2011-12-09

Maybe I’m wrong but maybe I’m right

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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.

My response:

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.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

36 Comments

  • Evan
    2011-12-09 21:58:16 GMT+0000 - 21:58 | Permalink

    “The critical historian (whether dealing with the Bible or the newspaper) demands that assertions in ancient or modern sources be corroborated. The historian does not simply take the ancient or modern writer at his word until he happens to find out different.” — The Idea of History, RG Collingwood (quoted in Price, “Explaining the Resurrection Without Recourse to Miracle” in The End of Christianity).

  • Roger Parvus
    2011-12-10 02:35:16 GMT+0000 - 02:35 | Permalink

    “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.” – Neil Godfrey

    And also surprising is that we don’t have much of use for early Christian history in any of the other early Christian literature for —to use Guignebert’s words—

    As soon as we study, for example, the apologists of the second century, we perceive that that they do not seem to know any more than we do, at least for certain, on the subject that concerns us, and that they have available hardly any more sources than those that have come down to us. The same is true of all the Church Fathers who were nearest to the beginnings, hence a fortiori of the others” (“The Christ,” p. 15).

    But were the second century proto-orthodox writers really as ignorant of Christian origins as they seem, or did they know and decided it was best to leave that subject as obscure as possible?

  • 2011-12-10 03:16:44 GMT+0000 - 03:16 | Permalink

    Neil: “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.”

    That’s the core issue. The why keeps preceding the what. The HJ enterprise is based upon the assumption of historicity and builds on a hypothesis (i.e., some specific historical reconstruction) that treats the literary evidence as if it had to have originated from eyewitness accounts. Embellished? Yes. But the assumption that the oral tradition arose from real people witnessing real events dare not be questioned.

    The problem with historical reconstructions such as the apocalyptic prophet hypothesis is that too often scholars act is if they’ve seen the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box, so they know which pieces of evidence to use, which to discard, and which to reinterpret. Hence we see gallons of ink spilled on the page as they try to convince us that Josephus and the author of the Fourth Gospel suppressed the true nature of John the Baptist.

    We see scholars like Bart Ehrman point to the sections of Paul’s letters that sound apocalyptic, while ignoring the fact that Paul does not appear to think Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul’s eschatology is rooted in his belief that Jesus’ resurrection is the “first-fruits” of the general resurrection. He never offers a saying from Jesus or relates an act of Jesus that would give any hint that he preached the imminent end of the age.

    In other words, if Jesus was following the “real” John the Baptist (the one not found in Josephus) and preached against the current generation of vipers, Paul seems completely unaware of it. Instead he must infer from events — Christ crucified, then raised and exalted — that the end is near. No matter, though. Bart has glimpsed the box lid and knows how these pieces fit.

    Of course, I still hold out hope for his coming book, “Did Jesus Exist?” Can’t wait to read it.

    http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/did-jesus-exist-bart-d-ehrman/1102790345?ean=9780062089946

    • Bob Carlson
      2011-12-11 09:56:13 GMT+0000 - 09:56 | Permalink

      I checked Amazon to see if they yet have the Ehrman e-book listed; they don’t, but I suppose they will by the time it is published. I was surprised, instead, to see a listing for another e-book on the subject, published in July of this year: Did Jesus Really Exist?, by Greg Vanden Berge. There are no reviews, but given that the author had previously written a book about why he is a Christian and not a Buddhist, I’d suspect that author’s opinion would tend, at least, toward the affirmative.

    • Ken
      2011-12-18 21:35:02 GMT+0000 - 21:35 | Permalink

      “We see scholars like Bart Ehrman point to the sections of Paul’s letters that sound apocalyptic, while ignoring the fact that Paul does not appear to think Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet.”

      On a blog recently someone wrote that Paul seems to imply a knowledge of Jesus’ apocalyptic message by appealing to 1 Thess. 4:15—“For we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive……shall not precede those who have fallen asleep…..”

      I’d be interested to know what someone more educated in these matters than I am has to say about this verse and it’s possible meaning.

  • 2011-12-10 03:27:56 GMT+0000 - 03:27 | Permalink

    [I was going to try to make a link to the other Vridar thread, but didn’t know how. So I’ll reproduce the comment here, since it’s applicable here as well.]

    Stevan Davies wrote:

    “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.”

    Asking “why” may be the wrong approach, because it implies conscious intention and planning from the outset. Asking “how did it happen that the making-up occurred” might be better.

    Earliest Christ-belief seems to have been a cult which believed in a heavenly Son of God who had undergone death and rising in the spiritual/mythical realm, prompted by scripture and contemporary salvation concepts influenced by Platonic cosmology. Nothing seems to have been operating within that milieu itself which would have led to historicizing such a figure, or at least to creating anything like the narrative we find in the Gospels. (The Galilean tradition, I maintain, did *not* develop out of the Christ cult.)

    Contemporary with that cult and independent from it was the (“Galilean”) kingdom of God preaching movement (as witnessed in Q), which seems to have formulated during its evolution the idea of a founder figure. Even if that figure were based on an actual individual, he had no dimension of death and resurrection and no apparent soteriological role.

    The Gospel of Mark began as an allegorical rendition of the kingdom preaching movement itself, with the latter’s eventual Jesus figure symbolizing the activities and ethical preaching of the movement. For reasons that remain obscure, whoever or whichever community within that movement produced the Gospel of Mark amalgamated the two, either because that community had syncretized the two independent traditions or because to the author it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Once let loose, this amalgamation appealed to a lot of people. Some Christ cultists (such as whoever wrote the original epistles of Ignatius early in the 2nd century) imagined that what they ‘heard’ about the Markan story was an historical account and seized on the idea of a Christ who had suffered and died on earth, regarding that as a necessity and changing the earlier concept of a paradigmatic parallel between the saving god acting in the heavenly world and his devotees absorbing benefits in the earthly world, to one in which the Savior had to have functioned on earth, in actual human flesh.

    From that point, the Jesus of Nazareth narrative would evolve, gain detail and essentially run riot because of the perceived advantages of regarding it as history. (No ‘conspiracy’ involved, just self-serving promotion.) They believed that this “obscure Galilean” had actually lived and was the Son of God, and that he was to be identified with the earlier Christ cult’s object of worship.

    As time went on, and it was discovered that sources contemporary with him perplexingly failed to mention him, elements of the narrative were inserted into those sources. Josephus and Tacitus cannot stand as reliable independent corroboration, the Talmudic alleged references are laughable, and something like Suetonius’ Chrestus, or two obscure lost historians and Mara bar Serapion are forcibly interpreted as ‘possible’ references to the HJ. It is significant that the so-called corroborative evidence does not appear until after the point at which the influence of the Gospels could have led certain circles to adopt an historical founder, making this the source of the ‘corroboration’ in Josephus and Tacitus (though there are other grounds on which to reject both as authentic or reliable).

    Neil’s principle stands. There is no legitimate corroborative evidence for the Jesus story. (And quite understandable how we have such a narrative with no independent corroboration.)

  • Stevan Davies
    2011-12-10 04:55:39 GMT+0000 - 04:55 | Permalink

    NG wrote : “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.”

    You would hope there would be corroboration but it is lacking. However, in the case of Jesus, there is no expectation that sources outside the Jesus movement would have recorded anything about him. To argue that there is something problematical about the lack of “independent corroboration” is to argue fallaciously if there is no reasonable prospect for such independent corroboration. One must make the case that independent corroboration would be expected, or even just reasonably likely, in order to use as argumentative evidence that the absence of independent corroboration is significant. As we have no records that I know of concerning any other Galilean working class men of the period (or if there are any, they are damn few… perhaps 2 or 3?) expecting there to be records of Jesus outside the movement that was directly concerned with Jesus is expecting something illegitimate. If we go on to say that since we have no corroborating evidence, in instances where none can be expected, that we have nothing to go on, the response to be that we will go on with what we have because that’s all we have. The lack of existence of strong evidence does not in and of itself eliminate the value of weaker evidence.

    NG “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.”

    We have a good bit more evidence than you seem to concede, but you and others in this discussion define a variety of evidence as being one source, illegitimately I think. The reasoning seems to be : We have X amount of information about Jesus that might be historically reliable. As it is in the New Testament or sacred scripture we declare that it is thereby cultic and thereby not reliable, which is actually the logical opposite of Biblical inerrancy. As it is cultic, i.e. because it is in the sacred scriptures of the cult it is therefore not reliable historical evidence.

    But what about evidence that is not in the New Testament, i.e. some writings of Justin Martyr and of Clement of Rome that seem to report sayings of Jesus not taken from the New Testament? Well, since those men were members of the cult their reports are not evidence either. How about an entirely new manuscript discovery independent of the New Testament (cf. my books on the subject) that is rather critical of key elements of the cult as found in the New Testament — the Gospel of Thomas. I suppose it too cultic and so not evidence and, in fact, part of “just one source of evidence.”

    I think we have a fully circular argument here. While nobody outside The Church thinks that there is a great deal in common between Thomas and Q and Paul and Hebrews and John and Matthew apart from a good deal of interest in Jesus But because there is a good deal of interest in Jesus, some conclude that they represent only cultic concerns and so are invalid as evidence, indeed that they constitute only one source. If new information appears that is interested in Jesus it is, thereby, understood to be part of that one source.

    However, if there are a host of different sources literarily independent of each other, such as Galatians, Hebrews, Matthew and Thomas and therein you have a series of testimonies to the existence of Jesus. To argue that since they show a significant interest in Jesus (i.e. are cultic) they cannot legitimately testify to the existence of Jesus does not seem reasonable to me.

    To say that “We have no independent witness outside the cult to add any weight to the faith claims of the cult,” may well be true, but it doesn’t constitute much of an objection, given that there is no reason to think that there reasonably should have been any such surviving witnesses, and that it is not reasonable to reject witnesses within the cult on the grounds that they are within the cult – unless you can show that the cult created the idea of an HJ in the first place. To assume that and then use that assumption to denigrate the sources as invalid evidence is circular.

    NG wrote: “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.”

    I can do this. In fact I’m getting ready to write a piece on it if not a whole book. I agree that it is an important point for the historicist perspective and I am quite convinced (more so than anybody I ever heard of) that it has never been done. In other words, if you tell me that there has never been any sensible historical pathway connecting the humble Galilean (as understood by Crossan, Patterson, Borg, Schweitzer etc. etc.) to the Christ of the Christian Cults (the plural is important) I’d absolutely agree. This does not mean that there never was a Jesus, just that the reconstructions of Jesus to date do not reasonably give rise to a Christ cult. This is a problem, but it does not mean that there was no Jesus, unless it can be shown that the existence of a Christ cult is such that it would construct a Jesus. In that case the mythicist perspective would have a substantial advantage over the historicist perspective… but that is not the case.

    In other words, the mythicist perspective creates a new problem that it seems unable to address, much less solve. What would motivate a Christ cult to invent from nothing a humble Galilean? If the hypothesis is that the HJ is an invention of the Christ cult, but no convincing reason can be brought forth to account for this creation, its motivations, its ubiquity, then the hypothesis is shown to be impossibly weak.

    Similarly, if the construction of an HJ does not account for the creation of a Christ cult, then it is presumptively an inadequate construction. And deus ex machina explanations that it all came about because they saw him raised from the dead fly into the face of the fact that people in all cultures want the dead to stay dead and not go roaming around the streets.

    So the key question, I think, for both mythicist and historicist is how to connect the HJ to the Christ cult regardless of which direction your arrow of causality is pointing.

    {I note that Earl Doherty has written a response relevant to this and I’ll reply to him in due course.}

    • Evan
      2011-12-11 00:18:42 GMT+0000 - 00:18 | Permalink

      “However, if there are a host of different sources literarily independent of each other, such as Galatians, Hebrews, Matthew and Thomas and therein you have a series of testimonies to the existence of Jesus. To argue that since they show a significant interest in Jesus (i.e. are cultic) they cannot legitimately testify to the existence of Jesus does not seem reasonable to me.”

      Galatians — States unequivocally that Jesus was not a man.No mention of carpentry, no mention of Nazareth.

      Hebrews — States that Jesus was not on earth (8:4). No mention of carpentry, no mention of Nazareth.

      Matthew — Talks about a man who walked on water, cast demons into pigs, raised the dead and was then resurrected. No mention of carpentry.

      Thomas — Makes no mention of a Jesus who was crucified. Makes no mention of carpentry, makes no mention of Nazareth.

      These witnesses are supposed to prove the existence of the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth, who happened to have learned Torah well enough to be considered a teacher while making cabinets … yeah.

      • 2011-12-11 02:34:12 GMT+0000 - 02:34 | Permalink

        Evan: “Matthew . . . No mention of carpentry.”

        Matthew copies Mark, but changes the line slightly to: “Is this the carpenter’s son.” He’s clearly literarily dependent on Mark, but many scholars act as if this is a separate piece of evidence that demands respect as multiple attestation. It is not.

        Further, having established the “fact” that Joseph was a carpenter, they dazzle you with their knowledge of customs in the ancient world. “Sons usually followed in their fathers’ professions.” Did you know that? Finally, in some reconstructions scholars will start theorizing about how Jesus “must have” worked in Sepphoris, a city that lay right next to Nazareth. Imagine the young Jesus, trudging to work each day…

        “Why would anybody make it up?” © ® ™

  • Stevan Davies
    2011-12-10 05:39:01 GMT+0000 - 05:39 | Permalink

    Earl Doherty wrote: “Asking “why” may be the wrong approach, because it implies conscious intention and planning from the outset. Asking “how did it happen that the making-up occurred” might be better.”

    SD: I agree.

    Earl Doherty: “Earliest Christ-belief seems to have been a cult which believed in a heavenly Son of God who had undergone death and rising in the spiritual/mythical realm, prompted by scripture and contemporary salvation concepts influenced by Platonic cosmology. Nothing seems to have been operating within that milieu itself which would have led to historicizing such a figure, or at least to creating anything like the narrative we find in the Gospels. (The Galilean tradition, I maintain, did *not* develop out of the Christ cult.)”

    SD: I agree, in general, and I believe we have records of that pre-Jesus Christ-cult in the Odes of
    Solomon. I’ve written a piece about this if you’d like to see it. I’m not sure I’ve entirely convinced myself, but it does seem reasonably likely that the Odes generally support your thesis, and that the Odes are pre-Christian. Even in ancient times the Christians who copied the Odes assumed them to be pre-Christian. That they are products of Christianity seems to be a modern scholarly myth. If they are pre-Christian then we know a lot more about the “Earliest Christ-belief” than people think we do. Also I don’t think the cult was one focused on what people “believed.” Religions based on believing stuff seem mainly to be forms of Protestantism.

    Earl Doherty: “Contemporary with that cult and independent from it was the (“Galilean”) kingdom of God preaching movement (as witnessed in Q), which seems to have formulated during its evolution the idea of a founder figure. Even if that figure were based on an actual individual, he had no dimension of death and resurrection and no apparent soteriological role.”

    SD: I agree, in general, and I presume that this movement was led and probably founded by Jesus of Nazareth. However, I think that the “preaching” was not the main thing, rather the main thing was a career as an exorcist thought to be possessed by God’s Spirit that was probably thought of as God’s Son. But that career may have included Q-ish preachings. I agree with your last sentence completely.

