Search Results for: crossley prayer open


Can Biblical Scholarship Free itself from Confessional and Evangelical Interests?

by Neil Godfrey

The goal of Biblical Studies Online is to provide both biblical scholars and the interested wider public with ease of access to quality biblical scholarship, as it comes available online.

. . . .

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to locate these resources on the internet, and sometimes difficult for those less experienced with biblical scholarship to distinguish worthwhile material from that which is inaccurate or even grossly misleading. And when it comes to the Bible, there is no shortage of the latter to be found. For this reason, Biblical Studies Online offers a gateway for the dissemination and publicizing of worthwhile open-access, online biblical scholarship.

Sounds like a great resource. Professor James Crossley is one of the two scholars listed as a maintainer of the site and given that Crossley has published protests against faith-based scholarship and is a strong advocate of a secular approach to biblical studies I allowed myself hope that “quality biblical scholarship” and “worthwhile material” would mean work free from confessional bias. Crossley, after all, is well aware that the entire field of New Testament studies risks the perception of being described as a “dubious” academic field. He even expresses some dismay that an academic conference should be opened with a prayer!

In September 2000 the annual British New Testament Conference, held in Roehampton, opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer, the perfect symbols of middle-class Christianity, some might say. The glass of wine I can accept, but should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening, particularly when some of the participants are certainly nonreligious and some possibly from non-Christian faiths? Leaving aside the moral issue, the fact that there is an overwhelming Christian presence in British NT scholarship is surely the reason that this could happen. Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things? (Crossley, Why Christianity Happened, p. 23)

The most recent two videos posted by the Biblical Studies Online site are lectures by scholars (Professors Tigay and Gathercole) I recognize from my wider reading; the latter’s works I have posted about here. So given Crossley’s association with the site and the site’s own promotional stress on “quality” and “worthwhile” scholarship, I was not prepared for the latest video presentation by Professor Tigay opening with a PRAYER!

Advance to 3:50

I suppose what follows is a form of “biblical scholarship” but I would have categorized it under theology. The entire lecture is about how Jews and others have attempted to rationalize the biblical commands to exterminate the Canaanites with the sort of God and values worshipers want to believe in. Professor Tigay expressed his own view at the end: the genocidal commands were created by scribes attempting to explain why they saw no Canaanites around in their own day.

I would have expected a secular approach to the Deuteronomic laws to focus upon their origins, and that would have meant that Professor Tigay would have argued in some detail for his view and set his arguments beside alternative hypotheses. Rather, the lecture merely demonstrated the confessional interests of the professor, his audience, and the interests behind the site Biblical Studies Online.

An earlier video lecture [Link ( no longer alive: Neil Godfrey, 24th July 2019] was delivered by Professor Gathercole. He was introduced as “one of the stars in academia of evangelical faith”. Thanks for the warning. I will be more aware of his bias next time I read any of his scholarly work.

Professor Gathercole begins by setting himself and his audience apart from “Jesus sceptics” and “sceptical scholars”. A scholar using “sceptical” as a negative descriptor!

What follows is just what I would expect to find set out in an evangelical tract that purports to prove that the Bible is “true”. Twenty-two of twenty-seven place-names in the Gospels are said to be found in other sources, and that compares with a similar ratio of thirty-five out of forty-four towns in Josephus’s writings being identified independently. Meanwhile the apocryphal gospels get place-names hopelessly mixed up.

Conclusion: no-one doubts Josephus wrote real history (despite his exaggerations), so it is implied that there is no excuse to doubt the reliability of the canonical gospels!

I found the framing the argument interesting. It went something like this: Josephus describes traveling from place A to B just as Jesus went from A to B, etc.

How can a geographical place itself support the historicity of a narrative story that is set there? Obviously it can’t. But this added to a site as a contribution to “quality biblical scholarship” and “worthwhile material”.

One has to assume that the other material posted on that site will only be “worthwhile” and “quality” in the eyes of those who have a devotional or evangelical interest in the Bible.



Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey

From time to time someone – lay person or New Testament scholar – publicly insists that there is no more bias among the professional scholars of the Bible than there is among any other academic guild. The question arose recently on the Bible Criticism and History forum and I found myself scrambling quotations from members of the guild themselves to point out what surely is obvious to most outsiders. There are individuals who recognize in greater or lesser degrees just how bound in hidden bias on the question of the historical Jesus are the majority of their peers.

