Historical Methods: How Scholars Read the Gospels – An Outsider’s Perspective

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor James D. Tabor (The Jesus Dynasty) has done his field of biblical studies and, most especially, the wider public a great service by setting out the historical methods by which he and critical scholars more generally approach the gospels. The public deserves to know and the field of biblical studies can only benefit from a more informed public. In Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospel Tabor explains that scholars don’t merely “pick and choose” details in the different gospels according to what they feel supports their theories about the historical Jesus or other questions: they apply critical analysis. Example:

Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark . . . ? Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself – if such can be determined.

Notice something else, though. The entire explanation is couched in the an assumption that the gospels contain traditions that in some cases and in some form go back to the historical Jesus himself. In fact, one significant purpose of the critical analysis is to discover what gospel material “might more reliably go back to Jesus himself”.

That is, the gospels are assumed to contain records, however flawed, of event or sayings that emanated from Jesus and/or his followers. The gospels are assumed at some level to be based on a “true story”.

Reasonable assumptions

That is a very reasonable position to take. After all, the gospels are written in an authoritative tone from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. The narrative voice conceals the real identity of the true author and in doing so removes any sense that we are reading a narrative limited by human bias and perspective. Of course, scholars especially are keenly aware that the stories are definitely, even inevitably, written from personal perspectives, and that’s the reason for their need to critically analyse their contents. But the problem is we have grown up in a culture that has taken for granted the authoritative character of the Gospels. Western religious and broader cultural tradition is grounded in the assurance that Jesus was the most important influence on our religious ideas and cultural values. To question this “fact” is as crazy as questioning the rotundity of the earth. Institutions have been built on the belief in Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. The “fact of Jesus” and “Gospel Truth” are part of our everyday metaphors and consciousness. Jesus is held up as a legitimizing symbol for a whole range of social, political, ideological causes.

Further, we have the date of the earliest gospel grounded in our conventional understanding:

Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE – within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

This is taken as a given, again quite reasonably, because it is a near-consensus among New Testament scholars. There are some outliers who place it considerably earlier, even decades earlier, but most (not all) of those who do so are apologists. Even fewer mavericks place it much later.

The problem is that these assumptions are not facts and really are open to question.

Look first at our assumption about the nature of the Gospels, that they are at some level records of a “true story”. Some scholars have argued that many of the narrative units about Jesus are re-writes of Old Testament passages. The raising of the daughter of Jairus is seen by some to be a re-write of similar miracles by Elijah or Elisha. Other scholars (the best known one is Dennis MacDonald and his The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) have even argued that both anecdotes and entire themes in the Gospels are drawn from popular Greek literature. Now other scholars have challenged such interpretations but the point is that such arguments can be reasonably made by specialists who know their stuff. In other words, it is not a bed-rock unquestionable certainty that what we read in the Gospels necessarily at some level owed its origin to “traditions” that were believed to have come from the historical Jesus.

It is not beyond possibility that at least parts of the Gospels originated as creative writing, as literary inventions. Of course some parts were definitely drawn from genuine historical tradition, too. We know that Pilate really was the governor, etc.

So given such a possibility, how do historians decide what is drawn from “historical memory” or even “historical imagination” on the one hand and “literary creativity” on the other?

This question is going one step further than Tabor has addressed. We are not asking what accounts in the Gospels can be traced to Jesus, but how we can tell if anything in a text owes anything at all to history as opposed to being entirely creative literature.

I believe there are ways. Not ways that will guarantee certainty, but that will certainly give us some measure of confidence one way or the other.

How we can write ancient history — breaking through cultural assumptions

The first is to look for independent corroboration. Some scholars see corroboration for their view that Gospel stories such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter above are literary fabrications by pointing to similar accounts in the Hebrew Bible. The critical point is that the corroborating evidence must be genuinely independent.

A second condition is to look at the provenance of both the narrative under investigation and of the corroborating testimony. Do we have clear reasons to trust that a piece of writing is derived from someone who “knew his history” or at least “the historical traditions”? Or do we have reason to believe the author was creative — for whatever theological or parabolic or edifying or entertainment reasons — from the start? So we may not have contemporary written accounts of Hannibal or Alexander the Great but we do have accounts by persons known who identify their sources from the times in question. Of course in theory they could all be lying, but their accounts do cohere with other evidence we see and do explain a lot about the way we can see the world changed so I think they are entitled to have at some measure of our confidence.

Unfortunately we have no idea who wrote the gospels or why or for whom or when (I’ll discuss the “or when” below). They don’t even identify their sources. The prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke is too vague a formula to be useful, and it is also questionable whether it is even meaning to say what most people seem to think it means. That’s never a good start for any historian. The reason we can write a history of the ancient world is precisely because we do have sufficient sources of the type that can be verified or give us some confidence in their historical reliability (imperfect though it may be). We can talk about Socrates as a historical figure because we do have such evidence for him.

When it comes to the Gospels, however, we have no comparable corroborating evidence nor the sort of information that should assure us that they really are attempts to record historical traditions and memories.

We do have evidence that supports the view that they were cut from the cloth of other literature, however.

The ideological influence on the dating of the Gospels

As for when the first Gospel was written, again we see cultural assumptions guiding our interpretations of the evidence. We assume, as we have always assumed and as everyone around us has always assumed, that at some level they are based on genuine history. Given that we believe this is what the Gospels are, it follows that they become the more reliable the closer we can legitimately place their origin to those historical events.

Therefore when we read about the prediction of the fall of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of Mark, it is again reasonable to date that Gospel to some time after that event. But of course we can infer that historical reliability as a rule tends to diminish the further away it is placed from the time it relates. In fact there is no reason I know of (I can be corrected, of course) that the Gospel of Mark might not have been written some time in the early decades of the second century. The earliest independent evidence of its existence appears to be found in a writing by Justin Martyr dated shortly after the Bar Kochba war of the early 130s.

The outsider perspective

James Tabor has done everyone a service by setting out so clearly the critical approaches and assumptions at the core of studies exploring Christian origins. I think we as outsiders can use his post as a springboard to identify more clearly the cultural assumptions embedded in the scholarly methods of critical New Testament scholars.


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45 thoughts on “Historical Methods: How Scholars Read the Gospels – An Outsider’s Perspective”

  1. Shalom & Erev tov…I have little, if any respect, for Tabor &c. There is not a shred of evidence, none, no papyrus, no codex, nothing from the 1 century CE, to substantiate the claims of natz’rut. Wishing for the koine Greek forgeries (which is what they are) to be from the 1 century does not position them there. ‘Yeshu benMiriam’ was the deliberate, necessary fabrication of a late 2/early 3 century CE, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian, revelatory thanatos cult. There was no parthenogenesis, no Yosef/Miriam, no ‘disciples’, no Gol’gotha/Kranion, no empty tomb, no anastasis. Even ‘Saul’ was an invention. I have sat for days, studying enhanced photographs of all of the known Judaean Desert scrolls (one out of six in Aramaic), including fragments. None of them give any mention of ‘Yeshu benMiriam’, ‘Saul’, a proto-natz’rut. They were written ca. 150 BCE- ca. CE. Moreover, other contemporaneous Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek writers do not mention any of the mythical personages or events, and, indeed, Philo Judaeus and Yosef benMatityahu/Flavius Josephus could have, and never do, mention them either. Why? Because they did not exist. Even Nazareth, that saccharine town, did not exist either. Another problem for Tabor &c to consider if they are desperate to substantiate their faerie tales: Auschwitz.
    STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
    Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
    לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me, Tabor is describing literary, not historical, methodology. And as far as that goes, I don’t see a great deal of difference between what he claims to be doing and what critical scholars did well over a hundred years ago.

