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An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

by Neil Godfrey

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

What do ancient historians think of the efforts of biblical scholars to inquire into “the historical Jesus” and the origins of Christianity?

M.I. Finley was an influential historian of ancient history who found time out from his studies on the classical (Greco-Roman) world and methodological problems in ancient history more generally to write a handful of articles on problems facing biblical scholars attempting to reconstruct Christian origins. Finley compiled three of these articles into a single chapter, “Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography” in his small volume, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).

Interestingly (to me, certainly) Finley zeroes in on the same methodological problems faced by scholars of Jesus and Christian origins that I have often addressed on this blog and in other online forums. It is nice to find agreement in a scholar so highly regarded as Finley was.

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

In the second part of his chapter and in the course of discussing Maurice Goguel’s methods in arriving at some detail about the historical Jesus, Finley comes across an all too common point in the work of another well-known name, A.N. Sherwin-White:

An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not‘, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ (Aspects, p. 177)

One is reminded of works by Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham attempting to show how similar the gospels are to ancient biographies and histories. But Finley knows better than to allow Sherwin-White’s statement a free pass (my own bolding in all quotations):

Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. (Aspects, p. 177)

So we see that Finley called out the rhetorical sleights of hand we find are in fact all too common in the works of too many biblical scholars.

Finley then turned to another historian’s work exploring the nature of history:

In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history … means not history proper … but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls(Aspects, p. 177)

“With no external controls”? That is the very phrase I have been using in my own criticisms of the methodology at the heart of historical reconstructions based on the gospels. To verify that claim type the words external controls and/or independent controls in the Search Vridar box in the right-hand column of this blog page.

Finley expands on this problematic point in other essays collated in The Use and Abuse of History (1975) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1999) but before I address any of that elaboration let’s keep with his focus on Goguel as an example. Goguel worked before terms like “criteria of authenticity” became commonplace but he understood and worked with the same principles or methods. He might call them “logical and psychological” tests (= criteria of coherence, plausibility…) applied to gospel passages to “uncover” probable “facts” about the historical Jesus.

One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus … This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of ‘form-criticism’, has even abandoned history at this stage completely. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Rudolph Bultmann, ‘we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.’ (Aspects, p. 178)

It does not appear that Finley was prepared to go along with the methods, let alone conclusions, of biblical scholars in their efforts to establish what was historical about Jesus. A gospel narrative is merely a gospel narrative. We have no way of testing whether any of its narrative was genuinely historical or based on historical memory.

Sometimes one hears how accurate are the details of geography or social customs in the gospels as if such details add any weight to the historicity of the narrative. Finley responded to that rejoinder in the third part of his chapter in Aspects of Antiquity. He begins with a reminder of the point just made above:

[T]he Gospel accounts . . . are the sole source of information about the Passion – that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough – and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. . . .

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, and there are added confusions and impossibilities in the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. (Aspects, p. 182)

Finley then returned to Sherwin-White’s misleading comparison of the gospels with Greek histories:

Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigour by A. N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus, one does not get very far. Mr Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. For that Mr Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion. (Aspects, pp. 182f)

And that’s exactly what we read so often even among biblical scholars — that background details somehow lend historical credibility to the gospel narrative.

He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. (Aspects, p. 183)

Enter the deus ex machina of oral tradition to strengthen faith in the literary sources . . . 

read more »


Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 4.37.11 pmI have finally found two books on the practice of history, each by a scholar (other than Richard Carrier), that address the core questions I have often raised with respect to flawed methods of New Testament historians dealing with Christianity’s origins. Both works address historical studies in general and only one from time to time casts a glance at what certain biblical historians are doing.

One is The Logic of History by C. Behan McCullagh (2004). McCullagh is a philosopher of history responding primarily to the postmodernist challenges to traditional historical practices in the field of history generally. Some of his arguments apply not only to postmodernist approaches, however, but equally to a number of flawed arguments by more traditional biblical scholars.

The other is Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). In my next post I will address his fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots” where he applies his criticism to sentiments we find expressed repeatedly throughout New Testament historical works — and especially in regard to many New Testament scholars’ attacks on the Christ Myth hypothesis.

This post addresses a few excerpts from C. Behan McCullagh’s The Logic of History. 