Of course most scholars will openly confess to acknowledging bias to some extent but in practice few appear to truly grasp the extent to which the historical Jesus question is grounded in interests that are not fully scholarly.

Here is the list that came most readily to hand.

Hal Childs, “Myth of the Historical Jesus

If interest in Jesus, whether historical or theological, has a strong, if not predominant, emotional dimension, this is usually not acknowledged, nor named as such. Emotion has a bad name in scholarship, and both methods and literary style have been designed to apparently exclude it from scholarly pursuits and results. If scholarship can be said to have repressed emotion, then, as Freud said, it returns in other forms, perhaps as ideology or dogmatism. It is always present as an invisible hand guiding interest, commitment, choice, judgement, and the framing of meaning. (p. 15)

Scot McKnight, “Jesus and His Death

Since I have placed Carr and Elton in the same category of modernist historiographer, I must add that many if not most historical Jesus scholars tend to make a presentation of Jesus that fits with what they think the future of Christianity holds, as E.H. Carr so clearly argued. While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (p. 36)

From James Crossley: To date the study has been approached too narrowly, “being dominated by Christians”.

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

Crossley quoting Maurice Casey:

But when 90 percent of the applicants [to New Testament studies] are Protestant Christians, a vast majority of Christian academics is a natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles of sufficient technical proficiency to be taken seriously. The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one. (p. 23) read more »


Was Jesus Another Charismatic Holy Man? The Evidence according to Geza Vermes

by Neil Godfrey
Geza Vermes
Geza Vermes

Some scholars today say a major work of Geza Vermes first published in 1973, Jesus the Jew: a historian’s reading of the Gospels, has “stood the test of time”. From my own recollection of Vermes’ book I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing.

Here are some of the more recent accolades:

Indeed, some of Vermes’s distinctive contributions have been extremely influential and so far stood the test of time. In addition to the general view of Jesus the Jew, placing Jesus in the same category of charismatic Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa has proven to be particularly popular and the overall thesis has not been refuted, even if various details have been challenged. (See earlier post on Why Christianity Happened, p. 29. My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

Chris Keith cites Crossley approvingly:

[James Crossley’s] lecture emphasized two other things for me as well.  First, the work of really appreciating and articulating the influence of Vermes’s 1973 Jesus the Jew is perhaps still only starting.  Obviously, most people in historical Jesus studies know that Vermes’s study was important, even a watershed.  But I have heard several lectures here lately where scholars are emphasizing just how revolutionary it was.  This position is not just because of Vermes’s emphasis on seeing Jesus against a Jewish background, which deservedly gets attention, but also for his noted dislike of structured “methodology.”

Let’s see what happens when Vermes discards “structured methodology” in relation to just one of the points, though a key one, in Jesus the Jew.

Placing Jesus in the same category of Jewish holy men 

jesusjewWe see above Crossley singling out Vermes placing Jesus in the category of charismatic Jewish holy men like Hanina ben Dosa. Let’s look at Vermes’s justification for this.

(Note: I cannot in this one post cover all of the details and nuances of Vermes’s argument. I touch only on key points. Anyone who has read Jesus the Jew may well raise some objections to specific points I make here. I believe my points can withstand more extensive discussion but please note that I would not want anyone quoting what follows as my “final word”. Take what follows as my tentative disagreements with Vermes’ interpretation of the evidence.)

The term “charismatic” is used because Jesus is said to have drawn upon “immediate contact with God” for his supernatural abilities. While Vermes tells us that such individuals were found throughout “an age-old prophetic religious line” he does not, from what I can recall, offer evidence for this age-old line. In fact, he seems to me to be forcing the evidence associated with two names to provide proof of the existence of this “line” in the time of Jesus.

Hanina ben Dosa

Vermes tells us that Hanina ben Dosa was

one of the most important figures for the understanding of the charismatic stream [of Judaism] in the first century AD.

In a minor key, he offers remarkable similarities with Jesus, so much so that it is curious, to say the least, that traditions relating to him have been so little utilized in New Testament scholarship. (p. 72)

The sources are from the later rabbinic writings. These tell us that he lived near Sepphoris, a major city otherwise noted as situated close by Nazareth.

I enjoy reading and learning new things. So my first question here was to ask how we know this Hanina ben Dosa lived at this time and place. read more »


Good Bias, Hidden Bias and the Phantom of Jesus in Christian Origin Studies

by Neil Godfrey

whychristianityhappenedThis post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.

In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.

Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.

In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.

Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.

A Tale of Two Scholars

Two biographies are his primary exhibits.

What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)

read more »


The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias)

by Neil Godfrey
Quite possibly a scene from a modern New Testament academic conference

The previous two posts in this series:

  1. Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins
  2. Why Christianity Happened – The Secular Approach, 2

The Necessity and Problem of Bias in Christian Origins Studies

James Crossley (Why Christianity Happened: A Sociological Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE)) examines the role of bias in historical studies, in particular in the studies of Christian origins. He uses the less pejorative term “partisanship”. This discussion appears necessary given what Crossley himself observes of the dominance of religious bias among New Testament historians and their traditional suspicion of the secular “social-scientific” approach he himself applies to Christian origins.

The general points are made: what is important is to recognize one’s own perspective and to be able to appreciate, understand and write objectively about the perspectives of others as well as one’s own. Acknowledging the impossibility of a purely unbiased God-perspective does not mean there can be no objective facts and explanations. (Crossley uses the term “hyperrelativism”.) He quotes a portion of following by the historian Richard Evans in In Defence of History:

While historians are certainly swayed, consciously or unconsciously, by present moral or political purposes in carrying out their work, it is not the validity or desirability of these, but the extent to which their historical arguments conform to the rules of evidence and the facts on which they rest, by which they must stand or fall in the end. In other words, they have to be objective . . . (Kindle loc. 3981-3984)

I sometimes devour books discussing history like this so I immediately purchased the Kindle version and pretty much read most of it on the spot. read more »


O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate #3, Are Most Biblical Historians Christian Preachers?

by Neil Godfrey


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.


In Nailed David Fitzgerald (DF) wrote:

It’s true enough that the majority of Biblical historians do not question the historicity of Jesus – but then again, the majority of Biblical historians have always been Christian preachers, so what else could we expect them to say? (p. 16)

Tim O’Neill (TO) responded:

This is glib, but it is also too simplistic. Many scholars working in relevant fields may well be Christians (and a tiny few may even be “preachers” as he claims, though not many), but a great many are definitely not.

Leading scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen and Gerd Ludemann are all non-Christians. Then there are the Jewish scholars like Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner, Hyam Maccoby and Geza Vermes. Even those scholars who describe themselves as Christians often hold ideas about Jesus that few church-goers would recognise, let alone be comfortable with and which are nothing like the positions of people like Geivett and McDowell. Dale C. Allison, E P Sanders and John Dominic Crossan may all regard themselves as Christians, but I doubt Josh McDowell would agree, given their highly non-orthodox ideas about the historical Jesus. (O’Neill 2011)

DF answered:

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Hypocritical Christ-mythers: Cameron’s response to Neil Godfrey at Vridar — & my response back

by Neil Godfrey
Русский: Григорий Распутин . English: Grigorij...
4 evolutionists (1873)
Herodotus and Thucydides

Cameron, a critic of Dave Fitzgerald’s Nailed, has responded to my remarks (Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists) about his accusation that those who reject the historicity of Jesus are hypocritical if they also criticize Creationists for rejecting an academic consensus. As seems to be par for the course with these sorts of attacks, derisive labels and character attacks are deployed against anyone who argues that Jesus was not a historical figure. Hence the generic title of his response: Hypocritical Christ-mythers.

Cameron begins his response thus:

In my review of David Fitzgerald’s book Nailed, I criticized Christ-mythers for ignoring the consensus of biblical scholars on the historical Jesus, while simultaneously attacking creationists for rejecting the consensus of scientists on evolution. Fitzgerald didn’t like the comparison, and neither did Neil Godfrey over at Vridar. But he’s wrong for the same reasons Fitzgerald is. His comments are in quotes, followed by my responses.