    He (as well as scholars before him) is looking for the most primitive version of a story. I prefer the word story, rather than “account,” because the latter implies a real event is being described. It’s one of the ways NT scholars smuggle in historical bias without their readers noticing it.

    As you pointed out, Neil, nearly all scholars start from the presumption that the gospels contain history. But another unspoken and related assumption is that we can reliably identify what’s more primitive. The criteria built upon those assumptions have at their foundation a real, itinerant, healing teacher who was executed by the Romans. But scholars use the source for our knowledge here — the gospels — as both the foundation for our assumptions as well as the evidence of historicity. What’s missing, as you said, is corroborating evidence independent of the sacred texts from the movement itself.

    Even if we could reliably identify the most primitive text, that doesn’t mean that it actually happened. Literary tools for determining primitivity have no bearing on historicity. A story could be true. But how do we get from that statement to probably true? Almost every NT scholar says we can do that.

    Tabor himself says he identifies “the methods of analysis I employ so as to make clear why certain texts and traditions are thought to be more historically reliable while others are seen as secondary.” So if I read his books, will I finally come to understand how a primitive version of the text that describes a plausible event magically becomes “historically reliable”? I have my doubts.

    1. Right on. These points should be foundational for modern NT scholars (and I find most of them well-received when I iterate them on r/academicbiblical). What I haven’t been pointing out (yet, thanx) is the speciousness of assumptions of “primitivity” (as if gospel authors wouldn’t reduce passages to more “primitive-sounding” versions themselves, or that they may only sound primitive to some modern ears); I think this pretty much makes hash of “alternating primitivity” arguments for Q.

      1. Exactly. Something may sound primitive to us, but would it seem so to the first readers? And even if it did, was the author striving to sound that way?

        1. Shalom & Erev tov…how can two Hebrew/Aramaic/koine Greek illiterates (Gavin and Tim) offer any critique on texts they have not read, and are unwilling to learn the languages to do so? And, please, your whining about ‘Hebraisms’ etc. are not applicable. There are NO contemporaneous natz’ri texts to justify your clinging to events which never transpired, and a bris/covenant you do NOT have because it did not exist in the 1 century CE.

          STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
          Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
          לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


  3. So we’ve got no good evidence for a historical Jesus, but what’s the alternative hypothesis? What was the motive for people to start writing fictitious accounts of someone like Jesus. What’s the latest they might have been written?

    1. Shalom & Erev tov…’like Jesus’ is linguistic error; you are using a Spanish noun for ‘Yeshu’, a mythical figure. The motive is simple: I suggest, for starters, you spend a month, and totally familiarise yourself with, e.g., the work of Earl Doherty. He has proposed an excellent extrapolation (based on all known sources) of the motives involved for the revelatory thanatos cult I have mentioned. Since you do not read modern Hebrew, then 90% of the best research on the Bet haMikdash haSheni period is inaccessible to you, but Rachel Elior has conclusive demonstrated the ‘Essenes’ never existed, so you can’t fall back on that myth as an alternative. None of the forgeries you are alluding to were written in the 1 or early 2 century CE; because natz’rut is a fabrication, there were no natz’rim in the 1 century CE. Based on my reading of the koine Greek texts (which I am presuming you cannot read), it is reasonable to assume they arose after 150 CE from multiple sources.
      STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
      Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
      לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


      1. What of the Benediction against the Notzrim and the Minim? Wasn’t that written down about 80 ce? It fiction called ‘Acts’ uses the Koine Greek equivalent, Nazorainoi (Engl. “Nazoreans”).

