I have finally caught up with Mark Goodacre’s podcast “Did Jesus Exist?”
For the benefit of others who don’t always find the time or opportunity to listen to a podcast and whose interests may overlap with some of mine here are some of the points he makes.
He asks of a mythicist (Timothy Freke):
Was it just Jesus as a first century figure that he was sceptical about or was he sceptical about other figures that are mentioned by the sources of the first century, by people like Josephus and so on? Is he sceptical about the existence of Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate or some of these characters.
In a follow up comment to the podcast Mark Goodacre made explicit the intent of his question:
When I put the question to Tim Freke, I was more interested in finding out if he was also sceptical about the existence of other first century figures from that region than anything else. In other words, I was trying to get to the root of the hyper-scepticism. Is it a general scepticism about ancient history and the limits of our knowledge, or is it something else?
Goodacre’s question assumes that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to what we find for other figures in ancient history generally. (I have argued that if this were the case there would be no debate about the existence of Jesus at all.) It also infers that there is something wrong with the one asking the question, but I return to this at the end of the post.
A bit of a problem
Goodacre acknowledges the obvious difference between those figures of whom we can expect material remains testifying and those whom we know entirely from later literary accounts:
And of course there is a bit of a problem with that in that these kind of characters [i.e. Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate] do leave a bit more than just a literary trace . . . .
Goodacre attempts to explain the difficulty with the evidence for Jesus. He begins by suggesting that the root of the difficulty lies in the nature of our evidence for historicity of ancient figures generally, but then leads us to see something distinctive about the nature of our evidence for Jesus:
And this is the difficulty when you’re doing ancient history that figures like Jesus only survive in the memories of those that talk about them and those memories generate traditions and the traditions feed into things that ultimately become the literary records.
Now of course the problem then about dealing with memory is that memories are so easily influenced, we might even say contaminated by other things. When you look back on someone’s life you start describing them in terms of the reputation that they have and the assessment of their character.
And in Jesus’s case nobody was able in the period when they were talking about him in the 30’s and the 40’s and 50’s nobody was able to say these things without thinking about his resurrection. So very quickly the historical Jesus becomes the Christ of faith. The Lord that’s proclaimed by the church isn’t simply this person that was walking around in Galilee in the first century but actually also becomes the exalted Christ. And that influences the way that they talk about the character and that then makes the historians’ job really difficult.
There’s a certain vagueness here, I think, when one begins taking the argument to “memories” being contaminated. That is true of whatever lies behind most records of most periods of history. There are other arguments to be made but let’s continue with the flow of the podcast.
The invitation to mythicists:
And the thing is this is the invitation I think to the mythicists because they rightly see all this rather exalted language about Jesus and I think they wrongly infer from that that the exalted language is absolutely key in a way that it sort of rules out a kind of historical existence for the figure.
Where we should side with the mythicists:
One of the things I think we should do is side with the mythicists to the extent that they are pointing out something important which is just how early and how striking some of the exalted language about Jesus is. Because when you look at this it is amazing that within a decade or so of Jesus’s death you’ve got people talking about him as Lord and Christ and King of the Cosmos and so on.
On the other hand it is argued that we can see when mythical language is attached to historical figures because the historical persons are clearly evident and the mythical trappings are adornment and do not consist of the entire person.
Beginning with Paul:
The mythicist case often begins with Paul and they notice the character that he talks about is a kind of cosmic redeemer, a heavenly figure, his name is Christ, Christ Jesus, Lord Jesus Christ and he still reigns in heaven and he’s going to be worshiped by everyone. And all of this is of course true. As also is the point that often gets made that Paul doesn’t really tell us much as we would like to know.
I think the mythicist argument begins more generally with the New Testament epistles generally, and though of course Paul is the dominant one, this should not be overlooked.
Mark Goodacre then plays a segment of a talk by mythicist author G. A. Wells. Refreshingly in a topic that is usually stained by ridicule and ill-disguised contempt Goodacre mentions that he met Wells and had an enjoyable conversation with him.
In the segment played Wells points out that in Paul’s writings we find no mention of:
- parents of Jesus,
- his place of birth
- where Jesus lived
- or even when he lived
- the trial before Pilate
- nor Jerusalem as place of execution
- John the Baptist
- Judas Iscariot
- Peter’s denial
Goodacre’s response is the standard one — that Paul’s letters are occasional writings. We would not expect to find references to many of these things given the nature of the letters. (But compare Doherty’s reply to this regular claim found in the final three paragraphs on this page. He argues that reference to Jesus’ life is exactly what one would expect in many instances in those letters.)
