Theologians as historians

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by Neil Godfrey

Alvar Ellegård (November 12, 1919 – February 8, 2008) was a Swedish scholar and linguist. He was professor of English at the University of Gothenburg, and a member of the academic board of the Swedish National Encyclopedia.

. . .  He also became known outside the field for his work on the conflict between religious dogma and science, and for his promotion of the Jesus myth theory, the idea that Jesus did not exist as an historical figure. His books about religion and science include Darwin and the General Reader (1958), The Myth of Jesus (1992), and Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ. A Study in Creative Mythology (1999). (Source: Wikipedia)

He wrote “Theologians as historians”, now available online, published originally in Scandia the year he died, 2008. The article addresses arguments commonly advanced by theologians against the Christ Myth idea but it also has much to say about scholarly resistance to even being willing to debate such a thesis. I quote a few passages here from that section of his article. (Headings and bolding are my own.)

Theologians are not living up to their responsibility

It is fair to say that most present-day theologians also accept that large parts of the Gospel stories are, if not fictional, at least not to be taken at face value as historical accounts. On the other hand, no theologian seems to be able to bring himself to admit that the question of the historicity of Jesus must be judged to be an open one.

It appears to me that the theologians are not living up to their responsibility as scholars when they refuse to discuss the possibility that even the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels can be legitimately called into question. Instead, they tend to dismiss as cranks those who doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels ever existed.

Dogmatism is characteristic . . . under cover of mystifying language

It is natural that different historians come to different conclusions on questions for which our sources are late, scanty or biassed. Thus most historians, though skeptical about king Arthur, avoid being dogmatic about him, whatever the stand they are taking. But dogmatism is characteristic of the theologians’ view of matters which are held to guarantee the historicity of Jesus.

That dogmatism, however, is too often concealed under a cover of mystifying language. An instance in point is quoted by Burton L. Mack, who quotes Helmut Koester, characterizing him, very properly, as “a New Testament scholar highly regarded for his critical acumen” (Mack 1990, p. 25). Koester writes:

“The resurrection and the appearances of Jesus are best explained as a catalyst which prompted reactions that resulted in the missionary activity and founding of the churches, but also in the crystallization of the tradition about Jesus and his ministry. But most of all, the resurrection changed sorrow and grief into joy, creativity and faith. Though the resurrection revealed nothing new, it nonetheless made everything new for the first Christian believers” (Koester 19822, p. 84-86).

Mack comments drily:

if the historian hardly knows what to make of such a statement, its purpose, apparently, has been achieved. A point of origin has been established that is fundamentally inaccessible to further probing or clarificationKoester’s scenario simply reproduces the Lukan myth of Christian origins, written around the turn of the first century or later.” (Mack 1990 p. 25 n 3).

Instructed Christians should admit the difficulties

Theologians have many ties with the Christian churches, and the accepted theological wisdom on Jesus has always been that the Gospels and Acts provide the groundwork for any historical study of Jesus, in spite of admissions that they have grave weaknesses as historical sources. Briefly, it is assumed that memories of the historical Jesus, crucified under Pilate, gave rise to oral traditions among his followers, and that these traditions were eventually written down and finally incorporated in the Gospels towards the end of the first century CE.

Now if the assumption of a historical Jesus crucified under Pilate is removed, this construction is left without a foundation. Such a complete reversal of the received view would amount to a paradigm shift in New Testament studies. The books of Drews, Couchoud, and Wells did not produce such a shift, although indeed several reviewers of Wells concede that the questions he has raised are indeed pertinent. For instance, Professor Kenneth Grayston (Methodist Recorder, 16th Nov., 1971) writes:

instructed Christians /should/ admit the difficulties collected by Professor Wells, and construct a better solution“. 

Grayston repeats this judgment in reviewing Wells’s second book.

The theological community at large, however, has not followed Professor Grayston’s advice. . . .

My own judgment on these matters is shared by Burton Mack, who says, after briefly explaining Wells’s position,

“scholars with theological interests have scarcely taken note of this literature” (Mack 1990 p. 24, note 2).

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion

A scholarly paradigm shift is naturally hardest to accept for the already established generation of scholars. But the almost complete absence of serious discussion is disturbing: it appears like a conspiracy of silence on the part of the theologians, who are, after all, the scholarly specialists as regards the history of Christianity. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the main reason for the stand taken by the theologians is that they feel their religion is threatened. I do not myself think such a conclusion is necessary: my own Jesus figure, after all, is largely modelled on Paul’s, and surely Paul must be regarded as a good Christian.

However that may be, Professor Graham Stanton, reviewing Wells in The Times Literary Supplement (1975, p. 977) writes:

“Christian faith must collapse if it should ever become possible to prove either that Jesus did not exist or that he was quite unlike the person portrayed in the Gospels”.

One of my own theological reviewers (Dr. Per Block, Dagens Nyheter, 9 Jan 1991) expressed similar thoughts. At the end of a largely favourable review of an article of mine he says: 

“Christianity bends its knee to the simple, the weak, the anonymously human. Hence the stubbornness with which Christians have stood by the earthly reality of a historical Jesus …. That conception would be obscured, and made more difficult to uphold, if Ellegård’s theory should be true.”

A very common pseudo-argument

. . .  I shall consider a very common pseudo-argument, namely, the argumentum ad hominem, i.e. attacking the person, not what he says. Few of our reviewers miss the opportunity to underline that Wells is a professor of German, or that Ellegård is a professor of English. 

It is of course perfectly legitimate to inform the reader about who the author of a book is. But in most cases this piece of information is followed up by sarcastic remarks about how absurd it would be for a theologian to write on German literature, or on the identity of the author of Hamlet.

Also, the immensity of the literature on Jesus is adduced to point out how impossible it is for an outsider to master the subject. The implication is that only a life-long study, or rather, life-long studies by a large group of specialists, can hope to arrive at worth-while results on such momentous questions.

Further, even if the newcomer manages to take account of a substantial number of treatises on the subject, he runs the risk of getting hold of a biassed sample, missing the most important works, while attaching weight to such as have been dismissed by the mainstream researchers.

It is sometimes also pointed out that no serious discussion of the history of early Christianity can be entered into by persons, like Wells and me, who do not know Hebrew or Aramaic.

There is some substance in these allegations: the outsider does run a risk on all these scores. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the outsider may introduce, from his own previous field of research, experiences and approaches which may be of value in the new context. Moreover, the risk of bias is something that affects not only the outsider, but also the specialist. Nobody can read everything in an area where thousands of publications appear every year. Everybody must make a selection, and run the risks entailed by it.

What we may justly demand

Still, all these comments about the possible failings of the outsider really belong under the heading of argumentum ad hominem, as long as we are not told just how the alleged omissions, or the bias, or this or that piece of back ground knowledge, has vitiated the theory presented. What specific argument is refuted by the omitted works? What specific argument has relied on a work whose views have been proved untenable? Where has the use of a faulty translation led the author astray?

Only when such specifications are put forward can we get a worthwhile discussion. But by and large, though the theologians reject our conclusions, they have not advanced any arguments or counterarguments that have not already been dealt with by us. What we may justly demand is a discussion of our actual arguments, not just a rejection of our conclusions.



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Neil Godfrey

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