        1. Shalom & Boker tov…you are speaking of Birkat haMinim (there are nearly 200 known manuscripts from the geniza and mediaeval European rites), a prayer initially formulated by Chassidim Rishonim ca. 2 century BCE, and later constituting the 12th berakhah in the Shemoneh Esreh. Because natz’rut/natz’rim did not exist in the 1 century CE, the minim/’heretics’ were a different category. It was not until the 4 century CE, that minim was justifiably used against natz’rim. The definitive analysis of Birkhat haMinim has, of course, been done by Ruth Langer (and cf. the work of Rabbi Reuven Kimelman) The earliest known texts (six variants), ca. 10 century CE, are from the Cairo Geniza, although it is mentioned in Talmudic discussions ca. 500 years earlier. You cannot use koine Greek forgeries as retrograding witnessing documents.

          Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, 1981. The lack of evidence for an anti-christian Jewish prayer in late antiquity. Jewish & christian self-definition 2:226-244, 391-403 [notes]

          Ruth Langer, 2012. Cursing the christians? A history of the birkat hamanim (Oxford University Press), 1-389
          STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
          Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
          לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


    2. I don’t have an alternative scenario to explain Christian origins at this point. I have far more questions than answers and even the answers I have are mostly tentative. I don’t feel any pressing need to rush too soon to alternative hypotheses — still trying to learn so much.

      I have some tentative suspicions and questions I am exploring all the time, and even those are always in flux, revision, etc.

      I suspect something major happened in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, but there “had to be” something before that time, too.

      As for when, most documentation independent of the canonical texts comes from the late second century on. What is the significance of such a relatively late date? As for the Gospels it is often said that they had to be in existence by the time of Justin who wrote from the late 130s but even in his works there is room for question. Justin refers to Jesus naming two disciples the Sons of Thunder, a detail we read in our Gospel of Mark, and to “memoirs of the apostles” that many believe refers to the gospels. As if these references are not vague enough, we also need to assess how unadulterated Justin’s manuscripts are.

      So much room for conspiracy theorists. So much room for dogma to explain it all.

      It seems to me that Second Temple Judaism included groups who embraced “proto-Christian” beliefs (e.g. Logos, Heavenly Man, Atonement via martyrdom blood, heavenly ascent visions, midrashic/symbolic/mantic readings of texts . . . .) that took on new directions in the unexpected fall of Jerusalem in 70, developments that were perhaps accelerated after the final destruction in 135. We know so little about Second Temple Judaism and too often we have read back into that era the rabbinic Judaism of later centuries.

      As for suggesting there was a culturally traumatic moment in the year 70 by referring to the destruction of Jerusalem/the Temple as unexpected, I have long doubted the narrative that holds that there were major economic and social tensions building up in the decades prior to the war that began in 66 CE, and especially the view that these were fanned by popular messianic movements. I have never been able to see the evidence for these popular claims. Then Steve Mason’s latest book on the War came along and Pow! — he fairly knocks out any remaining doubts I might have had. The War was one of those things that erupted almost by accident as a result of miscalculations rather than design, not unlike the way a single terrorist attack in Serbia somehow led to World War 1 and the end of the Old Europe.

  4. The dating of the Gospels is an open question.

    18th/19th century scholars who did not “like” Christianity tried to push the writing of the Gospels back as far as they could from the time of Jesus.

    So some scholars wanted the earliest Gospels to be written from the 250’s AD on.

    Then scholars pointed out citations from the early Church Fathers that lead to early datings for the Gospels.

    Finally, before World War II, we have the 70’s as the date for the earliest writing of the Gospels.

    Those who do not want to admit the truth of the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem draw their line at 70 AD.

    However, there is no absolute reason why Matthew could not have been written by 45 AD, Mark by 50 AD and Luke/Acts by 65 AD and John by 70 AD.

    The incessant drumbeat that Jesus never lived and thus the Gospels are not historical goes on and on but to ignore the historicity of the Faith handed down from one Christian to another Christian makes one wonder why you keep beating a drum that has all but made you deaf.

