How (not) to decide the historical facts about Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard C. Carrier in a chapter entitled “Bayes’s Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method”* conveniently lists seventeen “representative” criteria that have been developed by various scholars in an effort to determine the historicity, or what could be established as truly historical, about Jesus. Many of them are presumably taken from Stanley Porter’s list that Carrier addresses.

  1. Dissimilarity: If dissimilar to Judaism of the early church, it is probably true
  2. Embarrassment: If it was embarrassing, it must be true.
  3. Coherence: If it coheres with other confirmed data, it is likely true.
  4. Multiple Attestation: If attested in more than one source, it is more likely true.
  5. Explanatory Credibility: If its being true better explains later traditions, it is true.
  6. Contextual Plausibility: It must be plausible in Judeo-Greco-Roman context.
  7. Historical Plausibility: It must cohere with a historical plausible reconstruction.
  8. Natural Probability: It must cohere with natural science (etc.).
  9. Oral Preservability: It must be capable of surviving oral transmission.
  10. Crucifixion: It must explain (or make sense of) why Jesus was crucified.
  11. Fabricatory Trend: It must not match trends in fabrication or embellishment.
  12. Least Distinctiveness: The simpler version is the more historical.
  13. Vividness of Narration: The more vivid, the more historical.
  14. Textual Variance: The more invariable a tradition, the more historical.
  15. Greek Context: Credible if context suggests parties speaking Greek.
  16. Aramaic Context: Credible if context suggests parties speaking Aramaic.
  17. Discourse Features: Credible if Jesus’ speeches cohere in a unique style.

So there you have them. Unfortunately for historicists, Carrier observes that Stanley Porter and others have found all of these criteria either invalid or invalidly applied to specific details the Gospels claim about Jesus.

As for criterion number 1, “dissimilarity”, Derek Murphy (Jesus Potter, Harry Christ, p. 59) puts his finger on the weak spot when he writes of the “criteria of double dissimilarity”:

It must be noted, however, that with this type of research, the historical Jesus remains only an unproven theory: Jesus the historical figure is the binding element given to any untraceable idea, phrase, philosophy or theology from a specific time period. Based on the fact that the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ are almost completely filled with earlier Jewish ideology, pagan philosophy, or later Christian theology which developed over time (and hence can say little about a historical founder), the only way to talk about the historical Jesus intelligibly is to talk about the type of person he could have been: he was either Jesus the Jew (who became immediately transformed into something very different by his followers) or nothing at all.

As for criterion #2, this has been discussed often enough on this blog. Several posts have been archived here.

And Coherence? Well, if one begins with the details in the narrative, or just the main points of the plot, and seeks to find a coherent explanation for these, much as I was taught to seek out a coherent explanation for Hamlet’s procrastination in the Shakespearean play when at high school, one might well come up with a satisfying overview of what made Jesus tick. Of course Schweitzer is famous for observing that scholars were notorious for find the Jesus that cohered most comfortably with their own personal values and theology. But it’s too nice a game for everyone to throw out.

Multiple Attestation? If multiple attestation were reliable then we can have no doubt at all about alien abductions and UFOs, or homeopathy.

Explanatory Credibility: Maurice Casey finds explanatory credibility in wax tablets recording in Aramaic as early as the mid or late 30’s the life of Jesus; Paula Fredriksen finds explanatory credibility in Jesus traveling many times to Jerusalem and demonstrating over and over to Pilate that he was no threat at all to anyone; N. T. Wright finds explanatory credibility in a literal resurrection of the physical body of Jesus Christ from the tomb and subsequent appearance to his disciples. Von Daniken found explanatory credibility in aliens coming down to arrange the building of the pyramids.

Contextual and Historical Plausibility: Novelists in the ancient world related accounts of fictional characters acting out customs that were all part and parcel of the times, with references to genuine historical settings and historical groups and persons, such as pirates and kings.

And so on and so forth.

Why does this problem — and all these (non-)solutions to it — exist for Jesus yet not for studies of other ancient historical topics? I know, the question is tendentious. Jesus is important for faith, and some of the gospels (John and Luke in particular) are clearly attempts to prove the ‘historical truth’ of Jesus. So of course we know they won’t be biased. And if they found a need to write to prove the historicity of Jesus, then surely we have no right to doubt there was ever any question about this.

But I am verging here into thoughts I need to reserve for a review of the first couple of chapters of Derek Murphy’s new book. Hopefully can get something started tomorrow.



* This appears in an edited book, Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth, compiled by R. Joseph Hoffmann. Hoffmann for some unexplained reason thinks poorly of Earl Doherty’s work. I say “some unexplained reason” because his comments about Doherty’s thesis (e.g. bizarrely describing him as a “disciple of Wells”!!!) leave it questionable whether he has even read Doherty’s work.

