Biblical Scholar Watch #1

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by Neil Godfrey

There are many excellent biblical scholars whose works are discussed here as often as opportunity arises. Check out the Categories list in the right column here to see the extent of our coverage.

But as with any profession there are some rogues who need to be exposed. A few hours ago on the Religion Prof blog appeared a post in effect leading the public to believe that mainstream biblical scholars have published far, far more on the topic of the historicity of Jesus than anyone who doubts Jesus’ historicity. Here is the screenshot:

The link is to the following page on Amazon:

Scrolling down one sees the number of pages is said to be 3300.

I have access to the electronic edition and can confirm that the number of pages is closer to 4000 than 3000.

But is it honest to claim that these four volumes under the title Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus address the question of the historicity of Jesus itself? After all, that is the clear message and point of the “religion prof’s” post. His message is that mainstream scholars have published far more on the topic that is addressed by, say, Richard Carrier.

But open up the pages of those four volumes and one soon discovers that this claim is misleading.

Of the over 3700 pages contained in these volumes there are exactly 29 pages that appear on first glance to be devoted to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. They are by Samuel Byrskog in a chapter titled “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” — pages 2183 to 2211.

The four volumes are not about the question of Jesus’ historicity but in fact presume the existence of Jesus and from that starting point address scholarly questions relating to how we can learn what kind of person this Jesus was. Let me show a few more screen shots from the table of contents so you can get the idea: 

But what about Byrskog’s chapter? Does that not engage with the questions of concern to Richard Carrier, Thomas Brodie, Earl Doherty, Robert Price? Sadly, no. Byrskog makes it clear from the outset that he will not enter into that debate:

Biblical scholars are convinced that Jesus existed.1 While they disagree on several matters of central importance to the understanding of Jesus and early Christianity, this is a crucial point of considerable agreement. The quest for the historical Jesus is not a quest for his existence as such, but for the more precise contours of his person and career. But how do we know that he in fact existed? In what sense can we speak of his historicity? How do we approach history? How do we employ the ancient documents in order to reconstruct the historical Jesus? What sources do we have and what is our attitude to them? Is it really possible to move out of our own context and reach back to the bare history via documents and traditions? Questions such as these have recently come to the fore in historical Jesus research and promise a more hermeneutically informed sensitivity to the conviction that Jesus in fact existed. (p. 2183, my emphasis)

Footnote 1 reads:

The “we” in the title of the present essay is the guild of biblical scholars. Those who deny that Jesus existed usually treat the issue of historicity and the sources in a manner which invalidates any kind of informed, mutual discussion. Cf. recently (again) George Albert Wells, Can We Trust the New Testament? Thoughts on the Reliability of Early Christian Testimony (Chicago: Open Court, 2004). For reference to and evaluation of earlier proposals, see Robert E. van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 6-16. What follows is not an attempt to enter into that debate, but to look critically at how biblical scholars reason, and (possibly) should reason.

Byrskog follows with a philosophical discussion on what “historical” and “historical knowledge” mean.

On page 2187 he writes

We claim to know that Jesus existed because certain texts which we classify as sources say so.

And a couple of pages later explains

In order to faithfully reconstruct and reconfigure the history behind this kind of textual writings and determine the historicity of Jesus, we pose questions concerning their reliability . . .

Fine so far. First set of texts he addresses are the letters of Paul:

As letters they exhibit rhetorical and ideological agendas which are far different from the one of reporting that Jesus existed. Many scholars therefore disregard them entirely as sources for the historical Jesus. (p. 2189)

Byrskog pauses, though, and argues that they do indeed provide evidence for the historicity of Jesus:

The first way argues that the letters presuppose that Jesus existed in history and that this in itself is an indication of his historicity. Paul’s career, writings, and theology are incomprehensible without the assumption that Jesus had in fact lived and died a few years earlier.

That assertion is the very point that is challenged by Carrier, Brodie, Doherty, Price. But recall that Byrskog has chosen not to enter into that debate.

