PZ Myers asks: How do we approach this kind of topic?
Eddie Marcus, introduced as a professional historian, responds:
Eddie Marcus informs listeners that his expertise is in Australian culture and history, not first century Palestine. He has a business webpage, History Now, and a blog, Dodgy Perth. His LinkedIn page informs us that he has a BA in history from Cambridge and a Post Graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage from Curtin University of Technology.
there is a lot of commonality between how science approaches evidence and how history approaches it, and that way we could get there slowly.
Comment: Eddie unfortunately does not explore this “slow” option of determining the historicity or otherwise of Jesus (or any historical figure). This is a significant oversight, in my view, because it is that “scientific approach” that is the one used by the major authors of the Christ Myth theory, in particular Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. (I am not suggesting that their arguments are infallible; like many scientific approaches they find themselves in need of testing and revision.) It is also the method used by some historical Jesus scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan) to reconstruct their interpretation of what Jesus was like. As with any scientific exploration, results will likely vary according to the assumptions underlying one’s starting questions. Carrier’s book on Proving History is one excellent discussion of how a “scientific approach” to history is ideally undertaken. (For anyone who thinks that Bayesian reasoning is not used by historians I recommend a work by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker. Bayesian reasoning does not have to involve numbers, by the way. More simply and immediately, one can see how a more valid approach to evidence has been advanced by an Old Testament scholar, Philip R. Davies. Davies, by the way, urged biblical scholars to take up seriously the question of Jesus’ historicity in order to become a more academically respectable guild.
Eddie refers to the scientific method sets it aside in order to launch instead into the discussion at “the deep end”. How, he asks, does a historian approach “the resurrection”.
But to start at the deep end, consider the resurrection. We have “loads of evidence” about the resurrection. It’s what we do with the evidence that becomes history.
The best evidence Eddie cites (he calls it “amazing” evidence) is our collection of four gospels. They are written, he says, “comparatively close to the events they say they are describing.”
Most ancient historians would kill for that kind of evidence. I wish I had it for most of the stuff I study.
Comment: Right from the start Eddie jumps in the deep end of biblical scholars’ interpretations and models, bypassing the evidence and methods themselves. It is not a “fact” that the gospels were written “comparatively close” to the events they narrate. Such a claim is an interpretation and one that is grounded in the theological desire to date the gospels as close as possible to Jesus in order to buttress their credibility as historical sources. (Christian theology is for many though not all theologians grounded in belief in historical events: see Nineham.) To see how documents are dated “scientifically” I recommend Niels Peter Lemche’s discussion that I have summarized at Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels. Lemche was referring to Old Testament texts but the same principles apply. Cassandra Farrin set out a comparable set of points to consider in relation to New Testament texts.
It is possible that the four gospels as we know them in their canonical form did not exist until at least the mid second century. I think there are very good reasons for dating our earliest canonical gospel, Mark, soon after the year 70 CE, but there are also very good reasons advanced by some scholars for dating the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to the mid to latter half of the second century.
But even if the gospels were all written according to biblical scholars’ conventional dates in the last decades of the first century, by the standards of historians of ancient times that does not make them “amazing” or “close” enough to the events narrated to be worth “killing for” (as Eddie says). The highly renowned ancient historian, M.I. Finley, discussed the problems we have with ancient sources that I think many New Testament scholars would profit from reading: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. Ancient historical works are of value to the extent that their sources and provenance can give the modern scholar some degree of confidence in their reliability. In the case of the gospels we have no information about their provenance (only speculations) or their sources (only the hypothesized oral tradition). See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons.
If the only evidence Eddie had for an historical figure said to have existed forty years earlier, and the story was riddled with tales of the fabulous, and their was no way to identify its author, then I do not believe Eddie would consider such evidence as having any worth as testimony for the historicity of that person at all. This would be especially so if he found on closer inspection that that story (or “biography”) could be seen to have adapted many phrases and motifs from Alice in Wonderland.
Eddie describes the gospels as biographies.
He further says that we know exactly why Luke wrote his gospel because he tells us so in his preface: it is to assure Christians of the origin stories that justify their rituals, like the eucharist and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Comment: The gospels are only very superficially like ancient biographies. They lack many of the features of ancient biographies as would readily become apparent to anyone who read them. See Genre of the Gospels for details and critical reviews of Burridge, the author of the work most often relied upon by the mainstream, and especially the series of posts by Tim on how the consensus on gospel genre changed.
