Who says, “There is no evidence for the historical Jesus” ?

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by Neil Godfrey

If you follow the “it is ignorant to say there is no evidence for the HJ” discussion on Debunking Christianity you have already read most of what I post here.

John Loftus kicks things off with his OP in which he says:

I want to put to rest the ignorant claim that “There is no evidence for a historical Jesus.” There most definitely is. It’s called “confirming evidence” or evidence of things we would expect to find if there was a historical Jesus, and it is Legion.

Let’s have done with such an ignorant claim.

The debate is whether there is sufficient evidence.

I responded with an attempt to clarify what I see as a common but fundamental misunderstanding embedded in this comment. I joined the discussion late and wrote:

Beginning with the OP I believe we are confusing two quite distinct concepts: evidence and sources. I think this is one of the factors that leads to so much confusion and talking past one another.

It was once almost uniformly accepted by Old Testament scholars that the OT was “evidence” for a historical united kingdom of David and Solomon.

But a number of scholars beginning not too many decades ago attempted to point out that a mere claim, a mere story, might be a source of information, a claim, about historical events, but it is hardly the same as evidence for them.

These scholars turned to the way historical studies of ancient times were conducted by nonbiblical historians and drew clear distinctions between primary evidence (evidence physically belonging to the period in question: bricks in the ground, graffiti on an original wall, in the case of most ancient history) and secondary evidence: that which is physically subsequent to the events in question. The guiding principle was that primary sources must always take precedence and the secondary must be interpreted through the hard evidence of the primary.

But obviously in the case of Jesus we have no primary evidence, only secondary.

Secondary evidence is really not hard evidence but is late testimony, a claim, hearsay, a story, spin, a source of knowledge but not hard evidence for that knowledge.

Most NT scholars refer to this as primary sources, meaning that it is the earliest sources available — Gospels, Paul’s letters, etc.

But without some form of external controls we have no way of knowing how to interpret such primary sources.

First we need to have the external controls of comparable known literary forms or genres to know how to interpret the sources. Are they intended to transmit fact or fiction or something else, for what function, etc?

Though Burridge has been appealed to as an authority for a number of NT scholars to claim the Gospels are serious biographies, Burridge is not without his critics. A much more solidly grounded (I mean grounded in rich genre theory — that of Bakunin) leads to the assessment that the Gospels are really another form of ancient novel, a Jewish novel, not unlike Hellenistic novels of the day, though obviously with the usual Jewish themes (Vines, 2002). Burridge based his interpretation on no theory at all — but on something similar to a list of dot-points on a series of comparative tables, which opens his work to the usual criticism that quantitative measures miss the all-important qualitative information.

Other scholars (including a number of classicists) undertaking literary analysis of the gospels with an interest in intertextuality have similarly concluded that the Gospels are imaginative literary creations rather than being sourced in historical events. Some of these scholars seem to acknowledge the consequences of their findings for historical studies of Jesus, so are careful to claim that behind these stories there is a historical Jesus anyway. That Jesus inspired the stories, but the stories themselves are artifices. (This strikes me as a faith statement since they provide no evidence for their assertions that there was nonetheless a historical Jesus despite the Gospels being a mix of fiction and theology.)

So what we have as our primary sources, after they have been analysed to help us understand their nature, are stories without external controls to help us decide if anything in the story-world itself is based on real history.

If we wish to avoid circular reasoning then the only one way we can determine if anything in the story world is indeed historical we need external controls. We cannot approach the text on the assumption that it contains history within it somewhere and devise a lot of criteria (embarrassment, dissimilarity, etc) to help us dig it out because that is putting the cart before the horse. We need to first ascertain if the Gospels do contain history. If they do, then some criteria might be of some limited use in helping us make judgements about the probability of certain historical information.

But given what we know of ancient literature, and early Christian literature in particular, we need always to be aware that texts are not what they appear to be on the surface. We have many cases of “forgeries” and fictions posing as nonfiction works. (The same is true of modern literature — sometimes even modern novels and diaries have mistakenly been thought genuine.) So external controls are fundamentally necessary in order to decide if the story world also contains real history.

