The occult art of constructing the historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

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While I was a believer I was fascinated by speculations that someone well-read in the Bible might conjure up by linking verses together in a way that no-one seemed to have thought of before. For example, someone might “prove” that Jesus was a well-to-do middle-class businessman by noting that he

  1. seemed to have a particular house in Galilee that he regularly visited — so it was probably (therefore surely) his own house
  2. was a carpenter and son of a carpenter and carpenters then were stone-masons and highly skilled in a range of tasks including stone masonry (and being perfect he would have been very good at whatever he did)
  3. and he had a fine linen cloak of one piece of such quality that Roman soldiers preferred to gamble for it rather than tear it up among themselves

This is all nonsense, of course. It takes ambiguous data out of its original contexts and extrapolates from it to create a fiction. For example,

  1. the gospels do not unambiguously affirm that Jesus owned a house, and there is no indication at all who owned the house, or the arrangement he had by which he came to be found there from time to time; one senses middle-class westerners reading their own life-styles into Jesus here.
  2. The mere fact that he or his father was a “tekton” (translated “carpenter”) does not allow us to make any judgment about how successful he was financially; again one detects a western businessman making the judgement.
  3. The cloak story was expressly said to have been a fulfilment of prophecy, so the odds are stacked against the likelihood that this was historical.

One gets a strange sense that one is merely reading a more sophisticated or well-informed version of this same speculative process when one reads Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison.

This is not history. At best it might be described as drawing inferences from circumstantial evidence. It is educated guesswork.

But the scholarly version of the above process extends that “method” to something even more tenuous. A scholar may find his or her “best” evidence for what Jesus taught and thought by looking at data that contains nothing about Jesus at all.

One sees this in the catch of evidence Allison trawls in as part of his search for support for the proposition that the primary message of Jesus was that this age is about to end and God would soon descend to rule his people on earth.

First item of supporting “evidence”

Allison’s primary reason for believing Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet is that such a message pervades the Gospels. He leapfrogs the arguments from form criticism that have cast doubt on the originality of most of this teaching by asserting that the Gospels would not contain so much such material unless there was something very faulty with those who passed on the “traditions” they had learned from Jesus to these authors.

There is no direct evidence from Jesus himself to check, so Allison calls in as his first witness, Paul. Paul’s letters are riddled with apocalyptic expectations, and I don’t think he attributes a single one of these thoughts to the teaching of Jesus. He does say a lot about what has been revealed to him in the Scriptures and by the Spirit.

Nonetheless, Allison argues that we can be sure that Paul’s thoughts here do go back to Jesus because in the letter to the Galatians he wrote that he had med Peter, James and John, and that they had all agreed that they were teaching the same things.

Therefore, goes the argument, two followers and one brother of Jesus were also teaching apocalyptic messages like Paul, and we can see “confirmation” of this by reading in Acts 2:17 where Peter quoted a passage from Joel 2:28 about the “last days”.

And all this is fortified by the “fact” that the headquarters of Christianity was in Jerusalem. I will explain later how this last point “confirms” the argument that Jesus taught about the end of the age. I have gotten ahead of myself so I need to backtrack a little first.

Second item of supporting “evidence”

This is said to mutually confirm the evidence of Paul. Peter, as I said, is known to have taught about the end of the age because in Acts he is depicted as quoting a passage about the end in the Book of Joel. Peter is never said to have learned this teaching from Jesus.

Along with Peter, according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, was the brother of the Lord (presumably Jesus), and he also was one of the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church according to Paul.

Now Paul says that these pillars agreed that he (Paul) taught the same things they did.

But we only have Paul’s word for that, and it was clearly in his interest to inform his readers that he was in synch with the Jerusalem church leaders. We do not have any confirmation from Peter or James or John that they knew was Paul was writing to the Galatians or that they would have agreed with his claim.

Moreover, James the Lord’s brother was, according to the later Gospels, NOT a follower of Jesus, but a doubter. If we are to rely on this Gospel testimony, we have to conclude that we have no way to be sure that James ever knew what Jesus was really preaching. Was the apocalyptic message something he persuaded Peter to embrace after the death of Jesus? We have no idea.