As for taking Luke’s preface uncritically at face value, without any reference to comparable prologues in other works of the era, is standard practice for many biblical scholars but I think it would horrify a good number of classicists and ancient historians. Luke’s prologue is unlike other prologues of historical works in that it gives no serious idea of the author or details of his sources. Besides, the commonly accepted interpretation is based most often on questionable English translations. To see many of the discussions on the wide range of scholarship that has been devoted to the Luke’s introduction see the Luke-Acts Prologue archive.
Eddie: This is evidence — lot of atheists don’t realize is that Bible is good evidence for what faith community believed.
PZ: Yes we have evidence for what people believed but the question is, Was he real?
Eddie: I will probably alienate half your listeners by giving you the formal academic answer to your question, What it means to be a historical personage. Compare science: if you ask if a theory is true. They’ll say it is not “true in any meaningful sense” but “it is our best explanation for the evidence” but deep down every scientist knows those things are true. Historians work same way: the historical figure is “the best explanation in a narrative for the evidence we have about that figure”.
PZ: (paraphrase) What it means when I say I believe in evolution is that my acceptance is always open to revision and till then there is always a body of evidence I can pull out to support my belief. . . . The question with Jesus, though, is Do you have the equivalent kinds of nuggets of facts to draw upon?
Eddie: Not comparable to science or evidence for evolution. History is not science. What we can do is construct a narrative that might be overturned by new evidence. We might uncover new evidence or construct a better narrative.
Comment: I doubt that all ancient historians really do “deep down believe” that there reconstructions are “true” in any absolute sense. I think a good number of them do have the same approach as PZ above.
But let’s look at Eddie’s “definition” of a historical figure as “the best explanation in a narrative for the evidence we have about that figure”.
Eddie is talking about narrative history. That is, history that tells a story, as much history writing does. But most narrative history (outside biblical studies) is based on verifiable evidence. Information is verifiable by independent evidence, whether textual or nontextual.
A good many reconstructions of what historical Jesus scholars think Jesus was like is presented in a narrative form. We have Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the rabbi, Jesus the apocalyptic prophet, etc.
You should notice the fallacy here. Eddie is begging the question of the historicity of Jesus. He begins by assuming that the a historical figure is the best explanation for the narratives of the gospels and then seeks, as a historian, to present his own narrative of that Jesus that he thinks explains the evidence better for modern readers.
But the explorations of many Jesus Myth proponents are not narrative histories. They are starting the “slower” journey by taking up the scientific method and carefully sifting the evidence at a deeper level. They are doing forensic investigation and literary analysis.
For example, they look at the scholarship addressing gospel intertextuality with other Jewish and Greco-Roman writings and ask the implications of that. They set up predictions to test their hypotheses. What would we expect to find if hypothesis X were true, what would we find that would to falsify it, etc.
Eddie: So once we’ve constructed our historical figure deep down we tend to believe in it. With Jesus there is no new evidence so people re-read the evidence in new ways. e.g. we have 4 accounts of the resurrection and many other accounts not in Bible. William Lane Craig believes the best explanation is that the resurrection really happened. But his view has problems — it cannot explain why later different faith groups sprang up with different ideas about what this Jesus was like, what his resurrection meant. They all agreed he died and was resurrected or would not be Christians.
It seems ad hoc to claim a real resurrection when we can use ordinary historical tools to explain how the different faith groups developed after the resurrection.
Comment: I think Eddie is contradicting himself here or at least giving us a non sequitur. But he was speaking off the cuff, so to speak, so we can cut him some slack. He might like to return and add clarification.
On the one hand he says that a belief in the reality of the resurrection cannot explain the diverse Christian groups that appeared on the scene “after the resurrection”. (Well, presumably on Eddie’s argument there were no Christian groups at all before the resurrection.)
At the same time he says that they all believed in the resurrection.
So if they all believed in the same thing, then surely Eddie’s point that such a belief cannot explain the diversity of Christian groups is mute. Or self-evident.
To explore why they all believed different things about what Jesus was like and what his resurrection meant we need to look for something other than the common belief in the resurrection itself.