And the situation with the gospels is even harder than for lots of other literature because we have no idea who composed them, where, when or for whom. We do have fluctuating scholarly guesses but not much more. If we rely on external controls for dating then we must set them possibly as late as the mid second century; and if we rely on internal evidence, we must set them as early as around 70 CE. (Some few even say as early as the mid 30’s and 40’s!)

We have external controls for other figures we generally consider historical. Such evidence for major figures like kings and emperors is usually overwhelming. But even in the case of Socrates we have external controls that we lack for Jesus.

Sources of information in any field — courtroom, news-stories — need corroboration in order for us to have some confidence in the probability of what they are saying. (This corroboration might even be testimony to a confirmed past record of truthfulness.) Does a source have an independent witness to support their claims? Multiple witnesses are useless unless they are truly independent. There are many testimonies of alien abductions but we can safely attribute them to a single cultural source through which they interpret the symptoms of sleep paralysis or some other personal experiences. In the case of Socrates we have one source consisting of a number of devoted followers — Plato, Xenophon. But we also have another source from one not a follower, the satirical playwright Aristophanes. These are surely independent sources and they come from the same generation of Socrates himself. They are not primary evidence because their accounts are not written on the walls of the Aeropagus as Augustus and Darius had their deeds inscribed on walls. But the fact that they are independent, and that we can through other external evidence think they probably really did go back to the time of Socrates, gives us confidence.

So we think we can have a reasonable assurance in the probable likelihood of Socrates’ historicity.

But in the case of Jesus we have nothing comparable.

Paul? External testimony does not show his corpus was known till the second century; and there is only the self-testimony of the letters themselves that situate them in the mid-first century. How do we test that? We do know that pseudepigrapha were the flavour of the day, and Paul was an especially favourite target of forged stories and letters. (I am not saying they are forgeries, but I am saying we have no external controls to test their authenticity.) Is his Jesus something of a counterpart to the Stoic idea of Reason (Logos) as argued by Engberg-Pedersen?

The Gospels were clearly written a good generation or more after the supposed time of Jesus. And we find their story was not universally accepted by our earliest external sources. Justin appears to have thought Herod crucified Jesus and has apparently never heard of Judas.

I think by attempting to apply consistently the methods of literary analysis to determine the nature of our written sources, external corroboration and independent controls we are left with no “evidence” for Jesus but we do have lots of “sources” for an event or story.

The evidence that we do have — the literary analysis that has given us our understanding of the Gospels and their place in the wider literary and theological-philosophical world (Jewish and Hellenistic) of that era — weighs in favour of them being literary artifices and against them having any origins in historical events.

Obviously that needs to be argued. But I hope to show here that there is a case for doubting the historicity of Jesus that is grounded in the same sound methods one will find among serious historians of the ancient world.

Someone then posed a fair question in response to the above post.

So, for example, would you say that there is no probable likelihood that Pliny the Elder died during the eruption of Vesuvius, since the only contemporary report we have comes from Pliny the Younger, his nephew and follower?

This gave me an opportunity to clarify that what I have described is nothing new, but simply attempts to bring out the normal ways historians generally work most of the time, even if often at a subconscious, taken-for-granted level:

Not at all. Literary analysis is most often done at a subconscious level and for that reason we can quickly tell the kind of information an author of a letter or a novel or a historical work means to convey. And we know from external sources of the authenticity of Pliny the Younger, and we know what function a letter has. Rosenmeyer has written on the ancient letter as an art form showing how people were taught to write fictional letters with all the touches of verisimilitude, but we have sufficient external controls to discount that as likely in the case of Pliny’s personal letters.

But the gospels are a different kettle of fish altogether. Provenance unknown. Genre debatable.

I might have added here for a stronger argument in this instance that our external corroboration also testifies to something of the character of Pliny, too.

I should add that the process I am outlining is nothing special. It is really an attempt to spell out what most historians do all the time. It is in the field of biblical studies in particular that we find many practitioners confusing sources with evidence, or story-sources with evidence for the story’s content.

