Gospel and Historical Jesus Criticism — Method and Consistency

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by Neil Godfrey

Some critics have portrayed me as being like a moth fluttering to the nearest flame, as one who is always attracted to the latest most radical viewpoint, and therefore my views cannot be taken seriously. What those critics generally fail to recognize, however, is the consistency of my readings of the sources and the fact that my approach is for most part taken for granted among scholars who specialize in other fields of historical research.

Let me explain.

The historians of ancient Rome have their text sources: Tacitus, Suetonius, etc. Those historians have been trained to read those texts in a critical manner: What is the bias of the author? How could the author have known the details we are reading? etc.

At first glance, it appears that critics of the Gospels follow the same approach, and at a certain superficial level they do: What is the theological bias of the author of this gospel? What are the implied or likely sources for this or that episode or saying?

But there is a fundamental difference too often overlooked in the literature of New Testament scholarship that changes everything.

Before I explain that fundamental difference, let me narrate how I came to discern the great chasm between historical inquiry into “secular” ancient history and “biblical” history.

It was some years ago when I suppose I was still feeling somewhat raw from having discovered how wrong “about everything” I had once been in a religion that I had left behind. I had learned many lessons from my experience of having been so wrong — think of “In Praise of Failure” of my previous two posts — and had become hyper-sensitive about repeating mistakes and falling into a new set of misdirections. So when I encountered Earl Doherty’s case for Jesus being non-historical my instinctive reaction was extreme caution and scepticism. Was this just another idea that had no basis, was entirely ad hoc, a fancy for hobbyists?

I dedicated a lot of time to trying to work through exactly how we know anything at all “for a fact” about the ancient past. I read widely but found that most historians seemed to take for granted certain data that they read in their sources. They had their reasons for rejecting this or that detail, but I rarely found a clear explanation of how they came to conclude that, for instance, Julius Caesar really was assassinated, or that there really was a Great Fire in Rome in the time of Nero. That Julius Caesar and Nero really existed was evident enough from material evidence – coins and monuments. But what about Socrates? The historians seemed to have an abundance of data but I searched without much success to find a clear explanation for why they seemed to take certain information for granted (e.g. the existence of Socrates).

It took some time but I eventually came to identify the foundations of their knowledge.

The existence for Socrates, for whom we have no surviving physical monuments, was accepted for essentially the same reason they accepted the historicity of Julius Caesar: the evidence of one source was corroborated independently by another contemporary source. Even literary sources could corroborate one another. Historians focussed on areas for which they had sources whose provenance they could reasonably understand and trust, and that were demonstrated to be of the kind that had good grounds for conveying largely reliable information. Such sources are on the whole independently corroborated. Such understanding is the bread and butter of historians and many do seem to take it for granted so that it “goes without saying”.

But not every detail in those sources is taken for granted as historical, of course. Take the case of the plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. That there was a plague would seem to be corroborated by the fact that our main source for it — Thucydides — we know from other information was evidently an eyewitness and in a position to know and record the fact. It does not follow that every detail Thucydides wrote was historical, however. We also have fictional dramatic works describing plagues and since we see these closely mirrored in Thucydides’ description of the Athenian plague, it is reasonable to conclude that Thucydides drew upon those fictional sources to dramatize his otherwise historical narrative.

Can a historian sift historical information from the Gospels in the same way he or she does from Thucydides? The answer is a resounding No. That is because we have no contemporary or reliable information about the identity of their authors. We don’t even have any independent evidence to help us decide when they were written — except that they had to be some time before the middle or late second century because that’s when we find them discussed by Church Fathers. Moreover, and here is a point I find commonly misunderstood, they do not even evince core characteristics of other historical writings of the time: they do not even seek to give readers explicit or implicit reasonable grounds for trusting them. Yes, the Gospels of Luke and John do point to “eyewitnesses” but they do so in such vague and cryptic terms that doubts inevitably arise among readers who are familiar with similar yet more detailed and testable claims by other historians. The authors hide their identities, or leave readers guessing about their ability to trust them. The Gospel of Matthew plays with the word “mathete” in a way that leads readers of the Greek text to suspect the author is indeed a certain Matthew, but who that Matthew was we have no idea; Luke in his second volume (Acts) slips into “we” as if he himself is an eyewitness reporter, but again it is all very vague and cryptic. We don’t know who this supposed eyewitness is. And the final word must be that the Gospels are clearly theological narratives advocating belief in a miracle story. Anyone familiar with the historical writings of the era cannot fail to notice the stark differences.

I have spoken of independent corroboration. Independent corroboration has to come from contemporaries or from persons who have access to information contemporary with the composition of the texts being studied. A document that appears decades after the source text can do no more than tell us what someone believed (or wanted others to believe) in their own time. One of the reasons historians reject the claim that Martin Luther committed suicide lies in the fact that it first appeared only “twenty years” after his death.

We have no independent evidence to pin down a date for the creation of the Gospels. We may surmise from internal evidence (e.g. the prediction of the destruction of the Temple) that a work was composed around the time of its destruction but that is essentially nothing more than speculation.

Our extant evidence compels us to keep the following factors in mind when reading the Gospels as historical sources:

  • We do not know who wrote them or the circumstances in which they were written;
  • We do not know when they were written (short of somewhere between the early first century and the mid to late second century);
  • We do not know what sources were used for their narratives and sayings (short of some episodes and speeches being clear adaptations of Old Testament writings).

New Testament scholars long relied upon what they called “criteria of authenticity” to try to establish strong probabilities for the historical veracity of certain details but that method is alien to the methods used by other historians. Example:

  • If an episode points to a negative act by a Church hero such as Peter’s denial of Jesus, it is likely to be true – “the criterion of embarrassment”.

Such methods have long been dismissed as logically fallacious by other historians and are finally being acknowledged as flawed by New Testament scholars. In the case of the above example, it is reasonable to imagine the embarrassing story is created to encourage other followers that know that God can forgive and rehabilitate those who are weak and fall.

Some New Testament scholars have turned away from the criteria of embarrassment and have turned to “memory theory” instead. But again, we are in the realm of circularity: we begin with the assumption that there is a historical event that has spawned the Gospel narrative, but we believe that there is a historical event at the start because we we can see “how it has been modified” by various interests before reaching the Gospel author.

We can hypothesize how Gospel stories originated, that they came to the authors by means of oral traditions, but hypotheses can never be more than hypotheses unless we can find indisputable evidence that lifts them beyond that status.

My approach to reading the Gospels is through the acknowledgement of these realities. This perspective is grounded in the all but taken for granted approach of historians who undertake research into other times and places. As long as certain questions about the source documents remain open those documents cannot be read or used in the same way as sources for which those questions are definitively answered.

This is not hyper-scepticism or straining to be some sort of contrarian. It is acknowledgment of the realities about our sources.




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23 thoughts on “Gospel and Historical Jesus Criticism — Method and Consistency”

  1. Greetings. I’ve been following your blog for a couple of years and I have it in my bookmarks bar. The various theories, suggestions, and studies that I read in it are always helpful and help me think. There is not much I can say about myself, I am Argentine, I grew up and was educated within the Catholic Church, to which I belonged until I was more or less 35 years old (today I am 59 years old). The community in which I was adhered to the so-called liberation theology, for which reason it was far from being fundamentalist: my readings in those years included “wayward” theologians such as Hans Küng, critics of the stature of Brown, the Episcopalian Spoong or researchers like Meeks or Theisen. Since my middle age I left religion and recognized myself as an atheist, I never had resentment against my church, whose dogmas I do not accept, and I have not had any interest in anti-religious polemics either, guys like Carrier or Dawkins really dislike me; for his attitude rather than for his theories.
    My professional training is teaching, I am a teacher of basic and secondary education, and I have completed a degree in History. This has allowed me to learn to work with historical documents, to ask them the right questions and, above all, to understand two fundamental issues: the historian is not a judge who looks for the bare facts (claim of positivism) and all history is a precarious reconstruction.
    Fifteen years ago I began to write a kind of compendium of Christian beliefs that I have called The Christian Myths, similar to Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I understand myths as a form of story charged with meaning, which is updated each time it is narrated, and which expresses meanings in supernatural or “unreal” ways that cannot be understood in any other way.
    I apologize for the long prologue, I just wanted to make it clear where I stand.
    The most obvious reason to study, and perhaps accept, the historicity of Jesus is the existence of a movement based on him. A movement that preceded him and that was transformed in many ways, but that was already in force some twenty years after his death. If a man, a Galilean, a Jew, probably a troublemaker, is at the origin of all this, as I maintain, or if there is only one name, it is not what is really important for the story, but rather everything that has been set in motion since then. .
    Lately I’ve been reading Etiénne Nodet, a researcher at the Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem, whose points of view, sometimes close to Einseman’s, are really interesting. In order to reconstruct the origin of the Jesus movement, of which only one of its branches became Christianity, he focuses on rituals such as the “eucharist” and “baptism” (in quotes because they are not the same as today). we know); from there he goes back to the texts and analyzes them with a Cartesianism that only a Frenchman can display. If you don’t know him, I warmly recommend him.
    Well, I have gone on too long and I don’t know if what I have written is relevant. In addition, English is not my language, so I may be writing with numerous errors…
    I just want to thank you for this meeting space, for your contributions and the authors that you have made me know (Gmirkin is one of them) and I leave the channel open for future communications. And, as we say in our “pagos”: “chau”.

