2022-01-22

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.

Amen.

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.


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Neil Godfrey

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26 thoughts on “How Jesus Historicists and Mythicists Can Work Together (or, How to do History)”

  1. This is an excellent article thanks Neil !! I am inclined to mention that (IMO) the points and issues raised here in regard to the historicity (or otherwise) of Jesus would also seem to apply to the historicity (or otherwise) of Paul.

    1. Are you aware of Dr. Carrier’s blog-post about Paul’s historicity? Not that I disagree with your point, but I think that it may be usefully treated by Dr. Carrier.

  2. I find Paul to be a major problem. The evidence that we have does not gell, in my mind, with any external figure remotely like the persona in the letters and career read about in Acts.

    1. The conflicts between the stories told in the letters and the story told in Acts are a good reason for suspicion about Paul.
      And Acts 21:31 to 22:25 is a bit hard to swallow. The officer arrests the man at the centre of the upheaval and then allows him to make a speech to those who were trying to kill him? Not likely.

    2. Neil, what “evidence that we have” are you referring to? I assume that you are referring to the non-canonical texts about Paul and to Justin Martyr’s not mentioning Paul (and perhaps claims that Paul was beloved by the gnostics), but clarification would be useful for us, I think.

      1. After I have finished uploading translations of Bruno Bauer’s criticism of the synoptic gospels I hope to turn to his study of Paul’s letters. Then I will be more focused on that subject and be better able to do justice to your question. In the meantime, the key problems I have with the current view of the origins of Paul’s letters are:

        1) we have no indisputable evidence that they were known to anyone before the mid-second century;

        2) despite claims to the contrary, by and large, they do address problems extant in the second century;

        3) though some scholars propose that the author was often muddled and always changing his mind, it may be more realistic to think that there are multiple authors/redactors;

        4) it is problematic, I think, that we have no evidence for a travelling power evangelist or multiple evangelists a la Acts before the mid-second century;

        5) the evidence we do have in the early second century actually leaves no visible room for a Pauline apostle doing his thing;

        6) the account of Paul in Acts draws for its content on revisions of Jesus and Peter stories (with some guidance from the epistles — but see point #1) and contains no indication of being derived from sources about the life of a third character, a Paul himself — the “we passages” notwithstanding’

        7) the letters are not real letters despite what a number of scholars attempt to argue;

        8) the letters are arguably compositions that conform well to the tradition of “pious fictions” in the history of Jewish theological discourses.

        1. Neil, I thought that you might find the following thoughts by me to be worthy of addressing in your readings and/or writings:

          “I have no problem with dating the “Authentic” Pauline letters to the 1st century CE and the Pastoral epistles (1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus) to the 2nd century CE, because, among other things, the pastoral epistles describe a better developed community with distinct ranks, scriptures, and theological controversies with other Christian groups (if I understand correctly). The Pastoral epistles also allude in 1 place to a story from the gospels. When were the Pastoral epistles written according to those who date all Pauline letters to the 2nd century CE? Were they written around the same time for the same communities? A few decades later? In the 3rd century CE? Something else?”

          1. I hope to cover some of these questions in more depth in coming posts. In short, a major problem (not the only one) that I see with dating Paul’s letters to the first century is that we have to conclude that they made no significant impact at that time, and that Paul himself remained a nonentity until the mid-second century. How was it that his letters were suddenly discovered and collected so late? And then we find that the letters are not letters at all but patched quilts of different letters or writings. Historical rules of thumb start assessing dates from the time we find external evidence for documents. In this case, that is the mid second century. It is at that time that we have many writings interested in Paul, including the Pastorals, Acts of Paul and Thecla, Acts of the Apostles, emerging. The question that interests me is why this sudden eruption of interest in Paul at that time. As for communities being addressed in the letters, I have doubts that any of the letters were written to local communities. They may have headers saying that they were, but the contents actually suggest a more “catholic” audience. Example, at one moment the author is addressing converts from paganism, at another those from Judaism, another time he seems to be addressing everybody else, not even Christians.

            P.S. Sorry for the long delay in replying. Just catching up again here.

  3. Thanks Neil. You have carefully navigated a path through the documents to which you refer and explained a succinct and persuasive statement of a constructive charter for engagement with New Testament studies.
    I am concerned that the essays quoted by Pattenden and yourself concerning the “Unbelieved” are asking for the supernatural to be given special treatment by historians. They argue that “objective historians should not discount, in advance, evidence that points to the existence or involvement of the Unbelieved [i.e. supernatural beings] in history”. Surely this is arguing for historians to do theology, contrary to your own final paragraph? They counsel against “dogmatic atheism” which is fine where what is meant is crusading atheism, but where this runs against uniformitarianism, surely they are entering a quagmire? Whilst you and Peter Brown are acknowledging the difficulties presented by Paul, the authors of the Unbelieved are asserting that they have identified a path for the reinstatement of Mary.

