Daily Archives: 2017-12-10 23:50:03 UTC

Follow up questions to my post on not seeing myself as a “Jesus mythicist”

Posting here a few more of my responses to questions that were raised on the BC&H forum about my stance on the Jesus mythicism question. (The first post in this series is Why I don’t see myself as a Christ Mythicist)

On making reasonable assumptions and seeing where they take us

Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark was received as about an actual person? Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark as written around the 70s or 80s CE, in your mind? What makes an assumption reasonable when it comes to the Gospel of Mark?

That’s not how valid historical inquiry works. Such a method can only produce speculative results. Not historical reconstruction.

According to the normative methods of dating documents the gospel of Mark could have been produced anywhere between 70 and 140 or even later CE. The only reason scholars prefer the earlier date is because of that mother of all assumptions, the presumption that the gospel’s narrative derives from a historical Jesus or events and they need/want the text to be as close as possible to that event so a proposed oral tradition chain does not lose too much in the process. And so the circle turns.

And that’s not even addressing the clear evidence that our form of the gospel is not what it was in the beginning.

What other historical inquiry works with “assumptions” that can never be corroborated from which they build their entire historical reconstruction? I suggest any that do are invalid.

Can you clarify your argument?

Is your argument that although 1st century CE Christians believed in a recently executed historical Jesus, we cannot tell if this Jesus really existed or not ? Or is your argument that we cannot tell whether 1st century CE Christians believed in a historical Jesus or not ?

I don’t argue for either. I leave behind any questions that arise directly or indirectly from the assumption that the fundamental plots of the gospel narratives or any of their narrative details are derived from real historical events. Such an assumption I find unsupportable given the absence of independent corroboration.

I think some biblical scholars work on the same principle: they study the Jesus in the gospels as a literary and theological figure. The question of historicity or otherwise simply does not arise. It is not a question that the sources enable us to explore.

Further, the question assumes the existence of a certain group (“Christians”) at a certain time (1st century CE) that I suggest are derived from the assumption of a historical background to the gospel narratives. What are “Christians” in the question? How are they defined? What is the evidence for them and for existing in the 1st century CE? I am not denying that there are reasonable answers to such questions. Just seeking my own clarification.

(Even if we are relying upon Paul’s letters, I am not sure that even those support the assumption that Paul and his followers belonged to a separate “Christian” group distinct from “Judaism”.)

The best I think we can say is that we have narratives about an executed Jesus (whether “recent” from the time of writing we cannot say with any confidence) and the historian needs to work with these, seeking to understand the nature of these narratives and explanations for their origins and the functions and influences they served. As for what certain people at certain times “believed”, that sounds to me like a very thorny question that will require a reliance upon more than the narratives themselves.

The letters of Paul are another set of documents that give rise to their own questions. The important thing, to me, is to study these questions without introducing traditional assumptions.

Is Matthew trying to squash rumours about the empty tomb?

Do you think Matthew 28:13-15 (if written in 1st CE) could be a actual response against the Jews of 1st CE who believed Jesus body was taken by his disciples after being crucified and thus evidence of historicity?

“Matthew” is writing a story. It’s a story. It could also be an actual response to Jews of the first century etc, but we would need to have independent evidence to support that interpretation. I don’t know how we can say that such a view (that it is an actual real-life response etc) is part of a historical record.

It is dangerous to use the Matthew narrative as evidence that Jews at the time were saying that Jesus’ body had been stolen. In fact, I don’t see how it can be justified by valid historical methods. Of itself, the story reads just like the ending of a Hans Christian Anderson tale that assures children that the shoes or some trinket can be found “to this very day” beneath a certain tree in a certain forest. It adds a teasing touch of verisimilitude.

(As a commenter wrote on my blog just a few hours ago, Matthew also seems to be teasing readers with a call for them to go and speak to witnesses of all the dead who rose out of their graves at the time Jesus died.)

It is just as reasonable to explain Matthew’s story of the bribery of soldiers as an attempt to tidy up a loose end in Mark’s narrative. And a far more parsimonious explanation that postulating all the variables that need to be introduced to support historicity.

Besides, what if the gospel were not even written until the mid-second century? Would there be such a concern for explaining away a historical event a century earlier? We simply don’t know when Matthew was written.

So am I a Jesus Mythicist?

My answer to that question is that I see no evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons so as far as I am concerned the question is irrelevant. We cannot assume that he did exist. And I don’t assume he existed. If I were to think there was such a historical person then I would need to be shown clear evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons.

For an example of what I mean by a proof-text argument and why I believe it is worthless see Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19.

Merely trying to argue a point by apologetic proof-texting is not going to cut it. Historians don’t do simplistic proof-texting; at least not “real historians”. They evaluate the evidence, its provenance, its context, its agenda, before they draw conclusions from it.

We can only work with the evidence we have, and if the ultimate goal of New Testament studies is to understand the origins of Christianity, then the literary Jesus is all we have and the only one we can work with.

(The epithet “mythicist” has become too emotionally charged. Academically, though, there is no need. Many critical scholars acknowledge that the Jesus of the gospels is surely literary and mythical. More biblical scholars are doing a new type of literary analysis on the gospels. It ought to be quite possible, at least in theory, for believers in a historical Jesus and for those who don’t believe there was a historical Jesus to discuss, argue, debate, explore and research the evidence together — as long as all are agreed that the evidence is the written documents we have and not some imaginary constructs that see the figures of the narrative take on a life of their own independent of those texts.)


How “Biblical History” is Fundamentally Different From Other Historical Research

As pointed out in the previous post historians of ancient times have criticized an approach to ancient sources that they call the nugget theory or the Christmas cake analogy. The historical sources need to be analysed at a literary level in order to first determine what sorts of documents they are and what sorts of questions they can be expected to answer, and then they need to be tested, usually by means of independent corroboration. Independent corroboration must be contemporary as a rule for reasons set out in The evidence of ancient historians.

The prevailing view among New Testament scholars of Christian origins is an unashamed application of the nugget and Christmas cake that is said to be invalid, fallacious, erroneous, misguided, unsupportable, in defiance of what we know about how ancient authors worked, by other historians of ancient times.

Contrary to the ways other professional historians approach their ancient sources biblical scholars have sought to find tools to find the nugget of historical truth or the cake of what comes reasonably close to what really happened.

Criteria of authenticity

The tool they have used to do this has been their criteria of authenticity. Never mind that even some of their own peers, other biblical scholars, have conceded that these criteria are logically flawed and incapable of really establishing genuine history behind the texts (gospels), as long as they say they can use them “judiciously”, “with caution”, they’ll manage okay.

Memory theory

More recently some biblical scholars have found another tool to replace “criteriology”. They have found memory theory. Never mind that they don’t quite use that theory in the way its original founders intended, used “judiciously” and “with caution” it can surely bring the modern historian just a little closer to what might have actually happened, so they say.

Clear glass or stained glass windows

In an earlier post, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything, we saw the analogy of two different types of windows at play. The biblical historian sees the gospels as a window that needs to be “looked through” in order to try to identify the history on the other side. The opposing view sees the gospels as stained glass windows to be admired as literary productions in their own right.

Digging for that pot of gold

The biblical historian also uses the analogy of digging, presumably as in an archaeological dig, and helpfully provided this diagram to illustrate the way the biblical historian proudly worked:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

That diagram is an epitome of all the analogies used by trained historians in their condemnation of that method.

See Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything for a discussion of the two windows, the diggers, the nugget miners, and the Christmas cake eaters.




The evidence of ancient historians

Is it “hyper-critical” to approach ancient historians like Livy, Plutarch, …. with caution? In response to my previous post on why I do not think of myself as a “Jesus mythicist” one person insisted that we have every right to accept the words of Tacitus and Josephus about some incident that they say happened a couple of generations earlier. Here is my detailed response.

Why can’t we simply take at face value the statements we read in Tacitus and Josephus about Jesus? (Formatting and bolding in all quotations is my own.)

Let’s set aside for a moment the evidence that the references to the Christ are interpolations and assume they are genuine. Read what one prominent historian of ancient history wrote about the surviving works of ancient historians:

Yet a Livy or a Plutarch cheerfully repeated pages upon pages of earlier accounts over which they neither had nor sought any control. . . . Only Thucydides fully and systematically acknowledged the existence of a dilemma, which he resolved in the unsatisfactory way of refusing to deal with pre-contemporary history at all. . . . .

Where did they [ancient historians like Tacitus and Josephus] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . . .

I suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. . . .

Unless something is captured in a more or less contemporary historical account, the narrative is lost for all time regardless of how many inscriptions or papyri may be discovered. . . . .

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time, it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that has been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . .

There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention . . . .

Some of the supposed data are patently fictitious, the political unification of Attica by Theseus or the foundation of Rome by Aeneas, for example, but we quickly run out of such easily identified fictions. For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

For reasons that are rooted in our intellectual history, ancient historians are often seduced into two unexpressed propositions. The first is that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian).

That’s all from Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2

That’s what I posted on the BC&H Forum. Finley is not a lone voice, however.

The Christmas cake view of history

The historian of ancient documents needs first to study the nature of those documents and to try to understand what they are capable of revealing. That means literary criticism.

