Logical confusion on the historical Jesus side of the debate

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by Neil Godfrey

Various commenters have referred me to a list of pre-recorded responses, any one of which can be prompted to “reply” to any question raised that seeks a justification of an argument in favour of Jesus being historical. That sounds like a very efficient way for a Jesus historicist to completely avoid addressing the question of mythicism altogether. I am sure there are still plenty of self-help type books on the market that continue to advise readers that the best way to persuade someone against their point of view is to seriously listen to what they are really saying and avoid the trap of having a prepared response in your mind that you are simply waiting for the chance to release and end the discussion.

But recorded response number four is the one I want to address in particular because I simply do not understand it. This worries me a little because it appears to be an attempt to explain something major about the strength of the historicist argument, and if that is the case then there is something seriously askew in either a mythicist’s or a historicist’s grasp of logic.

This is “Beep: Recorded Response #4”:

#4. The quest for the historical Jesus and the criteria of authenticity do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. They seek to demonstrate it in the only way possible. One cannot demonstrate the historicity of Alexander the Great in fashion separately from all evidence for things he may have said, done, or had inscribed. The same is true in the case of Jesus.

How can I search for the Yeti if I do not presuppose, even if only hypothetically, that it exists? I have never gone looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow because I presuppose it does not exist. I suppose if I ever came to believe that there is a possibility that there might be a pot of gold there then I just might think I have nothing to lose and go looking for it.

A truly open question would ask how to explain the origins of Christianity. We are entitled to presuppose Christianity existed and had an origin. So what can we learn about it?

How can criteria for the truth or factness of what a person did or said fail to presuppose that the person existed in the first place?

So I do not understand the logic of the first sentence in point #4.

Then the next two sentences leave me quite baffled.

How can one “seek to demonstrate” the existence of a person if one does not presuppose the person exists? I have over the years been called on to demonstrate many concepts in the course of my work and studies. If a detective is going to demonstrate how a person committed a crime then he is going to presuppose that both the person and the crime existed. If someone is going to demonstrate the existence of a Yeti to me, then they will presume it exists. If someone is going to demonstrate what someone said and did on their wedding day, then they will presume that that person existed.

But it’s the next sentence that really stumps me. On the one hand it appears to be nothing more than a simple truism; but on the other hand it strikes me as quite circular. To test the logic of the statement, let’s substitute the proper noun “Alexander the Great” with others.

One cannot demonstrate the historicity of Alexander the Great/Noddy of Toytown/Harry Potter/Julius Caesar/George Washington/Long John Silver/Barak Obama/Balaam’s ass/Zeus/Jehovah in fashion separately from all evidence for things he may have said, done, or had inscribed.

Ah, now the problem is coming into clear focus. The very concept of a person or personality itself — whether fictional or historical — by definition means they are known about or understood by things they say and do. Every personality or person we know, whether in our own homes, at work, or on TV, or in a newspaper, or a novel, or a computer game, or in a movie, is known by what they say and do. I can never forget my old studies in novels and plays where I was required to demonstrate an understanding of what various characters — Hamlet, Emma Woodhouse — were like according to the evidence of what they said and did. I had to do exactly the same for Martin Luther and George Orwell.

So the real question for determining historicity cannot simply be “evidence for what someone has said and done”.

What counts is something more basic. What will determine historicity or fictionality is the nature, provenance and context of the evidence for what a person has said or done.

To bring this back, then, to the particular instance used in the response #4, Alexander the Great, — do we know he existed “by the evidence for the things he said and did” or is it something else that actually leads us to have some level of confidence that that evidence itself pertains to a real person?

In the case of Alexander we have much archaeological evidence that is best explained by the existence of such a person. A coin with his image and name on it is one example. Another cluster of examples is the evidence for the cultural, demographic and political changes that swept the Middle East around the fourth century B.C. Something dramatic, such as a sudden Greek conquest of the Persian Empire, followed by a radical policy of political and social changes, is probably the most economical explanation for all of this. 

And then the literary evidence that we have coheres with these sorts of independent and physical evidences. This literary evidence is in the form of a genre about which there is no debate. It is ancient historiography. There is no-one on the fringes arguing that it is not really ancient historiography, but just another form of ancient novels or theological treatises.

The same evidence includes statements appearing to identify its authors, and placing the various texts in some sort of relationship to each other and to past named sources of information. When we find that these claims appear to cohere across the information we can gain from the other sources then we have a high degree of probability that we do know the authors, their interests in the topic, and this helps us also make valid judgements about the reliability of what we are reading.

This is how historians know Alexander the Great existed. This is the foundation upon which worthy historians base judgments about the reliability of the various claims (“evidence” is generally too strong a word here) of what he said and did.

We have nothing remotely comparable, even partially, for the existence of Jesus. That in itself does not mean Jesus did not exist, obviously. But it does mean we have grounds for asking questions.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Logical confusion on the historical Jesus side of the debate”

  1. Brrrrrrt… Brrrrrrt…. Click.

    Thank you for calling Historicist Apologia. Please listen to this message carefully as our options have changed. To be dismissed with contempt, press 1 now. If you would like to hear a circular argument, press 2. If you wish to have your credentials impeached, press 3. To hear a strained argument based on an incorrect and distorted understanding of mythicism, press 4. If you would like your question to be ignored by a live scholar, please press zero now.

    If you would like to hear these options again, tough luck. You’re just wasting my time.


  2. Great post, Neil. I laughed (but cried a little inside) when McG brought such an easy target as an Alexander-Jesus-comparison into the mix. Even better comment by Tim though, that one was priceless.

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