Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

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by Tim Widowfield

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher
Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

Suppose I hand you a scrap of paper and tell you that it came from an abandoned high school in the U.S. Midwest that was recently torn down. The scrap is a fragment from an algebra exam, administered in the second half of the 20th century. I ask you to try to solve for the unique and correct values of x and y. Here it is:

x + y = 8

No doubt you would tell me that you can solve for a set of possible answers, but not the answer. You might continue by explaining that it’s a linear equation with an infinite number of answers.

But I insist there’s only one right answer. I then provide more clues. I tell you that experts like me believe that most algebra tests from the period almost always had solutions with positive values for and y. In fact, most teachers would probably put the correct answer to these problems somewhere between 0,0 and 10,10. So, for example, an answer of (3,5) is way more plausible than (10,-2).

At that point you should tell me that sounds like a dubious basis for solving a math problem. What we need is a second equation if I want the real answer.

“A second equation? I have one!” I tell you, and show you a second scrap of paper.

x = 8 – y

You quickly realize that it’s the same equation as the first, stated slightly differently. It tells us nothing we don’t already know.

Now I’m simply exasperated. “All right, I will tell you the right answer. According to my careful reconstruction, x equals 1 and y equals 7. It’s very plausible. In fact it is the most probable answer. You can trust me on this one; I’m an expert. I have been studying problems like this for many years.”

Now that I’ve made it clear I’m some kind of crackpot, you smile and back away slowly.

True enough, historical questions are not the same as mathematical problems, but we can take note of at least two similarities between our parable and the historical Jesus problem. First, the best data we have for the historical Jesus comes from a set of documents collected in a single source — the New Testament — which were copied and preserved by a single entity — the Church. We lack external controls. Second, because the authors of the source documents never intended to present the biography of an ordinary human Jesus, each “plausible” Jesus reconstruction must accept some data, reject other data, and reinterpret the rest. Hence, we’re left with many possible Jesuses in our solution set.

What’s missing is a second equation, i.e., external evidence. Otherwise we are stuck with scholars deciding whether they are “convinced” or not by the arguments of other scholars. I’m not exaggerating. If you’ve read enough of this stuff, you must have noticed by now that authors will often dismiss an argument they dislike not with logic or evidence but with a simple wave of the hand and the words, “fails to convince.”

There are known unknowns

Since all we’re left with is internal evidence and plausibility, some scholars will judge the effectiveness of a given reconstruction by how well it explains all the evidence at hand. However, that rule of thumb has the inherent problem of deciding which evidence is likely to be authentic in the first place. In Bart Ehrman’s most recent book, How Jesus Became God, he writes:

For years I had thought that whatever else we might think about the stories of Jesus’s resurrection, we could be relatively certain that immediately after his death he was given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that on the third day some of his female followers found his tomb empty. I no longer think that these are relatively certain historical data; on the contrary, I think both views (his burial and his empty tomb) are unlikely. (p. 7, emphasis mine)

Now that admission is simultaneously refreshing and surprising. It shows how abruptly a pillar that props up the HJ edifice can turn to sand. Many have argued than nobody would ever invent stories about the women finding the empty tomb. “Why would anybody make it up?™ Who would believe them?” they ask earnestly. I think a better question would be, “Why don’t the four evangelists agree on who was there and what they saw and did on Easter morning?”

Given the nature of the data we have concerning the historical Jesus, the fact that reconstructions rely upon internal consistency along with contextual credibility shouldn’t surprise us. Every reconstructed Jesus must stand on the presupposition of existence. Hence, each reconstruction must depend on circular reasoning.

The longest journey begins with a single step

Recognizing the problem is the first step, and it’s a step that Old Testament scholars have already begun to face. The question “Which writings can we attribute to Isaiah?” should be preceded by “Was there a historical Isaiah?” In The Old Testament: Between Theology and History Niels Peter Lemche writes:

When scholars argue in favor of the existence of a prophet of this name attributable to eighth century BCE, it is no more than the scholar’s assertion, which has no support in other ancient documents. This does not mean that there never was a prophet of the name of Isaiah; it only tells us that we have no information that proves his existence. We assume that Isaiah is a historical prophet and proceed on this basis to argue that certain parts of the book carrying his name must go back to the prophet himself.

When the procedure of historical-critical scholarship is dissected in this logical manner, it crumbles like a house of cards. Circular argumentation is false and will always remain false. Nothing can change that. A scholarly assumption may look like a legitimate argument, but contrary to genuine argument, it cannot be falsified . . . It is characteristic of such cases that there is no tertium comparationis, no external evidence that may prove the argument to be correct and not a baseless assumption. (p. 111, emphasis mine)

We can’t get past the ambiguous nature of the reconstructed historical Jesus, because the arguments cannot be falsified. One scholar may argue for a Stoic philosopher Jesus while remaining “unconvinced” by another scholar’s apocalyptic prophet Jesus. Another scholar may argue for a zealot Jesus while disagreeing with other reconstructions. But they all remain viable options, because none is falsifiable.

