The publisher Brill has forwarded me access to Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why A Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, for review on this blog.
Disclaimer: Raphael Lataster makes a brief but favourable mention of me in the book. I can only plead my best efforts at honest neutrality by pointing to my critical responses to another scholar, Richard Carrier, who has also spoken positively about me.
The book’s dedication honours the late Emeritus Professor Philip R. Davies, no doubt because of his courageous 2012 article in The Bible and Interpretation, Did Jesus Exist?, in which he wrote
I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. (Bolding is all quotations is mine.)
A lengthy Foreword is written by Professor James Crossley who was a student of an anti-mythicist, Maurice Casey, but also a colleague of Philip Davies. Crossley acknowledges the contributions of outsiders from the field of biblical studies such as Raphael Lataster whose doctoral dissertation was in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion in the Religious Studies department of one of the world’s top fifty universities, the University of Sydney. Crossley notes that biblical studies departments have traditionally assumed the historicity of Jesus and that challenges to this assumption have come “from outside in recent years”, and notes specifically of Lataster’s contribution:
Thinking about the challenge provided by Lataster, my take is that more scepticism is indeed needed. (p. xii)
— Jim West on James Crossley
Interestingly Crossley refers to his own particular contributions to the study of Christian origins and acknowledges that we cannot be certain that the themes he raised (the Gospel of Mark’s treatment of the sabbath, purity laws and eschatology) started with a historical Jesus:
Did these issues emerge with the historical figure of Jesus? It is possible, certainly. But they could have developed in (say) the 30s or 40s CE. Moreover, people can create stories in days, never mind a decade or decades. Stories can also retain historical information. But how do we actually prove this either way once we’ve established an early tradition or theme? (pp. xii f)
Note that. Lataster, likewise, argues the agnostic position.
Crossley is not denying the historicity of Jesus:
As is hopefully clear, this is not a mythicist position in the sense that it does not disprove Jesus’ existence (nor does it attempt to do so) but it is a position which acknowledges that we are severely restricted in what we can say about reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. (p. xiii)
And then makes a point I find most reassuring myself, having attempted to promote it often enough on this blog:
But this does not have to be a bad thing. Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.
This brings us to Raphael Lataster’s own Introduction. I am dwelling on both the Foreword and Introduction in this first post on Lataster’s book because the question is certainly controversial enough and misconceptions abound and need to be confronted and cleared away in order for a serious reading to happen.
Lataster is clear that he is a “historical Jesus agnostic”. He is not “a biblical scholar” but defends his academic credibility in addressing the question of Jesus’ existence:
Those advocating for ahistoricity are also often charged with not being real scholars, or at least as being scholars from irrelevant fields. These are also technically irrelevant as it should be the arguments that are scrutinised, not academic credentials. And, at least in my case, this is untrue. I have a PhD in Religious Studies and teach on the history, sociology, and philosophy, of various religions – with a major focus on Christianity – at major universities. Unlike some other Jesus sceptics, I am certainly no ‘outsider’ to the Academy. Religious Studies is a broad field that often incorporates Christian History or New Testament Studies. Crucially, it may also incorporate, as it does especially in my case, Analytic Philosophy of Religion.8 It is worth noting that specialised Historical Jesus researchers are typically experts on lower level questions such as whether a particular saying of Jesus is likely to have been spoken by the real Jesus, or whether it was a later fabrication.
