Obviously the fact that people can speak about Jesus as if he had really existed does not mean that he really did exist.
But what if historians (whose careers are in history faculties that have nothing to do with biblical studies) who write about the Roman empire mention Jesus as the founder of the Christian religion. Do they make such a statement on the basis of their independent or even collective scholarly research into whether Jesus really did exist or not? I think we can be confident in answering, No. I think we can further say that, if really pushed, many would say that for the purposes of what they wrote, they would not care if he existed or not. What they are addressing is not the historicity of Jesus, but the historical fact that Christianity had its beginnings in the first century in the Eastern part of the empire. What they are addressing is the fact of the appeal and reasons for the spread of Christianity.
The reason they might phrase an initiating discussion with reference to Jesus himself as the founder of Christianity is because this is the commonly accepted understanding of Christian origins, and it is, at bottom, quite beside the point for their own purposes — which are explaining Christianity’s spread and influence in the empire — whether it turns out that Jesus himself really was or was not the founder of Christianity.
Of course there are some historians who have written at more length about Jesus, and I’m thinking in particular of Michael Grant. But all Grant has done in his book on Jesus is defer to the scholarship of biblical historians who do little more than accept the Gospel narrative as a basic core historical outline of the historical Jesus and who do little more than paraphrase it in more or less greater detail as they apply this or that criterion, or this or that cross-disciplinary research, to refine its points here and there. That the narrative is essentially a product of oral tradition originating with an historical event alluded to in the narrative is never questioned.
So when a biblical historian writes
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.
it strikes me that the biblical historian is being quite naive.
Earlier the same historian appeared to inform us that we know Jesus is historical because of the “collective judgment of historians”:
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.
Presumably he means here biblical historians. I would doubt he means to suggest that nonbiblical historians, such as those history faculties independent of religion ones, have made a “careful evaluation of the evidence” to inform their “collective judgment”.
So if I am correct, then he is appealing to nonbiblical historians who accept the historicity of Jesus solely on the grounds that they defer to the authority of biblical scholars. (I have asked him if I am correct but he has declined to respond.)
So it is quite pointless (and misleading) for anyone simply to wave their hand at all the times “all historians” speak of Jesus as a historical person and say that anyone who questions the historicity of Jesus is somehow defying the collective judgement of “all historians” (e.g. in addition to the above link, also here and here).
Historians generally have a lot of facts at hand to work with and to seek to explain and turn into narratives. Those facts are known primarily through public records and contemporary sources. When it comes to ancient history there are, of course, fewer records to work with, and the known facts are accordingly scarcer. But for most historians that only changes the sorts of questions that can be asked when approaching a time with less abundant material.
But it is ONLY in the field of historical Jesus studies, as far as I am aware, that biblical historians cannot agree on a substantive body of historical facts about the person they are studying, and must accordingly resort to criteriology in order to construct “probabilities” of what may be factual — with all such reconstructions open to debate. The only detail on which I believe all HJ scholars agree is that Jesus was crucified. I know of no other undisputed “fact” of his life.
Surely it is clear that HJ scholars have departed from the methods of other historians. The HJ scholars do not curtail the questions they can ask because of the absence clearly known facts and the unprovenanced nature of their sources. No, they embark on a quest to find some facts to work with by means of criteriology. (Would this narrative detail be embarrassing to an early writer? Why yes, so it is probably true!)
I don’t know if any other area of history works this way. As far as I am aware this process is unique to HJ scholars.
Even historians of Socrates do not work like this. They take the facts and sources as we have them and discuss what those sources allow us to discuss — the nature of early Greek philosophy and politics. As far as I am aware historians do not discuss the “historical Hillel”. They simply accept the accounts of Hillel in order to discuss rabbinic thought. Whether or not there was a historical Hillel is quite beside the point and would make no difference to their studies.
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