Amateur psychoanalysis and demonization

Incidentally, the fact that each reconstruction precludes the others cannot falsify one over the other; it merely reinforces the point that we’re dealing with internal arguments and circular reasoning. That concept seems beyond Dr. McGrath’s understanding. He writes (in note 7 of the current Bible and Interpretation article):

It must be noted at this point that some of the various competing cases for mythicism [are] mutually exclusive. Earl Doherty claims that Paul did not think that Jesus was a terrestrial figure, and that the Gospels subsequently historicized him. Brodie, however, views the creation of Jesus and of Paul’s letters as a literary phenomenon. Both cannot be correct simultaneously, at least not in their present form. This does not mean that one of the cases cannot be correct. But it does suggest that, if someone appeals to both Doherty and Brodie in arguing for the validity of mythicism, they are doing something inherently self-contradictory, suggesting perhaps that the aim of their appeal is ideological rather than principled or based on the finding of the authors in question persuasive. (emphasis mine)

I wouldn’t hold it against an HJ proponent if he or she cited works by both John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman, would you? The fact that the two scholars’ reconstructions are incompatible and cannot be simultaneously correct is not really an issue. It’s simply what we get with the sort of evidence we possess — inconclusive, incomplete, and contradictory — and the types of argument we have to make — circular and based on internal textual criteria. But for McGrath, entertaining ideas from Doherty and Brodie could mean that a person is driven by ideology. Oh, those nefarious mythicists!

The guild will always let you know if you’ve gone too far. The gloves will come off and the beatings will commence.

Let’s return to the question occasioned by our favorite Whovian’s essay: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world?

To test the hypothesis that Christians or anyone invested in the existence of Jesus would react less favorably to a mythical Christ than even a blasphemous reconstruction, we might consider how some scholars reacted to the idea of a mythical Abraham or a mythical Moses. Did they respond to Biblical minimalism with a casual ho-hum? Here are some of the accusations that were offered by noted scholar Gary Rendsburg in his hit piece, “Down with History, Up with Reading: The Current State of Biblical Studies” from just 15 years ago:

To answer my second question, who are these people, these revisionists, these nihilists? What drives them? To give you the names of the four best known among them, they are Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, and Keith Whitelam. Some of them are driven, as I indicated above, by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. Some of them are counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives. (emphasis mine)

Your mother was a hamster

The guild will always let you know if you’ve gone too far. The gloves will come off and the beatings will commence. Those “nice people once you get to know them” will accuse you of almost any thought crime they can think of, right Gary?

But with the current group of revisionists, as I intimated earlier, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs. If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general. If it is not revolution against the sins of one’s youth, the sin being once having identified as an evangelical Christian, then the issue is anti-authority culture in general. Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism. (emphasis mine, hysteria his)

If you question the historicity of David, you might get called an anti-Semite. If you doubt the historicity of Jesus, you might get called anti-Christian. There are no penalties, by the way, for these slanders. There is no shame in this shameful behavior. And isn’t it funny how both Rendsburg and Casey both managed to bring up the specter of Marxism and the sinister accusation of having an evangelical Christian background? Mediocre minds think alike.

I bring up these unpleasant reminders of anti-minimalist propaganda to show how closely the vicious personal attacks against them mirror the attacks against mythicists. Both are called nihilists and are accused of wanting to erase history. How blithely do the guild and their hatchet men engage in armchair psychoanalysis and red-bating. “What’s wrong with these people?” is the underlying question. “Ignore those crazy people,” is the underlying advice.

In Keith Whitelam’s “Representing Minimalism: The Rhetoric and Reality of Revisionism” (warning: PDF) I found this interesting aside about calling people’s sanity into question.

Recently, Michael D. Coogan in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, can say of the minimalist approach that ‘such radical skepticism recalls the view, which no responsible scholar would now accept, that the absence of contemporaneous evidence for Jesus of Nazareth means he did not exist‘. Clearly, ‘responsible’ is a rhetorical marker to go alongside ‘commonsense’ and the ‘traditional middle ground’ . . . It is even claimed that the sanity of certain individuals has to be called into question. Iain Provan . . . talks of their ‘principled distrust’ of the Hebrew Bible: ‘We generally regard it, indeed, as a sign of emotional or mental imbalance if people ordinarily inhabit a culture of distrust in testimony at the level of principle, and most of us outside mental institutions do not inhabit such a universe.’ (emphasis mine)

I suppose it goes without saying that NT scholars who come out of the closet and admit to Jesus agnosticism or mythicism will need pretty thick skins. They will be ridiculed, demeaned, insulted, hounded . . . and they might even lose their jobs. I can’t blame them for wanting to keep their heads down. However, I do think we’re going to see more of them come forward in the future, and if they can survive the initial onslaught (while proving they shouldn’t be institutionalized), it will augur a healthy change for NT scholarship.

