That Curious Criterion Classically Illustrated

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Not long after addressing that “curious criterion” of biblical studies that holds that the less likely something seems to be in the Gospels, the more likely it is to have been historically true, I unpacked a carton of my books that included The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue, and found in there a classic example of that curious criterion in action.

Actually it is a slight oversimplification to describe this criterion the way I did in my opening line. More “strictly”, it is summed up by the incredulous claim: “I can’t see why anyone would make it up.” Surely claiming authenticity for any data on the grounds that one “can’t think of a reason it would have been made up by anyone” is the nadir of intellectual laziness. When taken to its extreme, it can be used to prove the most sensational claims of the miraculous. And that is exactly where Bishop and Scholar N. T. Wright does take it. He is referring to the Gospel of Luke’s account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples and breaking bread and eating bread and fish with them:

If you have an empty tomb and something’s happened to the body, and then if the apparitions are not just apparitions, such as you have when somebody you love has just died, but actually involve some extraordinary physical things. You know, according to Luke 24, there must be a broken loaf lying on the table somewhere which they didn’t break — somebody did that — and so it’s not just eating broiled fish. There’s a bunch of physical phenomena going on, and this is where the stories are so odd, as well as these kind of paraphysical phenomena — I don’t think anyone could have made up these stories, actually, I think they’re so bizarre — and that’s part of the point. . . . (pp. 37-8, my emphasis)

Historians (not theologians) generally treat bizarreness as an indicator of fiction, and the more bizarre the more likely to be fictitious.

But N. T. Wright is “a leading New Testament scholar” whose work is certainly discussed with all seriousness by other scholars as diverse as (“liberal”) John Dominic Crossan and (“independent”) Maurice Casey.

Another curiouser rationale for this sort of scholarship was posted recently in a scholar’s blog castigating mythicists for failing to accept the collective judgments of the scholarly experts in their interpretations of “facts”, in the process comparing them with creationists who fail to accept the facts put forward by evolutionary scientists. The entire post was a bizarre muddle of conceptual confusions that is surely meant to sound reasonable only to those who need some background noise while they lull themselves to sleep. To try to follow each point of argument in concrete detail, referring to specific examples of each point made — in other words, to try to follow the reality of what is being said, not just let the grand conceptual generalizations bedazzle and muddle the thinking — gives one a headache from trying to connect sentence and phrases that have no logical connection at all.

I might do a detailed response to it some day. Just to give one example, though a key one: “facts” that are studied and that verify evolution are seemingly compared with “facts” that are studied by Historical Jesus scholars. What this misleadingly glosses over, however, is (1) that the HJ scholar has no comparable “facts” about Jesus, but only interpretations based on criteria; and (2) the HJ scholars have never seriously addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus, but always assumed it. (This poster of this blog article knows this from my earlier detailed demonstration of this from the writings of the likes of E. P. Sanders.) What the HJ scholars seek to discover is the kind of person Jesus was, not whether he existed or not.

This of course is totally unlike anything done by scientists in relation to evolution. They study facts that do support the theory of evolution that has been addressed head on and demonstrated.

So one can find many books and articles listing the standard questions of creationists and the standard responses of the evolutionists. It is all black and white and any lay person can understand the basic logic and the clear hard facts presented. No-one will be convinced against their will, but everyone with average intelligence can understand and accept the clear reasoning and facts of the evolutionists. This, of course, is something the HJ scholar cannot do in relation to mythicists because mythicists, at least the ones that interest me, are engaging with the source material and drawing on the studies of the scholars, finding their arguments to be logically invalid (circular, non-sequiturs, false-dilemmas), and proposing models that avoid these logical inconsistencies and make more rational sense of the evidence (as opposed to so-called “facts”).

But all this has been said a hundred times. When I get the energy I hope to finish off my posts on Spong’s arguments for the scriptural (as opposed to literal historical) bases for the events of Jesus Christ’s life and death. And I’ll be wondering all the while why he singles out just two details to have a historical background while none of the other details does. No, not really, it is very obvious why this seemingly arbitrary distinction must be made.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

12 thoughts on “That Curious Criterion Classically Illustrated”

  1. More “strictly”, it is summed up by the incredulous claim: “I can’t see why anyone would make it up.”

    Was this the sort of logic that the folks who participated in the Jesus Seminar used to decide which sayings and acts of Jesus were authentic and which were not?

    1. I’m confused. Are you referring to the American Jesus Seminar? 😉

      No, I think they used that other time-honored criterion: “Does that sound like something my Jesus would say?” You build a rickety scaffolding that goes like this:

      Jesus must have existed. -> He must have lived in Galilee. -> He must have been a great teacher. -> He must have been caring and smart, just like me. -> Therefore he must have really said all these nice saying in Q!

      In the end you have your very own, personal Frankenchrist.