    1. Shalom & Erev tov…your proselytising screed, really, is meaningless…there is no ‘historicity of the faith’ because, as a Yehu’di, I am a living reminder (despite the efforts to make our birth registrations warrants for genocide 1933-1945, to hasten your ‘Rapture’) that natz’rim (including you) have NEVER had a bris/covenant…there is, in the Greek forgeries, no ‘prophecy’ regarding the obliteration of Yerusalaim because they were forged LATER. I suggest, in all sincerity, that you seek spiritual crisis intervention, say, with CHaBaD…to cling to natz’rut after the Sho’ah is the path for ontological euthanasia. N.B. Markos and Loukas never existed, and ‘Saul’ was a Marcionite fiction.
      STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
      Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
      לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


      1. Stephen,

        It is hardly a screed and it is ne’er not a proselytising screed and by all measures it is not meaningless.

        [Otherwise why would your respond, for only a fool respond to what lacks all meaning. ]

        I was not alive during World War II, I had nothing to do whether Jews were permitted to settle in

        Palestine, and I cannot hasten the “Rapture” – apologies please. How do you know that I am not

        Jewish ?

        You call them “Greek Forgeries” – fine – prove it.

        Prove that the Prophecies concerning Jerusalem utter destruction were forged.

        Prove that Mark and Luke never existed.

        Prove that Saul/Paul was Marcionite fiction.

        In the meantime I will stand with Origen who was a far greater scholar than you and

        had far more access to manuscripts then you can ever have.

        1. Shalom & Erev tov…I began studying the Judaean Desert and koine Greek texts ca. 1964. As a post-Auschwitz, chassidish Yehu’di, I believed then (and now) it was my obligation, to my intellectual/spiritual diet, to be familiar with them. I am literate with their content, context, and variants.

          The natz’ri forgeries were, as I have mentioned, the necessary, and deliberate projects of a Graeco-Roman-Egyptian thanatos cult, which also manufactured natz’rut.

          Not one koine Greek natz’ri text has ever been found from 1 century CE…but there are actual Judaean Desert scrolls, ca. 900 separate scrolls are estimated — all of which I have read (in their Hebrew, Aramaic, and rather stilted Greek) — which date ca. 150 BCE-ca. 100 CE. My interest in these is concomitant to my life long study of kabbalah. The hekhalot literatures derived from the same milieu as the ‘apocalyptic’ Judaean Desert and Enoch traditions, which by the 12/13 centuries CE had coalesced into bahiric/zoharic Kabbalah.

          I stress: in the Judaean Desert scrolls there are NO frameworks, paradigms, personages which presage natz’rut (which has never had, nor has now, a bris/covenant). And: you do not mention him, but the alleged natz’ri passages in his texts are later forged interpolations.

          The most contemporary scholarship on the koine Greek forgeries is by Earl Doherty, and to reduce his analyses to a few sentences is a ludicrous request by you to ‘prove’ anything. ‘Markos’ and ‘Loukas’ are mythicist creations. Saul similarly never existed, and I defer to the lifelong work of Hermann Detering (his 2003 The falsified Paul is accessible).

          And so. You are a Mel Gibson-like true believer in your post-2/3 century genocidal cults. You want them to be true. They are not.

          STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
          Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
          לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


          1. A correction. I am speaking in my 4th paragraph to Flavius Josephus.
            STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
            Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
            לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


    2. Hi Stephen. I don’t care if Jesus lived or did not. It makes no difference to me at all. What interests me is understanding the evidence we have for Christian origins and if the most valid methods of inquiry lead to a reasonable conclusion that the gospels originated somehow without any historical Jesus behind them, then that’s a conclusion I’m willing to hold till I find other reasons to leave it aside.

      I am trying to be open to all possibilities before I start the investigation.

      If the evidence is best explained by appeal to a historical figure, Jesus, that’s great. We’ve made progress. Whether Jesus lived or not means nothing more to me than the question of Socrates’ historical existence.

      I appreciate that it means an awful lot to believing Christians, however, and I do hope you have noticed I do not attack or mock Christians for their beliefs here. In fact I appreciate and use much of their scholarly works.

