Damn. I fell for it (again). A professor promoted a new book as “making the most sense of the crucifixion” and “making a fresh contribution to studies of the ‘historical Jesus'” so I made a rush purchase and read it the same day it arrived. Silly me, I should first have checked the University of Edinburgh Library’s open access policy and archive of dissertations because it is sitting there free of charge for all to read. Access is also online through the British Library. There are only slight modifications of wording and more truncated bibliographic references in the published version. Sadly both versions make it clear that the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh is responsible for some very crude fundamentalist-level apologetics posing as serious scholarship. I expected better from the University of Edinburgh.
The first difficulty I had with the book (We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question) was lack of clarity over its aim. It often sounded as if the author, Michael Zolondek (=MZ), was arguing that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah in some absolute sense that Christians today could claim was “the” identifier of Jesus. That is, we today should think of Jesus as a genuine Davidic Messiah just as surely as we think of him as a Jew or a male (or god in the flesh?) — quite independently of what anyone else thought of him (passim from p. xiv to p. 143). Other times MZ narrows the question down to suggest he meant he was the Davidic Messiah in the eyes of the disciples specifically (chapter 5). Does he mean the reader to understand that the disciples’ perspective is “The Truth” that readers of the gospels should also embrace? Confusion of terms bedevils other areas as well. For example, at one point MZ appears to acknowledge that the criterion of multiple attestation has value only if each witness is independent (p. 92) but other times he implies that multiple attestation has value even when the witnesses are not independent (p. 98).
But my interest in this post is one particular detail about the book that I found quite curious. On at least three separate occasions in his chapter on “methodological issues” MZ stressed that biblical scholars such as himself really are following the same methods as historians of other fields. By the third time I had to ask if MZ doth protesteth too much.
Before I get into the discussion of the fallacious foundation of MZ’s argument here let me quote one passage that at first glance appears to contradict what I have just said:
The most significant of these [methodological issues] is, in my opinion, the fact that often times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would. (p. 98, my emphasis and formatting in all quotations)
It turns out that what MZ means here is that Jesus scholars “often times” are working by far stricter standards than anything followed by “ancient historians normally”, and that if only more Jesus scholars would lower their standards to be consistent with those found in Classics and Ancient History departments at universities they would, lo and behold, find their job much easier and be able to reconstruct and prove all sorts of things about Jesus. Further, in his discussions of historical methods MZ cites sources that actually discuss the philosophy of history and debatable questions of historiography and problems in creating historical narratives, apparently confusing them with discussions of research methods brought to bear in evaluating sources and discovering certain facts about the past. I believe that these are generally distinct areas of study that MZ appears to have confused as I will also discuss below or in a follow up post.
Here are MZ’s more insistent claims that Jesus scholars use the same methods as other historians:
On page 92:
44. I should also note at this point that at least some of the data that are known as the traditional criteria of authenticity, such as multiple attestation or some form of embarrassment/dissimilarity, are essentially the same “tools” that historians of other fields utilize. See, e.g., Schlosser, “Scholarly Rigor and Intuition,” 498-99, who says,
“The criteria which were gradually assembled by historical research into Jesus, and have been subject to reconsideration in recent years, are basically an adaptation of the rules governing all historical work to the particular case of research into Jesus and the birth of Christianity.”
Then again on page 96:
57. This is in no way unique to historical Jesus studies. Morley, for example, states,
“Of course, historians disagree, at inordinate length, about almost every aspect of the past, but this does not undermine the authority of history as a whole. The real problem for historians lies in deciding what should be allowed to call itself history” (Ancient History, 46),
and later writes that
“in almost every area of ancient history you can take your pick from at least two theories, drawing on the same sources to reach radically different conclusions” (ibid., 89).
See also Grant, Jesus, 201:
“When, for example, one tries to build up facts from the accounts of pagan historians, judgment often has to be given not in light of any external confirmation … but on the basis of historical deductions and arguments which attain nothing better than probability. The same applies to the Gospels.”
And on pages 98-99:
[S]imilar sorts of data [i.e. criteria of authenticity*] are employed by historians in other fields of ancient history. . . .
. . . . [O]ften times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would.61 . . . .
61. See, e.g., Cross, “Historical Methodology,” 28-51; Porter, “The Criteria of Authenticity,” 700-705. I would disagree with Porter, however, when he says,
“Without pretending to have made a complete study of ancient historiography and its methods, I can say that it appears that one of the major observable facts regarding the criteria of authenticity and their use in historical Jesus research is that they are essentially confined to use within this discipline, rather than finding acceptance outside the field of New Testament studies.”
