How to Read the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman give us some valuable tips on how to read

  1. the pagan Greek work of “History” by Herodotus
  2. much of the biblical history of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings)
  3. and the Gospels

in their 1993 volume The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).

Among several threads tying all these three pieces of literature together:

  1. all three are about human affairs being directed by divinities
  2. all three contain strong theological themes and messages
    • and this message is reinforced with somewhat nebulous endings that contain a mix of optimism and uncertainty as to the future (i.e. Herodotus, 2 Kings, Mark)
  3. all three ostensibly present themselves as “histories”
  4. all three contain a mix of mythical (including nonhuman) characters and historical persons
  5. all three relate miraculous and supernatural events as significant functions in their narratives
  6. all three contain a similar narrative structure in that there is a significant change in tone and types of events and course of action once the setting moves to a traditional homeland or theologically charged centre (e.g. the Greek mainland, the Promised Land, Jerusalem)
  7. all three are predominantly prose narratives, yet at the same time all three contain a mix of genre elements such as epic, tragedy, novella and poetry.

In my previous post (or the one before that) I cited two key points that are fundamental to understanding any literary work. I repeat them here and add one more:

  1. Literary works must be treated as iconic (that is, as works of artistic or literary creation in their own right, meaning they stand apart from the world around them as works of artifice — meaning will become clearer below)
  2. The implied narrator is not to be identified with the real author; the implied narrator is as much an authorial creation as any other feature of the narrative
  3. The implied narrator is addressing an implied audience. (The implied audience is not the same as the real audience.)

The ideological bias at the heart of most readings of the Gospels

In the case of the Gospels in particular, most scholars ignore these rules of modern literary analyses, particularly the last one, because of an ideological assumption that the Gospels must be treated as primary sources of information about Jesus. Mandell and Freedman are speaking in this instance of the two earlier works, but the same applies, I believe, to readings of the Gospels.

The distinction between implied and real auditors/readers is generally ignored in the analysis of both works [Herodotus and Primary History] because of the ideological stance that demands the respective narratives be treated as primary historical information about real people who lived in real, secular, historical time. (pp. 5 f.)

Even those scholars who sincerely attempt to put their own beliefs to one side when examining the texts still fall into the trap of assuming that the implied narrator in Herodotus’ History and Primary History (and also of the Gospels, I would add) is the same as the real author, and the implied audience is to be understood as the real, original audience. By falling into this error they misunderstand the nature of the text. And the root of this error is their commitment to the ‘ideology’ that the Biblical History (and Gospels) should be considered a primary source of historical information about real people and events.

So what does this mean for a reading of these texts?

Clearly then, a reading of Primary History informs us of the world the respective authors/redactors, and particularly the final redactor, depicted as a literary construct. This invention, however, may have nothing to do with the real world in which any one of them lived. The same is true in the case of Herodotus’ History. [I would add that the same is true in the case of the Gospels.] (p. 6, my emphasis)

A reading of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel informs us of the world of fiction. It may have nothing to do with the real world. In some novels there are some coincidences with the real world, but they are coincidences and are not themselves genuine ‘historical’ material. (Perhaps an astute reader might one day be able to glean a little genuine history from some of the novels, but not much.)

Note that Mandell and Freedman do not say that a literary construct has nothing to do with the real world. There is no way of knowing if it does or not simply from the narrative itself — from reading the narrative as iconic.

Interestingly in the light of several quotations I have pulled out several times now Mandell and Freedman have their own line that I can add to my little cluster. When speaking of what some people think they can glean as historical information from both Herodotus and Primary History, M and F write:

Without external data to support it, however, such material cannot be trusted. (p. 3)

(No-one I know has addressed any of the points of the other quotations I have cited yet, but James McGrath does complain that my use of them is “tired” or such. Well hopefully by adding another to this mix I can liven them up a little. I think the real reason they are “tired” is because they are tired of waiting for someone to address them.

I said no-one has yet addressed these quotes yet, and mean by that that no-one to my knowledge has addressed the actual points they make about the centrality of the need for independent attestation in order to avoid circularity of argument. McGrath has seized on related statements by Hobsbawm to show he understands the obvious truism that the face-value narratives need to be critically examined, but has avoided the central point I have shown he is addressing in my quotation; and others have expressed outrage that I dared use Schweitzer. McGrath was an exception to this response to Schweitzer, and said that he Schweitzer was “not critical enough”.)

Why reject the historical or biographical approach to analysing the Gospels?

Here is what Mandell and Freedman say about their approach to reading both Herodotus and Primary History. I suggest the same is valid for the Gospels, too. Indeed, Mandell and Freedman say this directly themselves at one point.

