Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Well, well, well. After all of Dr James McGrath’s attempts to tell everyone that historical Jesus scholars use the same methods as any other historians, and that I was merely some sort of bigoted idiot for saying otherwise, what do I happen to run across while serendipitously skimming my newly arrived Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity? This:

Jens Schroeter

The idea of formulating certain “criteria” for an evaluation of historical sources is a peculiar phenomenon in historical critical Jesus research. It was established in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of the form-critical idea of dividing Jesus accounts of the Gospels into isolated parts of tradition, which would be examined individually with regard to their authenticity.

Such a perspective was not known to the Jesus research of the nineteenth century and it does not, to my knowledge, appear in other strands of historical research.

In analysing historical material scholars would usually ask for their origin and character, their tendencies in delineating events from the past, evaluate their principal credibility — for example, whether it is a forgery or a reliable source — and use them together with other sources to develop a plausible image of the concerned period of history. (pp. 51-52, my formatting, underlining and bolding)

That’s by Jens Schröter, Chair and Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Humboldt University.

But don’t misunderstand. Jens Schröter does understand why this difference has arisen and explains his view of the reason. Historical Jesus studies have traditionally been necessarily different because the earliest sources about Jesus’ life (the Gospels) are theological narratives, and as a consequence,

historical data are interwoven with quotations from Scriptures of Israel, early Christian confessions, and secondary elaborations of earlier traditions . . . It has been argued that the faith of earliest Christianity has imposed its character on the historical data and must therefore be distinguished from Jesus’ word and deeds themselves.

It is at this point that Schröter sees historical Jesus studies as having jumped the rails. What has happened is that HJ scholars have taken this starting point as a rationale for trying to locate a more authentic event or saying that lies behind the Gospel narratives. That is not how other historical studies work.

This approach [using criteriology to find the historical event behind the text] fails in acknowledging that doing history always means to scrutinize the sources as selective, often incomplete, remains of the past.

It never means to go behind the sources to the “real” events.

Therefore, what can be gained by pursuing the quest of historical Jesus as a historical enterprise is a portrait developed on the basis of critical scrutiny of the earliest narratives under the presuppositions of the present knowledge and ethical norms. (p. 70, my formatting and bolding)

But what HJ scholars have never stopped to consider, so it seems to me, is whether the basis of the Gospel narratives really was history interpreted through theology, or whether it was theology historicized.

In this respect they probably follow what I suspect are the presumptions of other historians when they enter their studies of Julius Caesar, the rise of nation states, the world wars of the twentieth century. Such events are taken for granted as being “real”. Like the story of Jesus they are inculcated into us through trusted institutions as we progress through educational systems.

The very real difference between the story of Jesus and that of other historical persons gets trodden under foot along the way. Maybe I’ve been lucky but most of the books I’ve picked up to read about famous historical persons contain somewhere (often in the introduction) details of how we know what we know about the persons. There is no doubt that for nearly all historical persons so studied there is clear, primary and assuring evidence for their life and actions.

Jesus really IS the exception. He has slipped in by default through the luck of the West’s religious heritage.

Jens Schröter unfortunately does not appear to question that assumption. He is spot on with much of what he does say, as I’ve quoted above. What is needed, however, is a more penetrating return to the basics. Technically it’s not hard at all. It only means “analysing historical material [to] ask for their origin and character”. We know that those sources are unlike any other historical writings. So . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies”

  1. I’m sure this comprehensive takedown of the idea that historical Jesus studies treat Jesus just like any other character in history will be ignored, and people will continue to argue the opposite case as if it had all the validity of calculus. Zombie ideas never die.

  2. So, Jesus doesn’t exist until someone can, using the correct historical method, demonstrate that he did – which hasn’t been done but has only been presumed to have existed.

  3. You bolded the quote, “It never means to go behind the sources to the ‘real’ events.” I’m puzzled by it, because my first impression of a historical study is that that is exactly what it means. Can you present an explanation for why you think Schroter’s statement makes sense?

    1. Historians generally attempt to explain and understand events for which we have solid evidence. But HJ scholars are focussed on trying to find what events happened in the first place. So there is not a single datum about Jesus life that all scholars can agree happened or was said. Was Jesus a revolutionary or a philosopher or a rabbi etc etc etc? Such a problem is unthinkable with any other historical person I can think of. HJ scholars are trying to read behind the tea-leaves of the evidence some sort of rationale for something actually happening or not happening — was Jesus baptised? was he a healer? was he a teacher? what did he teach? All the “facts” about Jesus are debatable interpretations of the tea-leaves built upon the mere assumption that something must have happened in relation to a real Jesus. The theological and metaphorical narrative of Mark is assumed to be a historical-biographical one.

      There are some areas in other historical studies where historians use real evidence and sources whose nature and provenance is understood to decide some detail of what really happened. But these are the details, the twigs, not the foundation of the studies.

      1. Historical narratives are reconstructions of past events. The “real” events have passed. They are inaccessible to us, in principle. In my opinion, this is just to be acknowledged: not obfuscated (HJ studies based on criteriology) or celebrated as support for radical skepticism (postmodernism). The task before the historian is to create a plausible reconstruction that encompasses, makes sense of, and best explains the totality of data available.

        1. True. But we don’t have to dig beneath the surface of the records to know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki really were atom-bombed, that Julius Caesar really did cross the Rubicon, etc. We have newspaper reports and registry records, diaries and letters, official documents and personal relics.

          But for Jesus we have a theological narrative. So it is de-theologized and de-mythologized thinking that this way we can get to the information we would really like to have as historians. Result: no-one knows who Jesus was or what he was supposed to have done or said. Everything about him is debatable.

  4. What if there was a historical Jesus who did not suit the interests of either organized religion, whose hierarchy would be inconvenienced by a skeptical membership, or the the interests of society’s major stakeholders, who want to keep the general populace docile and productive (easily fleeced like domesticated sheep)?
    Both groups would support the propagation of an other-worldly spiritual Jesus and instilling a work hard now, get pie in the sky later attitude in the proletariat.
    Heaven forbid a historian might conclusively demonstrate that Jesus was a froth-at-the-mouth, Judean fundamentalist Zealot who wanted to see the end of Roman occupation and exploitation of his homeland, the ouster of the Roman appointed quisling High Priests, the elimination of the Judean aristocracy and the redistribution of their wealth ( see the letter attributed to James). What if people wanted to emulate such a person?
    Historical Jesus research is not going to get any traction as long as there are interested parties whose interests are served by churches teaching “submission to authority (Romans 13 -7) and don’t forget to stuff the collection box on your way out”.

  5. An interesting example of the perils of criteriology can be found in the field of arson investigation. It seems that arson investigators had a whole lot of criteria for determining when a fire had been intentionally set which they had never verified empirically. When someone finally carried out some controlled fires, they found that many of the burn pattens that were thought to indicate the use of accelerants could actually occur without human intervention. Happily, the fact that historical Jesus scholars use unverifiable criteria doesn’t lead to innocent men being put to death. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann

    1. Criteriology makes intuitive sense, but relying on intuition instead of empirical verification is a consistent bias found in the cognitive science literature. It’s funny how the current trend in NT studies is bringing in the cognitive science about how memories are formed to study early Christianity, but they don’t use the latest research in biases and the faults of intuition to guide their own thinking.

  6. Neil:

    In spite of an occasional bow to History and to Historicism, doesn’t this book – and even more Thompson and Verenna’s book too – still seem generally Mythicist in orientation?

    Our present author Jan Schroter, 1) seems to support “History” to be sure. But 2) in the quote above,he seems to admit that “History” in turn, is a sort of tale put together out of fallible texts, according to subjective ethics and desires. So that History – as he notes in the definition you have quoted above – cannot reach the “real.” . . . . .

    [Bulk of the comment deleted by Neil to accord with blog Comment policy.]

    1. There is no question that the authors of the book defend the historicity of Jesus. Scholars for over a century have managed to defend the Gospels being all myth, or the Christ of the gospels being entirely myth, etc, etc, and the impossibility to reaching the “facts” about an historical Jesus — yet still defended the historicity of Jesus. Mythicists have rightly picked up on their arguments and drawn other conclusions. But it is a mistake to think mainstream theologians are supportive in any way of mythicism when they write like this.

  7. Many universities and colleges started out as religious institutions and/or seminaries, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and many others, just check the website about their history. The various methodologies are useful tools, however, they’re not without flaws. In the case for HJ studies, it seems that basic common sense is the first thing to go out the window. Next, can be a problem with too narrow a focus on Jesus or the bible while omitting many outside influences, such as Pre-Christian Pagan influences.

    “As for this tiresome business about there being “no scholar” or “no serious scholar” who advocates the Christ Myth theory: Isn’t it obvious that scholarly communities are defined by certain axioms in which grad students are trained, and that they will lose standing in those communities if they depart from those axioms? The existence of an historical Jesus is currently one of those. That should surprise no one, especially with the rightward lurch of the Society for Biblical Literature in recent years. It simply does not matter how many scholars hold a certain opinion…. ”

    – Dr. Robert M. Price, Biblical Scholar

    Religion and the Ph.D.: A Brief History

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