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

The points have been argued before but apparently rarely applied to the methods of scholars specializing in the history of Christianity’s origins and early growth. Nonetheless, when I first tried to think through how we came believe certain persons and events in the ancient past were historical and others not I was a little surprised that so little appeared to have been directly addressing this question.

Happily I have now found an explanation for my inability to find what I was looking for back then. On page one McCullagh writes:

Historians often learn how to assess their hypotheses by studying debates in history in the course of their education. They acquire a capacity to evaluate their hypotheses critically, without always being aware of the standards of rationality they are applying. Awareness of those standards, however, will make it easier for historians to ensure that their work is rationally defensible.

There are many good books which explain how students of history should undertake their inquiries, but they contain very little guidance as to the logic of historical reasoning. They are almost entirely about searching for answers to one’s questions, and writing up the results. Yet the point of all the good practical advice is to gather information from which sound inferences about the past can be formed. Those inferences and arguments are at the heart of historical practice. (my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

I hope that this introduction to the logic of history will quicken historians’ interest in the rational justification of their accounts of the past. It should help guide historians in the rational assessment of their own work and that of others.

So McCullough appears to be acknowledging that most of the current works on the practice of history have overlooked and taken for granted “the standards of rationality” being applied and “logic of historical reasoning”. 

How to be sure we are reading a text the right way

read more »


Maurice the Pedant Learns Five More Lessons — Tuesday

by Neil Godfrey

jesuscaseyMaurice has handed in a problematic essay assignment. Continuing from after school Monday . . . .


Come in Maurice. Sit down here and we’ll continue to go through your essay and hopefully you’ll understand what you need to do for your next effort. Show me the work I set you to complete last night.

So this is Godfrey’s argument about historical methods that you’ve written here. Let’s see . . . .

. . . . yesss . . . .

but where is the rest? Is that all? It looks like you only looked at one post where he discusses independent controls. You’re not very thorough, are you. Genre and provenance are also very important points to his argument and you haven’t touched those. I’ll give you a list of readings before you leave this afternoon.

Have you had more time to think about the lies you told in your essay

Now what did you find out about Godfrey’s use of those historians?

Leopold von Ranke?

Leopold von Ranke

Yes, you are correct, Godfrey used von Ranke as a starting point to explain the way he uses the terms “primary” and “secondary” with respect to historical sources. When he speaks of primary data or primary historical sources he means those that are physically a part of the time and place the historian is investigating; and he uses the term “secondary sources” for later sources that refer back to that time and place. Can you give me an example of what such an explanation would call a “primary source”? No, Maurice, wrong. The gospels would not be called primary sources according to von Ranke’s definitions.

Keep in mind that we are only talking about definitions of terms here. Different people might use different words to describe the various types of evidence historians use and that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that in any conversation all parties are clear about the terms that are being used. So for Godfrey’s argument a primary source for a Roman emperor would be a coin minted by the emperor, or a monument erected by him.

A secondary source would be a manuscript found much later, possibly centuries later, that appears to be a writing about that earlier time and place. So a Tacitus manuscript would be a secondary source for the emperor Tiberius according to this use of terms because his evidence was produced after the reign of Tiberius.

No, Maurice, Godfrey is not saying that Tacitus wrote in the ninth century in Germany. Yes, that is the date of our earliest manuscript of Tacitus but not even Godfrey says Tacitus wrote in the ninth century. read more »


What Happens to the Documentary Hypothesis if the Pentateuch was written 270 BCE?

by Neil Godfrey

BerossusGenesisWhat happens to the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) if, as outlined in recent posts, the Pentateuch was first written in the third century BCE? That’s the first question that comes to most of us when first hearing a thesis like this. This post outlines Russell Gmirkin’s chapter on the DH, and is thus a continuation of my summary of the early sections of his book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch.

(Other posts where I have discussed the DH, including other criticisms of it, are archived in the Documentary Hypothesis Category.

See Who Wrote the Bible? The Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis for the history of the DH’s origins.

For Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, the sacred-texts site contains one of the easiest-to-read online versions.

Another modern book worth reading in defence of the DH is Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed.)