We hold as valid and basic to our analysis the fundamental tenet of Analytic Criticism that a literary text does and, indeed, must stand alone as a self-contained artifactual or iconic entity: that is, once created, a work is an “objectified” organic whole, which is independent of its real author or his intentions. [In a footnote M&F say they cannot agree with Mark Allan Powell “that this position is pretty much thought of as extreme today.”] Correlatively, we believe that when a reader draws exegetical conclusions about the text, he is extracting what was inherent in the artifact itself. Consequently, we deem those Reader Response postulates we view as sound to be in accord with the “iconic text” premise of Analytic Criticism. [M&F acknowledge the many theories subsequent to, but not superseding Analytic Criticism.] (p. 10)

This means that texts like the Gospels cannot be read as if they are primary sources of history or biography, in confidence that they are written by authors who intended to write history or biography for readers who understood them as genuine history or biography.

We reject the Biographical (or Historical) approach to the analysis of literature* precisely because it permits allegedly credible knowledge about an author to be extracted from his own writings and then employed to interpret the very works from which it had been extracted. (pp. 10-11)

* = “this is not to be confused with the Historical-Critical analysis used in biblical studies”.

In other words, we cannot read the mind of the real authors who wrote the Gospels any more than we can read the minds of those who wrote the books of the Old Testament, or the mind of real Herodotus. Further, if we think the Gospels do inform us of the motivations of their real authors, then we will think we can understand their intentions from the narratives they wrote. And once we think we have understood the mind of the author, we will use that understanding to interpret the narrative he wrote! That is, of course, a circular (invalid) process.

Of course there is information in the narrative that can tell us things about the world known to the real author. So M&F clarify their point:

This does not mean, however, that we deny the “given” precept that a text discloses facts about itself. Rather, we refuse to treat it as divulging information about its genesis and/or its author’s reasons for writing it. *

[* “Hence, Analytic Criticism does not militate against analysis via Form,-Tradition,- or Redaction Criticism. Rather, the various methods are complimentary of one another . . . “]

In any case, we hold to the basic axiom of Analytic Criticism, whereby a narrative cannot be used as a source or exact knowledge about its real author or his society, but only about the characters and the society he created. . . .

It is imperative that these strictures, particularly against extracting biographic material from a text to interpret that same text, be heeded in the analysis of all works. And Primary History, a work in which there are multiple authors/redactors, who are for the most part mutually distinguishable on the basis of the literary, theological, ideological, and historical viewpoints their implied narrator(s) seem to hold is no exception. (p. 11-12)

The Gospels, too

In fact, an analogous treatment must be applied when doing a literary analysis of the Gospels. Although as M. A. Powell points out, the authors/redactors of the Gospels “did not intend them to be viewed as fiction”; and although because of their personal religious beliefs, many scholars do not place them in a category that Analytic Criticism deems literary, from a literary perspective they are more closely related to the Roman à Clef than to biography. (p. 12, my emphasis)

This was published in 1993. About the same time (1992) Burridge’s influential book arguing the Gospels were indeed an ancient form of biography was published. I have suggested in recent posts the reason this argument has been so influential is that it does strike a happy chord with the ideological biases of most biblical scholars — the very ideological bias Mandell and Freedman themselves address. (See above.) I have addressed reasons for dismissing Burridge’s arguments. They focus on the superficialities of literary devices in attempting to decide what constitutes a genre. Michael Vines offers a much more substantially theoretically grounded argument about what constitutes a genre and places the Gospel of Mark more realistically within the genre of Jewish novel. This is more plausible within the wider context of known ancient genres than M&F’s comparing the Gospels to the Roman à Clef (novel based on real characters).

Thomas L. Thompson addresses something not quite the same but very similar when he says bluntly that historical Jesus scholars have simply assumed that there is a historical Jesus that is the real topic of the Gospels.

I have no idea what Freedman thought about the historicity of Jesus or what Mandell thinks, but it would not surprise me if they also presumed he existed. Whatever their personal stance on this, the method of reading the gospels as literary creations at least theoretically pushes the door wide open on the question of the historicity of Jesus. The method cannot be used to tell us that there was no historical Jesus; it cannot be used to cast light on the question either way. The method can, however, lead us to a solid theoretical foundation on which to study the Gospels quite apart from any assumptions of historicity. It gives a solid theoretical foundation for rejecting the ideological bias that insists on reading the Gospels as primary sources about a real historical person and events.

It is many things, but history is not one of them

This is now Mandell and Freedman conclude their introductory section about History by Herodotus. Think Gospels as one reads:

Although the History appears to be an historical work, it is not. Rather, it is comprised of a combination of genres, none of which can be classified as historical. The real author composed his work in such a way that he produced a new literary genre. He superimposed the paradigm characteristic of 5th century Attic drama on that of the genres we now call the “Documentary Novel” (or “Historical Fiction”) and “Roman à Clef” respectively, and he bonded them into a prose epic. (p. 16)

By Documentary Novel M&F are thinking of those stories that are populated by fictional characters such as Adam and Eve. By Roman à Clef they are thinking of stories told about real characters that have been handed down from oral or written tradition. As stated above, and in recent posts, I believe there is a more substantial argument that stands in concord with known genres of the time that the Gospel of Mark at least is a Jewish novel. Others, such as Bilezikian, have argued that Mark is based on Greek Tragedy. Interestingly this is one of the genres that M&F see Herodotus as utilizing in a significant manner.