    1. Hi Gustavo and thank you for the comment. We have a similar professional background, though I left secondary teaching (mainly teaching history) to become an academic librarian in the latter half of my working life. I once studied liberation theology as part of my post grad educational studies, or at least I studied the pedagogical writings of Paulo Friere — I imagine you are familiar with him. I admit I had a soft spot for his approach. Another Argentine scholar I have sometimes addressed here is Emmanuel Pfoh.

      And yes, you will be pleased to hear I do know of many of Étienne Nodet’s works and have mentioned him a few times here. I have translated some of his publications into English but I don’t think copyright legislation would allow me to make them public.

      Your point about the historicity of Jesus is well taken. The question that comes to my mind, however, is What evidence is there for Christianity beginning as a movement following Jesus? Does not such a scenario lead us to expect the earliest evidence would focus on his career as a person and his teachings to his disciples on earth? But the earliest evidence we have depicts Jesus from the get-go as a God, in effect, or part of the Godhead. Our first records have him as a heavenly saviour. It is only later that we find efforts to humanize him, and that’s where the focus on applying OT prophecies enters the picture. Further, I can understand how a portrayal of a human Jesus emerges as a response to a docetic view, but I have a problem understanding how some of the more esoteric gnostic-type doctrines arose from a movement that began as a follower of a man like Plato, or Pythagoras, or Socrates, etc. I would be interested in hearing responses to these questions from you or anyone else interested in the subject.

      But thanks again for writing — it’s very nice to meet you.

      1. Thanks for your kind reply. I know the cited authors, although Freire is somewhat marginal in relation to Theology of Liberation. As for Pfoh, he is one of my “favorites” in the study of ancient Palestine.
        About the theme.
        Crossan says that research on the historical Jesus is a kind of academic joke: someone always says it can’t be done and always someone, sometimes the same person, ends up doing it.
        As a historian, albeit an amateur, I believe that determining the existence or not of a person is not our task. If Jesus interests us, and this is my case, it is due more to his influence than to who he was; even without having existed, he is a fundamental “character”.
        Now, I believe that the evidence, contrary to what you say, is quite stronger to support his existence. I consider this the most economical hypothesis. Testing it, or trying to do it, would take up a lot more space than a simple blog comment. What follows is just some of my arguments:
        Paul says, I quote from memory, that Jesus is someone born of a woman, of the lineage of David, crucified, buried and risen, a person that many have known “according to the flesh” and to whom some, few, sayings are attributed. It is true that he adds “according to the Scriptures,” but this refers to the interpretation of the facts, not the facts themselves. A contemporary analogy is the Teacher of Righteousness, someone whose life, unquestioned, is also interpreted in terms of Scripture.
        The traditions about Jesus are difficult to evaluate and the great contribution of the mythicist school is to warn us against too urgent assimilations between what we can infer and what we think we know due to the weight of the figure of Jesus in the West. Separately each strand of tradition may be weak, but taken together they give us a coherent picture.
        Anyway, as a famous Argentine illusionist said; “it can fail” and the character will be that paper figure that Couchod mentioned…

        1. Gustavo, since you have mentioned Couchoud, it may be interesting for you to know that he argued for the Apostolikon being a version more genuine than the canonical version of the pauline epistles, a view being revalued today (see here). The ‘human-like’ verses (‘born by woman’, ‘sperm of David’, ‘brothers of the Lord’) are Catholic interpolations.

        2. My post is directed at the gospels specifically, but the same applies to the letters of Paul. Again — we have the problem of circularity without independent corroboration to help settle on some clear idea of provenance.