Although I do not find the use of the terminology “criteria,” the examples of ancient historians that Porter cites demonstrates that they do, in fact, use some of the criteria-data. Robin Lane Fox, for example, appears to use multiple attestation of sources and/or forms (see Porter, “Criteria,” 703),
and Michael Grant essentially uses the criterion of embarrassment (ibid., 705). Furthermore, even though Grant does not consider multiple attestation to be useful when it comes to the gospels, this is not because he finds multiple attestation useless in itself, but rather because the
“evangelists demonstrably shared so much material from common sources” (Grant, Jesus, 197; quoted in Porter, “Criteria,” 704).
In addition to all of this, ancient historians essentially utilize Theissen and Winter’s criterion of plausibility as a broad methodology in their work, as Porter’s essay demonstrates. In a conversation with Margaret Williams** of the University of Edinburgh, a classicist and ancient historian, I ran several criteria-data by her and gave examples of how one might use them. These included multiple attestation, embarrassment, and plausibility. She noted that ancient historians generally use the same “tools.” She only expressed reservations about multiple attestation for precisely the same reason as Grant, but she did not have a problem with multiple attestation itself. For an opinion different than Porter’s, see again Schlosser’s statement in “Scholarly Rigor and Intuition,” 498-99, which says,
“The criteria which were gradually assembled by historical research into Jesus, and have been subject to reconsideration in recent years, are basically an adaptation of the rules governing all historical work to the particular case of research into Jesus and the birth of Christianity.” . . . .
I have chosen to employ a methodology that is relatively similar to the sort of methodology employed by ancient historians in other fields whom I have read and with whom I have had methodological discussions.
The Three Pillars of MZ’s Assertions
Note that MZ cites three publications as support for his claims. Cross, Porter and Schlosser. They are all biblical scholars. Although at one point MZ appears to quote the ancient historian Michael Grant and lists Michael Grant’s book in his bibliography, one who follows up the citations will soon discover that MZ’s quotation also just happens to appear in Porter’s article. In other words, MZ appears to rely for his understanding of how “other historians work” entirely from three articles by biblical scholars.**
For the sake of avoiding an over-lengthy post I will follow through just one of those sources MZ cites to support his “too much protesting”: Anthony R. Cross.
Cross, the Evangelical Apologist
Cross’s article is “Historical Methodology and New Testament Study” published in the journal Themelios (Vol. 22, issue 3, April 1997, pp. 28-51). You may not have heard of Themelios before so here is its self-description:
Themelios is an international, evangelical, peer-reviewed theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith. Its primary audience is theological students and pastors, though scholars read it as well. Themelios began in 1975 and was operated by RTSF/UCCF in the UK, and it became a digital journal operated by The Gospel Coalition in 2008. . . . Themelios is copyrighted by The Gospel Coalition.
So we know what to expect in Cross’s article.
Cross begins with a discussion of the Tubingen School that he deplores on the grounds that it
refused to entertain even the possibility of the miraculous and anything else that human reason found difficult to accept. (p. 28)
Cross further deplored the Jesus Seminar for its
extreme form of historical scepticism (p. 28)
Cross even finds fault with the “liberal” E.P. Sanders for finding only eleven Gospel statements about Jesus to be “beyond dispute”. As for miracles, Cross argues that the historian can and should believe in them in cases where the criteria of dissimilarity and multiple attestation (NT “historical methods”) confirm the reliability of the accounts (and they do!). To deny “any place for God in the historical process” is, Cross asserts, “the mark of bad history.” (p. 39)
Cross argues that Jesus scholars should be more like historians in other departments and if only biblical scholars did follow those methods of the secularists then they would discover how rich the gospels really are in pointing to genuinely historical events.
To prove his point he turns to one such “secular historian”, Arthur Marwick, in particular to a book of his that has found widespread use as an introduction to history for university students, Introduction to History (1977). Though I don’t have access to that title I do have a later and significantly revised version titled The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language (2001) which enables me to follow Cross’s use of Marwick’s earlier points. Cross singles out from Marwick’s book “five issues which must be addressed” when assessing the value of a historical source.
1. What type of source is it?
2. What person or group created the source?
3. How and for what purpose did the source come into existence? Was it written/made with the intention of conveying reliable information or to prove a point?
4. How far is the author of the source in a good position to provide first-hand information on the particular subject being investigated?
5. The historian has to be sure that he/she has really understood the document as contemporaries would have, so two other areas require consideration: (a) textual matters, and (b) the problems arising from archaic and foreign languages.
(Cross, p. 31, citing Marwick, pp. 71-2)
In Cross’s view, if a Jesus scholar asks all of those questions of the gospels (just as any other good historian asks them of his or her sources) then the gospels will be found to be very reliable documents for historical research into Jesus.
Marwick’s Fundamental Point Overlooked by Cross
Marwick’s questions (he has expanded them to seven in The New Nature of History and calls them a “catechism”) are framed for the “analysis, evaluation and use of primary sources”. By primary sources he means sources that were created during the time under investigation. Cross acknowledges that the gospels are not primary sources of the life of Jesus. They were obviously written some time after the life of Jesus given that they dwell upon the death of Jesus. But that does not worry Cross because he also realizes that sometimes secondary sources can be more reliable than primary sources. Cross writes:
[S]econdary sources are often better able to assess the event or person and their significance more fully with the benefit of hindsight and with a greater appreciation of their relationship to and effect on others. They also benefit from the work of earlier historians. Both primary and secondary sources, then, require careful examination and critical assessment. (p. 31)
Putting it like that Cross leaves the door open for the researcher to think that he/she can sometimes rely upon secondary sources in the absence of any reference to primary sources. But that’s not what Marwick says at all. Rather, Marwick explains that it is the researcher’s task to
[deploy] secondary sources in the analysis and interpretation of primary sources. (New Nature, p. 28).
historical knowledge must ultimately be founded on the primary sources. . . .
To sum up: primary sources are indispensable for research and the production of historical knowledge . . . .
Where do ‘the facts’ come from? In the last analysis . . . they come from the traces that have been left by past societies, that is, the primary sources. . . . .
[I]t is a fundamental requirement that a PhD dissertation be very largely based on primary sources. (ibid, pp. 13, 28, 153, 156)
Primary sources are, Marwick explains,
sources which were generated within the period being studied. . . . [P]rimary sources were created within the period studied, secondary sources are produced later, by historians studying that earlier period and making use of the primary sources created within it. (p. 156)
If a Jesus scholar were to write a PhD dissertation on the historical Jesus it follows from Marwick’s fundamental methods that he could not. We have no primary sources from the time of Jesus about Jesus. Cross has glossed over this fundamental message that pervades Marwick’s discussion of historical method.
The Circular Cross
Cross is not deterred from the task of studying the historical Jesus, however. Why?
As far as the historical Jesus is concerned . . . . it must be recognized that the pre-Gospel tradition from which [the four Gospels] drew intimately links them with the teaching of Jesus through the pre- and post-Easter tradents (transmitters of the traditions). Both the more conservative F.F. Bruce and the more liberal E.P. Sanders regard the Gospels as primary sources, but this is technically not the case. However, the pre- and post-Easter tradents include, according to Luke 1:2 ‘eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’. (Cross, p. 31)
The error here is circularity. Cross assumes that the narrative in the gospels is essentially historical and that the characters in the story were the ones who started the traditions that were eventually recorded. From that assumption that the “story is basically true” it follows that the story was learned by those who witnessed the events or spoke to those who did. So how does Cross know the story is reliable? Because it is derived from the oral tradition begun by those who were there in the story.
I trust you can see the circularity of that argument.
Cross is appealing to sources we do not have. Not only do we not have them, the sources themselves are simply assumed to have existed even though we have no way to verify that they ever existed. Yes, Luke 1:2 speaks of “eyewitnesses” but not of Jesus. The construction is a somewhat awkward and not entirely clear “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”. Those eyewitnesses and ministers are not named or otherwise identified. Nor does the author of “Luke” identify himself. Worse yet, we have no evidence that anyone had ever read a copy of the Gospel of Luke until the middle of the second century at the earliest. Justin Martyr writing around 140 CE speaks of “memoirs of the apostles” but what he tells us about the life of Jesus bears only minimal overlap with what we read in the Gospel of Luke and at many points is at odds with the gospel narrative. It is only with Irenaeus from around 170 CE that at last we have evidence that the gospel has found a place in the wider world.
It Is Possible, Yes…. But
It is entirely possible that the Gospel of Luke was written in the last decades of the first century and that its author was informed by eyewitnesses who had been in their twenties when Jesus was crucified, but if so, we have no way to establish that that was the case. We are left in the dark. Or maybe not quite. What we do have is strong evidence of a literary nature that the gospel was created by rewriting other known stories from at least one other gospel (Mark; some would add that its author rewrote parts of Matthew or a source common to them both, and parts of John) and from the Jewish Scriptures.