Some people like to make comparisons with the courtroom or criminal investigations. If we do that, then the difference is between an uncorroborated witness statement and one that is supported by independent disinterested testimony and real evidence.

So when someone most recently posted

the fact that there were people following Jesus in the first century goes towards building the case for a historical Jesus not against it

I took the opportunity to use this as a classic case of the confusion that so often rears its medusan head when discussing “bible history”.

This is a classic case of what happens when we confuse story with evidence, or sources of a story with evidence for the truth of the story.

We only have a story about people following Jesus. It is not “a fact”. It is a story. The question is therefore: “Is this story true, or based on some true historical event, or is it something else?” . . . .

It is on a par with apologists asking the unconverted how they explain the empty tomb. The bad thing is that many biblical historians really do believe the Gospels are “evidence” for the empty tomb! The flaw here is that they approach their sources on the assumption that their narratives point readers towards genuine history at some level, despite the fact that those sources cannot pass the same tests for authorial intent and provenance as can the historical literary sources used by historians in other fields of ancient study.

McGrath in the same Debunking Christianity discussion obliquely referred to my post as an “all or nothing” treatment of the sources. That of course is not true at all. It is not a question of using or not using the Gospels as historical evidence. I do believe they are and should be seriously studied as historical evidence for the thoughts of their authors, readers, and literary-theological-religious-social world to which they belong.

Meanwhile Dr James McGrath has issued a “challenge to mythicists“:

Having recently witnessed a proponent of mythicism repeat the same old untruth about “Biblical historians” using different methods than the rest of the guild of historians, I thought it might be time to invite mythicists to do a little experiment.

Pick a figure from ancient history – not Alexander the Great or someone similarly poised to leave tangible evidence behind of his existence from Europe to India, but rather someone that is in important respects more like Jesus in terms of the kind of evidence it is reasonable to expect them to have left behind. Let it be someone you believe actually existed as a historical figure.

What I invite mythicists to do then is approach the evidence for that figure in the same way they do the evidence for the existence of Jesus. Ask the same sorts of skeptical, “what if?” and “what about?” questions that you ask in the case of the New Testament and other early Christian literature.

Check the dates of the earliest manuscripts. If someone cites that author or mentions that person, check the dates of those manuscripts to. Ask whether a particular work might not have been read for entertainment like a comic book.

While it is beyond dispute that there are figures from antiquity who are in some respects better attested than Jesus, I am confident that the methods of mythicism can create uncertainty about them as easily as Jesus. Because, on the one hand, everything in history is open to doubt, although not necessarily reasonable doubt. And, on the other hand, the methods of mythicists are the methods of conspiracy theorists and denialists, and I have yet to see anything that such constituencies cannot doubt, and so there is good reason to think that their methods will work just as well in the case of any historical figure, and not only Jesus.

I realize that this undertaking would require significant time and investigation, but there is really no hurry to finish. This post will still be here. I fully expect that if someone does what I am suggesting here, they will either change their mind about the existence of Jesus – or at least become less dogmatic and prone to ridicule mainstream scholars; or they will become more consistent and be agnostic about ancient history in general, and not treat Jesus differently from most other figures in antiquity.

This, of course, is a false challenge for several reasons, and I allude to one below. Another is that McGrath is asking mythicists to approach sources according to the way he complains they do in his straw man presentation, and to compare those methods with his own approach to “biblical history”. My response was to ask McGrath for a real challenge, one that favours him and should in theory make it harder for me:

I did in fact recently post how HJ criteria might be applied to the evidence for Socrates: /2011/07/16/was-socrates-a-man-or-a-myth-applying-historical-jesus-criteria-to-socrates/

Before I post on this for the umpteenth time, James, explaining exactly how mainstream historians really do work, and comparing this with biblical historian’s assumptions and methods, will you please give a direct, specific answer to a question:

What other historical figure in ancient history (or any history) has the same kinds of evidence for his or her existence as Jesus? Do give specific names. I think it is fair that you offer such examples, because I fear that any person I select will be knocked down by your simply saying, ‘well, he doesn’t count coz there is this or that difference etc.’

