Part 2 of Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues my assessment of the claims made in a doctoral dissertation by Michael Zolondek (supervised by Larry Hurtado and Helen Bond of the University of Edinburgh) that Jesus scholars use the same methods as historians of other fields. The sorts of methods he is addressing are specifically the “criteria of authenticity”. Though challenged by some scholars today, many biblical scholars continue to defend them as tools by which they can sift historical core “facts” or “events” about Jesus from theological or mythical overlay in the gospels. One such criterion is “multiple attestation”: the criteria that if an event is found in multiple (independent) sources there is strong likelihood it is genuinely historical. Another is the criterion of “double dissimilarity”: this criterion states that if a saying has no parallel in either early church teaching or in ancient Judaism then it very likely originated with the historical Jesus himself. And so forth.

On page 98 of the published version of the dissertation, We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question, Zolondek states that the examples found in a chapter by biblical scholar Stanley Porter of historians whose background is in ancient history are evidence that ancient historians do indeed use some of the same criteria of authenticity as historical Jesus scholars. Porter actually presented those particular examples of ancient historians to demonstrate that they do not use the biblical scholars’ tool of criteria of authenticity but Zolondek disagrees with Porter’s claims. Before I discuss those three examples and (unlike Zolondek) go beyond Porter’s article to the more detailed writings of those three ancient historians themselves I want to highlight another significant point made by Porter that is entirely overlooked by Zolondek.

The book chapter we are looking at is Stanley Porter’s “The Criterion of Authenticity” published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). On pages 700-701 Porter writes:

[S]everal of the criteria seem to violate the kinds of historians’ fallacies that David Fischer has brought to the attention of historians.21 These include (and some are discussed further below)

the criterion of double dissimilarity possibly violating the fallacy of many questions (e.g. by asking two questions at once, begging the question, or framing a complex question that requires a simple answer) or of contradictory questions (e.g. when the two distinctives create an anomaly of a human unsuited to any world);22

the criterion of least distinctiveness violating the reductive fallacy in demanding a linear approach to the development of literary forms, or generalization;23

and the Semitic language criterion having potential problems in question framing, including question begging or creating a false dichotomy.24

21 D. H. Fischer. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970).
22 Ibid., 8, 34.
23 Ibid., 172 – 175.
24 Ibid., 8-12.

(my formatting)

I have posted on some of the common fallacies listed by David Fischer several times now, including,

So I find it interesting that a prominent biblical scholar such as Stanley Porter turns to the same book. (Richard Carrier also makes good use of it in Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus.) Zolondek ignores the relevant section of Porter’s chapter.

Porter suggests that the criterion of double dissimilarity (explained in my opening paragraph) may fall into the fallacy traps Fischer warns against:

The fallacy of many questions is a common form of error, which has been variously defined as: ( 1 ) framing a question in such a way that two or more questions are asked at once, and a single answer is required ; or ( 2 ) framing a question in such a way as to beg another question ; or ( 3 ) framing a question which makes a false presumption; or ( 4 ) framing a complex question but demanding a simple answer.

(Fischer, p. 8)

Some examples of the “many questions” fallacy discussed by Fischer:

“Have you stopped beating your wife?” This, the classic textbook example, presumes, of course, that you have already begun to do so–a presumption which is not merely ungenerous but possibly mistaken. Many wife-beating questions were deliberately concocted by that playful monarch Charles II, who enjoyed assembling the learned gentlemen of his Royal Society and asking them, with a sovereign contempt for logic as well as fact, to explain “why a live fish placed in a full bowl of water does not cause it to overflow, while a dead fish does cause it to overflow.” None of his scholars dared to fault a royal question. Instead, they invented answers of magnificent absurdity as an act of homage to a man who was himself a consistent living argument for republicanism.