      1. Neil,

        I am not open to all possibilities as there is no end to them.

        I have read so many conspiracies for the JFK assassination that make me laugh and almost weep

        because they are beyond bizarre.

        I have read all of the Anchor Commentaries and am quite aware of all the various theories that

        are mentioned in the footnotes and as you read them you realise that some scholars are not all

        that different from some of the JFK conspiracy writers.

        I trust that those who handed down the faith did so because they met an extraordinary person.

        There is no way to “prove” Jesus was the only Son of the Living God, nor that He rose from the

        Dead but I think we can say that people at that time strongly believed that He did.

        History is not a science, it is more of an art.

        If Scripture is inspired by God, it cannot be judged by humans.

        If it is not from God, then it will fade away.

        1. I am not “open to all possibilities” but I am “open to all possibilities BEFORE I start the investigation”. You are not open to all possibilities because, as you said, you found a number of them were untenable in prior investigations. That’s how it should be.

          I agree that people in the early days of Christianity did “strongly believe” Jesus was a very remarkable figure. But the question that leaves is, “When and why did they think that?”

          There is no reason to believe anything will fade just because it is not inspired by God. Many scriptures have survived millennia and don’t look like fading today. Just because councils of bishops at various times decided what is scripture and included documents that have clearly been forged in many cases does not sound to me like a sound basis to embrace those scriptures as authoritative.

          Or perhaps the Papacy and Islam and Buddhism are all inspired by God? Then again, animism has never died out and it is the most primitive religion of all. I’d guess animism is the true religion on that criterion.

          If by “history is an art” you mean it has no factual basis then I presume you cannot properly believe anything you were taught in school about the Civil War or moon landing.

    3. “18th/19th century scholars who did not “like” Christianity tried to push the writing of the Gospels back as far as they could from the time of Jesus.

      So some scholars wanted the earliest Gospels to be written from the 250’s AD on.”

      And, nothing is true just because we want it to be true, right?

      “Those who do not want to admit the truth of the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem draw their line at 70 AD.”

      But prophecies aren’t true just because we want them to be true, right?

      “However, there is no absolute reason why Matthew could not have been written by 45 AD, Mark by 50 AD and Luke/Acts by 65 AD and John by 70 AD.”

      True, but is that how historians normally work when they’re not defending Christian orthodoxy? Do they normally argue for “probably was” from “could have been”?

  5. Christians are permanently stuck in amber in a primitive state of conflict against early apostates who felt the need to criticize scripture’s role as proof of faith by defending scripture is an instrument for exercising their faith rather than ironically trying to prove it, but still going off ironically defending it as proof of their faith because of the inherent deep problems of faith. Apologists are considered successful by keeping old, often ancient, thoroughly debunked arguments “new”, fresh, and controversial (not unlike stirring a pot of sewage), while parading their faulty premises in the guise of atheist error. They could scant understand what value atheists see in arguing for the historicity of the gospels. What they do see is battle being fought on their soil and they have a proven track record of not suffering any losses but winning validity because of the controversy in and of itself. The pathetic nature of Christian studies, apologetics, is that it takes atheists to actually inject anything genuinely new into it. If atheists weren’t shit out by Christian schools, none of these hypotheses would have ever come to light. These hypotheses by their mundane nature add nothing to faith even if they take away nothing.

    What this does give us is the ability to imagine a world in which the gospels were fortunately written by the sorts of people who wrote about real historical people. Let’s imagine our fictional universe has some guy named Fivel of Antioch, being known historically himself outside his own writings, including the time frame when he lived and wrote, wrote a book called “Jesus: The Failed King” in place of our universe’s pathetic Gospel of Mark, with the crucial differences aside from the author identifying himself and the fact of his authorship corroborated by other contemporary writers, being that he confesses some skepticism of what he’s claiming to have heard, even though he knows who he heard it from, names them and what he knows and thinks about them, and checks his own biases instead of poorly sneaking his agenda under the table. And suppose the other gospels were likewise.

