Tag Archives: Criteria of authenticity

Historians on the Most Basic Laws of Historical Evidence

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward.
Professor David Dumville, British medievalist and Celtic scholar, Chair in History & Palaeography in the School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, Professor in History, Palaeography & Celtic, University of Aberdeen.

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward. History must be written from contemporary sources or with the aid of testimony carried to a later era by an identifiable and acceptable line of transmission. Many texts which present themselves for our consideration as testimony to Anglo-Saxon history are creations remote from that age. Historical writing may be entertaining if an author chooses to cut corners or ignore the rules of evidence when assessing such works—but it will not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Dumville, 55

Professor Dumville’s words conclude a chapter addressing questionable practices and conclusions of a number of medieval historians that echo, at least in my ears, methods in biblical studies.

In the opening paragraph Dumville sets out a warning that no doubt many scholars of “biblical Israel” and Christian origins would enthusiastically offer lip agreement to:

[The historian] must excavate his texts, not in the spirit of a treasure-hunter seeking little more than the thrill of whatever finds may come to hand, but in as measured and scientific a fashion as possible. In the academic discipline of history, as in archaeology, the time for treasure-hunting has now passed. In spite of occasional lapses, methods and standards of criticism are rigorous and well advertized.

Dumville, 43

Excavating texts?

That image of “excavating texts” reminds me of James McGrath’s illustration of the way a historian supposedly reads a text compared with the way of a literary analyst:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

There is a significant difference, however. When Dumville speaks of “excavating” texts he makes not a single reference to any “criteria of authenticity” such as “criterion of embarrassment” or “criterion of double dissimilarity”; he makes no reference to “memory theory” as might have at that time been gleaned from Halbwach’s 1980 publication of The Collective Memory. What he means by “excavating” the texts is studying what can and can’t be known about their probable source material and any data (or absence of data) that establishes a clear line of record to the events written about. That is flatly opposed to the assumptions and implications of the diagram above. One cannot reason about the narrative style or presentation of a text in order to apply criteria or memory theory and thereby arrive at a “probable series of historical events”.

What excavating texts means to Dumville is establishing clear evidence of the use of sources that can be traced back to being contemporary with the events of the narrative or document. If the author does not set out the evidence that would enable readers to be assured that his or her story or record were derived ultimately from contemporary sources then the work is completely useless for historians who seek to reconstruct the earlier event.

Comparing hypothetical sources and traditions “behind” biblical texts

What if later narratives agree, though? Won’t that be some indication that they are at least close to accurately representing earlier events? No. Some medieval historians fell into that error (as Dumville would put it) when they concluded from agreements in later sources that those later source agreements indicated that they all used a much earlier set of documents from the very time of the events being studied.

Does anyone else at this point think of the arguments underlying the Q source? Or those that attempt to glimpse earlier memories? What of Bart Ehrman’s plethora of sources that, among others, add M and L to Q?

Contrast Dumville’s view of historians who worked back from agreements in later twelfth century sources to concluding that they were based on a hypothetical (surely actual) ninth century documents:

It was the implication of Pagan’s discussion of the Flores historiarum and Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie that such lists were maintained in ninth-century Northumbria. However, this view must be qualified by the knowledge that the unanimity of the twelfth-century Durham texts is sometimes in shared error or doubtful deduction. Continuity of accurate record is not therefore to be assumed, and any information with such an uncertain pedigree cannot sustain very confident use. (52)

Semantic seductions

Next, note the confusion of terminology, how sometimes the language of “documents” or “records” can so easily (I suggest even unconsciously) elide with sources that technically are not “documents” or “records” at all. (This was a criticism I once made of a discussion by James Crossley and that was the source of his outrage and, it seems at least to me, even some small ongoing obsession to denigrate this blog in subsequent publications. )

Lyon has laid some stress on the date 854 in Northumbrian historical record, observing that it ‘is explicitly mentioned in several documents, so it cannot be lightly rejected’. The first essential point is that it is not mentioned in any document at all, for we have none surviving from early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. That very absence speaks volumes for the nature of institutional discontinuity in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. The date 854 is mentioned in a number of twelfth-and thirteenth-century literary texts. In discussing a historical subject, we must not lapse into the loose language of the archaeologist who is unaccustomed to written sources: not all written texts are documents; documentary and literary texts have a different status and require somewhat different handling. (52)

What they deride as “minimalism” in OT studies

A contemporary source, even if consisting of but one single coin, must outweigh tomes of written sources that offer no certain derivation from the time of the events they point to:

The instinct displayed by Hugh Pagan in 1969—for the numismatist to dispense with the apparent information of the written sources for much of ninth-century Northumbrian history and rely on evidence derivable directly from coinage—must, I think, command the assent of the historian. Hopeful manipulation of the twelfth-century literature serves little purpose. (53)

We are aware of difficulties and debates over efforts to reconcile various archaeological finds in the region of Palestine with Biblical narratives.

