Tim O’Neill has given up much of his time to write a detailed post (over 8,700 words) as a guide for non-historians to find their way through the mass of nonsense on the web about Jesus never having existed.
Tim is responding to posts by biologist PZ Myers who is asking questions of a “professional historian” (with a degree from Cambridge, Tim stresses), Eddie Marcus. In this post I address his references to historical methods and to the question of the power (or not) of Christian bias. (Maybe another day when I am at a loose end and looking for another idle time-filler I’ll address the second part of Tim’s post.)
Do ancient historians rely upon late sources?
Early in his post Tim laments the way some listeners of Eddie Marcus’s discussion seemed to pre-judge what he was saying and miss his point. (As with my previous post I will try to replace the original unhelpful language with more neutral or constructive phrasing — italics and square brackets.)
One [commenter], “weylguy”, [wrote] “I stopped watching the video around the 3:00 mark, when the ‘historian’ claimed that the New Testament is “wonderful evidence.’” If “weylguy” had [listened] a few seconds more, he would have heard Marcus explain that the gospels are great evidence for what the communities of believers they were written for believed about Jesus, not [that] they were necessarily evidence about the historical figure of Jesus.
I think Tim is being overly generous to Eddie here and that weylguy’s comment was not so far removed from Eddie’s meaning.
Eddie Marcus is stating over and over how he would love to have such evidence for the subjects he studies and he is not talking about the study of an obscure community of Christians around 100 CE. He is obviously talking about the evidence we have for the study of Jesus Christ as a historical person. He explains that the beliefs of that late community are “best explained” by the “fact” of the historicity of Jesus and clearly wants listeners to believe that those gospels are indeed therefore “very good” evidence, even “enviable evidence”, for Jesus’ existence. (Mythicists themselves say the gospels are “good evidence” for what the later communities believed. But we find here another assumption creeping in and determining the argument’s conclusion: the Jesus and other characters in the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, are so “unrealistic” and evidently very often theological ciphers that we cannot presume their original readers understood them as historical anyway.)
Listen to the video around that 3 minute mark to check this out for yourself.
Further, I know of no study of ancient history that does not stress the absolute importance of contemporary sources (not ones a generation or more later). Yes, many of our surviving historical documents are from much later times but the sources the historians rely upon are those in which they can find a reliance upon sources, usually identified and testable in some way, that do go back to the times being narrated. See, for example, Comparing Sources for Alexander and Jesus; also The evidence of ancient historians.
Little informed discussion of how historical method works
He [=weylguy] was also not the only one to try to dismiss Marcus on the grounds that he was not a specialist in first century history, despite the fact Marcus readily noted this at the beginning of his conversation. He was talking mainly about the topic under discussion – the way the historical method works – and as someone with a degree in history from Cambridge, he is more than qualified to explain something as basic as that.
Unfortunately, though, Eddie Marcus did not confine himself to the methodological question but did indeed venture to “specialist arguments” for the historical existence of Jesus. Moreover, his methodological arguments were limited to the misguided point that sources a generation or more removed from the events, without any ways of testing for reliance upon reliable contemporary sources, are “wonderful evidence”.
Marcus expressed only one particular (and rather extreme) view of a postmodernist approach of history that says the narratives and their persuasiveness is all the evidence we can have and all we need to be concerned with to prove Jesus existed. Eddie has a degree in history from Cambridge but for the sake of relevance I would like to know what units he studied to attain that degree. Did he specialize in philosophy and epistemology in historical research? Methodology as related to epistemology? I somehow doubt it or I would have expected a more nuanced series of responses about methods to PZ Myer’s questions. Just saying a persuasive narrative is all we need is short-changing the less well informed.
That said, judging from his comments, he [Eddie Marcus] also has a sufficient grasp of the mainstream, non-Christian views of the New Testament texts and the historicity of Jesus to give a decent assessment of those topics – certainly solid enough to satisfy any reasonable person, as opposed to … [m]ythicists ….
