Category Archives: Historical Methodology

PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.

PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.

The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, p. 99

And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

Here’s how another scholar put it:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.


Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012.

Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.

See also posts archived under Ancient Historiography and Greco-Roman Biography


A Bedrock Assumption in Historical Jesus Studies

A few months ago I posted about Michael Zolondek’s claims that historical Jesus scholarship uses the same historical methods as those used by other historians. Michael himself responded and I assured him and others that I would return to his book and compare his claims about his methods with the actual processes found in the book. I am finally getting around to returning to that promise. But first I need to refresh my memory on a few things and catch up with certain details. So those further posts I promised are still a few weeks away.

Till then, however, I can say that I have caught up with one important volume Michael cites (p. xiv) as one of a few “useful discussions by historical Jesus scholars on ‘doing history’:

Meyer, Ben F. 2002. The Aims of Jesus: Reprint edition. San Jose, Calif.: Wipf & Stock.

The book was originally published in 1977 and an introduction in the reprint edition by N.T. Wright indicates that it has been very influential among the “less liberal” historical Jesus scholars.

The first of the two parts of Meyer’s book is about hermeneutics and historical methods. What I was looking for in particular was Meyer’s explanation for how biblical or historical Jesus scholars decide what is historical bedrock in the gospels. There is discussion about various criteria and inference and such. That word “inference”, distinct from “proof” or “fact”, reminded me of an objection PZ Myers’ raised in his discussion with Eddie Marcus. It was encouraging to see Meyers acknowledge the place of inference and its meaning in his discussion.

But then I came to a passage that echoed everything I have been come to see in how historical Jesus scholars work, but here it was stated in black and white.

Control of the data requires insight into how the gospel literature refers to the past of Jesus and this must be brought to bear on a mass of detail, repeatedly answering the question, ‘Is this a potential datum on Jesus?’

(Meyer, p. 81, my bolded emphasis)

Did you see it? The historical Jesus historian is required to have insight into how the gospels refer to the past of Jesus. The gospels are assumed to speak about the past of Jesus without question. Why? Presumably because they are a past tense narrative (notwithstanding Mark’s gospel regularly using the present tense). Presumably because they look like historical accounts (notwithstanding their significant departures from other historical accounts of the era). But let’s leave aside the “presumablies” and see what Meyer himself says. At the end of the chapter he spells it out:

Finally, the motives, values, uses, and ulterior purposes of history, be it ever so critical, are themselves metacritical presuppositions. They are not controlled by method but arise from the historian’s intellectual and moral being, and in the end they account more fundamentally and adequately than anything else for the kind of history he produces. For a history of Jesus what counts is especially the stance toward religion and faith.

(Meyer, p. 94, my bolding)

To me, that sounds like Ben Meyer is saying that a Christian historian will necessarily approach the gospels as if they are “obviously” reports of the “past of Jesus” and the task of the historian is to work out how much those gospel accounts have added to or coloured the actual historical past of Jesus.

The possibility that the gospel accounts are not history or not even based on historical events at all never so much as approaches Ben Meyer’s mental horizon. The model that James McGrath used to describe a historical reading of the gospels is affirmed. The gospels are not read as literature but are read as gateways to imagining what happened independently of the narrative.

The assumption that the gospels are some sort of biographies or historical works is a presupposed “fact”. All the historical method discussion, all the discussion about how to determine a historical probable Jesus, is premised on the gospels being reports that are written in such a way that the researcher can validly “see through” their narrative and language and identify some image of historical persons and events. The narrative is assumed to be based on reports or memories of historical persons and events.

When I read the works of classicists and ancient historians I see the same approach to historical narratives only when that approach has been justified by identifications of authorship and provenance, and by independent contemporary verification and/or by identification of relatively reliable historical sources for that narrative. We see none of those things in the case of the gospels.

They Do History Differently There; or, Did Apollonius meet with emperors?

In these dark times when our heads ache from the thunderous reverberations of there is no reason to doubt or we must avoid ‘hyperscepticism’, I felt my soul lifted up and filled with the purest joy when, on turning away from biblical studies publications I picked up a compendium of essays by a classicist and specialist in ancient Greek fiction to see what he had to say about Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

It has been easy to dismiss them as unhistorical. There is no external evidence for any contacts between Apollonios and these emperors. The only event of this kind that is confirmed by an historical source (Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.18) is the scene in Ephesus in AD 96 when Apollonios in a vision sees Domitian being murdered in Rome and cries out in triumph (VA 8.26).