My hope is that a new standard of historical rigor will someday take hold within the guild.

Niels Peter Lemche
Niels Peter Lemche

I’ll close with another quote from Lemche:

It has to be firmly stated: a text is not a historical event in the real world. A text may refer to the world outside the text, but it is primarily testimony about itself. Any information found in the text relating to the world outside the text will be valid only if it is in one way or another confirmed by other sources. Historical-critical scholarship has often made deductions from the biblical text to the world that is supposed to be reflected by this text. This is a break against another part of logic, the idea of different logical categories discussed by philosophers since the days of Aristotle. A deduction is made from one category to the next, but is it valid? (p. 112)


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host 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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  • Jer
    2014-03-27 11:31:47 GMT+0000 - 11:31 | Permalink

    one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure

    Except, of course, that the foundational creed of Christianity states that to be a Christian you must believe that Jesus Christ walked the earth and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Cognitive dissonance can let you wiggle around the virgin birth scenario, but embracing an idea that it’s even possible that there was no historical figure named Jesus who preached a set of teachings means that you are denying a core tenet of Christianity. There is no way that an honest discussion of the evidence is going to happen in my lifetime – at least not in the US.

    And that’s a shame, because I really am interested in seeing a book that takes the question seriously and is argued from the historical side. As I’ve said before – I’m agnostic about the question and would be interested in reading a good case. I’m pretty convinced now that if he was historical, the Gospels preserve no (or almost no) biographical information. I’m not even 100% convinced that we could guarantee that such a historical figure lived during the reign of Pontius Pilate, given that Pilate was the guy ruling Jerusalem 40 years before the temple was sacked and when that number 40 shows up in the Bible, we should be wary about treating it literally. But I’d like to read a good case, made rationally that didn’t resort to namecalling and arguments from authority and arguments that would make an apologist blush.

  • Scot Griffin
    2014-03-27 15:30:04 GMT+0000 - 15:30 | Permalink

    “But it does suggest that, if someone appeals to both Doherty and Brodie in arguing for the validity of mythicism, they are doing something inherently self-contradictory, suggesting perhaps that the aim of their appeal is ideological rather than principled or based on the finding of the authors in question persuasive. “

    But Doherty and Brodie agree in concluding that there was no historical Jesus. The fact that Brodie goes farther and argues there also was no Paul is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus. There is no “incompatibility” regarding Jesus mythicism, which is the topic of McGrath’s discussion.

    Professor Lemche’s article “Ideology and the History of Ancient Israel” (SJOT 14:2, 165-193) responds to the slander and vitriole heaped unfairly on the minimalists by the maximalists. It is somewhat ironic that the minimalists’ insistence upon applying Popper’s standard of falsifiability to the history of Palestine has shown the historical paradigms of the minimalists and maximalists to be as incommensurable as Kuhn predicted they would be. (Popper and Kuhn are not incompatible.) The maximalists (and literalists) cannot bring themselves to question their assumptions of historicity not because doing so may destroy history, but because understanding history objectively may destroy their theology.

  • 2014-03-27 17:59:48 GMT+0000 - 17:59 | Permalink

    We can’t get past the ambiguous nature of the reconstructed historical Jesus, because the arguments cannot be falsified. One scholar may argue for a Stoic philosopher Jesus while remaining “unconvinced” by another scholar’s apocalyptic prophet Jesus. Another scholar may argue for a zealot Jesus while disagreeing with other reconstructions. But they all remain viable options, because none is falsifiable.

    I don’t think the issue is that the arguments can’t be falsified. It’s probably just plain old confirmation bias at work; they are only looking for the data that confirm their reconstruction and not looking for any data that would refute their reconstruction.

    As an analogy, say you have three friends that collect marbles. One friend collects only black, white, and gray marbles, one friend only collects red, white, and blue marbles, and the third friend collects white, green, and red marbles. You leave for vacation with no marbles anywhere in your house. Upon your return, you find that your house has been broken into and find a white marble on the floor. Which friend did it? A white marble fits the hypothesis that any of the friends could have done it. Someone relying only on confirmation bias at this point — instead of gathering more relevant data — and singles out one of the friends for further confirmation that they did it would probably be guilty of privileging that hypothesis.