      1. But then that raises a problem. Romans did not crucify — and not even Jewish preists hated — people for saying nice things. But the story says he was crucified, and the story also contains a plot element that explains why he was considered a rabble rouser, so that plot element must be true.

        Now we normally discount the historicity of anything that is constructed entirely out of prophetic or other OT passages. In the case of the Temple Cleansing, for example, Paula Fredricksen, Burton Mack and John Spong all deny its historicity because it is clearly made up of bits and pieces of OT passages.

        But others like the idea that the Temple Cleansing is historical, because it is such a needed plot element that explains why Jesus was crucified. So they make an exception in this case and declare that the Temple Cleansing (or something that could be interpreted as such, like a “temple action”), even though it is clearly written as a fulfilment of prophecy and is made up of dialogue and passages from Old Testament scriptures, and disputed by more intellectually consistent scholars, must be a “bedrock fact of history”.

        Anyone not familiar with this field will think I am being sarcastic or silly.

        1. Three Catholic Ph.D.s disagree with Mack.


          Here’s the way it works in NT scholarship. Calling a saying or deed unhistorical is considered a positive claim, which is the opposite of every other historical specialty. If you can’t persuade an apologist there are good reasons for thinking that the Temple Cleansing was a post-Resurrection (probably post-70 A.D.) creation, then it remains plausible. And being plausible is a “strong reason” to believe it’s historically true.

          The three docs write, “Indeed, denying the historicity of the account also makes it difficult to explain the role of the priestly leadership in Jesus’ arrest and execution.” I’m reminded of Bob Price here — “Well, how do ya explain the Yellow Brick Road if there’s no Emerald City, and if there’s an Emerald City, surely there’s gotta be a Great and Powerful Oz, right?” [Paraphrasing.]

          Oh, I like the Freudian slip in their conclusion:

          In conclusion, there are no good reasons to assume the story is unhistorical and in fact strong reasons to believe that it is authentic. Is the episode more likely to have been invented by the Christians or to have originated with Jesus? The evidence points in the direction of the later [sic].

          Yes, the evidence does point to a later Christian invention, but I suspect they meant “latter.”

      2. Are you referring to the American Jesus Seminar? 😉

        Yes. Giving a probability to the authenticity of this or that saying or act without assigning a probability to the historicity of the individual to whom the sayings and acts have been attributed seems rather futile.

  2. ‘I don’t think anyone could have made up these stories, actually, I think they’re so bizarre’

    Not even NT Wright follows this principle.

    He naturally cannot sell to the public the story of Jesus taking off into the sky and disappearing into a cloud on his way to Heaven. Even the most ill-educated person now knows that above us is outer space, not Heaven.

    So Wright just declares the story to be metaphor.

  3. When I was doing my MA on the historical Jesus (now on hold, probably forever) my tutor recommended to me the work of N. T. Wright. I was fairly ignorant of his work before,(I kind of knew he was the current Bishop of Durham), but it only took a quick read through a few of his books to see his writing had a hefty apologetical viewpoint.

    I was doing my MA from a historical perspective, having completed my undergraduate degree in history. The fact that my tutor (a theology professor BTW) would recommend such a scholar is a fairly good indicator on what is considered scholarly in NT studies. Wright is considered a true heavyweight. It really does boggle the mind, somewhat.

    Also, there’s a good interview with Richard Carrier on his upcoming book where he talks a bit about the criterion of embarrassment, amongst other things. Here’s the link:


    Will be interesting as to what reaction Carrier’s books will get from New Testament scholars (if it gets any reaction at all, that is). I’m a bit of a dunce when it comes to Bayes theory, which Carrier employs. Whatever the case, I think it might take more than well-reasoned argumentation to change things in NT studies. “Entrenched” is the word I think I’m looking for.

    1. Regret the delays in yours and Steven’s recent comments. They should not have been held up in the queue on the strength of just one url.

      One wonders if the heavyweight reputation derives largely from the thickness of Wright’s books. Like Casey, anyone who writes something thick must be profound and exhausting, sorry, exhaustive.

      If ever a “mythicist” cites an academic and/or biblical scholar to demonstrate the questionable nature of the “conventional wisdom” to McGrath, he will criticize them for “selectively” quoting scholars. This complaint leaves me wondering how anyone can ever cite any scholar or source without being “selective” about it?

      And if one quotes Carrier or Thompson or Price the name is mentioned derisively from what I have seen.

      (Of course, what McGrath is trying to imply is that the quoter is not seriously engaging with the scholarship but merely scanning for proof-texts. But that is exactly what he himself does in relation to Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4.)

    2. The Carrier interview is lengthy, and he talks fast, making it difficult to pick up some important words and follow some of his logic, but it is very interesting stuff. I will need to listen to it a second time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading