What is it about the mythicism that inspires the following sorts of venom and outlandish accusations?
- Amazing how these kooks all sound alike. (comparing mythicism with intelligent design and holocaust denial) (http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/07/27/mythicism-and-peer-review/#comment-279858598)
- while you don’t seem like a Neo-Nazi, you are as stupid and dishonest as one. (http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/07/27/mythicism-and-peer-review/#comment-279798340)
- you expect people to take your kooky imaginings seriously and honestly think your rejection by the academy is because they can’t handle your wonderfulness. (http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/07/27/mythicism-and-peer-review/#comment-278526746)
- Mytherists are compelled to reject the scholarly consensus in a range of fields in order to privilege their position. So we can expect them to follow Doherty on the issue of Jesus, we can expect them to reject the standard professional lexicons, we can expect them to take Thompson’s view of Israel’s history, and naturally we can expect them to accept DM Murdock’s claims concerning a global civilization of genius pygmies. It is also no surprise when we find Mytherists claming vaccinations are of no use, questioning germ theory, and doubting that HIV causes AIDS. (http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/07/14/review-of-earl-dohertys-jesus-neither-god-nor-man-chapter-8/#comment-279752483)
- This is tantamount to would-be book burning aimed at whole schools of historical research. It is growing quite terrifying, frankly, . . . . It is no exaggeration to suggest that, if unchallenged, this profoundly anti-intellectual outlook against most modern serious historians and scholars of the ancient world might soon imperil freedom of inquiry way beyond the parameters of the online world. (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/23512)
- Giving credence to the Jesus Myth is no different then giving credence to holocaust denial . . . . someone who defends minimalism and mytherism has an extreme chip on his shoulder to the subject in question no matter how much they protest to the contrary. (http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/07/14/review-of-earl-dohertys-jesus-neither-god-nor-man-chapter-8/#comment-280066941)
I can read rational, evidence-based rebuttals of holocaust denial, psychic powers, creationism, etc.
I am reminded of why I left Christianity and belief in the Bible. The more I searched for answers the more I realized that there were no rational, evidence-based answers.
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116 thoughts on “Fear of mythicism?”
Thanks for posting this. I have shared a brief reflection sparked by this post over at Exploring Our Matrix, and would appreciate your input.
I post here one of my responses to James’ reflections, which I do not doubt are well meaning:
Is it instructive that a response to hostility and bigotry against mythicism should focus on something of a Christian’s “psychoanalysis” of one who left Christianity and favours certain mythicist arguments?
Is not this a little like the way dissidents somewhere were once taken away by the mental health squad for treatment? All very well meaning, of course.
Speaking of psychoanalysis, Neil, that Burke guy over on Cakemix thinks he understands how your mind works, even though he couldn’t pick you out of a lineup.
He writes: “Neil’s explicit linking of belief in the historical Jesus to belief in Christianity, shows what’s underlying his entire position. Having rejected Christianity, he found it necessary to reject the historicity of Jesus, and it appears that rejection is now so entrenched in his rejection of Christianity that he fears it would undermine his atheism.”
Why do they always do that? It isn’t enough to say they disagree with you or explain where you’re wrong. No, they have to add psychology to their list of poorly applied sciences. Look, I’ve been an atheist for the past 35 years. I was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a Jew from Galilee who was probably a misguided apocalyptic prophet. It wasn’t until about 5 or 6 years ago that I had even heard of mythicism.
I remain curious about mythicism for the same reason I’m curious about minimalism and Margaret Barker’s theories. They’re entirely new paradigms. They look at the evidence and rearrange the pieces in entirely new ways. They answer questions that have gnawed at the back of my brain for decades. If they happen not to be in the mainstream, I don’t care.
What can we say about people who always want to find ulterior motives for others’ actions? Is it projection? Or is it just a bad habit that nobody had the heart to tell them is impolite and makes them look stupid? Hell if I know.
Having already commented on my blog I won’t repeat what I said there here as well – I suspect it would get confusing trying to have the same conversation twice in parallel. But I will say that I think you have missed the point of my analogy, which is that those who are insiders to fringe views are persuaded that they are being rational, and are persuaded that evidence presented for mainstream conclusions are inadequate. And so I know that you may see the differences between evolution denial, global warming denial, holocaust denial and Historical Jesus denial. But to someone who is an outsider to all of those viewpoints, they seem very similar. But even that is not the point – the point is that, if someone is persuaded of a fringe viewpoint, it is unclear that evidence alone could ever persuade them otherwise, and so the question I am really interested in is what else is required to persuade someone to move from fringe to mainstream, in any of these fields of inquiry.
‘the point is that, if someone is persuaded of a fringe viewpoint, it is unclear that evidence alone could ever persuade them otherwise,’
McGrath knows perfectly well that a mythicist like GA Wells was persuaded that there had been a historical figure behind Q.
But mere evidence is not sufficient to persuade McGrath out of his viewpoint that mythicists are incapable of being persuaded otherwise. The established fact that this can and does happen is not enough to convince McGrath that this can and does happen.
This is a well known feature of projection. McGrath is not persuaded by evidence of mythicists changing viewpoints and so claims evidence cannot persuade mythicists to change viewpoints.
But who was Jesus? What defined the identity and ministry of Jesus?
Craig Evans says ‘Moreover, the idea of a Messiah figure, whose appearance brings healing, resurrection of the dead, and good news for the poor—concepts that define the identity and ministry of Jesus—is now attested in 4Q521.’
Concepts which defined the identity and ministry of Jesus are attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but not in the very earliest Christians writings. Jesus resurrects nobody in any Epistle….
It is hardly a fringe viewpoint that the earliest Christian writings do not have concepts which defined the identity and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. They have concepts which define the Jesus who was the radiance of God’s glory and the agent through whom the world was created.
Why is it a fringe viewpoint to wonder if epistles which have those concepts but lack the concepts which ‘define the identity and ministry’ of Jesus of Nazareth are talking about the same Jesus?
Concepts which define the identity and ministry of Jesus are first attested to in an anonymous, unprovenanced work, full of methodologies borrowed from midrash , and lacking any kind of attestation even among 1st century Christians writing to each other.
Why the hostility to people who wonder what the hell was going on?
James wrote: “I think you have missed the point of my analogy, which is that those who are insiders to fringe views are persuaded that they are being rational, and are persuaded that evidence presented for mainstream conclusions are inadequate.”
Neil: This is a meaningless analogy. Everyone is persuaded they are being rational whether it is to do with a mainstream or minority position, and are equally persuaded for the alternative is inadequate. That is just a truism. No-one — whether a fringer or a mainstreamer — ever thinks they are being irrational or that the evidence against what they believe is adequate to make them change their minds.
So this is a meaningless basis for comparison.
The comparison of Jesus mythicism to creationism / holocaust denial / whatever is part of a verbal judo strategy on the part of Christian apologists. It has no meaning. It is just a tactic to throw you off balance, and get you to react emotionally. When I read these painful threads, I know I did the right thing by just banning the comparison on FRDB.
The real fringe viewpoint here is the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. It is part of the apologists’ misdirection to pretend that the evidence for the existence of Jesus is in the same ballpark as, or in any way comparable to the evidence for evolution, global warming, or the existence of the Holocaust.
As for McGrath’s question, it is quite clear that any smidgeon of real evidence for a historical Jesus would swing the balance in favor of historicism. I am not committed to mythicism, and see no reason to really care if there were a historical Jesus or not. But I personally spent some time trying to find any real historicist case for the existence of Jesus, and it’s not there. McGrath seems to know how scholarship is supposed to work, and he assumes that his colleagues who claim that the case for a historical Jesus is sound have done their work. They haven’t.
Yawn . I am agnostic and have been so for over a decade. I have no problem comparing Jesus Mythicism to creationism and holocaust denial. Trash is trash after all. Kooks are kooks no matter who they argue for. Ideological driven garbage is ideological driven garbage.
I imagine Kris is fully aware of the NT scholars, who, according to Tom Verenna are agnostic about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
All kooks, according to Kris, who thinks abuse is a perfectly acceptable alternative to producing evidence.
And these unnamed scholars are Steve? However in any profession you have some people even if they have relevant degrees are still considered kooks. For example David Irving and Duane Gish. Creationism is not equal to evolution because a few biologist do not accept it. Mytherism is not equal to the historical Jesus just because a few scholars do not accept Jesus existed. Do you think holocaust denial is the equal to the view that the holocaust is a fact simply cause David Irving does not accept it? In academia the consensus carries far more weight then the mavericks.
‘And these unnamed scholars are Steve?’
I have no idea.I am just relaying Tom Verenna’s comments.
‘ ‘I know several of my professors were agnostic about the question. But it is just not something you write on. Why would you? As Vinny remarks aptly, there just is no reason to write a paper entitled ‘I don’t know’. You write on things you do know, or think you know, whether or not it be on intertextuality or genre or anthropology or some other field. There is no ‘Agnostic Jesus’ field. Maybe one day that will change. I imagine those scholars who write critically about the Gospels, particularly literary critics, are most likely agnostic.’
I’m sure Tom will relay to them your message that they are kooks.
I can’t, because I do not know who they are.
So we have no idea who these professors are so they could all be dare I say it myths. I do find it odd you accept their existence with such little evidence though, surely they should be considered mythical figures unless we produce a few primary sources. At least scientist who are creationist are bold enough to do it for everyone to see. However just because a few scholars deny the existence of Jesus no more makes this view academically valid then holocaust denial which is supported by a few historians. Your side always forgets it is not the only fringe view trying to assault academia.
‘ But I personally spent some time trying to find any real historicist case for the existence of Jesus, and it’s not there’
Tom Verenna surprised me greatly by claiming ‘I know several of my professors were agnostic about the question. But it is just not something you write on. Why would you? As Vinny remarks aptly, there just is no reason to write a paper entitled ‘I don’t know’. You write on things you do know, or think you know, whether or not it be on intertextuality or genre or anthropology or some other field. There is no ‘Agnostic Jesus’ field. Maybe one day that will change. I imagine those scholars who write critically about the Gospels, particularly literary critics, are most likely agnostic.’
According to Verenna, these people are scholars who write critically about the Gospels, and simply don’t know whether or not Jesus of Nazareth existed.
Does McGrath know people were are agnostic on the historicity of the Holocaust, as he loves to claim that denying the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth/Bethlehem/Capernaum (delete as approriate) is like denying the Holocaust?
McGrath: “differences between evolution denial, global warming denial, holocaust denial and Historical Jesus denial”
There is also a false grouping here. Denial of evolution, global warming or the holocaust is denial of a concept that is directly and explicitly addressed or advocated by “the other side”.
But no-one directly and explicitly advocates the historical existence of Jesus — well certainly no major institution does. Churches advocate belief in Jesus, and biblical scholars advocate various interpretations of his life. But who is actually advocating “Jesus was historical”?
There is no “historical Jesus advocacy” to deny. The only advocacy comes in response to questioning of assumptions and problems acknowledged with the evidence among scholars themselves.
To label everyone who leans towards Jesus mythicism is as meaningless as bracketing Francesco Carotta and Earl Doherty together, or in associating Dan Brown and John Allegro with Dale Allison or Bruce Chilton as Jesus historicists. They have nothing in common the same way holocaust and evolution deniers have a system of belief in common.
I must say that I am surprised that anyone would think that historical Jesus study is a form of or in service of apologetics. Conservative religious believers think it is an attack on their faith, and Christians who are also historical Jesus scholars, while not immune from reading their prior beliefs and assumptions onto Jesus any more than anyone else, regularly draw conclusions that are at odds with what they hoped to find and what Christian dogma led them to find.
I am sure that apologists quote selectively from historians and mainstream scholars when it suits them. Anyone can do that. But what actual historians and mainstream scholars of antiquity write about the historical Jesus cannot easily be said to be an attempt to support Christianity, since its conclusions are at odds with what Christians have wanted to believe about Jesus for most of the past two millennia.
The study of the historical Jesus is not a branch of apologetics, but the claim that mythicism is comparable to creationism is an apologetic argument. Do you see the difference? Apologists keep using the creationism analogy to avoid any discussion of the actual evidence for a historical Jesus. Like William Lane Craig, they can just make a hand wave at some presumed expert consensus without actually getting into the messy details which do not actually support their theology.
The Christian apologists that I have dealt with seem to think that if you can just accept the idea that Jesus existed, you will go on to accept that Jesus was the son of god and resurrected from the dead, but that if Jesus never existed, Christianity will have to fold. I don’t think this is true, since i know of Christian mythicists, but that seems to be how Christian apologists tend to think – at least at this point in time. (In the early centuries of Christianity it was the reverse. The opponents of Christianity argued that Jesus was a mere man, born of a fallen woman, who just died on the cross, while Christianity included believers who thought that Jesus was a spirit.)
The historical Jesus theories that I have read resemble creationism more than evolution. Like creationists, they assume that there must be some truth in the Bible, and they assume that Christianity must have been created and could not have evolved.
But what actual historians and mainstream scholars of antiquity write about the historical Jesus cannot easily be said to be an attempt to support Christianity, since its conclusions are at odds with what Christians have wanted to believe about Jesus for most of the past two millennia.
‘But what actual historians and mainstream scholars of antiquity write about the historical Jesus cannot easily be said to support confidence in their ability to examine anonymous, unprovenanced works, since every historians conclusion is at odds with every other historians believe about Jesus.’
It has often been observed that each researcher into the Historical Jesus finds a Jesus that reflects the researcher.
if only McGrath could explain why a crucified criminal became the radiance of God’s glory, upholding the universe by the word of his power, while leaving so little impression on Christians that they had to turn to the Old Testament to construct episodes in his life.
Toto, I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t help but wonder who or what you have been reading. The detailed monographs in the realm of historical Jesus studies typically bring the whole arsenal of critical tools to bear on the question of whether a particular detail or saying is likely to be historical, rather than assuming anything. The confidence that more general works on the study of the historical Jesus express is based on the fact that there are some events and sayings which still appear to be authentic even after such critical scrutiny,
Those “critical tools” all seem to be based on the personal incredulity of the author that anyone would have made things up. I don’t know of any of these critical tools that have been validated against actual known history. And all of the studies of whether a particular saying is likely to be historical seem to assume that there was a historical Jesus. If you know of any exceptions to this, I would like to know about them. You are registered at FRDB – you can start a thread there and lay out the evidence, if you are willing to talk about history and not insult other posters with comparisons to creationism.
I don’t think the actual assumption is that there was a historical Jesus, but the assumption seems to be much more granular; that we have a model of what this historical Jesus was supposed to be like. In other words, we can only find “authentic” sayings of Jesus if we assume that the historical Jesus was actually some sort of wandering preacher.
Assuming our models of Jesus is why we have so many historical Jesus recreations to choose from: wandering cynic, apocalyptic preacher, Jewish rabbi, ascetic nazirite, revolutionary, etc. Is it the correct methodology to assume a particular model of Jesus and then look for confirmation of this model in the gospel narratives? Doherty’s is just another model that looks and sifts for confirmation among the pile of scant evidence.
At the most, we might be able to say that so-and-so saying goes back to an earlier – or earliest – layer of Christian tradition. But then there’s a leap that’s made, from “earliest tradition” to “words of Jesus”. I cannot see how this leap can be made other than relying on the assumption of a wandering, preaching Jesus. Maybe there was a historical Jesus but he wasn’t any sort of preacher with students? That would make sense of Paul and other early epistle writers, at least.
The detailed monographs in the realm of historical Jesus studies typically bring the whole arsenal of critical tools to bear on the question of whether a particular detail or saying is likely to be historical, rather than assuming anything.
These ‘detailed monographs’ have crashed and burned so badly that there are now books
documenting the failures of these methods to find anything that everybody agrees was historical.
Meanwhile, it is like shooting fish in a barrel to find things in the Gospels which are borrowed , adapated and plagiarised from the Old Testament, almost as though the Gospel writers were not constrained by any oral tradition about any historical Jesus. They could change things at will and adapt any Old Testament story that they thought they could adapt.
And McGrath repeatedly ducks out of any challenge to show where these critical methods have ever produced something historical from anonymous , unprovenanced works about other ancient figures.
In no controversy listed above does the debate center so much on meta-topics about the debate rather than the debate itself as it does in this topic. This in and of itself is odd, but what is more odd is the amount of time spent during arguments about this topic by proponents of the consensus linking disbelief in it to other fringe beliefs. Certainly there are fringe beliefs about many topics. But the biggest “fringe belief” not supported by peer reviewed scholarship is that God became a man and was resurrected. Yet historical Jesus advocates spend almost no time debunking this idea. It is more important in their eyes to establish that Jesus is not a merely literary figure than to disabuse believers of any of their cherished ideas.
Toto, I don’t understand your claim that historians and scholar’s proceed under the assumption that Jesus existed. How would one evaluate the historicity of an ancient figure mentioned in a text, other than by assessing the likelihood of the authenticity of the contents?
As for the question of personal incredulity, such arguments are inevitably subjective. But when one has collective incredulity on the part of those who study antiquity, that something simply doesn’t make sense against the backdrop of a particular time, not only should that count for something, but it is a fairly common sort of historical argument. Again, it seems as though historical investigation is being treated as though it involves objective laboratory analyses rather than the judgment of investigators. The same is true of criminology and other types of deductive investigation, and I do not find them to be worthless, as long as criteria of evidence and principles of deductive reasoning have been clearly articulated.
“How would one evaluate the historicity of an ancient figure mentioned in a text, other than by assessing the likelihood of the authenticity of the contents? ”
One would look for corroborating evidence in the form of archaeology, coins, monuments, etc. I have noticed that if there is only textual evidence, and that text is highly mythologized, historians will usually say that the literary figure in question might be purely mythical, or that the myth might have a historical core, and leave things at that, admitting that the question of historicity is not certain or not knowable. As Robert Price once wrote, if there was a historical Jesus, there is no more.
Do you have other examples of historians basing conclusions on their collective incredulity? Does this even make sense in a field dominated by Christians who are not noted for skepticism, some of whom explicitly reject a hermeneutics of suspicion? For a long time, a standard argument going back to Sherwin White was that the gospels must contain some history because there was insufficient time for enough legendary development. That argument has not stood up, as historians have produced multiple examples of legends arising in very short periods of time. The criterion of embarrassment has not stood up to examination, but it is still mentioned with respect by these experts.
No one expects ancient history to be as certain as, say, analytical chemistry. But then we should not be as certain about expert conclusions as we are about basic science. Most of the experts may think that a historical Jesus fits the evidence that they have, but that doesn’t mean that historicity is beyond questioning, as it is with well established scientific theories.
If you see any similarity between the arguments of mythicists and creationists, it is because creationists try to mimic the arguments of fields where there is genuine uncertainty. But we know that creationists lie about this, and other matters.
I have interacted with Steven Carr before, and yet he keeps repeating the same things. Your recent error resulting from challenging someone about the Greek text based in what another blogger had posted, and then having to admit that you didn’t know what you were talking about, must have been embarrassing, but apparently it hasn’t tempered your willingness to make false claims or repeat things that have been addressed before as though I hadn’t. I invite anyone interested to take a look at my blog(s) and review the history of my attempts to interact with you reasonably, in spite of mounting evidence that that would be a fruitless exercise.
James quite forgets to point out that it was Tom Verenna who complained that James was using bad translations, and that somehow I was wrong to rely on what established scholars said.
Does he think people do not notice him not pointing out who this ‘blogger’ was that I was rather hoping knew what he was talking about?
Lesson learned, just as James said. Never rely on expert authority. They are often wrong. A lesson there for all who think that scholars in a field should be trusted. I certainly won’t make the mistake of trusting scholars that McGrath interacts with again, without checking. It was embarrassing relying on a scholar McGrath thinks highly of. I got my fingers burned, just like James said.
Meanwhile McGrath noticeably ducked once more the challenge to to show where these critical methods have ever produced something historical from anonymous , unprovenanced works about other ancient figures.
Does he think people do not notice him ducking challenges? He ducks them too blatantly for people not to notice.
Toto, historians do not limit themselves to the sorts of influential people – Kings, emperors, high priests and wealthy benefactors – of the sort who left behind inscriptions and coins. The try to render a judgment about the historicity of figures like John the Baptist, Hillel, Socrates and others known only from texts. Are you suggesting that in such cases, because of the lack of non-textual evidence, the figures in question should be considered more likely non-historical?
I agree with you that the appropriate stance if there is inadequate evidence is to acknowledge that we do not know whether a figure existed, rather than claiming that they most likely did not, as some mythicists are prone to.
I do not find that the field of history is dominated by Christians.
I see McGrath reaches for his Socrates , JtB and Hillel cards, which rather backfires on him, as real historians concede at once that we cannot know what Socrates or John the Baptist or Hillel really said.
Yet somehow, McGrath thinks True Historians can sift out what Jesus really did say.
How come historians are not sending McGrath emails asking him to apply his methods to help them out in finding out what Socrates said?
These people need your help, James. They lack your training in these criteria. Don’t be shy about applying your Jesus methodology to Socrates and revolutionising history.
After all, your methodology for determining what Jesus said must work for the people you yourself claim are analogous, musn’t they? It is not like they are fallacious methods which historians of Socrates would laugh at…..
“The[y] try to render a judgment about the historicity of figures like John the Baptist, Hillel, Socrates and others known only from texts. Are you suggesting that in such cases, because of the lack of non-textual evidence, the figures in question should be considered more likely non-historical? ”
No, I suggest that historians don’t waste a lot of time trying to establish that they were or were not historical.
“I agree with you that the appropriate stance if there is inadequate evidence is to acknowledge that we do not know whether a figure existed, rather than claiming that they most likely did not, as some mythicists are prone to.”
Are you willing to apply this standard to those who claim that Jesus certainly did exist? I don’t get where you are coming from. Everything I have read from you has indicates that you are dogmatically certain that Jesus existed. And if the evidence is inadequate, one might still decide that a figure most likely did or did not exist – as long as one acknowledges the uncertainty. And if you acknowledge the uncertainty of the question, you will not call your opponents pseudoscientists.
.”I do not find that the field of history is dominated by Christians.”
You misread me. I was referring to the field of Historical Jesus studies, which I do not confuse with the field of history.
McGrath wrote: “But what actual historians and mainstream scholars of antiquity write about the historical Jesus cannot easily be said to be an attempt to support Christianity, since its conclusions are at odds with what Christians have wanted to believe about Jesus for most of the past two millennia.”
This argument is easily dismantled. Churches are always talking about what they must do, how Christianity must change, adapt, to survive. It is almost a truism that scholars have found the historical Jesus that matches their respective images or interests. The more educated of the faithful do not want the Jesus of the past but they want a Jesus compatible with their sophisticated understanding of the world.
There are many Jesus’s and always have been. Like supermarket brands, there’s always one on the shelf meant just for you.
Toto, you can’t have read much of what I have written. I have said on countless occasions that there will always by definition be uncertainty about whether jEsus existed, because historical study doesn’t provide certainty. And while I think the existence of a historical Jesus is probable, I can respectfully disagree with those who adopt a principled agnosticism because they set the bar of evidence higher. What I have disagreed with has always only been the mythicists who offer implausible interpretations of early Christian documents in an attempt to claim that it is more likely, and makes best sense of our earliest evidence, that Jesus was a purely mythical figure.
So absolutely nothing in the writings of Paul gives us certainty that Jesus existed? (. . . brother of the Lord? born of woman? descendant of David?)
What possible analogy could this be to creationism? You feel that it is perfectly acceptable to say that there is enough evidence to be certain that there was a historical Jesus. You now claim that it is perfectly acceptable to be unsure whether or not there was a historical Jesus. But it is not acceptable to say that Jesus is likely entirely literary/mythical/fictional. How is the third belief completely crazy while the second belief is totally sober?
And while I think the existence of a historical Jesus is probable, I can respectfully disagree with those who adopt a principled agnosticism because they set the bar of evidence higher.
