Unfair to Compare Jesus Scholars with Regular Historians

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by Neil Godfrey

It may be unfair to hold Jesus scholars to the standards of regular historians, since they have been trained in interpretation of sacred texts, not in the methods of historical investigation.
Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013, 9.
Richard A. Horsley

What is the context of that comment? Distinguished Professor Richard Horsley is talking about the practice of Jesus scholars to take individual sayings out of the gospels and attempting to “excavate” their origins instead of studying the gospels as literary works.

One of the first and most basic responsibilities of historians is to critically assess the character of their sources. Literary and rhetorical analysis of the sources is necessary to discern how they may be used for investigation of historical events, actors, and circumstances. Historians would not separate individual statements or short anecdotes from a source, categorize them by key words or apparent subject matter, and then seek the meaning of each statement by itself or assess the likelihood that particular anecdotes provide reliable attestation of actual historical incidents. (p. 9)

Historical Jesus scholars are very well aware that the Gospel are not regular histories but documents composed for the purpose of promoting faith in a wonder-working and resurrected Jesus. They therefore work with the assumption that if they extract certain pieces from such documents and subject them to “historical tests” they can arrive at some approximation of the “real historical Jesus”.

Jesus scholars recognize the “rhetorical” perspective of the Gospels. But precisely because the Gospels express the Easter faith of the “early Christians,” these scholars attempted to cut through or move underneath them by focusing on individual sayings (and stories) as their sources (or “data”), thus treating the Gospels as mere containers or collections. Work in other sub-fields of New Testament studies and related fields, however, is making this view of the Gospels untenable. (p. 9)

Horsley explains the process on the preceding page:

[T]he meaning of a saying depends on its meaning context, from which it cannot be intelligibly isolated. By extracting the sayings of Jesus from their literary context, Jesus scholars dispense with the only indication available for what that meaning context may have been. The analogy drawn recently that scholars are “excavating” the Gospel sources for Jesus such as Q or even “excavating Jesus” may be more telling than they realize. This suggests that the sayings are precious artifacts that must be excavated from the piles of dirt and debris in which they have become buried. Then, like museum curators of a generation or two ago, interpreters of Jesus arrange those decontextualized artifacts by type (“apocalyptic” or “sapiential”) and/or topic (children, meals, kingdom, wisdom), like fragments of lamps, vases, and pots in museum cases. Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head,” devoid of life circumstances.

With their various “databases” of atomized Jesus sayings isolated from any meaning context, the Jesus scholars then supply the meaning context themselves, often from the constructs of New Testament studies. It has become standard among critical liberal scholars, for example, to isolate Jesus’s admonition on what (not) to take for a/the journey from its immediate context in the “mission discourses” in both Mark 6:8-13 and Q/Lk 10:2-16. But what can this isolated saying about staff, sandals, bag, and so on mean in itself? Evidently nothing. So liberal interpreters recontextualize the saying in the modern scholarly construct of an itinerant vagabond lifestyle that Jesus was supposedly advocating to his individual disciples. (p. 8)

It is no different with scholars who work with memory theory in an attempt to reach back to the supposedly earliest “interpreted saying”.

I’ve addressed this point several times before — see, for example, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything — so it is interesting, even encouraging, to see the same point being made by one of the more prominent biblical scholars today.


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24 thoughts on “Unfair to Compare Jesus Scholars with Regular Historians”

    1. An understandable response, but perhaps a little harsh 😉

      Rather than trying to make a fiction seem real through reinterpretations, the more critical and liberal of them make no effort to make the fantasy itself seem real. They are more like Superman or Batman nerds who begin with the belief that their superhero of fiction is based on a real person and they scour the text to look for clues that might have derived from the original (more mundane) hero.

