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.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?”

  1. Well, as you know, this issue is what I hope my book will blow out of the water. I do think that my book convincingly disproves the hypothesis that the gospels are based on oral traditions. I think my book overwhelmingly shows that the gospel narrative was invented after the First Jewish-Roman War and that virtually all of the scenes and teachings have a literary basis.

    I really think my book will settle this whole issue, and prove, once and for all, that the Gospel narrative is entirely fictional and entirely the invention of a single individual. I think my book does it convincingly, it’s just a matter of recognition at this point.

  2. Don’t you think you put that point about mythical persons somewhat misleadingly? The whole point of you post is that Gyges wasn’t a mythical person: he was an on-the-face-of-it-mythical-person-who-really-existed.

    1. The question I was addressing was “How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?” That’s what the Gyges post does address, does it not?

      If the way I have worded it is misleading I’m open to suggestions for improvement. (I’ve added a clarifying note but it that’s not clear to others let me know.)

      1. Neil, I wasn’t questioning the content of the post at all… just the phrase “mythical persons such as Gyges.” Strange sounding to me because Gyges himself wasn’t a mythical person… howsoever he is most known for the mythical tale about him. A minor quibble.

        1. Ah, I understand your point now. (Yes. The reason I described him as a mythical person was because that’s how I think he would be best understood by most people who hear of him.)

  3. I’d also like to address this statement: “Contradictory accounts? Yes. The gospels are certainly contradictory accounts of Jesus.”

    I view this as one of the major misconceptions about the Gospels held by critics of the historical validity of the Gospel narratives.

    The credibility of Gospel narratives s not undermined by the differences between the accounts, in fact the accounts are actually quite similar. Indeed the opposite is the case; the credibility of the Gospels is undermined by the SIMILARITIES of the accounts. It is the similarities that demonstrate that the Gospels are all actually copies of one single story. Indeed I would argue that the Gospel narratives would be much more credible if they showed many more differences. The fact that people haven’t understood this has always baffled me.

    What we don’t get from the Gospels are any real differences in perspective. It’s all just one single perspective with just some minor doctrinal differences and a few added elements here and there. Aside from the clearly tacked on birth narratives, every Gospel starts at basically the same place, relays all the same major events, ha all the same basic dialog, and has the same basic ending, describing the character of Jesus in the same basic way.

    Of course, the analysis in my fully proves out that all of the Gospels descend from a single narrative, but even without that evidence it should be obvious to people that this is all really a single narrative. That this is really just a single narrative is what undermines the credibility. If we actually had multiple significantly different perspectives on Jesus, then that would be more credible, even if those account had contradictions in them.

    Surely today if you read accounts of the life of Donald Trump you will get many very different accounts and perspectives, containing many contradictions.

    This should be all the more obvious since its clear based on the Epistles that there were different perspectives on who Jesus was and the nature of the gospel from the beginning.

    Also consider how absurd this little fact is: Christians claim that “James the Just”, a major pillar of the Christian community, was Jesus’s real brother. Surely this “James the Just”, based on descriptions of him in Christian accounts, would have been able to read and write. The Epistle of James is attributed to him. Yet, despite the fact that this person was supposedly Jesus’s literal brother, and supposedly could read and write as they supposedly penned the Epistle of James, this person never recorded ANY account of Jesus that gave any description of him at all!

    We get not account from this “James the Just” that proved any perspective different from the Gospel narrative. I mean, obviously that’s nonsense. And this is what really kills me. The case against the existence of Jesus is really so EASY to make. I can’t believe this issue has even gone on as long as it has. That Jesus wasn’t a real person is obvious and Christian scholarship is so obviously fully of nonsense. Totally obviously stuff is overlooked somehow by almost everyone.

    People have long said, “Oh, but what about the lost time of Jesus, between his birth and when he was baptized, why don’t we have any record of that?” And so-called credible Christian scholars actually say stuff like, “Well he was unknown at that time so people didn’t record those events of his life, etc.” Hello! According to Christian lore itself, Jesus’s real-life brother was a major pillar of the Christian community, he wrote letters, he led congregations, he continued his teachings, etc. So the idea that there was not anyone who would have known about his early years who could have recorded information about them or passed on accounts of them is total nonsense according to Christian lore itself.

    In fact, I should have made this point more strongly in my book. In the chapter on Non-Christian accounts I should have listed the supposed James brother of Jesus as a potential contemporary witness to his life and explained that the Epistle of James gives no description of Jesus and that this supposed brother of Jesus, according to Christina lore, would have been an ideal candidate to have recorded information about Jesus from a perspective outside of the Gospels lens, yet the supposed James brother of Jesus proves no information whatsoever about Jesus the person.

    1. RG Price, I wish you the best, but I hope that your book shows a bit more respect for the work of the NT scholars who write on the subject of the historical Jesus than your post does. They are the ones who write about the subject more than the handful of mythicists. I would hope that your book does not make so light of the distinctions between, say, the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John as this post does (“some minor doctrinal differences and a few added elements”), and that you might consider that the canonical gospels are not the only gospels. There are “real differences in perspective” when you compare the canonical gospels to those of the gnostics. Would that make us conclude that Jesus must have had a historical existence? I don’t see how. Nor do I see how the opposite is true, although you assert it here. Why does a unified perspective lead us necessarily to fiction? Many, many people have long since concluded that the Christian enterprise is nonsense. When you say “I can’t believe this issue has even gone on as long as it has,” you’re overlooking the skeptics. The “argument” goes on mostly within the confines of NT scholars– a closed community of the quasi-faithful. You seem surprised that you are up against an ideological powerhouse of an institution. Welcome to western civilization.

      1. @Clark I address non-canonical gospels in my book as well. Every narrative that I’m aware of, canonical and non-canonical shares text with the Gospel of Mark and virtually all of them (some of course we have only in small fragments) share scenes or teachings that are proven to be originated by the author of Mark from literary references to either the Jewish scriptures or the letters of Paul.

        To me, the idea that the canonical Gospels represent “independent accounts” of the life of Jesus, which was essentially the consensus opinion among Christian scholars up until the 19th century, is just flatly absurd. How anyone, at any point in time, could have ever read those four narratives and thought they were independently written is beyond me. And the fact that even today, anyone tries to claim that these four accounts show different perspectives is still beyond me.

        And yes, the Gospel of John is still the same basic story as the rest.

        There are obviously linguistic differences and differences of various points of detail and added elements in some of the stories, but they are all still the same basic story.

        If four different people really recorded four separate accounts of a person’s life, I would expect those accounts to be significantly different. Like talking about completely different topics, completely different events, completely different perspectives on the person’s personality. I mean, there are really critical major flaws in Christian scholarship, that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see. You can’t really say this about any other field of study.

        But anyway, yeah, I find the criticism that “the contradictions undermine the reliability” to be a completely misguided criticism. Contradictions do very little to undermine the credibility. This is really just a lazy borrowing of arguments against literalism and inerrancy. Yes, contradictions are a challenge to Biblical literalism because both statements can’t possibly be true. But contradictory accounts can easily be explained away as having come from different perspectives. They do almost nothing to challenge the underlying existence of Jesus. All that contradictions do is indicate that there were multiple perspectives of this “person”, which again just adds to the case for existence.

        No, the legitimacy of the narrative is undermined by the similarities which show that its all copies of a single story. That everything stems from one single story is what undermines the legitimacy. Showing that there really weren’t multiple perspectives or accounts and that it all flows from one single account is the issue. All of the differences are just tweaks on the fringes.

        However, showing that all accounts are dependent on a single account doesn’t do anything to prove that the narrative is fictional. What my work shows is that the Gospel of Mark is fictional and that all biographies of Jesus are dependent on the Gospel of Mark. If it weren’t possible to prove that GMark is fictional then the similarities would still be a significant point, showing that everything really flows from one single account, but it would still be possible for that single account to be based in reality. So what my work does is #1 prove that GMark is not based in reality and #2 show that everything is based on GMark. It’s all just different versions of the GMark narrative.

        And yes, I went out of my way to be generous and respectful in my book. I lay the blame for thinking that Jesus was real on “reasonable misunderstandings”, which I think is true, but even so, some of the historical views on the Gospels do seem extraordinarily misguided.

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