Another way to study Christian origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Updated 5 hours after posting to expand Schweitzer quote.
Sibyl reading the book of history
Sibyl reading the book of history: Image via Wikipedia

The approach I like to take is one I learned from the way historians (certainly many of them at any rate) investigate other topics, whether in modern, medieval or ancient times.

I have used the example of Alexander the Great before, so for convenience I use it again here. It’s a safe bet to say that the existence and conquering career of Alexander is a “fact of history”. We have primary evidence from his own time still surviving (e.g. coins) and testifying to his place in history. We have much other evidence for major cultural, economic and political changes throughout the Middle East that are most cogently explained as the result of his conquests. So when we read secondary sources about him we have supporting knowledge that assures us that these sources are about someone real. We might call this sort of supporting knowledge “external controls” that we can bring to our reading of the secondary sources.

The problem with studying Christian origins as if Jesus himself were the historical founder of Christianity is that we have no similar controls to support the New Testament narratives. This is why, after discussing the problems with using Josephus and Tacitus as evidence for the historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer wrote:

In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability. (From page 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

So what is the safest way to approach the Gospel narratives about Jesus?

In the case of other historical figures historians have the advantage of secondary sources that are of known provenance.

  1. Diodorus Siculus (1st century bce): 17th book of Universal History
  2. Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century ce): History of Alexander
  3. Plutarch (2nd century ce): Life of Alexander
  4. Flavius Arrianus Xenophon (Arrian) (2nd century ce): Campaigns of Alexander
  5. M. Junianus Justinus (Justin) (3rd century ce): epitomized the work of Pompeius Trogus (Augustan age)

These literary sources, as is clear just from listing them here, include the identities of their authors. They also include reassuring statements about the sources used by those authors. These sources are written in a recognizable genre that we associate with serious efforts to convey information about the past — or at least drawing on the lessons of past events to inspire or teach certain values to their readers. And part of that genre involves writing about a “real historical person” to whom mythologies and legends attached themselves — as distinct from writing about a person who is reduced to a virtual nonentity once the miraculous is removed.

It is even better when we have the additional control of other secondary sources also testifying independently of our documents and of our subject of historical inquiry. So we have, for example, an admirer of Socrates, Plato, speaking of his teacher, and also a contemporary satirical playwright, Aristophanes, mocking Socrates. The different literary sources for Julius Caesar are often referencing each other or their authors.

Unfortunately we lack any such controls — and we lack even a provenance — when it comes to the Gospels. Moreover, the Gospels are of an unclear, certainly debatable, genre. Genre informs us how we are to read something. (It is understandable that many Christians want to argue that the Gospels are biographies, but the main arguments for this (Burridge) look to me like a series of dot-points of superficial comparisons lacking any theoretical foundation. There is much more scholarly basis to the argument (Vines) that they should really be read as a form of Jewish novel.)

So how should we study the Gospels in our quest for Christian origins?

We don’t know who wrote them, when, where, for whom or even why. We can make educated guesses about some of these things, but these will always be open to debate, of course.

We can see clear evidence in the narratives of an interest in using stories to deliver theological messages. The same stories sometimes vary across the gospels in order to convey different theological messages. We can also see clear evidence that many of their anecdotes, and even certain images, words and larger structural units are derived from other identifiable literary sources — especially those in the Hebrew Bible.

From surviving sources we discover that the Gospels make their impact in the wider literary world for the first time well into the second century where they meet clear theological (cum political) needs of “the church”. Further, the narrative within the Gospels itself does not appear to have been widely known or accepted until that time. (Justin appears to speak of King Herod and the Jews crucifying Jesus in the time of Pilate, for example, not unlike the scenario in the Gospel of Peter. Judas is certainly unknown.)

If the story of Jesus in the gospels were based on historical events then scholars would have many difficulties attempting to explain how this Jesus was exalted to such a high divine status (sustainer and creator of the world, etc) in such a very short time after his death, how people who once ignored or despised him or who were disillusioned by him turned around overnight to worship him and persuade thousands of others to do likewise across the world. And several other problems that preoccupy NT scholars. Surely there must be a more natural explanation for Christian origins, one consistent with the norms of human experience.

We could assume that the Gospel narrative is based on memories or traditions in some sense historically true. But we have no grounds for doing so, and several for not doing so (as alluded to above). In fact, assuming the narrative is historical is a logically flawed start. I copy here my notes from what P.R. Davies wrote in relation to historians who have in the past assumed the biblical narrative of the united Kingdom Israel and subsequent history of the divided kingdom is historical to highlight the logical fallacy. In the blue column is a common rationale for asserting the historicity of a biblical narrative.

