The fallacy at the heart of historical Jesus scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

I submit that no other historian in any other field works likes this, or at least I would be very surprised if any others do. Maybe I can be brought up to date with historical studies that work in the same way as historical Jesus studies.

Indeed, as I pointed out in another recent post, historical Jesus scholars even appear to be able to claim that they sometimes pioneer the field of history by using

  1. fabricated material to get to a more truthful or accurate understanding of a historical person;
  2. defined criteria to establish probabilities of what happened where other historians rely much more on intuition and instinct.

I suggest that no historians of ancient times use “intuition and instinct” — nor the criteria used in HJ studies — to establish a basic fundamental set of historical facts about ancient persons. There is a significant difference between using hunches and criteria to interpret data and facts on the one hand, and using criteria — particularly in the absence of any external controls — to try to find out what happened on the other.

Historians do sometimes use literary analysis of to interpret inferences about historical persons, but only in the cases where there is clear objective evidence (external controls) of the life and career of a historical person to begin with. They do not use such criteria to try to establish all that can be known about a person from the get-go. I will demonstrate how one modern historian works this way in a future post.

On the other hand, for a justifiable approach to the historical study of Christian origins see my previous post.


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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “The fallacy at the heart of historical Jesus scholarship”

  1. Erlend, can you point out to me where any other historical inquiry seeks to establish historical facts entirely on the basis of the sorts of criteria used by HJ scholars (Dr McGrath says New Testament scholars have merely more clearly defined or made explicit the same criteria used by other historians anyway).

    There is an enormous difference between using documents of known and understood genre and provenance, and that are supported by external controls as sources of historical information (I am not saying everything in such documents is historically true, by the way) on the one hand, and the efforts of New Testament scholars (James’ term for them) to find, solely by means of criteriology, some basic historical events/persons/”probable facts” from unprovenanced writings that lack any external controls underpinning their narrative content on the other hand.

    If there is any area of history where historians do anything like this then tell me. I admit I may be unaware of some such area or have overlooked it, so do inform me.

    The fact is that HJ scholars have no set of ‘facts’ to begin with that other historians normally take for granted and around which they frame their inquiries. HJ scholars are preoccupied with finding some facts by this or that criterion (thanks, Bob) that they can then point to and say, Hey, I think Jesus must have done this and that so this is what I think Jesus was like.

    My description of Bruce as a theologian was based directly on the statements in the Editor’s preface as I pointed out. If that was wrong then I — and the books’ editor — must stand corrected.

    Yes I was more flippant in some of my writing style back in 2007 but I was certainly never sneering. That is entirely your own interpretation. One reason I was addressing Bruce’s writings in relation to the biblical studies was because some biblical scholars on a scholarly discussion list were recommending I read them to demolish anything any mythicist might argue. Dr Jeffrey Gibson (if I recall correctly) in particular advised me to read Bruce’s one page dot-points on the Testimonium Flavianum in order to supposedly “rebut” Earl Doherty’s extensive discussion of the topic.

    I studied ancient history myself under a professor who was a devout catholic and his own biases when it came to any topic touching on the New Testament were clear to all in his classes. (And I was a Christian myself, then.) Bruce does not look any different.

  2. I keep waiting for James McGrath to wipe out Neil Godfrey by referencing general history textbooks where historians in non-NT fields teach budding historians how to use the criterion of embarrassment to sift history from myth.

    1. As I understand James he explains that the difference between the study of recent history where we can cross-examine possible witnesses and ancient history where we do not have such witnesses to cross-examine is just that — that we have a narrower range of types of evidence with ancient history (no living witnesses to examine): http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18268

      If my understanding of his interpretation of Tim’s parable is correct, James argues that the detective is quite within his rights to be persuaded by criteria applied to the letters and diaries that a real murder had happened in the past. The only reason he would not investigate that murder is not because it did not happen but because there are no living witnesses. But he would still be persuaded by arguments from criteria that the evidence presented to him did establish that a real murder had happened. http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18268

      For convenience I copy Tim’s parable again here for reference:

      Suppose I visit the police station to report a murder. As evidence I produce a few letters with cryptic references and four anonymous diaries that appear to have been written decades after the fact. Everyone mentioned in the letters and diaries is dead, so there’s no one to question. In fact, there are no public records of anyone involved. There’s no corpse. Most of the landmarks described in the diaries have been razed.

      “But I need witnesses. I need evidence. A body would really help your case, too,” says the detective.

      “But I do have evidence!” I spread the pages over the detectives desk and point. “These are my witnesses.”

