Historical Reconstruction or a “Mad House”?

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by Tim Widowfield

“He is unlike any man you have ever seen . . .”

If you’ve ever watched the original Planet of the Apes, you no doubt remember the scene in which the Tribunal of the National Academy questions Charlton Heston (Taylor, aka “Bright Eyes”). None of Taylor’s explanations make any sense to the tribunal, of course. If fact, the disturbing testimony causes them to assume the position.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Later we discover that the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius, knows a great deal more than he at first let on. From the 1967 shooting script:

            I told the truth at that 'hearing' of yours.

            You lied. Where is your tribe?

            My tribe, as you call it, lives on another
            planet in a distant solar system.

            Then how is it we speak the same language?
                (suddenly intense)
            Even in your lies, some truth slips
            through! That mythical community you're
            supposed to come from -- 'Fort Wayne'?

            What about it?

            A fort! Unconsciously, you chose a name
            that was belligerent.

“Even in your lies, some truth slips through!”

I often think of those two scenes — Taylor’s hearing and its aftermath — when I’m reading up on the historical Jesus. Very few modern critical scholars believe that Mark is telling the truth about the splitting of the firmament and the booming voice from heaven at the baptism. Yet, “even in [Mark’s] lies, some truth slips through.”

Consider R Joseph Hoffmann’s assertion in his latest post.

We are given basic information to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth belonged to an established ablutionist sect of preacher-wonder-working dissidents who lived on the edge of Jewish popular opinion and “mainstream” sects, and rapidly deteriorating tolerance of such characters.

John P. Meier in the second volume of A Marginal Jew is more explicit in his conclusions about the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. He writes:

So strong was the impact of John on Jesus that, for a short period, Jesus stayed with John as his disciple and, when he struck out on his own, he continued the practice of baptizing disciples. . . . That some of Jesus’ early disciples also came from John’s may be less certain, but the criterion of embarrassment also seems to apply here. At the very least, if we grant the historicity of Jesus’ being baptized, his spending time with John, and his continuing the practice of baptism in his own ministry, then the further point of his drawing disciples from among the Baptist’s followers coheres well with these three points. If we admit to the first three, there seems no reason to deny this last point. (p. 129, emphasis mine)

It’s quite common these days for NT scholars to assume that Jesus was a disciple of John, despite what the evangelists actually wrote. I will comment in verse:

In olden days such strong emetic
Would get someone called heretic.
Now heaven knows
Anything goes.

“But this much is certain . . .”

How can they reach these fascinating and fabulous conclusions that contradict the plain text of the gospels? Because they “know” what’s plausible and what isn’t. And once they’ve shaved away the unbelievable and the unsupportable, they are left with what “must be” the truth. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) demonstrates:

            May it please the Tribunal: I for one
            grant that this being cannot have come
            from another planet. But this much is
            certain -- he comes from somewhere in the
            Forbidden Zone. He has described the region
            to us, and described it accurately, for I
            have been there.

See how easy it is to discover the truth? Just find the kernel, and toss away the husk (what cannot be true). But what is kernel and what is husk? That’s where their historical criteria come into play.

Matthew rewrites the baptismal scene with John recognizing Jesus. John (in Matthew) demurs at the idea of dunking Jesus.

14. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 

15. But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matt. 3:14-15, ESV)

For NT scholars, this is proof of Matthew’s embarrassment about the baptism. In John’s gospel, the supposed embarrassment is so strong, that the baptism never even takes place. Jesus simply walks by and pulls away John’s disciples. Their embarrassment “proves” it really happened.

Is this process of slicing and dicing gospel stories a valid way to get at the truth?

“You may not like what you find.”

Let me offer a rather different analysis of Mark’s story of the baptism. Think of Mark’s tales as jewelry — specifically, as precious gems set in mundane settings. I am, in a way, restating Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s analogy of “pearls on a string,” albeit with a far more skeptical slant. I’m suggesting that not merely the connecting pieces between the pericopae are mostly “redactional” (i.e., products of the evangelists), but the settings as well.

What is the gem in the story of the baptism? It’s this:

The baptism of Jesus by John the baptist, as i...
The baptism of Jesus by John the baptist, as illustrated in the Hortus deliciarum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

Mark has created the story to let us know that the Holy Spirit entered Jesus and that God has called him his son. The scene fulfills important narrative requirements:

  1. It occurs in broad daylight with many witnesses.
  2. It involves a figure in Judean history who people still remembered when Mark was writing.
  3. It lets the reading audience know immediately and emphatically who Jesus is.