1. “The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.” This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up.
2. “Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.” This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.
3. “Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.” Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”
4. “Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed down through many generations.” This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

I think there is a sounder, more valid approach to studying the Gospel narratives as sources for early Christianity:

  1. seek to understand first what sorts of stories they are (scholars are doing this already), including genre studies, studies in intertextuality, midrash, etc.
  2. seek to understand what gave rise to the narrative content in the Gospels. Is it best explained as the penning of varying oral traditions, and if so, are these from historical memories? Or are the narrative details best explained as symbolic of a “new Israel” and end of the “old”? Such questions will of course require a close attention to the broader context (rivalries with rabbinic schools, persecutions, etc?) at the time they were written. (Again scholars are in many instances very engaged with some of these studies now; but many also work on the assumption that only one of these is correct — the oral tradition source — and do not open themselves to questioning this. As a result they sometimes neglect to justify this assumption from the narratives themselves and against other explanations.)

There’s very little I saying here that is new. As I have said, scholars are already engaged in the relevant studies. What seems to me to be missing is a more neutral ground for such investigations where they can be examined afresh without the blinkers of what I think is the unjustifiable assumption a core historicity in the Gospels’ narratives.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Another way to study Christian origins”

  1. In case a more jaundiced eye does not notice it, there is nothing in my post that is ‘an argument for mythicism’. My interest is in understanding Christian origins. We tend to often like romantic ideas of great heroic founders of things, but sometimes sociological, anthropological and historical researches show that great movements have more subtle and complex roots. The reason I have sometimes objected to being called a ‘mythicist’ is found in the post above. The approach to Christian origins that interests me could theoretically lead to either a historical Jesus or a mythical Jesus. The approach is neutral on the question, but I elect for it because I believe it is more justifiable than the a priori assumption of historicity.

    My interest is not in arguing “for mythicism” and “against the historical Jesus” per se. If I was on some sort of vendetta or crusade to attack Christianity I would do something along the lines of what John Loftus does with his blog, Debunking Christianity — and instructively John Loftus knows that arguing for mythcism is not the way to get people’s attention and turn them off Christianity. As Toto pointed out in a recent comment, and as Schweitzer himself said, historicity should ideally make no difference to the Christian believer in a spiritual Christ living in them.

  2. Hi Neil,

    Thanks so much for your blog. I am trying to write an essay defending mythicism, so your blog has been a very useful source, and has increased my understanding of a number of issues. On the issue of understanding the gospels, have you seen R.G Price (not to be confused with R.M Price!) analysis of the gospel of Mark? He argues, I think convincingly (although admitedly I haven’t read much other scholarship on Mark), that it is a work of Jewish allegorical fiction. The underlying message, following a long tradition of Jewish literature, is that the Jews were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem; they brought it on themselves. He also makes a good case that the author of Mark, had read Paul’s letters. One particular interesting example, is that he takes the apostles, Peter and James – who are the ‘pillars of the church’ in Paul letters – and uses them as the key disciples of Jesus in the gospel.

    Any thoughts?


  3. Hi Johnny,

    Thanks for the links. Yes, as for the Gospel of Mark being some sort of allegory (probably not the right word) — I have long been interested in understanding it in the tradition of the “Old Testament” books. Stories of the Exodus, the patriarchs, judges, David are all theological fiction, and I suspect Mark is the same. It was, just as those OT stories were, written for people who saw themselves as “a new Israel”. The lessons of “old Israel” were for the edification of the “new”. Paul explicitly says this, too.

    The tomb (hewn out of a rock — Isa. 22:16) is symbolic of the Temple. Jesus (Joshua) is the greater (heavenly) successor to Moses and the old religion that was effectively destroyed in 70 c.e. The gospel is all about establishing a new identity for people dislocated from the old. It was an alternative to following the rabbinic response to the destruction of the Temple. The Gospels’ authors project their own rivalries with their fellow (rabbinic) Jews into their narratives.

    The Christianity that existed before 70 c.e. was probably unrecognizable to us as such because of its complete absence of any concept of a Gospel narrative and a Jesus in such a narrative. The NT letters should be seen as pre-Gospel narrative concept — not as pre-Gospel recording of a tradition that predated Paul. That’s why Doherty’s explanations are beyond the comprehension of people like McGrath — many cannot conceive of reading Paul any other way.

