When all you have is a story what can you say about history?

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Let’s cut to the chase. If all you have are the gospels then what can you say about the historicity of Jesus?

If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.

Some biblical scholars have liked to compare what they call their historical methodology to courtroom testing of evidence or detective investigations. Well, they would know that anyone’s “self-testimony” normally requires independent corroboration in order to carry any weight. An alibi needs to be checked out. (Of course, we are talking about “independent” corroboration. Where there is suspicion that several witnesses have come from the same community, room, club, family and thus had time to share and exchange stories, we can hardly call any of these “independent”.)

If there is no independent witness to corroborate a story then that alone by no means can be used as evidence that the story is not true. Of course not. It simply means we have no way of testing the claims of self-testimony.

In other words, at this purely logical level, self-testimony cannot be used as evidence for historicity or nonhistoricity. The most we can say at this formal level is that we simply don’t know either way.

But that does not always mean we are necessarily left in the clouds.

We can analyze the story itself to understand its “properties”. What is it made up of? What sort of story is it?

If we find that it consists of bits and pieces from other literature available and probably known to the author, and even appears to reflect structures and themes of other narratives, then, all things being equal, we have some grounds for thinking the story has been borrowed from those other narratives.

We can also study its genre. Genre is potentially an important key to understanding the author’s intent. I recently posted on Michael Vines’ study of genre through Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of the nature of literary genre. Formal similarities (such as theme, topic, stylistic features) are not secure indicators of genre because these can overlap in works that have quite different authorial intentions. Authorial intentions are understood through the values associated with “chronotope” or time-space dimensions* in a narrative, so these are more reliable indicators of a literary genre.

But even if the gospels could one day be established to be the same genre as, say, the Antiquities of Josephus or Histories of Herodotus or Livy, we would be no closer to knowing if the narratives contained in them are historically-based. There is much in the historical works of Josephus, Herodotus and Livy that is generally regarded as mythical today.

We would need something more than genre in that case to claim historicity, although the scales would tilt towards the gospel authors at least intending to write history.

But what if the genre is established as something close to a Jewish novel, as is the case in Michael Vines’ discussion? That obviously leads away from the likelihood of an authorial intention to communicate “history”. But even so this leaves open the possibility of “historical novel”. How useful that would be for uncovering any real history becomes another question, then.

So the short answer to the title question is that story alone must leave us neutral on the question of historicity. Literary analysis, however, can help us understand the nature of the narrative, and from that we may find clues that lead us one way or the other on the question.

It is tedious to repeat it but I think the gospels are fictional not because they are “self-testimony”, but because they are self-testimony that, when examined, contains many indicators of fictional properties.

Biblical scholarship has often sought to find additional evidence for the gospels by bypassing them as literary wholes and examining them section by section. The point is to analyze the clues that indicate how each section came to us through various redactions or traditions. This method has often yielded valuable insights, but it must also be kept in mind that the process rests entirely on the assumption that each section is the end-result of filtered oral or other types of traditions. Sometimes a section is judged to originate with a historical event; other times one is assessed as having been created to meet special needs of a community somewhere between Jesus and the writing of the gospels.

I have covered this sort of thing so often it is tedious to have to repeat it again here. But I have just had the unpleasant notice that a certain Christian gentleman and scholar has taken to asserting (without any evidence or links to evidence, of course, because there is none) that my posts in this Vridar blog have argued something quite otherwise. He has been repeatedly informed in the past of his err0neous interpretation of my argument, but he is also on record as saying that my views should not be taken seriously. Presumably that means treating them honestly or knowledgeably is not a prerequisite either.

Once again:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus . . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

And my other favourite quote from a biblical scholar back in 1904:

only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123).

* By time-space dimensions I mean the way time and space settings are conveyed in a work. For example, when Jesus calls Levi, Levi puts on a feast for Jesus and Pharisees are “outside” on the spot looking in to criticize and communicate with Jesus. This conflates all the time for all these activities and that would in the real world take much time to undertake, as well as conflating anachronistic characters like Pharisees in Galilee at this time; it also conflates space by having all of Jesus’ followers and critics suddenly in the one place communicating. None of this is a realistic treatment of time and space. The significance of this narrative construction of this special time-space treatment in Mark’s gospel is that it conveys to readers familiar with such conventions certain values or “ideologies” — such as, in this case, that time and space are centred on an unrealistic Jesus who is functioning as a theological mouthpiece or cipher.

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!

20 thoughts on “When all you have is a story what can you say about history?”

    1. Like MacDonald, I believe whoever wrote Mark was a literary genius. It was an amazing accomplishment to combine the worlds of paganism and messianic Judaism so effectively -just look at the enduring impact it has had. Paul certainly paved the way (maybe he was a “genius” too), but I agree with the idea that Mark was the first gospel and everything else -save possibly the “Jewish Christian” gospels- followed from that.

      I don’t mean to tangle with you, but I wanted to give “props” where they are due.

