From time to time since I started blogging about various scholarly books on the Old and New Testaments, I receive an email from one of the authors thanking me for the post, and offering a few additional pointers, queries or discussion sometimes. The most striking thing about these emails is the total contrast in their tone to most scholars’ comments I have received on posts of mine that broach the possibility of a mythical Jesus.
The reason I think this is so odd is because the method, the approach, the logical processes, the standards I use for my discussions of the origins of early Christianity, and the inspiration for the canonical narratives of Jesus, are (I believe) exactly the same. I have even tried several times to explain that my views on Christian origins and the Jesus Christ idea are derived directly from studies of classicists and historians of the Old Testament.
Some have tried to say that the same rules do not apply because the OT stories are set in a distant past while the NT ones are set within the life-times of the actants. But this criticism is invalid. The reason many of the OT stories are now considered to have been created so long after the times in which they are set is the resulting conclusion of the applications of the methods those historians used. When they first began to apply their literary analyses alongside external controls they worked on the traditional assumption that the stories (or sources for the stories) of David and Solomon were originally recorded by scribes in the royal courts of David and Solomon. The time gap we take for granted today was the end-result, not the precondition, of the methods used to assess the origin of the tales. My own conclusion about the time the gospels were written (second century) is similarly led by the method: it is not a precondition of the study.
The method is independent of any precondition for a certain length of time between story setting and story composition.
It is simply this:
- Do not presume that the gospel narrative is historical or based on historical events or persons. That would be to beg the question. Treat the narrative for what it clearly is — a literary narrative with literary characters. If there is anything more than literary reality to any of these, then that will emerge in the investigation. Understanding “what it clearly is” also involves literary analysis, including genre assessment. The latter is not always as easy as it sounds, nor is its significance always transparent.
- Look for external evidence (that is, evidence in sources independent of the gospel narrative) that links with the characters, themes, questions, interests found in the narrative. What is the chronological and cultural and any other setting of this external evidence?
- Look for potential external sources for the narrative and characters in the Gospels. This involves understanding the cultural and historical settings of the narrative and external links to the narrative, and the resultant finds can range from the literary, philosophical, historical right through to the archaeological.
- If a literary or religious/philosophical borrowing is sufficient to explain the narrative’s events and characters, then stop. That’s sufficient. Do not add to the complexity of the explanation unnecessarily by introducing historical persons. If one does insist on postulating historical persons and events as sources for the narrative, then set out the expectations that one should find in external evidence as a consequence, and demonstrate that these are a less complex explanation than the one of simple literary or religious evolution.
It works for Moses, for Abraham, for Jacob, for David. One can even say that when applied to Hammurabi, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, it works to demonstrate their historicity.
So why does the method not seem to yield acceptable results for Jesus?
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