Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”. . . . Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, ch. 2 final

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised 23rd May 2016

Jens Schröter writes what in many respects is an admirable lesson for scholars of Christian origins on how really to do history. I can only spot what I believe is one oversight in his lesson where one suddenly hears in his words echoes of apologists and fundamentalists.

This post concludes my review of chapter 2, “The Criteria of Authenticity in Jesus Research and Historiographical Method”, by Jens Schröter, in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. In my earlier posts I used introductory presuppositions in Schröter’s chapter as a starting point from which to detail the fundamental, culturally inherited assumptions that are never questioned by most theologians exploring Christian origins. In this post I will concentrate on the last part of Schröter’s essay in which he proposes a more orthodox method of historical analysis as a replacement for the criteria approach.

Schröter has more to say about the weaknesses of the so-called “criteria of authenticity” approach in historical Jesus studies, but most of his points overlap with what I have covered in reviews of earlier chapters of this book. He does add a couple of new criticisms but I will mention those at the end of this post (for sake of completeness) and not lose any more time getting straight to Schröter’s proposed alternative to the criteria approach. (All posts in this series are archived here.)

One gets the impression, on reading contemporary works by a number of New Testament scholars explaining the role of interpretation and imagination in the historian’s investigation of sources, that New Testament scholars generally really have been left behind in the dark as to how history has been known to work in more generally for a hundred years now. The following representatives of milestone developments in “how history works” outside Theology Departments appear to have remained unknown among most biblical scholars:

  • The nineteenth century von Rankean perception that history was simply a matter of “telling us what happened” and the reason this notion has long since been binned;
  • R. G. Collingwood’s contribution explaining the role of interpretation in history, including awareness of the sources themselves being interpretations;
  • E. H. Carr’s more controversial idea of what constitutes actual historical facts (“it is only an historical fact if an historian makes use of it”) and the implications of this for the very nature of history;
  • Geoffrey Elton’s conservative reaction against Carr’s views (and against subsequent postmodernist historiography) and emphasis on the importance of individual actors in contrast to more general social or economic forces and “laws”;
  • Hayden White’s study of the verbal structures of historical re-creations of the past (“metahistory“) and idea that the narrative of history is invented or imagined as much as it is “found in the sources”, so that history becomes whatever the historian makes of it.

The common thread through all of these developments is that history is an interpretative literary narrative. The historian must use imagination and interpretation to turn data into a meaningful narrative.

Historical Jesus scholars have been trying to play tennis with hot air balloons instead of tennis balls.

All this seems to have long remained foreign territory to the historical Jesus scholar, I suggest, because historical Jesus scholars have never been able to find “historical facts” to write history about in the same way other historians have done. Probably the only detail of Jesus’ life where there is consensus is the crucifixion — an event that for Paul was a theological (not historical) concept. Theologians cannot even agree on whether Jesus was a rabbi or a revolutionary.

Schröter addresses this problem when discussing Crossan’s attempt to put an end to the chaos of extant views of what Jesus even was. Historical Jesus scholars have been trying to play tennis with balloons instead of tennis balls. The rationale for this analogy will become clear, I hope, through this discussion.

R. G. Collingwood

Schröter discusses the function of interpretation in the making of history and of the major lights above he singles out Collingwood to introduce to his fellow theologian-historians.

What this means for historical-critical Jesus research

Jens Schröter offers us a three-fold answer to this question:


Historical Jesus scholars have traditionally understood their efforts as an uncovering of “the real” Jesus or the “real” events in his life or words he spoke. But in fact, Schröter comments, the best the historian can hope for is a modern reconstruction, through interpretations of the sources, of a figure of Jesus. This Jesus will never be the “real” Jesus who actually lived in Galilee. The modern historian reconstructs this Jesus through a mix of interpretations of ancient sources and questions inspired by modern needs and interests.