    2. There was no shortage of great writers in antiquity. The Jewish culture certainly had its fair share, if not more so.

      And don’t forget that Matthew and Luke, and maybe to some small degree John also, had significant material from Mark with which to work with.

  1. The name that was given to the genre from the beginning was “gospel”. Since it had its own name, it was a special genre.

    I think that the people who wrote the first gospels had a different understanding of the genre’s characteristics than later Christians had.

    I think that at the beginning the people who wrote the gospels understood that the genre was a literary exercise to imagine and depict what would have happened if Jesus Christ had descended not to the Firmament but rather to the Earth.

    There now is a genre called Fan Fiction. People write their own versions of popular dramatic stories. For example, there is the movie Dirty Dancing, which depicts how a young woman meets and falls in love with a dance teacher at a resort during three weeks in 1963. In Fan Fiction, people write their own stories to tell what happened before or after those events or to tell what happened from the perspective of secondary characters, such as the father, mother, sister, etc. In other words, Fan Fiction writers extend the story in time or space or provide a new perspective.

    I think that the Gospel genre was somewhat like the Fan Fiction genre. There was an original story about the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Firmament. Later, various people wrote “gospels” in which they told related stories where the story is not in the Firmament, but rather on the Earth. Eventually the original gospels were combined into larger gospels.

  2. I can’t tell if our favorite gentleman scholar serious or not. Did he really bring up Socrates? Has he read anything outside the NT? This is a PhD teaching at a reputable university?

    I think Richard Carrier explains it well here (though I doubt McG would understand it):

    [C]ertain characteristics of the Jesus story – even from very early on – are more typically characteristics of mythical people than historical ones. So the prior probability already favors his non-existence. . . So if the prior probability favors myth, even by a little bit. It doesn’t matter how much, even by a little bit, and all the consequent probabilities favor myth. Then by necessary deductive logic, myth is more probable than historicity.

    From CPBD 083: Richard Carrier – Historical Method and Jesus of Nazareth

    And regarding McG’s straw man argument — “it is impossible to deduce the historicity of events on the basis only of details in texts” — I guess he doesn’t “do nuance.” I would hate to have to write papers for this guy.

    Literary Evidence for Socrates: Contemporaneous, independent, authors known by name, eyewitness accounts.

    Literary Evidence for Jesus: Late, hearsay evidence, unknown provenance, anonymous authorship, layered with dogma and supernatural material, interdependent yet simultaneously contradictory.

    When literary evidence is good, then even if that’s all we have it’s enough to establish historical probability.

    1. In addition to the literary relationship argument, I used to also point out that in favour of “mythicism” is the, well, mythical character of the gospels and person of Jesus himself. The Gospels are chock-a-block full of miracles. Just about everything Jesus does is a miracle. He’s not even a normal man. He’s a son of God. He walks on water and rises from the dead. In fact the whole point of the Gospel narratives at all is to identify the nature of the one who rose from the dead and is with his believers still.

      I feel a bit embarrassed I have been overlooking this lately in my focus on the literary borrowings so evident in the Gospels.

      Surely it is entirely cultural familiarity that allows any of us to even think of assuming a historial basis a priori.

      1. “Surely it is entirely cultural familiarity that allows any of us to even think of assuming a historial basis a priori.”

        Exactly. HJ scholars are conditioned to ignore the miraculous and assume what’s left is historical. But this process does violence to the original text and leaves us with a gospel that the original authors and readers would not even recognize.

  3. I’m on the fence about a historical Jesus. If there was one, so what? He would have been a person like anyone else. Lots of myths have been made about real people. Robert Price points out how fast myths about Shabbatai Zevi formed. The Baal Shem Tov is another good example. People create myths about real people. That’s fine. People can think anything they like about the NT Jesus, but if he’s based on a real person I’m certain he was a human being like Shabbatai Zevi. I’m content to think that if he did exist then he was an ancient observant Jew of some sort. That’s nice.

    What does make me think that “Jesus” *could* have existed are small, debatable things. Paul’s reference to James being the “brother of the lord” in Galatians, for one. What does that mean? The Slavonic Josephus -maybe it’s real. Origen’s reference to Josephus not believing Jesus was Christ. Origen’s Josephus was different from ours. Maybe Josephus did say something about him, perhaps something unflattering, or not flattering enough for Origen. The Ebionites -they believed Jesus existed. They thought he was a regular guy, if a bit more observant than others. The Dead Sea Scrolls -could “Jesus” be the Root of Planting in the Damascus Document? Is he the “yeshua” mentioned in its last column that the faithful would “see” at the end of days? Who knows?

    But I don’t think it matters one way or the other if the Christ myth is based on a real person. There is nothing that could happen to a real person that would make me think that I’m going to somehow live after I die if I “believe” in them.

    Some people believe the myth, and always will. Some do for a period of time and then don’t, like you. I used to think the Dead Sea Scrolls sectarians and their fellow travellers were cool, but now I see them as fanatics like the Taliban, who would have been unpleasant to live under if you didn’t agree with them, or even if you did, even if they were fighting the “good fight.”

