A recent comment offered a serious response to my argument about the need for independent corroboration in order to have some degree of probability given in favour of the Gospel narratives reflecting some genuine historical events.
The point of mine being addressed was this: Whether the central character itself originated as a fabrication can only be determined through an assessment of evidence external to the narrative itself. In the absence of that “control” we have no way of knowing if there is a historical basis or not.
The critical response was this:
One problem with this field of inquiry is that by and large the evidence external to the narrative is asserted nevertheless to be part of the narrative. We have evidence outside the narrative (i.e.Mark) from John’s Gospel and from Paul. But if the “narrative” is defined as the myth of a particular movement, then anything that purports to be external to the narrative will be brought back into the narrative and thereby dismissed. Josephus, for example, insofar as anything he wrote about Jesus is original to him, presumably got his information from Christians and so he is not really an independent source. He is just repeating what some people got from the narrative. So, just as it is almost impossible for me to imagine any story whatsoever about Jesus that cannot be dismissed as mythical on the grounds that it would have some sort of application to the Christian cult and its beliefs, I also suspect that anything outside of Mark that used to validate Mark will be assumed to be a fabrication as well.
And I do think it is incumbent upon those who will say that all the supposed evidence is really the ancient constructing of mythic narratives about Jesus to say why this is happening. Why are they making up stories about some obscure Galilean who never actually lived? To say “we can imagine ways to show that every bit of the supposed evidence for Jesus is just made-up” seems to me to require an explanation of why they are making it up.
I acknowledge the first part of the argument expressed in this criticism yet I do not believe it is a problem for my field of inquiry. That is, I disagree with the conclusion drawn from that argument. I argue that there are no a priori grounds for assuming the historicity — or mythic origin — of Jesus. The onus is on each proponent to justify their position.
Yes, all the early evidence we have for Jesus does come from “the Christian cult” itself. In the post to which the criticism was made I was addressing one particular detail of a belief or narrative that we find within that cult. My argument was accordingly applied to our source for that particular belief and so probably came across as more narrowly focused than I mean it to be.
We are dealing with the beliefs of a cult. The parties within that cult have a common interest: the proclamation of a faith.
A question for the historian is how to account for the origin of those beliefs. The problem is that we don’t have any witness independent of the faith to confirm the historicity of its central tenet/figure.
All our sources do come from that cult and that is the problem. Parties with a common interest corroborating one another with respect to that interest do not make their case any stronger.
A danger in approaching this question is that we fall into the trap of arguing from the perspective of those beliefs themselves. I am not saying my critic does this but this is certainly the perspective of most if not all studies on the historical Jesus and Christian origins that I have read. There is (always?) an assumption that the claims — whether explicitly theological or couched in narrative — are at some level historically true.
This is naive. I don’t know of any branch of knowledge — including historical knowledge — where we can be comfortable with evidence that lacks independent corroboration.
It is surely valid to suspend conviction in the truth of claims that come from an uncorroborated source. It is also surely valid to lump together as one the claims of a faith community or even rival communities with a common interest defined by a common faith or cult. Especially so when the primary goal of that cult is to persuade others to believe in this central icon for reasons most of us consider questionable.
Our knowledge of historical events or persons hangs on the (usually implicit) understanding that we have corroborating — that is, independent — evidence for them. (Of course “evidence” itself must be evaluated for its provenance, reliability, etc etc.) This principle is not exclusive to historical knowledge of course. It is a truism applicable to probably most or all branches and forms of knowledge.
Introduce provenance and genre
Knowing the provenance of sources helps a lot in assessing what they are good for. But provenance is only meaningful if it relates (again) to something external or independent of the documents in question. Genre by definition works the same way. Genre is a guide to understanding the motive of the author but we can only have genre if we have a wider literary culture to give us some context to enable a judgement.
So we are always driven to some form of control that lies beyond the contents of our sources.
Exceptionalism of HJ studies
We are driven to some form of control external to our sources except in the case of historical Jesus studies.
Historical Jesus studies always begin with the assumption that the beliefs have a historical origin external to the contents of the sources.
I do not know about every field of historical inquiry but of all those I do know not one relies so comprehensively on just one source of evidence for the very historical reality of its particular interest.
The nature of the evidence
We have epistles that leave us with nothing certain about the time or place of the central figure of the faith.
We have narratives about the life of Jesus that are clearly not contemporary with the events they purport to narrate. At least two of these consist of many details that make them look suspiciously like symbolic tales. We can trace the structures and images of the details to other unrelated narratives.
We have no independent witness outside the cult to add any weight to the faith claims of the cult.
Explaining the nature of the evidence
I believe it is incumbent upon one who argues for some common historical basis to the cult’s iconic figure to justify their position given that their evidence for the historical reality of their interest lacks external controls.
We cannot begin by just assuming historicity — or mythicism.
In the case of HJ it comes down to the most adequate explanation for the extant evidence that is otherwise lacking corroboration.
Nor is it a question of explaining “every bit of supposed evidence”. One only has to explain a narrative or a theological treatise or a common myth. Even fictions are known to include “facts” and factual histories “fictions”.
Explaining the why of the evidence
I disagree with the idea that we can only justify the existence of a fact or nature of evidence if we can explain the reason it is as we argue.
That is surely not so. All we need to justify our view of the nature or existence of something is to demonstrate or strongly argue its nature or existence.
The “why” question is clearly a separate one and one that can only be addressed after we have first established the nature of what it is we are attempting to explain.
The what must necessarily, logically, precede the why.
The “why” question must often resort to intuitions, to information that is largely obscured, to hypotheses, etc. Theory is most important and can be more important than specific factual details. And so it is that the why questions are of strong interest to anyone who seriously considers the mythicist position.
What is needed is for those who assume the historicity of Jesus should also seek to explain why a faith community would write myths about a recent person while at the same time soaring completely over the ‘human’ or ‘real’ attributes that made that person so myth-worthy — as another commenter in the same thread pointed out.
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