History is not rocket science. It is easy to explain to the general audience the evidence for the existence and career-outline and various assessments of the significance of Julius Caesar. Historical argument is as “easy” as presenting
- the “historical events/hypothesis”
- the sources upon which the above scenario is based
- the evidence for our understanding of the nature of those sources
- the reasons we interpret those sources and their contents the way we do.
That sort of information can be explained in a good, educational TV documentary.
Take Socrates, for example.
- Hypothesis/events: Socrates was executed for inspiring others to question the traditional views and values of society
- Sources: Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Thucydides . . . . some self-attested pupils of Socrates testifying to Socrates as a contrary figure and the general social situation
- Nature: Genre and style compared with other texts established by primary (“in situ”) evidence . . . apparent independence of sources of a “truth-message/fact-narrative” style . . .
- Reasons: Analogy of past configurations to their equivalents in today’s first-hand established understandings . . . .
Now that’s not as strong as the evidence for Augustus Caesar that could be linked (at point #2, Sources) to coins and first=person imperial monuments, but it does have a lot of “probabilities” built in there and that your average literate person could understand.
So I cannot help but be quite dismayed reading a post commended by Richard Carrier, an academically qualified ancient historian, that tells all readers to rely entirely upon the counsel of the intellectual elite, to trust the academics, when it comes to questions about the historicity of Jesus.
I [Dan Finke] personally want to take this chance to discourage my fellow atheists who are not historians from publicly making a big deal out of the historicity of Jesus, and especially when engaging with Christians. Why? Because the historical consensus is that there was a historical Jesus. Responsible, mainstream, qualified history scholars who judiciously disregard supernaturalistic claims about Jesus and have no agenda to promote Christianity nonetheless, as a matter of academic consensus, believe there was a historical Jesus. Could they be wrong? It’s possible. But if they are, that is for qualified historians to prove, not laypeople. And it is for the field of ancient history to be persuaded to change its consensus before laypeople go around making claims that Jesus did not exist.
I don’t recall ever having to assert that the historicity of any event is something that can only be established and preserved by an intellectual elite such that all others can do nothing more than defer to their asserted conclusions.
The first clause that needs to be stopped for questioning in the above quotation is this
the historical consensus is that there was a historical Jesus
Garbage. There has been no “historical consensus” on this. There have been theologians and biblical scholars writing from the assumption of an historical Jesus, but that is not the same as saying that “historians” themselves have established some sort of “consensus” on this question. For that to happen, “historians” (not “theologians”, most of whom, even the most liberal ones, have a personal interest in maintaining the belief in an “historical Jesus” of some kind) would need to come together in an effort to address that very question — “Was there an historical Jesus?” — as opposed to simply making passing references to him as a taken-for-granted figure of popular culture the same way they assume the earth orbits the sun. Have historians “come to a consensus” of astronomy through themselves addressing the physical arguments or simply deferred to popular understanding on this?
Look at the next sentence by Finke:
Responsible, mainstream, qualified history scholars who judiciously disregard supernaturalistic claims about Jesus and have no agenda to promote Christianity nonetheless, as a matter of academic consensus, believe there was a historical Jesus.
Garbage. There has been no coming-together of “qualified history scholars” to “judiciously” assess the evidence for the historicity of Jesus. No such thing has ever happened.
Moreover, look at those theologians who so often seem to call themselves “historians” — presumably entirely on the basis that they have an interest in an historical past, however out-of-touch they may be with the way the “history discipline” has long worked from the nineteenth century von Rankeans though to the post-modern Whites — and just how without “agenda” they really are.
The Crossans and the Borgs of biblical studies, the most liberal Christians like these, are entirely focused on finding a Jesus who supports their personal sophisticated liberal faith. Irish Crossan finds an Irish rebel in Jesus much like Crossan; spiritual and educated Borg finds a sophisticated spiritual being in Jesus — just like Borg. And Crossan and Borg are held up by Finke as exemplars of Christians without any agenda in finding an historical Jesus.
Nonsense. Of course they have a motive. They are both sophisticated Christians who find a Jesus in their own image — just like all other historical Jesus scholars as was pointed out by Albert Schweitzer early last century.
So when Finke writes
Jesus is just too controversial, self-contradictory, mediated through the words of others, distanced from us culturally and historically, and important to people theologically and philosophically to take anyone’s reading as totally unbiased and straightforward.
he is wrong. Finke cannot imagine anyone for whom the historicity of Jesus does not come with an agenda.
Dan Finke fails to appreciate that for so many of us that it makes no difference whatever if Jesus was real or fictional. What some of us are interested in is not trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus, but simply in trying to understand the origins of Christianity. That means trying to understand the nature of the evidence of early Christianity, such as the canonical (and the other) Gospels.
For myself, an atheist, it makes absolutely no difference whatever if Jesus was historical or not. If there was such a person, great. Let’s see how this person relates to Christian origins. If not, so what? Let’s see how Christianity originated with such a figure given such prominence.
Liberal Christians and atheists can agree that any such historical person did not, by definition of being both historical and human, perform miracles or rise from the dead.
For the atheist there is no agenda (at least to me) in deciding whether such a person really existed or not.
But for a Borg or a Crossan there is a very good reason/agenda for holding on to such a figure as real in history. Their faith rests upon the witness or testimony of such a figure — even if he is conceived in their own image.
Richard Carrier and Dan Finke are as firmly on the side of Authority of the Intellectuals dictating to unthinking lay-people (lay people are told to defer to the conclusions of the intellectuals, point blank) that they have no business meddling in the debates of the scholars. Tim’s post, Protecting Our Institutions From “Meddlesome” Outsiders, is as applicable to the Carriers and the Finkes and the LessRights (thanks to J. Quinton for that one) as it is to the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Ehrmans.
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