Both the natural sciences and historical study draw conclusions which can be said to be “beyond reasonable doubt”
Does anybody know what position this guy has?
Is the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, beyond reasonable doubt or what?
In the case of someone ancient, it is far easier to doubt: just do all the things mythicists do with Jesus, noting the late date of our copies
I know where he is coming from now. He is incapable of doing anything other than distorting the views of people he detests. He does it as automatically as blinking.
Meanwhile, he continually ducks repeated challenges to apply his well-honed Biblical criteria to tell us what Socrates really did say.
McGrath claims to be a world expert on using criteria to assess historicity, with a vast crowd of scholars backing up his expertise.
It is not as though the Emperor has No Clothes.
And yet he repeatedly ducks challenges to show us his tailoring skills.
Neil, that is indeed James’s viewpoint.
James McGrath can read a passage in Paul like Romans 13, where the Roman authorities are said to be God’s agents sent to punish wrongdoers, and who hold no terror for the innocent, and who do not bear the sword for nothing and agree with you that this passage does not give us any certainty that the Romans crucified the Son of God.
I imagine if we read Jews in 1955 claiming that Hitler had been God’s agent, sent to punish wrongdoers, that would also provide no certainty that the Holocaust happened.
Mythicism and Holocaust-denial have so much in common 🙂
Apparently not everyone has paid close attention to points I have made about the differences between the natural sciences and history. The latter does not deliver the degree of certainty that the former does – there is no laboratory test that can provide a result showing that X did or didn’t happen in the past. the point of comparison between creationism and mythicism, as I have always said, is (1) the ignoring of mainstream scholarship, (2) the claim to know better than unanimous experts, and (3) the offering of what is made to look like a scholarly argument, but isn’t when looked at closely, in support of a viewpoint that experts in the field have good reason to find implausible.
James, I still don’t think I understand your earlier comment, “I have said on countless occasions that there will always by definition be uncertainty about whether jEsus existed, because historical study doesn’t provide certainty.”
What do you mean by this, exactly? Do you mean that any historical study by definition will always leave us with uncertainty about the existence of historical persons? So does that mean that by definition we have some level of uncertainty that Churchill existed or that Julius Caesar existed or George Washington — by definition?
Two more questions for clarification:
1. Do you mean to say that “the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians (or any other passage you name) does not give us certainty that Jesus existed — by definition given that this is a historical text?
2. But if mainstream scholarship and the unanimous opinion of experts all conclude that the passage supports the historicity of Jesus, do they also mean to imply that their conclusions, by definition, can never be absolutely certain? Or does their weight of opinion actually remove any uncertainty after all?
Historical study deals in probabilities. When dealing with a figure in living memory, perhaps the most that one could doubt is that the person who became famous was THE Winston Churchill and not a lookalike (think Paul McCartney). In the case of someone ancient, it is far easier to doubt: just do all the things mythicists do with Jesus, noting the late date of our copies, noting other possible interpretations of data, suggesting that the figure was in fact a celestial or symbolic figurehead. Those might not be considered reasonable doubts, but they would be doubts nonetheless, and as long as doubt is possible, certainty is not.
This is why I spend so much time discussing these subjects. Although it is much easier to doubt the existence of a figure known only from texts, the same methods can be used to cast doubt upon just about anything, And so establishing clear criteria for reasonable belief and deductive reasoning are crucial.
I am still unclear, James. My understanding of historical method leaves no doubt at all about the historicity — the fact — that there was a major war in the 1940s and that Churchill led Britain at that time. There is nothing “probable” about these things. There is no measure of uncertainty. The sort of uncertainty you refer to is identifying a person from a lineup. But there is no uncertainty at all about the fact that Churchill was a historical figure.
I don’t think you really mean to say that there is any uncertainty about this, do you?
So if not, then when you say historical study does not provide certainty — by definition — you do not mean that to apply to the facts of known events and persons, do you? You perhaps mean it to apply to less obvious details about those events and person, such as how many cigars Churchill smoked a day, etc.
Do you only mean that in the study of ancient times we have uncertainty about such things? So do you say, by the definition of historical study, that there is a measure of uncertainty about the existence of Julius Caesar? If not, why not? If so, where does that uncertainty lie, exactly?
It might be best to leave aside the recent past as not quite analogous to dealing with ancient times, although I do not see how, when people find it possible to deny the Holocaust, you consider it impossible that anyone could deny the existence of a single individual from the same period. You might want to say that one cannot deny Churchill’s existence reasonably, and I would agree, but that is the heart of the matter: where is the dividing line between reasonable and unreasonable doubt.
As for Julius Caesar, it would not be nearly as hard to me a Caesar mythicist. The references to “Caesar” on coins referred to a spiritual ruler, who was only later turned into a historical one. They even wrote things in his name, but can we be 100% certain that they are not later forgeries. Is it not wrong, says the mythicist, to trust the judgment of experts who tell us that these sources are both ancient and reliable, and who tell us the dates for various artifacts?
It is not harder to be a Caesar mythicist than a Jesus mythicist, and it involves employing many of the same strategies.
That said, I believe that we can draw sufficiently confident conclusions nevertheless, using our deductive reasoning and evaluating probabilities. Just as we do with evolution as well, because it is not strictly speaking that some malicious and deceptive deity created a universe that looks ancient and implanted evidence for evolution to toy with us. It is just very, very improbable.
I would not have thought that any of this would be controversial, since current authors on history, including some of the more recent works on methodology in historical Jesus studies, effect this postmodern perspective on knowledge. Some are of course far more skeptical than I am that we can know anything with confidence, but few continue to embrace a positivist approach.
Sorry, James, but I am still confused about what you mean when you say history is different from the hard sciences because there will always be uncertainty — by definition — about anything subject to historical study. Is that a correct formulation of what you are saying? Is that something you take as a basic truism? (I ask, because it is not how I would describe history. But it is important that I understand you if I am to engage seriously with your views.)
You seem to say that even the existence of Churchill is subject to uncertainty — by definition — because “historical study doesn’t provide certainty”. Is that correct? But you also qualify that by saying that it would be unreasonable for someone to deny the historicity of Churchill, and that there is a dividing line between unreasonable and reasonable doubt.
This is my problem with your understanding of the nature of history. Is it not always possible — in every field, hard sciences included — to have unreasonable doubts. Flat earthers, for example. (I don’t think I know any but I hear they exist.)
But a major reason for your saying that there is uncertainty by definition in historical studies was to distinguish these studies from the hard sciences. If you only meant to say that one can entertain unreasonable uncertainty in some cases, then you have not explained how history is any different from hard sciences. Anyone can have unreasonable uncertainties about anything.
So is that what you mean when you explain the nature of history? Do you mean to say that there are some historical topics in which there is for every reasonable person no uncertainty at all about some things?
(If so, I would agree.)
But much of the rest of your response — in relation to Julius Caesar — was not helping me understand where you are coming from. You were mostly telling me what you think “mythicists” would say or think. Can you tell me what you think, that’s what I want to understand.
(Yes, I know about postmodernism. But postmodernism doesn’t really deny that some things happened and some people lived in the past — I think it is more about how we conceptualize, evaluate and label those things and people. That’s a subtopic.)
Maybe I should just try to be more succinct.
I think that it is possible in theory to doubt anything (except presumably one’s own existence). If one is willing to posit a Matrix-like scenario then anything is possible, and some take that route.
The natural sciences do not provide absolute certainty, but because of repeatability many conclusions can be demonstrated so as to provide a higher degree of certainty than historical study can, as a rule, provide.
Both the natural sciences and historical study draw conclusions which can be said to be “beyond reasonable doubt” – not because new evidence could not overturn them, or because they provide absolute proof, but because they provide a conclusion which can only be avoided, working from the available evidence, by either being unreasonably skeptical or inconsistent.
Does that clarify where I am coming from? I have always said, it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed. But I do think it is unreasonable to treat the claims of Earl Doherty, for instance, as more likely to be correct than those of mainstream historical inquiry. The interpretations he offers are at the best of times possible, and often extremely unlikely. And so they do show it is possible to doubt, but they do not justify drawing the conclusion that Jesus was more likely originally thought of as a purely celestial figure, rather than an increasingly-mythologized human being.
Yet the earliest Christian source, according to the standard paradigm, is one of the epistles of Paul. In these, Jesus is explicitly described as not being a man, his body is made of Christians and he was present at the Exodus in the form of a rock. How does this fit an increasingly mythologized human being?
How does this fit an increasingly mythologized human being?
The author of Hebrews writes ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. ‘
But McGrath will be along to explain that at that period Jesus was thought of as a man, and then became increasingly mythologised…..
I think we are making progress, or at least I think I am beginning to understand your position a little more clearly. But there are still points that are not clear.
1. You wrote. “Both the natural sciences and historical study draw conclusions which can be said to be “beyond reasonable doubt””
I can understand that statement as it applies to the natural sciences and of course agree with it. But we still seem to be at cross purposes about the very nature of history. When you say “historical study draws conclusions which can be said to be beyond reasonable doubt”, I am having a hard time thinking of a concrete example of this.
Here is my understanding of history and why I have a problem with your statement. All the conclusions that historians draw from their studies are, from my experience, interpretations of the evidence. As far as I am aware no historian “draws the conclusion” that Churchill existed or that there was a world war between 1939-1945.
Compare the natural sciences. Isaac Newton did not draw the conclusion that there was an apple that fell from the tree. He drew the conclusion about a law of gravity from that evidence. (Okay, it’s an apocryphal story but we know what I mean.)
Newton asked of the undisputed evidence, “Why did it happen?” A historian might ask a similar question about WW2: “Why did it happen?” One interpretation can be confirmed by mathematics and repeated testing, the other cannot.
The evidence itself was not in question. Okay, there is always more evidence to be found, and and there is always a need to evaluate the current evidence to see if some should be tossed out, etc. But essentially evidence itself per se is not “a conclusion” to be drawn. It is not what is in doubt.
What is open to question and testing is an interpretation of that evidence.
Would you agree with this? (I’m bypassing subtle epistemological arguments, I know. But is not this how both natural scientists and social scientists — and historians? — work?
Do you know of any exceptions that might be relevant to an understanding of how history works?
As far as I understand, even historical Jesus studies works in a similar way. The HJ scholar looks at the evidence and draws interpretations from it about the nature of Jesus, what he did and what he said. Is that correct?
2. But there is another part of your sentence that I do not understand. You said, “– not because new evidence could not overturn them, or because they provide absolute proof, but because they provide a conclusion which can only be avoided, working from the available evidence, by either being unreasonably skeptical or inconsistent.”
“Unreasonably skeptical” is surely a matter of interpretation. At what point can we all agree that reasonable skepticism becomes unreasonable skepticism? I never know what this means and have tended to think the term is just rhetoric. Am I wrong?
Here is my understanding of what scepticism is, from an old post (more explanation is found there):
Would you agree that that is a reasonable understanding of scepticism?
3. As for your final paragraph, again you are not explaining your position but mostly saying what you think about your understanding of Doherty’s position. (It is your position that I am trying to understand in the interests of fruitful dialogue, and to properly understand your critiques of Doherty etc.)
But one sentence in your last paragraph needs clarification in the light of what you have explained so far. You write, “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed”.
Do you mean this in the same sense that it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that the earth is round? Or that Churchill existed?
If not, in what sense do you mean it? What analogies are there to clarify your meaning?
Forgive me for jumping in on some one else’s question. Unreasonable skepticism is that, skepticism that is based on unlikely outcomes. To remain skeptical about the conclusion offered to explain the facts at this point become irrational because the probabilities are so low. At one time, intelligent men may have wondered whether Hitler were really dead, but as years went by without any trace of this incredibly well known and powerful man along with mounting evidence of his demise, it became unreasonable to be skeptical about evidence of his death. While we might dismiss some sorts of evidence, the early reports of his death, the testimonies of supposed witness, reports from the Soviet Union and such, in total they form a very good case for accepting that Hitler died in Berlin at the end of the war. Skepticism can unreasonable in regards to individual pieces of evidence if the explanation for disregarding it as evidence in a particular case is based on a highly improbable circumstance, for instance that DNA at a site was left by a unknown identical twin. Accepting that the DNA belongs to the suspect here is not inching toward gullibility, but toward proper skeptical thought, in spite of the definite possibility that it could be the case that the deed was committed by an unknown identical twin.