And so far we have only been examining what most scholars would agree was one of the last to be written. The Gospel of Mark which is generally agreed to be a major source for the Gospel of Luke is riddled with contradictions in the narrative, unnatural characterization, supernatural beings, miracles, anachronisms, and anonymity.
But Cross gets around all of these problems for the gospels as historical sources by declaring, (by faith?), that their accounts go back to eyewitness testimony.
Who Wrote This?
Marwick’s second catechism was the need to identify the author of a source. Cross has no problem with this point, either. He calls upon late traditions as his witness:
Added to this is the virtually unanimous early Christian testimony which associates the Gospels with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (e.g. Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History 184.108.40.206 and Irenaeus’s Against Heresies 3.1.1-2). When coupled with, for example, Justin Martyr’s reference to (he Gospels as the ‘reminiscences’ of the apostles (e.g. Dialogue with Trypho 100.4), they show us the views of second-century Christians as to their authorship and content. Such statements cannot be summarily dismissed, but require careful consideration. (p. 31)
Careful consideration indeed. But not wishful thinking based on a naive belief in holy traditions.
Marwick’s point #3 is to check the purpose for which the documents were composed. That’s also an easy one for Cross to answer:
The explicit statements of intent by Luke and John in particular (Lk. 1:1-4; Acts 1:1; Jn. 20:31) cannot be dismissed lightly by the historian and must be rigorously tested by every means available – a procedure seldom followed by historical sceptics. [I have linked to some of those tests above.] By generic association (their common genre), Mark and Matthew make similar, though implicit, claims. Whatever title we eventually use to describe the genre of the Gospels, what cannot be denied is that they are each ostensibly ‘historical’ in form and content, focusing on the figure of Jesus, his teaching and deeds, his death, resurrection and abiding significance, though they do this in a way different from the way modern biographies and histories would. (p. 31)
Historians of ancient times wanting to be taken seriously generally identified themselves and explained to readers how they came by their information. If those historians narrated a tale that might seem hard to believe on the basis of normal human experience they very often expressed some sympathy with their readers and might even say that they, the authors themselves, had a hard time believing it, or give alternative accounts. They did not write anonymous tracts full of incredible events without giving any clues as to how they came by their stories with the stated intent that readers “believe” in a religious “truth” (John 20:31). Yes, the gospels do look like biographies or histories on the surface. But Cross’s advice that appearances need to be tested rigorously ought to be followed. Jesus scholars need to read widely a broad spectrum of ancient literature to fully appreciate the character and even sources of much of the gospel content. (See, for example, posts on Hock.)
Maybe some of the evangelists who wrote gospels did want readers to believe their works were genuine history. How could we prove that? But even if we could prove that or simply agree to assume it was true of one or two of them then how would it follow that the gospels really are genuine histories or biographies? It wouldn’t. We need different types of documents with more independent corroborating and contextualizing information to answer such questions in the affirmative.
My Review of Marwick’s Points Applied to the Gospels
Here is Marwick’s checklist in his more recent book (pp. 180-182) with my own comments based on Marwick’s discussions inserted:
1 Is the source authentic, is it what it purports to be?
Are they forgeries? Authenticity is usually established through the provenance (place of origin) but we don’t know where the gospels originated. We have debates about that question but we don’t know.
2 When exactly was the source produced? What is its date? How close is its date to the date of the events to which it relates, or to dates relevant to the topic being investigated? How does this particular source relate chronologically to other relevant sources? How does it relate to other significant dates?
Biblical scholars generally like to date the gospels as close as possible to the time of Jesus for obvious reasons but in fact we have no evidence that their existence was known to others until at least the middle of the second century. (See Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels and How to Date Early Christian Texts)
3 What type of source is it? A private letter? Or an official report, a public document of record, or what?
Many biblical scholar say the gospels are histories or biographies but there are others who disagree with them. The Gospel of Mark reads more like a bizarre parable of sorts but being wedged between Matthew and Luke it is easy to read it through their eyes and not in its own right. There are similarities with the historical books of the Jewish Scriptures but a growing number of scholars are now concluding that even those are often entirely fiction dressed up as history.
4 How did the source come into existence in the first place, and for what purpose? What person, or group of persons, created the source? What basic attitudes, prejudices, vested interests would he, she or they be likely to have? Who was it written for or addressed to?
