. While the assumption of historicity has prompted many to attempt to describe what the historical Jesus must have been like, it has also encouraged many to ignore both literary and theological issues central to an understanding of New Testament narrative.  .  .  .   The question of historicity, itself, however, remains unaddressed and there is, accordingly, little discussion of the central questions regarding the significance and function of our texts. One has begun with the unwarranted assertion of a “probability” of an historical Jesus existing in ancient Palestine and freely presented one or other of such a possible figure as a viable alternative to the only known Jesus—the mythic one of our texts. Jesus has become a “concrete entity with recognizable parameters.” This was so thoroughly accepted that, when the Jesus Seminar was originally assembled, it was assumed from the outset that Jesus had been in fact an historical person. The Seminar, hence, could proceed to produce specific guidelines for determining the type of person he had been.

No first century general messianic expectation

It’s nice to see I’m also not alone in attempting to point out the absence of any evidence for a general expectation among Jews of a Davidic messiah in the early first century:

Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century—such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah—has been found wanting. The ancient world’s many mythic and theological representations of a figure comparable to the Jesus of New Testament texts are not alone decisive arguments against historicity, but they are part of the picture, which needs to be considered more comprehensively.

Jesus, a literary character in the train of Abraham, Moses, Jonah . . .

The Jesus we encounter in literature is by definition a literary Jesus. Whether there is additionally a historical Jesus behind that literary figure is a separate question, and one that cannot be assumed by default solely on the grounds of the existence of that literary one.

An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David. To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations. The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers.

How many Jesus’s have been reconstructed?

Doherty has observed that the sheer number and widely divergent reconstructions of the historical Jesus is an indicator that there is something seriously wrong with the nature of the so-called evidence for such a figure. As I have asked a few times also, what other historical figure do historians have such fundamental diversity of view of their very identity? Socrates was a philosopher, Caesar a politician and military leader, Aristophanes a playwright.

Here is the Introduction’s list of the many Jesus’s modern scholarship has produced:


  1. itinerate preacher (Crossan)
  2. a cynic sage (Mack, Downing)
  3. the Essene’s righteous rabbi (Allegro)
  4. a Galilean holy man (Vermes, Thiering)
  5. a revolutionary leader (Brandon, Buchanan)
  6. an apocalyptic preacher (Ehrman)
  7. a proto-liberation theologian (Robinson)
  8. a trance-inducing mental healer (Davies)
  9. an eschatological prophet (Sanders, Meier)
  10. an occult magician (Smith)
  11. a Pharisee (Falk, Maccoby)
  12. a rabbi seeking reform (Horsley, Borg, Chilton)
  13. a Galilean charismatic (Vermes)
  14. a Hillelite (Maccoby)
  15. an Essene (Maccoby)
  16. a teacher of wisdom (Borg)
  17. a miracle-working prophet and an exorcist (Koester)

See the online introduction at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/carp358009.shtml for a summary of each of the contributions to appear in the volume.

Thompson’s introductory exegesis points one way to where the evidence and discussions in the ensuing chapters leads. I am not so sure that each of the contributors would be willing to follow Thompson here, but maybe I can be pleasantly surprised to find at least an acknowledgement of the validity of Thompson’s position. (Previously on this blog when Thompson’s views on the Historical Jesus and the assumptions underlying HJ studies have been raised, they have been dismissed on the grounds that Thompson is “not a New Testament scholar”. Hopefully this volume will open a wider understanding that the methodological approach one adopts to inquire into Christian origins trumps all other considerations.)

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on ““Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus”

  1. Forgot to comment on the price. It is one of those books publishers only expect academics to read. Many will get their copy gratis for review or via institutional purchases, professional refunds, etc. Maybe they would like to give their copies to interested lay readers with lesser incomes. But the summaries seem to tell me nothing more than what one reads generally in the literature anyway. It is piecing of them together with the focus of Thompson’s exegesis that seems to be what gives them their punch. I’m content to settle for the online introduction.

    1. Hi Neil, thanks for the comments and the positive overview! I would like to make a clarification. First, the title for the article is not the title for the book. The full book title is ‘Is this not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus. The title was shortened for the sake of formatting and ease of read for the audience of B&I. I hope at some point the book will be made available in paperback, but that depends entirely on the run and how well it does.

      Neil: have changed the title of the post to the same as the book title

  2. ‘This was so thoroughly accepted that, when the Jesus Seminar was originally assembled’

    Which Jesus Seminar is meant here – the American Jesus Seminar or the British Jesus Seminar?

    I can see the possibilities of a huge amount of confusion here…..

    The introduction does a good job of pointing out that the Gospellers changed the story for plot narratives – to tell a story in a different way.

    In much the same way that modern directors might set Romeo and Juliet in New York, or the Mikado in 1920’s America. They feel free to change very basic things to bring out the dramatic points they want their audiences to feel.

    ‘Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century—such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah—has been found wanting’

    Isn’t this just what Neil has been saying?

    1. Fortunately the one reader who is the most likely to be thoroughly confused by the Jesus Seminar reference has emailed me to say she will not be reading this blog again and does not want anything more to do with my hate-filled, abusive, bullying, bigoted name or to see anything more from me in her mailbox. I accordingly took the liberty of removing her subscription from the blog in order not to cause her any further offence. (She did, after all, indicate she was only interested in contact with this blog in order to feed an independent scholar with fuel for slander in a forthcoming book anyway.)

