Historians on Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

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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14 thoughts on “Historians on Jesus”

  1. ‘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’

    Don’t Biblical Historians work exactly like this?

    ‘Even historians of Jesus 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 Christian philosophy and (inter-Christian) politics. As far as I am aware historians do not discuss the “historical Jesus”. They simply accept the accounts of Jesus in order to discuss Christian thought’

    Take the very latest issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament


    Luke’s Use of Mark as παράφρασις: Its Effects on Characterization in the ‘Healing of Blind Bartimaeus’ Pericope (Mark 10.46-52/Luke 18.35-43)

    ‘‘The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus’, as Mk 10.46-52 is often called, has been taken over and restated with various changes in Lk. 18.35-43. This article views Luke’s modification of the account in terms of πάράφράσις (‘paraphrase’), a progymnasmatic exercise in which the writer changed the form of expression while keeping the thoughts. It is argued that Luke’s πάράφράσις of Mark’s account enhances characterization of three characters— Jesus, the λάός (‘people’) and the ‘blind man’—by creating a favorable portrait of each of them over against some respective inferior counterpart.’

    No attempt to discover historical ‘facts’ is being done in this peer-reviewed journal.

    All the Biblical historians are doing is treating the Biblical text exactly the way you might discuss how Hollywood made books into films – what did they change, what message did the changes try to convey etc?

    Biblical historians take for granted that the ‘facts’ were pliable, and all they can recover is what spin what author put on the stories.

    A methodology for sifting fact from fiction is not apparent in any article in the entire issue of this peer-reviewed journal.

    Every single article in this peer-reviewed journal can be read without ever once having to imagine Jesus of Nazareth existed.

  2. Good point. I was thinking of those big books by HJ scholars that attempt to argue that Jesus did this or said that, and that we know he did all of this stuff despite some dissenting voices, etc.

    I really do enjoy reading a lot of biblical scholarship simply because much of it does throw light how the gospels came together, what different details indicate about the background of the author and audience, etc. I’m especially interested in those scholars who study the Gospels as literature. And Engberg-Pedersen’s et al’s books are excellent eye-openers into the thought-world from which the epistles emerged.

    All of this is fascinating stuff (well, I think so, anyway).

    What these scholars are doing is on the side of valid history. They are opening up a world of understanding from a justiable treatment of the texts.

  3. It is worth pointing out that, just as plenty of people study the dialogues of Plato without asking about the historical Socrates, plenty of people study the literature of the New Testament as literature or in terms of the history of ideas. And so one has to look and see whether a particular article about Socrates, Jesus, or whoever is about historical questions or other kinds of questions. This is so taken for granted among academics, that perhaps we need to make greater efforts to clarify it for a wider audience.

    Anyway, here are some thoughts in response to this post: http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/08/13/historians-on-jesus/

  4. There is a serious methodological lapse, I think, which I’ll articulate by an analogy to scientific hypothesis testing. The first step beyond simple observation is the selection of a hypothesis to test. It’s often overlooked, but the careful selection of plausible, testable hypotheses is a highly valued skill in the sciences. And how one goes about testing the hypothesis is at heart a series of attempts to disconfirm it, often by attempting to confirm a bundle of exclusive hypotheses, always including, for reference, the null hypothesis, that says the effect you’re looking for doesn’t exist or doesn’t impinge in a statistically significant way on the data you’re using to test your hypothesis.

    And an easy methodoligical trap to fall into is to avoid the null hypothesis by mining your previous results for your hypotheses as you refine and continue your study. Those results are generally from the testing of hypotheses that you failed to disconfirm, carefully chosen hypotheses in the first place. It’s a way of limiting your domain of available testable hypotheses to those most likely also to not be disconfirmed by the methods you’ve been using for data collection and testing. Following this process, your methods’ ability to disconfirm the null hypothesis diminishes. People like positive results, though, and so have a strong tendency not to question abundance. The null hypothesis is a downer, in other words, and the rock upon which have foundered not a few experimental programs, in a great many disciplines.

    This all has to do with the sciences, though, and not with history. I realize that history doesn’t have the same clearly defined methodology for hypothesis generation and testing, and it is hard to say what role falsification and the null hypothesis necessarily play in the practice. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lesson in the risk of the invitation to circularity by only looking “where the light is best” for one’s hypotheses, that is, in domains where the same methods have already generated a positive result, and rarely checking results against an analogue null hypothesis. By analogy and in the context of this discussion, the reader probably assumes that the null hypothesis here would be that Jesus didn’t exist. But not necessarily, or even sensically. Because the null hypothesis is just a way of expressing that the effect you’re studying isn’t detectable by your methods. In the case of the historical Jesus, the hypotheses of which are generated directly from the positive results of literary criticism on the canonical and early Christian texts (“criteriology” included), the null hypothesis would simply be that those texts don’t reflect any actual historical events in the life of Jesus. That such a person did not exist would be a perfectly sensible explanation for this state of affairs, but hardly the only one.

  5. Hi CJO,

    You posted this at the time I was drafting my post on an alternative way of studying Christian origins and I think your comment complements that post perfectly.

    One of the reasons for mythicism’s resilience is that, however informally, it poses questions to test the predictive power of the historical Jesus hypothesis and the hypothesis struggles to answer them. e.g. If Jesus appointed a group to succeed him then we would expect to find reference to those authorities as such authorities in the literature after Jesus’ death.

    By analysing the Gospels to understand exactly what they are and how they are composed, we can next look to see what best accounts for their narrative content.

    This surely works for, say, Thucydides. Often this sort of process is taken for granted. But when scholars do stop to make a special effort with it, as Mandell and Freedman did with Herodotus, then some interesting results can happen.

    Testing the results against what we should expect given what we know of oral traditions, midrash, Jewish novels, etc, etc, won’t “disprove” the historical Jesus, and in theory have the potential to “confirm” it, well at least within a probability range.

    1. Neil wrote:

      “If Jesus appointed a group to succeed him then we would expect to find reference to those authorities as such authorities in the literature after Jesus’ death.”

      This depends on what you mean by “the literature.” There are references in noncanonical Christian writings from the second century on that indicate that Jesus appointed successors. Clement of Alexandria says that “James the Righteous, John, and Peter were entrusted by the Lord after his resurrection with the higher knowledge. They imparted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the Seventy, one of whom was Barnabas,” EH 2.1).

      Wherever he got this idea, it is in keeping with the status of the church “pillars” James, Cephas and John in Galatians 2:9. James is listed first in both references, which could be a reflection of his importance and why he tends to overshadow the others elsewhere (including in Galatians).

      This process can be seen at work in Hegesippus, who says that “Control of the church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time to our own has called the Righteous,” (EH 2.23).

      I understand that most Christian literature is late or suspect for whatever reason, but it remains that there are sources that mention that Jesus appointed James as his successor. In the Gospel of Thomas 12, he tells his disciples that after he is gone they are to “go to James the Righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into existence.” When exactly was Thomas written? In any event, it is supported by Paul (by inferrence), Clement of Alexandria and Hegesippus, the latter of whom knew the Gospel of the Hebrews, a Syriac gospel, “works in Hebrew … and … other matters as coming from Jewish oral traditions” (EH 4.21).

      The Apostolic Constitutions present James as “the brother of Christ according to the flesh … and one appointed Bishop of Jerusalem by the Lord himself,” (8.35).

      These kinds of traditions were known to Eusebius, who says that James was “the first to receive from the Savior and His apostles the episcopacy of the Jerusalem church, and was called Christ’s brother, as the sacred books show,” (EH 7.19).

      Perhaps additional evidence of the substance of this tradition is the total silence about it in Acts. Doesn’t it seem odd that this work, which presents itself as a history of the early church, is completely silent about how James came to lead it? If there was no reality behind the tradition of being appointed by Jesus, where (and why) did everyone else (orthodox and Jewish Christian) get this idea? But if there is some sort of reality behind it, isn’t it obvious why doesn’t Acts doesn’t mention it? It has an arguably pro-Pauline agenda, and by their own accounts Paul and James did not agree with one another.

      1. Clement of Alexandria is very late.

        The obvious reason why ‘Luke’ never mentions that Jesus had a brother called James, and why the Epistles of James and of Jude are innocent of any hint that James was a brother of Jesus,and why the Gospel of Thomas never mentions that Jesus had a brother called James, is that James was not a brother of Jesus

        1. However late (though I wouldn’t call it “very”), and, as I said earlier, wherever Clement (c. 150- c. 215) got this idea, it is in keeping with the status of the church “pillars” James, Cephas and John in Galatians 2:9.

          I also said that I understand that while most Christian literature is late or suspect, there are sources that say that Jesus appointed James as his successor, which is all I’m pointing out. Whether James was also his brother is an inevitably related question, but not something I was arguing for in my comment.

          But I would guess that the reason that Luke does not refer to Jesus having a brother named James could have something to do with its arguable pro-Pauline agenda, which also seems to be the reason for the silence in Acts about how James came to lead the early church. But Luke 8:19-20 and Acts 1:14 (as well as John 7:3-10) say that Jesus had brothers, and so does Thomas 99. And Mark and Matthew following him (13:55) name them and include a James among them.

          I don’t know why James or Jude do not mention that James or anyone else was Jesus’ brother.

        1. Paul is the first to mention the “twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5), of course, and this could have something to do with symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, but I also like Eisenman’s idea that this (along with the three
          “pillars” James, Cephas and John) could also have something to do with the “twelve men and three priests” who formed the Council of the Community of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 8.1). It’s another coincidence (in a long line of them) that I don’t think is just a coincidence.

          I realize I might be overzealous in bringing up the DSS, but I think I have a fairly good idea of the overall Christian origins landscape, and I’m absolutely convinced that the Scrolls are an integral part of it.

  6. NEIL
    One of the reasons for mythicism’s resilience is that, however informally, it poses questions to test the predictive power of the historical Jesus hypothesis and that hypothesis struggles to answer them. e.g. If Jesus appointed a group to succeed him then we would expect to find reference to those authorities as such authorities in the literature after Jesus’ death.

    This is especially clear when Professor Maurice Casey can write on page 186 of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ that the Twelve were of fundamental importance and just a sentence or so later claim that only the central group of three played any significant role in the church for any considerable time after Jesus death (while also claiming that the church used wax tablets written by somebody who was not one of the central group of three)

    The predictive power of the historical Jesus hypothesis appears to be zero, as Bible scholars have to resort to ad hoc rationalisations of why authorities appointed by Jesus, authorities ‘of fundamental importance’ never played any significant role.

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