“Of course there is one professor who asserts that to the extent that biblical studies does have a degree of certainty (even though only a fraction of anything in the sciences), to that extent mythicists should respectfully submit to this consensus just as creationists should be rational and accept the authority of scientists. That one discipline is the foundation of all our modern progress and the other is a Mickey Mouse course doesn’t matter. What matters is that the most honourable professors in each have certainties. One just happens to have greater certainties than the other, that’s all.”

Of course there’s a degree of uncertainty involved when investigating historical figures, but to call biblical history a “Mickey Mouse course” is to reach a new level of special pleading. People like Godfrey make the entire field sound like a collection crazy, right-wing evangelicals bent on defending their worldview. The truth is that these scholars, whatever their ideological commitments may be, are interested in the truth. That most of them (even those skeptical of Christianity) have rejected the Christ-myth speaks volumes about its lack of validity. Furthermore, if mythicists are aware of the limitations of history, though they exaggerate them, don’t you think historians areas well? Yeah…they are. But somehow the experts rarely throw up their hands and exclaim, “well we weren’t there; Jesus probably wasn’t real!”

Whatever their ideological commitments?

Cameron portrays theologians who study “the historical Jesus” as reasonable enough to set aside their ideological commitments in order to objectively seek out only “the truth” of the matter. This is a naive Pollyannish portrayal of a scholarly field dominated by faith-committed theologians. Let’s break down Cameron’s comment and examine each piece.

Biblical studies is probably the most ideologically oriented of all academic disciplines. Hector Avalos has shown that clearly enough in The End of Biblical Studies. R. Joseph Hoffmann remarked on this blog that the reason the Christ myth theory is not given more attention among scholars has more to do with conditions of academic appointments than common sense. Stevan Davies recently pointed out that a list of the Westar Institute Fellows shows nearly all are or have been affiliated with seminaries and theological institutions. Most of the scholarly books one picks up on the historical Jesus contain prefaces or concluding chapters in which one reads reflections that sound more like homilies or spiritual confessions. James Crossley has publicly denounced the way biblical scholars so regularly open their academic get-togethers (seminars, workshops) with prayers. Blogs of theologian scholars are dominated by spiritual reflections and sayings. Atheists and atheism are generally derided. Ideology is important. The Christian faith dominates the entire field of biblical studies. To suggest that these scholars are all committed to setting aside their personal faith and seeking truth regardless of where it may lead sounds about as plausible as expecting Nazi-era scientists to set aside their political ideology in order to study the biological grounds for racial differences.

That most of such scholars have rejected a model that undermines the entire ideological and faith foundations of this scholarly field tells us absolutely nothing about its lack of validity. read more »


The Bible says it, biblical historians believe it

by Neil Godfrey

Well, they don’t believe all of it, of course, but they do believe enough of it (they would deny faith is involved) to use as a skeletal framework in their various reconstructions of Christian origins.

Mainstream biblical scholarship (both Christian and secular) for most part bases its reconstructions of Christian origins on methods that would find no place in any other historical disciplines.

This argument is not about mythicism versus historicism. It is about methodology pure and simple. It is not about being predisposed to reject the historicity of the Gospels. It is about not bringing any presumptions about either historicity or mythicism to the texts, and seeing where standard justifiable approaches to any evidence lead us.

Nor is it about literary criticism versus historical criticism. Everyone reading a text inevitably brings to their understanding of it some “literary critical” views. If I believe a text is valuable as a source of historical information, then I am making a literary-critical judgment about that text. This is unavoidable.

I am sure this is not only my view — I was first made aware of it after reading the works of the likes of Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam, Mario Liverani, Thomas L. Thompson and others in relation to the ‘Old Testament’ literature. Not that any of these, as far as I know, discuss the historical Jesus. So I have no idea if they themselves would extend some of their discussions on methodology to New Testament studies. (Even Thompson in his book The Messiah Myth does not attempt any historical reconstruction or address “the historical Jesus”. His book “is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature”, and how this “has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.” p.16. Thompson does nonetheless make some pointed comments about methodology of historical Jesus scholars, and I do quote him in these instances.)

