The historical Jesus hypothesis “does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation . . . “

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by Neil Godfrey

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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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “The historical Jesus hypothesis “does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation . . . “”

  1. I don’t understand. Tim claims he rejects the historical Jesus hypothesis. He puts him self in the position of Christ mythers with, “That doesn’t make me a Creationist. It doesn’t put me on the same level as a Holocaust-denier.”, and yet at the same time says of the evidence of early Christan origins, “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.” I’m not sure how Tim can reject a historical Jesus hypotheses and support a mythic one when he has no reliable evidence on the state of affairs of the time. It would be like saying “we have no idea what JFK was thing when he died, but I conclude it was Marilyn Monroe”. He is right about one thing, that was a very “tortured analogy”.

    1. I do not necessarily support a mythic one, but I’m open to new ideas. I am an HJ-agnostic.

      Mike: “It would be like saying ‘we have no idea what JFK was thing when he died, but I conclude it was Marilyn Monroe’. He is right about one thing, that was a very ‘tortured analogy’.

      As someone who lived through the JFK assassination, I can tell you, it did happen. And even if I hadn’t lived through it there’s the Zapruder film. There are archived news reports. There are other eyewitness. There’s testimony on file. There are news reports from people on the scene. I’m 99.9% sure there was a lone gunman and that the “magic bullet” was not planted.

      I reject the HJ hypothesis, once again, not in favor of something else, but because a rational person should say, when there is insufficient evidence, “I don’t know.”

      Do you even have the first clue about differentiating between real, primary evidence (e.g. for the JFK assassination) and late, anonymous, contradictory evidence (e.g., for Jesus, Peter, etc.)? If you don’t then I don’t want you on my jury if I ever have to stand in the docket!

      1. Great post Tim. And don’t worry about Mike. He’s repeatedly shown that he simply does not grasp the burden of proof concept. I can imagine him demanding proof from his parents that Santa doesn’t really exist. “Just because Santa is not the one delivering presents to our house doesn’t mean he might not be out there somewhere, Mom and Dad!”. How dare us Santa-mythers make a definitive judgment about Santa’s existence when we clearly can’t be everywhere at once to prove his non-existence?

            1. The official Historicist Jesus line is that Jesus was a condemned criminal who was promoted by his supporters as the agent through whom God had created the world.

              This is like discovering a group of people who claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald was the True President of the United States.

              And they then managed to sell this message to widely spread groups of people who for some unknown reason agreed with its premise.

              For all historicist claims that this is the only plausible scenario, it is far more likely that people would believe in a figure revealed in strange readings of scripture than in a real crucified criminal.

              Hebrews 7 gives some idea of the bizarre readings of scripture of early Christians.

              ‘One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.’

              Of course, a McGrath would seize upon the word ‘body’ to claim that Christians believed Levi was inhabiting Melchizedek’s body in a literal manner that brooked no other interpretation.

              1. Jesus was a crucified criminal, allegedly so bad that Paul persecuted followers of him.

                But somehow New Testament scholars cannot explain why Jesus did things so bad that he had to be killed, and why such a person could not be compared with other people who died shameful deaths, like Lee Harvey Oswald or Mussolini.

                Somehow Jesus was killed as a criminal, and yet totally innocent to an extent that people a thousand miles away could think of this crucified criminal as the agent through whom god created the world.

                This is a paradox which cannot be resolved. It is like claiming followers of Lee Harvey Oswald could persuade people that he was the True President.

                But a Jesus revealed through scripture does not suffer from this paradox.

              2. Where is your paradox? Are Lee Harvey Oswald and Mussolini the only people you are aware of having been executed? And you are aware that a number of people think Oswald was innocent and Mussolini is still admired by fascist (though he was always second to Hitler, even after death). I just don’t know what to make of this.

              3. I don’t get your point.

                We are continually told that Jesus died as a crucified criminal.

                McGrath’s whole shtick is that nobody would make up a crucified Messiah as that was too shameful to contemplate.

                It is his leitmotif.

                And now you are saying that people thought Jesus was innocent of all crime.

                Has Historical Jesus studies so crashed and burned that it can’t even establish whether or not Jesus was crucified as a criminal?

              4. It’s a little like debating whether the Titanic had an incompetent crew or not. It’s over and done, and any lessons learned have been learned, Only with Jesus, no one seems to believe his own words when he says “AS LONG AS I AM IN THE WORLD, I am the Light of the world” (John 9:5).

