2011-06-22

The strengths of the historical Jesus theory

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by Neil Godfrey

As anyone who has read a good book on the theory of evolution will appreciate, the strength of the theory lies in its

  1. explanatory power, and
  2. predictive ability

Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish is one such book. Shubin explains simply and elegantly how evolution explains both the fossil record and genetic patterns across all species, and even how the same theory enables paleontologists to know where to look for certain kinds of fossils.

Let’s outline what a rough draft of these two tests might look like when applied to (a) the theory that Jesus was historical, and (2) the theory that he was a myth. Only have time to begin work on the first one this post.

I’m sure there is much more that could be said than I outline here, but a rough draft has to start somewhere.

Historical Jesus theory:

1. Would expect to find authoritative and detailed references to the human life and teachings of Jesus among the earliest texts claiming to be the outcome of his life;

2. Would expect to find teachers claiming authority through contact with this Jesus or with those close to him;

3. Would expect to find authenticating references to witnesses of some of the most notable achievements and confrontations or teachings of Jesus;

4. Would expect to find sceptical views of lay contemporaries of specific deeds of Jesus, and controversies raised by him (e.g. his baptism), raised and addressed;

5. Would expect to find sceptical views of former followers of Jesus in relation to his resurrection raised and addressed, and details of how and why disciples who remained loyal after his death chose to do so;

6. Would expect to find independent details across various records — that is, information that is clearly distinctly different in secular and religious texts, and multiple early religious texts independent of each other testifying of his life;

7. Would expect to read some secular records, or references to now lost secular records, of the founder of the Christian sect if it was indeed so troublesome in civic society;

8. Would expect to find a relatively homogeneous set of views of Jesus early in the record, with diversity only a gradual and later development over time;

9. Would expect to read historical-biographical type narrative details of his deeds and sayings, even if coloured by theology — as Herodotus et al write history cum theology — distinct from brief tracts that are consistently echoes of other literary motifs and stories, or symbolic tales.

10. Explains . . . . ? (Need more time to think about this one. Help?)

 

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0 thoughts on “The strengths of the historical Jesus theory”

  1. The historical Jesus explains references in the Gospels and epistles to family of Jesus? That’s about all I can think of. It seems to me that the historical Jesus hypothesis requires either believing in the supernatural Jesus, or believing that the gospels are nearly completely fictional.

  2. That’s a start, thanks. The reason I was blinded from that was probably because I have read mainstream biblical scholarly commentary explain the Gospel references to Jesus’ family most cogently as a theological aping of the situation found among OT saintly families — Joseph, David, and others were all enhanced in their godly status by being diminished by their own families. The point is that being favoured of God means one is set apart from the ways of worlldly values and perceptions. Of course, these same comentators probably believe in the literal fact of Jesus’ family, despite the fact that their explanation obviates any rationale for such a belief.

    The James being the brother of the Lord reference is a point in favour. I think this is outweighed by the failure to support this reference in othter contexts, but that’s fine — let alll the pros and cons come out.

    I suppose the only other ones are the explanation for the claim Jesus is being born of a woman, and for the claim that he was from the seed of David.

    To be fair to the historicists, I should simply list all the arguments they usually bring out in favour of this, including the claims Paul received something “from the Lord”.

    What might be interesting is a list of the half dozen rationalles used by historicists and set these alongside the alternative explanations, along iwth all the other points for the mythicist case.

    It would probably not be fair to bring out reasons for historicity as argued by Maurice Casey and Richard Bauckham. We don’t want to make the exercise look like it is simply out to parody historicists. Maybe James McGrath will be able to be able to give us some specifics if asked. But we would have to insist on him being specific.

  3. I think that the references to Jesus’ family in Christian literature (including possibly Paul) and (possibly) Josephus, along with other references in Paul like Jesus being born of a woman or crucified by the rulers of this age (which can be interpreted as historical or not) have enough weight to at least make me suspect that there was an historical Jesus. This is because I can see that the NT gospels and church fathers do not embrace this information, and try to “deal” with it in different ways. Perhaps Mark started it all by using a family of Jesus to make symbolic points, and the other NT gospels simply “handle” this info in their ways, until James in particular is not even mentioned as Jesus’ brother in Luke and John, or he’s not Jesus’ brother “materially” to the Gnostics.