Two books I have within reach at the moment are Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen, and The Date of Mark’s Gospel by James Crossley, so I use snippets from each of these to illustrate the flawed method on which so much Christian origin/historical Jesus studies are based. I will conclude by showing that my views are not nihilistic, but open the way to a constructive and justifiable historical enquiry.

Comparisons from nonbiblical studies

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“Partisanship” in New Testament Scholarship

by Neil Godfrey
Utrecht 11 Feb 09 (25)
Image by jimforest via Flickr

In 2006 James Crossley‘s Why Christianity Happened was published. (James G. Crossley belongs to the University of Sheffield, the same whose Biblical Studies program was the subject of international controversy late last year, and with which a recent commenter on this blog was heatedly involved.) As “a sociohistorical account of Christian origins (26-50 CE)” (the book’s subtitle) I found it left much unanswered, but I did find some of his remarks in his introductory chapter on the history of New Testament historiography and its application of social sciences of interest. Here are a few excerpts:

Will always get largely Christian results

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

A dubious academic field

Crossley cites Maurice Casey as noting that, although major British universities do indeed genuinely hire on merit, “when some 90 percent or more of the applicants are Protestant Christians, a vase majority of Christian academics is the natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles . . .  The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one.

Crossley remarks with regret that the September 2000 annual British New Testament Conference “opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer. . .”

should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening . . . ? . . . Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things?

Turning back the Enlightenment

Crossley points to “a particularly significant example”, a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”. Such groups “often require defenses against accusations of reductionism and secularism.” (p. 23)  He remarks on Philip Esler addressing fellow delegates at a 1994 conference with:

Then we too may reach Emmaus, having had the experience described in the words from the Scots version of Luke’s Gospel as read at the liturgy . . . . (p.24)

Despite the diverse views of the delegates at this St Andrews Conference on New Testament Interpretation and the Social Sciences,

crucially, all the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith.

Stephen Barton of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has warned “that the epistemological roots of much social-scientific methodology lie in Enlightenment atheism and so,

awareness of this genealogy should also act as a safeguard against unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God. (p. 16)

I had thought the Enlightenment was a good thing, and secularism in academia the way forward to further enlightenment. Even as a staunch Christian I used to thank both God and the Devil for allowing secularism to bring tolerance for all and the possibility of unfettered enquiry. (Well, maybe I am now thinking I wished I had thanked the Devil too.)

Resurrection and Virgin Birth

Crossley continues:

It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made and most frequently in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth. It is only in the world of NT scholarship and theology that when Jesus’ resurrection is studied, the major historical debates focus around whether or not these supposed events are beyond historical enquiry or if the “spiritual meaning” is more important than the literal understanding. In this context, major proponents (e.g. Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder) of the bodily resurrection not happening are often regarded (rightly or wrongly (sic)) as mavericks.

We recently saw this illustrated almost verbatim by Associate Professor of Butler University James McGrath. (In my Did Jesus Exist on Youtube post I discuss how James made that statement — that “a historian” cannot study the resurrection so he must study “the crucifixion” and explain Christianity with reference to that.)

Historically naïve (twice over)

Crossley comments on a work titled An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus. The “interdisciplinary” should not be confused with contributors coming from fields as diverse as ancient history, history, sociology or anthropology. No, the term covers, rather, the comparatively inbred fields of Christian theology, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies.

Crossley remarks on the historical naivety of one of the contributors of this volume (Gerald O’Collins) when he asks:

What are we to make of the moral probity of Mark in creating such a fictional narrative (and one that touches on an utterly central theme in the original Christian proclamation) and of the gullibility of the early Christians (including Matthew and Luke) in believing and repeating his fiction as if it were basically factual narrative?

Crossley comments on O’Collins’ question:

This is far too rooted in modern concepts of truth and ignores the well-known fact that people in the ancient world created fictional stories of past events, including ones that are utterly central for their beliefs: for example, Joseph and Aseneth on table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles or b. B. Mesi’a 59b on rejecting the legal authority of the wonder-working and divine-voice-supported R.  Eliezar. These are serious issues for the Jews involved, but no historian thinks the stories really happened, no historian should criticize ancient authors of immorality simply on the general point of inventing historical scenarios. (p.25)

So near and yet so far. James Crossley himself fails to see how cocooned his own thinking is in the assumed historical grounding of the Gospel narratives. Gerald O’Collins is addressing a point that needs honest examination at far more than the ethical issue of supposed “ancient concepts of honesty”. But that’s for another post another time.