To see some posts in which I have addressed other work by Woodman discussing the creative imaginations of ancient historians, see http://vridar.org/?s=woodman

To quote A.J. Woodman . . . :

‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’ . . . . 

Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.


Compare “the nugget theory” of ancient history.

Later in the same chapter . . .

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.


Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself. But there were some occasions when the issues were so serious that it was rhetorically necessary, even at the risk of attack, to maintain the illusion of strict historicity. On those occasions the historian could never admit to manipulation or invention. Such is the tyranny of factual truth.

J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

It takes no great effort to refute him — he’s a historian.

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Why I don’t see myself as a Christ Mythicist

Sometimes someone seems to expect me to argue a mythicist case, or accuses me of somehow hypocritically hiding my mythicist views. So let me make my view on the historicity of Jesus question clear.

If we approach the question of Christian origins the same way a historian would be expected to approach any other question, I believe we will begin with no a priori reason for working with the idea of the Jesus figure as historical.

After all, a number of biblical scholars see everything in the gospels as “mythical” and even the crucifixion as a heavily theological narrative that can have no historical reliability. They are not called “mythicists”.

Critical scholars who do not believe Moses existed are not called Moses Mythicists.

How many William Tell Mythicists have you heard of?

The gospels are of unknown provenance, authorship and date. Moreover, their narratives have no independent support for historicity. They are accordingly worthless as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

They might be based ultimately on a historical person but if so we cannot know anything about that so we simply cannot use them as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Without the gospels the contents of Paul’s letters are equally or even more problematic as sources for the historicity of Jesus.

The “secondary” (late) evidence is also seriously problematic for various reasons.

There is simply nothing to reliably point to a historical Jesus.

Contrast Julius Caesar or Socrates or any other person of some significance in ancient history. The evidence for such people is independently corroborated at some significant level, generally of known provenance, etc.

There is indeed much in ancient history that we cannot know for sure, that is not independently corroborated and that only comes to us through late sources, and I am on the side of ancient historians like M.I. Finley who do state that we simply cannot know about those times, persons, events as historians. Some historians ignore Finley’s advice but what they produce is a rewriting of ancient myths, one might say. It is not serious history.

A historian needs to start with sources that can be independently corroborated, tested and evaluated for their provenance, date, authorship. To the extent that is not possible with some questions the entire enterprise is compromised to a lesser or greater degree.

In other words, I see no reason a priori to think of the figure of Jesus as having a historical existence because all our earliest sources about him talk about a theological figure and are unable to be corroborated independently for historicity.

There might have been some David or Moses figure in the past but if so quite unlike the one we read about in the Bible. Scholars who do not accept the historicity of these figures are not called David or Moses mythicists and I see no reason to treat Jesus any differently.

We work with what we have, a theological and literary figure.

It’s not about negotiating a mass of detailed arguments over a handful of (problematic) passages in Romans or Galatians or Josephus, etc…. The question simply never gets off the starting block.

After writing the above on another forum I added the following.

The Mother of All Assumptions

The Mother of All Assumptions is that the gospels contain some historical nuggets or are gateways to discovering historical nuggets. That is nothing but an assumption without any sound methodological thinking or analysis to support it.

From that assumption we generate theories of oral traditions as sources; we generate all sorts of scenarios about what the historical Jesus thought or did or said; we rely fundamentally upon the myth of the gospel-Acts narrative of Christian origins. Most of what we do is tweak and have fun with variants of that myth.

Sound historical method opens up entirely different questions and pathways to explore.

Someone replied that surely the letters of Paul, Acts and Josephus are evidence, and another asked if I considered the gospels as evidence for Jesus being non-historical or mythical. I responded as follows.

Evidence of what?

Evidence of what? How can anything “serve as evidence” if it lacks independent corroboration and if we cannot know its original form?

Josephus is only evidence for what a text dated over a generation after the supposed event says. By normative standards of historical research that is not evidence for anything that happened 60 years earlier.

Are the gospels evidence that Jesus was mythical?

The question does not arise. There may have been a historical figure of Jesus behind the gospels but that’s beside the point because we can know nothing about him.

I think many scholars (certainly the more critical ones) see the gospel Jesus as “mythical” or certainly theological. He is obviously literary — that’s a tautology! That’s the only Jesus we have in the gospels. We have no other. Work with what we have. This has nothing to do with whether Jesus was historical or mythical. In the gospels he is evidently a literary character and we can do no better than work with that Jesus and attempt to understand the gospel origins and character — and the origins and character of that literary Jesus.

Anything else is simply chasing questions that are not historical in nature. The Pentateuch is not evidence of a mythical Moses or Balaam’s ass. Nor is 1 Kings evidence of a mythical Solomon or Elijah. The question simply does not arise in critical scholarship.