You write, “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed”.
I would interpret it to mean that a reasonable person could speculate on Jesus not existing. His existence is not proven and it would not be irrational to suspect that there could be a process by which an invented figure of Jesus was taken to be a historical person. Doubting the roundness of the Earth or Churchill would not be impossible, but would not be reasonable. If we lived in some aliens dreams, then perhaps there was no Churchill or a great conspiracy is keeping you from the truth about the world, like a Truman Show. But without evidence to suggest this, it does not seem like the simplest explanation for the evidence. Neither is necessary to doubt Jesus exited. I could imagine a competent person presenting evidence to support the position and some have.
What sort of person vomits low-life personal insults in comment after comment elsewhere, one of which insults is the subject of the post here, then comes to the blog owned by one he has been insulting and plops himself in the middle of his conversation with someone else — all as if he has every right and expectation to be welcome? What sort of person is capable of doing something like that?
(Your comments further indicate you did not even bother to follow the thread that led to my questions (or you were incapable of comprehending it) and which addressed what you attempted to say anyway.)
“What sort of person is capable of doing something like that?”
Why, you are Neil.
If you don’t want my comments to appear on your blog, I am fine with that, I don’t think expectations are high for conversation here, so just think of my post as being for your benefit.
It is not harder to be a Caesar mythicist than a Jesus mythicist, and it involves employing many of the same strategies.
You see the total impossibility of expecting McGrath to be honest. I say this very rarely, but McGrath is incapable of having an honest discussion, as shown by his inability to refrain from gruesome distortions of the views of people he detests.
There has been a bit of to-ing and fro-ing involving a third party on James McGrath’s blog about the possibility of the two of us engaging in a professional discussion. In the interests of a positive follow-up to all of that I am doing nothing more than reminding McGrath that his jibes at mythicists and Doherty are digressions.
McGrath and I have very different understandings of what is involved in historical research. I think his only background in history is within the field of biblical studies, whereas my view of history comes from what I have learned through history faculties. It appears that concepts I take for granted (such as the nature of, and differences between, evidence and interpretations or conclusions) are not addressed in whatever history courses there are within biblical studies. But if we are to have a meaningful dialogue we both need to be on the same page with what, to me, are the fundamentals to understanding what history really is and how it works.
I welcome McGraths’ efforts to respond to my attempts to understand his position so far.
Neil, I was not aware of your degree (or is it more than one?) in history – sorry! When I was at university, we regularly had seminars which brought people from Biblical studies, History and Classics together, and the latter two were able t join in the discussion and were using the same methods as those doing historical critical work on early Christianity. I wonder if the differences you perceive are generational, geographical, or something else. When and where did you get your degree in history, if I might ask? Perhaps that will help with figuring out whether your perception, mine, or both reflect specific settings rather than generalities about the field and discipline.
As for your question about skepticism, I do not agree that skepticism is an either-or. Perhaps it should be, but in practice it clearly is not. And I think that while we may have trouble seeing the incinsistencies in ourselves (I am including myself here, this isn’t a jibe), we can see it clearly in others. Surly you have interacted with an educated Christian at some point who was capable of treating a wide array of subjects in a genuinely skeptical manner, but not matters pertaining to his or her own faith?
On the example of Churchill, it sounds like you are saying that sometimes a historian can simply take for granted an individual’s existence as not a subject of serious dispute. Is that only true of recent figures? It seems to me that discussing Churchill is a distraction, since we have kinds of evidence for such a prominent recent figure that we cannot for ancient ones.
Out of curiosity, do you agree with what Steven Carr and others have said about me? I think that would be useful for me to know.
I am attempting to understand what you mean by history, how you understand it, so I do not misrepresent you. But you have not helped with your latest response.
You have made several statements about the nature of historical studies in the context of historical Jesus studies that to my mind do not seem to have been thought through, and are in fact fallacious. I would very much like you to help me know if I am correct in my understanding or if I am misunderstanding something.
What I asked is absolutely crucial to my understanding. For convenience I repeat here the core of what I wrote and asked:
The Churchill example is there to make the logic of the argument clear. It is the logic of the historical enterprise that we are trying to validate. The same logic applies to studies of Jesus, as I point out at the end. Yes there are differences in the nature of the evidence involved of course, but what I am attempting to understand is how we understand the nature of evidence as distinct from interpretation of the evidence.
Let’s leave aside the nature of scepticism as understood in scientific inquiry (as opposed to popular usage) for now, and stick to just the above question to keep some manageable focus. Though I would also like to come back to the question below again sooner rather than later (I removed Churchill from this one and added Hillel) . . . .
Can we stick to the thread before veering off into other issues for the moment. It is the logic of the argument itself that is important to me, regardless of anyone’s background or specialities.
P.S. I trust we can leave aside what others from the sidelines might be saying — on both sides. I have not imputed to you the accusations made against me by others on your blog or allowed them to distract me from attempting a professional tone in our own dialogue.
And we must not make the mistake that many mythicists make when they argue that ‘if Jesus was really healing the sick and raising the dead we should expect more evidence’. Yes, but a historical figure of Jesus would not have done those things.
Yes, but a historical Jesus would have been reputed to have done those things. Paul scoffs at the idea that Jesus was associated with miracles.
How can a real religious figure not have had miracle stories associated with him by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 1. (But I forget, we musn’t expect evidence of miracle stories when Paul was writing, which existed even though mythicists are idiots to expect evidence of them)
And a historical Jesus would not have been rapidly declared the radiance of God’s being and the agent through whom the world was created.
Not without Paul and the author of Hebrews having a lot of explaining as to why a crucified criminal could be regarded as the radiance of God’s being.
And a historical Jesus would have done something that Gospel writers could have drawn on as part of their story. But the only sources that can be traced are the Old Testament, or Homer in some people’s opinions.
Why does Paul have to talk about the lives of Abraham, Sarah, etc , when he could have talked about the life of his Saviour?
When are people going to stop telling us that we should not expect evidence and produce the facts that historians use as part of their historical method?
Steven, can you produce a single historical study of a historical figure where one does not discuss what we should and shouldn’t expect? It is a part of historical methods to explain why certain things are as they are and aren’t as they are. I’m surprised you haven’t grasped that concept yet.
Also, I don’t appreciate the ad hoc; I didn’t bring up Paul at all. I don’t think Paul can tell use anything about the figure of Jesus in a historical sense; Paul cared little about such trivial matters of the flesh. His concern was theological, the spiritual. But you’re talking about a long time between Jesus and Paul. In that amount of times, cultural memory would have more of an effect on tradition, and whatever else was there, whether historical or not, is long gone.
But you’re talking about a long time between Jesus and Paul.
Really? Longer than between Jesus and the Gospels?
In that amount of times, cultural memory would have more of an effect on tradition, and whatever else was there, whether historical or not, is long gone.
Only to surface again in Mark’s Gospel?
don’t think Paul can tell use anything about the figure of Jesus in a historical sense; Paul cared little about such trivial matters of the flesh.
Paul seemed to care about the figure of Abraham in a historical sense. Why did Paul care little about the trivial matter of what his Saviour had done, yet care about episodes in the life of Abraham, and Hagar?
Why does the writer of Jude, a brother of a brother of Jesus, care little about the figure of Jesus in a historical sense and yet talk about the life of Sodom, Gomorrah, Cain, Balaam, Korah, Moses,Enoch, and the apostles of Jesus – anybody except Jesus himself?
The writers of epistles have no problems talking about the lives of important figures – with one exception.
If you’re not going to start being serious Steven, I don’t think we can have a conversation.
But you’re talking about a long time between Jesus and Paul. In that amount of times, cultural memory would have more of an effect on tradition, and whatever else was there, whether historical or not, is long gone.
I’m still baffled by these remarks, but Tom feels he cannot enter into a conversation about it.
I would offer qualified agreement to your statement. When Paul mentions James the brother of the Lord, is what mythicists do that a denial of an interpretation of the evidence, or is it an attempt to remove that piece of evidence from the category of evidence? I am not sure that the distinction is either particularly clear or particularly meaningful in at least some cases. Unless we have interpreted evidence, we probably will not have categorized it as such, and so the line seems fuzzier than you suggested,
That’s a good point and I’m glad you pulled me up on it. (Not the comment about what you think mythicists do, but about the certain level of fuzziness underlying evidence.)
The bottom line is that we only have data. Interpretation is needed to make that data meaningful as “facts” and “evidence”. So we have lots of gravestones and archival material that we “interpret” to inform us that there was a major war between 1939 and 1945, and we have similar data that enables us to establish (interpret) the fact of Churchill’s or Washington’s existence. We have similar physical data that we can interpret as evidence for the existence of Julius Caesar. It is the same in the natural sciences. The wooden plank beneath my computer is only a “desk” because that is how my society interprets that particular piece of wood in this context, etc. This is where postmodernists can thoroughly enjoy themselves, but I am not a postmodernist. I’m content to accept as a fact that I really am at a real desk, and the fact that this is a matter of social interpretation does not bother me. My knee still hurts when it bumps against it.
So in this sense I can accept that World War 2 was a fact of history, even though at one level this is an “interpretation” of the archival and other data. Interpretation does not change the fact that clearly there was a lot of death and destruction going on.
Likewise in a criminal investigation. The detective only has a blood-stained knife, lots of signs of a struggle and a blood drenched cadaver with multiple matching stab wounds in its back. The detective must “interpret” that data to conclude that there has been a murder. But everyone will agree that it is “a fact” that a murder has been committed. The detective’s job is then to explain the who’s and why’s and how’s of the fact of that murder.
Newton had the fact of an apple falling, but he interpreted this as some sort of evidence for unseen forces. We now speak of the fact of gravity. And now scientists seek to understand the why’s and wherefore’s of the fact of gravity.
Ditto for evolution. We only have data, but interpretation of that data enables us to speak of the fact of evolution. The only question left is explaining the why’s and how’s of the fact of evolution.
(Historians have also discussed “what is a historical fact” as opposed to “any other sort of fact” but there’s no need to go that far at this point.)
So we have “facts” that the historians and detectives and natural scientists seek in their own respective ways to understand and explain.
(Postmodernist that I am not, it is better to speak of “facts” rather than “evidence” when we think of historical persons and human events and happenings in nature.)
So I have qualified and explained what I mean to be saying, I hope. Is there anything you take exception to? Is this what all historians do in your experience? Or are there exceptions I have overlooked? (I know sometimes historians do get carried away and make mistakes, as was the case with the early histories written about the Hittites. But there is enough peer pressure over time to bring the mavericks back into line or at least expose their faults as faults, and not as equally valid alternatives.)
(I am attempting to clarify what we both understand about the nature of valid historical inquiry at a theoretical level before we dirty our hands with applying that theory of valid historical study to the question of the historical Jesus. I know the theoretical understanding of the nature of history is important to you since you wrote your own understanding of it in The Burial of Jesus, and you likewise used at least one of the analogies I have used here, the one about the detective, I think.)
The point that follows from all of this in relation to your comment, if we both agree on the validity of the argument, is the difference between modern history where we have an abundance of data/facts, and ancient history where we have comparatively very little.
Ancient historians in all of my experience do not change the rules or nature of historical inquiry in order to try to write histories as rich in micro-details as we find in modern histories. Instead, they have to limit the nature of the questions they can ask and the expectations of answers they can find according to the fact that there is (comparatively) simply a lot less data/facts to deal with.
What worries me about your above comment — and I welcome a clarification from you — is that you seem to be moving towards a departure from what historians generally do in other fields, assuming they do what I have outlined above. (In my experience they do just this.) You seem to be saying that there is a fuzziness about what even a fact is, at least according to the way I have explained what I mean by a fact.
