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.
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.
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