Professor James Crossley on his blog last month justly critiqued various criteria biblical scholars traditionally apply in their efforts to extract some form of historical Jesus from the gospels and finally concluded:
So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation:
- interpretation of the material . . . ,
- guesswork about contexts
- and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight.
But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case.
All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition. (My formatting)
This is not the way one does history. I am even reminded of the popular evangelical line of delivering a message that is hoped to bring audiences to despair, to thinking they have no hope, that they are helpless — all with the aim of motivating them to turn to the messenger for The Answer of hope and salvation. That just comes to mind but I would never suggest Crossley is deploying a similar rhetoric to entice readers to his own view of the way history should be done.
Let’s analyse these words.
“Interpretation of the material”.
That goes without saying no matter what one is studying. Of course historical inquiry is interpretation of the material. One can never avoid interpretation of some kind. Even understanding a claim to be an “uninterpreted plain fact” is an act of interpretation. I would expect most senior high school students of history and beyond to understand that history is about the interpretation of evidence, data, “facts”.
“Guesswork about contexts”.
Really? I can imagine times when there must be a measure of speculation but in those cases one also is obliged to bring to bear some tests to determine the value of what is speculated. Michael Goulder’s lectionary theory of the gospels — arguing that gospels were the products of early Christian worship’s practice of serial readings of scriptures — is speculation. But Goulder applies various tests to help us decide how plausible or likely the idea is. “Guesswork about contexts” is not how historians justify their hypotheses. If guessing is the best we can do then that’s surely a sign to most historians that we don’t have sufficient material to investigate the questions we’d like to ask.
“Combining arguments to make an argument of collective weight”.
This is as vague as “guesswork about contexts”. From Crossley’s own works (where he regularly explains he is presenting an argument of “cumulative weight” because he admits none of the arguments alone bear negligible weight) we learn that this “method” enables one to present an argument that one admits is not persuasive on its own, and then another, and then another — none of them persuasive on their own — and then conclude that by placing them all together one has a “weighty” argument. That’s like saying zero plus zero plus zero equals one. If a series of arguments all have a probability of 50% then by adding three of them together we don’t get 150% certainty. We end up with a combined set of arguments still equaling a grand total of 50% probability.
This is where a bit of methodological discipline helps. We need to explore each one of those fifty percenters against background knowledge and against questions over whether the evidence we have is what we would expect given a certain possibility, etc. Even Bayes’ theorem could help in the same way if one wanted to use that.
Nothing is certain except . . .
“But an argument for what?”
Not for Jesus, Crossley says (and without any tinge of sadness.) Or at least not for what Jesus specifically said or did.
Did you notice it? There in the midst of guessing and combining unknown weights there does indeed stand one certainty after all. Jesus. Jesus is there. Like God. You can’t see him. You can’t define him. You’ll never be able to understand him. You’ll confuse his presence with the feel of the wind or maybe the sound of the leaves. But he really is there! He’s bedrock. The Rock of Ages.
“All we can do”.
All we can do is stop being so vain and naive as to think we can find this “Great Man” of our childhood beliefs and turn instead to the consequences of what was set in train in his name. In his name? Of course that will mean having some idea of that starting point Jesus. And in Crossley’s view, we know from his other writings, one is flirting with anti-semitic notions if one fails to accept that this Jesus always conforms to modern stereotypical views of what conservative or rabbinic-style Jews were like in the early first century.
That this is so is betrayed in Crossley’s following words:
make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition.
That’s a loaded remark understood only by those who know something of Crossley’s works or who read carefully his final sentence in his original post. One must distill the later layers of gospel chaff from what is evidently preserved from “early Palestinian tradition” — for Crossley that means the 20s and 30s when that one figure of certainty walked through Galilee.
The assumption that enables Crossley to assert that this is possible is that the gospels are necessarily writings that to some extent can be found to preserve remnants of historical deeds and words of Jesus himself. Crossley’s own application of what he writes here concludes that the Gospel of Mark was originally written only a very few years (maybe as few as five) after Jesus’ crucifixion; that Jesus was a good observant Jew according to the mainstream of Jewishness by today’s standards (forget Second Temple chaotic diversities); and it was only subsequent Christians, under gentile influence, who introduced all the liberal sayings we find in the gospels.
Assumptions peering through the windows
Crossley, like the overwhelming majority (no doubt) of scholars engaged in the pursuit of Christian origins, assumes that the gospels are windows to be looked through to events behind what they narrate. See Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything. There is no theory underpinning this view of the gospels. It is simply assumed within the guild by probably most practitioners. Jesus, even more than the existence of God, is assumed to be there; the gospels are assumed to be the windows that open in his direction however fogged up they may be.
The gospels are assumed (for some this is based on the strength of Richard Burridge’s outlines) to be biographies of some sort.
In fact the gospels bear very little resemblance to ancient historical and biographical works despite some tangential similarities but I have discussed those in depth elsewhere. (See the link in the preceding paragraph.) There are sound methodological reasons for historians to treat a work by Tacitus as a form of ancient historiography and unfortunately those reasons do not apply to the gospels. We know to a significant extent the provenance and sources of those ancient historians that we treat as relatively reliable and we can discern that their approach to the “facts” is quite different from the way the evangelists wrote and there is enough independently verifiable data to alert us to how much confidence we can place in them. There can be little doubt that the gospels are by and large written to instruct readers in faith and the bulk of their narrative is theologically driven and derived from Old Testament anecdotes or anti-types — and we do not even know who wrote them or the context that led to their composition. Now that leaves open a lot of room for guessing IF we insist on treating them in the same way we use genuine historical writings of the ancients.
What we can do
No, the right place to start with the gospels is where we should start with any ancient literature. Study their literary nature (genre, for example) and their literary context in order to systematically tease out what sorts of questions can be asked of them. Treat them for what they are first and foremost: that is, literature.
Only after we come to terms with their nature, their sources, their structures, their relationships with other texts, can we determine what sorts of questions we can ask of them as historians. One does not begin by assuming that they are a window through which we must look to see what we can find behind them. They might be stained-glass windows to be studied for their own beauty and message and artistic intent. The historical data they yield may not be the historical truth behind their narratives but rather the world that produced them. We may find the sources of their narratives much closer at hand to their authors than echoes of partial words that had their origins generations earlier.
The beautiful thing is that by approaching the gospels this way first and foremost we are taking the very first step towards doing real history. We are examining and understanding and working with (not against or in spite of) the sources with respect to what they really are.
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