Next, Byrskog points out that Paul’s letters provide “the earliest extant documentation of”

  • Jesus’ death
  • Death by crucifixion
  • Jesus being a Jew
  • Jesus being of Davidic descent
  • Jesus having brothers, one of whom was James
  • The character of Jesus:
    • Jesus did not please himself
    • Jesus was meek and gentle
    • Jesus was compassionate

Finally, Paul’s letters are said to be sources for the historical Jesus as follows:

A third way of employing Paul’s letters as sources is to identify his use of Jesus tradition.  We have already noticed his reference to tradition in 1 Cor 15:3. This is a tradition about Jesus, and there is reason to trust it historically, but Paul does not identify it as Jesus tradition. In fact, he does so only on three or four occasions, in 1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-25; and possibly 1 Thess 4:15-17. On all three or four occasions he attributes the tradition directly to the Lord, and this raises the question whether he in fact thought of it as a personal revelation. At least 1 Cor 11:23-25 does not warrant this conclusion. Paul uses technical terminology for receiving and passing on tradition and formulates in a way that is strikingly reminiscent of what is known as Jesus tradition in Luke 22:19-20. His reference to tradition at this point is significant, because it places the words of Jesus within a small narrative context. (p. 2191)

Can a clearer instance of reading the gospels back into the letters of Paul be identified? It is such dubious methodology that is a main focus of Carrier and others. (And we have not even addressed the first principles of normative historical methodology of establishing the reliability and provenance of our source documents: few scholars have taken up the history of scholarly challenges to the authenticity of the 1 Cor 11:23-25 passage.)

Next, Byrskog addresses the way scholars use the gospels as sources for the historical Jesus.

The distinctive character which sets the gospels apart from other Greek and Roman literature of the same biographical character is the extent to which they build on oral and written tradition. (p. 2195)

So how does one identify sources hypothesized to lie behind the gospels when those sources no longer exist? Can Papias come to the rescue?

It is difficult to verify the existence of other pre-Markan material. Those scholars who detect collections of miracle stories, a synoptic apocalypse, disputations, didactic sayings, and parables on a pre-Markan level inevitably have to work with a large amount of uncertainty. One way to anchor this kind of analysis in a frame that is external to the circular reasoning of much redaction-critical work is to take seriously Papias’ note quoted by Eusebius that Mark wrote down from memory what he had heard from Peter (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15). In antiquity it was common procedure to refer to an eyewitness when trying to truthfully and persuasively communicate to others about essential events from the past. Scholars are divided as to the usefulness of Papias’ piece of information. Once accepted as generally trustworthy and put into a broader socio-cultural framework of ancient historical inquiry, it moves the Gospel of Mark significantly closer to the historical Jesus . . . (p. 2197)

What of Q? Byrskog identifies the problem of pointing to Q as a source for the historical Jesus. (Contrast Bart Ehrman who considers Q to be a validating source for the reliability of the gospels with respect to the question of Jesus’ historicity.)

Strictly speaking, Q is part of the hypothetical reconstruction of the historical Jesus, not an extant source. The process of reconstruction does not begin with Q, as is often implicitly assumed, but with the extant sources. One of the major problems with Q in Jesus research is that the tentative proposal as to its existence and outlook quickly turns into an established truth and thus tends to blind scholars to the fact that they introduce an entirely hypothetical element into the fundamental basis for the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. The evidence is too ambiguous to warrant unqualified assertions . . . (p. 2199)

Byrskog is also far more cautious than Bart Ehrman in declaring M and L as independent sources:

The matter is even more uncertain as regards the material peculiar to Matthew and Luke, respectively (“M” and “L”). Because this material is supposed to have been formed by the same people who shaped the gospel narratives, it is extremely difficult to distinguish it from the creative additions of the authors themselves. The vocabulary, style, and ideology of the special material may coincide with those of the authors. Only when secure criteria are established for arguing that it diverges from the authors3 own additions are we in a position to assume that the material actually comes from tradition. Even then, however, scholars face the fact that by definition, this material lacks any close parallels which could secure its traditional character by comparison with an independent source. In view of these caveats, the special material is a minor source for the historical Jesus and must be employed with much caution.

This uncertainty concerning the special material makes the question of Jesus’ historicity somewhat tricky. (p. 2199f)

So we fall back on the Gospel of Mark. But notice that we do not hereby establish the historicity of Jesus per se but that we begin with the assumption of his historicity and use Mark as a source of fundamentals for reconstructing the presumed historical Jesus.

This survey points to Mark as the primary source in historical-Jesus research. It is with this Gospel that the process of reconstruction and scholarly reconfiguration of the historical Jesus begins. His existence is attested also in other sources, but as the earliest extant account of his life, its traditions are of essential significance for locating him more precisely in time and place. The other gospels are brought in as a means to cross-check the information from material dependent on or independent of Mark, and complement the picture at certain points. (p. 2201)

What of the extra-biblical sources — such as Josephus, Tacitus ….? They “do not refute the existence of Jesus”, but . . .