So on several grounds this second item of evidence is very wobbly:

  1. only have Paul’s self-interested word for what they taught
  2. Peter quoted Joel, not Jesus, as the source of his apocalyptic message
  3. James supposedly never followed Jesus so it is not likely he knew what Jesus was regularly teaching

Third item of “evidence”

Jerusalem was the headquarters, therefore we can infer that Jesus taught the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

The reasoning goes like this:

  1. Jesus taught in Galilee, and his disciples lived in Galilee. So we would not expect the disciples to later use Jerusalem as their base.
  2. Jesus was killed in Jerusalem, so there was evidently Jerusalem-based hostility against Jesus, and it is even less likely therefore that the disciples would use Jerusalem as their base.
  3. After the resurrection of Jesus the disciples left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee, their homes.
  4. Later they returned to Jerusalem to establish their main church base there.
  5. The Old Testament prophets declare that in the last days God will establish his presence in Jerusalem.
  6. Therefore this must have been the reason the disciples returned to Jerusalem. Presumably they had their “resurrection appearance experiences” in Galilee, and then they remembered the presumed teaching of Jesus (that happily coincided with the OT) that he would return to set up the kingdom and Jerusalem would be his base. This explains why the disciples returned to Jerusalem. They wanted to be at the very spot where Jesus was expected to return to set up God’s kingdom.

This, according to the word “history” in the title of the book, is presumably what biblical scholars call the act of “historical inquiry”.

No evidence to explain why the disciples set up their HQ in Jerusalem is needed. The information is hidden (a word for hidden is “occulted”) and trained professionals are able to divine and reveal the secrets of what is occulted.

One hesitates to call this an occult art, but still . . . .

What is wrong with the above reasoning?

  1. Galilee is inferred by Mark and stated explicitly by Matthew as the scene of Jesus’ activity by virtue of prophetic fulfilment (Isaiah 9:1), so with such a tangible explanation for the choice of this setting, Occam’s razor leads us to require additional evidence if we wish to declare that this data is also historical;
  2. We know from contemporary polemical texts that Jerusalem was viewed by some sectarians as the hotbed of all that was wicked, and Jerusalem being the place of Christ’s crucifixion likewise served an ideological function — so again with such a ready explanation for this setting at hand, we need additional evidence to justify also accepting that it is historical;
  3. Only two Gospels say that the disciples immediately returned to Galilee after the crucifixion, one (Luke) says they did not return to Galilee but remained in Jerusalem, and another (John) says they did a bit of both; the Gospel contradictions reflect different theological and rhetorical (narrative) interests, not the vagaries of historical memories;
  4. We have no evidence that the apostles returned from Galilee to Jerusalem. We only know that we have conflicting NT accounts. It is only another form of harmonization to say that they “returned”. Paul only knows of three pillars there and nothing about Galilee; Luke only knows the disciples remained in Jerusalem and never returned to Galilee. We see there is an ideological or theological motive for some authors to use Jerusalem as a base for the apostles. See point 6 below.
  5. The Old Testament is the only tangible source we have for prior teaching of the kingdom of God and the New Testament always indicates that the teaching of the apostles came from this source, not from Jesus;
  6. The Old Testament equally says that “in the last days” the word of God would go out from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2, Micah 4); early church fathers such as Justin Martyr saw this prophecy being fulfilled in the narrative of the apostles going out from Jerusalem to evangelize the world. (He knows nothing of the twelve apostles being based in Jerusalem, by the way. This data only comes from Acts, which some scholars such as Pervo have seen as sharing the traits of Hellenistic novels.)

None of the above lines of reasoning are grounded in historical inquiry into evidence for Jesus. They are speculations and harmonizations of conflicting biblical passages about persons other than Jesus.