But while the mundane setting is important for obvious narrative reasons, the most important elements — the twin jewels, if you will — are the descent of the Holy Spirit and the pronouncement of Sonship.

What evidence can we use to deduce that the ordinary settings in which the jewels sit are secondary?

Suppose we’re at a bar, chasing Scotch with more Scotch, and I feel inspired at some point in the proceedings to tell you a story that starts with a traveling salesman and ends with a furious farmer and a shotgun. If you analyzed my story very carefully, throwing away the punchline and assuming that the rest of the story represents “authentic traditions” about country life back in mid-twentieth century America, you’d be committing a fallacy of genre.

“This is a joke in very poor taste.”

The punch line is the reason for the story. The rest is merely a conveyance to reach the ultimate purpose of the joke. Depending on the genre, concentrating on the setting is as wrongheaded as ignoring the painting and focusing on the frame.

But how do we know what genre the gospels and the pericopae (i.e., individual stories) within them are? What evidence do we have that they are something other than history?

First and foremost is how subsequent evangelists rewrote Mark’s stories. Even if today’s scholars think Mark was writing history, his plagiarists did not. John (the evangelist, not the baptizer) knew exactly what the important parts of the story were. (Note that I am wholly unconvinced that John is an independent source.) But he has a different (better) way to tell that story. Instead of the crowd being the witness, the “forerunner” testifies to what happens. He tells the delegation from Jerusalem:

32. And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

33. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

34. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)

John has popped out the jewels and placed them in his reworked setting. Was he not concerned that he was “rewriting history“? Clearly not. For him, the vital truths of the story remain. The rest is like the background story in a parable: it serves the greater truth. It is a means to an end.

“[W]e prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones. . .” *

They did not believe they were making anything up. However, they did feel quite free in creating mythical settings in which Jesus said and did things. In such mythical mundane settings Jesus reveals cosmic truths.

Notice that I’m not suggesting any of Hoffmann’s three absurd possibilities that he imagines mythicists “cling” to, namely:

(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him [Jesus] or,

(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig; or

(c) are, for amusement or malice, making the whole thing up.

That “Jesus wig” bit is a real thigh-slapper, huh? Let’s all smile and snicker softly. Heh-heh. What a card.

Where were we? Oh, yeah. What I’m suggesting instead is that the gospel writers received oral tradition that was very terse and very malleable. They did not believe they were making anything up. However, they did feel quite free in creating mythical settings in which Jesus said and did things. In such mythical mundane settings Jesus reveals cosmic truths.

Let us be clear here: we know that some Jesus tradition came from believers who channeled the risen Jesus. Don’t forget that for Luke, Paul was an eyewitness of Jesus Christ. After all, what do you think those prophets Paul talked about were doing? — Predicting lottery numbers? Forecasting the weather for next week’s church picnic?

The free channeling of words of wisdom from the risen Lord is why, in large part, the tradition in the Fourth Gospel is so radically different from the synoptics. It isn’t because John was wrong, because there’s nothing to be wrong about. To check a story in John’s gospel, or in any of the canonical gospels, for conformity to historical reality is to commit a genre error.

It isn’t because John is talking about “some other Jesus.” I’m not even sure what the hell that means.

It isn’t because John “forgot” which day Jesus was crucified on, or because he was “wrong” about when he cleansed the temple. If you try to apply historical criteria non-historical material you don’t magically reveal hidden facts. What you usually get is the Jesus you were looking for. That’s exactly why there are so many different, viable reconstructions of Jesus out there. Seek and ye shall find . . . the Jesus you wanted to find.

In the “standard model” a proliferation of entities exist, but for unclear reasons. We have gospels that supposedly contain history, but written by evangelists who rewrote and composed freely. We have a “rich, oral tradition” that apparently exploded into countless fragments with people creating their own image of Jesus. What accounts for this practically limitless diversity?

“If it’s true, they’ll have to accept it.”

The standard model finds proof of historicity wherever it needs it. Hoffmann finds it comforting that his gospel (the one in which he “erased the parts he didn’t like”) is plausible with respect to first-century Palestine. That is, there are multiple points of contact between Hoffmann’s Jesus and the probable sorts of itinerant preachers who roamed Galilee and Judea.

Similarity: good!

