That Curious Criterion Guiding Historical Jesus Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

Sherlock Holmes
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Let’s close 2010 with a wonderful New Yorker article from May this year. It is a cleverly written discussion of the state of Historical Jesus studies by Adam Gopnik, What Did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels. One might even suggest that Gopnik demonstrates the ability of complete outsiders to see how starkly naked is the emperor of historical Jesus studies. I quote the opening paragraph and highlight some key points.

When we meet Jesus of Nazareth at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, almost surely the oldest of the four, he’s a full-grown man. He comes down from Galilee, meets John, an ascetic desert hermit who lives on locusts and wild honey, and is baptized by him in the River Jordan. If one thing seems nearly certain to the people who read and study the Gospels for a living, it’s that this really happened: John the Baptizer—as some like to call him, to give a better sense of the original Greek’s flat-footed active form—baptized Jesus. They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.

The article even proceeds to compare the scholarly search for the historical Jesus with an imaginary search for, — wait for it — the “historical” Sherlock Holmes or Superman! Now where have readers of this blog’s commenters ever heard such comparisons before, I wonder.

But no, this article is not a “pro-mythicist” piece. Only half a sentence mentions Earl Doherty’s name. No other mythicists are cited in this 5,218-word essay. Much more is written about the likes of Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, L. Michael White, Paul Verhoeven, Paul Johnson and James Tabor.

Still, that single mention of Doherty (he defends mythicism “with grace and tenacity”), and the mere public mention that Jesus-mythicism has been marginalized from the seminaries, was apparently enough to offend one theologian enough to come out and complain that he cannot ignore posting diatribes against the mere idea of mythicism because it continues to get “public attention” — referring to this New Yorker article that appeared seven months earlier.

Regrettably, this same scholar has, ten weeks after publicly announcing his determination to refrain from “public ridicule and scorn” and desire to have a “different” approach, returned to the same old insults and condescending ridicule against a commenter who has asked him to justify his dogmatic insistence that there can only be one possible conclusion to be drawn from a particular passage in Paul’s letters. The scholar might even be right, but his inability to present unequivocal evidence to support his dogmatism, and his resorts to rambling nonsequiturs and insults, contradicts his resolution in October to confine his future focus to “matters of evidence”. (When caught out citing a reference that did not say what he indicated — something I have personally witnessed a number of times with this scholar now — rather than apologize, he insultingly ridiculed his questioner.)

Regrettably, some historical Jesus scholars don’t seem to understand that it is their unquestioned assumptions that are challenged. Simply repeating their own arguments over and over does not address the questions about the logic and assumptions in those arguments raised by others. Simply insulting people and falsely accusing them of failing to engage seriously with the scholarly literature suggests that their academic discipline really is, unlike the hard sciences, built on shifting sands.

To conclude with part of Adam Gopkin’s conclusion that hits at the core of uncertainty at the heart of historical Jesus scholarship, and sums up how absurd it is to compare its authority of academic status to the authority of, oh let’s just pick out another academic field at random, let’s say, evolutionary scientists:

The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Authority and fear can circumscribe the argument, or congeal it, but can’t end it. In the beginning was the word: in the beginning, and in the middle, and right there at the close, Word without end, Amen.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “That Curious Criterion Guiding Historical Jesus Scholarship”

  1. Other than Doherty and Kenneth Humphreys, who are the main dissenters from the concept of an historical Jesus? If the people who publish books on the subject of the historicity of Jesus are motivated by the desire to have their books be money-makers, wouldn’t there be a tendency to favor historicity because that is the conclusion that most potential readers desire?

  2. One thinks of Jesus historicist Dan Brown. I think a sure fire seller would be a thriller novel that “exposes” how the discrediting of recent archaeological finds (the James ossuary, the Jesus tomb, the Nazareth wall, etc) was all a Jewish cum liberal theologian plot and Simon Cyrene was the one crucified and Simon Magus was really Jesus who went to Rome to try to stop Peter from founding the Catholic Church . . . . ©

    1. Well, I meant someone who is a serious scholar. Dan Brown is a novelist. From my experience in reading the Da Vinci Code, I thought he used sensationalism as a ploy to sell more books, knowing fully well that it was complete nonsense. Per his Wikipedia:

      In an interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show in September 2009, Brown responded by saying, “I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else.”

  3. Dammit, Neil, you made go over and read McG’s blog again. I really need to stop gawking at that train wreck.

    Anyhow, as to McG’s tiresome comparison of mythicism to creationism, it just doesn’t wash. Creationism depends on the intrusion of a sky-fairy with magical powers into the natural world. Neither the Historical Jesus hypothesis nor the Mythical Jesus hypothesis depends on violating the laws of physics on special occasions. They both try to make logical sense out of contradictory evidence. And what’s with the fascination with Holocaust denial? It’s offensive, and it needs to stop.

    He writes, “Both creationists and mythicists are prone as well to ask for someone to offer them a knock-down argument in favor of mainstream scholarship in the area of which they are skeptical.”

