This is a continuation from my previous “little bio” post.
An earlier version was accidentally published about half an hour before I had completed it. This is the completed version.
It never occurred to me that the historical existence of Jesus could be questioned until I came across Earl Doherty’s website. Till then I had been a happy atheist for quite some years, still fascinated by the Bible and its place in our society, so much so that I continued to study it from a range of perspective — literary and historical — in order to understand and share what I learned about its original nature and origins. I was particularly interested in sharing information about cults, the damage they can do and the
tricks tactics they use to win members. Personal experience was a cruel but effective teacher. The thought of questioning the historical existence of Jesus never crossed my mind — until I stumbled across Earl Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle site. (It had a different domain name then. Oblio something.)
I even put an ad in the local paper inviting anyone interested in a “cult veterans support” group to contact me. A few did and it was interesting, even helpful for a while, for ex-Mormons and ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and ex-Worldwide Church of Godders to share experiences and gain a deeper understanding of our experiences as a result. I once attended a Hare Krishna activity that had been widely advertised and sat gobsmacked when I heard the main speaker using the very same psychological themes and manipulations that I had become so familiar with in a more “establishment” cult.
My biggest disappointment on leaving the cult — and Christianity generally (I also was a “normal Christian” too) — was discovering that the manipulations, the thought-control (known professionally and respectably as CBT, cognitive behaviour therapy) techniques were as prevalent in mainstream society and among “normal Christians” as they were in what I had left behind. The only difference was degree. I had left behind “thought-control” and “mental manipulations” only to discover that they were still all around me. I had experienced their tyranny in concentrated form long enough so I could detect them now anytime they approached within the radius of a 40 foot pole, as they say.
It cruelly dawned on me that “everyone else” was not “normal” while “cultists” were the “abnormal” ones. There was no cut-off line between the two. The dividing line was just a lot of blurry shades of grey — and institutional affiliation. Others may not believe they were about to be zapped off to become rulers of a city in millennial reign of Christ, but they did have quite unshakeable and quaint ideas about the healing powers of auras, ghosts, past lives, the sinister Stalinist plots of a left-wing political party, cold cures, immigrants, Indonesia, vaccines, unemployed and poor people, what the paper or TV news reported, etc etc etc etc.
I finally learned to face reality and accept that there was no “reasonable world of light” after my life in the coffin of religion. Everyone is just who they are and we are all at where we are at, and that’s that, mister kat. It was a disappointing but necessary adjustment I had to make. I had no intention of attempting to persuade my mother that there was no god or afterlife and that Japanese today are not plotting to send us all off to work as slaves on the Burma railway. And if my Asian companion looked a total knock-out when praying before a table of Buddhist icons, incense sticks and fruit offerings I was happy for her to stay a Buddhist all her life.
It was enough for me to do my little bit to warn against the dangers of cult religion and the manipulations and psychological damage that come with toxic faiths.
The Jesus Puzzle
But then along came that curious and even slightly shocking iconoclastic website, The Jesus Puzzle authored by Earl Doherty. It had never before crossed my mind to question the existence of Jesus. But the major introductory arguments seemed quite reasonable and worthy of thought. I had been studying the literary and historical heritage of the Bible and had learned a little more about it from those perspectives than I ever knew as a believer, but this was on a different plateau entirely. I could exercise my brain power enough to see through odd-ball ideas like Atlantis, Noah’s ark in Mount Ararat in Turkey, auras, UFOs and so forth. But this did not fall into those categories. Everything was girded with evidence, logic. So what was wrong? This was too radical to contemplate seriously, surely. I had always felt comfortable with the testimonies of pagans like Tacitus and Pliny to assure me there could be no doubt about Jesus as a person.
That’s about when I decided to investigate the question with some effort. I had read a number of scholarly works on the historical Jesus. The one that impressed me most at the time for its breadth of learning and new things (at least for me) was Crossan’s massive work The Historical Jesus. I liked it because it introduced me to so much else, and so many names to follow up, in the scholarly field related to HJ studies, including questions of methodology. I was disapponted when Crossan declined to take up an invitation to comment on Earl Doherty’s review of his book. I was more disappointed with the way so many (but not all) scholars turned on Earl Doherty with nothing but mockery and insult on the crosstalk list. They had no arguments, only sarcasm. It was the classic response of people who had been caught out praising the naked emperor’s new clothes. I had expected better of public intellectuals. If they really had arguments then why not use them to show where Doherty’s was in error? Most didn’t even try.
I found myself enlisting in scholarly discussion lists and corresponding with some of the authors of scholarly works I had read. I eventually made contact with Earl Doherty and exchanged differences of views on certain particulars with him, also. One of these was the place of Q. I was more partial to the arguments of those scholars who felt they detected literary affinities between Luke and Matthew than Earl was, and I had some difficulties with Q. But I realized I was a novice so I bought and studied my own copies of works by Kloppenborg and Mack and others to be sure I understood the issues clearly.
