Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)

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by Neil Godfrey

After reviewing the efforts of Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey to present their respective cases for the historicity of Jesus we now come to chapter 4, Inadequate Methods. By way of summing up the previous discussion Raphael Lataster writes

The recent defences of Jesus’ historicity by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey lack lucid and competent methodologies, rely on highly questionable documents, and further make use of sources that no longer exist, if they ever did. They are polemical, occasionally vulgar, and often resorted to cavilling, focussing on tangential arguments of the more amateurish mythicists. They unquestionably failed, and this may have something to do with my introductory thoughts on just what sort of scholar should be investigating the issue; analytical philosophers seem much more suited to the task. (p. 129)

In response to the objection that “ahistoricists” or “mythicists” do not have an alternative explanation for Christian origins Lataster is blunt:

This is similar to the agnosticism over God’s existence. Those agnostics do not need to have evidence that God does not exist. They just need to be unconvinced by the lack of good evidence for God’s existence. In other words, my case for Historical Jesus agnosticism does not need to rely on good alternative hypotheses, though it certainly can be strengthened by them. (p. 129)

History is done differently when it comes to Jesus. And those doing the history on Jesus are, in the main, theologians or “biblical scholars” of some stripe who cannot deny that

. . . most people know of Jesus because of the historical reality of religious faith. (p. 131)

It’s like saying “Most people know about the massacres of Aboriginals in the Frontier Wars because of what they’d been told.” So how do we go about finding the fact of the matter?

I bypass here Lataster’s discussion of the respective appeals to “insider” and “outsider” sources (those of believers and those of outsiders), or the little controversy over the Jesus Project initiated by R. Joseph Hoffmann that he also addresses.

Lataster begins the core argument of this chapter with the theoretically correct point, “History Concerns What Probably Happened.” I find such arguments too theoretical. Indeed, one of the historians Lataster cites in this section expresses my view exactly:

That history as record is “relative,” may be admitted, in the sense that deriving as it does from the perception and testimony of men [sic – published 1946], it often borrows shape and color from the subjective medium through which it passes. Furthermore, the objective facts are perhaps never reproduced in their full range of authentic detail. But it is folly to leap thence to the conclusion that nothing can be absolutely known about the historical past. That Napoleon Bonaparte existed, that he fought Europe, was worsted at Waterloo, and died at St. Helena, are facts which we can be said to know absolutely. On the other hand, that his personality was such or such, that he was dominated by this passion or that, may very well be matters about which we have not, and probably cannot have knowledge that is final and irreversible. . . .

But “probability beyond reasonable doubt,” if we overlook the contradiction involved in this statement, is equivalent to certainty. What we hold “beyond reasonable doubt,” we hold with certainty. . . .

Although the historian can never attain the same certainty which is attained by the mathematician, the physicist, or the chemist, nevertheless, especially in the case of converging lines of evidence, he is able to reach such moral certainty as is the basis of nearly all our actions. (Freeman, Methods of History)

(Garraghan, pp. 78, 79)

If we cannot see evidence that persuades us “beyond reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed then we are compelled to maintain reasonable doubts and not deny them. Juries are required to find a defendant guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” and not be content with a “probably guilty” verdict.

As for the sources historians study, they fall into two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources are generally understood to be contemporary with the events being studied, secondary from a later time. Both types of source must be subject to the same scrutiny and Lataster cites Garraghan three times in the book on this point:

. . . [A]ppraisment of the nature and evidential value of the source material . . . is a complex process involving, at least in theory, six distinct inquiries or problems, for each and every source put to account.

a. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?
b. Where was it produced (localization)?
c. By whom was it produced (authorship)?
d. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?
e. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?
f. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

In practice this last query will resolve itself into an attempt to fix the degree of certainty or probability (falsity or doubt) to be attached to the several statements which the source contains.

These six distinct inquiries exhaust the whole process of historical criticism, which may be defined as the use or application of a body of rules and principles for testing the genuineness of historical sources, restoring them as far as possible to their original form, and determining their evidential value.