Creators of works of another genre in early Greece also “adopted, adapted, and created evidence” that they then presented as “historical data” in the context of a story narrative — and those were the writers of epic. Homeric epic did much the same sorts of creative history as Herodotus did. For this reason, Mandell and Freedman write:

we believe that the frequently noted analogies between Homeric epic and Herodotus’ History are more than coincidental. (p. 17)

I suspect Dennis MacDonald, who has found reasons to argue that the Gospel of Mark is itself based on Homeric epic (perhaps even as an anti-epic), would agree.

By using a format that his [Herodotus’] contemporaries would recognize as cognate with epic, the real author Herodotus may have been suggesting to his readers that he was writing some new form of epic that they were not to treat as genuinely historical. Similarly, but subtending his narrative with elements from the tragic genre, he may have been suggesting that he was writing some new form of tragedy, but one that was not to be acted out in the theater of Dionysus.

Herodotus’ real readers/audience(s) may have realized what he was doing as well as why he was doing it if, as the evidence suggests, most 5th century Greeks treated Homeric epic and tragic drama as representative of history while comprehending that it was not truly historical.(p. 18, my emphasis)

One might opine that it is no coincidence that epic (MacDonald) and tragedy (Bilezikian) have both been seen as constituents of the Gospel of Mark. Nor, I suggest, is it coincidental that the most substantial theoretical argument about the genre of Mark (Vines) places the gospel in a particular prose novel genre, also like Herodotus. I am not saying that the authors of the Gospels were imitating Herodotus. Of course they weren’t. They were evidently writing in the tradition of the Jewish scriptures. But if, as Mandell, Freedman and others since have argued, the Primary History portion of those scriptures was likewise constructed (or more likely) redacted in the same way as Herodotus had created his History . . . .

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31 thoughts on “How to Read the Gospels”

  1. “The implied narrator is addressing an implied audience. (The implied audience is not the same as the real audience.)”

    My understanding is superficial at best, but I do have a feeling that the above should be kept in mind when asking whether Mark wrote with a particular audience and particular expected reactions in mind. Apparently, the innumerable attempts to identify the Markan community have been as fruitless as the quest for the historical Jesus. Dwight N. Peterson (The Origins of Mark: The Markan Community in Current Debate, 2000) notes that “virtually every scholar who discovers a Markan community behind the Gospel–that is, the community for which the Gospel was written, and which is supposed to serve as a control for the reading of Mark–discovers a different Markan community. The community behind the Gospel of Mark lived either before 70 or after 70, either in the tense times leading up to the destruction of the temple or its immediate aftermath [refs cited]. It lived in Rome, in Galilee, or in Southern Syria [refs cited]. It was a Gentile community, or a mixture of Jews and Gentiles or a Jewish community [refs cited]. Its interests were primarily to establish itself in opposition to a discredited Jerusalem Christianity (Kelber), to forge a new, apocalyptic community (Kee), to steer a mediating political path between Roman imperialism and Jerusalem hegemony (Myers), to distance itself from Judaism in the Roman imagination because of the recent destruction of the Temple (Fredrikson, Brandon), to forge a new myth of Christian origins out of a variety of disparate traditions (Mack), to explain to Mark’s Jewish-Christian community why the temple was destroyed and replace Israel with Mark’s Jewish-Christian community in God’s plan (Marcus) or some such thing.”

    Nevertheless, as opposed to the quest for the “real” Jesus, the quest for the Markan community should probably not be rejected as nonsensical (or perhaps it should).

    1. This is a good point. Yes, attempts to locate Mark’s provenance, its purpose, its audience, are generally starting from the same ideology that the Gospel is a primary source for the historical Jesus. This ideology is the ground for the belief that the author and his audience were interested in sharing information about the historical Jesus. And on this basis the content of the narrative is believed to contain information about the historical Jesus and this content is framed in other content that conveys special meaning to the real audience for this end.

      This has nothing to do with hyper-scepticism. It is all about the question of method and, once again, bringing biblical studies into line with normative historiographical understanding.

      This is not to say we can know nothing at all about the provenance of the Gospel from internal evidence. Obviously we can know it comes from a milieu that speaks a certain language, that is aware of certain geographical and cultural information, etc.

      Mandell and Freedman speak of ideology being inspired by religious beliefs of scholars. I suggest it is broader than that. The ideology that the Gospels are the primary source for the historical Jesus — that the narrative of the Gospels is itself historical or biographical — is cultural.

      I’m aware that posts like these are not as interesting for many readers. But for me they are the most interesting and the most important for understanding how to approach the evidence for early Christianity. It is simply bizarre that documents like the Gospels that are so patently unlike the documents of, say, Tacitus and Cicero, should be read as if they are constructed no differently from the works of Tacitus and Cicero.

      1. “I’m aware that posts like these are not as interesting for many readers. But for me they are the most interesting and the most important for understanding how to approach the evidence for early Christianity.”