    Earl Doherty: “The Gospel of Mark began as an allegorical rendition of the kingdom preaching movement itself, with the latter’s eventual Jesus figure symbolizing the activities and ethical preaching of the movement. For reasons that remain obscure, whoever or whichever community within that movement produced the Gospel of Mark amalgamated the two, either because that community had syncretized the two independent traditions or because to the author it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

    SD: I think the Mark Gospel does show an amalgamation between the Christ Cult featuring the soteriological death and resurrection. I believe, with Weeden especially, that Mark is writing an attack on Jesus’ disciples and family and believe that to a degree what the disciples and family evidently thought (i.e. that Jesus was a supernaturally powered exorcist) probably is what they thought and they are decent sources…what Mark is writing against is probably more or less authentic. There is, however, in your rendition, no reason for there to be an amalgamation between a kingdom movement and the Christ cult… “for reasons that remain obscure…”. So the problem remains why a Christ cult person such as Mark would care about creating a story about a Galilean workman who became an exorcist and had a set of unreliable disciples and a family who thought him possessed by an unclean spirit.

    Earl wrote: “Once let loose, this amalgamation appealed to a lot of people. Some Christ cultists (such as whoever wrote the original epistles of Ignatius early in the 2nd century) imagined that what they ‘heard’ about the Markan story was an historical account and seized on the idea of a Christ who had suffered and died on earth, regarding that as a necessity and changing the earlier concept of a paradigmatic parallel between the saving god acting in the heavenly world and his devotees absorbing benefits in the earthly world, to one in which the Savior had to have functioned on earth, in actual human flesh.”

    SD: Yes, this does seem to have happened one way or another. I am impressed with the sheer volume of Christs we’ve got to deal with. Pretty much all of the early Christian texts give us a different one. There evidently was something that happened that led to a rapid growth of Christianity into different centers that seem to have separately come up with notions about Christ and Jesus that don’t cohere very well with other centers’ notions. Somebody (I think it was Burton Mack) mocked the idea that there was some “big bang” that set the whole movement going, but it sure looks as if there was. The movement spread before the cultic ideology was established, and so we have a host of different attempts to establish it.
    I agree with what Earl wrote about the worthlessness of the so-called corroborations, but disagree that it is the slightest bit perplexing that there aren’t any.

    Earl wrote: “Neil’s principle stands. There is no legitimate corroborative evidence for the Jesus story.”

    SD: But this has no value as argumentation unless it can be shown that such evidence should be expected vis a vis a Galilean construction worker with talent as an exorcist and an illegal message about a Kingdom that all evidence indicates he had no clear idea about anyhow. Looking for corroborative evidence and failing to find it matters only if one can show that such evidence would be expected.

    • 2011-12-10 08:44:55 GMT+0000 - 08:44 | Permalink

      SD: “But this has no value as argumentation unless it can be shown that such evidence should be expected vis a vis a Galilean construction worker with talent as an exorcist and an illegal message about a Kingdom that all evidence indicates he had no clear idea about anyhow.”

      I find it curious that none of the epistle writers show any knowledge of Jesus casting out demons, and that all evidence of exorcisms is missing from the Gospel of John. Yet everyone seems certain that he was an exorcist. I find it doubly odd that everyone seems so sure that he was a τεκτων, even though it’s attested only once (by Mark, redacted by Matthew). And why should we be convinced by the argument that “nobody would make that up”? The OT is full of people who came from humble beginnings — country bumpkins, shepherds, youngest sons, etc. — but who were nonetheless “called to greatness.”

      If Jesus was an amalgam of several varieties of folk heroes, healers, prophets, wonder-workers, sages, saviors, etc., then we would probably find exactly what we do find: canonical as well as non-canonical texts that have Jesus doing all kinds of things — teaching, walking on water, driving out temple baddies, walking around on brass feet — in various combinations.

      SD: “Looking for corroborative evidence and failing to find it matters only if one can show that such evidence would be expected.

      If I’m comprehending your argument correctly you’re saying that corroboration is irrelevant if we don’t expect to find corroboration. Really? Does it work like this anywhere else? I hope you aren’t suggesting we’re surprised by the lack of corroborating evidence. We’re just acknowledging the state of affairs. We’re stuck with what we have — insufficient external controls to establish probability. But you can’t arbitrarily add weight to the existing evidence to make up for what is lacking. In a trial you can’t just say, “Well, we only have hearsay contradictory evidence, so the jury will have to decide the case based on that.”

      Given the state of the evidence I don’t see how you get past agnosticism, except to lean slightly toward mythic origins because of prior probability. Quoting Carrier: “…certain characteristics of the Jesus story – even from very early on – are more typically characteristics of mythical people than historical ones. So the prior probability already favors his non-existence.”

  • 2011-12-10 05:49:29 GMT+0000 - 05:49 | Permalink

    Neil, I was trying to further reply to your comment on Jesus Harry Potter Christ until it became so strung out as to make it hard to read. I pick up here on origins.

    There was a period 30-65 CE,
    before Christianity, before Paul’s lettters. before the Gospels when there were two dominations each with its own gospel. The Jerusalem Jesus Movement initally led by the key disciplles Peter, James and John. Their gospel was collections of sayings. They were soon followed by a group of Hellenist Jews with their notion that Jesus death and resurrection was a proper sacrifice mankind’s sins.I amm but quoting from my reconstruction of Jesus traditions – see the 23rd comment by Neil Godfrey to Demystifying R. Joseph Hoffmann. Your replies ask for evidence. All evidence comes from the NT. I will attempt this by citing blocks of the reconstructio or statements you particlarly question if you have the interest and patience. Age makes this a somewhat slow process.

  • 2011-12-10 06:35:53 GMT+0000 - 06:35 | Permalink

    Just to clarify about Stevan Davies’ views, and the extent of his ‘agreement’ with me: It seems he accepts the complete separation of the Pauline Christ cult and the Galilean preaching tradition, and that there was no HJ in Paul’s faith.

    That then leaves us to question whether we ought to accept that the sage lying behind the Galilean tradition (if he existed, though I have maintained through a study of Q that he did not, but was a later invention in the course of the Q community’s evolution), should not be expected to have external corroboration, since he would not have been regarded as a Savior, or anything more than an exorcist or Cynic-style preacher (two dimensions that don’t seem all that compatible to me, and doesn’t address the apocalyptic dimension which is very strong in Q, but anyway..)

    If we look for external corroboration for the amalgamated Gospel story of Mark, obviously we will not expect it for the cultic half of the narrative, since Paul’s Jesus never ‘happened’ on earth, the death and resurrection. That automatically rules out Tacitus as recounting verified history about a crucifixion by Pilate rather than contemporary Christian hearsay. But if Jesus was an effective exorcist, and possibly an apocalyptic prophet (I can’t see why one could include the first while ignoring or rejecting the second) in a period very concerned with such activities as a signal of the imminent Kingdom, I am not so blase about finding no external comment on him. In fact, the so-called ‘authentic’ residual Testimonium of Josephus focuses on the very idea of him as an miracle-worker, so why does it stand alone? Would not other external commentators have not noticed him as well? Not even Christians before the epistle of Barnabas so much as mention him as working miracles, even those who regard him as historical. All this would tend to discredit the ‘authentic’ Testimonium idea.

    If the Galilean tradition of an alleged miracle-worker could have the impact that it supposedly did, first producing a Q document, then a range of Gospels by different communities, initially that of Mark then at least two others who reworked Mark for their own agendas, we should more likely expect some sort of external corroboration to support the picture of an actual founder for this movement, rather than complete silence on such a founder. Here the Didache is quite instructive. I have demonstrated that the document reflects an outgrowth of the kingdom preaching ethos (with a bit of syncretization with a spiritual Son), and yet there is no HJ in it, teacher or miracle-worker (I have laid out a case for this in both books). This to me is negative corroboration against such a founder.

    My contention would be that such lack of corroboration across the board does not simply give us a situation where the scale is evenly balanced and we cannot judge the corroboration issue one way or the other. It is definitely weighted to one side. Far enough, that Neil’s principle has a degree of validity. We certainly are not allowed to assume the Christian evidence itself, given nothing else, as having some kind of prima facie weight on the historical Jesus side. Which is, of course, the way HJ scholars unable to face the mythicist option and the significance of no external corroboration head on, prefer to approach things.

  • 2011-12-11 09:22:42 GMT+0000 - 09:22 | Permalink

    In response to Stevan Davies @ comment 5 above:

    To say that it is fallacious to argue there is something problematic “about the lack of ‘independent corroboration’ if there is no reasonable prospect for such independent corroboration strikes me as begging the question. It seems to me that the force of this opposition to my argument is derived from the assumption that there was a historical Jesus.

    One may as easily turn the objection around and say that if there is no reasonable prospect for independent corroboration then we are faced with a person who is an unlikely candidate to become the source of the earliest things we find written about him.

    I don’t beiieve my argument is circular as you say because I am not using an assumption that the church invented Jesus in order “to denigrate the sources”. By no means. I am beginning with an understanding of how we know anyone in ancient times existed. How “history works” if you like. I am attempting to place the evidence for Jesus on the same playing field as we use for other historical events and persons. It is surely a truism applicable not just to historical studies that we need some form of independent corroboration in order to embrace any testimony.

    The fact remains we have no contemporary evidence for the Jesus of Galilee who was the cornerstone of Christianity and nothing that can be considered “controls” for our secondary evidence. The earliest witnesses outside this tradition (one lost and one surviving work by Jewish historians) are problematic as we know. But lack of independent corroboration by itself does not favour or “debunk” either the historicity of Jesus or the mythical Jesus. It leaves Jesus in the same position as a number of other names in ancient sources are placed: “we don’t/can’t know”. So we are led to more nuanced arguments that examine the nature of the evidence itself and its context.

    This means, does it not, that any hypothesis for a historical Jesus must rest entirely on how well it can explain the existing evidence. Such a Jesus can never rise above the level of a theory. He will never be a “historical fact” in the same sense other persons that are the subject of historical or biographical investigation are established as historical — especially if rival theories cannot be shown to be vacuous.

    As for the evidence I am considering, no, I am not restricting it to the NT canon for the reason it is in the church’s book. I am attempting to address the earliest evidence. I ignore some of what is in the canon. I have spent a lot of time addressing Justin, too, in the context of the evolution of the “tradition” that became the founding myth, and argue that the evidence in Justin undermines the supposed historical tradition that fed the canonical gospel narrative. Roger Parvus (comment #2) has his own take on this evidence and it overlaps indirectly with my own arguments. Justin was inheriting “traditions” (or manufacturing some of his own) from a quite distant time after the supposed events.

    We have multiple sources for David, Solomon and the united kingdom of Israel. But this does nothing to overturn the archaeological evidence that casts doubts on the historicity of these narratives. It is the fact, the what, that has led us to raise the question of why and how.

    Similarly, we have many mythical or fictional tales in Jewish scriptures. If we ask “Are the evangelists creating anything different?” and compare the “whats” we see similar processes. The parabolic symbol of Israel (or the new Israel) acting out the common motifs of the Jewish tales — the humble unrecognized one rejected by his own is the pious one beloved of God, etc. This is surely one of the most powerful myths that has met the needs of so many troubled souls. It is repeated in many religious tales and throughout folklore and even in nationalist propaganda. Paul’s and the pre-Christian(?) Gnostic myths (currently enjoying your “Secret Book of John”, by the way) — the Christian tradition itself by definition — is about “God” descending, unknown, to suffer. I do not see the same trouble with the “why” question as you do. The “what” — or nature of what we have — strikes me as overwhelming. But I don’t mean that myth must preclude a historical foundation. Both foundation hypotheses still need to be argued.

  • Stevan Davies
    2011-12-11 13:45:13 GMT+0000 - 13:45 | Permalink

    NG I am beginning with an understanding of how we know anyone in ancient times existed. How “history works” if you like. I am attempting to place the evidence for Jesus on the same playing field as we use for other historical events and persons. It is surely a truism applicable not just to historical studies that we need some form of independent corroboration in order to embrace any testimony.

    SD Of course, the only way we know anyone in ancient times existed is because we have some sort of written record testifying to their existence. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth we have several independent written records of his existence, Thomas, Paul, Matthew, Hebrews, John and other NT records testify to the conviction of their authors that there was a person Jesus. Some of them speak of his crucifixion (e.g. Paul) some quote his opinions on various matters (e.g. Q and Thomas separately). Some have to do with a Christ cult, some with an apocalyptic cult, and some with something else entirely. All of those assume that he existed. So I cannot see that there is any problem with independent corroboration.

    NG The fact remains we have no contemporary evidence for the Jesus of Galilee who was the cornerstone of Christianity and nothing that can be considered “controls” for our secondary evidence.

    SD I can only reiterate that it is fallacious to argue there is something problematic about the lack of ‘independent corroboration’ if there is no reasonable prospect for such independent corroboration and add that it is fallacious argumentation to demand contemporary evidence when there is no reasonable prospect for such evidence. The fact of the matter is not that there is no evidence about Jesus whatsoever, for there is quite a bit. But since most of it is fictitious people falsely conclude that it is all fictitious. (It is fallacious by false generalization to argue that if most of the evidentiary value of certain material is fictitious therefore it is entirely fictitious. You haven’t done that, but I’ve often seen folks do it on this issue.)

    SD Insofar as there is any knowledge of Jesus it tells us he was a Galilean of humble origins. [Tim and Evan have argued against the notion that he was a carpenter, so I won’t use that word.] It is nonsense to think that there would be independent corroborative evidence about a humble Galilean unless he were a person of significant interest. He was only of significant interest to early Christians who then did write quite a lot of things mentioning him. If you say we need to have evidence from other people than those who did in fact write about him (i.e. written testimony from people who did not think him of significant interest) you will recognize, I hope that it is absurd to think that the writing of such people ever existed or would have survived 2000 years if it ever did.

    SD You might think that most of the Q sayings and most of the Thomas sayings are invented, but they are invented in light of a thesis held by both compilations that there was once a Jesus who did exist. Similarly, John’s gospel is historical fiction, about a person John assumed to have lived. We have the contemporary source Paul. Earl Doherty has made a great effort to show that references by Paul to a Jesus who was born, had a brother, was crucified is not evidence for Jesus’ historical existence. But his argumentation presupposes his own thesis. I would tend to agree that Paul cared nothing about Jesus except that he existed and was crucified, but that is the point we are discussing here.

    SD Insofar as we are arguing whether or not there is any evidence of the existence of Jesus per se, the sources we have are rather plentiful in support of the thesis. If you want non-cultic corroborative evidence for the existence of any Galilean man of the early first century whatsover you are going to be disappointed. But the absence of such evidence does not mitigate against the existence of Jesus.

    NG “This means, does it not, that any hypothesis for a historical Jesus must rest entirely on how well it can explain the existing evidence. Such a Jesus can never rise above the level of a theory. He will never be a “historical fact” in the same sense other persons that are the subject of historical or biographical investigation are established as historical — especially if rival theories cannot be shown to be vacuous.”

    SD But the burden of proof is on the affirmative. People who take the simple view, as I do, that there is a whole lot of testimony to Jesus’ existence have the high ground. If somebody wants to argue that there never was such a person, s noting that it would be nice to have a lot of contemporary corroborative evidence doesn’t do the job. Constructing a counter-theory would be a stronger attempt. Earl Doherty has tried to do this, to his credit, but he has convinced nobody in scholarship whereas Philip Davies, and Thomas Thompson and others have convinced a host of believing Jews and Christians, not to mention nonbelievers, that there never was any such thing as a Davidic-Solomonic empire and possibly no historical David. There may be a consensus among scholars of Chinese antiquity that there was never any such person as Lao Tzu. It’s not that arguments against an HJ cannot be made, or that scholars are so bound up with their childhood beliefs that they can’t accept them, it’s that the arguments are thus far weak and invalid, and the effort to account for the invention of a putative Historical Jesus by members of Christ cult for whom such a person is wholly irrelevant has not been done persuasively.

    SD If the issue is “was there ever such a person” I think your arguments have been irrationally demanding impossible evidence, and that historians would agree with me on that score. But if we are talking about the nature of the historical Jesus, well that’s another matter. I’ve written here that the problem of getting from A to B, from the humble Galilean to the Risen Christ (or vice versa) does not seem to me to have been solved. One might formulate the problem as this: Why is it that we do have such a plethora of evidence (much of it inaccurate and suspect) about Jesus, or even more simply, why should anybody care at all?

    SD Earl Doherty’s vision of a heavenly Christ sacrificed in the trans-earth spheres and then, for obscure reasons, imagined to be a humble Galilean has convinced, to my knowledge, virtually no one. And I speak as one who has defended him as an original thinker and as one who has, more than most professional NT scholars, recognized the problems incumbent on NT and HJ study.

    NG “As for the evidence I am considering, no, I am not restricting it to the NT canon for the reason it is in the church’s book. I am attempting to address the earliest evidence”

    SD As is often case with discussions of this sort I begin to lose track of what it is that we are talking about. I am arguing that there is evidence about an HJ per se. I thought you were denying, along with Earl Doherty, that there was any such evidence period. If you are addressing the earliest evidence, and therefore conceding that there is some, which I do think is the case, then I will be considering it along with you.

    NG Similarly, we have many mythical or fictional tales in Jewish scriptures. If we ask “Are the evangelists creating anything different?” and compare the “whats” we see similar processes. The parabolic symbol of Israel (or the new Israel) acting out the common motifs of the Jewish tales — the humble unrecognized one rejected by his own is the pious one beloved of God, etc. This is surely one of the most powerful myths that has met the needs of so many troubled souls.

    SD One of the stunning things, to me, about early Xian texts is that they are so diverse. This humble unrecognized one may be the underlying motif of Mark, although I think Mark has a lot of Motifs going and that if this is one, it’s one among many. But this isn’t what Paul, or John, or Q, or Thomas or the Gnostics are going on about. In fact, now that I think about it, even in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is wildly popular among most people. But then the Jewish authorities conspire against him and, arrest him in secret for fear of the crowds, give him over to Romans (who are not “his own”!) to be killed. I think that sort of thing probably did happen… but it is not much of a mythic working out of “the humble unrecognized one rejected by his own” except for perhaps the last hours of his life when for no reason the crowds turn on him. Before those hours he is immensely popular! And I’m glad you are enjoying my book on the Secret Book of John.

    • Ken
      2011-12-18 21:07:56 GMT+0000 - 21:07 | Permalink

      “In the case of Jesus of Nazareth we have several independent written records of his existence, Thomas, Paul, Matthew, Hebrews, John and other NT records testify to the conviction of their authors that there was a person Jesus.”

      The word ‘independent’ gets used a lot when speaking of the New Testament. It seems pretty irrelevant to me whether the authors of the early Christian writings are writing an ‘independent’ account as opposed to whether they were writing an “accurate” account based on credible sources of information.

      The Book of Mormon is an ‘independent’ account, by Joseph Smith, of some periods of the life of Jesus.(Supposedly divinely inspired, of course). But how credible would most historians rate it as source of reliable information about the life of the actual Jesus? And how do we know that the information from Paul’s letters and the Gospels didn’t come through via the same channels as Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? (Divine inspiration)

      “Credible” sources of information would seem to be far more important that “independent” sources of information, particularly since the Gospels are most likely not “independent” of one another.

      And now the argument can begin over which sources are more likely to be “credible”.

      • 2011-12-18 21:37:51 GMT+0000 - 21:37 | Permalink

        Albert Schweitzer agrees with you. He lamented the fact that we have no comparable evidence for the historicity of Jesus since all the sources for Jesus are traced 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.” (p. 402, 2001 edition of Quest)

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2011-12-12 09:17:04 GMT+0000 - 09:17 | Permalink

    Of course, the only way we know anyone in ancient times existed is because we have some sort of written record testifying to their existence.

    And there exist critical historical reconstructions that contain an ineluctable role for some such figure. We require historical figures to have acted, to have been protagonists in some past events that can be verified at least in broad outline without relying solely on literary narratives.

    In the case of Jesus of Nazareth we have several independent written records of his existence, Thomas, Paul, Matthew, Hebrews, John and other NT records testify to the conviction of their authors that there was a person Jesus. Some of them speak of his crucifixion (e.g. Paul) some quote his opinions on various matters (e.g. Q and Thomas separately). Some have to do with a Christ cult, some with an apocalyptic cult, and some with something else entirely. All of those assume that he existed. So I cannot see that there is any problem with independent corroboration.

    The problem is the lack of a reconstruction of historical events outside of literary texts that would be noticeably incomplete in the absence of the protagonism of the figure in question or someone like him. Notice how you adduce no actions of Jesus (the crucifixion was done to him, and opinions, arising as they often will from the “air” of the cultural moment and its exchanges, are a slender thread from which to hang the historical necessity of a particular opinion-generator). As for Matthew and John, I can see only that it appears that the author of Matthew appears to have taken Mark to be an account of actual events and that the author of John likewise took the Synoptics at more or less face value, at least as regards the existence of their central figure. The lack of constraint these authors felt about manipulating and transvaluating the contents of the narratives that preceeded their own work rather militates against the conclusion that they were correct. Their ability to draw accurate conclusions about the intent of the foregoing literature is open to question is it not?

    The fact of the matter is not that there is no evidence about Jesus whatsoever, for there is quite a bit. But since most of it is fictitious people falsely conclude that it is all fictitious. (It is fallacious by false generalization to argue that if most of the evidentiary value of certain material is fictitious therefore it is entirely fictitious. You haven’t done that, but I’ve often seen folks do it on this issue.)

    I don’t conclude by that generalization, but, if we can agree that most of it is fictitious, then it certainly matters which parts of it are, and if the earliest literary narrative, Mark, is a symbolic fiction, and everything that follows is based on it or on sapiential material that is plausibly in imitation or expansion of it, then I’m having trouble understanding how the warrant to insist that kernels of non-fiction must exist in the material doesn’t simply evaporate. They might, indeed, but must they? On what basis?

    Insofar as there is any knowledge of Jesus it tells us he was a Galilean of humble origins. [Tim and Evan have argued against the notion that he was a carpenter, so I won’t use that word.] It is nonsense to think that there would be independent corroborative evidence about a humble Galilean unless he were a person of significant interest. He was only of significant interest to early Christians who then did write quite a lot of things mentioning him.

    But exactly what the nature was of the subject of earliest (proto-)Christians’ significant interest is precisely the question!

    If you say we need to have evidence from other people than those who did in fact write about him (i.e. written testimony from people who did not think him of significant interest) you will recognize, I hope that it is absurd to think that the writing of such people ever existed or would have survived 2000 years if it ever did.

    But the writings of people who might have mentioned a humble Galilean who was (arguendo), as you note, nevertheless of significant interest to at least some people did exist and has survived. It doesn’t mention this group with their odd interest in this humble figure, or the figure.

    You might think that most of the Q sayings and most of the Thomas sayings are invented, but they are invented in light of a thesis held by both compilations that there was once a Jesus who did exist. Similarly, John’s gospel is historical fiction, about a person John assumed to have lived. We have the contemporary source Paul. Earl Doherty has made a great effort to show that references by Paul to a Jesus who was born, had a brother, was crucified is not evidence for Jesus’ historical existence. But his argumentation presupposes his own thesis. I would tend to agree that Paul cared nothing about Jesus except that he existed and was crucified, but that is the point we are discussing here.

    I question the premise of a “thesis held by … compositions”. Does a superficial reading of Poor Richard lead to the conclusion that the composition “held that there was a Richard who did exist”? Or is Poor Richard just a pseudonymous mouthpiece character? Obviously, due to greater historical certainty about the circumstances of the authorial activity of Benjamin Franklin, we know the answer. The author of the composition did not hold the thesis that such a person existed. But I’m having trouble with the idea that in the absence of the same kind of information about the nature and aims of sayings collections, extant and hypothetical, we can draw solid conclusions about the theses held by their authors.

    • 2011-12-12 10:29:52 GMT+0000 - 10:29 | Permalink

      S.D.: “Of course, the only way we know anyone in ancient times existed is because we have some sort of written record testifying to their existence.”

      C.J.O’B.: “…And there exist critical historical reconstructions that contain an ineluctable role for some such figure. We require historical figures to have acted, to have been protagonists in some past events that can be verified at least in broad outline without relying solely on literary narratives.”

      ——-
      You needn’t even concede Stevan’s point, C.J. Written records are decidedly not the only testaments to a person’s existence. There are physical remains, coins, inscriptions, etc.

      Further, not all written records are created equal. Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” has more weight than Mark’s gospel, because it isn’t anonymous and because it’s corroborated in other ancient sources. So even if it were true that texts were “the only we we know anyone in ancient times existed,” it would be false to imply that the NT texts are in any way comparable to the works of Livy, Plutarch, etc.

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2011-12-12 11:09:04 GMT+0000 - 11:09 | Permalink

    I should have added, by way of conclusion, and as prelude to further engagement with Stevan’s argument here, that I entirely agree that a compelling counter-reconstruction of Christian origins explaining the genesis of the Christ cults and the later innovation of the humble Galilean is what is needed to bring the mythicist position into the scholarly discussion. It’s a daunting enterprise, to which the rejoinder might be that the difficulty is proving a falsehood, but I think, looked at differently, it’s an enterprise that must resolve to engage questions that mainstream NT and HJ studies have simply set aside. And so, by raising the bar, as it were, and honestly confronting problems that merely shrugging and allowing the prima facie plausibility of early unprovenanced sources to be the guide have been the traditional means of avoiding, mythicism still holds promise in my eyes despite the supposed* failure to date of anyone to put forward a compelling scholarly case for a particular counter-narrative.

    *Doherty’s work is a huge step in the right direction; if it fails, it is still productive. I however have no credentials to engage scholarly objections about Greek usage and such, thus my qualified stance.

  • 2011-12-12 17:35:36 GMT+0000 - 17:35 | Permalink

    Addressing Stevan Davies’ comment above #10:

    SD: Of course, the only way we know anyone in ancient times existed is because we have some sort of written record testifying to their existence.

    Ah, here is where I do not believe it is so simple. There is a lot that goes on, or should go on if we are not allowing ourselves to be lazy or naive, when it comes to interpreting the contents of any document. We don’t know that anyone existed in ancient times simply because we have “some sort of written record testifying to their existence.” It is not that simple.

    A written record testifying to the existence of a person is not of itself a means of advising us of the certain historicity of someone.

    We have a written records testifying to the existences equally of Agamemnon, Achilles and Athena. Ditto for Orpheus and Pythagoras and Hillel and Socrates. Gods, demi-gods and historical persons alike are all presented on the same stage as having had existence. We can exclude gods from the list for philosophical reasons but it is not so easy to know what to do with some of the others, especially since we know fictional literary personas were sometimes created or used by authors in their treatises. A few have reasonably questioned the historicity of Socrates, too, given certain weaknesses and gaps in the evidence. So in some cases we have probabilities of historicity and in others we have to be content with “don’t know”. But with the “don’t knows” it doesn’t matter because all that matters historically is that we can use their names essentially as a synecdoche for a school of thought or intellectual development or whatever. In those cases no-one would think to do research into the words and acts of the historical X.

    But we can be on much firmer ground with many ancient persons. The reason for this is that with these persons the evidence for their historicity is qualitatively similar to the evidence we have for more recent persons. Clearly here kings and generals etc have an advantage. But not only great persons. Slaves, wives, obscure rhetoricians can also make it.

    The most fundamental evidence for historicity is primary evidence by which I mean evidence physically contemporaneous with the event or person in question. We don’t have any of this for Jesus or many other persons we can acknowledge as surely historical. But secondary evidence by its nature needs to be treated with special care. We can’t take it at face value especially if its provenance and redactional history opens up a lot of questions. (We can’t even take primary evidence at face value but need to use a bit of close analysis and comparisons with other evidence to decide what is false propaganda etc.)

    What enables us to have certainty about the historicity of Cicero is the link Cicero has to primary evidence along with documents purportedly authored by him, but we can be sure those documents are not fictions (ancient Greeks and Romans were schooled in how to write realistically for entertainment and philosophical purposes collections of fictitious letters) because of their corroborating testimony in other literature of the day. And because of the genre of these writings (genre being the evidence we have for the purpose of the writing) we can have a strong measure of confidence that the “minor characters” (e.g. Cicero’s slave) to which they refer also had historical reality.

    For many ancient persons we have evidence like this that can be assessed as reliable testimony for historicity their existence. That is, evidence that is confirmed by controls of various kinds (as above), including a knowledge of provenance and genre, is what gives us valid confidence in historicity of persons and events.

    The records you cite as independent testimonies of the existence of Jesus are faith documents of debatable provenance, at least most are of debatable or unknown or speculative (educated speculation that shifts with the generations of research) provenance.

    Naturally they express certainty in the existence of Jesus since they are documents propagating faith in Jesus. They all derive from a faith tradition. They do not confirm each other’s narrative at all since each has its own narrative that is shaped to buttress its own form of faith.

    Moreover, these documents do not testify about Jesus as a person. They are not interested in him as a person (not even Matthew) but only in his function as a mouthpiece or illustrator of a particular theology or set of doctrines. There is nothing “personal” or “biographical” about Jesus that cannot be attributed to a theological message or as an attempt to portray him as a theological agent. We can see this most clearly (I know you know this of course) by comparing the different ways the evangelists treated similar anecdotes.

    True the gospels have been called biographies and there are some superficial overlaps between ancient biographies and the gospels. But Burridge and such do at the same time omit significant differences, and I find Vines’ work on the nature of genre much more theoretically satisfying with its bypassing of superficial check-boxes and its getting to the heart of what genre really is and means.

    On the point you mention about Doherty making much to “mythologize” Paul’s references to Jesus being born, having a brother and being crucified, yes, (and Earl can correct me of course) his specific arguments about birth and having a brother do presuppose his own thesis, yes, but his own thesis is arguably established on other grounds. Do those things overturn his thesis? I don’t believe they do and I don’t believe that these are the foundation of belief in historicity of Jesus, either. Most scholars say the one most certain fact we know about Jesus was his crucifixion. That is the starting point for belief in the historicity of Jesus, I think. (Even anti-mythicists have conceded the argument about the brother of the Lord, nor indeed anything in Paul, is certain grounds for historicity of Jesus.) My own view is that the crucifixion is the most theological concept of all. It is never discussed as a historical or biographical detail—it is a theological event. (I am not saying it is therefore a heavenly event. That’s one aspect I am still undecided upon.)

    I don’t believe any of the above is posing an irrational demand for impossible evidence for Jesus. I am saying we can’t begin with the assumption of historicity, look for ad hoc details here and there to support this assumption, and then make excuses why we don’t have evidence for our assumption.

    I am not demanding what we clearly don’t have. I am arguing for working consistently and validly with what we do have. I am arguing that we should accept the historicity of Jesus on the same basis with which we give credence to certain evidence for other historical figures.

    But if that is lacking then we do not have an argument against historicity nor an argument for mythicism. What we are left with is a lot of documentation that we need to analyse – the way scholars do now – to understand their nature, their reason for existence, etc. What I am arguing is that we need to apply the findings of those studies and similar ones to the question of Christian origins and the origins of those texts without presuppositions – without the assumption of the historicity of Jesus.

    I believe there is a lot of evidence to be found in those analyses and comparative literary studies to indicate Christian origins that leave no place for a historical Jesus, and that that narrative was a late development in the cult.

    As a postscript I can add a comment on your remarks about the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ popularity in Mark’s gospel really serves to underline the fact that he was unknown, unrecognized – it is a literary narrative device to bring about guilt on all, to work out the parable of the sower, and Mark’s ending appears to explain why no-one had heard the story before. The first time Mark brings in the crowds is in a patent midrash or allusion to Jesus mimicking Moses: after being threatened with death he goes down to the sea with a very great multitude and from where he ascends a mountain to ordain his twelve.

    If Jesus really were so popular then we are no longer dealing with a nobody carpenter from Galilee of whom we have no right to expect any secular historical record.

    I have not addressed each of your points one by one but have tried to address what I see as the key area of difference between us. Maybe I can go through some of the other points at a future date. Maybe these are too long for a comments anyway and should be set out as posts.

    See additional comment below. . . .

    • 2011-12-12 18:40:02 GMT+0000 - 18:40 | Permalink

      Let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that we need evidence comparable in quantity to what we have for Cicero. It is the nature of the evidence that is the issue. Secondary evidence linked to primary evidence, or where that is not applicable the evidence that assures us by the nature of its provenance, genre and other controls external to the contents of the documents available. I have in the past used the evidence for Socrates to illustrate the qualitative factors I am talking about. I avoided that this time because I think it has become old hat and tainted with hostile polemic and parody in other quarters. But it is still probably the closest applicable to a person analogous to Jesus.

    • 2011-12-14 11:27:50 GMT+0000 - 11:27 | Permalink

      I wrote carelessly above:

      On the point you mention about Doherty making much to “mythologize” Paul’s references to Jesus being born, having a brother and being crucified, yes, (and Earl can correct me of course) his specific arguments about birth and having a brother do presuppose his own thesis, yes, but his own thesis is arguably established on other grounds.

      No, I have since been reminded me of the full arguments and I don’t believe these arguments do at all presuppose his own thesis as you said. I wonder if you are thinking of a summaries of his arguments as one so often sees bandied about but not his own arguments here themselves. What I believe Earl does here in arguments such as those about the brother of the Lord is approach the question under the full light of the very wide range of evidence that bear upon the question. It is “historicists”, one might say, who from my experience ignore these arguments and focus on just a small subset of related evidence, join it with the presumption of historicity, and make their “case”.

      My outline of Doherty’s argument re brother of the Lord is at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/jesus-life-in-eclipse-reviewing-chapter-6-of-dohertys-jesus-neither-god-nor-man/

      The least that can be concluded from Earl’s arguments is that “we don’t know” or “historicity is unproven”.

      It is naive or tendentious to insist that arguments like “brother of the Lord” can only reasonably point to historicity. I think it is here where we find the arguments presupposing the hypothesis: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/james-brother-of-the-lord-another-case-for-interpolation/

      Can you show where or how Earl’s argument re brother of the Lord is circular?

      • Stevan Davies
        2011-12-15 12:07:54 GMT+0000 - 12:07 | Permalink

        I guess I just have to give up. We both see that the format of discussion here is awfully awkward as the discussion gets more complex. I don’t know what one can do about that. Every point raised generates four further points and counterpoints in a geometric expansion.

        It seems to me that this is like a conspiracy theory for which no counterarguments can ever hope to have any success. Where does it get you to insist that there is no evidence that Jesus ever existed, and, as far as I can tell, that there cannot possibly be any evidence that Jesus ever existed. (All evidence is from people within the cult, all evidence within the cult is suspect and to be denied, QED no evidence and thus no Jesus). That’s silly, that’s not critical reasoning. I’m reminded of the arguments that no actual proof exists that anyone ever walked on the moon, because NASA could have faked the whole thing. Bring in a moon rock for evidence! Why that’s just basalt and probably comes from Hawaii. The testimony of astronauts, they’re just part of the government cult.

        And sometimes, while you seem to be such an intelligent man, you make preposterous claims. “Jesus’ popularity in Mark’s gospel really serves to underline the fact that he was unknown, unrecognized ….” That is just nonsensical. “The first time Mark brings in the crowds is in a patent midrash or allusion to Jesus mimicking Moses: after being threatened with death he goes down to the sea with a very great multitude and from where he ascends a mountain to ordain his twelve..” Well, the reasonable response here is just “no, that’s ridiculous.” Where does this sort of reasoning come from? It doesn’t sound as if you had been thinking about Mark which contains nothing of the sort, but that you are quoting somebody who has some axe to grind.

        This sort of reasoning is characteristic of conspiracy theories, i.e. that doubt is cast on all standard lines of thought, because they are not supported with unattainably absolute proof, while preposterous notions are given immediate credence if they support the conspiracy theory itself. Once we have come to surmise that there never was an historical Jesus in the first place, there appears to be no counter-theory of any merit as to why a cult of sacrificial Christ worshippers would make one up. Where is the compelling reason to believe that a Christ cult would need to invent a galilean itinerant? Why would that invention become the dominant feature of the whole cult, eclipsing and soon eliminating any shred of evidence that a pre-Jesus cult ever existed, except such evidence as can be mined from tendentious readings of several ancient letters? Sigh.

        • 2011-12-15 14:54:28 GMT+0000 - 14:54 | Permalink

          Stevan, did you actually read or just gaze over my response? I respond with 4 or 5 points and counterpoints? No, I responded with one point. One. You will not count any more than one. But it is a point that requires some explanation because it appears that biblical scholars as a whole have simply never stopped to think about how we can distinguish between claims that are fact and claims that are beliefs or imaginative stories about “facts”. Yet this very issue has been addressed by a number of your colleagues over the years (to which I have in the past referred) but also quietly ignored, it seems.

          Conspiracy theorists build hypotheses upon hypotheses built upon ambiguous or dubious interpretations of very few facts. I challenge you to find any evidence that my arguments are in the slightest comparable. They are not and I do not believe you can demonstrate any comparison at all to support your assertion.

          How does one decide if a religious tract makes a historically true claim as opposed to a faith or theological claim that lacks some control to help us verify that there is more than theology there? That is what I am addressing. Yet I have demonstrated in quite a few posts that HJ scholars — even the redoubtable E. P. Sanders — begin with the assumption of the historicity of Jesus behind the texts.

          As for your dismissal of my claims about Mark’s gospel I wonder if you have even read scholarly literary analyses of this gospel. You are reading with the presumption that the gospel is based on historical data. I am reading it as literature. You surely know that Mark’s gospel is about the blindness of the masses (the parable of the sower, the parable from Isaiah). You surely know Jesus was not recognized for who he really was by those masses according to the Gospel itself. So what is nonsensical? You surely know the studies of your peers who see the work of a second exodus in Mark and the relationship to the exodus of Jesus’ march to the sea with great multitudes. Surely literary studies are not so divorced from other sorts of studies even among biblical scholars, are they?

          • 2011-12-16 06:13:09 GMT+0000 - 06:13 | Permalink

            On the artificiality and literary functions of Mark’s crowds: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/marks-rent-a-crowd/

            For more details one need only consult academic literary studies of the gospel.

            But note that the literary function does not of itself mean that the matter is fictional. It only means we need additional evidence to give us a valid reason to be confident that the crowds are more than literary.

            But once we conclude Jesus was historically so popular then we are no longer left with the convenience of explaining the lack of independent evidence for our figure on the basis that he was an obscure Galilean carpenter.

        • 2011-12-15 17:51:55 GMT+0000 - 17:51 | Permalink

          S.D.: “Where is the compelling reason to believe that a Christ cult would need to invent a Galilean itinerant?”