They are generally not suitably equipped to investigate or argue for the higher level issue of Jesus’ very existence. The existence of the Historical Jesus is taken for granted by most New Testament experts being just about paradigmatic to the field (likewise the general veracity of the Gospels), and is generally not argued for.9 And indeed, being effectively paradigmatic to the field, it would appear counter-intuitive for such scholars to seriously ask the question, since a negative result would invalidate and nullify much of their life’s work, and their future career prospects. Paradoxically, it may be ideal that those investigating the question are not New Testament specialists, but are historians, classicists, analytical philosophers, and religious studies scholars of other specialisations. Analytical philosophers are especially noteworthy here for their ability to identify faulty reasoning, clearly something of great benefit when examining the methods of mainstream Historical Jesus researchers.10 . . . (pp. 3 f)
Posts addressing the contrast between the methods of historians in departments other than biblical studies and those of biblical scholars:
Indeed. Having engaged with several biblical scholars online about historical methods I have found the same limitation: too often New Testament scholars demonstrate a lack of awareness of how historians in ancient history and classics departments go about establishing “what happened” in the past. James Crossley notes the “crucial insights” interdisciplinary studies can bring to the question and Lataster cites other New Testament scholars (Pieter Craffert, John Gager) making the same point.
Lataster describes the way his own work has been received by both non-biblical and biblical historians:
A paper critiquing NT scholars’ appeals to hypothetical sources:
- rejected by a society of Biblical literature
- accepted for presentation at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, July 2015.
My presentation of the paper was very successful, with almost everybody (a room full of proper historians) agreeing with me that this method used by Biblical ‘historians’ is absurd and not typical of historians proper. (p. 9)
A paper touching on Jesus’ possible ahistoricity:
- presented at the University of Oxford
. . . . receiving support from even the Christians in the audience, who felt that Christianity needn’t necessarily rely on evidence.
New Testament scholar, Hector Avalos:
Although I am not a Jesus mythicist, I do think that Lataster makes a good case that one cannot simply dismiss all versions or all aspects of Jesus mythicism”; and that Lataster “may be among the first to have a thesis sympathetic to Jesus Mythicism approved by a world-class university”.
My successful postgraduate thesis on the topic means that it received the backing of at least one supervisor, the head of the Religious Studies department at the highly regarded University of Sydney, and several examiners, from other (local and international) universities. The suite of articles I have published means that several referees, editors, and academic publishers deemed it worthy. (p. 10)
Many ahistoricists have suitable qualifications for this endeavour and their work on the Historical Jesus (and scepticism regarding Christianity) has been received by millions, and has even attracted positive attention from other scholars.29 For my part, I have published on this topic with Cambridge, presented on it at Oxford, and thanks to mainstream media outlets such as the BBC, the History Channel, and the Washington Post, I have managed to reach numerous laypersons. Carrier has even defended his views in front of the famed Society of Biblical Literature. Collectively, he and I have published numerous relevant peer-reviewed journal articles and books, with more to come, and have won the support of other academics, including bona fide New Testament scholars. This is no longer ‘just a fringe theory’. (p. 10)
At the AHA conference Lataster remarks that historians there advised him that he would be wasting his time attempting to publish his criticisms in journals belonging to the field of biblical studies.
Clearly outsiders perceive these self-styled experts very differently from how the alleged experts perceive themselves; truly a salient point. (p. 9)
Unfortunately Lataster fails to mention the one person I believe to be primarily responsible for the current interest in the mythicist argument, Earl Doherty. It was Doherty, from around the turn of the century, who was behind Richard Carrier’s initial interest in the question and in much of the scholarly outrage against “mythicism”. I find it difficult to imagine the current controversy if Doherty had not appeared on the scene with his website, The Jesus Puzzle, and subsequent publications.
A Debate among Atheists
Unfortunately too many critics of the mythicist position assume that the motivating driver behind the arguments is a hostility towards religion and Christianity in particular. That makes no sense to me (the worst way for anyone to attempt to undermine a person’s faith is to deny the very existence of the figure at the centre of their faith) and it makes no sense to Raphael Lataster either, so much so that he writes:
But I also assert that Christian believers should generally not become involved in this debate, nor should non-believers thrust it upon them. . . .
