2018-07-16

“The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospels may not have been written as objective, disinterested accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus, but they clearly do contain historical information. The trick is figuring out what is historical and what is legendary.Bart Ehrman: “The Historians Wish List”

They “clearly do contain historical information”? Clearly? How do we know?

There are some details that can be corroborated by independent sources, such as the existence of Pharisees, Roman authority over Judea, cultic practices around the Jerusalem temple, and so forth. But without those independent witnesses we would have no way of knowing that even those details were “clearly historical information”.

Bart Ehrman does point out the existence of “external” sources in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium — e.g. Pliny, Tacitus. Yes, their writings are certainly “external” to the gospels but to what extent they are “independent” or even authentic is another question that the historian is required to assess prior to his/her use of them. Ehrman calls them “external checks” on the gospels, but they can only be “checks” (p. 53) if they can be established to be independent. If they derive from a time much later than the events narrated in the gospels then questions inevitably arise about their independence of knowledge of the canonical gospel story. (In the case of Pliny we have serious questions about the authenticity of the key letter, not to mention the letter’s failure to even mention “Jesus” per se.)

(Note: we have seen in case studies of Demonax and Gyges on this blog that an external source can be late and still be reasonably argued to contain independent information and it can be contemporary and found to be false. But arguments need to be provided; the simple fact of lateness or contemporaneity alone does not automatically rule out or in the value of evidence. Comparable arguments would need to be supplied for the claims found in Tacitus for Tacitus to be considered an “external check” on the gospel accounts.)

It is one thing to know that documents contain or hide historical information in or behind their narratives and from that foundation proceed to see what we might consider historical. But it is quite another exercise to come to that prior certainty that the documents “clearly do contain historical information” that can be extracted somehow.

If we start applying methods to extract information of a certain kind before first establishing that the source is a genuine repository of that information, then we are putting the cart before the horse. Our exercise becomes a circular process. We will declare our extracted information “historical” (or “probably historical”) and possibly use that result to go back and argue that our documents “clearly do contain historical information.”

 

 

3 Comments

  • db
    2018-07-17 01:14:26 UTC - 01:14 | Permalink

    Ehrman (2012) [now bolded]. Did Jesus Exist?. pp. 50, 56:

    [Per non-Christian pagan references to Jesus in writings that were produced within about a hundred years of when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died] writings after that time almost certainly cannot be considered independent—and reliable—witnesses to his life, but were undoubtedly based simply on what the authors had heard about Jesus, probably from his [Christian] followers.
    […]
    [Per pagan writings] three references [to Jesus] are the only ones that survive from pagan sources within a hundred years of the traditional date of Jesus’s death (around the year 30 CE).

  • db
    2018-07-17 03:09:52 UTC - 03:09 | Permalink

    Durant, Will; Durant, Ariel (1944). Caesar and Christ… . The Story of Civilization III. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 558:

    In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presumably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors or emendations of copyists.

    NB: Despite these issues, the Durants held that the Gospels contained historical information about Jesus.

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