    But it’s hard for me to imagine that the Gospel of the Hebrews and Hegesippus were inspired by Mark or other Pauline writings to think that Jesus had a family, considering the hostility that Jewish Christians had towards Paul. I’m having trouble seeing who would have interpolated the brother of the Lord reference in Paul or the brother of Jesus reference in Josephus, since James’ relationship to Jesus appears to be a hot potato for Pauline Christians, who regarded him as being unsympathetic to Jesus at best, or non-existent, or a half-brother or cousin, anything but the “brother of the Lord,” regardless of his standing in the church.

    1. John, would you say that the embarrassment over Mordred’s betrayal and Guinevere’s infidelity in the Arthurian literature makes it more likely than not that there was a King Arthur?

    2. John: “Perhaps Mark started it all by using a family of Jesus to make symbolic points, and the other NT gospels simply “handle” this info in their ways. . . ”

      Neil: All the different handling reflects is different doctrinal viewpoints. Mark, Matthew and John all use the family of Jesus as a foil to deliver the same doctrinal message: that Jesus follows in the wake of other elect of God in being rejected by his family. It’s all about theology, not historicity.

      But not being able to imagine who might have been responsible for a text that on other grounds has a very good claim to being an interpolation is not unusual. But to base an argument on this ignorance or incredulity is the same error made by historicists who argue Jesus was historical because they can’t imagine why anyone would make up the story in the first place.

      1. I don’t know if I can agree that the handling of Jesus’ family is only a reflection of different doctrinal viewpoints. It’s harder for me to discuss what I think about Christian origins when we are not discussing specific books or verses, so I can’t give you a proper outline for why this is so.

        The reason it is hard for me to imagine who might have interpolated references to James being Jesus’ brother into Paul and Josephus is because I don’t see anyone besides the Ebionites or Jewish Christians like Hegesippus who were comfortable with this idea and didn’t try to explain what it “really” meant or belittle James, and I can’t see them having the power, ability or need to do this.

  4. I think historicists would contest several of your proposed predictions of the HJ model due to the limitations of ancient textual and archaeological evidence for relatively unimportant people (i.e., people who are not kings and emperors or intellectuals working for wealthy and powerful patrons). They are all things that would validate the HJ model if found, but since it’s unlikely they would be found even if they had existed, a historicist would not want them listed as predictions of the HJ theory.

    A major problem for both theories is that the early Christians were so contentious against one another, and did their best to censor their rivals. When “orthodox” Christianity gained political power, it used that power to destroy “heretical” Christian teachings as well as anti-Christian writings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it we only know of “heretics” and opponents of Christianity (Marcion, Valentinian, Celsus, etc.) from excerpts of their writings cited by their Christian adversaries, since the Christians destroyed, or at least failed to copy, their writings.

    1. Would expect to find authoritative and detailed references to the human life and teachings of Jesus among the earliest texts claiming to be the outcome of his life;

    I think “authoritative and detailed” should be lined out of this one. The early Christians were mostly illiterate and eager to believe in ecstatic revelations and miracle claims. Not being modern critical thinkers, they would not have expected or looked for “authoritative and detailed” information. I do agree with the jist of this though, that an HJ model would anticipate that the earliest texts should appeal to the life and teachings of Jesus at least as often as they would appeal to Moses, and certainly more than a marginal figure like Esau.

    #2: This is a legitimate prediction. On the other hand, since those who were close to Jesus or had contact with those close to him were Jews, the “Gentilization” of Christianity would have severed those ties at the time of the split (starting about the time of Paul), and the Jewish War would have done a lot of damage to Jewish “Jesus communities” in Judea. If the Ebionites were the heirs of Jesus’ Jewish followers, their voice has been mostly silenced by the Roman suppression of Jews, and the power of Gentile-oriented “orthodox” Christianity. On the other, other hand, “pure” mythicists (Gnostics, etc.) were also suppressed as “orthodoxy” established a human Jesus from whom Apostolic Succession could be traced.

    3. Would expect to find authenticating references to witnesses of some of the most notable achievements and confrontations or teachings of Jesus;

    I think this still gives early Christians too much credit for critical thinking. Christian writings don’t even pretend to “authenticate” anything until the prologue of Luke’s Gospel.

    4. Would expect to find sceptical views of lay contemporaries of specific deeds of Jesus, and controversies raised by him (e.g. his baptism), raised and addressed;

    Since the early Christian communities were very insular and closed to contrary views (e.g. Galatians 1:8) I don’t think we can expect to see a lot of response to skeptical arguments under either theory. We do not see Paul defending his spiritual Christ from skeptical arguments that it does not correspond to traditional mainstream Jewish messianic expectation or responding to charges that he (or someone else, like James) “made it all up.”

    #5: See above.

