I’m posting here a recent comment by Tim in which he explains his reason for rejecting the Historical Jesus hypothesis. I’ve posted along a similar vein in the past (Alice in Wonderland’s trial; Making detectives look silly; Like Sherlock Holmes) but Tim’s comment is a more sober clarification of the insubstantial foundations of historical Jesus studies.
I’d like to examine this paragraph from the McG’s Matrix:
But third and most disturbing – and reminiscent, I might add, of the similar problem with various forms of creationism – is that all the “criticism” offered is akin to what we get from those who complain that the judicial system is fundamentally flawed, because it at times allows the innocent to go to prison or a criminal to go free, but without offering any suggestion on how the system we have can be improved upon, and what better criteria of evidence would allow juries to convict fewer innocent parties and acquit fewer guilty ones.
Here we have real insight into the mindset of apologists and many mainstream scholars who cling to the canon and are convinced it contains truth — either total truth for the apologists or “some” truth for the scholars. The problem lies not so much with the methodology as with the evidence itself.
Suppose McG. visits the police station to report a murder. As evidence he produces a few letters with cryptic references and four anonymous diaries that appear to have been written decades after the fact. Everyone mentioned in the letters and diaries is dead, so there’s no one to question. In fact, there are no public records of anyone involved. There’s no corpse. Most of the landmarks described in the diaries have been razed.
If the detective on the case threw his hands up in resignation, I would be the last person to complain that a guilty person was walking the streets. In fact, I’d rather live in a society that sometimes accidentally lets killers loose than one that frequently executes innocent people in the name of justice.
“I need witnesses. I need evidence. A body would really help your case, too,” says the detective.
“But I do have evidence!” McG. spreads the pages over the detectives desk and points. “These are my witnesses.”
But it doesn’t work like that, does it? Just because we don’t have living witnesses or signed affidavits doesn’t mean we can promote an anonymous diary to the status of witness. Even to entertain the idea of multiple attestation is rather charitable, given the fact that the provenance of the source documents is in question and the fact that the “witnesses” can’t seem to get their stories straight.
Now to take this tortured analogy to its obvious conclusion, suppose the detective says as he tries to usher the good doctor out of his office, in the gentlest way possible, “I’m sorry — there’s nothing I can do. Try not to get too worked up over it. You know, it’s possible that the people in those old anonymous diaries never existed in the first place. Heck, they might just be forgeries.”
McG. stops in his tracks and swears that he’s sorted through the “evidence” and through the use of very clever criteriology has come up with a list of sayings and deeds that are probably true. “Unless you can come up with better methodology, how dare you criticize my belief that somebody really lived and really was murdered?”
But it isn’t the job of the detective to prove that the murder didn’t happen. It isn’t the job of the criminal justice system (at least in my country) to prove innocence. Defendants plead guilty or not guilty, because it’s the prosecution’s job to prove guilt — to prove something happened.
The Historical Jesus Hypothesis makes positive claims that require evidence and logic to support them. If the evidence at hand does not support the hypothesis, it is not my fault. It is not my job to invent new criteria. That doesn’t make me a Creationist. It doesn’t put me on the same level as a Holocaust-denier. (Oh, how easy it is for them to resort to slander.) It does not mean that I’m trying to get back at Christianity.
Finally, lest anyone disunderstand my parable, let me state clearly that I do not expect HJ proponents to establish their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation to establish probable cause. I reject the HJ hypothesis for the same reasons.
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