    1. Hi Geoff. Yes, I do confess I have some problems with the Clossey et al’s three-part article and that is why I focussed on the first of their three proposals: humility before the sources. I could never expect outright (i.e. “in your face”) Christian apologists to work productively with secularists. I am thinking of those biblical scholars who would themselves fall into the “imperialist” mindset of the three-part article and likewise deny the role of the supernatural. Researchers of the historical Jesus and Christian origins, for instance, by and large speak of the disciples coming to believe, upon reflection and subjective experiences, in the resurrection and messiahship of Jesus. (Of such “critical” scholars, only N.T. Wright, as far as I know, argues for a literal resurrection.)

      When the authors of the article say that sometimes the evidence for the “unbelieved”, meaning in our terms “the supernatural”, is sometimes as good as anything we could expect for natural events — e.g. multiple sworn testimonies — I do not agree. “Multiple sworn testimonies” for alien abductions, let’s say, are themselves sources that need to be respected and understood historically but are not in themselves proof of the reality of alien abductions. Multiple sworn witnesses have often been found in historical court and trial scenes to be false. Mass hysteria is a real phenomenon. Conspiracies are real events but that does not prove every conspiracy theory that takes possession of a population — e.g. the supposed designs of a powerful cabal of Jews controlling the world and manufacturing all its wars and economic fortunes — is real.

      No. I cherry-picked. I zeroed in on the one proposal that I believe, at least theoretically, that all sides could agree on.

  4. I think the problem is that too few of those who are considered critical scholars are interested in really doing history rather than historical fiction. They aren’t so much interested in determining what history has to say about a historical Jesus as they are in placing their fictional character of Jesus in a historical setting.

  5. Dickson has responded to Pattenden, doubling down on appeal to authority; falsely equating consensus on climate change to consensus on the ‘the historical Jesus’; complaining Pattenden accused ancient historians of group-think; splitting the ‘biblical Jesus’ from ‘the historical Jesus’; and asserting that Mark, Q, the Pauline epistles and Josephus are key separate, independent sources.

    https://www.abc.net.au/religion/john-dickson-revisiting-the-historicity-of-jesus/13730526

    1. Sigh sigh sigh — it’s like re-reading James McGrath’s bromides. I have been doing so much reading, and varied and in depth, lately, that I have become bottlenecked, not knowing where to begin my next posts. At least you have given me a way to break the ice.

  6. I have raised the following question at Wikipedia’s “Talk:Christ myth theory”:

    Per “the mainstream scholarly position”, who are the WP expert sources when the mainstream scholarly position is that the NT corpus is irrelevant to the issue of assigning a probability for the (a)historicity of Jesus¿

    I think the obvious answer is per Miles Pattenden, “Professional historians of Christianity” rather than a guild of biblical scholars.

    <

    blockquote><[U]nlike ‘guilds’ in professions such as law or medicine, it is not apparent what members of the ‘guild’ of biblical scholars have in common, other than a shared object of study and competence in a few requisite languages, and therefore what value an alleged consensus among them really has, especially on what is a historical rather than a linguistic matter. [Meggitt 2019, pp. 459–460).]/blockquote>

    Also there is the point that what is considered “mainstream” varies between secular & non-secular camps.
    “Talk:Christ myth theory §. The secular & non-secular “equivalence” tactic”. Wikipedia.

    For example, it is claimed that “Carrier is still not mainstream…” when citing the methodological failure of the criteria of authenticity and asserting a failure of the “entire quest for criteria”.

    1. This is what passes for mainstream scholarship on Wikipedia:

      “Historicity of Jesus”. Wikipedia.

      Standard historical criteria have aided in evaluating the historicity of the gospel narratives…[citequote: Blomberg, Craig (2011). “New Testament Studies in North America”. In Köstenberger, Andreas J.; Yarbrough, Robert W. (eds.). Understanding The Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. Crossway. p. 282. ISBN 978-1-4335-0719-9. “The fruit of a decade of work by the IBR Historical Jesus Study Group, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence [Ed. Darrell L. Bock and Robert L. Webb (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming).] takes a dozen core themes or events from Jesus’ life and ministry and details the case for their authenticity via all the standard historical criteria, as well as assessing their significance. The results show significant correlation between what historians can demonstrate and what evangelical theology has classically asserted about the life of Christ.”]