      Now to take this tortured analogy to its obvious conclusion, suppose the detective says as he tries to usher me out of his office, in the gentlest way possible, “I’m sorry — there’s nothing I can do. Try not to get too worked up over it. You know, it’s possible that the people in those old anonymous diaries never existed in the first place. Heck, they might just be forgeries.”

      I stop in my tracks and swear that I’ve sorted through the “evidence” and through the use of very clever criteriology have come up with a list of sayings and deeds that are probably true. “Unless you can come up with better methodology, how dare you criticize my belief that somebody really lived and really was murdered?”

      1. I love the allegory; it’s practically Dostoyevskian.
        Though most mythicists (you can call me a “soft” one) reflexively dismiss the Talpiot “Jesus family” tomb, it suggests an obvious addendum:

        After years trailing every shade of herring and goose, our undaunted amateur investigator discovers what appears to be the victim’s gravestone, in a family plot in an abandoned cemetery whose records were destroyed in the church-fire of aught-one. The grave is greatly disturbed, and the body is gone. The plot shows signs of repeated tampering, and—for good measure—is decorated with a single unique, unidentifiable, but highly suggestive design.
        Our investigator’s field is still pretty much wide open. But at least he’s got a decent case that the victim actually existed, and a greater hope of finding further clues, eventually…

        It further strikes me that this is the way many gospel stories developed…

  3. Neil,

    If you really do think that: “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. ” then you have a incredibly slight grasp of classical history outside of say, the documents surrounding the fall of the Republic. I’m not saying the points you raise don’t have merits, but your desire to create a schism between what Biblical historians and historians do wont help you- its just not accurate. Its rhetorical bluster.

    I mean look at what you tried to do to F. F. Bruce in the first three paragraphs at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/01/16/rip-ffbruce-on-suetonius-and-chrestus/ Again you try to role out this common theme.Three times you try to set up a difference between historians and historical studies against the theologian Bruce. Only this time it patently doesn’t work. You seem oblivious to the fact that F. F. Bruce was a classicist by training, not a theologian. His recent biographer Tim Grass spends almost a whole chapter looking at why he was criticized, and why he refused, to bring theology into his historical analysis which was brought over from his classical history training!On this approach see his methodology espoused in Bruce’s article ‘The New Testament and Classical Studies’, New Testament Studies, 1976. But you disagree with his analysis (and I agree with your criticisms by the way! and it is NOT unique to Biblical history) so you take the time to (quite sneeringly) cast him as a theologian for your readers.

      1. Yes Evan I am sure. Bruce was a classicist, he trained in classics in Aberdeen and Cambridge. He started his PhD in Roman slavery in Vienna but was appointed a lecturer in classical studies in Edinburgh from 1935-1938 (which meant he never completed a PhD) and he became a lecturer in classics at Leeds from 1938-1947. He first entered a Biblical Studies department (with no theology faculty, just historians by the way) in Sheffield in 1947. What you are thinking about is that he received a honorary doctorate in Divinity from Aberdeen ten years later.

  4. Several years ago, I was painting a room in my house. I was apparently sleep-deprived or perhaps caffeine-deficient that morning, because when I reached behind me, I grabbed not a screwdriver, but a wood chisel. Without thinking, I placed the tip of the chisel under the lid of the paint can and pushed. A moment later, I had one unopened can of paint and one broken wood chisel.

    I often think of that day with my ruined wood chisel and my utter self-disgust whenever I see NT scholars use criteriology to discover bedrock facts. If you want good results, you have to use the appropriate tool to the task.

    So yes, McG. may be correct when he says that HJ scholars use the same tools that other historians use. But he fails to recognize how those tools are being inappropriately used. At the very least the tools are being pushed to the breaking point. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s observation:

    “In sawing wood it is important not to press down too hard on the saw; the lighter the pressure exerted by the sawyer, the better the saw operates.”

    Of course, if you’re trying to cut wood with a crowbar or a spanner, it doesn’t matter how much pressure you use.

  5. For what it’s worth I copy a reply I left on ExploringOurMatrix in response to someone who thought he rebutted my argument by pointing to the way historians interpret the evidence for the battle of Kadesh with this:

    You can start with the two conflicting accounts of the battle of Kadesh; both the Egyptians and the Hittites claim victory, and the Egyptian record in particular contains claims of divine intervention and obvious exaggerations.[1]

    These two texts are the ONLY evidence for the battle of Kadesh. Despite the fact that archaeologists know where the battle was fought, despite the fact that 5,000 chariots and over 50,000 men were involved, and despite the fact that the battle took two days, there is not a single scrap of direct physical evidence that it ever took place at all. All we have are these two texts, which both contradict each other and cannot be verified independently.