If a historian finds a different explanation for the belief in the resurrection that is helpful for us, but it cannot change the fact that all the different groups had a common belief in the resurrection. And if they had a common belief in the resurrection then we would expect other factors apart from that belief to be responsible for their differences.
PZ: We have no experience of anyone rising from dead. That’s science approach. Consilience with the natural world. You throw out the stuff that doesn’t fit with how the world works.
Eddie: yes, but as historian we try not to work in that realm — but a better explanation is one without miracles. Resurrection is an ad hoc throwing in. When the rest can be explained naturally why would you suddenly have a different explanation for the resurrection?
I would not call resurrection a silly view — it is not one I share — but millions believe it.
Comment: I prefer PZ’s approach. Of course one throws out the possibility of a literal resurrection as an explanation for the gospel narrative. That’s the scientific approach.
I don’t see anything ad hoc about a real resurrection as an explanation for the resurrection stories, as Eddie puts it. William Lane Craig and others who do argue for a literal resurrection — the ones Eddie is addressing according to his previous statement — do not explain everything else in the story in naturalistic terms and then throw in the resurrection as an anomalous appeal to a miracle. They believe in much of the miraculous throughout.
So at this point I am wondering where Eddie is heading.
Eddie: On the other hand, mythicists go to the other extreme. What is an easy way to explain the resurrection? They say there never was a Jesus, so it’s easy to resurrect him: just write it on a paper — this is an extreme mythicist position. This is equally ad hoc.
In fact we have all these sects and communities developing stories about a real Jesus. How are we going to account for these? The mythicist explanation doesn’t account for these — it’s ad hoc like the real miracle explanation.
Somebody makes it up then we need a conspiracy theory that has most of the people being bullied into believing in this fictional character and then writing about him as if he was real. It just doesn’t add up.
We need a linear view of how this faith community started, and it started with one person, Jesus.
Comment: Eddie does not identify any mythicist author or argument he has read and here he seems to be unaware of what has been argued by any of the mythicists.
Most if not all mythicist arguments I have read begin with the many different faith communities and examine carefully their respective beliefs. That’s the opposite situation to what Eddie seems to think. And it is here that several of Eddie’s statements are found to be limited to popular “trade book” views of Christian origins and uninformed of the debates among critical scholars.
It is not a fact that all early Christian communities did have a eucharist ritual, and of those who did, there appear to have been very different rationales, origin stories, to explain it. The early community represented by the Didache did not consider the bread and wine to be symbolic of Christ’s body at all. They were emblems of God’s bounty for which Christians gave thanks.
Some Christian communities did not appear to attach any importance to the crucifixion or death of Jesus, either.
All of these very early communities are part of the collection of data that Christ myth theorists work with. They don’t ignore it or fail to explain it.
Most serious mythicist arguments I am aware of pick up on the scholarship that explores literary analysis of the gospels and identifies the gospel narrative sources in Jewish and other writings. No-one says, not even an “extreme mythicist” whoever that is, says someone just decided to write the story on a piece of paper and then go out and bully others into believing it.
A scientific approach begins the slow journey of surveying the range of Jewish beliefs and ideas of the time, those preceding and contemporaneous with Christianity’s emergence. They look for antecedents in the philosophical and religious beliefs of the day. They look at the Jewish writings that speak of a heavenly Messiah figure, sometimes a heavenly figure who died and returned, and they look at the role of visions at the time.
All of this evidence is the data that is studied by the slow moving scientific approach. Eddie has bypassed it all by diving in the deep end instead and speaking of the truth being found in persuasive narratives.
PZ raised the comparison with the origins of Mormonism.
Eddie: We can use tools of history and analyze Book of Mormon (literary analysis — cultural comparison) — to explain it.
Comment: Indeed. Unfortunately Eddie did not elaborate on how he might conduct literary analysis of the gospels. One of the most extensive body of published work on literary analysis of the various gospels and other New Testament writings has been undertaken by Thomas Brodie, a mythicist and still believing Roman Catholic. Many scholars have respected much of his work but the mythicist conclusions Thomas Brodie drew from his analysis were not made clear until his retirement from the academy. See The Brodie Files: Beyond the Quest Posts on Vridar.
That brings us up to around the 20 minute mark. Presumably continuing…
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