Confusing stories with historical evidence

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

It’s worth quoting a few passages from Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Mythic Past (aka The Bible in History). I believe they have a relevance that extends beyond the Old Testament.

Naively realistic questions about historicity have always been most out of place when it has come to Israel’s origins — if only for the fact that the genre of origin stories that fills so much of the Bible relates hardly at all to historical events, to anything that might have happened. It rather reflects constitutional questions of identity. (pp. 34-35, my emphasis)

The genre of origin stories hardly relates at all to historical events? Now one sees the pressing need for Historical Jesus scholars to bypass standard scientific methods of dating documents in order to date the Gospels as close as they reasonably can to the presumed events contained in their narratives. How can an origin story not relate to history if the story is composed within living memory of the events? The circularity of this is never addressed as far as I am aware.

We know the events really happened. No-one would have made them up. How do we know?

Because the narrative is a historical record, more or less.

How do we know the narrative is a historical record?

Because it is about events we know really happened — no-one would have made them up.

And all the subsequent scholarly apparatus thought to bring us closer to the historical Jesus is built upon this logic.

This early dating is especially necessary given the clearly legendary and mythical character of the Gospels themselves. There is no doubt among scholars that many of the stories are mutations and midrash of narratives we read in the Jewish scriptures and elsewhere. From the first to last the narrative is an extension of the miraculous displays and spiritual metaphors and intrusions of divine characters that we read about in the Old Testament. Compare Thompson’s criticism of scholars of the OT:

It hasn’t helped that those who are interested in the development of historical research in this region have avoided the implications of the mythical and literary overtones that are a constant of all of the Bible’s stories. They have chosen rather a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity. For example, even when speaking of stories filled with literary fantasy, they speak of a ‘biblical record’ and of the Bible’s ‘account of the past’. The rhetoric of archaeology avoids the useful scepticism that historians usually have ready at hand whenever iron is reported to float on water. (p.38)

A genuine history of origin can be expected, I would think, to point to some link between the events and portrays and the group whose claims it to be their historical roots. But the Gospels conclude with the disappearance of Jesus and there is no clue as to how any of the other characters are linked to the people who claimed the story as their own. (The closest we come to that is the book of Acts.) I think most would expect a genuine historical narrative to express an interest in the human details of the past as we find in other ancient histories and biographies. The Gospel events are entirely explicable in terms of theological meaning and even their central character, Jesus, is nothing more than a mouthpiece or mime agent for ecclesiastical doctrines. As such, the Gospels do indeed reflect constitutional questions of identity of Christians as Thompson points out are the real nature of the origin story genre.

In the history of scholarship — both Jewish and Christian — that has been interested in historicizing these origin stories, central questions have too often turned on uncritical and arbitrary choices: Which of the Bible’s many stories of origin are to be read as if they were narratives about events of the past, and which are to be discarded as mere story?

This is expanded a little:

Each choice made involved the elimination of alternative stories. Each affirmation of the historicity or historical rootedness of one tradition bore with it implicit denials of the historicity of an alternative tradition. Each positivistic assertion that this or that aspect of tradition was ‘rooted in history’ bore with it a covert denial of other traditions.


Some scholars chose the Genesis stories of the patriarchs and the conquests by Joshua as the tales that were “rooted in history”. Not that they took the literal details of the stories as true. Rather, the found these Biblical stories as “distantly reflecting” their broader historical models of Mid East migrations.

Others focussed on different stories for their historical reconstructions, and therefore found it necessary to dismiss the tales of Genesis and Joshua 6-12 as fiction. Some preferred the legend of Joshua 24, and the less bellicose stories of Judges 1-3. While arguing effectively against accepting the stories of Joshua as historical memory, they passed in silence the conquest stories of Judah and Simeon in Judges 1. They did not try to explain the Bible. They raided it for whatever they found illustrative or useful for their own historical interests. (p. 35, my emphasis)

So some scholars focussed on the archaeological excavation of Jericho and took this as evidence for the conquest stories in Joshua. Other scholars were more interested in anthropological questions and supported the evidence for more peaceful transitions in Palestine (nomadic peoples becoming settlers, etc.)

Their goal was neither to interpret nor to understand the Bible, but to use it as illustration for their archaeological research. (p. 36)

In place of archaeological research among historical Jesus scholarship we have historical models (often bringing in models from sociology and economic history etc – Crossley, Crossan; or simply various models of the person of Jesus – rabbi, revolutionary, etc. that more often than not reflect the personal interests and values of the scholars) and selections of NT literature to try to flesh out these models. Observe the way some scholars argue that more historical truth can be gleaned from the Gospel of John while others dismiss this notion utterly. Or more often, scholars will pick and choose whatever snippets from the various gospels can be pieced together to construct their historical narratives. A classic example of this is Paula Fredriksen’s Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, which is a hodge-podge of appeals now to the Synoptics, now to John who contradicts the Synoptics, in order to “support” her thesis accounting for the “fact” that Jesus was crucified while his followers were ignored. Sure each selection of “evidence” has to be justified, but it is ultimately justified by the needs of each hypothesis.

This is why I am so much more interested in literary analysis of the Gospels within their broader literary contexts. These are studies of what the Gospels actually are.

HJ scholars sometimes, unfortunately and contrary to the advice of Howell and Prevenier (From Reliable Sources) think of themselves as detective-archaeologists digging beneath the narrative to an assumed (imaginary) historical reality that is believed to sustain it. At least the scholars of “biblical Israel” had real archaeological digs to turn to. Scholars of the historical Jesus and Christian origins rely entirely on archaeology as a metaphor.

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!

4 thoughts on “Confusing stories with historical evidence”

  1. “accounting for the “fact” that Jesus while his followers were ignored”

    Shouldn’t that be “accounting for the “fact” that Jesus was arrested while his followers were ignored”?

Leave a Comment

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.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading