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