The N.T. Wright phenomenon

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“Most critical scholars” confusing plot setting and character constructs with historical fact

by Neil Godfrey

When discussing the evidence for the historical Jesus in Honest to Jesus Robert Funk writes

What do we know about this shadowy figure who is depicted in snapshots in more than twenty gospels and gospel fragments that have survived from antiquity?

The short answer is that we don’t know a great deal. But there are a few assorted facts to which most critical scholars subscribe. (p. 32)

A layman introducing himself to this topic for the first time would be forgiven for understanding this passage as assuring him that “critical scholars” have been able to construct at least some meagre outline of an historical figure drawn from careful analyses of more than twenty independent pieces of evidence. Ironically Funk elsewhere complains that “biblical scholars . . . have learned to live in a limbo between the heaven of the knowledge we possess and the hell of the ignorance we have taken oaths to dispel . . . by cultivating ambiguity . . .” (pp. 54-55)

So it will be informative and in the interests of being honest to historical enquiry to take careful note of exactly what are these “assorted facts” about Jesus that Robert Funk lists, and their actual sources. It will also be instructive to compare the reasons for accepting some data as “facts” with those used for rejecting others as “fictional embellishments”.

Common misunderstandings of the mythicist argument

1. Before continuing, just to clear aside one common misperception raised any time the mythicist argument enters:

No one I know of has ever argued (and I certainly don’t) that someone made up a story about recent real historical events and invented persons, and that significant numbers of people (who could have known better) began to believe in this newly constructed history of the recent past.

As far as I know that is not how any new religion or myth emerges. The narratives usually evolve as post hoc explanations of rituals and beliefs. Historicization is often a relatively late phase. Compare the trajectory of evidence we have for Jesus: the earliest sources (Paul’s letters, let’s say, and his earlier sources such as creedal formulas and prayers) portray a divine Christ figure, and there is a gradual ‘humanization’ of this figure through to the relatively late gospel of Luke, and even more so with some of the later apocryphal gospels. Some scholars, significantly, read Mark, the first of the canonical gospels, as an intentional allegory or parable, not history. Some, also significantly, question the common early dating of the gospels. (I hate to disagree with certain assumptions underlying James Crossley’s public version of his doctoral thesis on this, but so be it.)

2. A second argument commonly thought to dispense with the mythicist position up front is that it is said no Jew would make up the idea of a crucified Messiah, hence there must be a historical basis for the belief that Jesus was the Messiah and that some remarkable experience must have enabled them to continue with this belief after his death. This is nothing less than the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity. In response it should be enough to point out

(a) the logical fallacy and

(b) a work of the Jewish scholar, Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

I have made available the general outline of his arguments in a series of posts here. One of my most accessed posts is from this archive, and titled, Jesus Displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus (6). Levenson provides the evidence and reasons for believing that the Christian narrative of the atoning and saving death and resurrection of the Beloved (Only) Son was borrowed from late Second Temple Jewish midrashic interpretations of their scriptures about Isaac, Joseph and others. While the cosmic significance of this event is attributed to Jewish apocalyptic, the story itself is a natural evolution or mutation of a Jewish idea that had been on the burner for some time. It is not a huge leap to merge known Jewish precedents relating to Isaac with Son of Man concepts from Daniel in the post-70 trauma of the Jews.

This synopsis of a caveat is still an oversimplification. A full explanation has been made many times elsewhere and I can reserve my own take for another post.

Funk’s list of assorted facts and figures

The words in parentheses are Funk’s own qualifications. Bold font indicates “facts” listed without qualification.