The different sources identified in the DH are not in dispute in Gmirkin’s thesis:

This book does not take issue with the Higher Criticism’s identification of different sources in the Pentateuch, each with its own consistent vocabulary, interests and theological outlook. (p. 22)

Gmirkin describes the DH as presented by Wellhausen. Its primary fault, he argues, is that it dates the hypothetical sources by means of what is in reality an unsupported construct of Israel’s history.

The entangling of dating issues with subjective historical constructs was a major flaw in Wellhausen’s approach. The Documentary Hypothesis as developed by Wellhausen illustrates the grave danger of circular reasoning inherent in dating texts by means of a historical construct to facilitate the dating of these same texts. (p. 5)

Gmirkin’s method of dating is, as explained in previous posts in this series, a separate and independent process.

In chapter 2 Gmirkin discusses the DH in some detail. He examines its function and development as a literary and as a historical theory, then considers the historical assumptions underpinning the thesis and finally looks at the external evidence impinging upon the validity of the DH.

The Documentary Hypothesis was both a literary theory (regarding identification and dating of Pentateuchal sources) and a historical theory (regarding the evolution of Jewish religion). The authors of the DH based its history of the Jewish religion directly on the biblical account, accepting that the cultic practices successively described in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings reflected sequential historical periods in Jewish history. (p. 24)

Step One: identifying the sources read more »


Carrier’s “Proving History”, Chapter 3(a) — Review

by Neil Godfrey

provinghistoryI have been studying the first half of Richard Carrier’s chapter 3, “Introducing Bayes’s Theorem”, in his recent book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. I mean studying. I want to be sure I fully understand the argument before tackling the second half of the chapter, headed Mechanics of Bayes’s Theorem, which promises to be “the most math-challenging section of the book” (p. 67). Maths is not my most outstanding strength so I want to be sure I get the basics clear before moving into those waters. I have come to a point where I can enjoy playing little mind-games with Bayes’ Theorem for the sake of reinforcing my understanding. Last night on the TV news was dramatic story of an unexpected resignation of a leading Australian political figure. So I found myself piecing all I heard, how I heard it and what I knew etc. into a Bayes’ equation and calculating the probability that the story was true. Kind of fun. At least for the moment before the novelty factor wears off.

Result: While I believe I can see Richard’s point some of my niggling questions have not yet gone away.

When did the sun go out?

Carrier begins by setting out our reasoning when we read in the Gospels that darkness covered the whole earth for three hours at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. What he is seeking to do is to take readers through the processes they would undergo in order to conclude that such an event almost certainly never really happened.

To make the scenario work he posits at least a barely conceivable natural cause for the event: “a vast dense cloud of space-dust swiftly drifting through the plane of the solar system . . .” — Wouldn’t the Sun’s gravity prevent that? But I’m happy to go along with the exercise for sake of argument nonetheless.

The critical point for Carrier is that what would convince us that such an event really had happened in the past is if we could find records testifying of the event across all world cultures thousands of miles apart from Britain to China.

There could not fail to have been mention or discussion of such a remarkable and terrifying event across many of these cultures among their surviving textual traditions and materials. (p. 43).

The key point is that we know in advance that this is the evidence we would expect to find IF such an event had happened.

And if indeed that were the case, we would surely have adequate warrant to believe the sun was blotted out for three hours on the corroborated day . . .

What Carrier is preparing his readers for is to accept that reasoning about historical events is fundamentally similar to reasoning in the sciences. If such and such a hypothesis (or explanation) is true then we would predict (or expect) certain events (or evidence) to be manifest.

Then there is the converse. If such a hypothesis (explanation) were true, we would NOT expect to find a universal silence in the surviving records:

[A] single claim in a single religion repeated only in its own documents (and documents relying on those), is extraordinarily improbable — unless the event was entirely made up. . . . This is a slam-dunk Argument from Silence, establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the nonhistoricity of this solar event . . . (p. 44)

My niggling question:

I follow the reasoning. But in my mind, rather than taking me into the realm of mathematics, it all leads back to my own argument about how historians know anything at all about the persons and events of the past. read more »


Bart Ehrman’s Huffing and Posting Against Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey
Bart Ehrman

Cover of Bart Ehrman

Dr Bart Ehrman has written for the Huffington Post a quite a curious article attacking mythicism and advertising his new book which promises more of the same. It is a curious article because it leaves a reader who knows anything about mythicist arguments and historical Jesus scholarship with the impression that Ehrman knows very little about either, but of course that cannot be true. Probably most of us who know Ehrman’s reputation have personally benefited from at least one of his many books bringing New Testament scholarship to a wider audience. What the article does do above all else is portray a scholar who has been so immersed in his field with all its deepest and millennia old assumptions that he simply cannot believe there is any other way of validly questioning the evidence outside the cave. Any rumours of such activity have to be denounced. There can be no other truth apart from what one sees in the cave where only right-thinking guild members have always worked.