    In such a universe, the historicity of Jesus and the supposed events of his life would equally be in question because our authors are equally distant from the truth as the real unidentified authors of our gospels, they would just be admitting it. But what would be most interesting is the nature of the church, its followers, without the pretentious prose. They wouldn’t have what they think they need: the ego-faith stroking lube job that the gospels provide for the faith-dependent. So they’d have to come up with new gospels that do that think they like for them and they’d have to get on that right away before those nasty historical renditions got too popular.

    1. with the crucial differences aside from the author identifying himself and the fact of his authorship corroborated by other contemporary writers, being that he confesses some skepticism of what he’s claiming to have heard, even though he knows who he heard it from, names them and what he knows and thinks about them, and checks his own biases

      In other words, if instead of today’s gospels about Jesus we had narratives written in the style and method of the ancient historians like Herodotus, Livy…. Genuinely ancient historical and biographical narratives would indeed either remove all room for debate about Jesus’ historicity or make the task of questioning historicity a respectable endeavour.

      [Apologists] could scant understand what value atheists see in arguing for the historicity of the gospels.

      Interesting perspective.

  6. Tabor works not only from the standard academic assumption that Jesus did exist; he accepts and advances the archaeological evidence of the Talpiot and James ossuaries. I agree with the latter; if these artifacts related to any other legendary figure, they would generally be taken as “proof” of historicity – assuming they didn’t have nearly so many theo-political forces arrayed against it…

    1. Even if the engraving is genuine, from the first century, is there any indication that the Jesus referred to is the Jesus of the gospels? If not its just conjecture. Like so many other evidences of Jesus that have been collected over the years.

      1. On the contrary, Robert Eisenman believes the James ossuary uncannily — & unbelievably — does refer to the Jesus of the gospels (or rather, in Josephus; rather, in the title of Eisenman’s book), than how one would expect someone to be named during that period:


        Tabor would do better to rely to the Jesus tortilla — clearly not a forgery!

        1. Shalom & Erev tov…you do not know what you are talking about. The ‘archaeological evidence’ is a hoax, disproven in Yisra’el.

          STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
          Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
          לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


          1. Stephan Pickering/Chafetz Chayim benAvraham

            But as for “not knowing” what someone is talking about, some people consider it a good idea to look a bit further when a scholar from whom we would expect a minimal amount of knowledge makes a controversial claim. In this case we will find that Tabor has published arguments against the “hoax” thesis. Example, from : The Jesus Discovery by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici (2013):

            Despite the widespread perception that the inscription was forged, so far not a single qualified epigrapher has rejected the ossuary inscription on paleographic grounds— that is, the style of the writing and its integrity. Expert epigraphers can usually spot forgeries by examining the form and style o f the letters and comparing them with inscriptions of the period in question that are known to be authentic from the archaeological contexts in which they were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been authenticated in this way despite their surfacing on the black market.

            The IAA case for forgery was partly circumstantial, but primarily based on physical tests conducted by Yuval Goren. He concluded that the letters of the inscription cut through the original patina o f the ossuary— the natural growth of chemical deposits that builds up over time on stone— showing that the incisions were made later, in modern times.10 The indictment further charged that Golan had clumsily tried to apply a fake patina over the inscription, once he had carved it, applying a pastiche he created. The case o f the prosecution suffered a tremendous blow when it was shown by experts that although the ossuary inscription had been cleaned by its owner, there was nonetheless original, authentic patina in the grooves of the letters—demonstrating that it could not have been added later. The chief witness for the prosecution on the patina authenticity admitted under oath that this was the case.11

            Of course we can disagree with Tabor’s conclusions but to say someone “does not know what they are talking about” is not a productive approach to dialogue.

            By the way, speaking of productive approaches to dialogue . . . . Your Hebraisms come across as comically pretentious. I wish you would use the usual conventions of communication. We are more likely to take your comments seriously.

