Putting 4 sticking points on the historical/mythical Jesus argument into perspective

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by Neil Godfrey

On the AFA forum someone suggested I address the following 5 points often used to argue for Christianity originating with a historical Jesus.

how about addressing the main points of the evidence offered up by the historicists?

1. The Brother of The Lord
2. Born of a woman
3. Born in the line of David
4. Born of the flesh
5. Born as a Jew in Judea

In my previous post I copied my  response to point #1.

That leaves four to go, #2-#5. But they bore me.

The reason debates about them bore me is that they do nothing either for or against the question of whether Jesus was a historical person. Look at them. No-one goes around saying, “Hey, I think you should hear what I’ve got to say about this incredible guy I’ve heard about. He was actually born of a woman, and reckons he can trace his family tree all the way back to Adam. How cool is that! And he was born flesh and blood even. And just to stick it to all you folks who worship Heracles and Asclepius he was a Jew in Palestine. But here’s the thing: he now lives in me and I die daily in him and he’s gonna come and take us all up to the sky very soon now.

Sorry, but that’s not how one normally talks about people — even omitting that last bit about “here’s the thing”.

Those claims, being born of a woman and in the flesh etc, are theological claims. They are made to stress certain theological doctrines. Presumably some rival theologians were saying he was not born flesh and blood. And it was a Jewish theology, so it was important to identify the guy with David and Israel.

Even the crucifixion is only ever mentioned as a theological datum. The crucifixion is only ever introduced to talk about salvation and freedom from the Jewish law. It is always and only ever raised as a theological fact and never addressed as a “historical event” with dates, who, how, why, witnesses, etc. (The only “why” is again theological, not historical: it is to show how much the Jews are all wrong about their religion.)

None of that “proves” the guy was a historical figure. All it proves is that someone had a bunch of theological ideas about a certain figure he only heard about from others and who he claimed “revealed himself” mystically “inside” him.

So that’s why I tend to tune out whenever discussions start up about whether or not any of those four points above (nos. 2 to 5) are “proofs” for the historical Jesus.

Not one of them is a piece of historical evidence a historian can latch on to in order to get some sort of grip on what happened in Palestine around 30 CE.

Paul’s letters are all very fine for gleaning something of the beliefs of some of the early Christians but they are not much use for researching events he never claims to have witnessed and that he never reports on. He even says he has no interest in the “Jesus of the flesh” but is only interested in his “spiritual Jesus”. The only eyewitness reports he passes on are of the resurrection. So that’s not a promising start for the historian. He does say something about a tradition or words he heard but never gives us a clue as to what his sources are — unless it is his own imagination from reading Scripture or hearing/seeing some vision.

How historians (not theologians) work

So how does one go about doing historical research on the life of Jesus?

Why not use the very same methods of research, of analysing sources, as other historians follow? It is a pity that the question of Christian origins has been confined to an academic guild that has only clung on into the modern age by sheer force of tradition. Theology may have been the mainstay of universities in medieval days but we have lost out by leaving the whole business of Christian origins to theologians. We would have been smarter to have removed theological studies exclusively to seminaries and left historical questions to historians.

Historians aren’t perfect and there’s a lot of bad history out there, but at least the bad rubs shoulders with the good and we can compare and learn by comparing the two.

But one essential point historians are taught is to test the authenticity and reliability of their sources. (Pick up manuals for budding historians about to start their doctoral programs to see what I mean.) That means a source — both its origins and what it says — must be corroborated independently in some way.

Really that’s only common sense applied to scholarship. Depending on the degree of importance of knowing the truth of something we make sure we are being told the truth by checking such things as:

  • who is telling us this?
  • how do I know if I can trust them?
  • can their claims be confirmed somehow?
  • how do I know if this document is genuine?
  • etc.

Just to be really sure when people’s lives are at stake we have court systems set up to test claims and evidence, to cross examine them, to try to falsify them, etc.

A famous theologian who rejected the Christ Myth claims of his own day (Albert Schweitzer) nonetheless confessed that proving the historicity of Jesus cannot pass the above “common sense” tests:

The writers [who argue against mythicists and for the historicity of Jesus] call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing . . . . In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly 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.

p. 402 of The Quest, Fortress Press.