    In this case, it’s not unfalsifiability per se that’s the issue, it’s privileging the hypothesis. Both issues would be resolved if they not only pointed out the data that confirm their reconstruction, but also pointed out the nonexistence of data that does not fit their reconstruction.

    As an aside, in this analogy, there isn’t really any hard and fast line between falsifiability and unfalsifiability. But let’s say that one friend only collects black and white marbles, one friend collects red, white, and blue marbles, and the third friend collects every marble color imaginable. The hypothesis of the friend who only collects black and white marbles is more falsifiable than the hypothesis of the friend who only collects red, white, and blue marbles… who is more falsifiable than the hypothesis of the friend who collects every marble color imaginable.

    • Scot Griffin
      2014-03-28 00:01:11 GMT+0000 - 00:01 | Permalink

      Actually, I think Tim is correct in his characterization, at least as the concept of falsifiability is used in biblical scholarship.

      I spent some time today with Professor Lemche’s book (the one cited in this post). According to his understanding of falsifiability, at least as I now understand it, reconstructions of the historical Jesus are not falsifiable because they start with the unspoken and unproven assumption that there was an historical Jesus. In the absence of external evidence (i.e., evidence outside the Bible) supporting that Jesus was an historical figure, any reconstructions of his assumed life can only arise from circular reasoning, which is not scientific and, therefore, not falsifiable because the circle cannot be broken. Thus, any hypothesis that starts from an assumption unsupported by evidence is not falsifiable. To be falsifiable (and, therefore, scientific), an hypothesis must start from an observation that itself is supported by evidence. Every link in the chain of reasoning must be testable, especially the first link in the chain, which anchors the hypothesis.

      • Tim Widowfield
        2014-03-28 00:17:29 GMT+0000 - 00:17 | Permalink

        You could, I suppose, argue from the perspective of falsification or verification. For example, when the cops have a case in which the perp’s DNA is on the murder weapon, the evidence can serve to falsify or verify a hypothesis. “I hypothesize that your client is guilty. Let’s corroborate the eyewitness testimony with the physical evidence of the DNA on the knife.” On the other hand, a rock-solid alibi could be an example of falsification (without verifying who actually did it).

        The problems with NT evidence are, of course, much more difficult than that example. And that’s why that last Lemche quote from the post is crucial. A text is primarily testimony about itself. We have to be very diligent about how we move from the text to some theory about what the text actually means and how it relates to the outside world.

    • Geoff
      2014-03-28 15:33:01 GMT+0000 - 15:33 | Permalink

      I think you see confirmation bias more in the way historicists pick through the epistles for the slivers of text that allude to a Jesus on Earth. They find vague statements, such as, “born under the law” and believe Paul is confirming their preconceived conclusion that Paul believes Jesus lived recently on Earth. They even sometimes even make the text say what they want it to say. Carrier catches Goodacre in this very thing in their debate in reference to 1 Cor 15:3 which Goodacre quoted as saying “What I received from those who came before me…” but the text only says:

      “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance…” Goodacre’s mistake fits precisely his argument that Paul knew of the historical Jesus through his conversations in Jerusalem with Cephas and James. Of course, read through a mythicist lens, this is a reference to Paul’s visions of the Risen Christ.

      Confirmation bias, i would think, applies to the Gospels in the case of looking for evidence to support a particular reconstruction. Jesus disrupts the Temple, so he must have been a Zealot, that sort of thing. So both can be at play, here, but in the case of whether Jesus existed or not, I think Tim is correct. For the most part is a circularity, a lack of falsifiability. It is what has bothered me about the case for Jesus from the time I started considering the question about seven or eight years ago.

      • Geoff
        2014-03-28 15:35:22 GMT+0000 - 15:35 | Permalink

        I think the reference to Carrier-Goodacre occurs here:

  • 2014-03-29 17:39:04 GMT+0000 - 17:39 | Permalink

    I like to use the analogy of trying to figure out the picture on a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle where we only have about seventy-five pieces. If we knew that sixty of the seventy-five pieces were green, it might be reasonable to suppose that the picture was a landscape or a forest, if, but only if, we knew that the seventy-five pieces were were a representative sample of the entire puzzle. For example, if we knew that someone had stuck there hand into the box and randomly grabbed seventy-five pieces of which sixty were green, it would be reasonable to think that 80% of the picture was green. On the other hand, if someone simply grabbed a handful of pieces from one section of the completed puzzle, there would be much less reason to extrapolate from them to the whole picture.

    Assuming that we actually do have some authentic pieces of the historical Jesus puzzle (which I don’t think can be demonstrated), there is very little reason to think that they form a representative sample. The few details were not randomly preserved, but were carefully chosen to support the story of a man so extraordinary that God would choose to exalt him as the anointed one after his death. Any detail that didn’t support that narrative is gone forever.

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