    Actually, sometimes there are knock-down arguments, as with the evidence of fusion in human chromosome #2 and the thermal echo left over from the big bang. McG. shouldn’t be so pessimistic. Sure, the current evidence is terrible*, but somebody could find manuscripts in a cave tomorrow that would show all of us agnostics and mythicists how wrong we’ve been. But until then it would just be nice to hear one or two of these self-proclaimed historians say, “You know what? We really just don’t know. And every argument we make concerning the historical Jesus, when he lived, where he came from, what he said, and what he did — is by the very nature of the evidence a circular argument.”

    * We shouldn’t pass up the chance to repeat the mantra: The documents we have are late, anonymous, contradictory, and lack any external controls.

    1. Sorry for making you do something distasteful. It was a third party’s Facebook entry that alerted me to what was going on and that’s how I found about the Evan-McGrath exchanges. I had expressed some time back some regret over a response tone of mine on McGrath’s blog, only to be taught that McGrath seizes on such things to ply his boot even harder. Hence my reluctance to jump up and shake hands when McGrath came out with his October “apology”. This is the first time that I am aware McGrath has addressed mythicism since then, and he just can’t help himself with the insults, the ridicule, the sarcasm, and the avoidance games. He remains as ignorant as ever about mythicism. (Notice the way he avoids responding to the question about MacDonald — my b.s. antenna tells me he has never read MacDonald past a book review.)

      But Stephanie tells us he is a delightful fellow, so the fault is all with us. She even says Jeffrey Gibson is a real “honey of a man”. So the fault is all with mythicists. She herself is always sweet as pie, and if we pull her up for her mere “honesty” then there is something terribly wrong with us. If only we attended SBL conferences we would see how wonderful everyone really is and learn to see their kicks are really kisses.

      But one qualification, Tim. If you are a member of the biblical studies guild with the right thought-framework you certainly can say the methods are circular (Jim West and Dale Allison). It only becomes a problem if you are an atheist (and therefore motivated by hate) and/or a mythicist.

      I think of that poor author who took all that trouble to write a book on Christian origins, and who was offended when, after he pushed me, I told him where I believed his assumptions were unsupportable. No-one likes to think all their work has been a waste.

  4. Thanks for the insightful connection between Superman and Gopnik’s article. I didn’t even remember him writing that when I made my comments. The irony …

    Again, I would think if an insightful creationist were commenting on Pharyngula or Tangled Bank and made a comment that invalidated one of his assertions, or even seemed prima facie to have invalidated it, that some legitimate response would be given to that point. Typically, however, there is no such a beast. If PZ Myers can simply and easily discuss evolution point-by-point with a 12 year old, one would think that a theologian who has made the crux of his argument the connection between Galatians 4:4 and Mark’s gospel would be able to do the same.

    Yet all I got back was to be called a crackpot, when Dr. McGrath refuses to label NT Wright a crackpot — and NT Wright thinks he has proven that God raised Jesus from the dead, which I would think is a bit more crackpottish than wondering why there is a necessary connection between Gal 4:4 and Mark.

    1. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? In just a few short blog comments, we learn that anyone who doubts that the evidence supports an historical Jesus is a crackpot. Not only that, but they’re ill-informed and have an axe to grind. They misread the evidence (sometimes deliberately), and they focus narrowly only on authors and fellow bloggers who agree with us.

      What can we deduce from someone who berates the questioner, sneering at his abilities, impugning his motives, and besmirching his character? The pseudo-historian doth protest too much, methinks.

    2. Your arguments were rather poor. James doesn’t have R.J. Hoffmann’s style for dismissing nudniks (a skill I pray for!), but he might think it valuable to drag out the discussion for whatever reasons, maybe educational, maybe he likes to fight. At a certain point it was hard to tell if you were actually engaging in a real conversation or just putting him on. Essentially at the heart of it, you were asking if there was another way to interpret Galatians 4:4. I think the answer is yes, you can interpret it any way you like. Just like the Gospel writers can interpret Psalms to be about Jesus or Paul can interpret Exodus to be about Jesus, or Hal Lindsay can interpret Revelations to be about modern world politics. Whether you can validly interpret it to be something else’s is another matter. Jame’s thinks not, but Valatian disagrees. I read through some of Pagel’s book and I have to say, I don’t find the Gnostic’s arguments that Paul had there theology in mind very convincing. The other arguments seemed more like a joke than a valid attempt at debate.

      1. Well Mike (assuming you are addressing me when you say you), thank you for your time and attention. It’s not any nudnik who can get Mike Wilson to insult them. As for interpretation, anyone can interpret anything anyway they want, that much is true. The bigger question is what linkage one can legitimately make between Galatians 4:4 and the gospel of Mark as opposed to the book of Revelation or gnostic mythology. I am interested in what you, or anyone who can make a cogent argument thinks Galatians 4:4 is referring to? I see no greater reason to link it to the gospels than either of the other linkages.

