How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

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by Neil Godfrey

PZ Myers is a biologist with a curiosity about how historians determine whether a person appearing in ancient records is considered historical or otherwise. He asks:

How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?

And many more, including surveys of works by leading specialists in oral traditions such as Jan Vansina.

But if we are to ask PZ’s question as a lead in to the Jesus myth debate then it is worth pausing and taken one step back first.

Contradictory accounts? Yes. The gospels are certainly contradictory accounts of Jesus.

Vague? Yes. Some of the earliest statements about Jesus, such as some in Paul’s letters, are certainly vague.

Preserved via word of mouth before being written in the gospels? That is the general idea we encounter whenever we pick up a study of gospel origins. But how do we know that the gospel narratives were picked up from oral reports?

The reason we think they were is because this is what the stories in the gospels and Acts implies. The stories tell us that Jesus’ followers went out preaching after the resurrection, and since the first gospels were written by a subsequent generation we assume “the obvious” — that the material for these stories came to the authors from word-of-mouth preaching and traditions. But recall how this model of how the stories came to be known is circular by both New Testament and Old Testament scholars alike. We saw how the late Philip Davies pointed out this circularity with respect to the Old Testament accounts: “How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”. We have also seen New Testament scholars acknowledge the same difficulty with respect to the gospels: It all depends where one enters the circle.

Yes, there is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that speaks of a teaching being passed on, orally, about the resurrection. Nonetheless Paul also speaks of learning his “truth” through visions and the scriptures without owing any debt to a fellow human.

The truth is that the idea that oral tradition lies behind the gospels is a hypothesis. It is not a fact. Indeed, we have posted at length on the work of two scholars who have questioned that hypothesis: see the Brodie and the Henaut archives.

At the same time I think that surely all critical scholars of the gospels acknowledge that at the very least some of their narratives have been shaped by other literary narratives such as those found in the Jewish Scriptures. Some may add that the literary allusions to, say, Moses and Elijah are ways the authors have chosen to shape stories that originated in oral tradition. That’s fine, too, and it is another hypothesis that we need to consider in the light of the evidence and background knowledge of how Jewish and other authors worked.

It is often heard that the gospels are biographies, even very much like other ancient biographies. So it follows we can treat them as accounts of a genuine person. No, it doesn’t follow, unfortunately, because we even have ancient biographies that appear to be about historical persons but in fact are arguably entirely fictitious. Previous posts have demonstrated that even straightforward biographies of ancient persons, by contemporaries, such as the biography of Demonax, require historians to exercise caution: Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ and Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? Besides, it is not a fact that the gospels are biographies. Other scholars disagree. So it is a hypothesis or an interpretation. There are other interpretations.

All of the above was written to address just a single point in the original question. If anything, I have hoped to point out that even the way we frame our questions can be an indication of our assumptions and therefore influence the answers we might find.

As we posted not so long ago, a philosopher of history reminds us that the real historical question is not: Did this event (e.g. a miracle) happen? But rather, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

So we begin. I will in future posts comment on some of Eddie Marcus’s statements in the light of what various professional historians have written.