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22 thoughts on “How (not) to decide the historical facts about Jesus”

  1. Here is another criterion. Is it natural or normal? Some of the claims in the writings attributed to Josephus are so far fetched that they stretch well beyond the bounds of normal credibility. The scholars skirt around incredible issues with words like ‘evidently’ (a favourite of Kokkinos), or ‘according to’, used by just about everyone, including Goodman and the historian Levick. Then they continue to take the text that is referred to literally, when there is obviously something wrong. For example, I just cannot believe that Herod had his wife and three of his sons executed (See my blog http://raphaelgolb.blogspot.com/2010/12/was-addressee-of-4qmmt-aristobulus-son). I don’t believe that he had any of his sons or his wife executed.

  2. Scot McKnight, well-known for his criticism of the historiography (and lack of awareness of this historiography among many biblical scholars) underlying historical Jesus studies in his Christianity Today article, wrote in his book on historiography and the historical Jesus, Jesus and His Death, that “criteriology” is too subjective to truly establish objective (existential) “facts” (pp. 42-44).

    Historical Jesus scholars, unlike other historians, do not begin with a set of known facts. All historians will apply criteria in an effort to ascertain what might have happened in the case of complex or private facts, but only in the case of Jesus scholars do we have scholars attempting to establish simple, basic, fundamental, background, core facts by the use of criteria. I have discussed this, with particular reference to the well known book on historiography by historian G. R. Elton, and also with reference to Scot McKnight’s discussion of historiography as found (or not found) among historical Jesus scholars in my earlier 2010 post. I followed this up the next day with a post addressing a related facet of Scot McKnight’s criticisms.

    The whole criteriology exercise is thus applied in historical Jesus studies in a manner unlike its use by other historians. It leaves the whole exercise of historical Jesus studies open to the charge of circular argument, as even a scholar like Dale C. Allison has the humility to acknowledge, as I have quoted in my post Clarity and Circularity from . . . Dale C. Allison.

  3. James McGrath doesn’t like your discussion of criteria,comparing it to creationism.

    Apparently you are stuck in an older paradigm – one where historians start from facts.

    Don’t you know that serious historians,like McGrath, use fabricated material to determine the truth? Get with the flow.

    Creationists don’t use fabricated materials, or forgeries. That is why serious Biblical historians like McGrath despise creationists…

    You dismiss multiple attestation, overlooking the sheer number of books which claim that Sherlock Holmes worked in Baker Street.

    McGrath believes in alien abductions and UFO’s. They are multiply attested,just like there is multiple attestation of the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith.

    1. What, is he saying that Carrier and Porter and Allison and Hoffmann argue (or edit books) like creationists? Does he seriously fault Stanley Porter and Scot McKnight and a half dozen others I could name for concluding that all criteria are flawed? And that they leave historical Jesus studies in a circular argument?

      1. Actually, he points at you, Neil, for not being helpful. You see the methods of criteriology not working and say they can’t work, while James wants to move from saying they give certainty to making more likely and so not completely useless. James also complains that you give no new method to get past this problem. That is more what he is complaining about, not Carrier et. al.

        1. But the assumption that there is something to “get past” is the problem. There is only a problem you can’t get past if there is a historical Jesus at the core. There is no problem if you drop that assumption and work with the assumption that the texts we have are more or less fiction.

        2. It isn’t that the criteria don’t work so much as they’re being used to prove things they cannot.

          In McG.’s latest post he brings up the existence of Socrates as a parallel historical question, implying that the HJ hypothesis gets unfair treatment. He says, “[T]hings that would simply be accepted as plausible or probable but not certain in other areas are, in the case of Jesus, questioned, cross-checked, second-guessed and doubted to an extent that goes beyond reasonable doubt.”

          What he conveniently forgets is that in the case of Socrates we have multiple, contemporary, named witnesses, which establish a fairly high probability of his existence — at least to the point where anyone who asserts the contrary has the burden of proof to explain why.

          Given the fairly secure fact that Socrates existed, we can now use criteria to judge what sort of person he probably was, what he said, what he thought. What many of us here keep saying (and McG. isn’t hearing) is that using the criteria to establish basic historicity is like using an crescent wrench to pound a nail into the wall.

          McG. once again defends the criterion of embarrassment, writing: “That is why the criterion of embarrassment carries some weight. The things it recalls are presumably ones well-known enough that they could not, at least within the lifetime of the first generation, be ignored. Others remembered, and reminded, and thus explanation rather than silence was the only route.”