Compare an outsider review of Nazareth archaeology

I was further reminded of René Salm’s analysis of the published archaeological reports of pottery finds around Nazareth and the virulent attacks many have directed against him as a consequence — on the grounds that he is “not an archaeologist”. Dumville is not an archaeologist, either, but that does not render him incapable of reading thoughtfully, commenting on, and disagreeing with conclusions drawn by specialists and many peers who concur with them.

  • The silver penny’s location, and the name on it, lead to the “obvious” conclusion that it must derive from a certain period well documented in the literary sources.
  • The physical differences from other coins known to be related to those literary sources therefore raise questions.
  • “Extraordinary hypotheses” are advanced to explain these physical differences. Why is one coin so different from the others “surely from the same provenance”?
  • The “minimalist” view: Stripped from the problematic literary sources, the coin is more simply interpreted as evidence that our literary sources are incomplete and that they even fail to inform us of the existence of entire kingdoms.

The other problem of procedure concerns the now famous silver penny—from the Trewhiddle hoard, buried in Cornwall c. 875 x c. 895—bearing the name of a King Earned. Careful study of this coin has allowed the seemingly secure conclusion that it is to be compared with the coinage issued by Æthelwulf of Wessex in the 850s and Berhtwulf of Mercia in the 840s. The only known king of the name is the ruler of Northumbria to whom our twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources attribute a lengthy reign within the period 806-42. This king is well represented by an appropriate coinage. Neither the form nor the style of the Eanred silver penny seems to suit an equation with a Northumbrian king of the first half of the ninth century. Furthermore, G. C. Brooke gave it as his opinion that ‘the style of the coin seems . . . to prove it to be an issue of the Canterbury mint.

To meet this difficulty, extraordinary hypotheses have been advanced. It may not be wholly unfair to suspect that it provided much of the fuel powering Pagan’s radical reassessment of Northumbrian chronology. Alternatively we have been invited to allow the existence of ‘a historically unknown king, who was ruling, possibly in the Midlands, about 850’. (54)

The historian, for all his wish to know more about his research area, is obliged to confess ignorance, that the literary sources available sometimes simply do not justify conclusions we would like to make about our question of interest.

The Historian’s Conclusion

There are no back-up methods to fill in the gaps left by the absence of contemporary sources. There are no appeals to criteria of authenticity in the literary texts. There are no speculative exercises, however “intelligently guessed”, in memory theory. There is only the humble admission of ignorance.

After all, the most basic laws of historical evidence really are very straightforward.


Dumville, David N. 1987. “Textual Archaeology and Northumbrian History Subsequent to Bede.” In Coinage in the Ninth-Century Northumbria: The Tenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, edited by D. M. Metcalf, 43–55. BAR British Series 180. Oxford: B.A.R.


That Curious Criterion Classically Illustrated

Not long after addressing that “curious criterion” of biblical studies that holds that the less likely something seems to be in the Gospels, the more likely it is to have been historically true, I unpacked a carton of my books that included The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue, and found in there a classic example of that curious criterion in action.

Actually it is a slight oversimplification to describe this criterion the way I did in my opening line. More “strictly”, it is summed up by the incredulous claim: “I can’t see why anyone would make it up.” Surely claiming authenticity for any data on the grounds that one “can’t think of a reason it would have been made up by anyone” is the nadir of intellectual laziness. When taken to its extreme, it can be used to prove the most sensational claims of the miraculous. And that is exactly where Bishop and Scholar N. T. Wright does take it. He is referring to the Gospel of Luke’s account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples and breaking bread and eating bread and fish with them:

If you have an empty tomb and something’s happened to the body, and then if the apparitions are not just apparitions, such as you have when somebody you love has just died, but actually involve some extraordinary physical things. You know, according to Luke 24, there must be a broken loaf lying on the table somewhere which they didn’t break — somebody did that — and so it’s not just eating broiled fish. There’s a bunch of physical phenomena going on, and this is where the stories are so odd, as well as these kind of paraphysical phenomena — I don’t think anyone could have made up these stories, actually, I think they’re so bizarre — and that’s part of the point. . . . (pp. 37-8, my emphasis)

Historians (not theologians) generally treat bizarreness as an indicator of fiction, and the more bizarre the more likely to be fictitious.

But N. T. Wright is “a leading New Testament scholar” whose work is certainly discussed with all seriousness by other scholars as diverse as (“liberal”) John Dominic Crossan and (“independent”) Maurice Casey. read more »

Historical methods postcript: Where criteriology leaves us

Just to add here what I left assumed in my previous post . . . .

Enough has been written on the contradictory and inconsistent issues arising from the attempts to establish “bedrock evidence” for the life of Jesus from “criteriology”. (I am not addressing the use of criteria in other historical studies where it has a different function.)

Criteriology leaves the debate open whether Jesus was a political revolutionary, an apocalyptic prophet, a rabbi, a mystic, a teacher, a healer, a magician, a timberman (see #4 by Lemche at http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/sack357908.shtml).

In other words, criteriology leaves us not knowing where to even start a definitive exploration of who this Jesus was.