          To gain ascendancy over the other factions. It’s the difference between claiming to be an apostle or a follower of an apostle and claiming one’s authority comes from a disciple of the earthly Christ. In Mark’s gospel the role of disciple is ambiguous. The Twelve are bumbling fools who desert the master in his time of need. In the original ending of Mark, Jesus had arisen and (most likely) had ascended immediately. The remaining disciples were supposed to return to Galilee to await the parousia.

          The subsequent gospel writers invented an interim period between the resurrection and the ascension (a rather late innovation), to play up the importance of the Eleven, and to stop every Tom, Dick, and Harry from saying he saw Jesus. The rehabilitated disciples received special, secret teachings. They were given powers on earth to forgive sins, to heal the sick, to baptize in the name of Jesus, to found new churches, etc. In the Gospel of John, Jesus blew the Holy Spirit into their lungs. These guys were supermen (although they practically vanished from the pages history).

          So now if a “bishop” claimed to be a follower in direct descent from the disciples, he had authority. He wasn’t just someone who had received doctrine from some schmuck who knew a guy who had a vision of an apparition (an apostle such as Paul), but a person who was endowed with absolute legitimacy who could claim lineage all the way back to Jesus.

          He could declare his direct descent from people who had touched the savior. They had felt the nail-prints, had had their feet washed, had eaten his bread, had drunk his wine. He could insist that Jesus chose Peter and gave him power and authority, while passing on secret teachings. Then Peter laid hands on Linus and passed on the power, authority, and teachings. Linus did the same for Anacletus. And so on.

          There’s no need to feign surprise or confusion. This is an evolutionary adaptation that confers a high degree of survivability, if not dominance. It’s every bit as important as embracing the OT in order to establish legitimacy and acceptance by the Roman elite as an “old” religion (albeit with a mystery cult grafted on top).

          Oh, forget it. Why am I pretending that you don’t already know this?

          S.D: “Sigh.”

          Indeed. Sigh.

          • Stevan Davies
            2011-12-16 08:24:25 GMT+0000 - 08:24 | Permalink

            TW wrote: “In Mark’s gospel the role of disciple is ambiguous. The Twelve are bumbling fools who desert the master in his time of need. ”

            You are certainly right about that. But this is the invention of the humble Galilean, I guess…. since it’s all fiction. But the motivation you adduce for the creation of the fiction seems to apply to Luke and Matthew and not to Mark. Right? And so the (preposterous) idea that a Christ cult has to invent a galilean itinerant in order to validate claims by its internal authority structure can’t work in light of the very evidence you provide.

            • 2011-12-16 09:38:31 GMT+0000 - 09:38 | Permalink

              Are you familiar with the term exaptation? Mark had his own reasons for writing his gospel. I suspect it had much to do with the advancing Roman armies in the late 60s CE. “Come to Galilee for the parousia! The Twelve fled; the women disobeyed — but you now know the truth!”

              SD: “And so the (preposterous) idea that a Christ cult has to invent a galilean itinerant…”

              They no more “had to” invent the story than our ancestors “had to” develop an elongated larynx. But the fact of the matter is our species acquired the physical ability for speech before the brain was developed enough for language. Sometimes mutation and natural selection lead to quite unexpected ends.

              By the way, the invention of the Galilean itinerant is just a hypothesis. It could be wrong, and I’m not sure I fully buy into it. It’s just that implying there’s no other possible explanation for the existing evidence other than a historical figure is clearly wrong. There are other explanations. We’re just asking that all hypotheses be taken seriously on their merits.

              Derisive words like “preposterous” and “ridiculous” add no weight to your arguments. Moreover, comparing people to moon-landing-deniers is unsportsmanlike conduct. I actually don’t care personally, since I’m pretty thick-skinned (Earl Doherty must by armor-plated). I merely mention it because it tends to cheapen the debate and undermine the HJ enterprise when people do this kind of thing.

              So, show us those moon rocks.

        • 2011-12-15 19:34:10 GMT+0000 - 19:34 | Permalink

          I do hope you read Tim Widowfield’s reply, too.

        • Evan
          2011-12-16 06:43:31 GMT+0000 - 06:43 | Permalink

          “I’m reminded of the arguments that no actual proof exists that anyone ever walked on the moon, because NASA could have faked the whole thing. Bring in a moon rock for evidence! Why that’s just basalt and probably comes from Hawaii. The testimony of astronauts, they’re just part of the government cult.”

          When someone is answering a conspiracy theory like this, they can usually point to a reasoned, data-filled argument that shows conclusively that the argument is flawed on the basis of strong evidence. With Jesus, that’s really all we need as well, but it is never forthcoming.

          • 2011-12-16 08:11:53 GMT+0000 - 08:11 | Permalink

            Imagine the year is 4001 CE and the only thing we have are anonymous texts from decades after the the event. No video. No photographs. No newspapers. No remains of Apollo command modules. Not a scrap of physical evidence. No direct testimony — just some handwritten texts that have been copied hundreds of times. Three “witnesses” say the astronauts landed in July of some year during the Nixon presidency. The other says it was June. Still not sure of the year. None of the writers appears to have even met the astronauts or anyone at Houston.

            All right, so it’s plausible that somebody landed on the moon back in the late 20th century. But why am I supposed to accept the anonymous texts as fact? I presume the parts where Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon without their helmets is fiction. So how do I know which parts are true?

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2011-12-16 08:53:30 GMT+0000 - 08:53 | Permalink

    Where is the compelling reason to believe that a Christ cult would need to invent a Galilean itinerant?

    I’ll take a different tack: “need” may be the wrong question. Hindsight can be the enemy of the historian, leading to the implication of necessity and inevitability where actual events were highly contingent. The course of events is always subject to the novel, the idiosyncratic, and the vagaries of sheer chance. Only one member of one Christ(?) cult, the author of Mark, could have invented the Galilean itinerant without having necessarily acted under any widely felt need.

  • 2011-12-16 20:39:17 GMT+0000 - 20:39 | Permalink

    Where is the compelling reason to believe that a Christ cult would need to invent a Galilean itinerant?

    This sort of response is further witness to the lack of historiographical nous among biblical scholars, sadly. I have done many units of history and continue to read history, ancient, modern and in-between. What historians usually do, and certainly what we were taught to do as students, was to study the evidence, research what happened, and then seek an explanation.

    That is, learn what happened and then seek to understand why and how.

    Once again historical Jesus scholarship shows it has things back-to-front:

    1. Other forms of historiography use criteria to interpret the “facts”. But in HJ studies an absence of evidence is rationalized and criteriology, despite the logical flaws, is used to concoct the “facts” — not interpret known facts.

    2. Other forms of historiography at their best rely upon provenance and controls in order to know how to assess the reliability and nature of the evidence, but HJ historiography uses a hypothesis as the facts and seeks to investigate provenance from the hypothesis assumed to be fact.

    3. Other forms of historiography investigate what the facts are before seeking to explore the Why and How questions, but HJ historiography asks Why first or “why would anyone make it up?” and from that question decides what the facts must have been!

    4. Other forms of historiography know the difference between conspiracy or loooney theories and methodical, logical, evidence and reasoned based testing of hypotheses. HJ historiography confuses evidence and rationally based foundations with a looney argument if it challenges whatever has been built upon assumed and untested hypotheses, criteriology and “why not” questions.

    • 2011-12-17 01:21:50 GMT+0000 - 01:21 | Permalink

      Just to demonstrate how far down the rabbit hole NT studies has fallen, we continually hear scholars demand that the texts be treated as “innocent” (true) until proven otherwise. On other hand, if you treat the text for what it is — a literary work that can be evaluated on many different levels — then “you are quoting somebody who has some axe to grind.”

      If you insist on straying too far outside the mainstream and if you remain unrepentant, you’re treated to the Mock Turtle’s four branches of Arithmetic.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.