          Often when I raise this question I get a response that seeks to explain why we lack such independent controls — in other words, ad hoc rationalizations to justify the circularity of our readings. Too often we fail to notice how much of our work is undertaken within the shadow of tradition.

          1. I agree with Drews that the “question of the authenticity of the epistles” is “a question absolute agreement on which will probably never be attained, for the simple reason that we lack any certain basis for its decision”, but assuming a post-70 Paul would open the way to a lot of speculations about the origin of the earliest Christian belief in the First Jewish Revolt, in primis the concrete possibility that the historical Jesus was active during the revolt itself (think about Jesus ben Sapphas being the name of the Zealot saved iin extremis by Josephus aka Joseph of Arimathea, or the confusion of Pilate with Cerealis, as the affinity of the passage of Pilate with War 3.307-315 was already pointed out by Jost, Geschichte I, 61 n. 4; cf. Bergmeier, “Zur Frühdatierung”, 136: “Die Stelle [18.85-89] steht überdies in einem auffälligen Entsprechungsverhältnis zu bell. 3, 307-315, das der Klärung bedürfte”).

            1. There is certainly room for an abundance of speculation. What I have in mind is being able to place all the pieces in order according to 1. earliest independent corroboration and 2. internal details finding partners in other sources. I have a lot more to learn about Paul’s letters before I can do that.

      2. Addendum,
        I once read, I think Ronald Syme, affirming precisely the opposite of what you say. He wondered why New Testament scholars had so little confidence in their sources, compared to scholars of Roman history.

        1. Yes, there are classicists and other historians who have delved into New Testament studies and in doing so have embraced the scholarly background of the theologian commentaries on that field. Such historians are immersed in their own field to the extent that they take many of their sources for granted and fail to appreciate what it is that underlies the confidence that they place in them. Not all, but many. It takes the likes of a Moses Finley to address how studies in his field (classics and ancient history) is undertaken and to remind his peers of the assumptions underlying their reading of the sources to try to address some of the less-well founded scholarship of the past and present in his field.

  2. re: “Can a historian sift historical information from the Gospels in the same way he or she does from Thucydides? The answer is a resounding No.”

    I’ve long wondered why scholars – Christian or otherwise – even bring the Gospels and Acts into the broader discussion of either the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection or of the origins of Christianity.

    You noted that a “document that appears decades after the source text can do no more than tell us what someone believed (or wanted others to believe) in their own time”, and while I don’t agree that this is always the case, I actually do agree with you that this is the case in regard to the Gospels and Acts.

    But, having said that, I’d love to know the “nutshell” version (as you see it, of course) of “What Really Happened” that caused someone/anyone to first claim that “Jesus was raised from the dead”.

    1. I ignore arguments attempting to establish the historicity of the resurrection but I can understand why NT scholars fall back on Acts and the Gospels to try to determine the origin of Christianity. As I tried to at least half-hint in the above post, even mainstream historians seem to take for granted their sources — and that’s because they have an abundance of them that do corroborate one another. It is easy to lose sight of the principles underlying why certain data can be considered historical and other information suspect. And from there it is easy to forget the fundamental principles that in fact divide the sources for, say, Roman history from those for Christian origins history. The blurring that results makes it all too easy for Gospels and Acts to be treated much the same way historians treat Suetonius or Herodotus.

      As for a document that appears as late as a couple of decades after an event to which it testifies, we can have some confidence that it is reliable IF at the same time we can see that its author attained his/her information from a reliable source. Or if we have good reasons to believe the author had access to some reliable source.

      As for “what really happened” I have no idea, really — and the answer I am going to offer now may not be the one I give next year if asked the same question.

      I suspect the answer has to go back to the origin of the Jesus idea — which, I think, is found in the OT prophets. I’d like to say that the Son of Man in Daniel is a figure easily seen as having been resurrected (via the merging of his idea with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah) and the notion of the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs giving birth to the “new Israel”. (See, for example, an old 2015 post of mine. See also the series on Levinson’s work.)

      The Gospel of Mark, I believe, can only be sensibly read as an allegory or parable of some kind. Its details make no sense as history. (I think I posted often on this view quite some years ago.) What explains this first gospel? I find myself drawn to the idea that it was a narrative built around the destruction of the Second Temple and Jewish state, leaving the Diaspora to carry on the “work of God” as a “new Israel”. That is where the notion of the resurrection was “invented”. Jesus was the personification of Israel. (See, for instance, my long series of posts on Nanine Charbonnel’s book. — but there are also many other works behind this idea.)