Is there any other field of historical inquiry where the entire enterprise is built on lines that are fuzzy between facts (i.e. pre-interpreted data) and interpretation of those facts? Or am I mis-stating the nature of historical Jesus studies?
And P.S. — it would be very helpful if you could give some analogous questions to help us understand what exactly you mean when you say “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed” — as I have asked above.
Thanks for your reply. I think you have put things well. I don’t really have anything I would want to add to your points about methodology, except that I don’t think that the “all is relative” pop postmodernism should be confused with postmodernism in history or science, which usually simply means a recognition that logical positivism, empiricism and other approaches characteristic of the Enlightenment are not without problems. But for many that leads to a tempering of claims to certainty, not a view that knowledge is impossible.
I should also say that by the end of your comment, I was not entirely sure whether and to what extent we agree about there being a slightly fuzzy boundary between facts and interpretation. Perhaps instead of saying it is fuzzy, I could instead say that the “facts” for a historian of antiquity are the actual artifacts and manuscripts. Even the act of describing them involves interpretation, and in the case of an inscription, for instance, a publication of the text may at times be challenged as someone proposes a different interpretation if whether a particular character is this or that letter. Does that make sense? Does it clarify my thinking?
I am not sure it does make sense or clarify. Here’s my problem with what you say. (I highlight key points not to shout but to help with quick reading on a computer screen. I hate reading lots of unbroken text on a screen.)
By the “facts of history” we are speaking of the facts that the historian seeks to explain. To explain certain facts, the historian will seek to justify the use of other/additional facts to support a particular explanation. To explain the fact of World War 1 a historian will make use of other facts such the existence of the Schlieffen Plan, secret treaties, diplomatic correspondence, imperial rivalries, ethnic tensions.
To explain the fact of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship the historian will make use of other facts such as the civil war, military conquests, the administrative and economic difficulties facing the Republic,etc.
Where does the information for these facts come from? Ultimately from the artefacts and manuscripts you mention. They are the sources for the historical facts. Like newspapers today, and government records, and diaries, etc.
It is vital to understand the difference between the carrier or medium and the meaning of the content carried or mediated. A manuscript is a bit of parchment with writing on it, maybe an inventory, Bible verses, or whatever. Manuscripts and artefacts are the media of information. The difference is crucial.
If you wanted to study the “fact of a manuscript” itself (say the Magna Carta), then you are studying something that is a medium of information, a national treasure, an iconic document. If such a manuscript is your object of historical inquiry then you will be researching the history of that manuscript as a manuscript, and all that it meant to all and sundry, etc.
If you were a historian of the Plantagenet kings you would probably not be using the manuscript of Magna Carta as part of your pool of facts. You would be using the information it conveyed, and what this information meant to different stakeholders etc. among your facts. What were the changes in behaviour the Magna Carta prescribed, who did these changes effect, etc. There will be some side-areas that are shades of grey, but these will be overshadowed by the core of what is clear and unambiguous. You would certainly speak of the signing of the document, and that is surely a historical fact that initiated the power of the document in history. So these (not the manuscript itself) will be the facts that you will seek to understand (perhaps with original insights) and explain (perhaps in entirely new ways) and weave into a narrative (will it be a Marxist or a Whig or other type of narrative?).
That’s an easy example. It gets harder the further back in time we go. How far back can we trace the earliest manuscripts for Christianity? Nothing substantial till the fourth and fifth centuries, I think. (I know there are small scraps that are older.) But the historical study of the facts of the manuscripts and the historical study of the fact of Christianity itself are not the same thing.
So I don’t think such manuscripts are the sorts of facts a historian of Christian origins is ultimately interested in. If the historian of the Plantagenets is not directly interested in the manuscript of Magna Carta that can be traced back to the time of King John himself, how much less direct interest must there be for the historian of early Christianity in the early Christian manuscripts? And the manuscripts pertaining to Julius Caesar are much further removed from the time of the birth of their originals.
So no, manuscripts and artefacts are not the facts that the historian of antiquity is usually seeking to explain or use. They are the medium of the information that is the real interest.
(But this is not to say the medium or carrier of information is not itself important. It is sometimes very important when it comes to evaluating and analysing the information conveyed. Information conveyed through an impressive stone monument clearly comes from someone with much power and influence, for example. Where it was discovered, and in what condition, is also generally relevant. Sometimes, usually because of a degraded condition, there will be incomplete or uncertain information in it. That’s where information from other sources may come in handy to help place the text in a more complete context. But this is not really an issue with the study of Christian origins.)
So that leads to the question of how we know about anything or anyone at all in antiquity. But that’s another question.
Does what I say make sense? I know it begs the question about how we get “facts” from information in the different media.
If you still say that manuscripts and artefacts are the “facts” the historian uses, in what sense do you mean this exactly? Maybe stick to Julius Caesar as an easy and uncontroversial example for purpose of illustration.
But you still have not answered my other query that does keep bugging me, because it does seem to be to also get to the heart of something else that is very critical. (We all know it’s too easy to talk in rhetoric without having seriously thought through the implications of what we are saying.)
Can you give some analogous questions to help us understand what exactly you mean when you say “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed”? Thanks.
Let me begin with the last point, so that I don’t neglect to address it again. I may consider it improbable that Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a late forgery, or that his reference to the brother of the Lord is an interpolation, or that it means something other than what it seems to, or that Paul would grant this status to someone who he didn’t see eye to eye with unless it was well established. But can anyone say that it is impossible that tomorrow we could recover some text that changed our impression? No. And so while I consider the evidence to point strongly to there having been a historical Jesus, that doesn’t mean one can be absolutely certain about it in any strict sense. When dealing with piecemeal evidence from antiquity, probability is all we have, and while it is subjective, that doesn’t mean that it is either so unreliable a guide as to be worthless, there is no alternative method (other than perhaps time travel, were that possible) that can offer us more.
In the case of Julius Caesar, I felt that you were perhaps using “fact” in more than one way. Is the dictatorship of Julius Caesar a “fact” or are the “facts” only that we have coins, busts, and texts, and the conclusion that it makes the most sense to understand them as evidence of a historical Julius Caesar an interpretation of those facts, that raw data? In other words, are you limiting “facts” to the raw data itself, or would you also apply the term “facts” to information that we glean from that data, when the evidence is felt to be strong enough?
I wonder if some of the confusion about my meaning of “fact” is a result of explaining my understanding of the difference between a carrier or medium of information and the information itself.
We have the fact of a manuscript. We have the fact that there is certain information written on it. But I have not yet addressed my own understanding of how we know what is a fact beyond that, such as a strike by barons against the power of the king.
I have asked you for your understanding of this next step in my previous post since I know I have given my own views many times before. But I have never heard your understanding of this — at least not at a theoretical/historical level.
Off topic to some degree, but issues of historicity of Adam and Eve intersect with those of Jesus on this comment thread at WEIT.
Response to James McGrath, comment #35 above.
I am using “fact” in the same was I have attempted to consistently use it since my response to your comment #20 and again to comment #33 above. We can speak of:
To this list I added in my previous post
We also have facts of falling apples, fossils, gravestones and archival material, etc.
A historian who is interested in investigating the reasons for the fact of World War 2 will bring to bear a selection of other facts (e.g. diplomatic correspondence, etc.) that she will interpret in order to create a new narrative or explanation of things. If the historian had a particular interest in the manuscript of a piece of diplomatic correspondence itself, then she will be asking a different set of questions and writing a quite different sort of history, one more for those with an archival interest. So we have huge bunches of facts, and historians can select to explain or investigate any one of them and bring to bear other facts to help justify their explanations. Another historian can select any other fact and opt to study that instead.
I thought we agreed it was better to speak of facts for certain purposes. Many historians, after all, do speak of “facts”. And the facts they mean are not simply the physical manuscripts, the paper diaries, the archival material, etc. Most of us would think that a historian would sound a bit odd if he suggested it was not a fact that Churchill was a prime minister, or it was not a fact that Julius Caesar conquered Gaul or became dictator.
When you suggest that a fact is “information we glean from data when the evidence is felt to be strong enough” I have a problem because within this sentence I believe you are both conflating and sidestepping many issues that occupy historians in their evaluation and analysis of data and also are using a number of terms very vaguely, such as “evidence” and “glean” and “data” and “information” — and that your suggestion will simply not hold up when one stops for a moment to think about how historians work, or at least it will be shown to be a gross over-simplification.
How do we know Julius Caesar was a dictator or that he conquered Gaul? (There are different levels or types of knowing — there is a public knowledge about things that is distinct from a scientific knowledge about things. I think it is easy even for historians to sometimes slip into the lazy arena of relying on public knowledge and not do their proper homework. Some historians have been guided by public “knowledge” in their interpretations of data and ended up with egg on their faces as a result. We like to think that detectives or juries don’t rely on public knowledge as splashed through the mass media when they are doing their professional jobs.)
My point is that it is not enough to simply say he was a major and powerful figure and so there is lots of evidence for him. That is very vague. Some people can say there is lots of evidence for alien abductions and visitations, too; creationists can say there is lots of evidence for creationism; some people say have said there is lots of evidence for reds under beds or 9/11 being a government job — and they will all be able to write books listing and discussing all the many points of evidence they believe in.
They will all be able to point to “information they glean from data when they feel the evidence to be strong enough”. So this is surely a very general and ultimately meaningless explanation.
I think historians have to be a bit more professional about things, and that most of them are.
So how do we really know Caesar conquered Gaul or was dictator of Rome? (I have given my own understanding of the answer often enough, but I would welcome hearing your point of view, too.)
One possible answer is to simply say that if most academic specialists say a certain thing then we must respect that view, and I agree. But still this would not be answering my question except with an appeal to authority. What is it, in the case of the historical question, that enables the academic specialists to know that Julius Caesar was dictator of Rome? Or select any other “fact of history” (apart from the Jesus example, of course) that you can answer most knowledgeably.
Secondly, can I ask if you would mind directly answering my other question where I ask you for an analogy? We can only understand anything new through analogy at some level.
My question is:
I know you have a repertoire of stock questions to use to debunk mythicism, but I am trying to understand how you understand the way history works, the nature of history, and how being a historian informs your understanding of the historical Jesus. Above all, I would really like to know what you mean when you make this statement.
If I were to rely entirely on your arguments against mythicism that you gave in your preceding comment, then I would be forced to conclude that an analogous statement would be:
After all, we do have evidence that on at least one occasion it was not Churchill but a hired actor who delivered a radio speech everyone believed to have been spoken by Churchill. So in the strict sense we can’t be absolutely certain — we cannot say it is impossible — that tomorrow someone will turn up evidence that every appearance and speech of Churchill’s was done by an actor.
If I have misunderstood you then can you give an analogous question that does justice to your statement?
Or is your question in relation to Jesus unique, without any analogy? Is there any other person you can think of in ancient history, comparable to Jesus in status, about whom you could equally say “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that X existed”?
I am not sure why a falling apple (presumably in the proximity of Isaac Newton) would be considered a fact, but Paul having met the brother of Jesus would not, in your usage. The former stems from William Stukeley’s biography, written some 25 years after Newton’s death, and so it might well have involved recollection distorted by time or false memory caused by hearing the popular story many times. Paul’s encounter with James, on the other hand, is believed by historians to come from Paul’s own account, and despite what is sometimes claimed, the meaning of what he wrote seems clear enough to satisfy most.
As for what turns data into facts, I don’t see how it could be said to be anything other than the collective judgment of historians and other experts. It is not as though anyone has some other objective access to events in the ancient world, rather than only through artifacts and accounts, which they then evaluate not with relatively objective laboratory experiments, but by using their minds to weigh the evidence.
And since every historian I have spoken to about it considers the existence of Jesus a fact, I do not see that there is a gulf between a case such as his and a case such as Julius Caesar’s, except that in the one case there is unsurprisingly more good data to work with, because Julius Caesar was the sort of historical figure to leave behind such evidence. But in your view, in both cases, is it anything other than the careful evaluation of evidence and collective judgment of historians that renders them “historical”?
And since every historian I have spoken to about it considers the existence of Jesus a fact,….