We don’t know the answers to these questions with respect to the gospels. That ignorance reduces their usefulness as historical sources.
5 How far is the author of the source really in a good position to provide firsthand information on the particular topic the historian is interested in? Is the writer dependent, perhaps, on hearsay?
Again, we don’t know. What we do know, though, is that many of the “historical stories” in the gospels appear to be rewritten versions of older Jewish tales. Compare, for example, Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus with Elijah and Elisha raising dead children.
6 How exactly was the document understood by contemporaries? What, precisely, does it say?
If the gospels were written late in the first century then we simply have no way of knowing how they were interpreted or received by their original audiences. What is apparent is that authors who re-wrote earlier gospels did not have any qualms about drastically correcting certain aspects of their predecessors’ works, and even in the middle of the second century Justin Martyr did not feel obliged to tell the Jesus story according to how it was written in our canonical gospels.
7 Then, finally, we have the question of how the source relates to knowledge obtained from other sources, both primary and secondary.
As above, we can see the evidence that the gospels were inspired by Jewish Scriptures; some scholars have further seen debt to some Greco-Roman literature of the day. We have no way to corroborate any of their details with independent evidence from the time of Jesus.
Michael Zolondek was misled by Arthur Cross’s claim that biblical scholars would find more, not less, historical value in the narrative of Jesus in the gospels by following the methods of historians in other fields. Zolondek was badly advised (even failed) by his thesis supervisors in the Department of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh.
I will look at some other sources used by Zolondek to justify his historical methodology in future posts.
Two more things…. (17th May 2018)
I only covered one part of Cross’s argument in the above post. There was much more I could have said.
One other of Cross’s reasons for claiming that Jesus research scholars use the same methods as other historians is what he calls “harmonization”. What he is actually referring to is a truism of everyday life and nothing special as a method in any sort of historical research. Often different witnesses will give varying descriptions of the same event without actually contradicting each other. The differences come down to different perspectives and interests. Cross points to this common phenomenon to justify the apologist’s more torturous and entirely ad hoc efforts to “harmonize” more blatant contradictions between the gospels.
Another of Cross’s points that he believes is (or should be) a point in common between Jesus scholarship and more general historical research is another truism that is part of more general experience and not limited to any academic discipline. The point is one I have made any number of times now on this blog whenever I have discussed historical methodology. If a source is found to be accurate in its claims as a result of our cross-checking, of independent corroboration, then obviously (all things being equal) we are inclined to lend it credibility in details of a similar kind that we cannot corroborate. We do not claim that the uncorroborated details are “true”. We simply give them some credence pending contrary information. Cross does not give any details about what specific details have been confirmed as “true” in the gospels but he does say that the gospels have been found to be “true” in many details. Therefore, it follows, according to Cross, we should believe many more of the details narratives in the gospels even if we cannot independently corroborate them. But if the only details in the gospels that can be corroborated are not historical events and persons but merely geographical background details or cultural mores then we have no reason to believe any of the narrative-event or narrative-character details. Even fiction sets stories in genuine geographical and real social settings. Though we can identify a the “facts” of a city of Jerusalem, of a Pilate, of Pharisees, etc. it does not follow that any of the story told in such a setting should also be given credibility.
MZ redefines “criteria of authenticity” as “data”. Do we see in this redefinition of criteria as data the influence of Larry Hurtado himself. I learned some years back that Hurtado has an “idiosyncratic” view of the nature of data as raw material in historical research. See Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? for links and discussion relating to Hurtado’s confusion over the meaning of historical data.
MZ does add that he had apparently informal discussions with classicist and ancient historian Margaret Williams to learn that biblical scholars used the same methods as “other historians”. It turns out, however, that Margaret Williams belongs to the university’s School of Divinity and not to its School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Williams is also part of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins so one has to question her ideological neutrality in any discussion that challenges the methods employed by her closest peers.
Cross, A. R. (1997). Historical Methodology and New Testament Study. Themelios, 22(3), 28–51.
Marwick, A. (2001). New Nature of History, The: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.
Zolondek, M. V. (2016). We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Messianic Question. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Conspiracy theories — true and false and how to tell the difference - 2021-01-22 20:55:19 GMT+0000
- The 1776 Report: History as Political Propaganda - 2021-01-21 12:18:47 GMT+0000
- Armageddon: Another Eric Cline Interview - 2021-01-21 04:09:16 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!