  • Jesus lived from around and between the death of Herod the Great to the end of Pilate’s governorship
  • Jesus lived in Palestine
  • Jesus “was attracted to” the “movement” of John the Baptist (“fairly certain” of this)
  • John the Baptist was a historical figure (“almost certain” of this)
  • Simon Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee and known as “thunder brothers” were followers of Jesus (we “know” this)
  • Jesus is “linked” to the reign of King Herod by being “allegedly” born at this time
  • Herod Antipas ruled Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus
  • We have the name of Pontius Pilate under whom Jesus was crucified
  • Mary Magdala was one of a few women associates of Jesus

Beyond these few shadowy faces, we have very little hard information. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that a person by the name of Jesus once existed. (Funk, p. 33)

“Substantial evidence”? I submit that each one of the above “assorted facts” is taken ultimately from one of the theological narratives of the canonical gospels. This is nothing more than a presumption that some bare bones of the gospel narratives can be considered historical fact. We are given no reason for thinking why any of this narrative should be thought anything more than fictional.

I submit that the “substantial evidence”, if this is it, is a faith-based presumption about the nature of the canonical gospels.

It is not of the same order as “Caesar crossed the Rubicon”. Real historical facts derive from sources deemed trustworthy as conveying, shaded in varying hues, something historical in nature. Such sources are coins, public monuments, biographies, personal letters and histories.

Funk continues:

Some additional isolated facts can be gleaned from the surviving records. These are data that a disinterested, neutral observer could have attested.

“Surviving records”? Funk makes theological narratives full of the miraculous and midrashic retellings of older biblical stories sound like births and deaths registers or police records of interviews.

Recall “cultivating ambiguity”. . .

But the logical fallacy lies in the second sentence. This is just another way of saying that the details are backdrop and setting — the time of Herod, Pilate, the setting of Palestine — to the narrative. Funk implies that knowing the names of certain characters is itself significant. But he dismisses the details of personal names later (p. 235) in his book for being nothing more than “fictional embellishments” to create a sense of verisimilitude. (I quote his argument below.)

Adam had a wife and sons, and we know their names, Noah had sons, Moses had followers, even God and Zeus have followers in the literature. The fact of followers in a literary narrative, and names assigned to them, may well be the sorts of details a neutral observer could attest if they were historical facts. But to assume that this estalishes that the details are historical is begging the question. It is circular reasoning.

The critical methods used by “critical scholars” are not used consistently. This surely indicates that there is something else that is needed to maintain the justification for their scholarly interest. Ironically Funk himself hits the nail on the head in a savage critique of biblical scholarship (pp. 54-56) but fails to see in this instance his own failings.

  • Jesus lived in Galilee — a place of “mixed bloods” and hence despised by the “ethnically pure” southern Judeans
  • Jesus lived in Nazareth
  • Jesus “was probably” born in Nazareth
  • Jesus was a Jew
  • Jesus’ father was a carpenter or craftsman of some kind (“may have been”)
  • Jesus was a carpenter or craftsman of some kind (“may have been”)
  • Jesus’ mother was Mary
  • Jesus had four brothers, named James, Joses, Judas, Simon
  • Jesus’ mother and brothers were initially sceptical of Jesus but later became Christians (“according to Mark”)
  • Jesus had sisters (“may have had them”)

These details square with what we know of the period and place, and scholars see no reason why the Jesus’ movement would have invented them. (p. 33)

Scholars can see no reason why the Jesus movement would have invented details like Nazareth being his hometown, like appearing in Galilee, like having a family? Then they have missed Matthew’s gospel giving readers very good theological reasons for making up some of these things.

Matthew finds a Nazareth home for Jesus a convenient explanation for Jesus being known as a “Nazarene”. (This epithet may have related to an early sect for whom the term meant something like “observer” or “keeper”.)

The same Matthew also finds Galilee as a perfect setting for enabling Jesus to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2Matt. 4:13-16.

Mark earlier found a theological function for giving Jesus a family. To have a family who rejected him set Jesus in the wake of the likes of Joseph and Jephthah and David, the persecuted saints of old. As for the names of the brothers? Well, Funk fully endorses the argument for fictional verisimilitude being the reason for the appearance of the names Alexander and Rufus as sons of Simon who carried the cross of Jesus. On page 235 in relation to these and other gospel names Funk writes (with my emphasis):

The assignment of names and the particularization of place enhance verisimilitude in fiction. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are taken by millions to have had real existence, and 221B Baker Street is an actual address in London that tourists can go and see for themselves. Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham exist for many as certainly as do King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

If “critical scholars” can reject the historicity of the likes of blind Bartimaeus, Jairus the synogogue official, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene and Alexander and Rufus on grounds of theological interest or fictional verisimilitude, then consistency would require them to do the same for both the fact and names of Jesus’ family, and the Nazareth and Galilee “particularizations of place”. — At least they need to address the theological interests clearly visible as their underlays.