      I wonder if the Christian ideas began as a kind of exploration by educated Jews/Judeans and gentile converts to make sense of God’s work in the Roman world. Bruno Bauer identified many associations between Paul and Stoic ideas and many other scholars have since found similar links. I find it curious that the notion of salvation through faith in a Logos or Christ Crucified can be patterned after the Stoic idea — see, for example, posts I have written here on Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s research.

      Somewhere in there I think we will find the birth of the idea that a spirit being personifying Israel (Israel, after all, don’t forget, was an eternal figure in the heavens before the human Israel) was given over to death and resurrection. And that act was acted out here below (keep in mind the ancient principle of “as above so here below”) in the massacre of Judeans and destruction of their Temple followed by a “reborn” Israel incorporating gentiles along with the remnant of Judeans.

      Such a scenario leaves open the possibility that the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel to be written, appeared after the Bar Kochba war — but some form of philosophical-theological “Christianity” existed before then, surely — having emerged, I think, post 70 CE.

    2. Reading the third gospel – the one attributed to “Luke” – it seems that what really happened was that there was a religiously-driven revolt against the collaborating kings of Judea led by John the Baptist. This failed and John was killed. Some of his adherents claimed he rose from the dead (this is directly stated in chapter 9 of the gospel).

      Speculating now, I guess the fact that his head was on display undermined this attempt to rescue the movement. A new movement took up the idea of a spiritual messiah – Jesus – which was already floating around and transplanted the beliefs and demands from John onto that with the advantage that Jesus had no physical body to display. The image of the empty tomb was taken from existing Greek myth (see: Oedipus/Antigone) and turned to the new movement’s advantage as a miraculous explanation of a lack of body etc.

      A fair bit of the third gospel is spent explaining why there’s so much similarity between Jesus and John’s missions and actions (perhaps even the “Lord’s prayer” is taken from John, according to this gospel), which implies that John was a very big deal that had to be dealt with. Indeed, the continued existence of Johnites who claimed miracles on his behalf seems to have been a problem for the gospel author as well as whoever later added the opening chapter explaining why the Jesus movement’s miraculous birth narrative is so like the apparently well known one for John.

      All in all, the authors of the third gospel (it seems to me) reveal a concerted effort over quite a long period to co-opt a body of stories which already existed and re-apply them to a new, much less historical and thus less disprovable, entity.

      The ultimate motivation is initially the same as it was for John – to end the collaboration with the Romans and any ideas of live-and-let-live for the Jewish and Pagan religions. The objective of the movement was to stress that these two things were completely incompatible. Over time it morphed into something rather bigger but it retained that at the core, leading to much bloodshed.

      1. But to accept such an interpretation we have to reject what we read in the gospels and replace the narrative with another that suits our hypothesis. There is no independent evidence that I know of on which to base such an interpretation. The interpretation assumes that the author is writing a cryptic version of “what really happened” — but on what basis do we make such an assumption?

        1. Well, the authors are writing from some motivation. Spending literally pages and pages trying to explain why the Jesus cult looks so like John’s, and claims so many similar things right up to and including resurrection, must come from some situation “on the ground” at the time of writing.

          No one has to be replaced to make the observation that this effort was being made. We are specifically told that John was a revolutionary so HIS motivation is at least clearly presented, albeit by later writers. But those writers seem not to be negating his mission; they’re at pains to accept him as a forerunner rather than a rival.

          He/they are not “writing a cryptic version” but attempting to explain away a failure – a failure which is described in the text – as opening the door to a success.

          This isn’t rejecting what we read in the gospel – it’s directly take from the text. I’m curious what part of the third gospel’s narrative you think I’m rejecting beyond its supernatural claims.

          Of course, the gospel was written long after the “facts” and we’re only analysing the writers’ PoV, some of which may be adopted rather than sincere, but the text itself clearly presents John as a person he/they believed existed and had a strong following. That belief in John as messiah lasted in Ethiopia into the 4th century.

          The implication of spending so much text on absorbing him and his mission into the Jesus story suggests to me that at the time of writing the John cult was still strong enough to not allow for outright dismissal. While that *is* speculation, the authors must have had some reason to expend to much energy on it.