You select the target and I will take aim.

The trick for McGrath will be to find such a figure. This will in itself be an indication of how unlike the evidence for other historical persons the evidence for Jesus really is. This should not be used as an excuse to justify exceptionalist methods for biblical studies. It should be a wake up call to biblical scholars to make them ask why Jesus is the exception. Are their assumptions truly grounded in methods that are normative elsewhere?

I look forward to posting a little more on this in the coming weeks, again drawing on the works of nonbiblical historians as comparisons. And a discussion on method should NOT be dismissed as a discussion “for mythicism”. It should be assessed on the merits of the methodology itself that is under discussion — not the potential outcomes of the application of the method.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Who says, “There is no evidence for the historical Jesus” ?”

  1. Neil,

    Since I don’t think that I will get an answer from McGrath, I will ask you: Are you aware of any classicists who try to determine which words Socrates really spoke and which ones were merely attributed to him by Plato? If there are, do they use techniques that are in any way similar to the ones that historical Jesus scholars use to determine what Jesus really said?

    Assuming that there really was a Galilean itinerant preacher named Jesus early in the first century, I would view the words contained in documents written late in the first century as at best their authors’ understanding of that preacher’s message. I wouldn’t imagine that techniques like Casey’s could actually tell me which words Jesus really spoke. Are such practices really common among scholars of ancient history?

  2. Of course not! 🙂 I spent a full year studying the classical period of Greece in some depth and learned a lot about the writings of Plato (and Aristophanes) and recall poring through Socratic dialogues and reading scholarly literature about the various nuances of meanings of certain key words used in them and the complexities of some of their arguments, etc etc, and about the historical and literary function of Socrates. This was at the University of Queensland, certainly far from an intellectual backwater. Afterwards I taught ancient history to senior students for a number of years and kept up with some of the literature at the time. Never once was it ever contemplated by any professor or tutor I knew or scholar I read that the original words or teachings of Socrates could ever be recovered.

    Rather, Socrates was understood first and last to have been a literary mouthpiece for Plato’s own views. It was a literary custom to place one’s own words in the mouth of another, one sometimes considered a superior or a teacher, in order to present them with a greater authority. We see the same thing in the Bible. As Homer prayed to the Muses to inspire his memory and words, so some OT authors attribute their words to God himself; we know persons unknown wrote in the name of Peter and Paul to give their words authority.

    In other words, Socrates and the sources for Socrates were understood within the context of the literary practices of the day. It was well understood that we would be misusing the sources — misunderstanding their nature and the intents of their authors — if we attempted to find or reconstruct from them some “historical Socrates”. Anyone attempting to do so, I imagine, would have been thought nuts.

    I do recall the possibility being raised in my classes that there was no historical Socrates, but that question interested no-one seriously since it hardly mattered to what happened in history — that Greece produced Plato and the philosophical movements that ensued. If not Socrates, then someone else or a number of now-lost “sophist” names — no matter. The question was irrelevant, nothing more than a passing curiosity.

    We also looked at the political situation of the day and this involved the trial of Socrates. But if and when we discussed the trial it was only as part of a number of other factors that demonstrated to historians the way Athenian politics and society developed.

    1. Student: “I’m wondering if Socrates never actually existed and was simply Plato’s ventriloquist’s dummy.”

      Prof. of Ancient History: “Yes, we all have wondered that from time to time. Maybe you should write a paper.”

      Student: “I’m wondering if Jesus never actually existed and was simply an early Christian ventriloquist’s dummy.”

      Prof. of NT Studies: “Only an idiot would say that. Do you deny the Holocaust, too?”

    What I invite mythicists to do then is approach the evidence for that figure in the same way they do the evidence for the existence of Jesus

    You mean, get very early members of that person’s fan club to write letters to other members of that person’s fan club, explaining how that person was the agent through whom God created the world and go through the letters pointing out the enormous volume of places where we would expect that person to have actually done something worthy of being discussed in those letters?

    Has McGrath actually read Doherty’s book?