      1. I’d like to comment on this, because your final paragraph refers to a previous discussion you did of my little book, and in that book I used one of Horsley’s books as a source. It is interesting that Horsley takes the view that it is “unfair” to criticize Jesus scholars for failing to conform to standard historiographical techniques of context assessment. His point is well taken (and it’s more implied than stated) that they are not doing history. I actually say that directly in my book, Son of Yahweh. The historical Jesus people do not do history. So yes, in that sense, it is “unfair” to criticize them. But, unfortunately, they CLAIM to be doing history, and if you disagree with their conclusions you get raked over the coals by Ehrman, et al, for either not knowing what you’re talking about, or (more often and more accurately) for not being a member of their elite club of NT scholars. And while it is appropriate to insist on “proper credentials” when assessing scholarship, it is disingenuous to claim to be engaging in a type of discourse which you are not quite entirely engaging in. As I argued in my book, the “historical Jesus” project is an offshoot of theology, and was made a project for scholars by a papal encyclical. Moreover, when you examine the discourse of these books, you see the theological purposes overtly stated and acknowledged. A discourse that traces back to theology as its philosophical underpinning is not a historical discourse in any proper scholastic understanding of the term. This has to be acknowledged in any assessment of what is “fair” and “unfair.”

    2. Oh I could imagine that the correspondence would be even tighter, if the first Star Wars started with, “A long time ago, in a White House far, far away…” Then cut to Reagan in the Oval Office, saying “My fellow Americans, I have a dream. The Strategic Defense Initiative…” Then cut to the first scene with an explanatory note.

    3. Of course this would be before Reagan actually gave his Strategic Defense Initiative speech or even before he was president. So it would be a case of life following fiction — a fictitious President Reagan! Imagine that.

      Well we do have a fictitious Pontius Pilate and a fictitious Herod (Antipas) in the gospels even though both were historical persons who actually existed.

  1. The sayings about staff, sandals etc are actually quite interesting. There is an interesting difference between the accounts in Mark (6:7-13) and Matthew (10:5-15). Mark says wear sandals, Matthew says no, go bare foot. Mark says take a staff. Matthew says no staff. Matthew has examined Paul’s letters more closely than Mark. Matthew really relies on Paul a lot.
    • Paul says the cloak I left in Troas, so he therefore only carried ONE cloak.
    • Paul says to the Jew first and then to the Greek.
    • Paul says labourers deserve their food.
    • Paul says he preached without payment from the Corinthians
    “we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit” 2 Corinthians 2:17. But Matthew also goes even further into impracticality.This is the dualism in Matthew. Stoic Essene impracticality combined with severe reliance on the real words of Paul.

  2. I once asked at a Seminar at Harvard Divinity the following question:

    Who after reading all the Biblical Criticism on the Gospels would have any idea of who Jesus was
    and why would they ever burn with their souls to give up all they have and follow Him ?

    [ Paraphrasing and English Divine who after reading the latest “Life of Jesus” last century asked:

    It can only make you wonder why anyone would crucify Him since he just seems like a mild-mannered
    Prophet who asks us to love one another.

    Death to Pericopes !

  3. “The Invention of Ancient Israel – The Silencing of Palestinian history” by Keith W Whitelam is a must read.

    Some excerpts:
    “The rush to interpret supposedly objective, extrabiblical data on the basis of assumptions drawn from the biblical text is typical of the search for ancient Israel”

    “Palestinian history has remained unspoken within biblical studies, silenced by invention of ancient Israel in the image of a European nation state. Only after we have exposed the implications of this invention of ancient Israel will Palestinian history be freed from constraint of Biblical studies & discourse that has shaped it. Thus Israelite history supercedes & in effect silences Canaanite, ie indigenous Palestinians history.”

    “Just as America was invented in the image of its [European] ‘inventor’ so ancient Israel was invented in terms of the European nation state.”

    “Palestine had been home to a remarkable civilization centuries before the first Hebrew tribes migrated to the area. It is precisely the period from the late bronze age to the Roman period which needs to be reclaimed and given a voice in history of Palestine.” – Keith W. Whitelam, “The invention of ancient Israel: the silencing of Palestinian history.”

    Those pursuing deep background to this issue should read his follow up too “Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past”, by Keith W. Whitelam.

    1. You hit on a problematic assumption at the core of the studies of Christian origins. I will no doubt elaborate on it further as I have done in depth in past posts. Check out the Historiography and Historical Method links in the Category list in the right margin here. (Whitelam’s books are great and I posted on “Rhythms” several times not too long ago here.)

        1. How does Lester Grabbe’s article support the assertion that Whitelam’s “historical analysis” per se is “lousy” (as distinct from finding fault with some aspects of his work)? Did you read Grabbe’s article where he writes, http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/whitelam-rhythms-of-time/

          Whitelam’s Invention of Israel aroused a lot of controversy when it appeared in 1996. An archaeologist friend from America proclaimed it “anti-Semitic” in a conversation with me, though he was somewhat mollified when I assured him that nothing in my experience indicated that Whitelam was in any way anti-Semitic, and I had known him for quite a few years. But this was the reaction of some, not least among the more conservative Israeli biblical scholars.

          How would we react if we saw a comment dismissing someone’s views as being “stridently anti-Jewish” or “stridently anti-black”? Would we not be horrified at the racist attitude expressed? That few of us think

          Whitelam’s historical approach in his book that I discussed not so long ago – is an example of what is called the Annales School of history. I would like you to identify where, exactly, his historical analysis is shown to be “lousy” in that work, and identify how that lousiness is the result of his “stridently pro-Jewish”, sorry, “stridently pro-American”, woops again, “stridently anti-Jewish”, no, wrong again, “stridently pro-Palestinian” views. (God forbid any-one who cheers for a Palestinian side in a football game and how stridently ro-Palestinian they must thereby appear to be to the world.)

          1. “How does Lester Grabbe’s article support the assertion that Whitelam’s “historical analysis” per se is “lousy” (as distinct from finding fault with some aspects of his work)? ”

            Per Grabbe:

            “While appreciating Whitelam’s desire to right the balance in supporting the
            Palestinian cause, I argue that this and other attempts to manipulate scholarship to support
            political causes is misconceived. I have a number of criticisms of Whitelam’s study from a
            purely historical point of view…..

            [Pages 13 – 17]”

            1. Neil, you find that “Whitelam’s books are great”.

              I find, that once again, your views on Israel-Palestine on this blog consistently one-sided and straddling the line between objectivity and anti-semitism.

              Here we have the curious case of a historian with decidedly pro-Palestinian political views, and uncritical reliance on the views of Said, proposing that the historicity of ancient Israel itself is questionable. As I understand it (poorly, no doubt), his thesis includes an (highly politically-significant) argument against the historicity of King David’s rule, a view which (perhaps I am mistaken) has been shown to be false based on the archaeological evidence from Tel Dan.

              1. Herodotus wrote extensively about Palestine in his “The Histories” 5th century BC. It is the most comprehensive and earliest study of the region. No mention of alleged Jewish history therein. It is one of those great historical shibboleths that tend to exist in any age: however the strange thing about the ‘Kingdoms of Israel’ is that its not mentioned textually by anyone else so to argue, as many zionists do, that there was a Jewish kingdom of substance is rather difficult precisely because the only evidence we have is from Jewish religious writings written after the fact.

            2. Gingerbaker, I demand you either support with quotations or withdraw your accusation that my posts are “bordering on antisemitism” or be banned from this blog. That is a gross and gratuitous insult that I will not tolerate.

              Yes, I read Grabbe’s article, but unlike you I have also read Whitelam’s books and know what both Grabbe and Whitelam are actually talking about. You do not cite what the “this” Grabbe refers to but assume (want to believe) he is referring to the entire scholarly finding and historical research of Whitelam. It is not. Read both Grabbe’s article in full and read Whitelam so you have some idea what the hell they are both talking about. (I have also read much of Grabbe’s published work.) But you don’t even have to do that, really. Just read what, explicitly, the point Grabbe is addressing in his own article.

              I have also read the studies on the archaeology of biblical Israel. Your belief that King David’s rule has been shown to be false is ignorant. (Though it has been argued to be false by both Christian apologists and nationalist Zionists — as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the scholarly literature and public debates.) This charge of anti-semitism has been leveled at archaeologists and scholars alike, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It is not tolerated on this blog.

