The fallacy that invalidates historical Jesus studies, conspiracy theories and creationism

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by Neil Godfrey

“You aren’t allowed to make up your own facts.”

That’s a brilliant piece of wisdom that is lost on many of us from time to time because a certain familiarity with habitual ways of thinking prevents us from seeing that we sometimes really do just make up our own facts — or at least just accept “facts” that others have simply made up for us.

The words come from The Uncensored Bible by Kaltner, McKenzie and Kilpatrick after they have presented an original argument that explains that bizarre episode in Exodus where God is said to meet Moses on his return to Egypt and tries to kill him, following which his wife Zipporah circumcises her infant son, tosses the foreskin at Moses and accuses him of being a bloody husband — after which God leaves him alone. This, at least, is one way the passage is translated for us. But as the authors explain, the original is riddled with so many unlinked pronouns no one can be really sure how to translate the passage, let along make any sense of the story.

A suicidal Moses

The occasion of the opening passage — “You aren’t allowed to make up your own facts” — is the explanation of Pamela Tamarkin Reis. She suggests the confusing phrases are not intended to be understood literally but are idiomatic expressions. They indicated, Reis says, that Moses was contemplating suicide. He had presented himself until this moment as an Egyptian fugitive of high standing, but on his return to Egypt after being called by a voice out of a burning bush, he had to face up to his being a Hebrew and one with a slave people. His wife, Zipporah, mocked him by performing a circumcision on their son in contempt.

Reis finds support for her argument by some passages found later in Exodus where God plays with the moods and thoughts of Pharoah like a puppeteer. She also appeals to suggestive circumstances in the story of Moses that might lead us to accept the plausibility that Moses was indeed facing an identity crisis on his imminent return to Egypt, and having to face up to deceiving his father-in-law and wife about his true identity.

Once we accept this premise — that Moses was facing an identity crisis and personal guilt — then other passages are found to fit this theory. Some that do not quite fit can be said to be metaphorical or idiomatic uses of language, such as God “meeting Moses to ‘try’ to kill him”.  Ambiguities in the historical evidence are also brought out as unambiguous supports, such as the fact that there is uncertainty about whether Egyptians also practised circumcision at this time is used to argue that they did not.

In other words, the whole argument begins with the premise it seeks to prove. To prove that the passage means that Moses was suicidal at this moment, we must begin with the assumption that he was suicidal at this moment. Only then will enough of the pieces “fall into place”.

Conspiracy theories, divine inspiration and creationism

It is the same with conspiracy theories. Begin with the theory, and then look for the evidence — or at least seek to explain as much of the evidence as possible on the assumption that the conspiracy is real, and thereby “prove” that the conspiracy is real.

No actual proof of a conspiracy is established. All that happens is that the evidence is explained as if the conspiracy existed.

It works for those who think 9/11 was an inside U.S. government job, who think that Jews or Masons are plotting on destroying all world governments so as to eventually take over the whole world under one-world government, who think that the moon landing was faked, etc.

Ditto for those who preach the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. Every fundamentalist church or cult can “prove” its doctrines from the Bible. It’s easy. Just begin with the assumption that God is on your side, or on your church’s side, and he reveals his truth to that church, and hey presto, you will see every passage in the Bible really does support your church or cult after all.

Intelligent Design or Creationism — or even Divinely Guided Evolution — both work the same way. Begin with the premise that God designs everything at some fundamental level, or that he guides evolution to lead to where he wants it to go. You will find the evidence you need to “prove” what you start out believing. True evolutionary theory, on the other hand, has predictive power. It can predict what one will find in both paleontological digs and certain types of experiments. One reason for the discovery of so many fossils in recent decades is because the theory informs the specialists where to expect to find certain types of fossils.

Historical Jesus studies, too

If you begin with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to describe, and that the Gospels are attempts by sincere people who sought to convey what that very real Jesus did come to mean to them and to their readers, then you really will find a way to see in those Gospels just what you expect: an attempt to convey what a historical figure came to mean to those people.

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

So when the gospels speak of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus, it is assumed that this must be true historically because no-one would have made up such a shameful deed about one whom they loved and expected to appear as a conquering hero. But of course this is all based on the assumption that the Gospels were written by people so-minded, or by those who inherited a story from others who truly did believe this of a historical person.

Another possibility is that the story even of the death of Jesus was concocted for theological reasons, and it was constructed out of other existing literary and theological models.

It is not enough to assume either position and proceed to look for evidence to support one’s presuppositions.

It is equally important to test and evaluate alternative explanations. But most of all, it is important to study the nature of the evidence or documents before us, comparing them with similar documents and narratives. Jumping in with an exciting, novel, or reassuring theory from the start and finding evidence for it in so many places we look will bring us psychologically rewarding results. But those sorts of rewards will be illusory.

Comparing the Christ Myth and Historical Jesus theories

One of the advantages of a Christ myth theory such as that argued by Doherty is that it does have predictive value. Historical Jesus studies, on the other hand, are more often seeking ad hoc explanations for evidence that fails to meet expectations.