I cannot improve upon Richard Carrier’s detailed exposure of the intellectual and scholarly failings of Ehrman’s article. Still, I have been asked for my own thoughts, so here they are.

Ehrman has unwittingly demonstrated that so much of his work on the historical Jesus is built on a foundation of sand. Of course he needs to come out fighting. Attack may be the best hope for defence when the rationale for one’s life’s work is at stake.

Ehrman’s rhetorical message

And his article is a rhetorical attack. It has precious little valid argument to it. Compare the terms he uses to portray those who espouse mythicism with the terms he uses for his “right-thinking” society and scholars said to be opposed by this “movement”: read more »


Why and how I came to question the historicity of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

This is a continuation from my previous “little bio” post.

An earlier version was accidentally published about half an hour before I had completed it. This is the completed version.

It never occurred to me that the historical existence of Jesus could be questioned until I came across Earl Doherty’s website. Till then I had been a happy atheist for quite some years, still fascinated by the Bible and its place in our society, so much so that I continued to study it from a range of perspective — literary and historical — in order to understand and share what I learned about its original nature and origins. I was particularly interested in sharing information about cults, the damage they can do and the tricks tactics they use to win members. Personal experience was a cruel but effective teacher. The thought of questioning the historical existence of Jesus never crossed my mind — until I stumbled across Earl Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle site.  (It had a different domain name then. Oblio something.) read more »


Who says, “There is no evidence for the historical Jesus” ?

by Neil Godfrey

If you follow the “it is ignorant to say there is no evidence for the HJ” discussion on Debunking Christianity you have already read most of what I post here.

John Loftus kicks things off with his OP in which he says:

I want to put to rest the ignorant claim that “There is no evidence for a historical Jesus.” There most definitely is. It’s called “confirming evidence” or evidence of things we would expect to find if there was a historical Jesus, and it is Legion.

Let’s have done with such an ignorant claim.

The debate is whether there is sufficient evidence.

I responded with an attempt to clarify what I see as a common but fundamental misunderstanding embedded in this comment. I joined the discussion late and wrote:

Beginning with the OP I believe we are confusing two quite distinct concepts: evidence and sources. I think this is one of the factors that leads to so much confusion and talking past one another.

It was once almost uniformly accepted by Old Testament scholars that the OT was “evidence” for a historical united kingdom of David and Solomon.

But a number of scholars beginning not too many decades ago attempted to point out that a mere claim, a mere story, might be a source of information, a claim, about historical events, but it is hardly the same as evidence for them.

These scholars turned to the way historical studies of ancient times were conducted by nonbiblical historians and drew clear distinctions between primary evidence (evidence physically belonging to the period in question: bricks in the ground, graffiti on an original wall, in the case of most ancient history) and secondary evidence: that which is physically subsequent to the events in question. The guiding principle was that primary sources must always take precedence and the secondary must be interpreted through the hard evidence of the primary.

But obviously in the case of Jesus we have no primary evidence, only secondary. read more »


Finding Jesus Under the Stone: The Gospel of Thomas Guide to the Scholarly Search for the Historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey
Sefurieh - Plain of Buttauf, Palestine, 1859

Image via Wikipedia

Edited to add quotation from Dale Allison on the circularity of the method used by scholars in historical Jesus studies. -- March 27, 2011

There is a passage in the Gospel of Thomas that would seem to encapsulate the historical methodology some scholars use to reconstruct the historical Jesus:

77 Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.

Split a piece of wood; I am there.

Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Professor Bruce Chilton‘s book Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography is a classic case study of how biblical scholarship can be so consumed by its idée fixe that “the historical Jesus” will be found everywhere the faithful scholar looks:

  1. beneath every stone the archaeologist lifts in Galilee,
  2. behind the fabulous tales of miracles and supernatural characters in the canonical gospels,
  3. wedged within every extra-canonical text one cares to split apart. read more »


Response to McGrath’s circularity and avoidance of the methodological argument

by Neil Godfrey
Logarithmic spiral

Image via Wikipedia

In a “response” to a recent post of mine about historical method, James McGrath illustrates well the very problem and question begging that my post was intended to highlight.

McGrath’s opening statement affirms that he simply fails to grasp the argument I am presenting.

[Neil Godfrey’s] post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my [McGrath’s] post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”

Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.

That second paragraph that I have highlighted demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of the words of mine he has just quoted. McGrath says the “context” of the Gospels consists of the early epistles of Paul and their reception history, but this “context” is not the same thing at all as providing external corroboration or controls that can testify to the historicity of the narrative of the gospels. They may indeed provide “context”. But that misses the point. read more »


Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play

by Neil Godfrey

gamesA review of Dale Allison’s forthcoming book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, illustrates both in its post details and subsequent comments how far removed Historical Jesus studies are from the way history is practiced in other (nonbiblical) fields.

These comments of mine on this review address

  1. starting assumptions of the reviewer
  2. problems left hanging by the reviewer’s discussion of Allison’s book
  3. the games played by HJ (Historical Jesus) historians when they claim they are doing what other (nonbiblical) historians do
  4. the game of avoidance used by HJ historians in response to radical critiques of their assumptions and methods.

read more »


Historical facts and the nature of history — exchange with Rick Sumner

by Neil Godfrey

Rick has posted an interesting discussion titled What is History? The Nature of “Facts” in response to my Historicist Hocus Pocus post. This follows a short exchange between us in the comments beneath my own post, and is an extension of earlier blog posts of his own on the same theme. I appreciate Rick’s response and the opportunity it gives me to explore my own argument in a little more depth.

If I understand Rick correctly, he disagrees with my view of the nature of facts when I assert that biblical studies have no “historical facts” to work with that are comparable to what are generally conceded as facts in relation to, say, the history of Julius Caesar. read more »


A Lewis Carroll satire on McDaft’s methods of historical enquiry

by Neil Godfrey

White Rabbit
Image via Wikipedia
“Herald, read the accusation!” said the King.On this the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and then unrolled the parchment-scroll, and read as follows:

“The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts,
All on a summer day:
The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts
And took them quite away!”

“Consider your verdict,” the King said to the jury.

We begin with a text written in a parchment scroll. Within the text are certain claims about the doings of certain persons that are publicly proclaimed for all to hear.


The scholarly jury make their own copies of this text as they retire to consider their verdict. They are all well trained in linguistics and criteriology. They also have read a lot of previous thoughts about the Queen of Hearts, the making of tarts, the significance of summer days, the character of the Knave as well as knaves in general, etc.


The way they go about considering their verdict is to begin with this nursery rhyme as the evidence itself. Their job, as they see it, is to apply their learning — particularly their skills in applied criteriology — to see how much of the narrative might be plausible, how much probable, etc.

To help them decide the actual facts behind the text they will employ their skills as criteriologists. This will lead to differing and even directly opposed findings, but that will be no problem if a clear majority opts to embrace any particular set of such conclusions. Thus they will establish the facts.

Background to the text

Of course, one must understand that there is much that is not explicitly addressed in this narrative. A significant factor for the scholarly jury is the cultural impact that this text’s narrative has had for many generations. This narrative has had a most powerful impact on the course of childhood folklore throughout the ages. It has molded countless children’s attitudes towards knaves and the desirability of tarts in summer weather.

Nor has its power to instill democratic values, with its portrayal of the queen herself engaged in the kitchen, gone unnoticed.

Branch studies

One group of scholarly jurists will break off and consider the age and significance of the parchment scroll on which the narrative is found in its surviving form.

Another scholar is convinced that the historical setting of the narrative means that it must originally have been composed in Scottish Gaelic. He has accordingly dedicated his hours to constructing what it would have looked like in the original language. It is to be hoped that this reconstruction will lead to fresh insights into the Sitz Im Leben and assist fellow jurors in arriving at a more nuanced final verdict.