              I have spammed many obscene anti-semitic and other racist comments on this blog and will not hesitate to ban anyone who falsely accuses me or others of the same.

              1. Blake, Herodotus wrote [History 2:89]: “…..These Phenicians dwelt in ancient time, as they themselves report, upon the Erythraian Sea, and thence they passed over and dwell in the country along the sea coast of Syria; and this part of Syria and all as far as Egypt is called Palestine.”

                Clearly, Herodotus refers to Palestine as the coastal region, bordering Egypt. In modern times called the Gaze strip. This is indeed where the Philistines lived in ancient times, while the Israelites lived predominantly in the hill country.

                Hence, it is understandable that Herodotus doesn’t talk about Israelites in ‘Palestine’.

            3. On further thought, anyone who indicates that what they mean by being “pro-Palestinian” is an attitude bordering on antisemitism, and who attempts to smear with racist slurs, and by implication attempts to effectively silence, any pro-Palestinian voice, is not welcome here. This blog has nothing for you. You are not welcome here.

              1. Well said. “The Zionists are automatons. Wherever I speak they do always the same. They come to the audience without any arguments or just shout “lies!” … They are brainwashed to nothing.” -Hajo Meyer Dutch Holocaust survivor, May 01 2011.

          2. That Whitelam is ‘ardently Pro-Palestinian’ is evident from his Twitters [https://twitter.com/KWWhitelam]. Living in a Western democracy, he is at liberty to express his opinions.

            But this does make it a legitimate question if his strong opinions on the modern Israel-Palestine issue colour his historical approach of ancient Palestine; this is not different from one of his own theses, namely that the current situation colours the modern historians’ descriptions of ancient Palestine.

            I have no problem with the general position of Whitelam, that historical studies should be independently undertaken from biblical accounts. But I do feel that recent studies, such as archeological findings, take that independent approach. There is abundant historical/archeological studies that seem inconsistent with the biblical narratives, and others support (aspects of) it. So the problem is not as widespread as Whitelam claims, although it may have been so in the 18-19th centuries.

            I do challenge his position that the ancient state of Israel was created by (Western) scholars, without solid historical foundations. I think that Whitelam undervalues the large body of historical (also non- Israelite) and archeological data that indicate that Israelite state(s) existed in the region already as early as the 9th century BCE.

            Furthermore, I feel that Whitelam’s allegation that scholars systematically (and deliberately) underplay non-Israelite history is untenable. Again, there is abundant literature on the history of non-Israelites in the region of Palestine.

            It appears as if Whitelam confounds ‘biblical history’ with modern historical literature. Perhaps his vison is coloured somewhat?

            1. The question arising from the “Israel” in the area of Samaria in the ninth century is what it has to do, if anything, with “biblical Israel”.

              1. That is a very good question. I would say that archeology and literary sources confirm the broad outline of the biblical history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For instance, the campaign of pharaoh Shoshenq I against a kingdom in that region is documented in Egyptian sources, corresponding with the biblical pharaoh Shishak’s campaign in Judah. Assyrian sources name “Ahab the Israelite” among their enemies at the battle of Qarqar. A text of the king of Moab celebrates a victory over “House of Omri” (i.e., Israel). Assyrian sources confirm the victory over the kingdom Israel and deportation of its inhabitants.
                The rise of the kingdom of Judah, and the importance of the city of Jerusalem, is corroborated by archeological finds, such as the wall around Jerusalem, and inscriptions with the name of kings Jehotam, Ahaz and Hezekiah have been found etc. etc.

                So there is a firm basis to support the ‘biblical history’ in the ‘geopolitical’ sense. What we don’t know from mother sources outside the bible, are the detailed narratives inside that geopolitical space.

        2. Perhaps you are just projecting. Your bias is obvious. What Whitelam says makes sense to me. Those “Lost Tribes of Israel” arent Ashkenaz (European) Jews like Lester Grabbe. That much is obvious.

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