It all depends where one enters the circle

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by Neil Godfrey

Reading Jesus the Healer by Stevan Davies alongside Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison is an interesting exercise in chiaroscuro comparisons.

Both agree on the nature of circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. Davies begins with a quotation from E. P. Sanders:

In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”

In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43, my bolding)

Davies opts, then, to embrace as his bedrock two details upon which “scholars agree almost unanimously”: that Jesus was believed in his time to have been (1) a prophet and (2) a healer and exorcist.

Davies is arguing that Jesus was not a teacher. See my previous post for his reasons. So when Allison argues that Jesus is a teacher, and essentially that this is a bedrock fact, and then “apologizes” (I am not using this word pejoratively) by likewise explaining that the whole enterprise is necessarily circular . . . . well, both Davies and Allison do manage to agree and convince readers of at least one point! 😉

Allison writes, and rather than referring to E. P. Sanders he turns to C. H. Dodd:

C. H. Dodd maintained that when we have made due allowance for the distortions of the tradition, “it remains that the first three gospels offer a body of sayings on the whole so consistent, so coherent, and withal so distinctive in manner, style, and content, that no reasonable critics should doubt whatever reservations he may have about individual sayings, that we find reflected here the thought of a single, unique teacher.” I understand this comment, with which I am, on most days, sympathetic. . . . . Dodd’s words, however, constitute not an argument but an opinion, albeit an informed one; and my own conviction is inevitably a personal, subjective response. . . .

I can think of no line of reasoning that is not, in the end, strictly circular. Nonetheless, there remain some observations that, though they do not firmly establish anything, remain suggestive, observations that may encourage those of us who are otherwise inclined to side with Dodd. (p. 23, my bolding)

In an earlier book Dale Allison made the same point in another context:

Here is what Dale Allison writes on page 60 of Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:

Jesus turns out to have been a proponent of an apocalyptic eschatology. This result is of course contained in the methodological premise, according to which Jesus was an eschatological prophet. But in this regard history is not different from hermeneutics: circularity we will always have with us.

Allison calls in Hahn as a supporting witness:

Compare Hahn, “Methodologische Überlegungen,” pp. 37-38, who observes the problem of interpreting the individual pieces of the Jesus tradition without first having a total picture of Jesus and the problem of having a total picture of Jesus without first interpreting the individual pieces. His method is similar to my own in that he enters the circle from generalizations about Jesus and the Jesus tradition.

It is encouraging to read scholarly literature by academics who are intelligent, honest and humble enough to acknowledge such a weakness in their methodology. (What one sometimes encounters on internet blogs by a few scholarly types can be rather depressing by comparison.) One can (generally) respect such scholarly works and read them with some assurance that they are reading works by authors aware of their limitations and ultimate fragility of their findings.

Some readers will be aware that I personally think there is a way to avoid this circularity, and it involves adopting some of the principles espoused by the “Copenhagen School” in relation to studies of the history of Israel (Davies, Lemche, Thompson, et al.) which are, in reality, those normally followed among other (nonbiblical) historical disciplines. And that means setting aside the historicity of the narrative of (or presumed to lie behind) the Gospels as a “fact” and relegating it to the status of a genuine hypothesis. But of course to take that step requires for many considerable courage, and that’s very scary.

But I like what Allison says after this about the evidence for Jesus having said the things attributed to him:

We have, admittedly, no proof that Jesus authored any of the materials that, once heard, are hard to forget. So doubt we will always have with us. At the same time, all the relevant items are attributed to him, not to anyone else, and I know of no explanatory advantage in assigning them to some anonymous contemporary or contemporaries of his. (p. 24 of Constructing Jesus)

This, likewise, makes refreshingly much more logical sense than scholarly type bloggers who beg the question by arguing that we know Jesus exists because we have sayings and deeds attributed to him! Of course, the problem for Allison’s point here is that many words are likewise attributed to Moses, many to Mohammad, many to God himself. It is surely the most natural thing in the world to attribute choice free-floating sayings to a figure one wishes to glorify as a source of wisdom or authority. Given Dale Allison’s assumptions and model of Christian origins then his conclusion is perfectly reasonable. Davies has reasons for disagreeing (which I covered in my recent post) and they are also perfectly reasonable.

It all depends on which point one enters the circle.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “It all depends where one enters the circle”

  1. I trust your integrity sufficiently to presume that this:

    “Davies opts, then, to embrace as his bedrock two details upon which “scholars agree almost unanimously”: that Jesus was believed in his time to have been (1) a prophet and (2) a healer and exorcist”

    is a fair summary of Davies’ thesis.

    If so then it needs to be pointed out to Davies that he has presumed as fact a detail that should not be presumed as ‘bedrock’ no matter how many scholars reckon it has gotta be so.

    Namely that Jesus existed.