  • Jesus spoke in Aramaic (“suggested by Matthew’s account of the confrontation with Peter in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial”)
  • Greek “was probably” his second language (“now evidence suggests he may have been bilingual”)
  • Jesus was active in the towns and hamlets of Galilee

The critical reader must be constantly alert to fictional embellishments of the gospels (p. 34)

This statement implies the gospels originated as a dead straight factual historical or official report of Jesus that somewhere along the line some scribes were tempted to colour with a bit of a stretch here and there. He makes this remark in direct reference to stories sometimes used as evidence that Jesus was literate, such as his writing in the dirt at the Woman Caught in Adultery scene.

The statement is nothing more than a truism. It smokescreens the fact that the source of evidence is derived from documents whose provenance is unknown, and whose theological interests and fictional embellishments are all too obvious. I cannot imagine historians in other (nonbiblical) fields relying so heavily for “evidence” on documents of unknown provenance.

  • Jesus was baptized by John (“highly probable”)
  • Jesus left John to launch his own career (“relatively certain”)

These events are not likely to have been invented by Christian apologists. (p.33)

Why not? We once again encounter the fallacy of the argument from incredulity, referred to above.

Scholars well know that Mark’s view of the nature of Jesus is not quite “orthodox”. The “adoptionist” character of his opening baptism scene is widely commented on. I can see no reason for such a Christian apologist, particularly one of an adoptionist persuasion, being embarrassed about manufacturing a baptism scene for Jesus. The Spirit of God that made Jesus the Son of God is said to have entered Jesus after his baptism. Besides, any story of Jesus had to begin with a prior announcement by Elijah, as per the Malachi prophecy. To fulfil prophecy a story of a coming deity had to begin with an introduction by a lesser mortal or angelic figure.

The Iliad opens with the greater hero, Achilles, half man and half divine, being over-ruled and humiliated publicly by a mortal and character-flawed king, Agamemnon. Such a scene is “not likely to have been invented by Homeric apologists”? Ah yes, but that is how the plot gets going. Well, the same with the gospels. It is the baptism of Jesus that is at the end of the gospel brought in as testimony to his authority. The event is recalled repeatedly each time Elijah makes an appearance, and the career of John is a foil for that of Jesus. The baptism itself, given its Pauline meaning, is a metaphor for death and resurrection, and with the crucifixion and resurrection forms a neat bookend set for the gospel.

And in Mark it appears only the “man” Jesus is baptized, while the Son or Spirit of God enters him after his baptism.

If all this is the correct way to read Mark, then we would expect later more “orthodox” gospel authors to be embarrassed by the account and to downplay it. And that is exactly what we do find. Matthew has John apologize for baptizing Jesus, Luke sidesteps the scene, and John leaves no place for a baptism at all.

  • Jesus was an itinerant sage, teaching and healing and living on handouts
  • Jesus practiced exorcism
  • Followers gathered around Jesus
  • Jesus was popular
  • Jesus was opposed by some religious authorities (“although much of the controversy . . . may reflect later conditions”)
  • Jesus’ public career lasted one to three years (“implied” in the gospels)
  • Jesus went to Jerusalem, offended the authorities and was executed by the Romans
  • We have a compendium of Jesus’ teachings

So say the gospel narratives. All of Funk’s supporting footnotes in this section of Honest to Jesus direct the reader to Mark, Matthew and Luke.

I’m well aware of the tool of source criticism to attempt to get behind the gospel narratives. The answers that this tool delivers may enable us to glean prior sources, but that is not the same as establishing the provenance of those sources, let alone their historicity.

It seems to me that the base criterion used for “establishing bedrock historicity” is deciding what the plot or characterization cannot do without and still survive as a basic plot or characterization. If so, that is not establishing historicity. It is only establishing plot and character essentials in a tale that has a lot more in common with those of Elijah and Moses than those with Caesar and Alexander.