    #6: I don’t think we would expect to find such detailed records either way. We do not have independent secular and religious references to the beginnings of a mythicist Christianity either.

    7. Would expect to read some secular records, or references to now lost secular records, of the founder of the Christian sect if it was indeed so troublesome in civic society;

    Again, this assumes that early Christians would have had a modern approach to critical thinking and validation of fact. We’re talking about the kind of people who pack the pews for Benny Hinn, but without a surrounding Enlightenment scientific-technological culture. The notion of validating Christian ideas barely occurs to any New Testament writer. You will search in vain for even one thorough argument for the existence of God. Furthermore, this also assumes that any Roman records of Jesus’ crucifixion would have been accessible to curious civilians hoping to check a reference.

    #8: I don’t see how a historicist could dispute this one.

    9. Would expect to read historical-biographical type narrative details of his deeds and sayings, even if coloured by theology — as Herodotus et al write history cum theology — distinct from brief tracts that are consistently echoes of other literary motifs and stories, or symbolic tales.

    I’m guessing that a historicist would argue that the Gospels (or at least the early layers of Q or oral tradition) are examples of this, and would contest at least some of the mythicist arguments that various events of Jesus’ “biography” were derived from Scriptural prototypes, rather than having the Scriptures applied as “prophecy” post hoc. Also, I think it could be argued that the early Christians were not any more interested in historical-biographical facts any more than Benny Hinn’s followers are interested in scientific validation of his “miracles.”

    #10: Deserves a reply of its own.

  5. 10. Explains . . . . ? (Need more time to think about this one. Help?)

    1: The references to Jesus as (seemingly) human; “born of woman,” “born under the Law,” descendent of Adam, Abraham, David, “according to the flesh,” etc..

    2: The references to James “the brother of the Lord” and “the brother of Jesus called Christ” in Paul and Josephus.

    3: The development of the portrayed relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist in the Gospel record, i.e., Gospels progressively shrinking JtB relative to Jesus as the Christian movement grows and JtB becomes a liability to be minimized rather than coattails for Jesus to ride. Presumably mythicist early Christians would not have to wrestle with the idea of their Jesus being baptized by someone else “for the remission of sins” and find ways to retcon that detail over time.

    4: “Embarrassing” details in the Gospels, such as Jesus having to try more than once to pull off a healing, or his miraculous powers fading in the presence of a skeptical audience in Nazareth.

    5: Answers the question, “who founded Christianity?”

    6: Provides a source for the sayings considered to be “authentic words of Jesus.”*

    7: The HJ model explains why the idea of an historical, human Jesus would originate in the first place.**

    8: The use of Aramaic words and phrases in the Gospels(?). A historicist could argue that Gospel narratives that cite Jesus speaking Aramaic (e.g. Mark 5:41, Mark 15:34) hearken back to oral traditions originating with an Aramaic-speaking Jesus and his followers.

    9: The existence of Jewish-Christian (Ebionite) sects that accepted Jesus as Messiah, but believed him to be a mortal man.

    10: References in Eusebius to the Desposyni (family members of Jesus and their descendents) holding positions of authority in the Church.

    That’s about all I can think of.

    *This assumes that mainstream scholarship has developed a valid process for isolating a collection of alleged “sayings of Jesus” as being sufficiently early in origin, original, and the products of a single mind, so that under a mythicist model there would be the question, “so who came up with this core of teaching?”

    **This is part of a symmetry with mythicism. The mythicist model needs to explain how Christians came to believe in a human Jesus on Earth; the historicist model needs to explain how Christians came to believe in a pre-existent divine Jesus as part of the Godhead.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to respond with this detail, KevinC —

    You wrote: “I think historicists would contest several of your proposed predictions of the HJ model due to the limitations of ancient textual and archaeological evidence for relatively unimportant people (i.e., people who are not kings and emperors or intellectuals working for wealthy and powerful patrons). They are all things that would validate the HJ model if found, but since it’s unlikely they would be found even if they had existed, a historicist would not want them listed as predictions of the HJ theory.”

    My response:

    It’s the most curious thing about the historical Jesus model that scholars can use it to present a dazzling array of versions and all of them granted peer-approval — yet not one of them rests on any evidence of the kind taken for granted among nonbiblical historians. In fact, there is not any evidence at all — only interpretation of a theological narrative and snippets of, maybe, indirect background noties from texts like the Gospel of Thomas or something from the Qumran scrolls. In other words, there is no evidence at all that would be considered normative in nonbiblical historical studies.