Fischer finds historian Don Fehrenbacher a rich source of such questions:

1. “Was Reconstruction shamefully harsh or surprisingly lenient?”
2. “Was the presidential plan of reconstruction a sound one?”
3. “Could Lincoln have succeeded where Johnson failed?”
4. “Was the latter a miserable bungler or a heroic victim?”
5. “What were the primary motives of the Radical Republicans?”
6. “How bad were the carpetbag governments?”
7. “How well did the freedman meet his new responsibilities?”
8. “What part did terrorism play in the ultimate triumph of the Southern ‘redeemers’?”
9. “When did racial segregation harden into its elaborate mold?”

The third question commits the fallacy of fictional questions, which is discussed below. All others are examples of the fallacy of many questions, by any of the definitions listed above. Fehrenbacher’s first question assumes that Reconstruction was either “shamefully harsh” or “surprisingly lenient,” but maybe it was something else again. The second question assumes that there was a single presidential plan of reconstruction, which is doubtful. The fourth commits precisely the same sort of error as the first; the fifth assumes that there were some clearly primary radical motives, and thereby encourages a simple motivational monism so common in historical writing. The sixth, literally construed, assumes that the carpetbag governments were bad in some degree; the seventh assumes that freedmen in fact had new responsibilities, which were met in some degree. The eighth assumes that the Redeemers did “ultimately” triumph. The ninth assumes that racial segregation did at some point in time harden into an elaborate mold, but maybe that institution has been continuously in process of change.

(Fischer p. 9)

The criterion of least distinctiveness claims that striking details tend to be added to a saying as it is transmitted over time and that the original saying is best determined by removing these and looking at the more mundane core message. Porter quotes Bultmann to explain:

“Whenever narratives pass from mouth to mouth the central point of the narrative and general structure are well preserved; but in the incidental details changes take place, for imagination paints such details with increasing distinctiveness”.32

And adds his own further explanation:

The changes typically cited include traditions becoming longer and more detailed, the elimination of Semitisms (see below on the criterion of Semitic language phenomena), the use of direct discourse, and conflation and hence growth of traditions. For example, Lk. 3.7-18 might be cited as an example where many of these features are present, such as direct discourse, later Christian additions (e.g. ‘with the Holy Spirit’ in v. 16), and the combination of Q material with other traditions.

(Porter, 2004, pp. 77-78)

Porter points out that this criterion is essentially another form of what Fischer labels the reductive fallacy. Fortunately a growing number of scholars in more recent times have, Porter acknowledges, identified this fallacy in the criterion. Studies in oral transmission of tales have demonstrated that we cannot assume they started out as most simplistic and banal narratives and that distinctive additions to background or supplementary narrative must be later interpolations.

So insofar as historical Jesus scholars claim that certain of their criteria are employed by other ancient historians they are putting themselves in an awkward position. Those particular methods are logically fallacious and an embarrassment among other historians when discovered. I understand that when Fischer’s book came out many of his peers fearfully opened its pages in tense hope that they were not listed in his index!

Next time I will look at the ancient historians that Zolondek says do prove his claim that biblical scholars practice the same methods.


Fischer, D. H. (1970). Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought. New York: Harper.

Porter, S. E. (2004). Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research. Sheffield, England: T&T Clark.

Porter, S. E. (2011). “The Criteria of Authenticity.” In T. Holmén & S. E. Porter (Eds.), Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Volume 1: How to Study the Historical Jesus. Part Two, Various Aspects of Historical Jesus Methodology (Vol. 1, pp. 695–714). Leiden: Brill.

Zolondek, M. V. (2016). We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Messianic Question. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications.


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15 thoughts on “Part 2 of Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians”

  1. This sounds quite complicated. Atheists may say that Christian scholars are biased because they assume that the supernatural is possible. I’ve never experienced or seen the supernatural. I thought I did once when I accepted Jesus into my heart and believed that my sins were washed away. I was on the Christian side then, and cannot disrespect them now, without feeling insensitive and hypocritical. My take on it now is that since real miracles simply don’t happen today, they are very unlikely to have happened in Bible times and unless anyone can provide unbiased and documented evidence, that’s the end of it. I’m still trying to re-learn Bayes theorum which 40 years ago was part of my studies in marketing, advertising and consumer behaviour. Even Robert Price said he himself was too dumb to understand it ! But let’s sort this Bayes Theorum out, there must be a lot in it. If anyone has a good link for it, please advise, or if you can explain it in very simple terms. I have a feeling that if it cannot be explained so that anyone can get it, then the whole question of religious persuasion will be forever subjective.

