Daily Archives: 2011-08-15 09:45:57 UTC

The fallacy at the heart of historical Jesus scholarship

I post the following in good faith after having attempted multiple times to elicit advice from a New Testament scholar on its accuracy.

Historical Jesus scholarship is unlike other historical studies in the following way:

Historical Jesus scholars (or “historians”)  set about applying a set of criteria (embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, etc) to the Gospels for the purpose to trying to find what is factual (or “very probably factual”) about anything that Jesus actually did.

This is different from what other historians do since other historians, as far as I am aware, are much luckier. They have public records and eye-witness and contemporary accounts and documents of verifiable provenance to work with. They have sufficient data to be able to interpret to give them assurance that they have a body of “historical facts” to work with. No historian can get away with suggesting Hitler or Napoleon or Julius Caesar did not become leaders and wage wars and institute major political reforms and a host of other things that are known facts about them. I am not saying we know everything there is to know about them, or that some things we think we know may not be apocryphal, but I am saying that we have clearly verifiable substantial numbers of facts about their lives to enable historians to study them. History is not about simply recording known facts, but about explaining, interpreting, and narrating those known facts.

In the cases of ancient figures lacking a body of verifiable facts in the historical record, historians do not bother to address their lives as matters of historical inquiry at all. Their names may appear in the history of ideas, but that is quite a different matter. If it wasn’t Hillel who really did say something, it is the fact that the ideas are attributed to someone or some group that is significant, not the specific historicity per se of the name.

Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, do not work like this. They have no commonly agreed facts about Jesus. The only datum they seem to agree is a “fact” is that he was crucified. But as I intimated in my previous post, even that “fact” is based on circular reasoning. But scholars seek to understand his personal history (“the real Jesus”, the “historical Jesus”) by trying to FIND some facts about his life by means of criteriology. read more »