All in all, it is not easy to know from where these authors had received information concerning Jesus. It is likely that some of them merely reacted to the activity of contemporary Christian groups. (p. 2204)

We do have enough data at hand to firmly claim that Jesus in fact existed

Having pointed to the problematic and highly uncertain nature of our sources, Byrskog concludes:

No matter what hypothesis we prefer concerning the inter-dependence of the gospels and the gospel tradition, we do have enough data at hand to firmly claim that Jesus in fact existed. In order to put this assertion on firmer footing, historians evaluate the gospels and the traditions according to certain criteria. Having established that the earliest gospel builds on tradition, and that the other gospels might use tradition independent of the earliest one, we are faced with the equally intricate task of making history out of tradition. It should be stressed that the traditionally of an account is not to be equated with its historicity, but merely gives the present narrative a dimension of intrinsic pastness without proving that this pastness in fact is real history. (p. 2206)

Jesus emerges as a person whose historicity and existence cannot be in doubt

Having avoided the debate on the historicity of Jesus Byrskog outlines the methodological assumptions of mainstream scholarship and concludes:

How do biblical scholars then know that Jesus existed? We are back to where we started. The question of Jesus’ historicity is an issue of applying a certain contextualized perspective on the past and on the sources. His existence as a person of history cannot be strictly separated from how his reality was perceived in early Christianity and how we identify core elements of our own existence in history. We essentially enter into the reconfiguration, the fictionalization, and the narrativiza- tion that are part of all remembering and traditioning—ancient as well as modern—and relate them to the contemporary horizon of historicity and past existence. In that hermeneutical process of investigational dialogue, Jesus emerges as a person whose historicity and existence cannot be in doubt. (p. 2210)

It all comes down to tradition:

The reconstruction begins with Mark. Paul’s letters are significant as the earliest assertion that Jesus existed. The other canonical gospels give the possibility of cross-checking the material and complement the picture. All the gospels build on tradition. The pre-Markan tradition is of importance. (p. 2210)

In other words, all efforts to reconstruct a historical Jesus (or at least some approximation to “the” historical Jesus) begin with the a priori assumption of a fundamental historicity underlying the common narrative in the canonical gospels. From the foundation of his assumption it is asserted that our written gospel narrative originated as oral tradition that began with the historical Jesus and his followers. Scholarly methods are introduced to try to identify the content of some of this pre-canonical tradition.

One does not need to enter into the mythicist debate to question this mainstream framework. Forget Carrier, Brodie, Price, Doherty for a moment. One needs only address scholarly research on gospel sources, especially contemporary studies into the authorial creativity of the evangelists and their identifiable literary sources. Dennis MacDonald may be one of the better known researchers in this field but he is far from being the only one. There is also serious research undermining some of the specific arguments used to identify oral sources behind the gospels.

Scholar Watch

For a Christian academic and biblical scholar to tell his readers that the three to four thousand tome Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus makes a mockery of claims that scholars have not addressed the topic or question discussed by the likes of Carrier, Doherty, Brodie, Price is irresponsible. Of those 3700 plus pages only twenty-nine present just one side of the question and expressly bypass the challenges raised against the methods and arguments presented.

As for the rest of the Religion Prof’s post I cannot comment because I have not found its original source. I only know what was posted in his blog. I would appreciate it if someone could point me to where the original discussion took place so I can compare the religion prof’s version of it.


Just when society needs to know what Christian academics and academic biblical scholars have to say, they’ve silenced themselves.  No one has silenced them.  They have silenced themselves. — Jim West

On the contrary, a few Christian academics and academic biblical scholars publish posts that mislead society about what they have to say.



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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Biblical Scholar Watch #1”

    1. I see it contained what I always hoped someone would ask him: whether he thinks mythicism is more or less likely than Christianity being literally true.

      He failed in the way I guessed he would, too. Though he claims it’s based on ethics and not rationality. As though he thinks being ethical and being rational are the same.

      So according to him, likely = ethical. It beggars belief.

  1. In fact, he does so only on three or four occasions, in 1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-25; and possibly 1 Thess 4:15-17. On all three or four occasions he attributes the tradition directly to the Lord, and this raises the question whether he in fact thought of it as a personal revelation.

    That list omits another “says the Lord” verse in 1 Corinthians 14:21, but that is quoting Isaiah 28:11-12 which forces us to consider that the revelations are from reading the texts of the OT. Under that scenario, 1 Cor 7:10-11 probably refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which allows a man to divorce a wife but has no provision for a woman to divorce a man. 1 Cor 9:14 refers to Deuteronomy 18:3-8. The information in 1 Thess 4:15-17 could have come from Isaiah 26:19-21a, Daniel 7:11a, 7:13a, 12:2, and Isaiah 25:8a.