        I couldn’t agree more, Neil. Nothing unlocks further potential for fruitful research & discussion in the future than nailing down proper method first. This is why your best posts are invariably your posts on method. Keep them up. Although I found a few points that I disagree with M&F on, and I indeed have further reservations in adopting their conclusions about Herodotus, I think their (and subsequently, your) overall aim is spot on. Don’t really have time to say more…but keep it up, whether or not these posts are “less interesting” to ANY of your readers. Progress lies in just this type of exploration.

      2. Neil: “This has nothing to do with hyper-scepticism. It is all about the question of method and, once again, bringing biblical studies into line with normative historiographical understanding.”

        Exactly so. In fact, to drift off into discussions of skepticism (either too much or too little) is fruitless, since it implies that we’re dealing with historical narratives, or at least that a kernel of historical truth lies somewhere in the text.

        This point hit home again recently when I was re-reading parts of Thompson’s Mythic Past. Here’s a quote you can bore McG with:

        The question today is whether the Bible in its stories is talking about the past at all. The Bible does not exaggerate the exploits of David. The issue is not that Solomon was never as rich as the stories make him out to have been. We aren’t dealing with issues of scepticism. In fact, scepticism has little place in the discussion, and is often misleading. The point to grasp is that the Bible’s stories of Saul, David and Solomon aren’t about history at all, and that to treat them as if they were history is to misunderstand them. (emphasis added)

        Each time a mainstream scholar starts taking mythicists and minimalists to task for exhibiting “hyper-skepticism” or “placing too great a burden on the text,” they are missing the point entirely.

  2. A case in point re: “The Markan Community” is how blithely so many commentators identify Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon of Cyrene, as ‘persons who must have been known to the Markan community’. It drives me crazy, but I’ve seen it numerous times, even in commentaries that I found in general quite good. The latest example I came across was in Reading Mark, by Sharyn Dowd. That’s all she has to say about A and R. No further comment. Mind-boggling, really. (Though as an author, she’s generally averse to “overly” symbolic interpretation, and I, of course, think that’s exactly what’s required in the case of Mark. She also deigns to interpret the young man who flees the scene of the arrest without his clothes as anything but “comic relief” (not kidding) –so maybe I should just say it’s a bad commentary, but there were other things that I think she handled quite well.)

    1. It almost seems that such commentary is wilfully choosing to ignore the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face pointers to advise readers of the symbolic nature of the narrative. When the main character even says that the miracles he performs are codes for understanding “the leaven of the Pharisees”, and when there is nothing subtle about the way the author plays ironic and theological games with the various “Simon” names throughout, it shows the power of cultural ideology that trained scholars can still read the text as a primary source for the historicity of its own narrative.

      (Only fleeting curiousity, of course, but I sometimes wonder if, given Simon’s belief that the Christ must be a conquering king, of whom a crucified messiah is the very antithesis, the names of Alexander and Rufus point to the Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus who crucified fellow Jews, and to Rufus, the Roman governor responsible for the foundation of the Aelia Capitolina in Jerusalem that sparked the messianic rebellion under Bar Kochba. It is much easier to make sense of Matthew and Luke omitting those names if they understood such an allusion.)

      1. Thanks for sharing these hints on how to interpret the names of Alexander and Rufus. The more one thinks about it, the more convinced one becomes that “Rufus” (Mark 15:21) is indeed an allusion to the notorious Rufus, governor of Judea. In the next verse, Mark 15:21, Mark mentions Golgotha. If Golgotha (place of “head”) is interpreted as an allusion to “Capitolina,” the occurrence of the name of Rufus makes even more sense, because in Rabbinical literature the historical Rufus is made responsible for the ploughing-up of the Temple mount. According to the Jewish Encyclopaedia, “Jewish literature portrays Rufus as one of the bitterest enemies of the race, and often means Rufus when it names his master Hadrian.”

        Rufus’ “merciless execution of Jewish teachers of the Law” (Jewish Encyclopaedia) does indeed bring to mind the crucifixion of 800 Pharisees by Alexander Jannaeus. I have no doubt that this interpretation is correct. Nevertheless, there are other interesting persons who also bore the name Alexander. One of them is Tiberius Julius Alexander, who participated in the siege of Jerusalem.

      2. “(Only fleeting curiousity, of course, but I sometimes wonder if, given Simon’s belief that the Christ must be a conquering king, of whom a crucified messiah is the very antithesis, the names of Alexander and Rufus point to the Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus who crucified fellow Jews, and to Rufus, the Roman governor responsible for the foundation of the Aelia Capitolina in Jerusalem that sparked the messianic rebellion under Bar Kochba.”

        I suspect that the reference to Alexander/Rufus is intended to refer to the history of the Greeks per Jerusalem:

        1) “Mark” has so much evidence for the intentional use of fictional names:


        “Mark’s DiualCritical Marks. Presentation Of Names As Evidence Of Fiction ”

        that the default position for any individual name is that it is fiction.

        2) Identification by “father of so and so” is a textual Marker of fiction.

        3) “Mark” gives the figurative history of Jesus at the start (The Jewish Bible).

        4) Alexander the Great would have been the beginning of the Greek in Jerusalem and Rufus


        would have represented the end of Jerusalem.