(Hägg, pp. 393f)

My god. Tomas Hägg is in a world where independent corroboration is assumed to be necessary in order to confirm the historicity of a text’s narrative.

Hägg, Tomas. 2004. “Apollonios of Tyana — Magician, Philosopher, Counter-Christ. The Metamorphoses of a Life.” In Parthenope, edited by Lars Boje Mortensen and Tormod Eide, 379–404. Museum Tusculanum Press.

How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion

Previous posts:

  1. PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism (2018-09-05)
  2. How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional? (2018-09-06)
  3. How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical? (2018-09-07)

I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.


PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.

Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.

Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.


PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.

Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.

— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.

— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.

— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.

— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.

— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.

Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.

The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.

So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.

Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.

I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.

To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.


PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.

Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.

PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality? read more »

How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical?

Continuing from PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism and How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?


PZ Myers asks: How do we approach this kind of topic?

Eddie Marcus, introduced as a professional historian, responds:

Eddie Marcus informs listeners that his expertise is in Australian culture and history, not first century Palestine. He has a business webpage, History Now, and a blog, Dodgy Perth. His LinkedIn page informs us that he has a BA in history from Cambridge and a Post Graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage from Curtin University of Technology.

there is a lot of commonality between how science approaches evidence and how history approaches it, and that way we could get there slowly.

Comment: Eddie unfortunately does not explore this “slow” option of determining the historicity or otherwise of Jesus (or any historical figure). This is a significant oversight, in my view, because it is that “scientific approach” that is the one used by the major authors of the Christ Myth theory, in particular Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. (I am not suggesting that their arguments are infallible; like many scientific approaches they find themselves in need of testing and revision.) It is also the method used by some historical Jesus scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan) to reconstruct their interpretation of what Jesus was like. As with any scientific exploration, results will likely vary according to the assumptions underlying one’s starting questions. Carrier’s book on Proving History is one excellent discussion of how a “scientific approach” to history is ideally undertaken. (For anyone who thinks that Bayesian reasoning is not used by historians I recommend a work by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker. Bayesian reasoning does not have to involve numbers, by the way. More simply and immediately, one can see how a more valid approach to evidence has been advanced by an Old Testament scholar, Philip R. Davies. Davies, by the way, urged biblical scholars to take up seriously the question of Jesus’ historicity in order to become a more academically respectable guild.


Top to bottom: Tucker, Davies, Lemche

Eddie refers to the scientific method sets it aside in order to launch instead into the discussion at “the deep end”. How, he asks, does a historian approach “the resurrection”.

But to start at the deep end, consider the resurrection. We have “loads of evidence” about the resurrection. It’s what we do with the evidence that becomes history.

The best evidence Eddie cites (he calls it “amazing” evidence) is our collection of four gospels. They are written, he says,  “comparatively close to the events they say they are describing.”

Most ancient historians would kill for that kind of evidence. I wish I had it for most of the stuff I study.

Comment: Right from the start Eddie jumps in the deep end of biblical scholars’ interpretations and models, bypassing the evidence and methods themselves. It is not a “fact” that the gospels were written “comparatively close” to the events they narrate. Such a claim is an interpretation and one that is grounded in the theological desire to date the gospels as close as possible to Jesus in order to buttress their credibility as historical sources. (Christian theology is for many though not all theologians grounded in belief in historical events: see Nineham.) To see how documents are dated “scientifically” I recommend Niels Peter Lemche’s discussion that I have summarized at Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels. Lemche was referring to Old Testament texts but the same principles apply. Cassandra Farrin set out a comparable set of points to consider in relation to New Testament texts.

It is possible that the four gospels as we know them in their canonical form did not exist until at least the mid second century. I think there are very good reasons for dating our earliest canonical gospel, Mark, soon after the year 70 CE, but there are also very good reasons advanced by some scholars for dating the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to the mid to latter half of the second century.

But even if the gospels were all written according to biblical scholars’ conventional dates in the last decades of the first century, by the standards of historians of ancient times that does not make them “amazing” or “close” enough to the events narrated to be worth “killing for” (as Eddie says). The highly renowned ancient historian, M.I. Finley, discussed the problems we have with ancient sources that I think many New Testament scholars would profit from reading: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. Ancient historical works are of value to the extent that their sources and provenance can give the modern scholar some degree of confidence in their reliability. In the case of the gospels we have no information about their provenance (only speculations) or their sources (only the hypothesized oral tradition). See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons.

If the only evidence Eddie had for an historical figure said to have existed forty years earlier, and the story was riddled with tales of the fabulous, and their was no way to identify its author, then I do not believe Eddie would consider such evidence as having any worth as testimony for the historicity of that person at all. This would be especially so if he found on closer inspection that that story (or “biography”) could be seen to have adapted many phrases and motifs from Alice in Wonderland.


Eddie describes the gospels as biographies.

He further says that we know exactly why Luke wrote his gospel because he tells us so in his preface: it is to assure Christians of the origin stories that justify their rituals, like the eucharist and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. read more »

How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

PZ Myers is a biologist with a curiosity about how historians determine whether a person appearing in ancient records is considered historical or otherwise. He asks:

How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?

And many more, including surveys of works by leading specialists in oral traditions such as Jan Vansina.

But if we are to ask PZ’s question as a lead in to the Jesus myth debate then it is worth pausing and taken one step back first.

Contradictory accounts? Yes. The gospels are certainly contradictory accounts of Jesus.

Vague? Yes. Some of the earliest statements about Jesus, such as some in Paul’s letters, are certainly vague.

Preserved via word of mouth before being written in the gospels? That is the general idea we encounter whenever we pick up a study of gospel origins. But how do we know that the gospel narratives were picked up from oral reports?

The reason we think they were is because this is what the stories in the gospels and Acts implies. The stories tell us that Jesus’ followers went out preaching after the resurrection, and since the first gospels were written by a subsequent generation we assume “the obvious” — that the material for these stories came to the authors from word-of-mouth preaching and traditions. But recall how this model of how the stories came to be known is circular by both New Testament and Old Testament scholars alike. We saw how the late Philip Davies pointed out this circularity with respect to the Old Testament accounts: “How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”. We have also seen New Testament scholars acknowledge the same difficulty with respect to the gospels: It all depends where one enters the circle.

Yes, there is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that speaks of a teaching being passed on, orally, about the resurrection. Nonetheless Paul also speaks of learning his “truth” through visions and the scriptures without owing any debt to a fellow human.

The truth is that the idea that oral tradition lies behind the gospels is a hypothesis. It is not a fact. Indeed, we have posted at length on the work of two scholars who have questioned that hypothesis: see the Brodie and the Henaut archives.

At the same time I think that surely all critical scholars of the gospels acknowledge that at the very least some of their narratives have been shaped by other literary narratives such as those found in the Jewish Scriptures. Some may add that the literary allusions to, say, Moses and Elijah are ways the authors have chosen to shape stories that originated in oral tradition. That’s fine, too, and it is another hypothesis that we need to consider in the light of the evidence and background knowledge of how Jewish and other authors worked.

It is often heard that the gospels are biographies, even very much like other ancient biographies. So it follows we can treat them as accounts of a genuine person. No, it doesn’t follow, unfortunately, because we even have ancient biographies that appear to be about historical persons but in fact are arguably entirely fictitious. Previous posts have demonstrated that even straightforward biographies of ancient persons, by contemporaries, such as the biography of Demonax, require historians to exercise caution: Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ and Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? Besides, it is not a fact that the gospels are biographies. Other scholars disagree. So it is a hypothesis or an interpretation. There are other interpretations.

All of the above was written to address just a single point in the original question. If anything, I have hoped to point out that even the way we frame our questions can be an indication of our assumptions and therefore influence the answers we might find.

As we posted not so long ago, a philosopher of history reminds us that the real historical question is not: Did this event (e.g. a miracle) happen? But rather, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

So we begin. I will in future posts comment on some of Eddie Marcus’s statements in the light of what various professional historians have written.

Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed

Dr. Alan Lacey

Lately while filling in gaps in my time by digging out scholarly publications addressing the problem of how much historians can know about “the real Socrates” or let’s say “the historical Socrates” I have become more aware of how many overlaps there are between the portrayals of Socrates and Jesus in their respective sources.

