How Jesus Historicists and Mythicists Can Work Together (or, How to do History)

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by Neil Godfrey

I want to speak out on behalf of colleagues in Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, and Religious History (my own discipline) because I feel Dickson’s article misrepresents where many of us stand. And, in so doing, it does a slight disservice to important areas of scholarship. – Miles Pattenden

I have been inspired by the response of historian Miles Pattenden to John Dickson’s article Most Australians may doubt that Jesus existed, but historians don’t to write a second post. This time I want to address the question of historical methods more generally in contrast to my initial rejoinder where I focused on the sources Dickson himself called upon.

Dr Miles Pattenden Senior Research Fellow Medieval and Early Modern Studies

Miles Pattenden’s reply, On historians and the historicity of Jesus — a response to John Dickson, begins with a datum that should be obvious but seems too often to get lost in the heat of the bloodlust of argument. All the appeals to authority do is point us to the fact that most references to Jesus in historical works (even in works addressing specifically the “quest for the historical Jesus”) “accept an historical Jesus as a premise” (Pattenden). Such references can be nothing more than

evidence only of a scholarly consensus in favour of not questioning the premise. (Pattenden)

Another introductory point made by Pattenden introduces a factor that again ought to be obvious but is too often denied, that of institutional bias:

Christian faith — which, except very eccentrically, must surely include a belief that Jesus was a real person — has often been a motivating factor in individuals’ decisions to pursue a career in the sorts of academic fields under scrutiny here. In other words, belief in Jesus’s historicity has come a priori of many scholars’ historical study of him, and the argument that their acceptance of the ability to study him historically proves his historicity is mere circularity.

Where does this situation leave other scholars in other disciplines who speak of Jesus? I’m thinking of historians who write of ancient Roman history and make summary references to Christian beginnings as a detail within the larger themes they are discussing, or of educational theorists who speak of the methods of instruction by past figures like Socrates or Jesus. It would be absurd to suggest that such authors have necessarily undertaken a serious investigation into the question of Jesus’s historicity before making their comments. This question is getting closer to a key point I want to conclude with but before we get there note that Pattenden gets it spot on when he writes:

Just as significantly, the existence of a critical mass of scholars who do believe in Jesus’s historicity will almost certainly have shaped the way that all other scholars write about the subject. Unless they are strongly motivated to argue that Jesus was not real, they will not arbitrarily provoke colleagues who do believe in his historicity by denying it casually. After all, as academics, we ought to want to advance arguments that persuade our colleagues — and getting them offside by needlessly challenging a point not directly in contention will not help with that.

Miles Pattenden proceeds to touch on the nature of the evidence for Jesus compared with other historical subjects, the disputed nature of the array of sources for Jesus, the logical pitfalls such as circularity, and so forth, all of which I’ve posted about many times before.

But the historical Thakur may be as well attested by categories (if not quantity) of contemporary evidence as the historical Jesus is. So do we not risk charges of hypocrisy, even cultural double standards, if we accept different standards of proof for the existence of the one from that for the other?

Such questions ought not to be entirely comfortable for historians of liberal persuasion or those of Christian faith. However, the authors of “The Unbelieved” in fact pose their conundrum the other way around to the way I have described it — and in their position may lie a helpful way to reconcile beliefs concerning the historicity of Jesus and in the need to be sufficiently critical of sources. (Pattenden. Bolding in all quotes is my own.)

But then Pattenden veers away from the question of the historical reality of “the man Jesus” and introduces a discussion among historians about how to study and write about events that the participants attribute to divine commands and acts. This approach may seem to beg the question of Jesus’ historicity but bear with me and we will see that that is not so. I want to focus on just one point in that discussion because I think it has the potential to remove all contention between believers and nonbelievers in the study of Christian origins. The authors – Clossey, Jackson, Marriott, Redden and Vélez – propose three strategies for the handling of historical accounts in which the historical subjects testify to the role of divine agents in their actions. It is the first of these that is key, in my view:

  1. Adopt a humble, polite, sceptical, and openminded attitude towards the sources.

Notice that last word: “sources”. The historian works with sources. Sources make claims and those claims are tested against other sources. Claims made within sources are never taken at face value but are always — if the historian is doing their job — assessed in the context of where and when and by whom and for what purpose the source was created. The article goes on to say

Often miracles have impressive and intriguing documentation. A Jesuit record of crosses appearing in the skyabove Nanjing, China, mentions numberlesswitnesses who saw and heard the miracle, and later divides them by reliability into eleven witnesses, plus many infidels” . . . .