Schröter is using the right language here. What he is saying in one sense is a simple truism — he himself in one place appears to suggest it is “a trivial insight . . . but nevertheless important”. There is a difference, however, with how other historians work. When other historians seek to “reconstruct” an “historical Hitler” or an “historical Constantine”, say, they do so through the interpretation of sources that unequivocally testify to real events and persons that “are there” — something clearly happened that the historian chooses to understand through interpretation. Independent witnesses crosschecked with contemporary sources leave no doubt. In the case of Jesus, however, there is no comparable evidence to give us the same certainty — each narrative in the Gospels can be argued by some scholars to be entirely literary-theological inventions. What the theologian is interpreting is a literary artefact and we have no way of verifying whether that literary claim derives ultimately from real historical events. Many New Testament historians say that Jesus really was baptized and that this “secure fact” needs to be explained — interpreted. Yet a few others say it is entirely a mythical (“midrashic”? “intertextual”?) fabrication and it is the literary-theological fiction that needs explaining! And this applies to virtually every “datum” in the gospels. There is no room for comparable debates over whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Non-biblical historians on the other hand work with sources clearly related to specific historical events and that need to be interpreted; Jesus scholars are really interpreting literature in order hopefully to find some events that actually happened. And if they discover enough of these “bedrock events” they may, subsequently, be able to write an historical narrative.

The comparison between the two types of histories looks like this:

  • Nonbiblical historical studies generally* begin with certain persons and events securely based on contemporary and independent sources and from this foundation undertake interpretative studies into these events and sources;
  • Historical Jesus studies have only theological narratives to start with and it is from these that scholars attempt to find some “probable facts” about Jesus by applying various methods. Claims of independent corroborating sources such as special material for the gospels of Matthew and Luke are entirely speculative.

(* Leaving aside here exceptions such as a variety of postmodernist approaches. Later in this post I address mnemohistory.)

We will see how Schröter gets around this problem when he illustrates his theoretical lesson with the way the historian can understand the Galilee setting in the Jesus story.

Nothing can be experienced, read, observed, recollected without interpretation at some level. The fact that historians inevitably work with interpretations does not change the above difference observation. Historians and readers of history and indeed, Caesar himself, have always worked with interpretations of the crossing of the Rubicon. Interpretation does not change the fact that of what happened. This is the nature of history. The biblical scholar, on the other hand, is working with narratives that can never be demonstrated to be anything other than fiction, metaphor, theological creativity. If the narratives really do point back to real events we have no way to verify this.


Schröter denies that the Jesus scholar is cornered by Bultmann’s claim

that the historical sources would not allow a historical reconstruction of Jesus’ teaching and activity and that it would be theologically irrelevant anyway. (p. 62)

The present day scholar can still work with modern understandings of how the sources came to be written and what moderns can understand and know from them anyway — despite all the theological camouflage — suggests Schröter.

I think Bultmann was actually closer to the mark. I think Bultmann’s understanding needs to be set alongside the simple logic fully understood by the likes of Albert Schweitzer and others I have quoted going back to 1902 — see quotations by Schweitzer and Schwartz in Historical methods: How historical Jesus studies fall over before they start.

The mere existence of a claim — the self-witness of a community — cannot be sufficient grounds for accepting as truly historical that community’s claims. External corroboration from a disinterested or truly independent party is always necessary. That does not mean that self-witness of documents must be dismissed as false. It only means we cannot know until we find external corroboration. Historical inquiries, in the meantime, need to be centred upon what is corroborated and more certain — e.g. the fact that we have theological narratives — and must seek to explain these within terms of what we can know and not within entirely hypothetical frameworks (e.g. that the narratives were bequeathed by oral sources interested in preserving historical memories).


One must differentiate between the different kinds of sources for the historical Jesus.

This is one point where Schröter’s assumptions are dramatically thrown into high relief. He rightly speaks of two kinds of sources, but I worry about his application of one of them:

  1. “inscriptions, coins, archaeological remains” (what von Ranke would have called “primary” sources — physically datable to the time in question)
  2. “documents concerning the religious, cultural and political context (that is, Jewish writings from the Hellenistic Roman period, especially of Palestinian origin) as well as the works of historians and philosophers which can elucidate the milieu of Jesus’ activity” (what might be called “secondary” sources).

Schröter places the Gospels (rightly, of course) in the second category.

It appears that Schröter includes the above “primary sources” in the historian’s smorgasbord of options when writing about Jesus. This is a serious mistake. In this case the “primary sources” ought to be sources testifying of Jesus — not merely be sources of the setting of a presumed Jesus known only from a subset of secondary sources. Of course there are no such primary sources. I will return to this point when discussion Schröter’s case-study of how all this works in practice.

Schröter rightly explains that the many available sources necessarily limit the range of the historian’s interpretive imagination. Historians will never arrive at a monolithic interpretation but their interpretations cannot be infinitely variable, either.

