2011-05-12

Curious inconsistencies: If it works for Adam and Caesar, why not for Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

  • 2011-05-12 02:09:23 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

    I’ve noticed recently when scholars talk about OT characters they’re quite comfortable discussing them as literary characters. It’s especially striking when they start talking about Daniel’s prophecy about the Son of Man and how it relates to the Olivet Discourse.

    Even many religious scholars today can admit that Daniel is pious fiction from the Maccabean period. You won’t hear many people struggling to prove a “historical prophet Daniel” that they can extract from the text using clever criteriology. No, most will just cheerfully admit that the writers concocted the story for their own purposes. Even ex-clergy hopped on the bandwagon:

    http://www.fathersullivan.com/2011/04/book-of-daniel-was-successful-work-of.html

    But can the same reasoning be applied to the works of the NT? Not yet, apparently, unless you enjoy being called a crank, a creationist, a truther, a holocaust-denier, etc. I suspect there is an inverse relationship between the relaxed attitude toward OT characters and the hyper-cranky protection of the historical Jesus, which could help explain why otherwise sane people start shouting and waving their arms whenever the subject comes up. They’re laying sandbags at the perimeter, anticipating the impending minimalist deluge.

  • NateP
    2011-05-12 15:51:50 UTC - 15:51 | Permalink

    Excellent point you make, Neil. And a quality comment from Tim as well. Let me just say that perhaps we can find comfort in the broader timeline perspective. By that I mean that we stand at a unique spot in the timeline of historiographical inquiry. Like you said Neil, for much of the investigation of OT history, it was thought that the method would yield results of verifiable contemporary authors to the characters in question (i.e. scribes in David’s or Solomon’s courts). There were probably many historians in that period that were frustrated that their field was beholden to unfair assumptions. Over time, their position won the day. If it is in fact the case that Jesus was mythical, this will eventually be borne out in the research. Tim’s “Not yet” is exactly right in this sense. The added bonus is that, when historiography catches up its methodology, the mythicists may be able to say “we’ve been telling you all along”. And that won’t be so bad a position to be in. Until then, however, the battle unfortunately must take a different (and less than ideal) shape.

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