My main focus was then and still is now to investigate the best explanations of the origins of Christianity and our Bible. I was once asked to prepare a series of my earlier posts on this blog to academic publication because of the way I was bringing together so many of the different views on one particular topic and offering what I thought were fresh insights into the question. Mythicism per se was and remains a conclusion I am interested in rather than an argument to be defended in its own right. (I did not take up the offer to submit a re-worked version of my posts on the ending of Mark for peer review because of time and because I was more interested in exploring the question myself and felt my views were still in flux and not settled enough to publish.)
How do we know any ancient person existed?
But the historicity of Jesus question eventually led me to the point of having to ask myself why I – and why everyone else, it seemed — believed whatever we do about the ancient past.
I had majored in historical studies as an undergraduate at the University of Queensland. I had continued my interest in those studies after moving into the working world. Money deficits had prevented me from taking up an invitation to continue with advanced studies. I know I would have enjoyed an academic career in history. But now it was time for me to think back over my past studies, and over the scholarly works that continued to interest me, and ask the critical questions. What, exactly, was our foundation for acceptance of the historicity of Jesus, Julius Caesar, and the rest.
Julius Caesar is not hard. There are many published histories of him with introductory notes laying out before the new reader all the primary evidence for him. (By primary evidence I mean evidence physically located in his own time.) And there is the secondary evidence in abundance independently affirmed.
I don’t think most historians stop to ask, “How do we know this person even existed?” Such a question may be asked (rightly) at undergraduate level and if the answer satisfies at that level the questioning stops. Historians proceed to work with evidence that can only (or at least most efficiently) be explained by assuming the existence of this or that person.
Historians are engaged with the questions and narratives of the day. The questions and narratives are about areas where there is a rich mine of data to be researched. We see this in historical Jesus studies. The “quests” for the historical Jesus are efforts to find what Jesus was, said or did — not whether he existed or not.
But the question is an important one. How do we know so-and-so existed or this-and-that happened in the ancient past?
I think, from memory, that to some extent I grappled with this question with various degrees of satisfaction until I came across the “Copenhagen School” that was researching the history of “biblical Israel”. Even King David could be questioned? And the very historicity of the Kingdom of Judah before the Assyrian invasion and conquest of Samaria? This seemed totally overboard but then I registered the fact that these were serious scholars whose careers depended on their credibility. So I had to investigate and see what, exactly, they were arguing. The literature told me the work that initiated the current phase of questioning was Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel. So I decided to read that first. What he said was right. He and those of a similar approach were merely making explicit what was for most part (at least since von Ranke) implicit in the methods of other historical studies and applying them to historical studies related to the Bible. So I put it on a website.
Then I read Niels Peter Lemche’s several works, then Thomas L. Thompson’s, and Keith Whitelam’s, and more of Davies, and many other contributors to scholarly journals. What they were arguing was for a methodology that brought biblical historical studies into the same methodological parameters of all other historiographical studies.
So I double checked. Sure enough, every historical event or person that was a subject of serious historical study could have his/her/its historicity verified by primary evidence (see above) or independent controls within the secondary sources. And there were many persons whose status was in the twilight zone of “don’t know” or “can’t be absolutely sure”. But they didn’t matter because what really mattered was the history of the ideas they represented.
There was only one exception. Jesus.
Then I discovered this anomaly was known from the very beginning of historical Jesus studies. Even Albert Schweitzer conceded that at the theoretical or methodological level there is absolutely no reason to grant the historicity of Jesus.
Everything started to fall into place. It was as simple as “everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten”. And it was exactly what historians had been doing for ages. How does a historian determine whether this telegram or that parchment edict or this assertion by an ancient historian or that diary is “true” or not? It always came back to careful literary or textual analysis and independent verification.
A story was just a story. To know if it was a true story that had some form of existence prior to the textual narrative one needed independent verification. That level of verification was so common in studies of ancient Greece and Rome that it scarcely drew any special attention. But nothing comparable existed for Jesus. Texts a few decades later were useless. History is full of legendary (sometimes outrageously false) reports arising almost within the dying gasps of some person or event.
Then it came back to me how many times I had read in the works of biblical scholars how some story or some document “rang true” or had the “ring of truth” to it. This was clearly subjective baloney. That’s a phrase that is mainly reserved for Jesus studies, I believe. “Ringing true” is no substitute for independent testimony. The histories of King Lear and King Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth ring true.
Criteriology as the foundation
Something else that I had not quite been able to put my finger on suddenly hit me now, too. All the “facts” and “sayings” of Jesus’ life were based on nothing but theoretical criteria. No historian would think to recreate with any certainty historical words of Julius Caesar or Socrates. The very idea would be laughable. Caesar stood on the basis of primary evidence, abundant and independently confirmed secondary evidence, and explanatory power for the direction of Rome’s history. Particular words that may or may not have been spoken were of no account. With Socrates there was no primary evidence, some independently confirmed secondary evidence, and some curious nonconfirmatory secondary evidence. But no matter, Socrates the man was not the historical event of interest. What was of importance was the emergence of a new way of thinking. Some loved the idea of the person but many more were content to focus on the broader event that the person had come to represent.