Hoffmann also finds it comforting that there are so many differences within the New Testament. He writes:

One of the incidental reasons to think that the Jesus of the gospels is not a stock or contrived figure is the lack of literary unity with respect to his character. While countless scholars have seen this feature (including Schweitzer) as “mysterious”, it is probably merely a function of inconsistencies among traditions.

Lack of similarity: good!

As I’ve mentioned before, NT scholarship is often like bumper bowling. You never have to worry about throwing a gutter ball. All the evidence works in your favor. Everything is “just what you’d expect.” Conformity is positive proof, and disunity is positive proof.

“He was a model for us all, a gorilla to remember . . .”

For those scholars who analyze Christian writings and create reconstructions of Jesus’s life, the New Testament is an artifact that bears witness to the historical Jesus. But for Christian tradents and writers, there was no difference between the Jesus who died and the Christ who reigns in heaven. He is a continual presence in the community — not enigmatic and aloof like the mute artwork of later Christendom, but alive and imminent.

I’m neither a mythicist nor a historicist (please forgive the use of that clunky and absurd word), mainly because I simply don’t believe that we can ever definitively separate the tradition of the risen Christ from the actual, historical tradition of the human Jesus that people remembered and cherished. If there was ever any such historical tradition to begin with, we lack the means to uncover it.

But please don’t take me for a hopeless skeptic. Hoffmann warns:

The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism [sic] has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic** [sic] utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible.

I’m not a Pyrrhonist, even though I’m skeptical of retrieving any real, historical truth about Jesus, who I freely admit may have lived. The New Testament cannot help us find the historical Jesus, but it can certainly help us learn about Christian origins. Recall that despite the broad brush with which Hoffmann and McGrath paint Vridar — as if we’re interested only in Jesus Mythicism — what we’re primarily focused on is Christian origins. The books of the NT give us valuable insights into the minds of early Christians, which is why Neil and I keep doing what we do.

I have read and reread the Epic of Gilgamesh more times than I can count. It’s one of my favorite examples of ancient literature. Do I despair that Utnapishtim wasn’t a real, historical person? Not at all. Am I a Pyrrhonist because I do not believe we can discover the historical Gilgamesh by reading between the lines and applying historical criteria? Of course not.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible provide valuable and endlessly fascinating insights into the beliefs and customs of ancient peoples. But we need to understand the limits of what they can tell us about the past. Being aware of these limits requires a certain amount of humility and a willingness to hold back from rash, unsupportable conclusions. I’m reminded of a well-known quote by Roger Bacon:

There are four chief obstacles to grasping truth, which hinder every man, however learned, and scarcely allow any one to win a clear title to learning, namely, submission to faulty and unworthy authority, influence of custom, popular prejudice, and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by ostentatious display of our knowledge(emphasis added)

  • This is the only heading that isn’t a quote from an intelligent ape.

** I always think of Scrooge McDuck when Hoffmann writes “mythtic.” I hope from now on, you will, too!

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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10 thoughts on “Historical Reconstruction or a “Mad House”?”

  1. As I’ve mentioned before, NT scholarship is often like bumper bowling. You never have to worry about throwing a gutter ball. All the evidence works in your favor. Everything is “just what you’d expect.” Conformity is positive proof, and disunity is positive proof.

    Just like the fundamentalists. “The gospels don’t contradict one another, but contradictions prove independence anyway.”

  2. I wouldn’t dare to suggest that Hoffman or Meier haven’t read Strauss’s ‘Life of Jesus Critically Examined’, but didn’t this book (published over 150 years ago now) show the vacuity of removing all the supernatural bits of a story (the real juicy bits: the bits, as you say, that are the reason the story is told in the first place) in the hope that what is left can somehow be salvaged as historical? It seems baffling that such a methodology still continues unabated in NT studies. Old Testament scholarship seems to be moving away from the rationalistic paraphrase, but for NT scholars it’s full steam ahead.

    Oh, and in a sense, Jesus’ baptism IS embarrassing. Imagine going to perhaps the most important public event of your young life and having your dad turn up unannounced and say how much he loves him. It’s like a father gatecrashing his teenage son’s first proper party and showing everybody there baby photos of his favourite boy. Mortifying!

    1. Well, dad did send the third guy into the son and part the heavens or fly a dove around or something. Kinda like dad stoping by the party to give his son the newest iPhone. Sort of embarrassing, but once dad leaves the son brags about his new toy!