    There is an article on Vridar that shows a pattern developing in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 with Paul asking a rhetorical question, gives an exhortation, then responds to the question using the same metaphors as the question. But the answer to the third set of questions does not follow the question “Are we stronger than he?” The answer shows up in verse 11:30 using the “stronger-weaker” metaphor.

    That is an indication of the seam of an interpolation which includes 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, which is more like Luke 22:19-20, but Luke got it from Mark 14:22-24. The passage meshes information from Psalm 41:9 and Isaiah 53:11 as Mark tends to do.

    Paul insists he didn’t get his information from humans, and specifies that he didn’t get it from James and Peter, but from revelation. He mentions Jesus by name and/or “Christ” about every five verses but the only information he gives seems to come from the OT. He even insists that his knowledge is not inferior to the “super-apostles” so he seems to have known they got their information the way he did.

    The Q hypothesis is to explain both the similarities and the contradictions of Matthew and Luke, Luke and Matthew have many verbatim passage in common but they have different genealogies and nativities. The Q allows one to imagine they had a common source. But it is easily explained by Luke knowing Matthew and rejecting parts of it. Luke copied Mark but rejected some parts. Luke says at the beginning that he knows other gospels and that he is going to straighten them out. He seems to have known John but mostly rejected that one, especially the Lazarus resurrection where he has Abraham saying that it would do no good to send Lazarus back if they didn’t listen to Moses.

  2. Yes, I read the Byrskog article a few years ago. The sum total argument concerning the historicity of Jesus in that entire 4 volume tome is:

    “We claim to know that Jesus existed because certain texts which we classify as sources say so”

    1. The review even speaks of “Bayles” instead of Bayes’ theorem. What it tells me is the extreme difficulty of getting one’s head around radical criticisms of one’s long-held fundamental assumptions. Much of Christina Pettersen’s problem with Carrier’s book appears to be that it fails to agree with the premises and edifices of mainstream scholarship.

      1. Neil wrote:

        Much of Christina Pettersen’s problem with Carrier’s book appears to be that it fails to agree with the premises and edifices of mainstream scholarship.

        I don’t see that.

        Petterson wrote:

        In sum, it is not that I disagree with some or all of his representations of the material; It is more the lack of insight into New Testament scholarship, the mathematics which replaced careful argumentation and above all the evangelical commitment to truth that I find so tremendously offputting.

        She is not alone in these complaints. Carrier’s ignorance of NT scholarship has been widely criticized by mythicists, including yourself and Hermann Detering. The suitability of Bayes’ to this line of inquiry is questioned by a broad majority of observers; in any case, Carrier’s mangling of Bayes’ has been pointed out by Bayesians. Finally, it’s not only Carrier’s hubris that he can ‘prove’ history via fancy maths, but also his overriding arrogance and callous, dismissive disdain for anything or anyone who differs with his conclusions, that have made him a laughingstock and a pariah.

        1. The passage you quoted from Petterson is what I interpreted as disagreeing with C because he did not accept NT scholarship. I have my criticisms of certain points in C’s arguments but there is not enough detail in what P wrote to know if she has the same sorts of criticisms.

          I also have to say I don’t have the same problems with C’s use of Bayes as some others do. Perhaps that’s because I don’t see how it differs in principle from the way other historians use it.

          C does not “prove history by maths”, at least not the way I read him. The maths is nothing other than a symbolic representation of the logical processes that go towards what for most part is a basically sound set of arguments. (I choose my words carefully — as you know there are aspects where I disagree with C’s work.)

          (I also prefer to keep C’s arguments separate from any comments about his perceived character flaws.)

    2. Well, OHJ is a weird book putting forth a weird argument. And OHJ should be able to stand on its own without a requisite prior reading of (the just as weird) PH.

      I must concur with Petterson when she writes:

      Even if strictly correct, the methodology is tenuous. In addition, the numbers and statistics seem like a diversion or an illusionary tactic which intentionally confuse and obfuscate and attempt to give personal conviction the sheen of scientific language instead of presenting a sound argument.

      1. I believe an excellent contribution would be to produce an abridged version of OHJ that excluded all Bayesian references. That way the soundness of the arguments would be less disputable, I believe, for those who at present appear unable to see what the numbers are symbolizing.

      2. Well, OHJ is a weird book putting forth a weird argument. And OHJ should be able to stand on its own without a requisite prior reading of (the just as weird) PH.

        It is not constructive to call a book “weird” or its argument “weird”. Moreover, there is nothing unusual about authors writing more than one book to present a larger argument, one to cover preparatory groundwork, for example. C made it clear that that was his intention in writing PH from the outset. I’d prefer to see criticisms of that book where he sets out and justifies his use of Bayes.

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