There was no need to spend much time investigating modern history. It was as clear as day — I know personally several professional historians and their works — that they are interested in uncovering and assessing data, evaluating it, and interpreting it. That’s not how historical Jesus studies work. HJ studies are about justifying this or that criteria by which one will attempt to extract some “data” from the available unprovenanced material, and on the basis of those theoretical criteria declare that “data” as bedrock fact. Each historian has different views of criteria to be used and each historian comes up with a different set of data, and hence an entirely different Jesus. And scholars, at least many of them, are well aware of the inconsistencies and logical flaws in those criteria anyway.
Other historians work with data that is independently verifiable and open to evaluation and assessment by commonly accepted standards. Currently there is a move in the scholarly world to clearly identify data in an openly linked controlling mechanism so that it can always be verified and re-used by anyone else. But in HJ studies no one scholar accepts the same data used by any other scholar. Many say Jesus was baptized by John but some say this story was a myth. Some say the stories in the Gospels are derived from oral tradition and others say the same stories are midrashic creations of the evangelists.
While historians in other fields are busy arguing over the interpretation of the commonly agreed data, historical Jesus scholars have no means of arriving at commonly agreed data to begin with. While other historians are debating interpretations of data, HJ scholars are still arguing about what really might be the “data” in the life of Jesus. Other fields of history exist because of commonly agreed data about someone who was clearly, say, a revolutionary or a poet or an emperor. Historical Jesus scholars exist because of a belief in a man who is widely believed to be God and they are arguing over what he was to begin with, whether he was a revolutionary or a rabbi or anything in between. The difference is qualitative and chasmatic.
My own arguments
So my own arguments are about the nature of the evidence we are working with (is it historical or fictitious, philosophy personified or oral report?) and the ways we work with that evidence (do we assume in a vacuum or circle or do we have external controls?). Are there any forms of controls — valid independent testimonies from the same era — that serve as probability or confidence supports for what we are reading in any one piece of evidence? Are we looking at primary, contemporary or secondary evidence? What do we know of its provenance?
Many of these questions are addressed in historical Jesus studies but they are not addressed, as far as I am aware, by anyone to test the very existence of Jesus.
My interest in questions of provenance and controls is probably honed by my constant focus on these same things in my profession as a research data and information specialist. My job is to take a lead in the building of systems and workflows for the digitization, storage, preservation, authentication, access, sharing and re-use of research works and publications, research datasets and special cultural collections. A central part of my job is to ensure that end-users of any of this information will be able to have full confidence (in accordance with international standards) in the authenticity of what they are reading or viewing.
Establishing authenticity means (among other things) establishing detailed provenance information, both technical and human. If an end-user cannot be confident of the authorship, the place, the date, the sources of data, and that there have been no modifications to the data since it was first produced, the data is worthless.
The same applies to cultural data. An old photo is basically worthless unless it can be authentically linked with information about its origin (who, when, where, etc) and its subject. Yet when it comes to the gospels all questions of provenance are guessed at to arrive at very, very broad and very vague parameters and all is built on the assumption that their narrative content is related to a historical event. This is a circular process and its conclusion is so vague to be scarcely useful anyway. I am not saying the gospels are worthless as sources. But they should be studied for what they are: unprovenanced narratives with a particular place in the history of early Christianity. We cannot just assume their contents are historical without some sort of authenticating control.
We have authenticating controls of varying quality for the sources (both secondary and primary) of ancient persons and events historians like to investigate. Historians of more modern times have scarcely any need to ask the question since the data with which they work is so abundant. “The Copenhagen School” has led the way in making explicit what is often implicit — taken for granted — in other historical inquiries. These scholars have introduced these same methods of controls into studies of ancient Israel/Palestine as opposed to the literary construct of “biblical Israel”. The results have shocked some because those methods open up the possibility that David and the united kingdom of Israel are entirely literary and without any discernible correlation in historical reality.
Even historical Jesus scholar Albert Schweitzer frankly acknowledged that when we think about method — the theoretical foundation of historical Jesus study — we have to admit that there are no controls to raise the historicity of Jesus to the level of positive probability. All our information about Jesus is derived from the one source, Christianity itself. Other biblical scholars have pointed out the methodological difficulties of knowing the true provenance (including the true authorship) of documents without such external controls. And some have even acknowledged all of this by admitting point blank that HJ studies are fundamentally circular. They are based on assumption, not on information that is authenticated by a range of controls as we find in other historical studies.
None of this means that Jesus was not historical. What it means is that we have no means of authenticating the historicity of Jesus as we do with most (all?) other historical persons scholars study. Arguments for or against historicity will have to come from secondary arguments. Some may argue that the hypothesis of a historical Jesus makes the best sense of all the data. I think some biblical scholars at one level acknowledge this. Where many make their mistake, however, is when they claim (based more on assumption, I think) that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to the evidence for other historical persons. That is simply false.
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