    3. The mere fact that N. T. Wright can take standard biblical “historical methods” and use them to argue for the resurrection tells us all we need to know about the such methods. They serve no genuine historical inquiry at all. As I’ve tried to point out a few times, “real” historians use (or should use) the sorts of criteria found in biblical studies to interpret the evidence and facts derived from that evidence. Biblical historians use the same criteria to create evidence and facts. They can even be used to create a fact of a resurrection! It’s absurd, and surely will be the butt of a major comedy spoof one day.

      Lemche was right: serious scholars have no business even engaging in professional debates with these apologists masquerading as serious historians.

      Casey calls himself an independent scholar, and says in brief what he is independent from, but curiously avoids explaining what his beliefs, biases and outlook actually is. This is standard for genuine scholarship in the humanities, I thought. But not for Casey. He calls himself independent, but speaks of Christian apologists scholars as “pious” and atheist sceptics as “rebels”, and engages in serious discussions over N.T. Wright and the resurrection.

      The whole thing is such a sham. It all belongs in the seminaries. Not the public universities. It’s as much a hoax as is Creationism. Only it’s a hoax for the more “intellectually” inclined.

      Creationist critics can be answered with evidence and facts. Mythicists are generally “answered” with repetitions of the orthodox paradigms and interpretations as if repeated and loud enough repetition of the thing questioned will silence its critics.

      1. Speaking of “orthodox paradigms and interpretations,” I think the next dead horse we should beat to death here is the burden of proof. NT scholars, for the most part, think it’s “bloody weird” to apply normal standards to the evidence.

        I’m thinking of Wells’ astute observation in Can We Trust the New Testament? (p. 59, 60) in which he quotes Bart Ehrman at length, explaining how Mark appears to be a Gentile who misunderstood Jewish rituals, writing to other Gentiles who are similarly ignorant. Wells writes:

        “Ehrman adds, as is normally reassuringly done in such writing, that ‘many of the oral traditions found in this Gospel must [sic] go back to the earliest followers of Jesus.” (The [sic] is Wells’, not mine.)

        When they claim that some material in the gospels must go back to an historical Jesus and his disciples, we need to keep asking, “Why?” When they say, “These epistles are clearly written by Paul,” we need to keep asking, “How do you know?” It is no crime to be skeptical when proof is lacking. It’s how we now know that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

        They have this misguided notion that the text is “innocent until proven guilty.” But that isn’t how it works. Plausibility addresses only the possible, not the probable.

        The burden of proof lies with the person asserting that “something happened,” not with us poor schmucks who keep asking, “Where’s the evidence?”

  5. Galatians 4 is as allegorical as anything in Revelation. It even tells us there is a Jerusalem above us.

    Revelation 12:4
    Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.

    A child born to a woman? Surely even McGrath knows that in the middle of allegory, there is no urgency to talk about women giving birth as referring to literal women giving birth to literal children.

    James McGrath is a Bible Scholar, who knows that allegorical passages talking about women giving birth to a child are not describing real events. Only a crackpot takes a woman giving birth to a child in Revelation literally.

    In the same way that only a ‘crackpot’ does not take a woman giving birth to a child in Galatians 4 literally, even though Galatians 4 contains the most blatant allegory since, well, Revelation is a rather suitable comparison to the allegory in Galatians 4.

    1. Let’s not forget that Paul says in the same verse that it is God’s Son who is born of a woman. How does God have a Son born of a woman in a meaningful historical sense? How many mythical characters are not said to have been born of women?

      Perseus and Heracles were born of earthly women, and each was a Son of Zeus, so would not they be legitimate close comparisons with Galatians 4:4?

      (Later the same “Pauline” chapter says “he” was labouring in childbirth.)

  6. Galatians 4 ‘Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. ‘

    Got you Neil! Got you Tim! Got you Earl!

    Paul is utterly certain there was a son born ‘according to the flesh’.

    How can you say Paul did not think of Jesus as born ‘according to the flesh’?

    Just how much of a crackpot do you have to be to read Paul talking about people being born ‘according to the flesh’, and then deny that he is talking about Jesus?

  7. The Gospel Of Jimmie

    In the beginning was the Father, Jor-El, who created the Crystals. And the Crystals were with Jor-El, and the Crystals were Jor-El, they were His Knowledge and Teachings. Through the Crystals all things were made. The Crystals that give men light.

    There came a woman sent by Jor-El, her name was Lois. She came as a
    witness to report concerning The Light to our planet.

    The Crystals became flesh and Jor-El sent His only son to us to provide leadership so that we might become a great people. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from Jor-El, full of truth, justice and The Way.

    He was in our world, but He was not of our world and so our world did not recognize Him. His enemy was Luthifer who desired to be a god of our world. When He became the light, the Crystals became the darkness and so became the only weapon which could be used against Him.

    Lois reports concerning Him. Her writings cry out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, He who surpasses me even though He was before me because He is faster, more powerful and graceful”.

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