    We have more secure evidence for Socrates than Jesus, and some scholars have even voiced doubts about his existence.

    What the evidence for the historical Jesus comes down to is a single theological story that appears to have been unknown until well into the second century. And the reason this story is taken as grounds for evidence at all is that enough scholars (and public) have voiced incredulity that anyone would have made up its basic outline.

    So we have a model for Christian origins that has to plead for acceptance (not very hard, because it has a very eager audience wanting to believe) despite the absence of any primary evidence or relatively securely validated secondary evidence — just “accept” the basic idea because the story by its nature does not allow for any of the normal verifications used among real historians (as opposed to theologians who falsely call themselves historians) exploring nonbiblical topics.

    If only the UFO believers could find that alien skeleton left behind at Roswell. It’s such a believable story and there is so much testimony believers can easily believe. But if only we can find that alien plasma skeleton to convince the rest of the scientific community!

    But thanks for your responses. I know I have come to have a certain bias over recent months or year or year and a bit, and look forward to doing up some sort of grid that will lay out the question’s two sides more starkly.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond with this detail, KevinC —

    You wrote: “I think historicists would contest several of your proposed predictions of the HJ model due to the limitations of ancient textual and archaeological evidence for relatively unimportant people (i.e., people who are not kings and emperors or intellectuals working for wealthy and powerful patrons). They are all things that would validate the HJ model if found, but since it’s unlikely they would be found even if they had existed, a historicist would not want them listed as predictions of the HJ theory.”

    My response:

    It’s the most curious thing about the historical Jesus model that scholars can use it to present a dazzling array of versions and all of them granted peer-approval — yet not one of them rests on any evidence of the kind taken for granted among nonbiblical historians. In fact, there is not any evidence at all — only interpretation of a theological narrative and snippets of, maybe, indirect background noties from texts like the Gospel of Thomas or something from the Qumran scrolls. In other words, there is no evidence at all that would be considered normative in nonbiblical historical studies.

    We have more secure evidence for Socrates than Jesus, and some scholars have even voiced doubts about his existence.

    What the evidence for the historical Jesus comes down to is a single theological story that appears to have been unknown until well into the second century. And the reason this story is taken as grounds for evidence at all is that enough scholars (and public) have voiced incredulity that anyone would have made up its basic outline.

    So we have a model for Christian origins that has to plead for acceptance (not very hard, because it has a very eager audience wanting to believe) despite the absence of any primary evidence or relatively securely validated secondary evidence — just “accept” the basic idea because the story by its nature does not allow for any of the normal verifications used among real historians (as opposed to theologians who falsely call themselves historians) exploring nonbiblical topics.

    If only the UFO believers could find that alien skeleton left behind at Roswell. It’s such a believable story and there is so much testimony believers can easily believe. But if only we can find that alien plasma skeleton to convince the rest of the scientific community!

    But thanks for your responses. I know I have come to have a certain bias over recent months or year or year and a bit, and look forward to doing up some sort of grid that will lay out the question’s two sides more starkly.

  7. Neil
    When addressing the historical Jesus, one should first realize that almost all the information we have from his period has been filtered by the winners, the christian church that was in a position to rewrite its history, to see what texts were transmitted, if they were censored, and able to exterminate any group that had a different set of traditions. Have you seen a copy of the Gospel of the Hebrews recently, or the original texts of Celsus, or the original writings of Porphyry, or a collection of Ebionite or Manichean texts, or a reliable copy of the Diatessaron? All gone, If printing technology in the West had come a couple of generations later, we would not even have half the texts that were rescued from oblivion.
    Another problem is the games the established academics play. To a large extent they restrict their interests to endlessly restudying the texts in Greek and Latin, and onlypay lip service to the texts in Afro-Semetic languages. Of course this might be due to the fact the later languages are probably much harder to learn. There is interesting material in these texts, especially in the early medieva Muslim and Jewish polemics against the christians. These writers still had access to texts which reflected very early christian traditions. However, most devoutly christian scholars have a bias against going outside their own cultural traditions and looking at these texts, lest they encounter something that might run contrary to their belief system.

    A case in point is the “Liber Graduum” a collection of early Syriac sermons which has only been recently translated into a modern language, and is still for the most part ignored by scholars. It is a fascinating work, because it shows that there was a christian sect with a Cathar like social structure and belief system in existence by the 3rd or 4th c. What is even more interesting is that they have theological vocabulary that appears to have some features in common with vocabulary used in the New Testament, only the words appear to have a completely different meaning. in the later Syriac text. However, if the figures of speech used in the later text, are actually a hold over from an earlier tradition, te way the NY is interpreted must be revised. Unfortunately the so called scholars, are ot doing their homework and are working hard to keep buttress their dogmas, no matter how tortured their reasoning must become, rather than trying to do any real analysis.