        The only problem with this late dating is Marcion. It could be though that what subsequent orthodox Christianity attributed to Marcion (his verion of “Luke”) was really just what they saw in his followers.


    2. ‘A case in point re: “The Markan Community” is how blithely so many commentators identify Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon of Cyrene, as ‘persons who must have been known to the Markan community’. It drives me crazy, but I’ve seen it numerous times, even in commentaries that I found in general quite good.’

      Watch Professor Larry Hurtado http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/eyewitnesses-and-the-gospels/ resort to circular reasoning when trying to show that Gospel characters existed.

      See http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/eyewitnesses-and-the-gospels/ where Professor Hurtado writes ‘So, what do historians usually work with? Well, texts of first-century provenance that appear to posit personages as real people. So, e.g., in the Gospel accounts we have a number of named figures, without any other introduction, which would suggest that the authors expected their readers to recognize the figures. Technically, of course, this suggests only that they were known names/figures, which could still allow for them being fictional-but-already-accepted figures at the date of writing. In the case of Simon of Cyrene, Mark’s gospel identifies him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21), again without further introduction, which most scholars have taken as alluding to two guys known to the original readers. We have a Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13, for example, whom some suggest could be the same guy mentioned in Mark.

      With all due allowance for the growth of legend etc., we should recall that people often speculated that Pontius Pilate was a fictional character too, until the inscription mentioning him turned up in Caesarea Maritima in the 60s.’

      Apart from the blatant distortion of mythicism at the end of Professor Hurtado’s comments, it is revealed very clearly that all New Testament Historians can do is write ‘The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.’

      Guess what? The Popeye cartoons never introduce Bluto or tell us his background.

      He must have existed.

      After all, if a character has no introduction then he must have existed.

      And if a character is introduced , and given a history and we are told where he came from and who his father was, then he must have existed. Just look at all that detail. How do you explain that detailed information, mythicists?

      And if there is no detail – then he must have existed. After all, the readers needed no details. How do you explain that lack of detailed information, mythicists?
      You lost again , mythicists. Thanks for playing and better luck next time.

      1. Can you get a more thorough background introduction to Adam and Eve than what we read in Genesis? It is clear that Larry Hurtado has never read or thought about ancient novels — Hellenistic and Jewish — within the context of this argument he is making here. (I’m sure he’s read them, at least the Jewish ones, but not in connection with the logic of this argument.)

        I am surprised that Larry Hurtado would argue like this at all. It’s the same argument I have encountered from the likes of the Christian Cadre crew in the past. (Well, I’m not too surprised any longer. Disappointed would be the better word. I’ve learned some interesting things from Hurtado that I’ve referenced a few times on this blog over the years.)

      2. I’ve just caught up with Larry Hurtado’s post and comments. Had not realized it goes back half a year or so. I find it interesting that they are the same arguments one reads repeatedly as responses to mythicist points. There are even the same assertions that the questions raised have been examined long before (but only offline among academic circles) without any reference to where these discussions can be found in print.

        The arguments have become mere slogans. Slogans are what one uses to justify and promulgate ideology. The number of times I have seriously engaged anyone “on the historicist side” where there was genuine give and take in the discussion — and not simply finding new ways to regularly repeat the same slogans regardless of what was said to them — have been very few. There is the assumption that a mythicist position is derived from scepticism of the hard evidence available to all. And this assumption is itself the inevitable response of when one is defending an ideology.

        One amusing detail in one of Larry Hurtado’s responses was his describing what students do in history classes — they are always weighing up probabilities of what actually happened. Well, I have sat in many, many history classes over some years and I think in every one, including the ones in ancient history, we had a pretty clear idea of where the evidence lay for the facts, and what the facts were. The questions were how to interpret and explain them. But I never sat in bible history classes. It seems they may do history differently there after all.

  3. The interpretation of the bible can be done by the individual, but a teacher is always a good addition, even if the teacher is not always teaching and interpreting the way a listen may see it, just to hear the words read from the bible can be a great teaching tool.

    Fo instance many say that the bible doesn’t contradict itself, but the bible its self never made this claim it says that no

    Isaiah 34:16 (King James Version)

    16Seek ye out of the book of the LORD, and read: no one of these shall fail, none shall want her mate: for my mouth it hath commanded, and his spirit it hath

    So knowing this we know that if we find slight inconsistencies within the historical books such as Chronicles or Kings, it is because they are witnesses to the events just like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not always explain things exactly the same.

    But when we see prophecy the things said will always come to pass no matter what. Peace and keep spreading the words

    You can find out How to iinterpret the bible by doing the required studies your self

  4. “Without external data to support it, however, such material cannot be trusted.”

    I don’t think your opponents doubt this as much as you believe, but I think they see a different implication it it. For instance, I don’t trust your analysis of books whole heartedly. My experience with your work, though, would lead me to doubt that you will invent books, or invent the content of books. Trust has a lot of meanings. Things not to be trusted are simply not above doubt. If we assume that something not to be trusted is in fact false until confirmed true, it gives a distorted, and likely untrue, view of the thing.