Many biblical scholars will say that Jesus was not literally resurrected in the way the gospels describe but that the followers of Jesus came to believe that he had been resurrected. We can go one better than that: we can say that our sources, the gospels, claim that the disciples of Jesus believed in the resurrection.

Notice: we cannot declare it to be a historical fact that Jesus’ disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected. The best a historian can do is work with the sources. The sources narrate certain events. To go beyond saying that a source declares X to have happened and to say that X really happened would require us to test the claim of the source. Such a test involves not only examining other sources but also studying the origins and nature of the source we are reading. Do we know who wrote it and the function it served? When it comes to the gospels, scholars advance various hypotheses to answer those questions but they can rarely go beyond those hypotheses. It is at this point that the “humble, polite, sceptical, and open-minded attitude towards the sources” is called for. It is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which our beliefs about our sources are really hypotheses that by definition are open to question and that our long-held beliefs about them are not necessarily facts.

Some readers may suspect that what I am saying here would mean that nothing in history can be known. Not so. I have discussed more completely historical methods and how we can have confidence in the historicity of certain persons and events in HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins.

As long as a discussion is kept at the level of sources and avoids jumping the rails by asserting that information found in the sources has some untestable independent reality then progress, I think, can be made.

A problem that sometimes arises is when a scholar writes that, as a historian, they “dig beneath” the source to uncover the history behind its superficial narrative in a way analogous to an archaeologist digging down to uncover “history” beneath a mound of earth. The problem here is that the “history” that is found “beneath” the narrative is, very often, the result of assuming that a certain narrative was waiting to be found all along and that it was somehow transmitted over time and generations until it was written down with lots of exaggerations and variations in the form we read it in the source. In other words, the discovery of the “history behind the source” is the product of circular reasoning. It is assumed from the outset that the narrative is a record, however flawed, of past events. Maybe it is. But the proposition needs to be tested, not assumed.

It should not be impossible for atheists and believers, even Jesus historicists and Jesus mythicists, to work together on the question of Christian origins if the above principle — keeping the discussion on the sources themselves — is followed. The Christian can still privately believe in their Jesus and it will make no difference to the source-based investigation shared with nonbelievers. Faith, after all, is belief in spite of the evidence.

There is a bigger question, though. I have often said that to ask if Jesus existed is a pointless question for the historian. More significant for the researcher is the question of how Christianity was born and emerged into what it is today. The answer to the question of whether Jesus existed or not, whether we answer yes or no, can never be anything more than a hypothesis among historians. (It is different for believers but I am not intruding into their sphere.) The most interesting question is to ask how Christianity began. Even if a historical Jesus lay at its root, we need much more information if we are to understand how the religion evolved into something well beyond that one figure alone. It is at this point I conclude with the closing words of Miles Pattenden:

Partly because there is no way to satisfy these queries, professional historians of Christianity — including most of us working within the secular academy — tend to treat the question of whether Jesus existed or not as neither knowable nor particularly interesting. Rather, we focus without prejudice on other lines of investigation, such as how and when the range of characteristics and ideas attributed to him arose.

In this sense Jesus is not an outlier among similar historical figures. Other groups of historians engage in inquiries similar to those that New Testament scholars pursue, but concerning other key figures in the development of ancient religion and philosophy in Antiquity: Moses, Socrates, Zoroaster, and so on. Historians of later periods also often favour comparable approaches, because understanding, say, the emergence and diffusion of hagiographic traditions around a man like Francis of Assisi, or even a man like Martin Luther, is usually more intellectually rewarding, and more beneficial to overall comprehension of his significance, than mere reconstruction of his life or personality is.

This approach to the historical study of spiritual leaders is a more complex and nuanced position than the one Dickson presents. However, it also gives us more tools for thinking about questions of historicity in relation to those leaders and more flexibility for how we understand about their possible role (or roles) in our present lives.


Surely no scholar would want to be suspected of secretly doing theology when they profess to do history so no doubt every believing scholar can also say, Amen. And if an evidence-based inquiry leads to scenarios beyond traditional theological narratives for the believer, or scenarios closer to traditional narratives than the nonbeliever anticipated, then surely that would inspire even greater wonder and a double Amen!

Pattenden, Miles. “Historians and the Historicity of Jesus.” Opinion. ABC Religion & Ethics. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 19, 2022. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/miles-pattenden-historians-and-the-historicity-of-jesus/13720952.

Clossey, Luke, Kyle Jackson, Brandon Marriott, Andrew Redden, and Karin Vélez. “The Unbelieved and Historians, Part II: Proposals and Solutions.” History Compass 15, no. 1 (2017): e12370. https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12370.