But what is significant here is Schröter’s stressing that the sources in and of themselves do not tell the historian what happened, but that they take on meaning and explanatory power when the historian asks questions of them, tests them for their veracity, makes connections with their answers, etc. (I will not discuss here the philosophical validity of this argument — that’s a topic of its own.) I can go along with this up to a point, but I also think Schröter himself fails to follow his message through consistently. Or at least he fails to ask sufficiently penetrating questions that would seriously test the veracity of the Gospels’ narratives.

Against form-criticism, this method is as different as chalk from cheese. Schröter is certainly correct here. Form-criticism and then the authenticity criteria approach to Jesus studies assumes that a single, correct, factually and objectively true historical event can be uncovered. Taking units of narrative out of their context (e.g. a supposedly early tradition taken from its church-narrative) leaves us with a context-less unit: how can an historian evaluate data without context?

At this point Jens Schröter wades into murky waters.

The sources — the Gospels — must be accepted as the sources they are: incomplete, flawed, biased, selective . . . .

They do not lead us to the past itself, let alone to the truth about bygone times and events. They give impressions of what was regarded as significant, meaningful, and distinctive of Jesus, but they might be deceptive in the detail. . . . [I]t is not even clear how a “historical Jesus” should be reconstructed form such sources which, in any case, are reflections on his activity and, hence, necessarily selective and interpretive . . . . (p. 65)

But ARE the Gospels really “reflections on Jesus’ activity”? Not so long ago I reviewed chapter five of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ in which Emmanuel Pfoh brings an historical-anthropologist’s view to the Gospel literature and concludes emphatically that these narratives are not about the person of Jesus but something else. Pfoh quotes Thomas L. Thompson:

The problem of the quest for the historical Jesus is not merely the difficulty of identifying him with specific event or sayings, given the length of time between any such figure of first-century Palestine and the gospels. Nor is the problem that the sources have been revised by the theological message of the gospels. The problem is rather that the gospels are not about such a person. They deal with something else. (p. 14, The Messiah Myth)

Sources do not come to mind at the moment but I dare say that there are New Testament scholars who would agree with this. Pfoh also makes clear that we are not talking about “hyper-scepticism” here, but simply a matter of critically understanding the nature of the sources:

All this is not a matter of scepticism, but of an awareness of the conditions of our knowledge and of an attempt to treat the extant and available data critically. (p. 85, ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’)

New Testament scholars, especially Jesus scholars, could learn much from their peers down the hallway.

Jesus in Galilee and “Historical Truth Claims”

To demonstrate how his theoretical lesson works in practice Schröter examines the Gospel narrative detail that Jesus acted out his career in Galilee.

This narrative setting [where Jesus gathered followers, taught them as well as large crowds, performed healings and other miracles] is therefore part of the literary portraits of Jesus in the Gospels and at the same time belongs to their historical truth claims. By depicting a concrete temporal and geographical framework, the Gospel writers point to a reality outside their own story world. They claim not to be mere fiction but narratives about events that actually happened in the past. (pp. 65-66)

Schröter attempts to shore up this assertion by pointing out that in the wake of the Jewish War of 66-70 (when the first Gospel was supposed to have been written) that it is difficult to imagine a Jew wandering freely throughout the Decapolis, Tyre and Sidon as Jesus is narrated as doing. The Galilean ministry therefore is part of a “realistic effect” that sets Jesus’ activity “in a time and place in history.” The Gospels thus provide a “historical context” for their theological tales.

One hears the echoes of the fundamentalists and apologists: You can prove the Bible is True! Archaeologists have dug up the remains of ancient Tyre and a temple in Jerusalem! The Bible story “rings true”!

I say “echoes”. Of course Jens Schröter does not argue that “the bible is true”. But he does the next best thing: he says it makes “historical truth claims” (he cites other scholars to take the blame for this) and a realistic geographical setting is evidence for this claim, along with its rhetorical voice of the all-knowing authoritative narrator.

This sort of scholarship — the grounds for this scholarship — are only a shade removed from the methodologies and assumptions of the apologists.

In case you missed it:

[The Gospels] presuppose the environment around the Sea of Galilee when they depict Jesus passing along the shore, his disciples as fishermen, and Jesus and his followers crossing over to the other side to the region of the Decapolis. Hence, the Galilean setting of Jesus’ ministry is an integral part of the Gospels as stories which make truth claims in historical perspective. (p. 67)

(Forget, for a moment, the anachronisms of Pharisees and synagogues dotting the landscape of Galilee, the arguably fictional — and clearly metaphorical — placenames such as Magdala, and such, that have been addressed here before.) This is the sort of laziness among historians that Liverani condemns: see Naivety and laziness in Biblical historiography and Lazy historians and their ancient sources. Even believer Jim West recognizes the circularity of this method. Bad and lazy historians naively assume an authoritative voice presenting a coherent narrative can be taken as a valid “truth claim”.