    1. You wrote: “If we assume that something not to be trusted is in fact false until confirmed true, it gives a distorted, and likely untrue, view of the thing.”

      I cannot recommend enough the satire written by Ken Olson in 2005: “Top 10 Reasons to Accept the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as Historically Reliable.” Your argument is mentioned in section 8:

      “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The testimony of one witness is surely more important than the silence of four. The canonical gospels largely pass over the period covered by Thomas, and John specifically admits that he is presenting only a selection of Jesus’ miracles. To insist on outside support for all the stories is to require from Thomas a standard that is not required of other texts.”


      1. I don’t think that arguments against the Infancy Gospel’s historicity rely simply on the lack of external corroboration. If that is ones standard, then it can be assumed that any historical analysis derived from it will be false unless it is coincidentally true since their is no attempt at rationally understanding why something is written.

      2. Thanks. That was a fun read. I gather from the comments that some readers didn’t understand that it was satire, or beyond that failed to comprehend fully Ken’s indictment implied by the satirical defense of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

        All the arguments he cites have been used in almost exactly the same way to bolster the canonical writings of the New Testament. While many NT scholars complain that we’re trying to hold the Bible to an impossibly higher standard, what they really want is canonical scripture to be judged by different criteria — namely a set of special, circular arguments that are not used in any other discipline. They do not want equal treatment; they want to maintain the favored treatment these documents have always received.

        The fact that such arguments look embarrassingly silly when employed in other contexts, including the assessment of a non-canonical gospel, should give us pause.

          1. What exactly do you mean by “[my] own conclusions about it”? I offered no conclusions.

            My post was about methodology and argumentation. A sound argument should be employable in any environment. However, we see from Ken Olsen’s satire that when applied elsewhere these historical criteria fail to convince.

            Let’s take the much-ballyhooed Criterion of Embarrassment. When used to prove the Baptism or the Women at the Tomb, it’s considered a near slam-dunk. But where, pray tell, is this criterion or any of these criteria, for that matter, ever used to establish basic historical claims other than in NT scholarship?

            1. the reference to your regards the “we’re” you were speaking for. I’m not sure what your particular views are, I presume “we” are those that argue against a historical Jesus, not non-NT historians, for whom I have seen no evidence of a significant disagreement with NT scholars. I often see arguments here for and else where for understandings of a text’s intentions that aren’t sufficiently supported by evidence.

              My statement, “If we assume that something not to be trusted is in fact false until confirmed true, it gives a distorted, and likely untrue, view of the thing” works in any historical situation as is the reverse “If we assume that something not to be trusted is in fact true until confirmed false, it gives a distorted, and likely untrue, view of the thing”. So does embarrassment. People are less likely to invent things that are harmful to their interest.

    2. Mike, where have I ever argued that we should assume that something not to be trusted is in fact false until confirmed true? I get the impression that you read this slogan “rebuttal” of supposed mythicist arguments on sites such as McGraths, and think they must have some validity as arguments against mythicism because they are written by a biblical scholar, despite the fact that the same biblical scholar has said he does not believe mythicist arguments should be taken seriously, and has effectively admitted that he has not read much by mythicists.

      I think you have made this objection more than once now, yet my pointing out that you are simply misconstruing what I have argued, and point out what I have really said, it makes no difference to you. You seem not interested in engaging with my arguments at all, but only in responding the same way you see modelled by the likes of McGrath: repeat your criticisms against your straw men ad infinitum without letting anything I actually do say get in the way.

      Rather than repeat what I have written and argued and what my assumptions are etc etc once again, I will ask this time if you are really arguing — and it seems you are with your last sentence — that we can assume that something not to be trusted is in fact true until confirmed false?

      1. Why would you think that? If you don’t hold to “that something not to be trusted is in fact false until confirmed true”, then where do people like McGrath, Ehrman, or Crossan differ from your own view? None of them trust written accounts, in fact doubt should be reserved in regards to any evidence.

        Let us take as a hypothetical(so no need for arguments and evidences of whatever actually did occur)the claim that Hitler committed suicide. Let’s say one of his body guards claimed this, but we have no body or other witnesses so it is unconfirmed but reported. His claim doesn’t really settle the issue, he could be wrong. Maybe he escaped to a secret base in Antarctica, maybe he had himself cloned in Brazil. Does this mean we should say, “Hitlers fate after the war remains a mystery. Afterwords, one of his body guards invented a tale that Hitler committed suicide.” Is that accurate history? Of course not. Can we say, “Hitler certainly committed suicide.” No we can’t really. I mean an investigator might interview the man and think he’s an honest fellow, thus concluding this is how Hitler met his end, but we can retain doubt.

        By the same token, I cannot be sure that Herodotus did not really hear reports that there are ants in India that mine gold. I cannot assume that he is the inventor of the tale, to do so unjustifiably distorts what we know about Herodotus as an author.

        1. If you don’t hold to “that something not to be trusted is in fact false until confirmed true”, then where do people like McGrath, Ehrman, or Crossan differ from your own view? None of them trust written accounts, in fact doubt should be reserved in regards to any evidence.