          1. I don’t see where we read that John was a revolutionary, nor do I see any reason to believe that our gospel authors are “trying to explain why a Jesus cult looks like John’s”. There is no description of any cult per se that I am aware of in the gospels — certainly there are no indications that either John or Jesus was a “revolutionary” — those interpretations are what readers have read into the gospels but other ways of reading the same gospels can yield completely opposite results. (Have you read Rivka Nir’s “The First Christian Believer” to see how she analyses the way the evangelists treat John the Baptist?)

            If the first gospel is allegorical then John the Baptist is no more than a representative of the Old Covenant which, in the minds of Christians, foretold the New. We are taking a leap to assume that any of the authors “believed” or “knew” of a cult of John in their own time. That is also a viewpoint that is read into the text. The evidence that we do have surely shows how each evangelist adapted the first gospel’s view of John to suit their own theological purposes.

            There is nothing here as far as I am aware that can be used by historians who require independent corroboration of any of their bedrock facts.

            1. I’m a bit taken aback by your reply. We’re *told* straight up that John says that the king is in violation of God’s law against incest – says it far and wide. Saying that the ruler of the Jewish state is in violation of God’s law is pretty revolutionary in my book. Jesus’s followers are certainly not happy with the status quo either, although this isn’t the same thing as the *character* of Jesus being revolutionary.

              The third gospel speaks at tedious length about John, his followers, the miracles his followers think he performed, and even the fact that he taught his followers specific forms of prayer (“Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples”) which were presumably novel to his cult/following/group or whatever you want to call it. I’m not bringing any outside source to bear here at all.

              Now, you say “We are taking a leap to assume that any of the authors “believed” or “knew” of a cult of John in their own time” and perhaps if you squint then the text can be seen as a historical account – things like

              “Whom say the people that I am?”
              “They answering said, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias…”

              could just be reporting that some people in the *past* thought Jesus might be a reborn John, but a lot of the third gospel seems to me to be directly addressing holdouts to the previous cult. I mean – look at chapter 1. It’s really rubbing in the idea that John is not Christ; he just seems *like* Christ. Read it – the whole implication is that John’s birth was also not the result of normal sexual relations and was in some way miraculous (“For with God nothing shall be impossible”) but that this should not be confused with Mary’s miraculous birth. Why bother explaining all this away if the author doesn’t think there’s any confusion in his own day? The suggestion would have to be that the author is inventing false claims simply in order to refute them. Why would he? What’s the motive for inventing chapter 1 and its strange parallel lives story, whether the two J’s existed or not?

              These are claims and controversies internal to the text. The historical interest is in showing the state of mind of the author and what it might tell us about the world around him/them.

              Because of course there isn’t much bedrock under either Jesus nor John. Josephus mentions John (probably without the use of the Christian magic biro to insert the reference) but that’s many years later and really doesn’t tell us anything. John is not currently a historical figure in any real sense, but people who believed he was the messiah are attested to, in the NT, by someone who clearly wanted to show that they were wrong. That’s interesting.

              I will have a look for “The First Christian Believer”, thanks, but I would suggest to you to just sit down with the third gospel and read it page by page from the start. There is a lot of illumination about John and his cult there just in the words of the authors, but when reading extracts or jumping around following cross-references the near obsession with John in the first dozen chapters can easily be missed and it deserves consideration as to why it’s there.

              It’s basic criticism to ask “why did this author expend time presenting this to the outside world?” is it not?

              1. A prophet denouncing the sin of a king is not revolutionary. It is the job description of prophets since prophets first appeared on the scene. What is revolutionary is declaring that a king has no right to rule and that he must be overthrown. That’s what Korah and Dathan did and God swallowed them up for their rebellion. Samuel denounced King Saul’s sin but was not a revolutionary. The point was to call on Saul to repent. Compare also Nathan denouncing David for his sin. Again, not at all revolutionary. Ditto for Elijah denouncing the sin of Jezebel and Ahab. John the Baptist is modelled on Elijah in the Gospel of Mark and John’s denouncing the sin of the king is part of that modelling pattern. John doesn’t run off and hide, though, or lead a band of renegades. He also has to be the forerunner of Jesus so the author has him arrested and beheaded. His followers do not respond with any hint of revolutionary activity. They appear to quite openly be allowed to bury John.