  4. Wikipedia has a good article about the genre “Fan Fiction”. See especially the section titled “Precursors”, which includes the Homeric Epic Cycle, variouis re-tellings of the King Arthur story, and Arabic re-tellings of the story of Sinbad the Sailor.

    Consider the movie The Wizard of Oz, which takes place mostly in an above-the-sky place called Oz. The story’s lion, strawman and tin-man correspond to three workers on the Kansas farm. A Fan-Fiction writer might write sequels that depict the first worker as doing courageous deeds, the second worker as doing intelligent deeds, and the third worker as doing loving deeds. Another Fan Fiction writer might write a story about how the Wizard came to Oz and rose to prominence. Yet another Fan Fiction writer might write a story about the relationships among the various witches. Another Fan Fiction writer might write a story elaborating about Dorothy’s life before the tornado.

    Fan Fiction is spontaneous, enthusiastic and communal. The original story is admired intensely by many people. The Fan Fiction writers write and share their own elaborations as acts of devotion toward the original story.

    Scholars seriously write analyses, commentaries and interpretations of the original story. Fan Fiction writers amusingly write related stories that fill in gaps and provide new perspectives.

    So, the story of the blind man in Bethsaida might have begun as a kind of Fan Fiction. Let’s imagine that a fellow Bethsaida resident went with Simon Peter to the top of Mount Hermon to experience the mystical vision, but could not see the vision. Furthermore, he even lost his sight. Then what would Jesus Christ do if he descended to Earth and visited Bethsaida and encountered this blind man?

    So, some Christian creates such a story orally or even in writing and then shares it with his fellow “fans”. Perhaps because most of the first such stories had happy endings, the genre soon acquired the name “gospel”.

    These stories were not created with any intention to deceive people. They were created as acts of devotion and praise toward the original story about Jesus Christ descending to the Firmament on a mission from God the Father to manifest divine love toward celestial beings and human beings. Jesus Christ was so loving, that if he did come to Bethsaida and did encounter such a blind man, then surely Jesus Christ would heal the blindness. That Jesus Christ would do such a good deed was true, no matter that the incident never happened actually. Such a story was called a “gospel”.

  5. John said:

    But I don’t think it matters one way or the other if the Christ myth is based on a real person.

    But it seems to matter to folks like Spong or Ehrman, who have devoted a lot of effort to trying to make sense of the New Testament. I can’t help wondering, though, if someone who sees it important to argue for an historical Jesus to be objective about it. But I suppose the reverse might also be true for someone who has put a lot of effort arguing that Jesus never existed.

    1. I agree Bob. I wonder how many Christ mythicists are former Christians who have some unfinished business with their former religion, whether they realize it or not.

  6. According to more than one Historical Jesus scholar, Jesus spent a fair bit of time discussing whether or not people were allowed to eat grain plucked from fields on a Sabbath.

    No wonder people were such fans of his, and no wonder Gentiles converted to Christianity!

    What did Jesus do to get fans and to get people to crucify him?

  7. only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

    Two thumbs up!!!

  8. I was introduced to your site by a rabid reader and researcher who has helped to open my eyes on the historicity of Jesus. Up until the last half of this year I was one of those people who thought that Jesus’ existence was readily accepted. He has shown me in many places where that is wrong. I am only passively interested in comparison to him, yourself and others, but I am glad to see people seeking out truth no matter where it takes them.

    However, I do have a complaint. You have many posts and spend much effort by publicly charging against McG and I wonder why that is. You two clearly do not agree and aside from your fellow readers does there happen to be anyone in the scholarly communities who know of your semi-public battle and should this be taken seriously? I, frankly, agree with you where he is concerned but I do not grasp all the effort you exude to defend your position against someone who does not grasp important chunks of reality. I just think your time is better served spreading real information and not wasting it on his inane and thoughtless rebuttals.

    1. I have not seen McGrath as a solo voice but as one like not a few others in the academic community I have encountered, and I find them objectionable for what I consider their less than professional statements about a number of other authors, not only me. (To answer your question, I have been informed by one subscriber to this blog who is in a position to know that yes, there are some academics who are aware of this blog and who have apparently discussed it informally, even if for a laugh, and that there is one who is currently preparing a publication on “mythhicism” that will apparently reference vridar. Since 2008 I have also been contacted by four other academics in relation to this blog though they themselves have never commented publicly.)

      You’re not alone in pointing out this failing of mine and I have long ceased to bother reading his blog, including his posts on mythicism now. I did break my drought when it was brought to my attention that he had made specific claims in a post about my supposed views. Maybe I fell into a trap set to goad me. I don’t know. I am partly guided by the ratio of comments for and against, not only on this blog. And the occasional remark by someone like yourself alerts me that there are probably more people reading my blog than I realize, and I do tend to trust the good sense of most people.

      Thanks for the comment.

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