          Well, as far as I know “people like McGrath, Ehrman, or Crossan” do not even address my view. But at the same time I am fully aware that “none of them trust written accounts” etc.

          You have mis-read my posts and comments, it seems.

  5. What exactly is your view? The impression I got from the series is that an author may misrepresent themselves, their work, and their audience for the purpose of their literary goal. Is this far off? What was the point of “Without external data to support it, however, such material cannot be trusted.”? It seems straight forward to me, and I thought I agreed with it, what does it mean to you? Who disagrees with it?

    1. In my lines just above the one you quote I wrote:

      Note that Mandell and Freedman do not say that a literary construct has nothing to do with the real world. There is no way of knowing if it does or not simply from the narrative itself . . .

      So I thought I had made it clear that I am not saying that X did not happen because we cannot trust a report that says it did happen. I am trying to be as clear as possible that “there is no way of knowing if it does [happen] or not [happen]” IF all we have is a report such as we find in the gospels.

      I fully understand that biblical scholars acknowledge this, too. That is why they use criteria such as the “embarrassment” to help them decide if they should think a report is true or not.

      What I argue is not original to me. I first twigged to the idea some years ago when I was reading biblical scholars like Thompson, Lemche and Davies. They were addressing the Old Testament, and I asked myself why the same logic does not equally apply to the NT. I have since read Thompson does indeed apply it to the NT as well.

      The idea that I am arguing is this. All of the scholarly works (okay, say 99% of them) on the historical Jesus begin with the assumption that there once existed a historical Jesus to talk about in the first place. That is a given. It is never questioned. It is taken for granted. It is part of our cultural belief system that Christianity began with a literal Jesus Christ.

      So when scholars read the Gospels they never for a moment express any doubt that they are inspired by, and are about, a literal historical Jesus Christ. That is never questioned.

      Where the doubt and questioning kicks in is over the details of what those “reports” say about Jesus. Was he really baptized by John? Did he really heal people? Did he really teach the beatitudes? etc.

      But there is never any doubt expressed that there was a historical Jesus at all in the first place. No-one suggests for a moment that the gospel narrative itself might not even have originated as an attempt to write about a historical Jesus. No-one, or very few, suggests the story itself might have originated as a theological parable or metaphor of some kind.

      So there is scepticism at one level among scholars: are the details (only) true or not.

      But there is no scepticism at all with respect to the existence of an historical Jesus. To ask the question is to set oneself up for being treated as an outcast.

      The irony is that a scholar like Spong can write that every detail in the Gospels is a pious fiction, but no matter, there was still a real historical Jesus that inspired that fiction.

      Now that is all fine in one respect. I have no problem with people choosing to decide that there must have been a historical Jesus — on mere assumption and belief, even without knowing if anything in the gospels about him is true. But I don’t think it is a fair game if the same scholars do not concede the alternative as a possibility, too.

      There is no other ancient figure in history that is simply assumed to exist like this. Every other figure in the ancient history books is believed to have existed because of either:

      (i) tangible primary evidence such as coins or monuments
      (ii) independently attested reports or secondary evidence (not all from same same religious group, for example)
      (iii) inclusion in reports that have been found, partly because of external support, partly because of undisputed genre, to be genuine attempts to convey historical information.

      The evidence for the existence of Jesus does not come under any of those parameters. It stands alone as an assumption entirely. The earliest Gospel narratives are not studied to verify his existence. They are studied to decide what details in them might or might not be true — on the ASSUMPTION that he existed and on the ASSUMPTION that the gospels are really about such a historical person and not a theological metaphor.

      I am NOT saying that we should therefore say that Jesus did not exist. Just because there is no evidence for Jesus under any of the points i, ii or iii above, we cannot say he did or did not exist. We have no evidence either way.

      But this is not how biblical scholars argue the point. They insist that there really was a historical Jesus because no-one would make up the stories unless there were such a real figure behind them.

      I and some others have argued that there are good reasons why the story would be made up. Thompson himself, a highly esteemed biblical scholar, argues the same.

      I have also argued that the way the stories of the gospels are constructed gives us reasons to think that the authors knew nothing about a real historical Jesus. They do not cite eyewitnesses or any details that are found outside other literary sources such as the Old Testament.

      So we have two approaches:

      Most scholar’s approach — no independent evidence for Jesus (e.g points i to iii) but no-one would have made up the Gospels if there weren’t a historical Jesus

      Another approach — no independent evidence for Jesus so what are the various explanations for the Gospels that we can assess given what we understand of the Gospels? Are there valid alternatives to the assumption “no-one would have made them up” if there were not a real historical Jesus?

  6. Thanks for clarifying Neil.
    “Note that Mandell and Freedman do not say that a literary construct has nothing to do with the real world. There is no way of knowing if it does or not simply from the narrative itself . . .”

    If they take “knowing” in some sort of absolutest since, then I agree we can never know for certain the level of fact in a literary work. I disagree that we can know nothing about the real world from a literary work. Of course here I am likely arguing with them and not you, and they cannot speak for themselves. So instead I am debating with them, as you interpret them.