Isn’t Tom Verenna agnostic about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth?
Does that mean that Verenna is not an historian.
And I quote him again ‘I know several of my professors were agnostic about the question. But it is just not something you write on. Why would you? As Vinny remarks aptly, there just is no reason to write a paper entitled ‘I don’t know’. You write on things you do know, or think you know, whether or not it be on intertextuality or genre or anthropology or some other field. There is no ‘Agnostic Jesus’ field. Maybe one day that will change. I imagine those scholars who write critically about the Gospels, particularly literary critics, are most likely agnostic.’
I find McGrath’s appeal to what nonbiblical historians think to be quite interesting. He has explained that we know Jesus is historical because of the “collective judgment of historians”. Presumably he means here biblical historians. I would doubt he means to suggest that nonbiblical historians have made a “careful evaluation of the evidence” to inform their “collective judgment”.
If I am correct, then he is appealing to nonbiblical historians who accept the historicity of Jesus soley on the grounds that they defer to the authority of biblical scholars.
I would appreciate any correction from James if I am incorrect in thinking that the historians he appeals to for support are ones who defer to biblical scholars themselves on the question.
James, can you reassure me that you are still interested in a serious and respectful attempt to understand each other’s point of view?
I ask because it appears in your latest comment you are ignoring all we have discussed till now.
You seem to me to be determined to avoid discussing the nature of history and how it works, and determined to avoid addressing the theoretical underpinnings of your arguments for the historical Jesus. Without a justifiable theoretical underpinning our arguments are no better than apologetic proof-texting, exchanging stock arguments that don’t even require us to listen to what the other is saying, and will get neither of us anywhere.
You will recall that I myself said the falling apple story was most likely apocryphal. You do recall I said that, don’t you? I was referring to it as an example of how anything that we experience in the natural world can be called a fact. Newton drew certain conclusions from his observations of facts.
Of course there will be judgement involved to turn data into facts. I tried to make that clear and I thought you said I explained it well. But it is equally clear, is it not, that judgment is involved even when people think nonsense is a fact. What are the methods, the principles etc that are involved to enable professionals to make sound judgements? Criteria of embarrassment? Something else? What? Historians don’t just make things up in their collective wisdom. They are guided by principles or methodologies of some sort, surely, are they not?
You seem to think there is no need to continue any discussion on historical methods or any theoretical understanding of historical inquiry. I am surprised at your apparent lack of interest in something that I know normally fascinates historians.
On what grounds do they consider Jesus a fact? Caesar?
When you suggest that the only way to establish something as a fact (or “historical” — did you mean ‘fact’?) is
then you are avoiding the simple point I just made that anyone can claim to know something is a fact as a result of “careful evaluation of evidence and collective judgement” of interested parties.
Such a vague and general statement does not tell us anything about how we know something is a fact. It is, in effect, merely a claim that what is a fact is established by authority of an educated elite, thus denying the possibility of facts being publicly verifiable.
What principles or methods guide those careful evaluations to ensure they are valid? On what criteria or principles is collective judgement established?
Am I correct in concluding from your latest response that you know of no sets of principles or methodology etc which can guide historians, laypeople, anyone, about how to know if something is a fact of history or not?
And/Or am I correct to conclude that historical facts are historical facts only if they are established as such by the experts though ‘careful evaluation and judgments’ accessible by them alone?
Why do you appear to simply point-blank refuse to answer my request for an analogous statement to explain what you meant by it not being unreasonable to doubt the existence of Jesus? I think I have asked up to six times before now and still no analogous statement from you.
James — just to clarify my main concern about your vague statement “explaining” how we can know what’s a historical fact —
We know in the sciences (natural and social) the principles that guide the minds of experts in their research: in brief it is the scientific method, double-blind trials, etc. There is no secret about the guiding principles underpinning their body of knowledge.
Is there a comparable set of principles or whatever that guides the “collective wisdom” of historians in their analysis of the data?
Or is it all a bit ad hoc — whatever arguments the experts can come up with that persuade others?
Is it fair to say that we appear to have reached an impasse in the discussion because we have finally arrived at a point where we both recognize that it is about to be made clear that historical Jesus studies do not follow the same principles or methods as normally used among other historical disciplines?
If I am wrong in suspecting this, then please continue the discussion without veering off into attacks on mythicism or what you appear to think are my grounds for leaning towards mythicism. I would really appreciate that.
Is anybody else finding this discussion rather amusing?
Sorry for taking so long to reply – workshop at work today (and tomorrow).
I was trying to get at some essential preliminary issues in my previous comments, since you talk about things like an apple falling as a “fact” but as the Newton instance illustrates, what history deals with is evidence that an apple did or did not fall on some specific occasion, and there is no way to bypass that historical investigation to get at a falling apple as a “brute fact.”
Historians have articulated criteria and principles for evaluating evidence, which I have quoted in the past on my blog and which presumably anyone interested can find out about easily enough. But none of those criteria is foolproof or eliminates the role of human judgment in the process. And so I would indeed say that the role of historians is very much like that of detectives or of a jury. They are gathering evidence, interpreting it, and trying to use it to reconstruct what happened in the past.
You have lost the thread of our earlier discussions. We were speaking of “evidence” initially — and the Newton/apple example was raised as an illustration of how natural scientists deal with their “evidence” (to compare with the way historians deal with their sorts of evidence) — and then in response to a comment of yours we explained and justified the use of our term “fact” as opposed to “evidence” in our discussion.
There are natural facts (rain falling, sun shining, apples falling) and historical facts (wars, famous people, revolutions) that specialists (scientists, historians) seek to explain in their respective ways. (See comment #33 and your agreement in comment #34 that I had “put things well”.)
We have discussed the analogy of historians with juries and detectives before. So this maybe is a good time to be clear on exactly what we mean by that and hopefully avoid any of the past rancour. I look forward to a professional exchange of views and arriving at a mutual understanding.
I don’t believe the analogy of historians with detectives is at all apt. But let me stress that I have been trying to get at the fundamentals of the way the historical inquiry enterprise works generally, not specifically for any one field of interest. Is this a fair approach? I think one of our disagreements is that you have insisted historical Jesus scholars do not do “history” in any way that is fundamentally different from the way other historians work. I have questioned this, so I am attempting here to understand how history works generically.
Here is my problem with your detective analogy. I quote from what someone else has written (not me):
You will agree that there is something seriously wrong attempting to compare detective work with what historians do. (I am not suggesting they all abide by certain methods as a set of conscious “rules” put up in a framed statement on the wall — they may even apply certain methods routinely, by habit, and only stop to think about what they are doing when at conferences or discussing the philosophy of history.)
How do you justify your detective analogy in the light of the above? What, in your mind, is the difference or similarity between the ways detectives and historians really do establish whether something is a reliable “fact” of that happened in the past?
May I ask again:
You wrote, “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed”.
Do you mean this in the same sense that it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that the earth is round? Or that Churchill existed?
What analogous questions are there to clarify your meaning? Can you give a clear analogous question to illustrate the sense in which you meant this?
I don’t find that “parable” at all helpful when it comes to ancient history. In some cases we may find the body, as it were, but anything we know about that individual will still, for the most part, be from texts, whether they be inscriptions or narrative accounts. And so how, in your view, would a historian who drives the man with texts out of his office, saying that they could all be forgeries and not to worry about it, ever hope to reconstruct the past.
I answered your question about doubt about the existence of Jesus and many other things in history. The lesser the extent or clarity of the evidence, the more one has to acknowledge that it is possible that things were not as they appear on the basis of available evidence. That doesn’t mean that the best course of action is to assume that things were different than the evidence suggests. It means that while we draw the best conclusions we can based on available evidence, we recognize in particular that new evidence could require us to revise our conclusions.
Let me also add that I am troubled by another recent post of yours. Since when does saying “If if one grants X, it still would not demonstrate your case” mean “I grant X”? Is this perhaps a linguistic or cultural difference? Where I come from and where I have lived, it indicates that one is speaking hypothetically. Is that not true in other parts of the English-speaking world? If so, I apologize for the confusion.
McGrath: “I don’t find that “parable” at all helpful when it comes to ancient history.”
As the person responsible for that fractured fairy tale, let me explain that it was largely a rebuttal to the tired notion that the texts are “innocent until proven guilty.” Why not, some scholars ask, presume our witnesses are telling the truth? And in a somewhat jocular and probably heavy-handed way, I was trying to say:
1. The authors of the texts weren’t witnesses.
2. The authors conflict with one another and with external sources.
3. We have no idea who the authors were, when they wrote, or where they were from.
Anyone who makes a positive claim based on these texts has an overwhelming set of obstacles to overcome. Beyond the question of whether the texts are telling the truth is the basic question of what in the world they’re saying (and why). The detective in the story isn’t just saying the trail is cold or that the “witnesses” are lying, but that we’re not even sure what the trail is.
In several cases in which there are irreconcilable internal or external inconsistencies, one or more NT authors must be wrong. Whether it is a deliberate lie, or the case of a best guess gone wrong, we know either John or the Synoptic evangelists were wrong about the crucifixion. Jesus (if he existed) could not have been crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover and on Passover. He died on one day, if he lived. It appointed unto man — even the Son of Man — once to die.
We have to assume, then, that some things in the gospels are wrong. As another example, either Josephus was telling the truth about John the Baptists or the evangelists were, unless they all got it wrong. But they can’t all be right. There are no square circles, even in heaven.
So at the very least I can assume the gospels are partially incorrect with respect to history. But how can I differentiate between what is probably true and probably not true? Since all of what we know comes from a single source — that is, from early Christians — how do we ever get out of the vicious circle? All I can say is that I’ve been reading this stuff for many years now and the one thing I’m sure of is my ever-fading hope that we’ll ever have a firm grasp on what happened in the first century CE.
I seem to have messed up my HTML tags up there. McG’s comment ends after “evidence suggests.” My response starts with “In several cases…” Oops. I certainly don’t want to put words in the good doctor’s mouth.
Fixed the formatting, TIm.
James, I hope by repeating my original clarification in that post I have now made your position clearer for the myopic and presbyopic.
(But you will have to forgive me for not being able to remove any passage where I also apparently positively said you granted Doherty’s position. My eyesight is not good enough to find any words at all to that effect.)
We seem to have tossed out what I thought we understood in our earlier posts where we discussed the meaning and nature of evidence, facts, what historians do, etc. The implication of your opening remark — if I am wrong I welcome correction — is that the parable might apply to modern historians but not to ancient historians.
Do you mean to infer that the further back in time we go, we will eventually come a point at which the detective (representing the historian) in the parable will actually take notice of my “evidence” for a murder and go out and investigate it on the strength of all I have shown him?
If so, do you really mean to say here that the historian’s rules and logic of what constitutes ‘evidence’ themselves change when approaching ancient history as opposed to modern history? I believed we agreed that the rules do not change, but what changes in relation to ancient history are the types of questions we can ask and answers we can expect because of the very scant nature of the material we work with. (See comments #33 and 34 above.)
I am also curious about your apparent reluctance to use the word “fact” or “historical fact”. We had the discussion above about the difference between evidence and fact, I think. The word “evidence” carries a lot more value-baggage with it than the word “fact”, doesn’t it? Doesn’t the word “evidence” actually assume that there is something “factual” that is being testified by the evidence? So isn’t it begging the question to speak of “evidence” before we can know what are the actual “historical facts” that we are dealing with?
I need to understand what you mean by “evidence” as opposed to “historical fact” or “fact”. A historian will sound very bizarre if he said there were no facts to deal with, investigate, explain, in ancient times, wouldn’t he?
This is surely important and not a mere quibble. As I said, the word “evidence” implies that there is something “factual” to which the evidence points. Otherwise it can hardly be said to be “evidence” for anything.
You will appreciate that I am concerned that there is a considerable amount of muddled thinking among a number of biblical historians about such things, so here is your chance to clarify things for me.
You have asked me, “And so how, in your view, would a historian who drives the man with texts out of his office, saying that they could all be forgeries and not to worry about it, ever hope to reconstruct the past.”