  3. Neil and Tim: It is abundently clear you have both have entered a joint hardening (dogmatic?) confirmation of your particular critical NT views, leading to a denial of my participation. I will attempt a reply to Tim’s post which by any legitimate rationale conforms to all rules of commenting with the one fact that it will make the counter claim (evidence) that there is a real legitimate NT source containing sufficient historical evidence of a real Jesus, who he was and what he was about, even if it is not found in the writings of the NT. If rejected, by my judgment, the one reason will be you both sensor opposing arguments.

    1. Ed, I just counted the number of comments you’ve made on Vridar. It stands at 233. This comment will make 234. If we’re trying to censor opposing arguments, we’re doing a very poor job of it.

      We know that you believe there is a “real legitimate NT source containing sufficient historical evidence of a real Jesus.” You’ve made that point abundantly clear time and time again. Please tell us by what criteria you’ve reached this conclusion. What arguments brought you to this point?

      Simply restating your belief that the Sermon on the Mount givens us a picture of the real Jesus is not an argument. And I am simply not swayed by the fact that some number of “Top Scholars” agree with your conclusions. Sure, I would like to know who (besides Hans Dieter Betz and James Robinson) they are, but what I really want to know is what their arguments are.

      Simply quoting Robinson saying that Betz is right is only the beginning of your argument. Tell me why Betz is right. The argument from authority is never necessary, because true authorities can explain their points in terms people of average intelligence can understand.

      Here’s a point of discussion: Do you agree with Norman Perrin’s argument with respect to double dissimilarity? If so, what bearing does it have on the SM?

      1. “Ed, I just counted the number of comments you’ve made on Vridar. It stands at 233. This comment will make 234. If we’re trying to censor opposing arguments, we’re doing a very poor job of it.”

        Correction: 263 comments from Ed Jones.

        Ed, I concur with Tim’s comment. You have also told me that you are not a scholar and must rely upon authorities. I understand that. But here on this blog we are interested in engaging with the arguments of those authorities. Those of us who do engage with their arguments believe we have enough background reading, education and intelligence to engage with scholarly publications and test their arguments against the norms of logic and evidence.

        You, on the other hand, have done very little more to date other than quote passages from the scholars.

        It is those passages we are asking the scholars to support with evidence. They do not do that. They are merely espousing theoretical constructs that they feel are adequate explanations for the evidence. We are asking you for an argument to support their/your views.

        If we are wrong, then show us where we are wrong with argument and evidence. Merely quoting passages from Betz and co does not cut it.

        Meanwhile . . .

        Another erstwhile commenter here who went by the name of “Roo Bookaroo” (he must love Australian marsupials!) likewise advertizes far and wide that since Vridar has stopped allowing his comments that this blog censors views it does not like, despite the fact that Roo was allowed to post here 359 times! Roo’s posts were only siphoned off into the spam bin once they became repetitive and long-winded, personally abusive and long-winded, and entirely devoted to his own hobby-horse topics (for which he was invited to start his own blog) and long-winded.

      2. Why Betz is right: Our sole sufficiet evidence for knowledge of Jesus, who he was, what he was about, is the event of the key disciples returnning to Jesusalem within weeks, pruposing to again toke up the sayings of Jesus. This marked the beginning of the Jesus Movement which produced the Sermon on the Mount. Its final redaction around 50 CE as testified by “the extraodinarily intmate, more presicely advesaral, relationship of the Epistle to the Galations and the Sermon on the Mount continued to force itself upon me”.
        I accept the theory of relatiivity, which i don’t understand, because Einstein said so; I accept the above, which I do understand with muchf corroberation, because Betz said so.

        1. Ed: “. . . the event of the key disciples returnning to Jesusalem within weeks, pruposing to again toke up the sayings of Jesus”

          Tim: As they say on Reddit, “Source?” Luke says they never left. Mark implies they never came back. “Q” is missing a Passion narrative altogether. There is no external corroboration, and the internal evidence is contradictory. Hence, you are merely asserting what you suppose (want?) to be the truth.

          Ed: “Its final redaction around 50 CE as testified by ‘the extraodinarily intmate, more presicely advesaral, relationship of the Epistle to the Galations and the Sermon on the Mount continued to force itself upon me’.”

          Tim: The general consensus, I’m fairly certain, is that Paul and Matthew are independent. I have always wanted to study this matter further, because I do suspect that Matthew takes jabs at Paul from time to time. However, I need to do more study on the matter. As far as it pointing to a real, historical Jesus, I’m not swayed by Betz’s arguments.