If Jesus is portrayed by some evangelists as a second Moses or Elijah, Socrates is portrayed by some ancient Greeks as an ideal type of Achilles.

If the words imputed to Jesus are found in the supposed writings of Moses and Prophets, words of Socrates are sometimes taken straight from Homer.

If Jesus has become for diverse authors a literary mouthpiece to express a range of views, sometimes contradictory, Socrates is likewise clearly developed as a literary mouthpiece by various authors for a range of viewpoints.

A few brave classicists or historians of ancient times have dared suggest that any recovery of the historical Socrates is completely impossible; the real Socrates has become completely overlaid with myth, with literary artifice, so as to become merely an authoritative name for whatever figure they created to express whatever views they themselves taught.

Others, a majority, appear to respond by claiming that those few scholars have been more foolhardy than courageous and that it is certainly possible, though difficult, to so work with the surviving sources to glimpse something of what Socrates was actually like. Part of this process involves recognizing that the early dialogues of Plato appear to be closer to the historical figure than the later dialogues. When Aristotle adds details that do not come from Plato or Xenophon then it is assumed they have some independent “tradition” or source.

In this post I will do nothing more than quote a few passages from one of the more prominent scholars in the debate over “the Socratic problem” who sets out the grounds for believing that despite all the uncertainties about Socrates that arise from the above problems, we can at least know that behind it all there was a real Socrates all the same. Bolded highlighting is my own, of course.

. . . it is not surprising that some scholars have thrown up their hands and taken “Socrates” to be a mere literary creation by a group of writers at the beginning of the fourth century, the real man, if there ever was one, being lost in the mists of time. However, the “myth” theory is now generally rejected, at least in its extremer forms. The evidence, inadequate though it is, is too widespread to allow such an agnosticism without insisting on a degree of rigour we are unwilling to use elsewhere (an unwillingness sometimes inconsistently used to throw out our knowledge of Socrates in particular: see de Vogel’s review of Gigon in Mnemosyne, 1951).

Let us start with the evidence in works written in Socrates’ own lifetime. This has an advantage in that these works are most likely to be first-hand accounts, written from a fresh memory and for an audience familiar with Socrates himself and before any tradition could have arisen of the “Socratic discourse” as a literary genre that could take liberties with history. . . .

The most important single source is the satire by Aristophanes in his comedy the Clouds, produced in 423 and followed by a second edition some years later where the poet tells us (II. 518 If.) that the first edition was not successful and where certain features, notably the debate of the Just and Unjust Arguments and the final burning of Socrates’ school, were either added or radically revised.

How far can a comedian go? Whether Aristophanes’ real target was Socrates himself, the subversive tendencies of the Sophistic movement, the apparent absurdities of Ionian “science,” or just ‘long-haired intellectuals” in general (and the contrasts we find so obvious between these various elements may not have been at all so obvious to their contemporaries), his selection of Socrates as his chief butt must surely mean that Socrates was known to a fairly wide audience, and vaguely associated with the “modem” tendencies.

read more »

Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once)

I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians.

— Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press. p. 134

Aviezer Tucker

I have posted aspects of Aviezer Tucker’s discussion of how Bayesian reasoning best represents the way historians conduct their research but here I want to post a few details in Tucker’s chapter that I have not covered so far.

(Interjection: it is not strictly fair to call Aviezer Tucker a “Bayesian historian” because, as is clear from the opening quote, what he argues is that all historians, at least at their best and overall, employ Bayesian logic without perhaps realizing it.)

Tucker includes discussion of biblical criticism in his book but in his chapter on Bayesian methods he unfortunately contradicts himself. The contradiction can best be explained, I think, by appealing to the power of the Christian story to implant unquestioned assumptions into even the best of scholars. I could call that my hypothesis and suggest that the prior probability for it being so in many historians is quite high.

No doubt readers will recall my recent quotation from Tucker:

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9). Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question:

“What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?”

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask,

“What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

(Tucker, p. 99)

One explanation for the documents relating the miracles is that the miracles happened and were recorded. Other explanations can also come to mind.

No doubt because the question focused on miracles it was very easy for Tucker and countless others before and since to think of alternative hypotheses to explain the stories of miracles that have survived for our reading entertainment today.