    1. We would never consult complicated mathematical and philosophical theories to assure ourselves that fairy godmothers do not exist and that pumpkins can never be turned into carriages, so why do we need complicated mathematical and philosophical theories to assure ourselves that brain dead corpses cannot reanimate, transform into superheroes, and fly off into outer space?

      Philosophy is a smoke screen for Christian apologists. They hide behind its respectability, hoping to avoid being forced to explain how human virgins can be impregnated by (holy) ghosts and what happens to broiled fish once it enters the digestive tract of resurrected superheroes.

    2. Peter said:

      “Even Robert Price said he himself was too dumb to understand it.”

      Regarding Price and Carrier and mythicism, the best argument I can think of for mythicism is that Paul says the Rulers of this Age (Which could be interpreted to mean Supernatural powers = The demons to whom pagans sacrifice) crucified Jesus (1 Cor 2.8, also see 1 Cor 8.5-6; 2Cor 4.4), and that these are the powers the returning Christ will subjugate (Rom 8.38, also cf Eph 6.12). Phillipians says these are the powers who will bend knees before Christ. But this possible evidence for mythicism runs against Paul calling Jesus an “anthropos (human, 1 Cor 15.47),” and says that Jesus was “made” from the seed of David. I think Carrier’s “cosmic sperm bank” proposal to “explain away” this evidence fails Occam’s Razor, since scripture speaks of conception as being “formed/made” by God (Isaiah 44:24; Jeremiah 1:5 ), and so seems to indicate conception in the usual way. Surely if Paul had in mind something as unusual and unprecedented as Carrier’s cosmic sperm bank hypothesis, Paul would have mentioned it.

      1. Of course, if Paul is saying the gods of this world crucified Christ, this probably means the Romans were “under the influence of Satan,” and hence crucified Christ. In this regard, Paul writes: “4The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4).”

        1. So, 2 Corinthians 4:4 suggests Paul thought Satan was influencing people’s minds. As I said, this might be what Paul means when he says the rulers of this age crucified Christ – if we are to think such language is meant to refer to demonic powers: Satan influenced the Romans to crucify Christ.

          1. Re John M.’s comment about the meaning of “the rulers of this age”, I feel this is very important. It’s another of these niggly questions that we wish could be settled black or white, like the Gal. 4:4 “made of a woman” (KJ 2000 translation, not “born” but rather “manufactured” as Carrier and Price point out) reference. Given the whole backdrop of Pauline writing i.e. the visions and special revelations given to Paul, his trip into the third heaven, his divinely appointed status, his unique insights into the age-old mysteries etc. the common sense view is that the demons are the same as those in Ephesians 6 where all believers are also under siege to these same evil spiritual powers. Then there’s the whole Roman propaganda side to the employment of the Gospels as anti-Jewish i.e. the Romans would hardly endorse demonising themselves. I found a fascinating set of shorty studies on this cosmic-gnostic-mythical view by a guy calling himself Truthsurge, titled “Jesus Hebrew Human or Mythical Messiah”. I find myself splitting hairs on the meanings of Greek words, and losing sight of the big picture, then remembering that the big picture is where we get our biases from. With love and peace to all my truthseeker friends.

            1. I just did some research about whether Paul’s use of the phrase “Rulers of this Age” meant gods/demons, or Romans (like Caesar and Pilate), and this is what I found: Bartholomew argues

              The term is used for both good and evil angels in greek versions of 2nd Temple apocalyptic texts (e.g. Daniel, 1Enoch) where angelic beings have dominion over earthly empires. David Aune writes: “The term archontes used as a designation for angelic beings first occurs in the LXX of Daniel 10:13 and and seven times in Theod. Daniel 10:13, 20-21; 12:1 … Dan. 10:10-21 contains the first references to the conception of angelic beings who are the patrons of specific nations on earth.” The plural form rulers τῶν ἀρχόντων is used of angelic beings in Daniel LXX-OldGreek and Theodotion. One will notice that στρατηγὸς “commander” is used interchangeably with ἄρχων in Dan. 10:13 LXX-OG whereas Daniel Theod. consistently uses ἄρχων to render שׂר Sar “prince, cheif.” This undermines the notion that ἄρχων has sort of technical or restricted semantic significance. NASB 1970 Dan. 10:13 “But the prince of the kingdom of Persia was withstanding me for twenty-one days; then behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left there with the kings of Persia.” In the relevant portion of the text one of the chief princes NASB 1970 is tolerably close to the text of LXX-OG and Theodotion. In this context Michael is one among others referred to as εἷς τῶν ἀρχόντων τῶν πρώτων one of the chief princes all of whom are certainly not human rulers. [That said,]1 Cor. 2:6-8 doesn’t bode well for an exclusively spiritual (angelic/demonic) referent for: τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος “the rulers of this age.” First of all, the language seems to support the view that “the rulers of this age” were human agents in crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul says that “the rulers of this age” are “passing away” which appears to situate the scenario within an historical space and time framework. Perhaps this is another reason to question an exclusively spiritual referent for: τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος “the rulers of this age.” This isn’t an air tight argument, since in the apocalyptic literature both the “spiritual authorities/rulers” and their earthy representatives will be overthrown at consummation of history. While it seems improbable that “the rulers of this age” has a primary or exclusive reference to spiritual beings, this doesn’t rule out a composite view where the earthly representatives of the “spiritual authorities/rulers” are primary but understood as acting on behalf of supernatural beings who are depicted in apocalyptic literature as the real powers behind their human agents. While human agents might have crucified Jesus Christ because of some sort of blindness, their spiritual rulers knew exactly what they were doing. Again, one could argue that this is missing Paul’s point; that according to Paul, the blindness behind the crucifixion was something shared by both the spiritual rulers and their human agents.

              So, this seems to agree with my “Satanic Mind Influence” hypothesis.

              1. John’s research on the mythical background of “the rulers of this age” is great. That’s what we need, more such knowledge of the context. I will think carefully on these things, but also on the validity or otherwise of his conclusions. As we grew up through Sunday school, history lessons, the whole Christian culture a la prayers in Parliament we’ve been conditioned assume that Jesus Christ was a real person and it has biased our views and interpretations of the Bible. Well after the 911 lie, I have taken a few steps back and asked some “what if” questions about the Bible e.g. what if the epistles were written in a different context to a different audience than the Gospels ? What if the Romans harnessed the Messianic hopes of the Jews to interfere and give them a mythical Messiah in the Gospels ? What if Gospel parallels with the Homeric epics were propagandistic ? What if all the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the New were reverse engineered i.e the New was written to make it look like fulfillment ? But we have to ask too, as C.S. Lewis does in his Screwtape Letters, what if Satan is blinding my eyes and making me doubt the word of God ?

              2. Contra mythicism, interpreting “Rulers of this Age” as demons does not imply a celestial Jesus. 1 Cor 2:6-8 may bear witness to the belief that the real rulers of earth are demonic. If you assume that the “rulers” in this verse are demonic powers, it does not follow that they are ruling a demonic empire outside earth, but rather that they are behind the rule of earthly powers. This conforms to the views of apocalyptic Judaism, in which Satan and the demonic powers temporarily are acting on this world in a warlike situation, for some time, until God and the good powers again have the upper hand.

              3. So here we are speculating on the superstitions of 2,000 years ago, while the Romans and their catholic church destroyed the bulk of the evidence ! I understand that the Book of Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah support the conclusion that a mythic Jesus was more probable than an earthly one. Add to that the disconnect between the epistles and gospels, the relics of the mythic view that remain in the epistles e.g. John’s epistle referring to the contrary view that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 Jn.4:3), Peter’s that “we are not following cleverly devised stories” (2 Pe.1:16), Paul’s trip to the third heaven (2 Cor.12:2), the name of Jesus only given to him after his resurrection (Phil.2:9) and the lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Rev.13:8). Add the amazing correlation between the OT (and the Septuagint at that) and the Gospel stories, add the amazing correlation between the Homeric epics and the gospel stories. Add the absence of any mention in the epistles of a second coming of Christ (they only refer to an expected appearance on earth, as if the first salvation even took place in the heavens). Add the political intrigue of the Romans seeking to pacify and disarm the Jews, which supports the view that the gospels were Roman propaganda and manipulation of the peasant rabble. The last bastion of credibility for an earthly Jesus seems to me the book of Acts which seems to tie the Gospels and stories of the epistle writers together. I admit I am still troubled by that. But then I also feel that the official 911 story was a lie, so I am trying extra hard to keep an open mind. If you believe in the protective power of God who would not allow his holy word to be corrupted or misunderstood (like the Muslims do) then how will we ever agree ?

              4. Earl Doherty addressed this passage in depth in Jesus – Neither God Nor Man. To quote just one part of his discussion from pages 105-106:

                S. G. F. Brandon (History, Time and Deity, p. 167) is one scholar who faces unflinchingly the conclusion that though Paul’s statement “may seem on cursory reading to refer to the Crucifixion as an historical event…the expression ‘rulers of this age’ does not mean the Roman and Jewish authorities. Instead, it denotes the daemonic powers who were believed to inhabit the planets [the celestial spheres] and control the destinies of men.. ..Paul attributes the Crucifixion not to Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leaders, but to these planetary powers.”

                However, Brandon (like everyone else) fails to address the question of how Paul could have spoken in such terms if he knew the tradition of Jesus’ death in Judea, providing no qualification to this supernatural picture. The suggestion that
                since earthly rulers are considered to be controlled by heavenly ones the latter are seen as operating “through” the former is simply reading the idea into the text. By the time we get to the Gospel picture which first makes a clear reference to earthly rulers in the death of Jesus, the heavenly dimension which supposedly lies behind them disappears, or in the case of John retires into the distant allusive background. John, incidentally, regularly refers to Satan as “the prince/ruler [archon] of this world,” which is the singular form of Paul’s plural “rulers.”

                Moreover, we have noted that any role for earthly rulers in the crucifixion of Jesus would have influenced Paul’s thinking about their character. He could never have said, as he does in Romans 13:3-4, that “Rulers [here using archontes in its human meaning] hold no terrors for them who do right…(the ruler) is the minister of God for your own good….He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The Gospel picture would have contradicted the spirit of this statement and created the implication that Jesus was a wrongdoer. Paul’s words imply that he knew nothing of Pilate or other earthly rulers having had a hand in the death of his Christ Jesus.

  2. I see where Gary is coming from and agree that we should need no assurance from complex maths but should be able to rely on common sense. However, some of us are / were so desperate, deluded or determined to resolve pressing issues (purpose, addiction, hell, peer-pressure, gratitude, role model envy, elation etc. ) that we form a different view of common sense and take a leap of faith towards perceived forgiveness, acceptance, love and safety. This is then esoterically reinforced socially and psychologically e.g. fellowship (peer-support and pressure) inside the church and the need to self-justify one’s public profession (cognitive dissonance). Go easy on the Christians – some have made huge sacrifices and changes in their lives that are admirable and virtuous. Even if it takes complex maths to engage with them, go on to the point where the complex maths proves us right or wrong. What is there to worry about, except if you think it’s a complete waste of time. Those who have escaped from a harmful religious cult may be more scathing of Christianity and religion. For others it has been a positive experience, two steps forward, one back.