In my view the detective in the parable was completely right to do what he did. Do you disagree?
I believe in the parable I would have been wiser to have wondered who wrote the letters and diaries and for what purposes before making a fool of myself by rushing off to the detective’s office. I should not have been naive enough to begin with a confident assumption that they were all pointing to a real murder. Before I could have even considered that as a real possibility I would have needed other information such as public records, eyewitness accounts, etc.
Do you agree?
If I had public records or eyewitness accounts then I would have little trouble accepting that there my letters and diaries relate in some way to real events — real “facts” or “historical facts”. (Is not this how historians of Julius Caesar work, for example?)
So what happens in the case where there are no public or otherwise independently verifiable records? Do we change the rules? Do historians change the rules? Do even ancient historians change the rules?
May I ask again:
You wrote, “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed”.
Do you mean this in the same sense that it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that the earth is round? Or that Churchill existed?
What analogous questions are there to clarify your meaning? Can you give a clear analogous statement to illustrate the sense in which you meant this?
I do not think that the parable provides an exact analogy, because a detective, even if he were to decide that he had good grounds to conclude that the texts he was presented with were factual accounts or based on factual accounts, he still would not investigate without some evidence that there were people referred to in the text who had gone missing in the recent past. And so perhaps there is an analogy with the historian dealing with the recent past, who can then go and ask people what they saw or whom they knew.
This is why, even though I do not think that the principles are fundamentally different simply because one moves from the recent to the distant past, some things have to change because of the loss of ability to cross-examine possible witnesses. Would you not agree that we lack certain kinds of evidence across the board in antiquity that we have for recent times?
As for my point about having doubt, would you not agree that there is more doubt about the existence of Julius Caesar than Winston Churchill, however slight? Are they precisely identical in terms of the degree of certainty we can have?
Tim, that the Gospels are wrong and sometimes deceptive is a given. The question is whether they are wrong about everything. There are plenty of accounts about people who actually existed which are wrong and/or deceptive, but that does not lead naturally to the conclusion that the person therefore could not have existed, even if we have an earlier letter from someone who met his brother.
Except you don’t have an earlier letter from someone who met his brother.. You have an earlier letter from someone who met the “brother of the Lord.” In the opening of that same letter, that person states unequivocally that Jesus Christ was not a man. Why is the plain speech of that not clear, but the confused equation of Lord with Jesus Christ completely unambiguous? This argument is all in circles. You claim that early Christians didn’t see Jesus as divine, except when they thought he was the Lord. You equate that with Jesus of Nazareth, which is an equation Paul never makes. Paul specifically warns about false Jesuses and false Christs. Marcion’s crucified Jesus was a ghost who didn’t leave footprints and didn’t poop. What makes you sure that Paul’s Jesus wasn’t Marcion’s? Marcion sure thought it was.
James wrote, “The question is whether they are wrong about everything. ”
Is it? Who here has stated baldly that they’re wrong about everything? Not me. I’ve just said their nature is such that we have no way to tell what’s fact or fiction — what’s whimsy or witness. The question is how we could ever know which things are probable. We might be able to rate sayings and deeds on a range of plausibility, but by what method could one ever confidently state, “This bit right here is probably true”?
I don’t have a problem with the statement, “A is much more likely than B.”
I have a big problem with the statement, “A is much more likely than not A.”
Maybe I’m not being clear enough. Tom Verenna also seems to think my lack of confidence in the texts means I think they’re wrong about everything. No. I don’t.
The one thing I will say is that, as Carrier said, the background probability tends to favor a mythical Jesus. But as far as the texts go, I think we’re in the dark.
To James @ comment #46,
Do you mean to say that in the parable the detective/historian should or could be persuaded when I told him that I had used criteria of embarrassment etc to convince him that they really did contain some truth? So in the parable I (or Tim — the author of the original that I adapted) was the sensible one and if I or Tim had good criteria arguments then the detective was the fool for not agreeing with our conclusions?
As for your question, my answer is Yes, I agree that we lack certain kinds of evidence across the board in antiquity that we have for recent times.
You said “some things have to change” when one moves into a period of history for which the records are scarce. I thought we had agreed that the only thing that really changes is range of questions the historian can ask and investigate. This is what we both agreed to earlier — (as per my response to your comment #33 and then your response #34).
But if I am correct, it appears you are saying that one of the things that will change is that the biblical historian will be able to apply criteriology (embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, etc) to texts to establish historical facts, while other historians are luckier because they have public records and eyewitness and contemporary accounts of verifiable provenance to work with. So the biblical historian can be a trend-setter and make greater advances in historiography because he has tools that enable him to overcome the limitations facing all other historians. Hence in the parable the detective the one who is the fool. Am I correct?
I also asked you why you are not willing to use the word “fact” or “historical fact”, despite what I thought was our earlier understanding. My question was: So isn’t it begging the question to speak of “evidence” before we can know what are the actual “historical facts” that we are dealing with? I have another one. What is a “historical fact” to you? Thus, is assassination of Julius Caesar a fact of history or not?
I keep asking you for an analogous statement to illustrate the sense of your meaning when you say that it is not unreasonable to entertain doubts that Jesus existed. I have to conclude that there is no analogous statement that you want to admit to. So your statement sounds like one of those PR jobs that is designed to make its claimant sound tolerant and reasonable on the surface, but the subtext is quite different: no real tolerance for the question is entertained. Anyone who asks it will only prove their reasonableness by quickly assenting to Jesus’ existence as a fact — just as it is theoretically reasonable to ask if the world is really round but one’s reasonableness will only be evident if one almost as quickly admits the question is nonsense in the face of the evidence. Is this the sense in which you meant your statement. It seems so to me.
If I am wrong then all you need to do is provide an analogous statement to illustrate your meaning.
No, I do not agree with your question: As for my point about having doubt, would you not agree that there is more doubt about the existence of Julius Caesar than Winston Churchill, however slight? Are they precisely identical in terms of the degree of certainty we can have?
The reason I do not agree is because the question of doubt does not arise. What we are dealing with is simply different types of public knowledge, and such public knowledge has varying degrees of immediacy and means of communication to us. But none of that sort of knowledge — because of the trustworthiness of the institutions that mediate the knowledge — is subject to everyday doubt. This is not a question of historical inquiry but a question of the nature of public knowledge. That the earth is round is also public knowledge that, again because of the trustworthiness of the institutions communicating the knowlege, is not doubted by the public. Only a minority with specialist skills and studies can really “prove” the earth is round — only a minority have that sort of scientific knowledge.
(This is not to say that there are many aspects of public knowledge that are open to doubt. But the questions of doubt in those cases come attached to the public knowledge in the first place. And there is a difference between what is public knowledge and what is scientific or other researched and tested knowledge among specialists.)
What? The earth is round? Are you sure that is public knowledge?
Neil, I am puzzled by two things in your recent comments. One is your substitution of “Biblical historians” when we were speaking about historians dealing with the ancient world more broadly. The others your reference to institutions that safeguard and transmit public knowledge. Presumably these include the history departments, museums and textbook authors who give expression to the consensus of historians that Jesus probably existed. And so I am at a loss to know what you mean, or why your confidence in these institutions and this public knowledge suddenly disappears when the discussion turns to Jesus.
You would probably learn a lot from Selective Remembrances, edited by Philip L Kohl.
It’s a real eye-opener.
As I have said repeatedly, I am attempting to understand your view of the nature of history, and I was attempting to make sense of your previous comment, so I told you what I concluded — and I asked you twice to inform me IF I am correct or not.
So can you tell me if my attempt to recapitulate your understanding is correct or is it not correct?
(I think you have insisted that there is no difference between what biblical historians and nonbiblical historians do in principle, but in your previous comment you appeared to be saying two contradictory things that I pointed out, so I could only conclude you do indeed have one view of the way biblical historians work that is inconsistent with what other historians do. So IF I am wrong then simply tell me if my recapitulation is correct or not.)
Further, you seem to have misunderstood the concept of public knowledge to which I was referring. I attempted to indicate that I was speaking of knowledge that is accepted by the public as a ‘fact’ as a result of part of our socialization through our education systems etc. (e.g. being taught in school that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492) as opposed to scientific or other specialist research knowledge — or the sort of knowledge you say comes only from academic specialists (such was what is a historical fact.)
It does appear to me that your understanding of the nature of history is reliant solely on what you understand from “public knowledge” in the sense I have outlined. Have you read any scholarly books by academic historians about the nature of history per se and what are historical facts?
Is my summing up of what you meant by “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubts about the existence of Jesus” correct?
If it helps clarify things, “public knowledge” in the sense to which I am referring is not always correct in the eyes of research specialists. I recall learning several things in school through teachers and the textbooks about our aborigines, and that everyone else was taught, too, and grew up taking for granted as ‘facts’ — but only in recent years I have acquired enough information to see was not accepted by academic specialists researching the issues at the time.
It used to be “public knowledge” that Cook discovered Australia — despite the fact that non-English speaking white Europeans had marked its western coast on their maps up to a century earlier. Do you see what I mean by public knowledge as opposed to specialist research knowledge?
If one sets aside publications that religious conservatives write for a general audience and discuss mainstream scholarship, then absolutely, those who work on the history of ancient Israel and early Christianity use the same methods as (and reflect the same discussions about method as go on in) the rest of academic study of ancient history. We present at conferences, collaborate on book’s together, and draw on one another’s work. And so if your question is about mainstream scholarship then yes, the range of methods is identical. Have you ever asked historians you know whether this is the case?
On the other topic, am I right to understand that you were speaking of the existence of Julius Caesar as a “fact” in the same sense as you would also accept that the existence of Jesus is a “fact” – something which is found in mainstream textbooks and museums, even though you might dispute its veracity? I had assumed that you were expressing confidence in the existence of Julius Caesar and Hammurabi, and so I am unclear whether your recent comments represent a revision of your earlier statement or whether it was intended to indicate that I had misunderstood the thrust of your earlier use of the term.
Tim, is that similar to Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory? A lot of the recent work in the realm of psychology of memory is having an impact on scholarly discussion of the quest for the historical Jesus – although unfortunately not as much on Richard Bauckham as it ought to have. 🙂
Selective Remembrances actually has more to do with modern cultures as caretakers of history and myth, and how far we go to fabricate and hang on to them. Subtitle: “Archaeology in the Construction, Commemoration, and Consecration of National Pasts.”
The section on Masada is quite sobering. One doesn’t even have to conclude that archaeologist Yigael Yadin had lied or blatantly misrepresented evidence to achieve his “constructed interpretations for Masada that supported the Masada mythical narrative. This was accomplished not by falsifying any of the factual finds or artifacts, but rather by contextualizing these findings within the mythical narrative. Doing so involved ignoring competing explanations and interpretations, as well as providing some very creative explanations about findings.” [emphasis mine]
(Nachman ben-Yehuda, 2007)
Sounds definitely worth reading – thanks for the recommendation!
James, you have avoided answering my questions that I posed to you in comment #48. Since I posted those questions seeking feedback from you as to whether I have understood you correctly, you have not been able to tell me directly and unequivocally if my summary is an accurate portrayal of your views or not.
Do tell me if my understanding as I expressed it there in comment #48 is correct or not — and do try to answer without any ambiguity. “Yes” or “no” would help. Or even a simple “yes/no” with a qualification.
Your response here (comment #51) sidesteps any direct response to my question by speaking of “the range of methods” used. Do we really have to stop to discuss the different connotations of the word “method” now? I think you mean by “range of method” here the “range of critical tools” used, don’t you? Then yes, in that sense I agree that the critical tools are the same. But I do disagree that they are used in the same way. I do not know of any nonbiblical area of history that uses the criteriology employed by HJ scholars to try to discover the basic raw facts of what happened in history. They don’t need to. They have other means of knowing what are the facts, some of which I have referred to above.
No, you are wrong to understand that. All the discussion above where I have been addressing what is meant by a fact has been an attempt to cut through a lot of very muddled thinking and half-baked popular assumptions underlying the terminology we use. If you want to know the sense in which I have been speaking of anything or anyone as a fact then I refer you to everything I have said till now about the nature and meaning of facts as opposed to “evidence” and “interpretation” and “data” etc.