On the other hand I found Eddie’s grasp of the scholarship relating to Christian origins and historical Jesus studies to be somewhat shallow and at several points flatly wrong. He conveyed the impression that he had little more than a superficial memory of a few points that Bart Ehrman has recycled in his “trade books” for the mass market — points which, anyone familiar with the field knows, are hypothetical and find limited acceptance among serious critical scholars. (See the outlines of Eddie’s discussion with comments, part 1 and part 2.) As a number of scholars can attest, Ehrman seems to be relying too much in recent years on his reputation to make the necessary effort to keep up with the field or to expand his mastery of its many tributaries. Eddie Marcus towards the end of the discussion even indicated that he knew little or nothing more about the question than what he had read in Ehrman’s popular books.
Accounting for the absence of contemporary sources
Myers goes on to dismiss the persistent but invalid claim that we “should” have contemporary accounts of Jesus if he existed. …. [H]e understands that the fragmentary nature of ancient sources on anything or anyone makes this claim ridiculous – as he says “we’re lucky that we even have third person accounts from decades after his death of this hypothetical individual”.
Both Myers and O’Neill, I believe, miss the actual point that is often argued. The point about an absence of contemporary evidence is that we know who was responsible for, and had the motive to, preserve any and everything, good and bad, said about Jesus. The good things anyone might have said are naturally preserved — so say those who claim Josephus wrote something at least neutral about Jesus. The bad things (e.g. the writing of Tacitus) are also targets for preservation because they highlight the wickedness of the enemies of Christ and the superiority of Jesus in the end. Even if manuscripts somehow fell through the cracks, as no doubt many would, we would still expect Christians to be writing about many of them and leaving us some knowledge of their existence — as we know they did when they obviously could.
Of course, if our explanation for the absence of contemporary evidence is that Jesus was so obscure a figure that no-one but a few locals noticed him, then the way to proceed is to construct questions attempting to anticipate what the evidence for such a figure would look like when it did appear, drawing upon comparable historical models. But simply dismissing the absence of contemporary evidence without any matching arguments that can be tested is making the mistake of falling back on ad hoc rationalizations.
I am referring here to the way critical ancient historians work. To date I have not seen any attempts to apply comparable methods among biblical scholars when addressing the historicity of Jesus.
But let’s move on.
Many different Jesuses; one unchallenged assumption
At this point Tim comes to the point that I addressed in The Phlogiston Jesus, so I won’t repeat those things here.
On hidden biases and overt tyranny
On the consensus Tim remarks:
. . . the fact that when people note the consensus of scholars they are not actually making an argument, just noting a pertinent fact . . . .
This is, of course, a naive claim. Facts are not neutral. Facts are raised to make points. Making points is the making of arguments. And the point in this case is indeed an appeal to “an argument from authority”, or what one prominent historian once labelled an appeal to the “prevalent proof“.
Some people defy a consensus for bad reasons. But scholars themselves concede the ideological forces within many of the fields in the humanities and biblical studies is surely (one of) the most ideologically infused field(s) and it does not follow that all disagreement with a consensus is for bad reasons.
The claim is that the consensus is only because the scholars are either Christians or somehow so hopelessly in thrall to Christian biases that they simply cannot entertain the idea that Jesus did not exist.
I think we have an oversimplification here. I think we are talking not only about direct Christian bias but more generally cultural assumptions. One can be biased towards a particular perspective for any number of reasons. To believe that Jesus is historical does not mean that one must of necessity either
- studied the arguments and evidence for and against and come to an honest conclusion
- be a Christian
- be in thrall to Christian biases.
One can certainly be a “non-Christian” and for any number of reasons — cultural, family, career, professional, environmental, social, personal preferences for any number of reasons — still be biased towards a view that also adheres to the Christian teaching. One may not even be aware that one is biased or that the general assumption lacks serious foundations. People have different ways of responding when foundational assumptions behind their work of a lifetime are challenged.
At the same time, however, there can be no doubt that Christian beliefs do exert a tyranny over much of the field, and to see that this is true one only needs enquire into the number of scholars within the guild of biblical studies who have experienced ostracism, dismissal, demotion, and so forth, for expressing views contrary to a certain faith — including the view that Jesus did not exist. It is also interesting to reflect on the names who have waited until near or past retirement to express their openness to the Jesus-myth position.
Besides, biblical studies is a broad area of study and I am sure even I could, in other circumstances, find myself happily and profitably engaged as a scholar of, say, intertextuality, social and intellectual contexts of the canonical texts, etc. without any need to dip my toes in otherwise unacceptable ideas such as questioning the historicity of Jesus.
The following point by Tim should be thought through.
Now, obviously in New Testament Studies there are inevitably going to be a large number of Christians and these Christian scholars, liberal or conservative, are most likely going to be highly inclined to accept that a historical Jesus existed. But even if we completely ignore the Christians and only focus on the non-Christians in the field, we find the consensus remains. If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.
Look at those names.
Maurice Casey: How many scholars really believe Casey’s particular arguments against mythicism and for a historical Jesus? He argued that the evidence in the earliest Gospel tells us that disciples with Jesus recorded what he said on the spot with their wax tablets and had it all written up in the first gospel within ten years of his death.
Zeba Crook: Does he in any of his work address the question of the historicity of Jesus, or like his peers generally, write with the working assumption of his historicity? But Crook does remind us why even non-believers can find a successful career in a field like Jesus studies. He tells us that even novelists with all sorts of odd and original ideas can attract interest among Christians. With the “riotous diversity” of historical Jesus studies out there, is it fair to be reminded that it is variety, whether fictional or scholarly, that really does appeal to curious Christians, scholarly and lay.
Who writes Jesus novels? They are written by Christians. Jews, atheists, and agnostics: fervent Catholics, lapsed Catholics. Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Maronite Christians: men and women: North American, European, and Asian writers: big-name writers seeking to apply their trade to retelling a well-known story . . . .
Yet despite the fact that not all Jesus novels are equally literary, they all offer something interesting and unique to this familiar story. . . . As “absurdist fiction,” it is in a class of its own, and despite its humor and profanity, it has received a surprisingly warm reception among Christian readers.
Crook, Zeba. 2010. “Jesus Novels: Solving Problems with Fiction.” In The Blackwell Companion to Jesus, edited by Delbert Burkett, 504–18. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.
James Crossley is on editorial board of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus and co-editor, Michael Bird, has made it clear that they will never publish anything in favour of mythicism. That sounds like censorship and the very antithesis of a scholarly spirit. Crossley, interestingly, was friends with Philip R. Davies, a biblical scholar of some renown, and one who called for biblical studies to open itself to the question of Jesus mythicism in order to attain some genuine scholarly credibility!
Bart Ehrman: He said as far as he was aware he was the very first scholar to actually undertake a systematic exploration into how we can know that Jesus actually existed. That tells you that Jesus’ existence has been an assumption, never seriously questioned or established per se, in the academy.
Robert Funk: In a review of Gerd Ludemann’s book Funk expressed his inability to share Ludemann’s level of conviction of faith:
For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations.
See my post that I added subsequent to this one for the context of Funk’s statement: Postscript to my Constructive Exchange post.
Michael Goulder: I love reading his stuff. In his biographical Five Stones and a Sling Goulder many times describes the “conservatism” of biblical scholars and their “hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions”. At one point he laments his early naivety about the field:
I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. This however is only partly true. (p. 28)
Another section in the same book demonstrates just how entrenched views can be among biblical scholars:
I once had an uncomfortable conversation with Christopher Tuckett, with whom I have had a slightly uneasy friendship over twenty-five years. He asked me two disturbing questions: first, ‘Do you really not believe in Q, Michael?’ and second, ‘Do you think I am honest?’ as though he thought that one or other of us must be playing games, rather than seriously pursuing the truth. I do think that Christopher is honest, but I am unable to understand how, after years of discussion orally and in print, he still finds the evidence I have produced so unconvincing. It was reassuring to be told by Francis Watson, when he was Professor at Aberdeen, that I had persuaded him about Q; but I think it is probably asking too much to expect those like Neirynck and Tuckett, who have nailed their colours to another mast, to be able to consider with the necessary openmindedness a view which so undercuts their own position. (p. 134)
Gerd Lüdemann. Lüdemann said he believed in the historicity of Jesus but he also said he admired the mythicist Arthur Drews and that the Christ Myth theory is a “serious hypothesis”!