    The Heliland (sorry for mispelling) and other hold overs from a more primitive form of christianity that surived until the early middle ages are also ignored by the mainstream religious scholars. As for Arthur and Mordred, whom you mentioned, no scholar feeding at the public trough, is going to risk his tenure, by coming out and saying that the Arthur cycle was a pureliterary creation on the part of Geoffrey of Monmouth, that struch a cultural chord and mutated into a vast literature. Too much raw emotion is now invested in the topic. He would be swarmed by a horde of crystal weilding pseudodruids who are Haldol and Prozac defiecient. Hence the field of Arthur studies is filled with wishy washy coded prose that fills volumes and commits to nothing. Notcompletely unlike the field of theology.

    Theology and most religious studies, and the history of western religeons are not sicences, they are excercises in the polemics of maintaining the status quo, and the dominant position of aa christian inspired world view. Hector Avalos has written on this, but were he wants to jsut shut down the industry, I think it should be purged, the old guard thrown out, and new studies initiated whihc go back to the source texts, such as they are, outside of the Greek and Latin accepted canon of priary texts.

  8. That winners write history goes without saying, but we have a right to expect they would attempt to record some evidence that their record is authoritative. Yet the best we can find among the earliest Christian records in this direction are nebulous claims to the reliability of the witness of the spirit of God. Luke goes one step further and refers to an anonymous collection of earlier witnesses — but then follows with a collection of tropes from Hellenistic and Septuagint fictional tales.

    http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/comparing-the-evidence-for-jesus-with-other-ancient-historical-persons/

    Even by the standards of Josephus the gospels simply don’t rate as history: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2008/10/26/what-josephus-might-have-said-about-the-gospels/

    The constant theme of HJ scholars is that though they can eke out “evidence” for the type of person Jesus was from the evidence (not always using methods very different from the way scholars analyse the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet), the basic background story is indisputable because though it is unsupportable given the nature of the evidence (or lack of evidence), they know they could refute all other scenarios IF the evidence had survived.

    Is this really very different from attempts to justify belief in the tooth fairy?

  9. “…due to the limitations of ancient textual and archaeological evidence for relatively unimportant people …”

    Just how limited is the evidence for unimportant people? I have read online that there is a record of seven less important people named Jesus from around the period of interest. I would love to see a compilation of the relatively trivial items of historical interest that DID get recorded and survive, just to put this assertion that we would not expect to find evidence of the “unimportant” people of the time to the test.

    On the other hand, why even entertain the proposition that the HJ would have been seen as unimportant? The two bedrock episodes which define the Christian faith are the Sermon on the Mount and The Resurrection of JC, both events are presented as being witnessed by thousands. If bedrock Christianity is patently false, why bother parsing textual nuance, like “the brother of the Lord” at all? It is really quite absurd.

    1. The other persons also named Jesus are found in Josephus, and one of these has been compared with the Gospel Jesus by at least one biblical scholar: http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm

      Veracity of the minor characters has a lot to do with authorial intent, and that is related to genre — hence the eagerness of many scholars to cheer for a very superficial work on genre by Burridge finding similarities between the Gospels and the ancient equivalents of biographies: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/are-the-gospels-really-biographies-outlining-and-questioning-burridge/

      The absurdity of the whole exercise explains the refusal of theologians to refuse to engage seriously with the mythicist challenge and to use any and every anti-intellectual tactic to sideline it. We find the reverse with the creationist-scientist exchange: creationists refuse to take the scientific arguments seriously and the scientists do engage with creationists with honestly-reasoned and evidence-based responses.

  10. “…Yet the best we can find among the earliest Christian records in this direction are nebulous claims to the reliability of the witness of the spirit of God….”

    We also have the Gospel of Thomas which claims to be a verbatim transcription of a recent eyewitness. What then follows is an endless sing-song mare’s nest of conflicting non sequitors, which would require the memorization skills of the most talented idiot savant mentalist the world has ever seen in order to replicate. Even when this Gospel claims to be faithfully recording history from an eyewitness, the inescapable conclusion is that what is presented is pure and unadulterated fiction. It seems to me impossible for any honest scholar to attribute any veracity to any of the entire Bible without independent documentation, which leads one to ponder what – if any – of the entire document can be termed historical at all? 10% ? Less than 1%?

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