I discuss here my reading of Chapter 5 of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. Here he looks at the problematic nature of the gospels and extra-biblical sources for Jesus.
Lataster discusses how historical Jesus scholars attempt to get around the problem that there are no primary sources for a historical Jesus. This absence leads scholars to focus on
1) the character and limitations of presumed oral traditions that bridge the gap between the gospels and the historical Jesus;
2) memory theory, what we theorize and know about social and individual memories.
Both of these studies do indeed raise awareness of problems for a historian’s access to a historical Jesus and Lataster cites numerous scholars who have contributed to our awareness of these problems. I suggest, however, that much of the discussion is at best a footnote to a debate over whether there was a person of Jesus at the start of Christianity. After all, the problems relate to the reconstruction of such a Jesus. If Christianity had some other origin then memories or oral traditions cannot have any relation to “a historical Jesus”.
The most famous extra-biblical reference to a historical Jesus is the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus. Lataster’s discussion is a thorough coverage of the weaknesses of attempts to salvage even a smaller core of the surviving sentences, again citing a range of recent scholars who have expressed serious reservations about Josephus ever having said anything at all about our Jesus. I was pleased to see a detailed quotation from a publication by a distinguished professor in the field of linguistics, Paul Hopper. (Interested readers can see the quotation in an older post here.) As for the second passage in the Antiquities of Josephus, one which appears to be an after-thought reference to a Jesus related to a certain James, Lataster highlights Richard Carrier’s argument that the Jesus referred to is Jesus son of Damneus. (See David Fitzgerald Responds for details of the argument.) Carrier’s view makes some sense but I am not entirely sure it resolves all questions and for that reason I prefer Earl Doherty’s original discussion as the more satisfactory. But either way, there are significant problems with the view that Josephus identified James as “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ”, both in syntax and context. It is important to address both Josephan passages but as Lataster notes,
it is important to realise that even if authentic, these verses do not necessarily confirm the existence of the Historical Jesus.
(Lataster, p. 200)
Josephus is writing decades after the supposed historical Jesus and adds nothing to what is known from other sources, the implication being that there is no reason to suspect that either passage had any source other than Christians, either as Josephus’s late first century source or as later copyists of his work.
Lataster’s comprehensive discussions of other ancient sources mentioning or interpreted as alluding to either Jesus or Christ — Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, and the Talmud — draw in both scholarly rebuttals and common answers that as far as I am aware have never been countered by anyone attempting to use them as evidence for a historical Jesus. A new point concerning Pliny’s letter about Christians to emperor Trajan is also covered: Enrico Tuccinardi has applied a stylometric analysis that strongly indicates the entire passage is a forgery.
As for the canonical gospels, Lataster reminds us of the major obstacles to accepting them as sources for a historical Jesus. They are late documents, at least forty years after the narrated crucifixion, and they are accepted by critical biblical scholars as mythical or theological narratives of Christ, not a historical person. Whatever the form of Jesus behind them — historical or mythical — they are nonhistorical elaborations that have come to hide whatever that original concept was. Lataster buttresses his point with citations from critical biblical scholars. One such noteworthy name is that of the pioneer of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk:
As an historian, I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations… In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only prob abilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings.
(Robert Walter Funk, “Bookshelf: The Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 8, no. 1 (1995): 9., in Lataster, p. 219)
Given the prevailing near consensus that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel it is reasonable to consider the possibility that all subsequent references to and portrayals of a historical Jesus can go back to that gospel. Lataster cites Bart Ehrman to this effect:
If there had been one source of Christian antiquity that mentioned a historical Jesus (e.g., Mark) and everyone else was based on what that source had to say, then possibly you could argue that this person made Jesus up and everyone else simply took the ball and ran with it.
(Lataster, p. 220, citing Erhman from https://ehrmanblog.org/gospel-evidence-that-jesus-existed, accessed 05/04/2017.)
If it all begins with Mark . . .
The value of the Gospel of Mark as a historical or biographical source for Jesus is highly questionable, as Lataster underscores with reference to biblical scholars such as Burton Mack, Thomas L. Thompson, Randel Helms, John Dominic Crossan, Harold Attridge, Paula Fredriksen, Richard C. Miller, John Gager and others. Before zeroing in on particular aspects of that gospel, however, Lataster steps back to view the Gospel of Mark in the larger context of what is problematic with all the canonical gospels. The first point of discussion is their genre. Does genre point to a certain authorial intention and if so, is it consistent with a source of historical value?
As for the overall genre of the gospels, scholarly support is further marshalled to demonstrate that the Gospel of Mark (and subsequent gospels) follow the Jewish practice of creating new stories by re-writing tales found in the “Old Testament”. It is common for certain biblical scholars to defensively protest against any suggestion that there are “pagan” or non-Jewish influences in the makeup of their Jesus narratives, but other academics have demonstrated that these protests are without foundation. Even the second century “Church Father” Justin Martyr acknowledges the evident similarities between narratives about Jesus and pagan religions but excuses these similarities as being evidence of “diabolical mimicry”. Lataster addresses many such parallels, many with the support of scholars of religion, as well as common arguments used by apologists against the very idea of such influence (e.g. differences outnumber the similarities, overlooking the very necessity of differences in order to have comparisons).
The Gospel of Luke is often deemed to be more self-consciously historical than the other gospels on the basis of its prologue which suggests that the author has relied upon superior sources to anyone else who had written about Jesus. But that prologue is most unlike other prologues of known historians of the era, and Lataster points to the prevalent problem:
The hype around Luke’s prologue notwithstanding, put simply, Luke does not discuss his methods, name his sources (which could well be ‘supernatural’), or show any scepticism with the various claims made about Jesus. We don’t know who Luke is or what his qualifications are. Combined with his clear evangelical intent, his belief in the supernatural, and his penchant for fabricating, he clearly does not have the makings of an excellent historian, despite what apologists and some historicists surprisingly claim.
(Lataster, p. 239)
Lataster devotes a fulsome discussion to one work that we often see cited as “proof” that the gospels have been critically determined to be actual “biographies”, What are the Gospels? by Richard Burridge. Lataster warns us against being too quick to accept Burridge’s arguments in the light of other work he has written that points to conservative bias:
. . . if we accept and believe in Jesus as the Son of God who was raised from the dead, then it should not be surprising that he could do extraordinary things.
(Lataster, p. 240, citing Richard A. Burridge, “Jesus: His life, ministry, death, and its consequences,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Dowley (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), p. 31.)
And, as if the courage of the disciples of Jesus is itself a historical fact independent of the narrative depicting it, Burridge writes,
yet history has to provide some explanation of the change in the disciples,
(Lataster, p. 241, ibid p.34)
Readers of Mathew Ferguson’s blog, Κέλσος, will be interested to see Lataster draw upon Ferguson’s study of classical literature and how it can be shown to influence the gospels as a form of apparent history or biography. Lataster brings in several other specialist scholars adding more weight to the problem of reading the gospels as genuine biographies. (Not the least problem is that ancient authors were known to write biographies of fictitious persons, e.g. Demonax.)
That the Gospels may not be completely trustworthy sources of history certainly does not rule out the possibility of Jesus’ historical existence; but they certainly give ample reason to question it.
(Lataster, p. 245)
Lataster further draws upon an important source that was earlier discussed here by Tim Widowfield. Karl Ludwig Schmidt’ sober warning is taken up by Lataster:
… a Gospel is by nature not high literature, but low literature; not the product of an individual author, but a folk-book; not a biography, but a cult legend. Faint hints to the contrary do not change the total picture in the slightest. Luke may well have possessed the skills of an author, but he could not and would not have produced a biography of Jesus. Even the Fourth Gospel – which is personal confession of a sort – has more tradition behind it than we could ever ascertain. Above and beyond its personal aspects, it is the product of a confessing community.
Karl Ludwig Schmidt, The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, trans. Byron R. McCane (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), p. 27.
Having covered the background of gospel genre Lataster returns to addressing the problem of the Gospel of Mark, understood to be our earliest gospel and a major source of the other gospels, for determining the historicity of Jesus.
The most apparent difficulty is that we have no way of knowing how much, if any, of the gospel narrative is derived, however distantly, from historical traditions or memories. The most narratively vivid portion of the gospel is the trial and death of Jesus yet no less a reputable biblical scholar than Werner H. Kelber acknowledged,
Kelber acknowledged that Mark’s passion narrative, obviously key to the text, was woven out of whole cloth by Mark; there may never have been a pre-Markan Passion narrative.324 If this crucial element would be completely fabricated by the author of the Gospel, why not everything else?
(Lataster, p. 246)
Add to Kelber the analysis of Burton Mack,
As for the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Mark took the basic ideas from the Christ myth but dared to imagine how the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ might have looked if played out as a historical event in Jerusalem, something the Christ myth resisted. Thus Mark’s story is best understood as a studied combination of Jesus traditions with the Christ myth. The combination enhanced Jesus’ importance as a historical figure by casting him as the son of God or the Christ and by working out an elaborate plot to link his fate to the history of Mark’s community. We may therefore call Mark’s gospel a myth of origin for the Markan community. It was imagined in order to understand how history could have gone the way it had and the Jesus movement still be right about its loyalties and views… We do not usually think of mythmaking as the achievement of a moment or the work of a single writer no matter how brilliant. But in Mark’s case we have an obvious fiction, masterly composed by someone who had to be doing his work at a desk as any author would. It was Mark’s fiction that soon became the accepted story of the way to imagine Jesus appearing in the world.341
341 Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1995), pp. 152–154.