(Garraghan, p. 168. Lataster mistakenly cites Garraghan’s Guide to Historical Method as jointly authored by Garraghan and Delanglez. Delanglez is the editor, not a co-author. Garraghan’s study was a significant contribution when it was first published, but perhaps one should also be aware of its limitations, the principle one in this context is that Garraghan argued that testimony by highly reputable witnesses of miracles should be accepted if we believe in God.)

I was pleased to see that Lataster introduced a protest I have often heard from biblical scholars: that historians cannot apply the same rigorous standards to ancient sources as they do to modern ones or they would not be able to say very much about ancient times. A point I have made several times here is also stressed by Lataster:

The historian must accept that ancient sources may provide additional limitations and challenges, and not arbitrarily change what is considered to be convincing evidence, simply because it is already known that the available evidence is not convincing.

Historians cannot lower the standards by which they measure a source’s reliability, simply because they already know, due to the time period in question or for other reasons, that the source is relatively less reliable; even if this is what Biblical scholars actually do. That would be illogical and inconsistent; and its practice all but proves bias. Scholars could then proclaim any source reliable. If that means historians can say nothing of the ancient world with certainty, then so be it.

(Lataster, p. 137)

(Those who believe “standards must be lowered” for ancient sources fail to realize that all that changes with the limitations of ancient sources is the types of questions historians can ask of them. See how one notable ancient historian compared his methods with those of mainstream biblical scholarship in the post An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally.)

Criteria for Authenticity

Historical Jesus scholars have often used “criteria of authenticity” in order to assess what sayings or deeds of Jesus are most likely historical. Some examples of these criteria:

  • Criterion of embarrassment — if a saying or act makes the early church or its heroes look bad or shamed then it is unlikely to have been made up; it must be true.
  • Criterion of multiple independent attestation — if a saying or act is found in multiple independent sources it is more likely to have been true.
  • Criterion of coherence — if a saying coheres with other authentic sayings then it is likely to be historical.
  • Criterion of double dissimilarity — if a saying is unlike other sayings found in either contemporary Judaism or “the church” then it most likely originated with Jesus.

Of course, such criteria are built on the assumption that there was a historical Jesus whose sayings and actions could be tested for historicity, which Lataster correctly points out. Critics of the Jesus myth, view, have attempted to use some of them to rebut the view that Jesus did not exist. Crucifixion, for example, was a shameful death so no follower of Jesus would have made that up. Again, Lataster points to the obvious: Jewish and Christian martyrs found great honour — according even to their scriptures — in being shamefully treated and persecuted by the unjust.

Another target rightly aimed at is the regular claim that vivid details in the gospel narratives are indicators of eyewitness sources. Again Lataster cites a range of scholars, including biblical ones, who raise doubts about such a claim. Lataster appeals to many examples of vividly told fiction, though it might have been a smidgen stronger case had he appealed to clear fictions elsewhere in the Bible and ancient literature that were narrated in colourful detail.

Lataster does allow some of the criteria an easy pass, however, such as when he writes:

Finally, the criterion of historical plausibility . . . seems superfluous (and unused by many!) given that it is the historian’s core duty to determine which explanations are more plausible. Actually, these latter criteria are extremely important, and the shame is that they are not used enough, or appropriately.

(Lataster, p. 146)

I don’t see how historical plausibility advances the quest to determine whether Jesus existed or not. Plausibility is far from determining past events beyond reasonable doubt, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar, for example. (Lataster has already dismissed the need to pay any serious attention to implausible events such as walking on water or returning from the dead.)

Faith and Inconsistency

Another aspect of historical Jesus scholarship addressed in some depth is the extent to which both Christian scholars and many atheists, too, tend to assume that the gospels contain some historical core material or are derived from reports of historical events.

Using the Gospels to argue for Jesus’ existence may be circular reasoning. Arguing from external sources would generally result in a much more convincing case.

(Lataster, p. 151)

“May be”? I suspect Philip Davies would say “clearly is circular reasoning”. Other scholars such as Hector Avalos and John Gager make the same sorts of criticism of the methods of their peers, as Lataster shows. Such scholars really do seem to be operating within a bubble of logical and methodological flaws, and Lataster further cites examples of their appealing to “hermeneutics of charity” in which they insist that scholars should assume “traditions” found in the gospels should be accepted as authentic until someone points out clear reasons not to.

Another problem taken up is the problem of the supernatural in the narratives. It is not sufficient, Lataster shows drawing on support from philosopher Stephen Law, to remove the supernatural and suspect the mundane remnant of having some probable historicity. Very often it is, after all, the supernatural that is the very point of the story; remove the supernatural and one has removed anything of interest. The supernatural is not the embellishment; it is the core of and the reason for the story.

Lataster returns at this point to the criteria of authenticity to note that “multiple attestation” and “coherence” could even be used to demonstrate the historical truth of the miracles. (Lataster does seem to regularly return to arguments and themes addressed earlier; some readers might find this unnecessarily repetitious, others may find it relaxingly conversational. Another instance of a return to earlier discussion is when Lataster suggests that “secular humanists” are unlikely to have any deep bias against the idea that there existed in history a man of deep compassion, self-sacrifice, and so forth. Some readers may think there is a certain lack of clearly marked organization of thoughts and when and where they appear in the overall argument.)

Bayesian Alternative

Lataster very often cites Carrier, and frequently speaks of his own thoughts and criticisms in tandem with Carrier’s. We saw this with his claim that all historical claims are probabilistic.

133 An exception can be made for cogito ergo sum. Like Descartes, I think, therefore I am. Surely we can say that we, as individuals, definitely exist, even if not in the way we currently perceive.

Those who disagree would either have to simply wave their hands and say we can’t really know anything, so ‘anything goes’, which helps nobody and prematurely ends all such discussions, or declare that they know things with absolute 100% certainty, which is usually impossible and the height of arrogance.133 Of course, an event happened or it didn’t, as critics are wont to point out, so 100% and 0% might seem like reasonable figures to throw about, until we realise that knowing that the event did or did not happen is another thing altogether. After all, the past is in the past. We are removed from historical events and cannot observe them. The uncertain world of probabilistic reasoning is the only reasonable way forward.

(Lataster, p. 162)

I don’t believe there is any arrogance involved in knowing some basic facts of history, about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or that Churchill was Prime Minister during the Second World War, or that Columbus sailed in 1492 and Cook explored the east coast of Australia in 1770. We really can know certain things “beyond reasonable doubt”. And if we have reasonable doubts then we have reasonable doubts. I don’t often read in books by historians that they are researching an event that “probably happened” or a person who “probably existed”. There are some exceptions. Australian historians have sought to find out exactly what happened in the “frontier wars” — What was the extent of murders of the aboriginal people? But the research hangs on newspaper reports, police records court archives, diaries. Exact numbers killed may be in some doubt and subject to debate. So might motives and the origins of particular disputes. But in these cases we are questioning the scale of historical events and alternative explanations for them. Archival sources, their provenance, their supporting and authenticating and authorizing details, — these are the foundations of historical inquiry. There are certain events we can know beyond reasonable doubt and where we do have reasonable doubts we plead agnosticism.

With another objection some have raised against Carrier’s use of Bayes theorem Lataster responds (p. 164)

Please note that in this book, I will attempt to limit, or at least simplify, the required calculations. The same goes for technical language. I recall a good-natured disagreement between Carrier and a physicist over Carrier’s probabilistic claims. Far from being properly critical, it turned out that the physicist is a staunch Bayesian and appreciated Carrier’s use of it. They were effectively disagreeing about semantics. For example, “Can an epistemic probability really be called a frequency?” I find such discourse unhelpful for our purposes here, and will simplify the probabilistic concepts quite a bit, for which I expect that most readers will be grateful – especially since the usual criticism is that this approach is too technical, and not that it isn’t technical enough! Apologies to any devoted Bayesians and frequentists. Those interested in the technical aspects should consult Proving History. It is highly prescient, addressing many concerns critics may have about the method. 

Now having said that, I happen to agree with Lataster and Carrier that Bayesian reasoning is “a good thing”. Lataster explains it in simple terms and further points out that logical thinking and assessments can be represented, in a general way, numerically:

“Even odds” means 50%, for example, “improbable” might mean 20%, “very probable” could mean 95%, while “more than likely” would mean greater than 50%. Of course, we may not all agree that these phrases relate to the specific numbers assigned here, but we would not be absolved of the responsibility to then explain what numbers are more appropriate when invoking such terms. Bayes’ Theorem just makes the whole process more transparent; what was once said intuitively and rather vaguely can now be asserted mathematically

(Lataster, p. 166. My bolding in all quotations)

That is true, but how does it apply to a historian studying, say, the nature of imperial propaganda in the early Roman empire, or the evidence for the growth of early Christianity? Historians search for sources that will yield factual information and then analyse those sources to understand any qualifications that need to be applied to what they appear to say. With some types of historical questions it does apply, though. What is the likelihood (or probability) that Jewish Scriptures are a product of late Hellenistic influence as opposed to Iron Age and Mesopotamian heritage? Probability assessments can be reasonably applied to each datum presented in Russell Gmirkin’s study. But not all historical questions are of that type. So I have reservations when Lataster writes:

Nevertheless, certain biblical scholars may indeed raise some objections, which are easily dealt with. One objection would be that mathematical and probabilistic reasoning is inappropriate for historical research. This, of course, is simply wrong, given that it is the historian’s core duty to try and determine what probably happened in the past. 

(Lataster, p. 167)

I suppose we could say that my method for being confident beyond reasonable doubt in knowing for certain some events of the past has its Bayesian probabilities built into it. Example, official public monuments, coupled with abundant contemporary literary references by sources known to have reputations at stake, do make certain types of knowledge 99% probable. To insist on a 1% doubt that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 is pointless.

One objection Lataster disposes of is certainly on the mark. To protest that Bayes has been used to prove the resurrection is on a par with protesting the use of syllogisms because they have been used to argue that Socrates is a duck because both have two legs.

Like all formulas, Bayes’ Theorem is at the mercy of the all-important ‘garbage in, garbage out’ principle. Just as a valid syllogism is only as good as its weakest premise, so the formulaic solution can only be as reliable as the data – sometimes relying on key assumptions – used in calculating it.

(Lataster, p. 167)

Lataster does come to the point of my objection, however, when he adds

Echoing the first objection, another may be that history is in the past, and has happened, so that Bayesian theorising over whether a certain event is probable or not is pointless. Apart from ignoring the very reason for the historian’s existence, this is somewhat technically correct in the sense that Bayesian reasoning cannot tell us what actually happened, what is impossible, etc. Just like sound historical reasoning. All it does is indicate what theory is most rationally believed, at the time. Just like sound historical reasoning. There is a reason for that. Sound historical reasoning is Bayesian. Indeed, sound reasoning in general appears to be Bayesian. Bayesian reasoning simply symbolises and formalises what already takes place in the heads of logical people. In fact, we can take comfort by the fact that this probabilistic approach allows us to make judgements even when evidence is scarce, as it is with the issue of Jesus’ historicity. Bayesian reasoning informs us as to what is more reasonably believed, based on the currently available evidence, and, being epistemic, allows for conclusions to be revised and re-revised as the state of the evidence is altered.

. . . .

Bayes’ Theorem allows the scholar to objectively compare how revealed evidence and background knowledge fits various theories . . . 

(Lataster, p. 169, 170)

I quibble with the opening sentences but believe Lataster is definitely right when he applies the method to evaluating a hypothesis or a theory, an explanation for events. That’s not the same as deciding the probability of Cicero and Julius Caesar being historical.

In the process of our Bayesian assessments on the source material relating to Jesus we will, by the very process of making those assessments, realize from the get-go that there is uncertainty. So if our Bayesian analysis concludes that there is an 80% probability, on the basis of the evidence, that Jesus did exist, that still leaves us with some measure of reasonable doubt. Of if we conclude a 20% probability that he did exist, that still leaves us with hope that maybe he did. Either way we have agnosticism.

But I guess as humans we are naturally excited by challenging odds and for most people, hearing that there is 80% certainty that Jesus existed would be enough to make them believe there is no doubt. It’s not the scholarly approach, though.

We don’t necessarily need direct evidence or a ‘smoking gun’, such as a passage from Mark ‘admitting’ that he is embellishing the real story of the Historical Jesus, or a letter of Paul wherein he more explicitly outlines his Celestial Jesus view, or even a note from Peter about how he invented everything about Jesus, be it the Historical, purely Celestial, or Gospel version. We can often – but not always – make reasonable judgements based on the inherent (or prior) plausibility alone.

(Lataster, p. 173)

Let’s turn the questions sideways. Let’s ask the question: Is a historical Jesus necessary to explain Christian origins? Or, Is a historical Jesus the best and simplest explanation for Christian origins? There we have a hypothesis. Let’s use Bayes’ theorem on that. That will be more interesting than “Did Jesus exist?”, yes?

Next, we look at Lataster’s discussion of the sources themselves.

Garraghan, Gilbert J. 1946. A Guide to Historical Method. Edited by Jean Delanglez. First edition. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill.


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)”

  1. Publishers like Brill, Oxford, Cambridge, have long published articles critical of religion. But believer, apologists, have ignored them. As not being in the “right” circle of believers’ books.

    That kind of exclusionary mechanism, blinkers, Denial, is typical of religious cults. But it’s good to see acknowledgement of the larger world of scholarship, here.

  2. I appreciate Lataster’s take on the issue. I myself am not agnostic on the issue and think that the evidence against historicity is far stronger than Lataster acknowledges or is aware of, but I appreciate his conservatism.

    I’m also still not totally impressed by all this Bayesian talk and find it mostly a distraction.

    I think the key issue is simply improper treatment of sources and assumptions about sources. Primarily assumption about the independence of sources. It seems to me that most theologians take a starting assumption of independent sources for everything, and require heavy proof that sources are not independent. Furthermore, they seem to always be doing whatever possible to advocate for source independence.

    As Doherty has long noted, basically every time a theologian sees two documents that share a close textual parallel their immediate reaction is to postulate a lost unknown source as the explanation. Thus, when you really get into it and actually examine everything that’s been published, theologians have postulated anywhere from dozens to hundreds of lost sources to explain commonalities in documents, the overwhelming majority of which can be just as, if not more, easily explained by direct literary borrowing among extant documents.

    I think the importance of this issue is vastly under-appreciated by all but the most involved biblical scholars. The whole viability of the historicity case rests entirely on these assumptions about independence and lost sources.

    And so much of the rest is all just post-hoc rationalization, which is passed off as “conclusions”. I mean the easy obvious example is stuff like claims that early epistle writers didn’t writers about Jesus the person because they weer worshiping the Jesus of heaven since that’s where Jesus was at that time after he died. I’ve had so many people repeat this to me as if its a “real fact”. This is not a “real fact”, this is a supposition used to try and explain away the “real fact” that the early epistle writers show no knowledge or interest in a Jesus person.

    For me, a key issue is that none of the defenses of historicity that I’ve seen, certainly Ehrman, Meier, or Casey, deals with details about how the Gospels were written that I address in Deciphering the Gospels and stuff beyond that as well, such as the chiastic style of Mark, the use of Paul by Mark, the Elijah & Elisha narrative in Mark. This is all just ignored or the people making the cases aren’t even aware of it. But in my view, all of this is game changing. And the fact that is that those advocating for a historical Jesus also try to ignore the case again st Q as well, and just try to brush that aside. So they aren’t actually addressing the real issues, they are just ignoring them.

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