And the Mysterious Unknowns of Other Historical(?) Figures

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by Neil Godfrey

following on from the previous post . . . .

What is wrong with living with doubt and uncertainty as to the historicity of any figure of the past? Unless one is a fundamentalist or ideological nationalist whose very identity depends upon the literal certainty of past figures and events, what is wrong with simply accepting that we cannot know for certain if there was a historical Buddha, or Moses, or David or Solomon, or even Socrates, or Honi, or Hillel, or Muhammad, or Jesus . . .

What difference would it make? Certainly it would make an enormous difference to certain fundamentalists or believers whose personal identity hangs upon the certain reality of some such figure, but for scholars, for academics, for the general public…..? Very little, if anything, of history would have to be re-written. Maybe just the wording of a few lines here and there would need to be tweaked, that’s all.

Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, as I understand their publications, have misrepresented my reference to a quotation from Albert Schweitzer. My point is not that Schweitzer is casting doubt on the historicity of Jesus — not at all — but that he is saying that religious faith should not rest upon the mundane. Our certainty of what we know of the mundane can rarely be secure and the focus of spirituality belongs elsewhere. Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my emphasis):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “And the Mysterious Unknowns of Other Historical(?) Figures”

  1. Scholars who loyally support an historical Jesus, have long been countered from deep within the churches themselves. By the churches’ stress on an invisible, non-material, or “spiritual,” God. And a Christ conceded to be not perhaps from history at all. But from, say, our spiritual longings and hopes and dreams; the “Christ of Faith.”

    Schweitzer therefore articulated a deeply religious embrace of a concept which concedes that there might not have been a provable, real historical Jesus at all. As this popular concept suggests furthermore, that perhaps no such historical figure is even necessary, for Christianity to continue.

  2. What would be great is if we could get some clarity about Biblical scholars’ belief about Jesus’ existence, and how this level of belief sits alongside other things we believe.

    Like say, on a scale of 0 to 10, how likely is it that you think Jesus existed? And compare it with others, like a 0 to 10 scale about whether Creationism is true, and/or a 0 to 10 scale on whether George Washington was the 1st president of the USA.

    I personally would be a 6 out of 10 on Jesus’ existence, 0 out of 10 on Creationism, and 10 out of 10 on George Washington.

    1. But if the probability that Jesus existed is 60%, the probability that he didn’t is only 40%. Then, if ten scholars agree that he existed, the probability that all ten are wrong would be .410 or .01%. At least, I think that must be the logic they use to reach such irrational degrees of certainty.

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