I had understood I was very clear to you about my meaning until I pointed out to you your own confusing and ambiguous way of using words and failure to answer my questions directly and unambiguously.
Your initial assumption was correct. My recent comments were pointing out that it was you who appeared to be conflating “public knowledge” that is acquired through socialization with research knowledge of specialists that is acquired by research methods. For you to now turn around and suggest it is me who is confusing the two looks like an attempt to deflect attention from your own ambiguous terminology that I was addressing.
You said I had explained things “well” earlier. Do you now have a problem with accepting the way I explained my use of the terms then? Do you want to go over it all again?
James, it is you who is confusing the way we speak of “facts” in a public knowledge sense as against the way we speak of them in a research specialist sense. You chose to make this clear in your post on your own blog rather than here in this particular thread. Despite all our conversation here about the logic and meaning of a “historical fact”, and despite my comment addressing the ways nonbiblical historians speak about Jesus (that you failed to address here), you make a point in response to me on your blog that completely ignores all that I thought we were seeking to understand here. You revert once again to vague generalities and popular usages of terms.
If we were to follow the logic of what you say there then I believe you are meaning to say we should accept Jesus is a historical fact of history because “all historians” say he is, and “they” have worked this out by their collective judgment after closely weighing all the evidence — excactly the same way they finally figured out Caesar and Hammurabi are facts of history. That is the logic of your argument. If I am wrong in summing it up like this then do point out where I am wrong, because I believe your views expressed rest on multiple fallacies and gaps in knowledge that you clearly fail to recognize. So if I am wrong I would like to know.
One thing this conversation has driven home to me is just how right Scot McKnight was when he said biblical scholars as a whole are very ill informed about normative historiography beyond the area of their biblical interests. Your own response to my question about what books you have ready by historian scholars on the nature of history and historical facts only underscores McKnight’s point. You are evidently unaware of major mainstream nonbiblical historiographical discussions and debates about the nature of history and meanings of historical facts. That’s not a crime. But it is a good excuse for entertaining a wee-sliver of self-doubt.
No comment from you on how I understood your statement that is it not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed. So I am correct on that, too?
Neil, I am treading cautiously because I find your statements puzzling. You seem willing to follow the methods and conclusions of the guild of historians – except when they pertain to Jesus. You appear at times to think that there is a group of “Biblical historians” who work independently of what everyone else is doing. You at times quote von Ranke, at times you mention Carr, but it isn’t clear whether or not you accept the shift away from the positivist approach of von Ranke or not, and indeed whether your interest is to get at historical method or to find quotes that will allow you to take seriously views that no historian seems to find plausible. I am confident, at least, that you do not accept von Ranke’s views on God and metaphysics, but I suspect that if he were someone that I quoted in support of my defense of the view of mainstream historians concerning Jesus, you might point out his religious views and use that to discredit him. You quote Scot McKnight’s concerns about the methods that historical Jesus scholars use, but do not seem to be aware that most of the criticisms of method in the realm of historical Jesus study is that they are lagging behind and still trying to be positivistic – i.e. the sort of historians you tend to quote and think represents the consensus on historical methodology – when historical study has moved on.
You wrote in a past post: “Contrast the tools used by nonbiblical historians. The Magna Carta, the Ems telegram, Caesar’s and Cicero’s writings, epigraphy. We can have varying levels of knowledge or reasonable beliefs about these documents, but they all constitute public facts. Their nature is verifiable and the facts to which they testify are indisputable basics of historical enquiry.”
The truth is that, unless one naively accepts the ancient works attributed to Caesar and Cicero without asking critical questions, then they are subjected to the same questions about authenticity as New Testament works have been. Unless you mean that the indisputable fact is that we have the documents – which is at least as true for the New Testament – then you are falsely distinguishing between Jesus and everything else, simply because you prefer to. No professional historian sees things as you do.
I think that before we try to communicate further, you should actually talk to a professional historian of the ancient world and ask them about their opinion on the matter of Jesus. Perhaps you will be persuaded by a real live historian speaking to you face to face, since you clearly are not by what historians actually write.
You find my statements puzzling? But if you read them you would find I have already answered your questions.
For example, I have directed you numerous times to why and how I use the names of von Ranke, Carr, Elton and McKnight — and even just recently on your own blog explained why and how I use them — so you have no excuses for posing your blatantly false straw-man imputations behind my use of them now.
You are weaving and twisting in every way possible to simply avoid answering me directly when I asked you to inform me IF my understanding of YOUR position is correct — in comment #48. You have point blank refused to clarify your position unambiguously and are finding ways to question me on this and that despite the fact that my positions on all those things have been made clear in the preceding comments.
So all our previous discussion and moves to understanding one another has been a complete waste of time — well at least you have failed to understand anything I have explained about my position and have reduced it all to my being some sort of bigot who can’t think straight when Jesus is the topic. Maybe reflection on pots and kettles is in order.
And you have refused point blank to tell me if my understanding of your position is correct or not.
James, you accused me of not understanding the conditional “IF” earlier (though it turned out your accusation was generated from your prejudiced assumption and not from anything I had written). Now here you are saying “UNLESS” I think something — and then conclude that in your mind I really DO think that. This then leads you to end all discussion about what I really have said by your appealing to your usual authority (against your own straw man!): “No professional historian sees things as you do.”
I have been attempting to undertake a discusion reasonably with you and you now spit the dummy by telling me to accept authority. — And it is a fallacious authority at that, since the only historians who publish on the HJ are biblical scholars themselves — of whom very few demonstrate any awareness of how historians generally work in other fields. Why would they need to know? HJ methods are so completely different. HJ scholars need to first of all find some facts to work with, even though they can never find any that all agree upon.
I have tried to offer analogies and asked whether you view them the same way I do. I cannot answer the question of whether you have understood me correctly without asking you a lot of questions, because you say that you agree with mainstream scholarly approaches to history, and yet also seem not to accept their conclusions about Jesus, and so you are clearly understanding mainstream historians and philosophers of history differently than I am. And thus to say “Yes, you have understood me correctly” without first figuring out in what ways you are using terms differently than I am would obviously be a mistake, and unhelpful to our discussion.
I have tried to address both the longstanding question from here, as well as your latest post, in a post on my own blog here: http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/08/13/historians-on-jesus/
You are mistaken, James. My summary of your view that I was asking you to confirm was in response to what you wrote in comment #46. You made no analogous statements at all. You could simply say I am correct or otherwise with a qualifying note to remove any possible ambiguity of a word I used if you are worried about that.
James McGrath: “you should actually talk to a professional historian of the ancient world and ask them about their opinion on the matter of Jesus.”
I have only spoken to one professional historian of the ancient world – Richard Carrier. He agrees much more with Neil Godfrey than with you. He is in the process of getting two books on the question published by academic publishers, and has written rather disparagingly of the criteria that Biblical scholars use to decide on historicity.
It might be worth your while to wait to read his published work and understand it, instead of pouring all this energy into insults and psychology and your assumption that there is something wrong with mythicists’ thinking.
Aren’t there other issues that merit your attention? There are several serious candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the US who base their platforms on Biblical issues, who think that global warming is a myth because it contradicts the Bible, that the most warlike factions in Israel should be supported because of the Bible, that American children should be home schooled to keep them away from secular humanism. Shouldn’t Biblical scholars recognize the real enemy here – fundamentalism and crazy misinterpretations of the Bible?
Why does anyone care whether Jesus actually existed in history in any case? Believers have their spiritual Jesus who lives in them, non believers have the Jesus story for what it’s worth.
Toto, there is also a podcast Richard Carrier made about arguments that mythicists shouldn’t use, which I think may still be floating around online somewhere. But Carrier certainly does not agree with Neil that mainstream historians in other fields and those working on the historical Jesus use different methods. He offered a very clear and direct response to Steven Carr about this in the comments section on a post on his (I.e. Richard Carrier’s) blog.
‘But Carrier certainly does not agree with Neil that mainstream historians in other fields and those working on the historical Jesus use different methods.’
..every single historian who has examined these methods has confirmed their invalidity (I cite half a dozen, all prominent scholars in the field of Jesus studies). I just summarize what they argue, and build on it. The problem here is that (as I also mentioned in the interview) the quantity of publications has become so huge that experts are failing to even become aware of crucial works in their field. Most peers are still operating in complete ignorance of the fact that other peers have refuted the methods they still regard as standard
Sadly for James, Carrier was explicit that methods used by ‘prominent scholars in the field of Jesus studies’ have had their invalidity confirmed.
I’m just following up on what other Scholars have done, demonstrating that the current methodology is bankrupt, it’s invalid. It’s this what they call “criteria of historicity that they’re using.
The most common is like the argument from embarrassment, the criterion of double dissimilarity and all these fancy names. Some are obviously the argument from vividness and what not. There’s a list, I come out with about 31 of these things [laughter] with overlap and different uses of words. They’re probably may be a 100 that have been advocated.
But they’d all probably reduce to at least 31, maybe even less than 31. There’s probably some more where I’ll have to go dig up the ones I’ve identified. I go through point by point showing how they’re logically invalid. They don’t lead to the conclusions that they purport to.
Dr. McGrath – you have this frustrating habit of replying with a vague reference to something that was written somewhere else. It’s bad enough when you reference arguments you made on your own blog at some undetermined time. Do you expect me to read through Carrier’s blog looking for this comment that would fly in the face of everything else that he has written on the subject? How do I know that you aren’t just misremembering something? If I Google arguments that mythicists should not use, I only find a blog post on AIGBusted, which talks about avoiding references to Freke and Gandy or Acharya S, or pagan parallels.
Perhaps you are thinking of the interview on Common Sense Atheism http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=10150 – if so, you might want to refresh you memory of what Carrier said.
With respect to his statement in response to Steven Carr about historians working on Jesus and those working in other areas, I think I was thinking of what he wrote on his blog here. As for the Carrier interview, it was taken down from its original site and so it keeps disappearing and reappearing around the internet. The original address was “http://odeo.com/episodes/7840813-Richard-Carrier-How-Not-to-Argue-The-Mythicist-Position” and the podcast’s title was “How Not To Argue the Mythicist Position.”
James, your link to the Carrier interview leads to the same page that Toto links to. That page — presumably you are referring to the same interview with Carrier (it includes both audio and transcript) — contains the same passages by Carrier that Steven Carr quoted in response to your earlier comment #57. Toto was referring to the same interview that your link leads to.
Was Steven just “quote mining” tendentiously?
What in the transcript are you wishing to draw our attention to?
As I said to Toto, it was something Richard Carrier said in the comments section. Here is the direct link to the comment that I felt was most relevant.
Was it this section among Carrier’s comments there that you were wishing to draw to our attention?
If not that one, which passage was it?
James McGrath says that Biblical scholars use the same methods as historians working in other fields.
Robin Lane Fox is an eminent historian of other fields of ancient history.
Curiously, in his book on the Bible ‘The Unauthorised Version’, he never once employs any of McGrath’s criteria, or even considers them to be worth discussing.
I wonder why historians working in other fields, if they look at the NT, never use the methods Biblical scholars use.
Lane Fox keeps talking about primary sources, secondary sources, inscriptions and coins etc.
When we all know that a True Historian talks about criterion of embarrassment, criterion of double dissimilarity etc.
Another area of New Testament “historiography” that is shunned by historians, specifically Robin Lane Fox, is the use of Q as a historical source: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/5254
FTA: The simple truth is that most NT scholars are dilettantes when it comes to using the historical method in a sound way. I don’t know any academic field were so much nonsense and speculation is taken seriously as in the world of exegetics.
I was deeply offended by this statement. Why does he have to insult dilettantes like that?
One other interesting statement by Carrier in that comments section you point us to is where he says that one of the requirements of a professional historian is his or her ability to demonstrate awareness of the arguments and merits on all sides of a debate.
You might want to think about that one when you do your next chapter review of Doherty’s book, don’t you think?
James, here is what I actually said: