Historical Method Versus Jesus Research. Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

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by Neil Godfrey

I touched on one brief passage in the chapter by Jens Schröter in my recent post, Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically from Other Historical Studies, and it’s now time to return to his chapter from Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [JCDA] in more depth. Jens Schröter appears at several points to come so close to advocating use of the methods of other historical studies for the study of Jesus, but each time falls agonizingly short of what only those with eyes wide shut will miss.


Historical Jesus research in recent decades has dwelt heavily upon the social, political and religious life of Judaism, Palestine and Galilee in the first century in order to explore the environmental factors that must have contributed to the personal make-up of Jesus and his mission.

A historical presentation of Jesus’ mission has to explain why it caused a new movement circled around his name and venerating him as “Lord Jesus Christ.” . . . . (p. 49, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Right here is the first problem of historical Jesus studies. Recently Larry Hurtado even declared that part of this proposition — that a new movement erupted from Palestine in the 30’s — was “data”* that the historian was required to explain.

But that is not data. What is data is the existence of narratives — the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John and the Book of Acts — portraying a faith movement spreading from Palestine in the 30s. But narratives are not necessarily history.

Nor do we have any data to confirm that there was a Jesus mission in Palestine that caused a new movement. The data we have are stories about such a Jesus mission. But stories are not necessarily history.

  • Question: How can we know if a story is based on history?
    • If a story begins with, “This is a true story”, is that enough to rely upon?
    • What if the tale is told from the perspective of an all knowing authoritative narrator who speaks with authority. Is that the clue?
    • What if the tale is plausible and coherent and “rings true” — that is, is rich in verisimilitude? Is that a sure sign it really is true?
    • How many biblical scholars have ever stopped to think through questions like these in relation to historical figures (ancient, medieval and modern) generally?
  • Answer: We need some evidence external to the story itself that confirms for us that there were real events and persons upon which the story was based. For example:
    • for many historical events and figures we have (at least ‘some’!) “primary evidence” in the sense of evidence from the contemporary time and place testifying to the event or person;
    • in addition we often have later secondary literary accounts (manuscripts — e.g. Caesar’s Wars) that clearly link to that primary evidence;
    • and those manuscripts contain information linking to other independently traced manuscripts containing confirming information (e.g. Cicero’s writings referencing Caesar), thus establishing (or adding strong weight to) their veracity/authenticity — and all of these manuscripts are composed in a clearly established genre that, in the absence of contrary evidence, gives us confidence that their authors were intending to convey “historical” or “true” information to their readers.
    • If there are exceptions I would welcome hearing of them.
  • Caveat 1: I don’t mean that a story is history if it merely contains names of real cities and kings.
  • Caveat 2: Genre is also important but never decisive.
    • Fiction can be based on history, too. But an historical novel (ancients had historical novels, too, such as any Alexander Romance) is not history. Modern historians do not use as historical sources fictional works except where they help throw light on background settings or customs of the time.
    • Ancient historiographical genre can conversely be predominantly fictitious: e.g. much of Herodotus, Livy, Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings). Many scholars have come to believe that Herodotus traveled a lot less than he says he did and many of his tales supposedly based on interviews or reports are creative fiction. An increasing number of scholars are arguing now that the biblical history of Israel from the Patriarchs to the Babylonian Captivity is almost entirely a theological fiction. Richard Pervo has argued that the Book of Acts is in many ways another form of Hellenistic novel.
  • Caveat 3: Verisimilitude is important, yes, but . . . . Verisimilitude was an art taught to aspiring writers. Read Rosenmeyer’s 2001 study of ancient letters, or at least my post on her study, if this is surprising news to you.) Authors of fiction — ancient as much as modern ones — very often know how to write realistically, to make a tale “ring true”. Self-testimony of a text alone can never be sufficient to reliably inform us if its contents are “true”.

I will give an example below of how we know what we know about what happened in history.

Let’s return to the rest of Jens Schröter’s paragraph first.

Jesus research is a historical enterprise whose methodological and epistemological presuppositions have to be formulated in dialogue with the basic principles of historiographical method. (p. 50)

Already, I believe, Schröter has slipped and fallen at the starting line. No matter. He will pick himself up and continue the race undaunted still hopeful of winning.

That any scholar feels a need to say that “a historical enterprise” needs to be “formulated in dialogue with the principles of historiographical method” surely indicates how far removed historical Jesus studies really have been been from the way historical research is normally undertaken. I will have much to say about this and Schröter’s ensuing argument in a future post or two, but allow me to first to point out where I am coming from and why I am so troubled by this statement.

(And yes, I am looking forward to discussing the subtleties of “postmodernist” history compared with other types or philosophies of history.)

Jesus and his figure

That above quotation will be interpreted by the bulk of historical Jesus researchers one way, and by others who are not convinced that Jesus was historical (yes, there are some among biblical scholars however quiet they are) in another way. I have come to appreciate the title of another book I am covering on this blog, ‘Is This Not the Carpenter: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus?’ Referring to “the figure of Jesus” is much more neutral. It covers the whole gamut from biological specimens to literary metaphors.

Here is the first point on which I am troubled by that quote. It is not at all clear to me what is necessarily and unequivocally meant by “Jesus research”. Of course I know what it means to most scholars. Most HJ scholars take for granted that it means research into the historical person of Jesus. But that’s an easy assumption borne of familiarity.

The passage can also mean “historical research into the figure of Jesus”. That is, it can also embrace the notion that history is wrapped around a theological and/or symbolical concept of Jesus that originated in the minds of a (or some) selected community/communities.

Which one should the historian choose to study? How should the historian decide if there really is a genuine alternative or not?

The only reason scholars have assumed that the narratives in the Bible describe (however hyperbolically and theologically) real historical events — including something about Jesus — is because cultural tradition has taught them that it is so.

Compare (the figure of) Socrates

Compare what we know about another famous teacher who spawned a new movement, Socrates, and how we know about his “mission”. We have writings by three people who claimed to have known him: two of these claimed to be passing on his teachings — and they had quite different views of his teachings — and one chose to ridicule him in satirical plays. We thus have testimony from apparently quite independent sources.

Now it is quite possible that these authors were writing about a figure they knew to be a metaphor, a literary persona, or such. I recall the same question being raised in passing when studying ancient history at the University of Queensland. But it was no big deal. It would make no difference to the history of the world whether Socrates was a biological or a figurative entity historically. And that tells us a lot about why the historicity of Jesus is a big deal — it really does matter for many people for reasons quite unrelated to honest intellectual inquiry.

So despite that possibility, most scholars work on the traditional assumption that Socrates was a real historical person. It keeps life simple and makes no big difference to the grand scheme of things. Besides, it might even be true. After all, we do have manuscripts of self-confessed contemporaries (Plato, Xenophon) that are reasonably referenced (by means of the contents of other manuscripts and their histories) to another self-confessed contemporary (Aristophanes) who must clearly independent from the earlier two — two were devotees and the latter was a scoffer.

Back to Jesus

So whatever way we decide in the end to fall on the question of the historicity of Socrates (and the evidence in favour of his being historical is pretty strong, though it cannot be ironclad conclusive) we have to concede that we have nothing nearly so strong for the historicity of Jesus.

All we have are documents from devotees (cf. Plato and Xenophon). We have no external controls to enable us to establish that such a figure had a flesh-and-blood existence outside the cult or faith-propagandizing literature. Compare the evidence of Pliny the Younger and his letter to his emperor Trajan. There is nothing here, either, to establish that Jesus was an historical person.

Quite the contrary, in fact. We have in the gospel narratives many indications that the pericopes were creative mutations of Old Testament and other narratives. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels it seems, is clearly the most symbolic of all with so many unnatural dilemmas arising out of its cryptic, stark and incoherent narrative. We see subsequent Gospels attempting to rationalize or make more ‘natural’ many of Mark’s details. This is the opposite trajectory that we would expect if the earliest narratives were based on historical reminiscences.

But this is just the beginning and there is much more to add to secure the argument I have just opened here. I have discussed so many points in past posts, and it is impossible to cover them all again here.

Besides, I have only got so far as the end of the first paragraph of Jens Schröter’s chapter. I promise to give Jens a much fairer and fuller hearing in the next post in this series, and hopefully will wait till I reach the end of his work before I interject again with my own questions and criticisms.


* I use the plural “data” because it has a better fit with common parlance. One purpose of this blog is to share scholarly information with the general public.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Historical Method Versus Jesus Research. Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity”

  1. Excellent post! That it matters very much indeed to partisans that Jesus really, truly walked the earth the way it doesn’t for other historical figures like Socrates says a lot about why less than valid techniques are accepted in the Quest for Jesus.

    On a side note, in the first paragraph under “Jesus and his figure” in bold you use a word ‘gammit’ in the final sentence – you may have meant ‘gamut’ (the entire scale or range).

  2. Very good post. It seems to me that “Historical Jesus Research” as practiced today is really just a form of Apologetics. Rather ironic that many of its proponents are atheists, but as we all know, Jesus can be just as useful to atheists as he is to Christians.

    1. > Rather ironic that many of its proponents are atheists

      It is as ironic as the fact that a lot of priests, rabbis and imams, as documented by the clergyproject.org, are actually atheists “stuck” in their positions and unable to retrain to some other kind of job, or not willing to retrain because they have built up a whole carreer, and so week to week they deliberately keep lying to the congregation while not believing a single line of all the stuff they preach.

      My guess is that in the mentioned field of “Historical Jesus Research”, a lot of people share the same fate. Many of them may in the meanwhile also come to the conclusion that the object of their study likely never existed and that their whole carreers are built up upon a simple myth, but actually admitting that is maybe too much to ask for since it would seriously jeopardize their employment status. Also it would seriously devalue their expertise: instead of being experts in history of the most influential man of the western world, they would be degraded to being experts of the contents of a made up fiction book.

      They are in a position where the outcome of their research would have a serious impact on the future of their research, so like the atheist priests, rabbis and imams, who instead of pursuing truth, to stay employed they have to keep preaching whatever the paying congregation wants to hear.

      To me, their whole situation is a wonderful example of the sunk costs fallacy.

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