    Perhaps McGrath could find another case in history where Jews started to believe that a recently crucified criminal was the agent through whom God created the world?

  4. Why is McGrath always coming up? If he seemed at all rational, I could understand it. I find it more interesting that people like Ehrman and Loftus, who reject belief in deities, still feel convinced that there was a person behind the mythical tales about Jesus. What makes it so difficult for a former theologian and a former preacher to consider, in view of the way that rumors can be recycled and elaborated upon today, that the stories of Jesus might be nothing more than that sort of thing and that there wouldn’t have needed to be a real person behind the stories. Would it seem a step to far if they were to suggest that there may not have been a real person behind any of the stories?

    1. Bob,

      I spent most of my adult life believing that there was a historical Jesus while teetering on the fence between liberal Christianity and agnosticism. It wasn’t until I started reading Ehrman’s stuff that I realized how problematic the source material really was for the historical Jesus. It was his work that led me to the conclusion that the historical Jesus may have been so thoroughly mythologized that there may in fact be nothing we can know about him with any certainty. From what I can tell, the minimalist position is considered perfectly respectable among liberal scholars.

      It seems to me to be a very tiny step from minimalism to mythicism. I.e., if there is nothing we can know with certainty about Jesus, why should we think that we can know with certainty that he existed? Nevertheless, to many scholars who study the historical Jesus, it seems that taking that step crosses a line from respectable sanity to raving lunacy. I consider myself an agnostic or minimalist when it comes to the historical Jesus, however, I cannot see why the hypothesis that Jesus is entirely mythical should be any less respectable than any other reconstruction of Christian origins.

      1. Vinny,

        We are all shaped by the interaction of our genes with our environments, and while some prefer to play down the importance of environmental factors, I do not; I believe, as did Mark Twain, that there is no such thing as free will. Instead of genes and environment, Twain saw it as temperament and circumstance, and he wrote an essay discussing them titled The Turning Point of My Life. His point was that there wasn’t a turning point but instead an unending chain of turning points that began long before he was born and continued throughout his life and that even minute changes in any of them could have resulted in his being entirely different than he was. If circumstances hadn’t caused me to shift from engineering to biology, I wouldn’t be living where I do now, wouldn’t have married the person I did, and would probably still be going to church. Given that several people in my family tree were Protestant preachers, I suppose I could also have been a victim of that blight. So I wouldn’t blame McGrath for what he is; it simply isn’t his fault. Had he wound up being a biologist, he would likely not have the religious beliefs he now does. In Ehrman’s case, it isn’t hard to imagine there being environmental constraints favoring retention of a belief in an historical Jesus relating to the need to keep peace in the home (his wife remains steadfastly Episcopalian) and work environments (most of his university colleagues and students are religious). The constraints in Loftus’ case seem less clear, but perhaps there is an unconscious need to remain on good terms with others like himself who have left the ministry but yet feel it unthinkable to doubt the historicity of Jesus. It seems possible that someone could produce evidence proving that there had been an historical Jesus, but nobody is ever going to be able to prove that there wasn’t an historical Jesus. Hoping to see the evidence fairly and rationally evaluated doesn’t make one a mythicist.

  5. That’s kind of ironic, Bob, since Ehrman actually believes in a historical figure named Jesus Christ. I do as well, but if you want my take on the whole thing, I describe why I think the New Testament is unreliable, even if we could take it at face value, by comparing it to the historical mess that surrounds Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy Assassination.


    1. I think that Ehrman’s work is exceptional. I think that he always is very clear about the nature of the evidence that supports his conclusions and he avoids claiming unwarranted degrees of certainty.

  6. For a more radical assessment of the historicity of Jesus, please read the book ‘Jesus, King of Edessa’.

    This book traces the links between Jesus and a king of Edessa (Manu VI), and concludes that they were the same person. Why? For many reasons, including that they were both were Nazarene Jews, royal princes, revolutionaries, ‘persecuted’ by the Romans, and wrote letters to Edessa. In addition they both:
    a. Had the same names.
    b. Wore a Crown of Thorns.


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