The Slip Up

But look what happened to Tucker’s argument when he was faced with something that sounded more “historically plausible”: read more »

How a Historian Establishes “What Happened” when “we only have the words of the text”

If all we have is an ancient historical or biographical narrative that we cannot verify by independent evidence (and keeping in mind that, as we saw in the previous post, external claims also need to be capable of verification) then how can a historian go about deciding how much of the narrative is likely to be true?

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852) — Wikimedia

Continuing with Peter Kosso’s argument we come to his fourth method of verification, an examination of the internal features of our document. Kosso is using Thucydides as a case study.

There is the fact, abhorrent to modern historians, that he never tells his sources [at best he only says he garnered information from (anonymous) eyewitnesses and his own experiences — my note], and that he never justifies his opinions.” There are no arguments in Thucydides, and no footnotes. These silences force the judge of his credibility to use internal methods, since they eliminate the easiest way of finding other, independent sources of information. (p. 9)

Take the long speeches he puts into the mouths of key actors. Thucydides explains that it was obviously impossible to report these accurately but he attempted to reproduce what he believed would have been the general sense of what each person said. Thus,

With his own words Thucydides makes us uneasy over his veracity and he plants the worry that the message of the speeches may be as much a report on his own opinion as on the facts of the matter. (p. 9)

Internal features compatible with accuracy and objectivity

  • Vivid and full of detail

The writing is exceptionally vivid and full of detail, “participatory” in the sense that the reader is drawn in to relive the events. This is reminiscent of Hume’s suggestion that the products of imagination are less vivid than the products of observation. (p. 10)

That sounds fine at first blush, but of course a moment’s reflection will warn us of the catch.

But of course a good novel can be vivid and participatory, and many works of fiction are livelier and more real-seeming than The Peloponnesian War. Attention to detail and realistic style, in other words, are not necessarily indicative of truth. (p. 10)

  • Expressing divergent opinions

Thucydides gives us two sides of the story when he sets out his speeches. He will allow a figure to present the Spartan point of view as well as another to give the Athenian one. That he does so suggests to us that he is trying to be fair and even-handed.

Presentation of all sides is of course possible to do in fiction as well, but it is perhaps less likely, since good fiction intends to make a point. Thus Thucydides’ reporting from a variety of perspectives would be a symptom of his objectivity if it remained evenhanded and no discernible opinion, no favored perspective of the events, emerged in the narrative. (p. 10)

But a close reading of Thucydides will reveal another, far less objective or historical, purpose for the presentation of these diverse viewpoints. At this point I leave Peter Kosso’s article for a moment and turn to a closer look at another article that Kosso cites: read more »

How We Know “What Actually Happened” in Ancient Times

Peter Kosso

Peter Kosso [link is to his academic page], a philosopher of epistemology (or “philosopher of how we know things”), explains how historians can know “what actually happened” in ancient times. I would love to see scholars like Kosso direct their understanding and criticism to attempted explanations by biblical scholars. Well, this post is an indirect attempt to do just that by picking out some of the most salient points of his article. (Though I would love to do so, I don’t cover all the aspects and subtleties of Kosso’s essay.)

Kosso, Peter. 1993. “Historical Evidence and Epistemic Justification: Thucydides as a Case Study.” History and Theory 32 (1): 1–13.


Kosso illustrates his arguments with reference to the ancient historian with the reputation of being the father of scientific history, Thucydides.

How can we know if we can trust Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war?

There are two possible ways of going about answering this question. One is external and the other internal.

  • External: We can turn to outside sources, other texts or archaeological evidence, to test the claims of Thucydides.
  • Internal: We can examine what was written by Thucydides himself and make a judgement based on what he himself says about himself and his work.

Four kinds of corroboration

#1 Material evidence: If surviving architectural monuments and natural terrain match what an ancient historian says then the text gains “a measure of justification”.

#2 If different authors write about the same or related things then to the extent that their accounts are consistent and further our understanding of events then “each gains credibility”.

#3 If another ancient work refers to Thucydides and discusses both him as a person and how he went about his work then we gain helpful background information to what we are reading in Thucydides’ history. But that report on Thucydides must be independent and not composed by a sycophant seeking the favours of Thucydides himself, of course.