The clincher for historicity

But the bottom line reason so many have been convinced of the core historicity of the narrative is that it defies normal human experience and common sense. Everyone knows that the suit of Hearts is the most cherished, loving and compassionate of all suits. No one would make up a fictional account of a disgraceful deed committed amidst its ranks. If anyone were fabricating their story and wanted it to be taken seriously they would obviously use the Clubs or Spades for criminal behaviour and offence against royalty.

This is so logical that no reasonable person can be in any doubt as to the narrative having some factual basis.

You may be wondering if card suit characters can ever be real or do real things anyway, but this sort of questioning is merely indicative of the anti-cardSuitIsm that has been too much with us ever since the Age of BeNightenment. A truly intellectually objective response would be to simply say “something happened” but we can’t rationally or experientially say what that something was, exactly. All we can do is confess our limitations and hold out some questions as beyond the legitimate realm of historical enquiry.

Provenance and date

Indeed, this most logical fact is the very reason the scholarly jury can overlook the fact that the narrative is anonymous, and even that it cannot be determined where or when it was written, or for whom or why. They can use internal evidence to know that whoever wrote it must themselves have lived in the days of Queens and Knaves, and even in such an ancient time when Queens could still be found making their own tarts in the kitchen.

So there are some indisputable facts the scholarly jury can comfortably rely on. The narrative itself originated from the time of the story setting itself, and it was most certainly based on some genuine historical event.

A more rational method

But readers might think I am being a bit silly with all the above. They might think I am overlooking the most important thing of all. Evidence. They would be right to charge that the above scenario fallaciously confuses “narrative claims” with “evidence”.

I must concede that in the above I have been unfair to Lewis Carroll. I have, I have to admit it, quoted him out of context. Here is what Carroll said with the important contextual details added: read more »


James McGrath and I Finally Agree on Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

A week ago James McGrath posted Earl Doherty as Christian Reformer in which he expressed a point I have been making for some years now and especially since Thomas Brodie “came out” as not believing that there was a historical Jesus. Approvingly citing Matthew Green, McGrath writes

if mythicism did turn out to be true, all that would likely happen would be a shift to focusing on learning what the celestial Jesus rather than the historical one taught. Indeed, for many Christians Jesus is a celestial figure who still speaks to them in the present day. For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.

Exactly! And the point has been most clearly demonstrated by Thomas Brodie who has continued to be a Christian believer. See posts #22, 23 and 24 linked in Vridar’s Brodie Files for Brodie’s explanation of why he believes the Christ Myth theory is not incompatible with Christianity.

I have for some years even been quoting Albert Schweitzer who indicated a very similar possibility when he wrote that Christians needed to get away from their focus on the historical Jesus:

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer was not a Jesus mythicist and that is all the more reason Christians ought to seriously think about what he said here (from pages 401f in The Quest of the Historical Jesus).


Part of the problem in some circles seems to be a fear or ignorance of atheists and atheism. There seems to be an assumption among some believers that atheists are programmed to seek to attack and destroy Christianity.

McGrath is by no means the only one to dismiss “mythicists” because they are atheists and therefore have a motive to find Jesus did not exist. The point is thought to be to undermine Christianity.

That is nonsense. No doubt some atheists somewhere do scoff at Christianity and claim they don’t believe Jesus existed anyway. But at least among the serious writings I have read arguing for a mythical origin of Jesus not a single one has expressed a hostile or subversive Christian agenda.

Indeed, atheist John Loftus (of Debunking Christianity) made the point I myself had also expressed: the worst possible way to undermine Christianity and turn people away from being believers is to try to say Jesus did not exist. See Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

But atheists also believe

I have posted about several Christ Myth advocates from past years who have even been very pro-Christian, expressing admiration for the faith, despite not being Christians themselves. Paul-Louis Couchoud was one, if memory serves.

Today there are a number of mythicists who are also favourably disposed towards Christianity. Consult the Who’s Who table for details.

I can see no reason why an atheist would “want” to believe Jesus did not exist. The Jesus atheists believe existed was just another Jewish prophet or miracle worker or whatever. The only reason I could imagine an atheist might want to believe that there was no Jess is if he or she thought Jesus really was god, too. But that makes no sense!

So I am very mystified to learn that another atheist would write the following in her review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:

What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . . 

Yet I am assured today that the reviewer, Christina Petterson, is indeed an atheist. That makes no sense to me, either.