    Furthermore it, Davies’ thesis, skips over a couple of uncomfortable problems.

    “Believed in his time ….”

    By whom?
    Based on what [the belief these people had] evidence?

    Why do these people, whoever they are and however they were informed, or not, believe that an alleged JC did whatever, was whatever, and why do ‘most scholars’ believe that these people believed such?

    He has entered the circle well along the path it takes in a predetermined direction.

    It reminds me of EP Sanders saying in his book [I forget which one, I reckon you will be able to supply the exact quotes] that he was going to base his words on solid historical methodology.

    This after introducing a previous chapter with a description of the alleged Calvary scene [3 crosses on a hill outside Jerusalem] as if given fact, a fact that was not been substantiated in his text before, or after the description, at all and certainly not as the result of rigourous method.

    1. I have been going over some of my older books on Christian origins and it seems back in the 1990s I collected more scholarly works that were genuinely critical studies of the texts and by comparison there seem to be so many more pseudo-critical works (e.g. works that essentially reject the critical methods or results of the past and are willing to embrace as a starting point ‘the general impression’ of what the Gospels convey. Dale Allison is not the only one. There seem to be a lot of strong attacks on past crticial studies, too. But as an outside amateur I have no way of knowing if this is a true reflection of a trend in the scholarly field itself.

      What I meant to start out saying was that yes, Davies’ methodology is flawed. He presented his argument (Jesus as primarily a spirit-possessed healer/exorcist) as a new paradigm — largely because of its departure from the Teacher model and its exploration of trance-states etc and ability of his model to resolve many questions in the gospels. But it is essentially a mutation of the old paradigm.

      In his favour, however, we cannot overlook his positive comments about Earl Doherty’s arguments that he was apparently introduced to on the original Crosstalk discussion list — before the publication of Doherty’s first book. His comments and a link to their original source is here: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/birth-of-a-movement-some-fresh-insights-from-earl-doherty/

      Of course a certain scholar blogger has rejected this quotation by scouring that discussion group to find a line where Davies appears to be saying he is unfamiliar with or hasn’t read Doherty’s arguments — but that makes no sense of the quotation I have presented, and overlooks the engagemnet with Doherty that was being undertaken on the discussion group itself and the website of Doherty. I invite that scholar blogger to contact Davies himself — which I did when seeking permission to quote him on my blog.

  2. For me, the entry point into the stories about Jesus is the story of the Transfiguration.

    I came to my current understanding of the Jesus problem through the writing of Earl Doherty, who pointed out that the New Testament’s epistle writers apparently did not know anything about deeds or teachings of Jesus.

    So, I restudied the epistles to find what the epistle writers (especially Peter, the primary disciple of Jesus) did know about Jesus, and I found that Peter described his experience with Jesus Christ as follows (2 Peter 1:16-18):


    We have not been telling you fairy tales when we explained to you the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming again. My own eyes have seen his splendor and his glory. I was there on the holy mountain when he shone out with honor given him by God his Father. I heard that glorious, majestic voice calling down from Heaven, saying, “This is my much-loved Son; I am well pleased with him.


    So, it seems to me, the key event is Peter being on a mountain and experiencing a vision of Jesus Christ in which God the Father declares from the Heaven that he is pleased with the role played by Jesus Christ in this vision as his beloved divine son. This vision,writes Peter, is the proof that the religion is true and is not merely “fairy tales”.

    And what did Jesus say or do during this vision? Jesus did not say or do anything. The only words that were spoken during Peter’s vision were spoken by God the Father, speaking down from the Heavens above.

    If Jesus was not saying anything during Peter’s vision, then what was Jesus doing? Elsewhere (1 Peter 1:11, 2:24, 3:18, 22) Peter wrote that Jesus suffered, died on a cross, “visited the spirits in prison”, and then went on to great glory, ascending back up to Heaven.

    Peter explained the purpose of the events that he saw in his vision as follows (1 Peter 1:3-3)


    All honor to God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for it is his boundless mercy that has given us the privilege of being born again, so that we are now members of God’s own family. Now we live in the hope of eternal life because Christ rose again from the dead.


    For the meaning of the expression “born again” into eternal life, we turn to the beginning of the Gospel According to John, where Nicodemus asked Jesus what this expression meant, and Jesus explained (John 3:1-16):


    As Moses in the wilderness lifted up the bronze image on a pole, even I must be lifted up upon a pole, so that anyone who believes in me will have eternal life. For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.


    That is the essence of Christianity — believing that Jesus Christ was lifted up onto a pole will enable the believer to be born again into eternal life. That is what Peter saw in his mystical vision on the mountain — Peter saw Jesus Christ hanging from a pole that had been lifted up and then Peter saw Jesus die, visit the spirits in prison, and then ascend back up to Heaven. To that simple mystical vision were added all the other stories in the New Testament’s gospels.

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