    2. SIDENOTE: Surprisingly 🙂 I have just been notified that my cumulative 500+ WP edits have earned me access to “Wikipedia Library (WPL)” @ https://wikipedialibrary.wmflabs.org/

      WPL goals:

      ⁠Connect​ ​editors​ ​with​ ​their​ ​local​ ​library​ ​and​ ​freely​ ​accessible​ ​resources

      ⁠Facilitate​ ​access​ ​to​ ​paywalled​ ​publications

      ⁠Build​ ​relationships​ ​among​ ​editors,​ ​librarians,​ ​and​ ​cultural​ ​heritage​ ​professionals

      ⁠Facilitate​ ​research​ ​for​ ​Wikipedians​ ​and​ ​readers

      ⁠Promote​ ​broader​ ​open​ ​access​ ​in​ ​publishing​ ​and​ ​research.

  7. How can Jesus Historicists and Mythicists Can Work Together?

    First the have to agree on minimal “Historicity”.

    Per the following, “Dr Sarah, do you have any issues with Carrier′s minimal “Historicity Jesus” definition? . Do you wish to add any qualifiers?”

    Dr. Sarah (2018)responds:

    A couple of quibbles:
    a) He would in actual fact have been named Yeshu or Yeshua, as Jesus was the Latinised version of the name, which a historical Jesus wouldn’t have used.
    b) I’d add ‘This is the movement which grew into what we now know as the Christian faith’. (As Crip Dyke pointed out, it’s otherwise theoretically possible that there might have been some other movement of people following a Yeshua who was executed while meanwhile Christianity arose from a mythical Yeshua/Jesus.)

    1. I am certainly in favor of deprecating (i.e. make obsolescent) the name Jesus in reference to the historical personage Jesus b. Joseph/Pantera. I suggest using Yesus rather than Yeshu or Yeshua.

      • e.g. Per the canonical gospels, Historicists assert that these literary narratives featuring god-Jesus contain biographical data for Yesus that can be extracted.

        1. “Is Pantera a nickname the Herodian Messiah’s father Antipater acquired during a stint leading troops in the Roman Army?”

          “Pantera”. RationalWiki. “Pantera may possibly have been the father of Jesus. The “Jesus son of Pantera” hypothesis has been promoted by James Tabor, who defends it primarily on textual grounds.”

          Price, Robert M. (October 2006). “The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity ? James D. Tabor”. Religious Studies Review. 32 (4): 265–265. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0922.2006.00116_39.x.

          Tabor is willing to take both gospel genealogies as true and historical. That they conspicuously fail to agree is grist for his mill, for like a couple of obscure Catholic apologists, he gratuitously makes the Lukan genealogy the family tree of Mary, even though it plainly says it is the line of Joseph, her husband. He decides that the Jewish jibe that Jesus was the bastard son of the Roman Pandera was true and not a pun on the virgin (parthenos) birth claim, just because Pandera was a common name for Roman soldiers, ignoring the fact that even the pun theory requires such, as there wouldn’t have been a joke to get unless there were actually men named “Pandera.” The hardly reliable Epiphanius tried to co-opt the slur by saying that Pandera was part of the name of an ancestor of Jesus. And that’s good enough for Tabor.

          “The paternity of Jesus”. RHEDESIUM.

          Graves’ book was one of many in that genre supposedly looking fictionally at the life of Jesus. The shocking idea in King Jesus was that ‘…Jesus [was] not … the Son of God but rather … a philosopher with a legitimate claim to the Judaean throne through Herod the Great. It [the story] begins with the reign of Herod before Jesus is born and explains the dynastical, quasi-secular roots of Jesus both from his mother’s and his father’s side, establishing a temporal and historical right to the throne of Israel. The second part starts with the Nativity and Jesus’s youth. Finally, the third part chronicles Jesus’s work in adulthood as a prophet, his death on the cross, and his resurrection”.

  8. Crossley, James (10 August 2021). “The Next Quest for the Historical Jesus”. Medium.

    Historical Method. The emphasis in understanding history in the Next Quest must shift towards explanation. It should engage with arguments that have been taking place about the varied social factors that explain how the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and how it survived and spread. Implying that the movement did so because it was better is not good enough. The Next Quest will look beyond the speculative establishing of “facts” about Jesus to how ideas would have been understood in Galilee and Judea at the time of Jesus. More work is needed on imagining how the words and deeds attributed to Jesus ended up in the Gospels. This is not simply a repackaging of the old form critical arguments. The recent trend in memory studies has now shown that we need a more expansive understanding of this process that is not simply about handing down “tradition.” The discussion of scribalism in relation to (il)literacy and survival of the Jesus movement needs more analysis.

    “Join our Cloud HD Video Meeting”. Zoom Video.

    The twentieth-century Quest for the historical Jesus has stagnated. The core, identifying, feature of the Next Quest for the historical Jesus is not a methodology per se, but a fundamental (re-)orientation of the discussion toward the historical claims made about Jesus and his followers in the ancient evidence.

    Per a comment @“The Christ Myth Theory”. Internet Infidels Discussion Board.

    Yeah, Crossley is the guy I have in mind. Forced by a general anti-Jewish sentiment to play footsie with the mythicists.

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