                As for a description of John’s followers, we are told nothing more than that they fasted and prayed. Those are simply generic practices found among most religious sects. The point of the gospels was to demonstrate how Jesus was different.

                As for your questions on why an author would have invented certain details about John — those questions are answered in numerous studies on the gospels. The author’s account of John is all part of a literary foil against Jesus. There is simply no reason to assume that the author is addressing questions about historical events: we have no independent evidence that there was any awareness of a John the Baptist from the time. (The Josephus reference only adds to such a problem.) The gospels are literary creations. No-one asks why the author of Genesis depicted Adam as a sinner or Cain as a murderer — because the reasons for such details are clearly part of the larger literary theme: they are not attempts to answer questions that existed among contemporaries about Adam or Cain.

                The author is creating a story along the same lines as other authors created stories of Joseph, of Esther, of David. We cannot assume without evidence that the author was specifically addressing questions that had arisen among his would-be readers in his own time and that he was trying to set the true history of events straight, at least according to his own lights.

                The whole idea that the evangelists were addressing historical events and questions is a circular process. This is a point of historical method and textual analysis I have been attempting to address many times now — see the basic problem of this circular logic at http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/davies2.htm

                Re your conclusion — we do not know that Luke was writing for “the outside world” as opposed to Christians. His story would have little meaning for outsiders. But as for why Luke writes what he does about John, it is instructive, I think, to compare how his predecessors wrote about John, and Jesus, too — we find that Luke is evidently correcting what had been written before him by Mark and Matthew, and he is creating a story with a different theological teaching (not factual historical details) about Christian origins. The key to understanding Luke’s treatment of any one character is to examine how he treats all his characters and compare his treatments with previous gospel depictions.

              2. You raise some interesting points and since I know these are not at all unique to you I may post specifically addressing such questions of presumed historicity. I did post fairly regularly on such viewpoints when I first started this blog, but unfortunately met with quite hostile reactions by a handful of mainstream scholars who took great offence at my critiques of their work from the perspective of normative historical methods. Hopefully my skin has had time to toughen up by now and I can return to such questions.

              3. Until I post again on this question, let me address the particular example you gave when you wrote:

                Now, you say “We are taking a leap to assume that any of the authors “believed” or “knew” of a cult of John in their own time” and perhaps if you squint then the text can be seen as a historical account – things like

                “Whom say the people that I am?”
                “They answering said, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias…”

                could just be reporting that some people in the *past* thought Jesus might be a reborn John . . .

                The gospels are written in the style of historical narratives that we read in the “Old Testament”. It is easy and natural to read them as historical narratives. But that tells us more about the literary style and literary agendas than it does about real history. So here’s a way to read the passage you refer to without assuming historical situations for which we have no evidence. This reading is formed entirely from the logic of the text itself….

                Mark has been demonstrating that though Jesus performs many miracles that should prove that he is the Messiah, no-one recognizes him as the Messiah. This is a narrative problem. The author is surely aware that he has set out a conundrum for his readers. So how does he explain why his narrative audience does not recognize Jesus? He creates an episode to explain that they attributed his miracles to the works of earlier prophets — ah yes – he must be a revived Elijah, or a returned John the Baptist who had even greater powers after his supposed resurrection.

                The same types of literary devices are found in other literature, both modern and ancient, and they are very common. Homer’s epic about Odysseus explains in various narrative ways why people did not recognize Odysseus at his homecoming — and he even explains that they knew there was something different about him, but they always missed the mark. Similarly Euripides in his play about Dionysus — he has to have Dionysus unrecognized for who he truly was in order for the plot to work. It was necessary to keep the audiences of Dionysus guessing about who he really was. His main enemy concluded he was a priest of Dionysus — close, but no cigar.

                My point is that such details in the gospel can be explained most simply and directly by thinking through their narrative logic. There is no need to step outside the narrative and read the mind of the author and imagine a historical and audience setting for which we have no evidence.

  3. Georges Las Vergnas (Jésus-Christ a-t-il existé? Paris, La Ruche ouvrière, 1958) had written a little pamphlet where he argued for a similar view: Christianity (=”Pauline” epistles) being born only after the 70, and Jesus being euhemerized after the 135. He has been criticized by other mythicists along the lines that he would have been unable to disconnect the death of a deity from the death of a nation, as if the first couldn’t be conceived without the happenings of the second.

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