            2. One definition of “myth” is that it is the “official story”; the story promoted by the powers that be. Of course, the definition does not deal with the extent of truthfulness that the myth may contain. It’s remotely conceivable that the myth could be substantially true. But, whether it’s the story of Jesus, the story of the reasons for the Iraq war, of JFK, of O.J. Simpson, or of the assassination of Martin Luther King; there is an official version.
              Of course, in the last two cases the official versions were successfully contested by civil suits—not unlike the manner of this blog. (footnote for the MLK claim: http://ctka.net/pr500-king.html

  2. sorry Tim, thing was to read thinking. Always have to double check those spell checks. To answer your question, I have a much better clue than anyone here. The point being, by your analysis we have no evidence for the origin of Christianity so the period is in a black ball we can’t peer into so any thing specific is pure speculation. Your HJ agnostic is a concept more consistent with your line of reasoning. Neil mislabeled you as rejecting HJ, which is hard to do when you have no idea what may have occurred at the time.

      1. I stand corrected, though I would think “I reject the HJ hypothesis” and ” I am an HJ-agnostic” are not complementary positions. Try substituting other words and see how you would read it.

        I reject socialism, I am socialism agnostic. I reject Zionism, I am Zionism agnostic. See, it is a awkward position and certainly confusing, how would you interpret the positions? Are the positions rejected or do we have an open mind about the prospect?. I’ll let Tim figure that out. Until then I’ll state my position on Christian origins as, I reject mythicism, I am mythicism agnostic.
        P.S. If you pass this along pass along the correction “thing” was to read “thinking”. I know the point is moot given the ambivalence of Tim’s article, but you know, don’t want to take away the wrong meaning here.

        1. Agnostic — as in holding the position that there is not enough information to know, perhaps to the extent that we may never know. But still able to reject the hypothesis (in its various forms) precisely because of the lack of evidence, and additionally because of the circular logic involved.

          Similarly, I am an atheist and an agnostic. I reject the claims of theism, but I do not think I can know for certain. I operate as an atheist, but admit the limits of my own ability, and recognize humankind’s current boundaries on knowledge in general. We’ve got a lot to learn, which is nice.

          Specifically when it comes to the historical Jesus, I think the evidence does not support claims by scholars that we “know” anything about Jesus. There simply aren’t sufficient external controls available to make these texts produce anything more than “plausible stories.” Therefore I reject the hypothesis.

          To get back to the cold murder case analogy, as a detective I’d have to say the trail is cold and the evidence can be interpreted in so many different ways, we may never know the true story of Christian origins. Not enough evidence to convict. Not enough evidence to bring to trial. Not even enough evidence to establish probable cause. Case dismissed.

          1. Tim, you certainly have an odd way with words. It explains alot. I rather agree with you, but as a student of history, I’m not so much trying to convict Christianity of originating.

            We can’t expect to know the true story of anything. Historians settle for a lot less.

            Now given the state of the evidence is as you say it,”the trail is cold and the evidence can be interpreted in so many different ways, we may never know the true story of Christian origins” , would it not be fair to say that you also should reject a mythical Jesus as the origin of Christianity, and that those that propose one are also trying to create narratives out of non-existent evidence? to hold opposite is to contradict “we may never know the true story of Christian origins. Not enough evidence to convict. Not enough evidence to bring to trial. Not even enough evidence to establish probable cause. Case dismissed.” since we would be presuming to know part of the true story, to at least have enough to establish probable cause, or maybe even bring to trial. Doherty thinks he has a conviction based on that cold evidence.

  3. If I told somebody that a nuclear bomb went off in Chicago 20 years ago and they decided to investigate that claim what would their conclusion be? Clearly, after doing some research on the history of Chicago, they would conclude that no such thing happened.

    How could they do so! No newspaper or history book would ever say “no nuclear devices exploded in Chicago today.” There is absence of evidence that such an event occurred. How can we say this is evidence of absence?

    Now, of course, in this case absence of evidence is evidence of absence. You can’t say that a nuclear bomb went off in a major American city and reasonably expect to not hear about it from many many contemporary sources.

    The same goes with Jesus in the Levant. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence, because of the nature of the claims being made. If the NT were historically accurate in any way, we would expect to have evidence of it. In fact, you could probably do a statistical analysis estimating how many surviving texts there should be describing Jesus. (Somewhat akin to estimating how many Google hits of “Chicago nuclear device” would hypothetically generate.)

    Thank you for indulging me in my thought experiment.

    1. WOW,
      You really should try these new things they have now, there called books.
      There are several independent historical records of Jesus.
      Ever heard of the ROMANS. They had a habbit of jotting things down (At the time,not years later like in the bible)
      And there is a record of many more accounts or gospils that did not make the cut. One was by Mary Magdalin and I think even you know why the catholic church,who put the book together, would not let that one in.
      Thereare 9 known gospils that were denied so I know it’s not a Google search you yern for, but hey try and search for some information next time,
      Who knows maybe your not as obtuse as you come off.
      By the way I am not a christian I also need evedidece only I look for it.

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