‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ — A (Very, Very) Strange History of Minimalism

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by Neil Godfrey

The opening chapter of Is This Not the Carpenter? is “A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From the Chronicler to the Present” by Jim West of the unaccredited Quartz Hill School of Theology (West has said he believes accreditation is “a scheme and a scam”) that is a “ministry” arm of the Quartz Hill Community Church.

When I first read Jim West’s article online in 2010 (before it was edited as part of Is This Not the Carpenter?) I was very surprised indeed. I responded with a blog post, The Refreshing Honesty of Jim West. Here is a section of his article/chapter that I quoted then:

Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel” or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus” to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available) – but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.

As I mentioned in my initial response, Jim West has distorted the meaning of “minimalism” to sustain the conceit throughout his article/chapter. Minimalism is not, primarily, a denial of the value of texts for historical information. They certainly are valuable as historical sources. The question is what the “hard evidence” of archaeological finds and external controls can inform us about the nature and value of the texts as historical sources. Are their narratives true accounts of what happened or are they creative literature that is best explained as the ideology (or theology) of a people, time and place that can only be pinpointed with the aid of other sources external to those narratives?

Jim West’s point is that the authors of our biblical texts were not interested in historical reconstruction or recording. To illustrate, he points to the author of 1 Chronicles changing 2 Samuel’s account of God (Yahweh) causing David to take a census of Israel into Satan being David’s motivator. The author, we thus can see, was doing theology, not history.

Similarly, the evangelists were not interested in historicity. Whether Christ’s famous sermon was delivered on the mountain (Matthew) or on the plain (Luke) mattered not. It was only the theological message of the words that mattered. Luke imitates the style of the Septuagint (Greek language Jewish scriptures) to create the impression of the story of Jesus being a continuation of the stories of God working among his people as in the sacred records. When it came to historical details such as the facts of the supposed census at the time of the birth of Jesus Luke was all at sea. John placed the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry while the Synoptics placed it towards the end: it mattered not to any of them when it took place, only that it could be used to convey a theological message.

Paul, too, with his “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16), is said by West to have no interest in the historical details of Jesus.

For Jim West, this is apparently the way it should be:

Time would fail us to consider Augustine and Jerome, Origen and Cyril, Clement and Aquinas, Luther and Zwingli and Calvin… men of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and lived in caves (and in Luther’s case, taverns); they were scorned, mocked, beaten, and abused, and yet they never sought refuge in a false historicism. They and other exegetes up until quite recently (the 18th century essentially) understood that theology is the substance of things biblical and the evidence of things free from needing historical underpinning. The tyranny of the circularly arrived-at Sitz im Leben had no power over them.

Postmodern interpreters and post-postmoderners who use the Bible to ask and answer the questions about “what, when, and how” are asking the wrong questions altogether. . . .

For this reason we can only rationally conclude that maximalists, then, are the true distorters of Scripture. They are perverters of the meaning, purpose, and intent of sacred writ as evidenced by their rejection of the methodological approach of the very authors of Scripture themselves.


[T]he purpose of the Bible is not to offer 21st century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills; it is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith.

Does any of this undermine the historicity of Jesus? Jim answers resoundingly:

μὴ γένοιτο! (i.e. No way! Absolutely not! Hell no! Never! Heaven forbid!)

He follows this with the usual code language employed by scholars who straddle both sides of the fence between scholarship and faith:

Something happened. We just aren’t in a position to say what. Not historically.

I know the double-speak too well. It was par for the course in a church to which I myself once belonged. Being a scholar to the scholars, sounding for all the world like a rationalist (though the above “until the 18th century” remark is a nudge to tell us the Enlightenment is really of the Devil) who would never gaffe about the resurrection and miracles of Jesus, but of course beneath the wolf’s clothing is a very committed, true-believing double-horned ram.

What Jim West argues about the nature of the biblical texts is true. They were not written to function as sources of historical data in our understanding of that process. There is no denying that theology, not history, is the medium of discourse throughout the Bible. To read this literature for historical information in its narrative content is to slide quickly into circularity. What we read in the biblical narratives can only be confirmed by the biblical narratives themselves.

But minimalism is by no means a faith that the texts speak Truth in theological jargon. Minimalism finds history in the real world that is subject to rational inquiry and discernible evidence — not in a faith protected by the literary tropes.

Would it not have been more appropriate, more scholarly, to have found the same points being made by one who is as genuinely committed to rationalist (by 18th century standards) inquiry? What concord hath Christ the Rationalist with Belial the True Believer? Why would truly critical scholars want anything to do with scholars who draw the line where critical scholarship encroaches upon their faith? Strange bedfellows indeed.

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ — A (Very, Very) Strange History of Minimalism”

  1. “What Jim West argues about the nature of the biblical texts is true. They were not written to function as sources of historical data in our understanding of that process. There is no denying that theology, not history, is the medium of discourse throughout the Bible.”

    Umm, no. Literary Criticism indicates that the intent was more likely theology than history but Literary Criticism can not prove intent. Source Criticism could prove intent but alas, we have no idea who wrote the Gospels. Without some quality Source Criticism it is possible that some Gospellers thought/hoped they were doing history. I’m not surprised that West does not know this but with the work you’ve done here on Historical Methodology, you should. A Skeptical Wizard should know better!


    1. Joe, My comment 11. to Only Scholars can Know, using a quote from Doherty’s Neither God nor Man, was to make the point that the fundamental fallacy of Mythicism is its consistent failure to take account of present understanding of our top NT scholars, as well as its failure to understand the basic premises of the Guild of NT Studies, as Mysticiam critically free-wheels, largely in “lay” hands. No other formal discipline has been so “debunked” unchallenged.
      The Gospels, the Letters of Paul, as the later writings of the NTare now recognized as unreliable sources of knowledge of the man Jesus, none are apostolic witness as the early church mistook them to be. The apostolic witness is located in the earliest stratum of the NT sources. This calls for a new reconstruction of post-execution Jesus traditions. Ed Jones Diualogue – Vridar is such an attempt.
      Earl replied to comment 11. Ed, by now we have gotten your point.
      Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar is such an attempt.

      1. Ed, you have made this same point repeatedly now. There is nothing to be gained by repeatedly posting it.

        You have also overlooked responses to your views. It is not true that “mythicism” overlooks or fails to engage with the “top NT scholars”. We do understand very well that the Gospels, letters of Paul and later writings of the NT are generally recognized as unreliable sources of knowledge of “the man Jesus” and that none of them are apostolic witness as the early church took them to be. We know that. We agree on that. “Mythicists” know and understand that. On this blog you will see many posts engaging with leading scholars. Doherty engages with the current scholarship. So do professional scholars who also question the historicity of Jesus, such as Price, Brodie and Thompson, Wells, Zindler.

        Tim Widowfield has also been preparing a post on Betz that will hopefully appear as soon as his time permits.

      2. As Neil, says, your first point is well-recognized by “mythicists” and agnostics. In fact, it is that understanding that opens the door to the possibility that Jesus never existed as a human being in the first place.

        Your second point, is the crux of the disagreement:

        ” The apostolic witness is located in the earliest stratum of the NT sources.”

        Is it? How do you show that? How do you demonstrate what that “apostolic witness” witnessed? Mythicists have addressed the criteria that “top NT scholars” have utilized to excavate that “earliest stratum.” Your job, if you wish to defend that set of criteria, is to address those specific mythicist critiques.

        Instead, you follow the lead of “top NT scholars” by begging the question:

        “This calls for a new reconstruction of post-execution Jesus traditions.”

        This assumes that there was an event, an execution of Jesus (our Jesus, the one in question), that took place somewhere that we can locate on the timeline of human history. The mythicist position calls to question the assumption that there was such an event. You have to establish that without 1) begging the question, and 2) appealing to discredited sources, for example, those sources of which you state “are now recognized as unreliable sources of knowledge of the man Jesus.” The problem for you, and what you fail to realize, is that you are unable to do that.

      3. At the outset, I apologize for double post and the length of these posts. In my defense, I would just point out that both faults are not typical for me. Also, I hope that this addresses both the post in question and some of Ed’s observations.

        I see mythicists and historicists talking past each other. We have here Ed saying we have to look at “post-execution Jesus traditions” which is as clear a case of begging the question as one could hope to see. Let me say in response, that looking for the “man Jesus” in the “earliest stratum of the NT sources” is futile. Finding the “earliest stratum,” problematic as that itself may be, cannot be relied upon to get you any closer to the “man Jesus.” It only gets you closer to early Jesus-beliefs. Historicists have turned the methodology on its head. The proper process is:

        Excavate the earliest identifiable “Jesus-beliefs” without presumptions of what those beliefs were (in other words, man or phantom, heavenly being vs. human from Nazareth, etc). From that set of facts, to the extent that they can be determined as facts, draw testable hypotheses regarding what these “Jesus-beliefs” tell us about “the man Jesus” or the “heavenly Jesus” (or whatever Jesus).

        However, a great divide opens between historicists and mythicists here at the earliest point. While mythicists see antecedents to actual “Jesus-beliefs,” primordial beliefs in the “suffering servant,” “logos,”dying and rising god motif, actual “Jesuses” (such as Jesus ben Ananias), historicists reject these antecedents as being part of the evolution of the Jesus-belief meme. To me, this rejection, as I have said before, is similar to the creationist claim that australopithecines are “just apes” and not human antecedents. What I see, once you strip away the miracles and the supposed layer of accreted myth material (as historicists claim), there is no historical core there. There is no “man Jesus” to appeal to. There is only the evolution of a Jesus-belief meme.

    2. Not all xians believe in the Bible literally. I would guess that literary belief is a relative modern phenomena. Im simply basing this on facts like the lack of bible reading and literacy levels of the common person in the ancient world. The basic people of Europe would know very coarse facts about the Bible and simply listened, admired and feared what their local priest told them. We can see on many occasions that these sheep do as they were told, simply because they could not verify for themselves what was in the Bible. We see the same in todays xians where much of their belief cannot be shown from the Bible. Jesus for example never really helped the poor, he was hardly an example of charity. He never gave money to the poor in fact we have the example where he uses expensive oil rather than selling and giving the money to the poor. Even after this xians still tell us the opposite, simply because they have not read the whole gospels themselves. Is this a fair simplification of what people in the past really believed and knew ?

  2. Yesterday I was listening to another interview with now 81 year old John Shelby Spong — http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/spong27s-bible-for-the-non-religious/4169508 — and was reminded of his own assurance that Jesus lived despite (largely following Michael Goulder) pretty much cutting out everything in the Gospels as nonhistorical midrash on Old Testament passages.

    West and Spong would seem to agree, then, that though the Bible is mostly metaphor, midrash, allegory, and such, this does not undermine their faith in a historical Jesus:

    Does any of this undermine the historicity of Jesus? Jim [and Jack Spong, too] answers resoundingly:

    μὴ γένοιτο! (i.e. No way! Absolutely not! Hell no! Never! Heaven forbid!)

    Thomas Brodie appears not to find any problem with the idea that Jesus was little more than an expression of the noblest vision of humankind. Spong argues that his Christian way to God is on a par with the Jewish, the Buddhist and other ways to God (or whatever the Buddhists call it) and I suspect he would quite allow for the nonhistoricity of Abraham and Moses. Would not Christianity be led closer to Schweitzer’s own vision for a spiritual or metaphysical foundation of the Christian faith if Jesus were indeed glorified as a noble, even saving, vision and removed from the historicity that Paul is thought to have found spiritually retarding?

  3. In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

    – Autobiography of Mark Twain

    Jesus is not the expression of the noblest vision of humankind, unless of course you think that stealing the Jewish religion by inventing a myth of them killing the final prophet of God is in some way noble.

    1. Your prejudice is showing. Nothing was “stolen” until into the second century when certain Christians “disinherited the Jews” by claiming Abraham for their own exclusively.

      But even then, the displacement of the old by the new “Israel” was part of the reiterative tradition of the Jewish religion itself. Those who were first to be disinherited were labelled the “Canaanites” or “people of the land”. From one perspective, the theme of the Jewish religion has been one successive wave of new people to replace the old who had failed. Christianity is but one permutation of this.

    2. I agree w/ your last comment about Jesus, he never really helped the poor or told others to help them. If anything he was a traitor telling them to be good slaves and everyone else to pay taxes and not cause trouble for the Romans. Hardly a champion of the weak and poor.

      1. That message was good old-fashioned “classical” ethics. A virtuous person, or a pious one, was one who knew “their place” and humbly accepted their lot. Nietzsche was to excoriate this as a morality for slaves.

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