    I like Tolbert’s case for Mark depicting the disciples, led by the “rock” Peter, as the “rocky soil” of the parable. Matthew turned the unstable rocky soil into the rock-pillar. I simply don’t know about Mark’s relationship to the letters of Paul, however. I have not yet found any argument persuasive, myself. But I can’t say I have read them all. But if Paul was pre-70 c.e. it is reasonable to think “Mark” may have known of the letters. But I don’t know.

    1. Neil wrote:

      “The Christianity that existed before 70 c.e. was probably unrecognizable to us as such because of its complete absence of any concept of a Gospel narrative and a Jesus in such a narrative. The NT letters should be seen as pre-Gospel narrative concept — not as pre-Gospel recording of a tradition that predated Paul.”

      I agree with this completely. The only major difference between you and me is that I am convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls are this “unrecognizable” Christianity that existed before 70 CE. This appears to be the situation whether or not one thinks that Jesus was a myth.

      Regardless of carbon dating, this idea makes the best sense to me of what Eisenman calls the internal data of the DSS. It seems “crazy” to dismiss the similarities between post-70 Christianity and the language of the Scrolls, such as the New Covenant, Damascus, the Way, the Poor, and even seeing “Jesus” (in the sense of salvation). These are only the more obvious examples.

      They were messianic Jews who believed they were living in the “last days,” led by someone called “the righteous one” who had an anti-Torah enemy who “raise[d] a congregation on deceit” (1QpHab 10.10), and they interpreted the same OT verses we find in the NT. The list can go on and on.

      At the same time, this “Christianity” is “unrecognizable,” in that it is not peaceful or “turn the other cheek” oriented. It is not about compromising with rulers or “render[ing] unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” It is not about embracing gentiles (or Jews) who reject the Torah, and expects them all to be destroyed. The difference between this and post-70 Christianity is mostly a matter of political orientation, which is probably why the latter survived and the former (excepting for a time whatever remnants became the Ebionites) didn’t.

      It seems a “simple,” logical, reasonable enough conclusion, which answers a lot of questions while still leaving open the possiblity that Jesus was a myth that was later historicized.

  4. The genre is called “gospel”, which is a happy-ending story about Jesus Christ. The genre’s purpose was that the happy endings would console, assure and enthuse Christians.

    Instead of wasting your time comparing the Greek-language narrative gospels with Hebrew-language analytical midrashes, you should spend your time reading fan-fiction on the Internet. For example, here is a collection of fan-fiction stories about the movie Dirty Dancing.

    These stories elaborate on one original story that already is established as deserving adoration and devotion. In the case of Christianity, the original story was the mystical vision that Jesus Christ had descended from Heaven’s Seventh Level to the Firmament, where he experienced a crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Based on this original story, enthusiastic young Christians, who came to the religion too late to experience the mystical vision, competed with each other in writing, sharing, collecting and distributing “gospels”, which imagined what might happen if Jesus descended to Earth.

    At the end of the movie Dirty Dancing, Johnny Castle and Baby Houseman still were not even boyfriend and girlfriend, so a multitude of fan-fiction stories had to be written about how eventually they continued and developed their relationship into dating, engagement and marriage. The purpose of writing these stories is to express one’s self as a devoted enthusiast, as a fan, of the movie. The purpose is to show off one’s own clever ability to create stories that elaborated the adored story.

    The young, Greek-speaking Christianity fans who created and distributed the gospels were guided by the same mentality. If Jesus Christ descended to Earth, then the first thing he would do would be to go to Simon Peter’s own hometown and cure people who had not been able to experience Peter’s vision, because they were blind. And then Jesus would reassure that formerly blind person, telling him he merely had to believe.

    Those Christianity fans understood that Jesus Christ was a mystical appearance, not a real human being, just as the Dirty Dancing fans understand that Johnny Castle is just a movie character, not a real human being.

    As the years and decades pass, however, such fan-fiction might develop some reality. Suppose that movie historian demonstrates that the character Johnny Castle was based on a real human being who really was a dance instructor at a summer resort that was visited by the family of Eleanor Bergstein, the woman who wrote the screenplay of the movie Dirty Dancing.

    Something similar happened with the Christianity fan-fiction gospels. As the years and decades passed, an idea developed that there really was a Jesus Christ who descended to Earth. Some Christians argued that at least some of the gospels were based on real events and real people. Eventually someone, “Matthew”, assembled many of the gospels into a long, coherent narrative that was plausible as a real history. Then someone else, “Luke” and “John” produced similar works. (Last of all, “Mark” was written as a compromise between “Matthew” and “Luke” as the text for an initiation ceremony.)

    That is how Christianity was transformed from essentially a mystical religion into essentially a historical religion.

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