    So, with two texts which disagree on almost every detail of an event for which there is no physical evidence whatsoever, how are facts to be determined? Bear in mind that there is NO scholarly consensus on an outcome; an Egyptian victory, a Hittite victory, and a draw, have all been proposed.

    Fabrizio responded with this — a post I found encouraging since I did not realize my thoughts on the matter were much known given my own often bumbling attempts to express them:

    Dear Jonathan, in my opinion your analogy (the battle of Kadesh as an example of use of tools to discover historical fact outside NT studies) is incorrect, and when correctly rephrased it backfires.

    The correct parallels with Neil’s methodology is the following:

    Historicity of Jesus >> Historicity of the battle of Kadesh
    Details of the life of Jesus >> Details of the battle

    Neil is saying that before we can discuss the details of Jesus’s life we must discuss the overall question of his historicity. Lacking any primary evidence for this, we are left with secondary evidences of uncertain provenance, date and (often) unknown authorship. The literary genre of these documents is very far even from ancient historiography, and they are full of incredible details. They all originated from the Christian movement itself.

    In the end, there is no external attestation.

    The question of the historicity of Jesus is then, according to Neil (please correct me, Neil, if I’m mistaken) an ill founded historical enterprise, as it would be the quest for the historical Abraham or Moses. Strictly speaking, this has little if anything to do with mythicism.

    If we look now at the battle of Kadesh, the situation is dramatically different, and the behaviour of the historians accords pretty well with what Neil has been saying since the beginning of this discussion. In this instance (Kadesh) we have plentiful attestation that the battle has been indeed fought. I mean, primary evidences, unambiguously located at the time of the purported events, both literary and archaeological, such as the inscriptions in several temples built by Ramesses II, as well as the letter written by Ramesses II himself to Hattusili III, and moreover evidences from the other side, i.e., the Hittites. The fact that these evidences are propagandistic in nature has nothing to do with them being primary evidences anyway.

    The differences with respect to the case of Jesus are thus very clear: we have primary evidences, and we have evidences from independent sources (Egyptians and Hittites). These facts give the historians the reasonable certainty that a battle was indeed fought in Kadesh. Therefore they can employ a set of tools to extract the details.

    To summarize what I’m saying: what historians do in the case of the battle of Kadesh is in no way similar to what NT scholars do in the case of the historicity of Jesus. The primary evidences allow them to use a set of tools to try to extract historical details about a historically certain fact. That is not possible in the case of Jesus, and NT scholars use a set of tools as a way to recover the lacking primary evidences.

    Moreover, your particular example shows that the case of the battle of Kadesh is handled by historians just in the way Neil Godfrey recommend.

    Again, please Neil correct me if I misunderstood your thoughts on the matter.

    Best regards to everyone.


    The only point I think I would add to Fabrizio’s outlilne is that the attempt to discover the details of Jesus’ life through criteria is itself a logically flawed enterprise. My response, with details specific to the exchange on the ExplodingOurCakeMix (blame Tim) blog omitted:

    You are correct, Fabrizio. . . . .

    I know of no other area of history where historians use unprovenanced texts whose narrative lacks any control (that is contemporary external confirmation), and that are even of debatable genre to boot, as a source for “historical events”. The Kadesh Battle is one of the more strongly attested events in all of ancient history and no-one had to discover its historicity by applying the criterion of embarrassment to an unprovenanced Hittite tablet in the absence of any other supporting evidence.

    The best that unprovenanced narratives lacking any controls can offer is incidental confirmation of customs, settings, thought-world etc from around the general time period. The fact that the narratives contain genuine historical persons and places does nothing to confirm the historicity of the narrative itself since even Hellenistic novels contain historical persons and places just as modern ones do.

    NT historiography has been said to be “pioneering” at times. Well, modern historians have yet to catch up with these remarkable pioneering contributions: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/how-modern-historians-use-myths-as-historical-sources-or-can-hobsbawm-recover-the-historical-robin-hood/

    What I have argued is nothing different from what Albert Schweitzer himself acknowledged, and that a range of biblical scholars themselves have asserted — and I have quoted several of them over the months and years. It is all about logical validity — and most recently we have Dale C. Allison himself conceding that historical Jesus scholarship, as it is practiced by scholarship today, is trapped within circularity.