            1. Shalom & Erev tov…James Davila et al. at the excellent PaleoJudaica.blogspot.com (cf. February 2002 for a good starting point) has published thorough refutations of Tabor &c. The ossuaries are a hoax, and as a chassidish Yehu’di I cannot take Tabor’s deliberate proselytising seriously. I do not find my Hebrew ‘comically pretentious’. Kol tuv uv’racha, Neil.
              STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
              Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
              לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


            2. That the chief Witness for the prosecution allegedly — because I don’t trust James Tabor and THAT Simcha Jacobovici, after their joint fiasco with the contents of the tomb under a condo in Talipot — conceded under oath that original patina was found in the grooves of the tackon “brother of Yeshua” does give me pause that maybe there was some historical person at (one of) the roots of Christianity after all. And yet not one mention by Josephus!

        2. Eisenman’s article has no strong arguments – he just thinks it looks “too perfect”and appeals to “ancient sources” which were too removed from Jesus and James’ movement to have real bearing.
          The IAA’s accusations (which are still commonly repeated) fell apart completely in court – the “fake patina” turned out to have been an innocuous cleaning agent, and several experts testified that “the brother of Jesus” had actual patina before invasive testing. One thing the IAA did right, from their own perspective, is drag the trial on so long (even after the judge advised them to drop it) that most everyone forgot about it.

  7. My standard response to arguments the likes of Tabor’s: imagine scholars find a manuscript of a previously unknown ‘account’ entitled “The Red Badge of Courage.” The historical details contained therein closely match what we know from outside sources of the US Civil War. We can even identify the battle described as Chancellorsville, yielding terminus post quem of 1863.

    To conclude that this account was written a year or so thereafter would be a significant error. To conclude that Henry Fleming must have been an historical figure, would be fatuous.

  8. James Tabor writes:

    “For example, we have two very different versions of the so-called Beatitudes–Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-26.”

    Actually, we have three. He forgot GThomas 49, 54, 58, 68, & 69.

  9. James Tabor writes:

    “… we want to try to arrange our sources as much as possible in a chronological fashion, thus when it comes to Jesus we have: the Q source, … the ‘Signs’ source….”

    Umm, no we don’t.

  10. I don’t understand the logic of this author:

    …we cannot deny Mark was in a community that believed in a historical Jesus. We know ths by simple deduction, not counting the work of this volume. A spiritual Jesus would not have faced such a severe crisis as presented by Rome. Mark’s Jesus, attested to by biographical footnotes, is one who operated in the early first century. Indeed, a spiritual Jesus as messiah requires not only a well-defined persona of Jesus, but also a well-defined concept of the messiah including the atoning work and other theological facets, something we do not receive from Paul. It has a genesis in Mark and continues in Matthew, Luke, and finally, John. What we find is this: Q is more plausible than the mythicist Jesus. To defend something that needs no defending, such as a spiritual Jesus, makes the Gospels an exercise in futility, something a mimetic reading easily refutes.
    … To create a literary response to a nonexistent challenge would be pure madness.

    (Joel L. Watts, Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 233-234)

    I think precisely the opposite is true:
    A spiritual Jesus would have faced such a severe crisis as presented by Rome, just because he is already a suffering Jesus!

    1. Joel Watts presents himself on his blog and in that book as semi-literate. Supportive scholars like James McGrath even attempt to cover for their friend’s literacy incompetence by suggesting he is deliberately trying to mock Mark’s style. Joel overall does not come across in any of his writings or attempts at communication (he used to troll here on Vridar) as having an above average IQ of the kind one expects in scholars.

      That such a figure can actually get away with support of scholarly peers and publishers tells you heaps about the quality and professional standards (or lack of them) in the field of biblical studies.

            1. Crazy, and pretty damaging. And he lied about it afterward. But as far as his good-hearted, scholarly friends are concerned — no harm, no foul.

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