This is to block the circularity of a theory accounting for its own evidence, a circularity that would make the testing vacuous. For the same reason, a textual source of information about some particular textual evidence must be independent of that evidence. The author of the accounting claims, for example, must not be a sycophant of the historian being described, but must have an independent source of credibility. (p. 4)

#4 What does the author say about himself and how he went about collecting his information? Does he display an awareness of the difference between eyewitness and hearsay evidence? Does he present both sides of conflicts or is he clearly biased? Do we find attention to detail? Are his explanations coherent? Is he vague in his descriptions or does he inspire confidence with realistic pictures of what actually happened? All of these features “might be used as indicators of accuracy and credibility.”

Putting Thucydides to the above tests

read more »

Once more on that false courtroom analogy

(Second part to “The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun)


Courtroom, lawyer and detective analogies seem to be especially favoured by evangelicals and even mainstream biblical scholars. No doubt the comparison with judges and criminal investigators lends a certain aura of credibility and authority to the methods or arguments that are being buttressed by the analogies, but as we have seen here a number of times before the analogy is very misleading.

Bart Ehrman is currently repeating the courtroom analogy he set out in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) that seeks to explain how historians of Christian origins work. On pages 89-90 he writes (again my own bolding):

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof. As in a court of law, certain kinds of evidence are acknowledged as admissible, and witnesses must be carefully scrutinized. How, then, can we go about it?

. . . .

In any court trial, it is better to have a number of witnesses who can provide consistent testimony than to have only one, especially if the witnesses can be shown not to have conferred with one another in order to get their story straight. A strong case will be supported by several witnesses who independently agree on a point at issue. So, too, with history. An event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historical than an event mentioned in only one.

But that is not how biblical scholars work and the analogy is seriously misleading. read more »

“The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun

The Gospels may not have been written as objective, disinterested accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus, but they clearly do contain historical information. The trick is figuring out what is historical and what is legendary.Bart Ehrman: “The Historians Wish List”

They “clearly do contain historical information”? Clearly? How do we know?

There are some details that can be corroborated by independent sources, such as the existence of Pharisees, Roman authority over Judea, cultic practices around the Jerusalem temple, and so forth. But without those independent witnesses we would have no way of knowing that even those details were “clearly historical information”.

Bart Ehrman does point out the existence of “external” sources in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium — e.g. Pliny, Tacitus. Yes, their writings are certainly “external” to the gospels but to what extent they are “independent” or even authentic is another question that the historian is required to assess prior to his/her use of them. Ehrman calls them “external checks” on the gospels, but they can only be “checks” (p. 53) if they can be established to be independent. If they derive from a time much later than the events narrated in the gospels then questions inevitably arise about their independence of knowledge of the canonical gospel story. (In the case of Pliny we have serious questions about the authenticity of the key letter, not to mention the letter’s failure to even mention “Jesus” per se.)

(Note: we have seen in case studies of Demonax and Gyges on this blog that an external source can be late and still be reasonably argued to contain independent information and it can be contemporary and found to be false. But arguments need to be provided; the simple fact of lateness or contemporaneity alone does not automatically rule out or in the value of evidence. Comparable arguments would need to be supplied for the claims found in Tacitus for Tacitus to be considered an “external check” on the gospel accounts.)

It is one thing to know that documents contain or hide historical information in or behind their narratives and from that foundation proceed to see what we might consider historical. But it is quite another exercise to come to that prior certainty that the documents “clearly do contain historical information” that can be extracted somehow.

If we start applying methods to extract information of a certain kind before first establishing that the source is a genuine repository of that information, then we are putting the cart before the horse. Our exercise becomes a circular process. We will declare our extracted information “historical” (or “probably historical”) and possibly use that result to go back and argue that our documents “clearly do contain historical information.”



Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity

John S. Kloppenborg

Thanks to Jim West I was informed of the public availability of a new article by the well-known New Testament scholar John S. Kloppenborg.

Kloppenborg, John S. 2017. “Disciplined Exaggeration: The Heuristics of Comparison in Biblical Studies.” Novum Testamentum 59 (4): 390–414.

I think the article should always be cited whenever reference is made to Samuel Sandmel’s 1962 article warning of the flaws of uncontrolled “parallelomania“. Together they warn against either extreme.