    I spelled out exactly the approach that I believe is a valid one to avoid this circularity and even McGrath says he had no real objection to it. http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/another-way-to-study-christian-origins/

    But of course McGrath is approaching it with loaded assumptions about the arguments from genre. My method is not as simplistic in this area as McG has argued in relation to genre himself. Literary analysis necessarily involves comparative literary studies — and McG seems elsewhere to have said these do not have a role in historical inquiry but are a different study entirely. I argue that they are an essential first step to understanding the nature of the evidence being examined historically.

    NT scholars have no more logically valid rationale (I think) for investigating the “historical Jesus” than they do for bothering with “the historical Hillel”. The evidence does not lend itself to the exploration of such a question. That is not to say there was no historical Jesus, but if a historical Jesus is to be taken seriously he needs to be “discovered” by normative historical methods that accepts the limitations and nature of the available evidence.

    “Criteriology” is a sophisticated sounding substitute for real evidence. What it really means, at bottom, is that one analyzes texts the way one might analyze Hamlet and erroneously call the exercise historical inquiry.

    1. For sake of completeness I copy here one more comment I posted. It was in response to some confusion over the apparent difference between establishing the historicity of an event (such as the existence of Jesus) and “finding some facts” to begin with in a text. . . . .

      What is at issue is both the historicity of an event or person and establishing historicity of facts to begin with.

      So we have Jesus appearing in the gospels — most people assume he is an historical person. Can that be confirmed? I think not.

      But scholars have a mass of anecdotes about Jesus in the gospels, and many HJ scholars seek to find out what it is about Jesus that they can say he actually did or did not do or say. The only event they generally accept a priori is the crucifixion. They all accept the historicity of Jesus. They generally all start as agnostics on the details of his life — the facts to be associated with him.

      They begin with a blank slate about this Jesus. So each HJ scholar then presents his or her arguments (based on criteriology) for why they opt for this or that detail to be added to the biography of Jesus.

      I probably could have worded my initial statement a little clearer, and I was writing shorthand for an argument that a number of people on this blog apparently know quite well — or at least have heard me express aspects of it often enough here, as well as link to full explanations of it, and this blog does quite often engage directly with my own posts on my blog about this.

    2. Fabrizio’s response makes me smile.

      Neil, you and McG. have gone around and around so long I’d almost given up hope. At times it almost seems that he believes in his own straw man — namely the assertion that you believe the problem is the fact that all we have are texts. So when the first guy wrote — “So, with two texts which disagree on almost every detail of an event for which there is no physical evidence whatsoever, how are facts to be determined?” — I thought, “Here we go again.

      The Kadesh Peace agreement is “just text,” sure. But it’s also primary evidence, for which we have physical examples in Hittite and Egyptian forms. The fact that both sides claim contradictory outcomes explains why historians can’t agree as to exactly what happened. However, we know the battle itself took place.

      If we had primary evidence for Jesus, we could possibly use the gospels to tease out authentic sayings and deeds. First we’d need a convincing argument that the Gospel of John is independent from the Synoptics and not (as I believe) a polemic against them and against Petrine and/or Thomasine Christianity. As it is we’re left with plausible stories and conjecture.

  6. I do not think the main problem of biblical exegesis consist in dealing with characters whose existence is not confirmed. I think the main problem is to manage mythical texts as if they were chronics. The exegesis should not learn from the historiography only but from anthropology of the myths mainly.

    1. Agreed. I have begun to think how the gospel narratives can be understood through Claude Levi-Strauss’s model: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/messiahs-midrash-and-mythemes-more-comparisons-with-the-gospels/ and http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/the-bibles-roots-in-greek-mythology-and-classical-authors-isaac-and-phrixus/ — looking forward to opportunities to do much more, as well as to inputs from others along the same lines.

  7. “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.”

    The main problem as I see it is that “Historical Jesus” scholars never actually begin as Historical Jesus undergraduates. They begin as full-on Bible-thumping and committed Christians who have chosen ministry or theology as a career to validate the Bible. After a few years of study, they are shell-shocked from the devastating experience of being exposed to the last 175 years of critical scholarship. Nothing had prepared them for this. They are forced to realize the folly and childishness of their former selves, and have several emotional crises to overcome. Fortunately, they discover a consolation prize: the “Historical” Jesus, the one who supposedly is *not* a myth. So they have something substantive to study after all, and haven’t wasted a huge amount of time, money, and effort studying the Jewish Dionysus. There is no comparable experience or character type in any other area of the humanities.

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