As for the other names, I suggest none has addressed the question of whether Jesus existed. Those who have explored the historical Jesus have done so on the premise that he existed. That is, existence is never in need of proof. It is assumed. (Or they have made no statement about where they stand on the historicity question.)
We know exactly what would happen to any of the above scholars if they did (or had) come out in favour of mythicism. The same thing that happened to Bruno Bauer and more recently to Thomas Brodie. The fact that at least thirteen contemporary scholars — Gerd Lüdemann, Burton Mack, Thomas Brodie, Hector Avalos, Kurt Noll, Arthur Droges, Philip R. Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Robert M. Price, Hermann Detering, Raphael Lataster, Richard Carrier, R. Joseph Hoffmann (who later recanted through a personal offence involving Richard Carrier) — within biblical or ancient historical studies (in addition to respected scholars in other fields) have publicly expressed an openness to the mythicist arguments where mythicism is clearly a threat to scholarly reputation is not insignificant. (Informal discussions with scholars in history and other departments indicates far more than the thirteen names above can be found to be sympathetic to mythicism.)
And [to suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [untenable].
The quotations above from Michael Goulder show the idea is not unreasonable. Lüdemann’s comments demonstrate the same. The fact that Thomas Brodie waited till the end of his career to “come out” as a mythicist also reminds us that there is a culture in biblical studies that does indeed place limits on what questions can be explored. Nor the history of expulsions from departments of theology since Bruno Bauer.
The guild of biblical studies is not of the same disciplinary rigour as, say, physics or biology. Ideologies really do get messed up with the publications, and various strands of thought do scarcely even seem to talk to each other, so that each produces quite different views of Christian origins.
See (again) The Phlogiston Jesus
So if these leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, it is very strange that this highly Christian influence is so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist, or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?
I addressed this question in The Phlogiston Jesus.
To add to that discussion, the fact that the historicity of Jesus is a bedrock assumption supporting every other hypothesis for Christian origins might be, just possibly, maybe, a reason why leading powers in the scholarly guild get very irate, even resort to personal insults and worse, if someone, especially an unwashed outsider, asks, “How do we know that the emperor is wearing clothes? Are those his doodle-dots I can see?” Biologists and paleontologists when asked a question by a creationist can, and usually do, reply with the evidence and reasons. They do not need to resort to personal abuse and intimidation.
Are Jewish scholars a problem for Christians?
Tim brings in Jewish scholars.
Far from being influenced by Christian biases and ideas, it is the work of Jewish scholars over the last 70 years that has had a profound and quite revolutionary effect on New Testament Studies, with even the more conservative Christian scholars having to strive to accommodate the often uncomfortable but unavoidable fact that, properly examined, the NT material and the Jesus it describes fits very neatly with our increasing understanding of Jewish beliefs in this period.
I don’t know of any scholars, not even conservative ones, who have indicated any difficulty with the Jewish contribution to Jesus studies. I tend to see scholars of all persuasions embracing any new “Jewish aspect” of Jesus as adding authenticity to the figure. In the last seventy years there has been a swing against the “History of Religions” school that placed greater emphasis on Hellenistic (as distinct from Jewish – though many Jews were indeed Hellenized) influence on earliest Christianity and Paul’s thought.
Again, though, Jesus is simply a given. The arguments are the type of historical figure he is thought to be. We return again to the platitude that scholars find the type of Jesus who mirrors their own ideals.
At this point the Tim’s discussion slips into a tone that I don’t find constructive or genuinely informative. He follows with a second line of argument but maybe I can address that some other time.
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