      The offline exchange was interesting. No matter how often I pointed to my actual reasons for questioning her assertion that “American” was nothing but an innocuous disambiguation, she persistently refused to acknowledge I had even made any such points and repeated ad nauseum her own argument: finally she snapped to tell me I would never be happy unless she became a mythicist. This sort of shut-down — refusal to even acknowledge the other side’s arguments — and to merely repeat louder and louder one’s own point of view regardless of whatever the other side is saying — What is going on here? It reminds me of a fundamentalist friend I once had who was always keen to share her arguments but would make it very clear she had no interest in hearing any alternative viewpoint.

      ‘Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century—such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah—has been found wanting’

      Isn’t this just what Neil has been saying?

      McGrath will no doubt claim that this shows just how unqualified Thompson is in NT studies and advise him (a peer reviewed author of several publications on messianism) to read a book that actually demonstrates the — er — variety of messianic views in Second Temple Judaism to put him in his place.

  3. Besides the cornucopia of reconstructions, may I draw your attention to the recent disagreements over how to extract reliable information out of the unreliable texts. The Jesus Seminar (the American one, not the one nobody has ever heard of) focused on sayings, with the belief that we could get to the core historical Jesus by discovering what he “really said.” On the other hand, scholars like E.P. Sanders say that we should focus on the deeds of Jesus, because the context of the sayings is irretrievably lost to history.

    More recently other scholars have said we can get some sort of overall feel from reading the unreliable if not fictional accounts of the gospel to get a general idea of what Jesus was like. Cue Carr’s favorite quote: “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.”

    Incidentally, the embarrassingly useless Criterion of Embarrassment rears its ugly little head again here:


    Recall that the intent of all the criteria in the NT scholar’s quiver is to determine relative probability. Is saying A more likely to be true than saying B? Can we exclude event X because it is implausible to given the historical context? But here we go again. Alan Segal writes: “For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion [of embarrassment] demonstrates that Jesus existed.”

    “Ironically,” Segal continues, “it’s the embarrassing nature of these facts that assures us of their authenticity.” No, Alan, it proves that they are early and were probably part of the original story. It proves that the original story tellers were not embarrassed by details that the later church might have been embarrassed by. Luke was embarrassed by the Cry of Dereliction on the cross, so he omitted it. Does that prove that Jesus really said, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” No. We have no way to evaluate its historicity (although Crossan makes a good case for it being “prophecy historicized”). Mark says he did. Matthew says Jesus said it in Hebrew, not Aramaic. John omits it.

    The criterion of embarrassment falls into the category of “not even wrong.”


    It proves people can be embarrassed by things they find embarrassing. Sometimes they change the embarrassing detail; sometimes they omit it. Their reaction to the embarrassing item proves only that they were embarrassed.

      1. I don’t think they bother to listen to mythicist responses — even when mythicist arguments are repeats or quotations from the same arguments of historicists. I was trying to understand why our recent friend Steph would persistenly ignore opposing arguments and cry abuse or respond with abuse herself when pushed on this glaring fact often enough.

        I was reminded of an interview with an American general I once saw: he was asked how he would respond to those who claimed that the people he was fighting believed they were merely trying to defend their homeland from occupation and be responsible for their own affairs, etc. His repy was memorable: “If you said that then I would say you are on the side of the enemy.”

        That is, there is no interest in dialogue. People like McGrath and Casey/Steph et al are in an adversarial position against mythicism and to engage with the arguments of mythicists seriously is not the way one attempts to destroy those one sees as the enemy.

  4. JW:
    After skimming through the introduction and especially regarding “Mark”, I found it disappointing. Much of it is unsupported assertion, same as the Christian articles it is reacting to. Both suffer from the same lack of development and application of criteria for historical methodology. Specifically the discussion on “Mark”, while identifying the irony, misses the overall theme of irony, so that the hands literal/figurative contrast may have had literary contrivance as the primary motivation for creation. The comparison of the carpenter to the Greek example looks like proof-texting without valid criteria for parallels and the tones are the opposite. Carpenter in “Mark” is non-reMarkable while in Greek is remarkable. The bigger picture here is the genre of “Mark” may be Greek Tragedy so this type of contrivance may be guided primarily by ironic style and may have lesser, not much or even no theological significance. Most amazing is that considering the title, the book completely misses that “Matthew” edited the carpenter reference from Jesus to Jesus’ father, someone not even mentioned by “Mark”. This is a serious wound for the historical value of the Gospels as a potential historical description with scope, the career of Jesus, is exorcised from the source Gospel impeaching the credibility of the source and the editing. How could a book with an objective of questioning the historical value of the Gospels miss it?

    Neil, its increasingly looking like it’s god’s will that you and I and the legendary Vorkosigan write a book developing and applying proper historicity criteria to the Gospels. Unless you want to wait another 1,000 years.


    1. Hi Joseph,

      I see Thompson’s discussion as an extension of what he was getting at in his The Messiah Myth (Thompson’s take and Just like). The Hephaestus reference is not about intertextuality, but about cultural memes. One sees something similar with the superior-inferior dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist: this is the same dialogue we find between Achilles and Agamemnon in the opening of the Iliad, and the change-over from the prophet Calchas to Mopsus. It is not about intertextuality. It’s the meme/trope/motif matrix from which the narrative is born.

      One also notices in The Messiah Myth that Thompson is not convinced of the priority of the Gospel of Mark. I used to think this was an embarrassing exposure of his lack of knowledge of NT studies, but I now find myself opening up to the possibility that the two and a half century old Griesbach hypothesis just might have more going for it than I have been conditioned to believe. Maybe. Will explore the possibility in some future posts.

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