Keep in mind that Schweitzer did believe in the historical Jesus. Yet he was honest enough to concede the limitations of valid historical method.

Most historical Jesus researchers today do not follow that fundamental advice but believe they can extract historical data from the gospels by means of criteria of authenticity. Example: the criterion of embarrassment says that Christians would not make up a story about a crucified saviour because such a story would be embarrassing. Their god was crucified? How ridiculous that would sound to outsiders. So it had to be historically true. Jesus really was crucified.

But other scholars (sometimes even the same scholars) have also written much exposing how invalid those criteria are. Example: How do we know the crucifixion was embarrassing? Paul says he boasted in the cross.

Another approach used by biblical scholars is what some of them call the “hermeneutic of charity“. That is, they declare that the evangelists wrote the gospels in good faith and we should believe them unless we have good reason to doubt anything. Otherwise we fall into the “uncharitable” depths of “hyper-scepticism”.

It should be obvious that the alternatives “accept as true unless…” and solipsism are false dichotomies. Healthy scepticism and the scientific method of testing hypotheses are the foundations of modern knowledge.

Moses Finley was a highly renowned historian of the ancient world (and a bit of a genius, too, graduating…. ). In wrote in Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2 (1999):

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. . . . .

So much for an ancient historian’s view of trusting criteria of authenticity and the hermeneutic of charity to prise out the historical nuggets for us.

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Putting 4 sticking points on the historical/mythical Jesus argument into perspective”

  1. This is another excellent educational piece of work. Thank you Neil. This approach of normal scientific skepticism should be the baseline for any study of the mythology/history of Jesus and Christianity.

  2. “the criterion of embarrassment says that Christians would not make up a story about a crucified saviour because such a story would be embarrassing. ”

    Yet Spartacus had been crucified over a century earlier and many considered him a hero, not an embarrassment.

    Josephus, in his Jewish Wars, recounts a story of some friends who were taken down from being crucified and they were not considered an embarrassment.

    The criteria of embarrassment is embarrassing.

    1. Though I concur with your assessment that the criterion as an indicator of historicity is a weak one, the case of the crucified friends is not a good point, J doesn’t even mention their names but only prides himself on his loyalty to friends and his influence with Titus. It’s a clear motive and there is no embarrassment there.

        1. Hmm, come to think of it, were names erased? Embarrassment can work in miraculous ways. But the motive in itself looks suspiciously like one we heard before. And a Joseph connected to both instances. It’s so obvious.

  3. 1. Brother of the Lord
    2. Born of a woman
    3. Born in the line of David
    4. Born of the flesh
    5. Born as a Jew in Judea

    I’m pretty sure the heretic Ebion could also satisfy these criteria too (besides the explicitly messianic ones). Does this mean that Ebion was historical?

    Another reason why proof-texting like this doesn’t work. You can use it to prove that a multitude of fictional characters were historical.

  4. None of that “proves” the guy was a historical figure. All it proves is that someone had a bunch of theological ideas about a certain figure he only heard about from others and who he claimed “revealed himself” mystically “inside” him.

    To be very charitable, these points go to the question of what Paul’s theological commitments were. A strong Dohertyist position requires that Paul has no idea that he’s supposed to be talking about a human being who was on earth in recent history. These points 2 through 5 have the potential to refute that claim. Parvus makes a somewhat weaker case that Paul/Simon thinks of Jesus as a nonhuman spirit being who was briefly incarnated on earth in recent history, but still anything involving “born as …” has the potential to refute that approach.

    1. To clarify, I mean that Parvus is making claims that don’t go quite as far as Doherty’s on this point, not that he makes a weak case for that conclusion.

        1. Well, I don’t think Doherty thinks Paul is a fabrication. He seems to have the goal of explaining almost everything in Paul as part of his theory. As for Parvus, his Simonian Origin is in large part an exercise in making an internally-consistent account of the strata in Paul, with the goal of finding an original Pauline stratum (i.e. a Simonian stratum). So, in the Simonian Origin model, parts of Paul are a fabrication, but the bulk of it is genuine.

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