          If a generation is 20 years long, then the optimistic dating of Mark (70 CE) represents a date that’s two generations past the presumed witnesses of Jesus’ ministry. So it is unclear which embarrassing things McG. is talking about. Anecdotes from Paul’s biography of Christ? Oh, wait…

          The problem, yet again, is not that the criterion of embarrassment doesn’t work, but that it doesn’t do what he thinks it does. I agree we have clear evidence that later evangelists were embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus. But that does not prove its authenticity; it only shows that people were aware of Mark’s story and accepted it, but didn’t like its implications.

          This same criticism applies to multiple attestation. As Paula Fredriksen wrote:

          “Multiple attestation of itself demonstrates not authenticity, but antiquity: a given tradition predates its various manifestations in different witnesses, if those witnesses are independent. What is attested still needs to be critically assessed. Most scholars see traditions about Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception, for example, attested independently in both M and L, as evidence for the ways in which early Christians had begun reading the LXX, not evidence for knowing anything about the actual sexual status of Jesus’ mother. Jesus raises the dead both in the Synoptics and in John. Scholars usually do not infer, on the strength of this independent attestation, that such traditions preserve historically true reminiscences of what Jesus of Nazareth actually did, but of what he was thought to have done — a big difference.”

          And does McG. really ask for a “new method to get past the problem”? Oh dear. We just aren’t getting through to him, are we?

          1. MCGRATH
            The things it recalls are presumably ones well-known enough that they could not, at least within the lifetime of the first generation, be ignored.

            This is astonishing logic, considering that the Gospel writers happily declared a world-wide darkness lasting 3 hours, and McGrath claims they had to tell the truth otherwise they would be called on any lies they made.

            I guess McGrath just had to include in his latest blog post his admission that he thinks fabricated material is just what Biblical historians use.

            That is so embarrassing to McGrath that by McGrath’s strange twisted logic, he is now compellted to write it in every blog posting he makes, because he can’t ignore it.

            And yet somehow, he does not repeat this embarassing claim he made.

            Thus neatly shafting his ‘logic’ (sic) that Christians have to repeat embarrassing things, because otherwise they would , well, I don’t know. Perhaps ‘Mark’ would have been beaten up by other Christians if he had written something they weren’t embarrassed by. I confess to not being altogether clear as to what McGrath thinks would have happened to Mark if he had done a John or a Paul or a James or a Jude and never mentioned any baptism.

            Who can follow the logic of a McGrath?

            1. The icing on the cake is the scene in Luke 7:

              (19) And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?

              (20) When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?

              I suppose it’s embarrassing that the prophet John didn’t know who Jesus was… But according to Matthew and John, he certainly did know who Jesus was at the baptism. Wait… I’m wrong. Matthew 11:3 says:

              . . . Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

              So according to the NT, John did and didn’t know who Jesus was, and he did and didn’t baptize him. The earliest witnesses did and didn’t know about the baptism; therefore it must have happened.

              1. How was that baptism so well known to non-Christians that Mark was forced to include a baptism scene, despite it being so embarrassing to Christians that he would have preferred not to mention it?

                Did John the Baptist publish a list of people he had baptised?

                When Jesus was baptised, did people stand around saying ‘That’s Jesus of Nazareth. Make a note that he is being baptised, as he will be famous one day, although at the moment, none of us has a clue who he is.’?

                Unless Christians had gone around claiming Jesus had been baptized, who would have known about that baptism?

                But McGrath’s criterion of embarrassment only ‘works’ if Christians wouldn’t talk about something unless they were forced to do so.

                No wonder Carrier finds it so easy to pick apart McGrath’s ‘criteria’ as fallacious.

                But there are so many criteria. Surely 17 leaky buckets hold more water than one leaky bucket…..

              2. According to the John the Baptist movement as it is known today in the Mandaeans, Jesus was a false prophet or heretic. McGrath is a Mandaean specialist, so he may be able to inform us how far back this perception of Jesus among John’s followers can be traced.

                Not that we need to be fact fundamentalists about it — fabrications that give the gist of the idea will do. Or any answer one might conclude as “likely”.

                The answer might throw in additional complications or elucidations on the grounds for the embarrassment felt so keenly by the likes of Mark.

        3. He points at me?? No fair! I’m only a layman posting a synopsis of what academics themselves published! Did I misread them?

          I’m faulted for not suggesting alternatives? Hey, again no fair! I quoted one alternative pointed out by Derek Murphy. I also thought I was pretty clear we simply approach the topic of Christian origins the way historians approach the evidence for any other ancient historical topic, Socrates included. Okay, that means we have to frame our questions according to the available evidence, but I’m sure he’s not suggesting we should create special rules just for Jesus — I know he’s God and all that, but he still has to play be the rules.

          And I was extracting notes from a chapter about Bayes’s Theorem. That should also indicate to him an alternative is not out of the question.