Some quotations from Kloppenborg’s article (with the usual notice that formatting and bolding is mine):

By contrast, comparison in the historiography of early Christianity has had a peculiar history: comparisons were often employed either to establish the difference and, indeed, the incommensurability of Christian forms with anything in their environment; or, as Jonathan Z. Smith has observed, comparison was used to create “safe” comparanda such as the construct of “Judaism,” which then served to insulate emerging Christianity from “Hellenistic influence.” . . . .

. . . . comparison in the study of early Christianity has often been used to assert its sui generis and incommensurable character. That is, comparison is invoked to rule out comparison or to limit it so that comparison becomes inconsequential.  (p. 393)

Some readers will be aware of the work of the Jesus Seminar and the publications of John Crossan, Burton Mack and others pointing out similarities to Q and Cynic sayings.

On this hypothesis, the social postures evident in either the Sayings Gospel Q, or (for Crossan) in for the historical Jesus himself could be fruitfully compared with Graeco-Roman Cynicism. There was no claim that Q or Jesus were “influenced” by Cynicism, but instead that the social postures of Q (or Jesus) were “cynic-like,” in the sense that they constituted a radical deconstruction of the prevailing ways in which Galilean society constructed social and economic hierarchies, moral categories, and the very nature of piety. The reaction to this proposal was immediate and visceral. (pp. 394f)

And continues to this day, I notice.

No! No! No! went the reaction. There was no “archaeological evidence” of Cynicism anywhere in Galilee. Recalling the story that the reputed founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, set up his home in a bathtub (some say wine-cask) Kloppenborg wryly comments:

one wonders what could constitute archaeological evidence of Cynicism: bathtubs?

But K more pertinently notes the evidence of the tendentiousness of this reaction: read more »

How Historical Research Works (and does not work) — even with Bayes’

A Roman Catholic historian who thinks he’s a Bayesian walks into the secret Vatican archives. There he discovers a document that might have significance for rewriting the origins of Christianity. I have reproduced a facsimile:

The historian is stunned. His faith has taught him that James was only a cousin or half-brother. If he was wrong about that, he wonders, how can he even be sure Jesus existed at all?

Reeling in doubts, the historian is nonetheless conscientious and no fool. He knows he has to test this document for its authenticity. So he snips off a corner of it and sends it to the laboratory to determine the age and provenance of the material. As an extra check he sends a high definition copy to a paleographer.

The results come back. The material is dated between 40 AD and 60 AD and the paleographic analysis confirms that the style to what was typical of the year 50 AD.

Next, he asks if the letter is genuinely by Paul. His colleagues tell him it sounds just like the Paul they know so that is confirmed.

Since this is evidently an autograph questions of the contents of the letter being altered during the process of copying do not arise.

But how reliable are its contents as historical evidence? Our historian asks if we can verify that this particular James really was known to be the literal brother of Jesus.

He consults the latest scholarship on the book of Acts and discovers that it is now established “beyond doubt” that the first chapters, 1-15, were written in the year 45 AD and that the original text said that James was not only the head of the church but was also the junior brother of Jesus, one year younger to be precise. The contents of Paul’s letter are confirmed!

But our historian is more thorough still. Did anyone else in the early church know anything of this letter and its contents? He pores through Tertullian’s writings and sees that Tertullian quotes the passage about meeting James to refute Marcion’s heresy that Jesus was not really a flesh and blood human being born of a woman on earth.

That clinched it! The letter and its contents sure seemed to be genuine and known to be genuine by the venerable Fathers.

But our historian is a Bayesian. At least he thinks he is. He read half of a blurb on the back cover of a book that had Bayes written on its front cover and is confident that he got the hang of it from that.

If he was wrong about Jesus having brothers how can he be sure Jesus even existed? The historian pauses to think of all the unbelievable stories about Jesus. Could such a person really have existed in the first place? So he puts on what he thinks is his Bayesian cap that looks very much like one of those conical dunce caps and sets to work.

He weighed the evidence. He took all the stories that were mythical and set them against the evidence for the reality of Jesus and here’s what he found:

The weight of numbers proved it. Jesus did not exist after all. He was entirely mythical. The claims of the letter were all bogus. read more »