After a largely worthwhile lesson in the nature of history (real history, not the theological substitutes) Jens Schröter blots his copy book and teaches bad habits.

No excuses

Now Schröter might excuse himself in part by saying that he does acknowledge the literary story-world of the Gospels, too, and that, indeed, this is his point: he is trying to demonstrate that the Gospels cannot be dissected between church-theological fictions and authentic pre-gospel core units. The historical is an integral part of the interpretation, the theological narrative presentation.

Here Schröter can recognize the literary artifice, the symbolism, in the way Galilee (the place of the Kingdom of God activity) is set against Jerusalem (the place of Jewish rejection). Likewise, the symbolism of Jesus in gentile areas with its message for the future church. Compare Matthew’s finding prophetic significance for Galilee as the place where the message for gentiles was first heralded. And Luke’s finding prophetic significance in Jesus’ sermon in his Nazareth synagogue. There are many other literary constructions where the author has woven “historical memories”, such as the Sermon on the Mount, whether or not a Gospel author chose to say Jesus declared all foods clean, and so forth.

Jens Schröter’s message

Schröter wants scholars to abandon the notion that the Gospels should be seen as pre-gospel “authentic” traditions that are nested within church-created frameworks and that can be teased apart by authenticity criteria. Rather, he wants them to acknowledge that the Gospels are historical sources that are incorporating historical memories into a narrative that is meaningful for their readership.

That is, the Gospels must be read “as historical narratives”. This means, of course, that they must be read critically. Scholarship is at stake, after all. Let the theologians ask how the memories were handed down. How were they formed and elaborated upon from the time the first eyewitnesses reported them to the time they found their way into the Gospels. But don’t let them question the hypothesis of the fundamental historicity of the narrative itself. After all, it is nested in an historical and and true geographical setting. The narrative speaks with authority, just like the Book of Genesis.


P.S. More weaknesses in the Criteria approach

Just for the sake of completeness let me add a couple of more weaknesses Jens Schröter adds to those already covered in previous posts.

The command to love one’s enemies and renounce retaliation is generally regarded as a true saying of Jesus — despite it failing the criterion of dissimilarity test: compare Proverbs 25:21 and Romans 12:20.

The Aramaic “abba” for “father” as the term used by Jesus is only found once in the entire gospel corpus and is even missing from the famous (authentic) Lord’s Prayer.

Double dissimilarity is also a self-contradictory criterion. To be unlike Judaism implies that Jesus must be like Christianity; but to be unlike Christianity means Jesus must be like Judaism — he must, after all, have a place somewhere.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”. . . . Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, ch. 2 final”

  1. Over and over I am appalled at the “logic” of historicists. Is Schroter really asserting that seeing Jesus rather strictly in Galilee, provides a more “realistic” setting for Jesus than the gospels’ narrative of Jesus wandering more freely around? I can think of many objections to that assertion.

    Such a thing as Jesus wandering around freely, he seems to claim, would have been difficult in the time when Mark was written – if Mark was written c. 66-70, in a time when Jews were at war with Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. But there are countless objections to Schroter’s “logic.” FIrst 1) we are not sure that Mark WAS written in the timeframe of the Jewish War; many scholars place it earlier, many later. Then too 2) even if it was, then after all, it WAS being written about an earlier time. And surely a writer c. 69 AD could easily remember what life was like a few years before the war. Even though it differed somewhat from his own war-torn world.

    Here as always, biblical scholarship is so grossly speculative and filled with gross “logical” leaps and absurd assumptions, that finally most Biblical scholarship has no realistic basis at all.

    Jesus in Galilee actually makes no more realistic sense than anywhere else; no more sense than Jesus floating in Heaven, in fact.

  2. No, we know that the Gospel of Mark depicts Jesus as freely wandering between Galilee and neighbouring regions — Decapolis, Tyre and Sidon. Schroeter does not dispute this plain reading. He is saying that this sort of activity of a Jews – being free to travel easily like this – points to a pre-war situation, a situation that existed before the time the Gospel was written.

    Schroeter’s argument is that the setting is historical. Such a setting has obvious advantages over one that might otherwise depict Jesus “floating in heaven.”

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