(Lataster, p. 249)
Lataster points to other details in this gospel as obvious indicators of fiction or allegory, such as the cursing of the fig tree. (At this particular point Lataster cannot resist commenting on what such a story implies about a beneficent god or son of god.) As for mentioning supposedly embarrassing details — scholars frequently point to evidence of embarrassment in other gospel accounts of Jesus and John the Baptist — Lataster rightly observes that in Mark there is no indication of embarrassment at all, thus robbing the scene of the justification many advance to suggest its historicity. In Mark the scene, like so many others, is best explained as a theological message, in this case the passing from the old to the new covenant. The literary contrivances throughout Mark do not prove the narrative is nonhistorical but Lataster does demonstrate how they do at least suggest a work born more of creative imagination than the restrictions of historical events.
Interestingly, in the verses immediately after the parable, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, providing a handy link. In Mark 15, the great and powerful Jesus is humbled in the worst possible way. In Mark 16, the humiliated and dead Jesus has apparently triumphantly risen, and been exalted, while it is ‘mere’ women who have the privilege of knowing this first. I find this all too ‘neat’ to be simple coincidence. (Also note that Mark’s very last verse claims that the women “said nothing to anyone”, which again raises questions as to how Mark knows all this and how the faith spread beyond the two women.)335
335 She/he truly seems to be an omniscient narrator, like an author of fiction. See Mark 16:8.
(Lataster, p. 248)
So many narrative details are clearly and widely recognized (among biblical scholars) as being derived from Old Testament episodes, and I felt Lataster could have demonstrated this point he makes with numerous examples, certainly far more than he does use. A good source for such observations is Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.
Lataster is certainly comprehensive in his discussion and covers far more than I can allude to in any detail here. Another important consideration he addresses is the likely relationship between the loss of the Jerusalem temple and the emergence of a gospel in which Jesus is hinted as the temple’s replacement. Again Lataster raises the reader’s awareness of the scholarly support for such a possibility (e.g. Paul Hoskins, Adam Winn). I am less certain about Lataster’s suggestion that certain pre-Christian Jews felt cut off from normal access to their Temple because of “the Roman-loving Temple cult”, but he is quite correct to point out that there were Jewish sects who saw the physical temple as corrupt and in need of replacement. So the actual loss of the temple in 70 CE may well have stimulated a search for a spiritual replacement. One detail Lataster, and many others, overlook in this context is an observation by Karel Hanhart (The Open Tomb: A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah (± 72 C.E.)) is Mark’s rewriting of Isaiah’s image of the Jerusalem temple being a sepulchre hewn out of rock as Jesus tomb being what was hewn out of rock (see Debates and Empty Tomb).
There are moments when Lataster comes across to me as attempting to be a little too comprehensive, though. His mention of the “convenient coincidence” of “the messianic ’70 weeks’ prophecy of Daniel 9 just happens to coincide with Jesus’ lifetime, when employing the Preterist method of calculation favoured by the Catholics” is, I think, unnecessary and without warrant in the evidence. The best I have seen in favour of such claims are speculative, presumably being inspired by modern Dispensationalists. Another momentary overreach is Lataster’s passing allusion to Jesus ben Ananias in Josephus being evidence of some Jews expecting “things to get worse” for the temple: I suggest that it is more likely that Jesus ben Ananias is a stock literary figure who serves the function of the unheeded prophet found throughout literature (historical, dramatic, epic, novella) of the time.
Lataster’s point stands despite such occasional detours:
If everything we think we know about Jesus could have been adapted from the earlier Jewish texts, what genuine historical core is left? Dismiss these allegedly fulfilled prophecies and the Historical Jesus may as well be dismissed as well.
(Lataster, p. 252)
Another important dimension of the Gospel of Mark is the central place of parables and even indications that the entire gospel is to be read as a parable. Here Lataster is on more solid ground with citations to another raft of scholars (e.g. Marie Sabin, Tom Dykstra, Thomas Hatina, Kurt Noll, Eve-Marie Becker, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Mogens Mueller, Michael Goulder, Jon Levenson and more) supporting the literary character of the gospel and its Jesus figure, and even the Gospel’s apparent derivation from the epistles of Paul.
And when we do come to Paul we find appeals to Pentateuchal examples and sayings where we would expect reminders of Jesus’ own words and deeds if Paul’s views originated with a historical figure. Lataster necessarily devotes an entire chapter to the problems of Paul for the historicity of Jesus, and that will be covered in the next post.
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill.
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