This is not historical inquiry. Historical inquiry, seriously done, works with evidence. All we have here is a narrative, an anonymous narrative, an anonymous narrative that does not appear in the wider world till the second century, an anonymous narrative that does not appear in the wider world till the second century and that lacks any corroborating evidence in the first century that would lend it any historical credence.

And all that the scholarly pursuit in this instance is applying to this narrative is a series of “educated speculations”.

Historians in other subjects may indulge in that sort of process from time to time, but it is not generally their modus operandi

Some scholars are calling for biblical studies to be removed from public universities as a theologically and Christian-interest dominated “discipline”. It took a while for astronomy to be teased out from astrology. There’s a little way to go for biblical studies to see the same separation of wheat from chaff.

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “The occult art of constructing the historical Jesus”

  1. Paul was an educated man. Given his success in establishing churches, it seems likely that he was also a dynamic and charismatic speaker. Peter and James were uneducated peasants who sat on their butts in Jerusalem while Paul spread his message throughout the eastern Mediterranean. When Paul finally did sit down with Peter and James, how can we dismiss the possibility that it was Paul who did all the talking? If they agreed about the gospel, why shouldn’t we think it was because Peter and James saw that Paul had a good thing going?

    Not a week goes by in which I don’t read about how scholars agree that Paul received the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 from Peter and James when he made that first visit to Jerusalem. Who am I to question it?

    1. Not to forget, either, that we only have Luke-Acts to inform us that the twelve stayed at Jerusalem. This contradicts Justin Martyr’s understanding that the twelve all left from Jerusalem immdiately after the resurrection to go out to the peoples of the world. Luke-Acts’ focus on Jerusalem, with this city as the base for the church leaders, is evidently manufactured to give Paul credibility as an apostle for the “neo-orthodox”. Luke structures his Luke-Acts narrative around Jerusalem from the opening chapters of his Gospel right up to the time when the temple doors are shut at Paul’s arrest and narrative turning point that sends him to Rome. This is why the disciples are commanded not to leave Jerusalem. Luke is fastening Jerusalem as the visible reminder of the Jewish-based foundation of the church. This appears to be part of his effort to counter those Christianities that revered Paul as an anti-Jewish/Judaism apostle.

  2. I agree with your analysis of Allison from top to bottom, but in your corrective summary at the end of the post, I’m confused by a few things. Which “narrative” are you saying dates to the second century with no corroboration from first century writings? i don’t think you’re referring to the so-called “undisputed letters of Paul” because it’s only reasonable to date them to the first century. And I’d say at least the synoptic gosepels must be dated to the (late) first century as well. So I don’t think it takes away from your critique of Allison at all (that’s a methodological critique anyway)…but which claim (“narrative”) are you saying originated in the second century CE? Just curious.

    1. The writings don’t appear publicly with any tangible certainty “in the wider world till the second century” (quoting Neil). They may have been copied and recopied thousands of times before that, reaching back into the mid-first century CE, but that’s all based on surmise.

      I used to think the case for dating the synoptics before 90 CE was pretty solid. However, the more I look at the evidence, the less certain I am. Every time you take out the microscope and start looking at this stuff in detail, you come away shaking your head.

      Take for example the supposed proof of Papias. How many authors (or bloggers) have you read that tout Papias as an early witness to NT scripture? How many of them readily admit that we don’t have any surviving writings from Papias — only fragments filtered through Irenaeus and Eusebius? Would you buy a used car from Eusebius? Me neither.

    2. If we relied on Paul we would have no hint that the twelve apostles were associated in any way with either Galilee or Jerusalem, let alone moved from Galilee to Jerusalem – let alone twice.

      The reference to the twelve in 1 Cor. 15 is arguably a later insertion (Robert M. Price) and the Galatians letter only mentions three names, and one of the names it curiously alternates (Peter/Cephas). If there was a twelve with any apostolic authority anywhere, and even if the above passages are genuine, Paul paid them scant regard. And these passages are all we have in Paul that come close to knowledge of the twelve – unless we are persuaded by those who argue that his attacks on the “false apostles” were veiled references to the twelve.