To take one example: The Christ Myth theory would predict that the earliest evidence of Jesus lacks historically specific detail even when it would serve their interests to do so, if it existed, and this is what we do find in the earliest evidence. Historical Jesus theorists must “explain” such gaps in the historical evidence by postulating that everyone knew such details so there was no need to reference them in writing. One cannot claim that common knowledge of historically specific details of Jesus is a predictor that such details will not be found in the written evidence.

To take another example: The Historical Jesus case would lead us to expect a certain range of responses to the failure of Jesus to return as expected according to apocalyptic expectations; and the mythicist case would lead us to expect a different emphasis in the written evidence. Here is what we find, according to Doherty in his book Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p.55:

If this was indeed the scenario faced by the first few generations of Christian preachers and believers, we would expect  to find two things. First, a significant recasting of the two-age pattern; the coming of Jesus would have been seen as a pivotal point in the ongoing scheme of redemption history. Second, that very failure of expectation would have required explanation. For no one could have anticipated — and no one did — that the arrival of the Messiah would not be accompanied by the establishment of the kingdom. We would expect to find an apologetic industry arising within the Christian movement to explain this strange and disappointing turn of events.

But do we find either of these two features in the epistles?

We have seen several passages in the Pauline letters which speak of the long-hidden divine “mysteries” which God has revealed to “apostles and prophets.” . . . . 

The same prediction tests can be used to compare the historical Jesus and the Christ myth theories in relation to that contentious James the Brother of the Lord passage in Galatians 1:19. But I won’t repeat here what I have discussed in an earlier post.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “The fallacy that invalidates historical Jesus studies, conspiracy theories and creationism”

  1. The historical Jesus theory predicts that early writers would try to assert their authority by being close to Jesus in some way.

    Paul does this by saying he gets revelations from the Lord.

    But the authors of James and Jude do not , even though there was allegedly a brother of Jesus called James.

    This leads to such ad hoc confabulations as these people not wanting to boast about who their brother was.

    Similarly, we would expect hostile treatment of those who had been real or perceived enemies of Jesus. But all we get from Paul is the laconic ”Not all the Israelites accepted the good news’, as though it had just been the case that people had not been convinced by his readings of scripture.

  2. An additional prediction of the MJ theory is that at no time will any non-forged artifact or primary source relating to Jesus of Nazareth be discovered. This prediction could have been made by Bruno Bauer, JM Robertson or Arthur Drews (although I cannot say any of them ever did, certainly their theories predicted it). This could have been falsified by the findings of the DSS or the Nag Hammadi texts or the “James” Ossuary or the recent forged lead codices. Yet the MJ theory bats 100%.

  3. The “Jesus” of “orthodoxy” ended up being a kit-bash “fully God and fully man.” From this, it follows that a mainstream HJ model would predict that the earliest Christian sources would tend to portray Jesus as more human (being closest to the source of a human, historical man named Jesus), with divine attributes accumulating over time. The mythicist model would predict that the earliest Christian sources would tend to portray Jesus as more divine and mystical in nature, with human attributes and “historical biography” accumulating over time as the divine figure was “drawn down to Earth.”

    I think Doherty has made a good general case that on the whole the relevant material (Epistles, mythic and midrashic elements of the Gospels, other early Christian writings up to about the middle of the Second Century) supports the MJ model’s prediction of a trend from mystical, divine-Christ material toward a greater mixture of human and divine attributes, finally resulting in the orthodox “historical God-man.”

    On the other hand, historicists like T.G. Baker argue that the Gospels show a transition from a human Jesus to an increasingly deified one. An example given is the way Mark’s Jesus starts out as a disciple of John the Baptist and is baptized for the remission of his sins, but later Gospels successively water that down more, until JtB is reduced to the status of a forerunner of Jesus who is not worthy to untie his sandals.

    Hopefully Richard Carrier’s Bayesian approach to the question will be able to “make or break” mythicism, since that, ideally, is what scholars are supposed to do with a theory.

    1. It is a common comment that Mark’s Jesus is the most human and there is a trajectory from this to the most deified Jesus in John’s Gospel.

      But I have also read commentary to the contrary. In the stilling of the storm scene, for example, Jesus is not modeled on Jonah but on the God in the story of Jonah who stills the storm. From the beginning, and as dramatically illustrated in the transfiguration, Jesus is the Spirit of God himself, ruler of demons and all that they control (such as the storms, sickness) and the Son of Man coming on clouds in Daniel.

      Sure he is a bit more temper-prone than Luke’s comforting Jesus and Matthew’s mother-hen Jesus who longs to protect her brood beneath its wings. But is that human temper or that aloof mysterious power and wrath of God being witnessed?

      Another reason Mark’s Jesus is said to be more human is because it takes him two efforts to completely heal a blind man. Or he needs to use clay and spit etc. But I do not accept that as a pointer to his humanity. That sort of thing in Mark’s Gospel is surely — as many commentators also acknowledge — symbolic. The two-stage healing is symbolic of the gradual spiritual understanding the disciples (fail to) acquire. There are two miraculous sea crossings and two mass feedings etc, — and a two-stage healing as the lessons are repeatedly driven home, or try to be. The double-effort has nothing to do with a tilt towards human weakness.

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