          Ed: “I accept the theory of relatiivity, which i don’t understand, because Einstein said so . . .”

          Tim: You don’t need to take Einstein at his word. Don’t forget that several brilliant people disagreed with him, but later experiments proved he was right. In fact, relativity is not that hard to understand. On the other hand, quantum physics is a real jawbreaker. In fact, Feynman said:

          There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.


          But the thing is, you don’t have to accept quantum mechanics on faith or on the authority of a scientist that you happen to like. Scientific theories make predictions about realworld events so we can test them to see if the work.

          History, on the other hand, doesn’t allow for repeated experiments. So what you need is a solid evidence and a cogent model or framework to make sense of that evidence. I happen to like A.J.P. Taylor, but I think he was probably wrong about some things. I respect Bultmann a lot, but I suspect he’s wrong about most things.

          Betz seems like a nice guy, but that’s not a good reason accept his theories.

          1. Betz can speak for himself:
            “As one penetrates more deeply into the work (the SM) – a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessary applies – a theological problematic becomes increasingly more evident, found in highly compressed form in the Sermon on the Mount. More intensive preoccupation with the SM only began during preparation of the Galatians commentary, as the extraordinarily intimate, more precisely adversarial relationship of the epistle to the Galatians and the SM continued to force itself upon me. This source presents us with an early form – deriving from (the Jerusalem Jesus Movement) which had direct links to the teachings of the HJ and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul. the Gospels, as well as the later writings of thee NT. If the SM represents a response to the teachings of Jesus critical of that Gentile Christianity, then it serves unmistakably to underline the well-known fact of how little we know of Jesus and his teaching. The reasons for our lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort (authorial intent), and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile- Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teachings of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged worthy of transmission. This process of selection and revision is familiar to anyone who has been deeply occupied with the history of the Gospe tradition.
            By contrast, the SM stands nearer to the Jewish thought of Jesus, and manifests its characteristic affinity and distance over against later Christianity. {Preface, Essays on the Sermon on the Mount).

      3. Tim: Hoffmann – “Jesus belonged to an established ablutionist sect – – “
        Ed: This is but one more Jesus derived from the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings, all of which are not apostolic witness to the HJ, thus not sources for knowledge of the real Jesus. The Jesus of the apostolic witness is but one, the real Jesus.
        Tim: Meier – “Jesus was a disciple of John”. How can they reach this fascinating and fabulous conclusion that contradict the plain text of the gospels?
        Ed: Because they work under the mistaken notion that the writings of the NT are our primary if not our sole source of knowledge of Jesus, unable to identify a NT alternative source.]
        Tim: See how easy it is to discover the truth? Just find the kernel – –
        Ed: The writings of the NT are not apostolic, they do not contain the kernel. The real kernel is the text containing the original and originating faith of the apostles. Present historical methods and knowledge locates this apostolic witness in the SM.
        Tim: Mark’s story of the baptism is the gem – the voice from heaven, you are my beloved Son. Mark has created the story to let us know that God has called Jesus his Son – –
        Ed: Rather Mark has created the story to let us know that the apostles never recognized this “gem”, they just didn’t get it, they saw Jesus as no more than a man (of the flesh), their teacher.
        Tim: What evidence do we have that (the gospels) are something other than history?
        Ed: Our top NT scholars under the force of present historical methods and knowledge decisively conclude that they are not apostolic witness, they are written in the context of imaging Paul’s Christ myth not Jesus. Eric Zuesse’s, the first scientific probe: “The four canonical gospel accounts of the words and actions of Jesus were written decades after Jesus by followers of Paul, not followers of Jesus; and these writings placed in the mouth of Jesus the agenda of Paul. Paul thus effectively became, via his followers, Christ’s ventriloquist” (This even shook Dawkins’ cage}.
        Tim: For Luke, Paul was an eyewitness of Jesus Christ. After all, what do you think those prophets Paul talked about were doing?
        Ed: [Robinson: Although Paul is our oldest source, dating back to around 50 CE, yet Paul himself had not met the historical Jesus, but only the resurrected Christ, who for Paul literally and figuratively so out shown Jesus as to leave Jesus really out of sight. Paul knew very few of the of sayings of Jesus, and did not have a kind of religiosity, much less theology, built on Jesus’ sayings, and even argues he is in no regard less qualified than Jesus’ own disciples.”]
        Tim: If you try to apply historical criteria to non-historical material you don’t reveal hidden facts. [The problematic of the writings of the NT.]

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