    1. I see your point, Peter, but Bayes Theorum can only be used to justify belief in a Creator. It cannot be used to justify one’s belief that Yahweh, Allah, Lord Krishna, or Lord Jesus Christ is that Creator…if a Creator does exist. Make sure to point that out to Christians in your discussions. This is why I concede the probable existence of a Creator God right off the bat in discussions with Christians. I then go for the jugular: Prove to me that a first century peasant from northern Palestine is the Creator of the universe!

      I have stripped away their best defense: complicated mathematical formulas and sophisticated philosophical arguments. They are now forced to argue historical probability. Their argument has become much easier to defeat. Once I demonstrate to them that only fundamentalist Protestant scholars believe that the Gospels are primary source documents, their argument is in shambles.

  3. The comments above, by Peter Grullemans and Gary express my own feelings about this subject admirably. Nevertheless, I’d like to flesh the issue out a bit more, because it gets to the heart of the problem that arises whenever one attempts to argue it with someone on the other side of it, who is not him or herself one of the “historical critics.” It’s true, as Peter says, that “Atheists may say that Christian scholars are biased because they assume that the supernatural is possible,” and Gary rightly complains of just this bias. However, people like JD Crossan and Bart Ehrman, et al, actually do NOT purport, in their “historical Jesus” books, to claim that the supernatural is possible. They claim that, all the miracles aside, one can find in the Gospels a little kernel of history, if one applies these various criteria to them. And then we have the issue that Neil discusses above, namely the validity of the various criteria, and whether they can be legitimized for this peculiar application by asserting that they are held in common with other historians. This makes it necessary to parse one’s own criticism carefully when analyzing the criterion in question. So, for example, I question the use of the “multiple attestation” criterion on the grounds that it may reveal the popularity of a myth as easily as the likelihood of a fact; but the reason I have this problem to begin with is because, in using this criterion at all, we cannot escape the responsibility of examining the relationship between the criterion itself and the artifact that it is applied to. We can use “common sense” perhaps, to distinguish between a popular legend and a supposed fact when examining historical letters or documents, but once the NT scholars get through the door of applying quasi-logical criteria to a document that in every way, shape, and form resembles a religious myth intended to be accepted on faith, they seem to forget to even consider the issue of a possible legend, rather than a fact. That’s why it’s a mistake to even open that door. Similarly, if you try to examine the issue of the historical Jesus in some ordinary online forum (as I have done on Quora Digest), you tend to get a virulent, dogmatic opposition that does not arise from the type of mind exhibited by the NT scholars, which distinguished between “history” and miracle, but is, rather, the mark of the believer, who insists on using the “historical criticism” debate in the way it was intended by the Pope to be used: as a rear-guard action against Enlightenment rationalism.

  4. Bayes theorem has been discussed in many posts on Vridar by both Tim and me. One post that comes to mind where the mathematical symbols are “translated” into everyday language is @ https://vridar.org/2013/07/18/real-historians-do-bayes/

    I suspect that all valid problem solving and research can be observed by a mathematician and converted into Bayesian symbols without the researcher being any the wiser. It’s the way we all (ideally) think when we try to find out who or what was responsible for making that scratch on our car, whether it’s likely to rain tomorrow, etc. Detectives use it to solve crimes and I use it to try to guess the murderer in a tv drama before it comes to an end (and I factor in what I know about scriptwriters and movie directors into the equations so I don’t get misled by the “obvious” evidence etc).

    I don’t see anything complicated about taking into account all of the background evidence or knowledge that might bear upon a question and revising one’s views as one sifts through the pros and cons of each competing hypothesis. That, is a nutshell, is all it is. Forget Bayesian symbolism. Bayes adds only the symbols to describe the reasoning process. The only reason some historians use it is to have a constant reminder before them not to overlook any step in their enquiry — not very different from having lots of sticker notes all around the house to remind you of things to be done.

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