I have no desire to uposet Christians. (pp. 14, 15)
As for a supposedly hostile attitude against Christianity,
I think it obvious that the assumption of Jesus’ mundane historicity – a privilege not granted to many mythological characters of other religious traditions – simply reflects the privilege of Christianity and a (not necessarily unearned) respect for its influence on Western culture and academia. (p. 23)
Christian believers, of course, widely believe in the “Christ of faith”, the one main character in the gospels who worked miracles and so forth. That is not the Jesus being discussed by Lataster. Most believers, Lataster notes, have no interest in a “historical person” of scholarly pursuit. Even Bart Ehrman is quoted as making a supporting point: that the “Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity.”
If one wants to tackle the beliefs of Christians then it is more sensible to address the Jesus they believe in, Lataster rightly observes.
On the matter of bias, Lataster wryly notes the acknowledgement among even Christian apologists like William Lane Craig that atheists can be more critical and objective than believers when they resort to rhetoric like, “Even atheist scholars accept . . . ”
As for believing scholars,
It is possible, but it would surely be very difficult to seriously and objectively question Jesus’ historical existence in one’s scholarly work, when personally believing in Jesus as not only real but as the centre of one’s universe. For Christians, there is clearly far more at stake – namely, Jesus Christ. Christians may not want to hear it, but it would be unreasonable to expect that they can be completely disinterested and objective over what ultimately concerns, well, their ‘ultimate concern’. (p. 19)
As for an atheist,
As a member of several oppressed groups, I do not wish to unnecessarily offend others, so I am content to remain open to the work of Christian scholars who argue, via methodological atheism, for the existence of the Historical Jesus.
And an interesting turning of the tables with the followup comment . . . .
Strangely enough, I am yet to encounter a scholarly believer in the divine Christ of Faith who argues in the proper academic channels that only a human Jesus existed. (p. 21)
Some ahistoricist scholars have found ways to reconcile their “mythicist” view of Jesus with their Christian faith and Lataster does not ignore these (e.g. Thomas Brodie) and attempts to reassure Christian believers more generally that the debate need not damage their faith. After all, the “worldly wise” and “methodological naturalists” rarely have the power to overturn faith anyway.
Lataster does refer to atheists themselves have come from religious backgrounds and still have “religious baggage” clinging to them. Perhaps so. But my own thoughts have led me to consider that those with such “visceral” hostility against the questioning of Jesus’ historicity for whatever reason have a reluctance to question “the intellectual authorities” in the field of biblical studies. One can still maintain respect and even deference to those who are clearly more learned than oneself in a particular area while honestly and competently holding those academics to account to answer clearly and validly questions about their methods and conclusions.
Lataster points out that the idea of the “historical Jesus” (as opposed to the Christ of faith) is a direct outcome of the traditional faith.
[I]t appears that Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment scholars realised that miraculous claims are untenable, so simply and rather uncritically assumed that the real Jesus could be found by separating him from the more implausible claims found in the Biblical texts. (p. 23)
Meanwhile, the very existence of Jesus was an idea that remained assumed.
The belief in the Historical Jesus is thus a direct consequence of the prevailing belief in the Christ of Faith or Biblical/Gospel Jesus. The relevant questions have always been “What did he do?”, and “What did he say?”, but never “Did he exist?” (p. 23)
Bart Ehrman’s and Maurice Casey’s publications attempting to argue for the historical existence of Jesus are discussed, along with Richard Carrier’s responses and how Raphael Lataster himself entered the discussion.
Lataster concludes his Introduction with what he believes an analytical philosophical approach can bring to the question. I am reminded of my own immersion in analytical philosophy when studying a postgraduate course in the philosophy of education with a particular focus on the differences between education and propaganda. The primary purpose of the ensuing chapters will be, it is explained, a careful analysis of the arguments on all sides of the question. The search will be to attempt to establish historical arguments that are “probably true” as distinct from the generally impossible “certainly true” and the rather pointless “possibly true”.
With the above discussion of caveats and controversies accomplished we come to chapter one. . . . .
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill. https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738.
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