Goodacre further responds with the other standard response: we often underestimate how much Jesus tradition really is found in Paul’s letters.
So for example, Paul knew people who knew Jesus. He may not mention Peter’s denial but he does mention Peter lots of times.
Further, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians are relatively rich in Jesus tradition. Example, 1 Thessalonians links Jesus’ death with Judea.
The problem is, Goodacre explains, that since we are so familiar with the Gospels, the Gospels set up a certain expectation (an “unreasonable expectation”) when we come to read Paul.
Keeps scholars honest
I like the work of the mythicists, though, in many ways, and I think that one of the reasons that it’s useful is that it keeps people like me honest. I think it’s always good as a scholar to be challenged about these things and to say to ourselves, Well, why is it that we are persuaded in the case of Jesus for example he was an historical figure?
Goodacre says that he no longer argues the way he used to with respect to the evidence of Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius. This is since someone pointed out to him that all they demonstrate is that their sources are people who believed Jesus was a historical figure.
My problem with the mythicists
Goodacre returns to the theme with which he began his podcast that was encapsulated in his question to Tim Freke:
My problem with the mythicists is that they have a scepticism that isn’t a healthy scepticism. It’s not a kind of balanced or reasonable kind of scepticism. Because I think that in the Jesus who walks the pages of the Gospels we do occasionally glimpse the contours of a man who walked on Galilee, a distinctive a particular man who has a particular kind of profile And that’s not to accept blindly what’s in the gospels . . .
I like to explore and be open about historical questions but I think we should be wary of the kind of hyper-scepticism which begins from a position of thinking that we must know absolutely nothing.
The denial of the existence of a figure like Jesus simply puts a kind of intolerable burden on the texts that we are studying. After all, these are texts in which there are other characters who had historical existence.
John the Baptist is there in these texts as somebody we don’t seriously doubt the existence of . . . .
If we start denying the existence of Jesus then we really have to deny also not only the existence of John the Baptist but also Herod Antipas, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas, Herodias, Peter, John, James, the list just keeps going on. . . .
This is disappointing. It sidesteps the intellectual arguments and falls back on finding fault with the mindset of the one asking the question. It is “unhealthy”.
This returns me to my recent post in which I discussed the different ways we can believe in the historicity of Jesus (or otherwise) and the power and function of “public knowledge” in this respect.
I trust that few would suggest that Albert Schweitzer’s question was “unhealthy” when he wrote:
More than once in the writings directed against [a mythicist] it is stated that even what is self-evident can nevertheless be made clear only if the will is there to be swayed by the evidence available. The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing, that is, if they do not console themselves with the idea that nothing can be revealed to him who will not see.
In reality, however, these writers 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 be raised so high as positive probability.
So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical.(p.402 of Quest, my emphasis and formatting)
I suggest that for most (maybe even all) other persons widely assumed to be assuredly historical in ancient times our confidence derives from sources for which historians do have a range of controls that are singularly lacking in the case of Jesus. Perhaps even many historians themselves have not stopped to think about this question in depth for many ancient persons — hence the point of my recent post about the role of “public knowledge”. And in those cases where such controls are lacking or minimal we will find names of persons whose historicity is simply not an issue. It doesn’t matter if Pythagoras was historical or not. It’s not an issue.
There is no intolerable burden placed on texts. The same standard applied to all (and one I’ve discussed many times and won’t bore readers with again, though the Schweitzer quote points to it) — this same standard yields consistent results for all.
Unfortunately one of those figures happens to be a major cultural icon and resists being treated equally with other historical or nonhistorical or maybe-historical figures. We are weaned off Santa Claus very young. No, I don’t mean that the evidence for Jesus is comparable with the evidence for Santa! What I am saying is that it is harder to let go of one who has been the centre of our lives, careers, life-styles, very often even our personal and family well-being.
Personally I find the question of the historicity of Jesus to be essentially a non-issue too. What is of importance to me is the origin of Christianity. Why narrow that inquiry by demanding only one possible explanation that has always relied on ‘unknowns’ and ‘mysteries’ as part of its answer and on ad hominem (even when it is not malicious) and long-addressed stock responses as part of its defence.
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