    I feel a high degree of confidence can be reached on matters of genre and audience. I feel we have a good palette of tools to analyze the level of fact in a literary work, to increase their informativeness. we know more about the Ketls than we did when all we knew were from Romano/Hellenic histories, even though new information challenged the views of those works. I suppose I take a more positive possition on the value of a work like Herodotus, or King’s. I think those works provide more information than if we did not have them at all. Others might be content to disregard them and simply draw a question mark on the events in history they portray. These sorts of arguments are found in all areas of history.

    Regarding the assumption of the existence of Jesus, I’m afraid I haven’t done a thorough search of other people in history who fit points i, ii, and iii and how the issue of their existence is handled by historians. Not that many individuals really create this sort of debate, mostly more famous ones I suppose, and those with attendant legendary accounts. There are a number of individuals that must exist that would not pass i or ii, and we could legitimately doubt them. Even if they appear in one or the other we might doubt them. A number of gods have had inscriptions or coins and two separate witness might believe a spurious legend. iii is a little trickier because one of the caveats is it must be an genre undisputed for wanting to present historical information, facts, how ever poor the technique. Of course recently, people like your self have offered that the gospels are in fact works meant to convey ideas other than facts, be it spiritual or whatever. But I’m not sure if the mere fact that someone disputes this be taken as evidence that the we are unsure that this is a genre meant to convey historical facts of some variety. Evidence for them being other wise has not been convincing for me, most scholars, and even most of the people you site for evidence the gospels are such fictions conclude that Jesus was a person is not such a fiction. This is what most historians are comfortable simply presenting Jesus as a person, they don’t find the arguments it is not a “genuine attempts to convey historical information” persuasive or intriguing.

    That Jesus did not exist is not a new view, and has been around awhile, but it has never taken off, so it isn’t as though no one ever challenged Jesus’ existence until now, it was just never a persuasive argument to most. It is hardly the fault of the academic world, and i wouldn’t expect them to pay undue attention to ideas accepted by so few. Maybe Thompson will get something going, I haven’t read his work on that subject. Let me add that while Thompson is highly regarded, he is by no means the leader of the field, and I suspect that his newer work is an attempt to regain some of the spotlight. Biblical studies draws a disproportionate share of scholars all trying to say something new. It seems very competitive.

    On your closing remarks, we can look at other alternative to the historical Jesus existence academics proportionate, but so far I find them to be insufficient at explaining the development of Christianity and the works produced by it. . it need not be perfect but it shouldn’t strain possibility to much. I don’t have any reason to favor any of the ones I know as plausible alternatives.

    1. Mike, I was attempting to clarify my position, but you continue to mis-read what I write.

      You wrote:

      I disagree that we can know nothing about the real world from a literary work. Of course here I am likely arguing with them and not you, and they cannot speak for themselves. So instead I am debating with them, as you interpret them.

      I nowhere said in my original post nor in my attempted clarification that “we can no nothing about the real world from a literary work”. That carries a very different meaning from anything I have been talking about.

      I said — and, yes, this is what M&F are saying — that if we read a story we cannot tell, just from the story alone, if that story is about something real or not. Is it a true story? How do we know? We have to call in what we know from outside that story to help us make a judgment about whether the story is true or not.

      Is the story entirely an invention of the author or has the author used “real facts” as a basis for his story? How can we tell? Just by reading the story alone, and knowing nothing but the story, there is simply no way we can tell if it is a true story or not, or if it is based on a true story or not.

      The only way we can answer that question is if we have enough knowledge outside the story itself to help us make a judgement about that story — whether it is true or not.

      So I might hear a completely new story on the news tonight, and I will probably believe it is based on something that really did happen because of everything I know about the media establishment bringing me the story, and maybe something about the particular reporter, and also something about the history and geography and people of the setting and people involved in the story. All of that knowledge I have prepares me to be able to make a judgement about the likelihood of whether or not to believe the completely new story I hear on the news. I have lots of external data to either support or discount the story as real.

      But with the Gospels we have nothing outside the gospels (“no external data to support” them, as you originally noted was the phrase I quoted from M&F) to guide us one way or the other over deciding if they are about a real person or not.

      1. There are almost always clues concerning a work that can help us interpret its intent. In some instances a work will come to us out of nowhere and we will be lost as to what it might be telling us, but this is not usually the case. Certainly not in the case of the Gospels. They are from a relatively well documented group at a relatively well documented time and place (not coincidentally either. Histories victors define our sources. If Hannibal had taken Rome, our sources of Phoenician literature would be a lot better, Roman a lot worse.)

        The lack of outside data(if we take all the other Christian literature off the table as being part of a hive mind) on the main character is not such a troubling thing. It’s basic claim is rather mundane (guy preaches, followers start religion, happens all the time. I’m currently taking a class specifically on such people, and all of whom are thought to be divine to boot). One can speculate on other possibilities, no harm in that, though unless backed by good evidence I wouldn’t expect others to jump in on it.

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