          But as for Socrates, he is surely aware, is he not, that some classicists have raised the possibility that not even Socrates existed. And once I tried to explain to him that the evidence for Socrates is based on independent sources — a playwright and some other philosophers. That playwright is a powerful weight in favour of the argument that knowledge of Socrates extended beyond a single school of thought. By contrast, all our evidence for Jesus is ultimately derived from Christians themselves.

          McGrath replied that according to his understanding I was showing my anti-Christian angry atheistic hostility by accepting the testimony of a playwright and a philosopher but not of any Christians. So it appears that McGrath once again simply does not understand logical argument, and substitutes for it ad hominem.

  4. Seeing the criteria lined up like that in a single list really highlights how many of them merely seek to establish what is possible. I suppose it’s a fine idea to weed out what is highly unlikely, but what you have left may be plausible, but it is not necessarily probable.

    In Carrier’s The Twelve Axioms of Historical Method (highly recommended), he writes:

    “Axiom 5: Any argument relying on the inference ‘possibly, therefore probably’ is fallacious.”

    The other thing that pops out at me is how many of the criteria depend on the foundational criterion of multiple attestation. This is for me, perhaps, the greatest weakness of the historicist position. I don’t think it’s possible given the evidence at hand to construct a solid case for multiple independent attestation in the gospels.

    It’s a house built on sand.

  5. “The contrast between an older method, creating piles of inauthentic and authentic material, and a newer one that seeks to explain the whole tradition, sounds promising, but has the potential to be overplayed.”

    Can one imagine a historian of WWII saying such a thing? There would be a potential to overplay the contribution of films like “Inglourious Basterds”, the book “If Hitler Comes” or Phillip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” at the expense of material like news reports and archeological data. Can one imagine a historian of ancient Troy saying such a thing?

    Evidently what sounds promising is not having to worry about which statements in the Gospels are demonstrably fictional — which would relieve Jesus historians from a lot of the effort that historians usually undertake.

    1. McGrath is repeating here what he read and reviewed in in Dale C. Allison’s “Constructing Jesus”. He was attracted here to the idea that

      Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

      I have attempted on several occasions to point out to McGrath the circularity underlying historical Jesus arguments, and his own in particular, but he has never had the opportunity to respond to that criticism as far as I am aware. I have even pointed out to him that Dale C. Allison himself is humble enough (McGrath has publicly commended Allison’s humility) to acknowledge the circularity of the method he employs, but still I have not been aware of any response from McGrath to Allison’s admission.

      Unfortunately, after seeing McGrath’s attempt to engage in a discussion on textbook logic on Tom Verenna’s blog, and his subsequent confession that he was completely out of his depth, I am wondering if — despite the fact that he is a teacher and professor — he simply does not understand the fallacy of circular argument or other textbook logical fallacies.

      1. McG.: “And so it doesn’t seem to me that the issues Allison and others raise are fatal for the historical Jesus enterprise, but are fatal for the misguided and futile quest for certainty that ‘fact fundamentalists’ have brought with them into the discussion.”

        Neil, are you a fact fundamentalist? Pshaw! Stupid facts!

        1. So McGrath has moved beyond insisting Jesus was a fact of history? He was only a likelihood? Perhaps a fabricated one that gives the true gist of whoever or whatever was the one or the group or the idea that was later expressed as the entity known as “Jesus”?

        2. Regarding the quite curious concept of “fact fundamentalist”, McGrath would be served well by taking to heart Scot McKnight’s discussions (I have linked above and elsewhere to to his Christianity Today article and section in The Death of Jesus) of the general awareness of historiography among biblical scholars.

          McGrath once asked for names of historians who should be read to understand something about the way history is understood and practiced beyond biblical studies (what they mean by “facts”, for example, and the place of “facts” in their inquiries), and I did alert him to G. R. Elton as one such name. There are others, but I mentioned G. R. Elton because he is the one Scot McKnight says is closest to the way most biblical scholars understand history.

          G. R. Elton explains in his famous book that criteria are used to ascertain complex or private facts (e.g. can we believe a claim made in a personal diary?), but never for simple, core facts that frame the particular historical inquiry. McGrath might appreciate reading what G. R. Elton said in this respect, along with the references for his own further consultation.

          McGrath has indicated he cannot trust my input because I quote communist historians whom he has suggested are out to undermine the historical enterprise and western values, or that I only am open to the existence of Socrates because his sources were not Christian. But there may be someone with better credentials in his view who might be able to convey the above guidance for him.

  6. James McGrath has responded to one detail in this post in his usual manner (failing to grasp the logic of the argument, ignoring the contextual meanings of words used, and even apparently oblivious to the fact that my post is nothing but a re-hash of what his own biblical scholar peers have themselves written and well understood, as was even indicated in my original post) on his blog. I have responded with a link to my more detailed response on my blog here.

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