      As for the “undisputed” letters of Paul, even this is an entirely circular proposition. A number of letters contain a certain style that is not clearly evident in other letters, therefore it is assumed that those with this style are Paul’s. Paul, it is then argued, wrote with a certain style.

      And there’s one theologian who publicly demands his academic profession be taken as seriously as those of geneticists and geophysicists.

      As for the Gospels, even if we allow a first century dating –which again rests entirely on circular assumptions as Tim points out – not one of them testifies to the narrative that Dale Allison constructs:

      • Mark has the disciples return to Galilee and no suggestion they ever returned to Jerusalem. Jerusalem in Mark represents the place of devils and earthly domain, while Galilee represents the kingdom, so structurally Mark is opposed to a return to Jerusalem anyway.
      • Matthew has the disciples being sent out from a mountain top in Galilee. Jerusalem is never heard of again after the crucifixion.
      • Luke insists the disciples did not return to Galilee but remained the whole time in Jerusalem and its surrounds.
      • John knows nothing of a return to Jerusalem, either.

      Allison has done exactly what apologists do when they insist that the accounts of the resurrection are reconcilable. He has pulled out the harmonization card.

      The harmonization card trumps all scholarly reasons to believe the gospels have their own theological and narrative agendas that account for their contradictions. It enables faith in the historical reality of the narrative to win against all rational and evidence-based arguments to the contrary.

      1. “[I]t is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives, whereas it ought duly and regularly to be impartial; nay, in establishing any true axiom, the negative instance is the most powerful….”

        –Francis Bacon

        1. Ah yes, the tendency to see patterns everywhere. But we can’t knock it. It helped us survive the evolutionary trail. Better to have a propensity to see a shape of a tiger through the bushes even if sometimes we are mistaken than never notice the pattern until it’s too late.

          I suppose those who are more willing to see conspiracies and gospel harmonies are those who have inherited the strongest doses of what helped us get to this evolutionary point in the first place?

  3. The fact that there are twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve months etc. is of relevance. But it is even more relevant that in early Christian architecture the 12 disciples were interchangeable with the zodiac and Jesus was the Sun.

    1. And more relevant that there are traditionally 12 tribes of Israel, but of course they are 12 tribes because there are 12 months, which is also why there are 12 signs of the zodiac. Given the lack of astrological references in early Christian text, out side the fevered imaginations of nit wits, I think 12 tribes is definitely more relevant.

      On a related note, has Wikileaks released those U.F.O. files he promised? I would love to see them.

      1. Doesn’t ‘Matthew’ think astrology was a working science which could lead people to Kings of Israel?

        And doesn’t Paul use astrological terms in Romans 8?

        ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

        As for Allison, I can only conclude that Neil has produced a ‘bloody weird’ ‘misrepresentation’ of his arguments, as Allison’s work looks like speculation to me,

        1. I have a confession to make, Steven. But this is just between you and me so do promise not to tell anyone else.

          Many years ago I did dabble in both the bible and some aspects of astrology to understand what was behind it (you know, like purchasing men’s magazines to read the articles about the cars).

          I knew that passage in Romans 8 well, and tied it up with other passages in Colossians and Galatians that spoke of Christ’s cross overcoming the powers of the elemental powers of the universe.

          I figured at that time that the bible and astrology were in concord. Paul clearly understood the fundamentals of the Babylonian art, and insisted that the astrological powers had been overcome by the power of the blood of the Lamb. So if you were born as a Pisces, then once you became a Christian, “Hey, no worries. Jesus’s blood on the cross wiped out the astrological power that drove you to drink, drugs and fantasy novels. You could dope yourself on God, the communal bread and the Bible instead.”

          (It was a passing phase.)

          1. Hey, watch it. I’m a Pisces. 😉

            This conversation reminded me of a short blog post with some informative comments a while back over at April DeConick’s The Forbidden Gospels entitled “Jesus, the Apostles and the Zodiac”. It’s under her “Astrology” label, I believe.

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