But in addition to failing to establish who or what Jesus was historically, it leads to the greater sin of avoiding the historical question of Christian origins. Christianity was a faith movement, and its origin and spread needs to be explained as such. The Christ that was spread through the Mediterranean and Middle East was a Christ of faith, after all. A mythical construct, in other words.

Historical method worth its salt will work with the evidence as it exists, as faith literature, and through analysis of both it and its relationships with other ideas of the time, seek to understand its origin and appeal.

Scot McKnight’s lament and the fallacy of the HJ historical method

I addressed Scot McKnight’s chapter on historiography in Jesus and His Death in order to respond to the central fallacy in his article in Christianity Today, The Jesus We’ll Never Know. McKnight is only half-correct when he claims that scholars have used normative historical methods to discover the historical Jesus (HJ). It is the missing half that is at the heart of the failure of the historical Jesus quest. In Jesus and His Death McKnight commented on the general lack of awareness among HJ scholars of historiography, but unfortunately McKnight himself misses a central point of the same historians he discusses, and the reason is not hard to find.

McKnight writes in the CT article:

First, the historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars reconstruct on the basis of historical methods. Scholars differ, so reconstructions differ. Furthermore, the methods that scholars use differ, so the reconstructions differ all the more. But this must be said: Most historical Jesus scholars assume that the Gospels are historically unreliable; thus, as a matter of discipline, they assess the Gospels to see if the evidence is sound. They do this by using methods common to all historical work but that are uniquely shaped by historical Jesus studies. . . .

[C]riteria were developed, criticized, dropped, and modified, but all have this in common: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was like by using historical methods to determine what in the Gospels can be trusted.

I have emphasized McKnight’s key concern with historical methods. The methods used are “criteria” of various sorts to make judgments about the likelihood of any particular detail in the Gospels being historically true or not. (McKnight discusses “criteriology” in Jesus and His Death and is just as critical of its ability to yield objective results there.)

I attempted to address the details from McKnight’s discussion of historiography and the writings of other historians such as G.R. Elton in my previous post. That was meant as a detailed justification for my following observation here —

The fallacy of the HJ historical method

1. The agreed basic facts

History is first of all about facts that are public and known to have happened. The Second World War really happened. We do not need criteria to know that. We have public and primary evidence for it. It is not a fact that any sceptic can dispute. It is an existential fact whose existence by definition cannot be denied or overturned. (It is the same for the Holocaust, I add, since some have suggested my views on history would lead me to deny the Holocaust, too.) This is what all modernist historians agree on. Even postmodernists agree that the facts and events that we have labelled the Second World War really did occur.

2. Where the differences begin

read more »

Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies

Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars have boasted that they use the same sorts of methods as scholarly historians of other (nonbiblical) subjects, but this is a misleading claim. When it comes to the basics of the nature of “facts” and “evidence” this claim is simply not true. Historical Jesus scholars use a completely different standard to establish their basic facts from anything used by nonbiblical historians, as I will demonstrate here by comparing discussions of historical facts by both an HJ and a nonbiblical historian.

Scot McKnight (in a discussion of historiography relating to historical Jesus studies, chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) notes the importance of a “fact” for HJ scholars:

[F]or our purposes, what kind of history is the historical Jesus scholar doing? First, history begins with “facts” that survive from the past as evidence. (p.20)

So far, so good. McKnight explains that even though it is the values and biases of the historians that guide their choices and interpretations of facts, the facts themselves have a real existence quite apart and distinct from the historian himself.

Cookery and Exegesis

But then McKnight gets murky and ambiguous in his explanation and covers up the multitude of sins of the bulk of historical Jesus scholars. At one level it sounds like he is saying nothing different from how nonbiblical historians work, but he is meaning something quite different behind the same words:

[Facts] genuinely exist even if they have to be sorted out through a critical procedure. . . . To be sure, apart from perhaps archaeological remains, all external facts have been through what Elton calls “some cooking process,” noting that no external facts are “raw.” (pp.20-21)

Sir Geoffrey Elton

This is misleading. Firstly, Elton said the opposite of what McKnight claims for him here. Here is what Elton actually said (with my emphasis):

[It is] at present virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials [facts] of the past raw: some cooking process is supposed to have invariably intervened before the historian becomes even conscious of his facts. If that were so — if there were no way of knowing the knowable in its true state — historical truth would indeed become an elusive, possibly a non-existent, thing. (p.53, The Practice of History)

I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will explain Elton in more detail later.)  What McKnight is doing here is justifying a procedure used by biblical historians to create facts to suit their theories and beliefs. He does this by claiming the HJ scholar’s fact-creation is consistent with what nonbiblical historians do. Nonbiblical historians do not do what McKnight and many HJ historians think or at least seem to say they do. Later McKnight is more specific and explains exactly how HJ historians come to discover these supposedly “existential facts” of theirs. They do so through exegesis of the gospels:

In other word, history involves three steps. . . . They are (1) the discovery of existential facts — in our case the discovery of the gospel evidence by exegesis, or of archaeological data, or of political contexts. Then (2) there is criticism of existential facts. . . . An existential fact often becomes nonexistential at the hands of a skeptical historical Jesus scholar. . . . (pp.23-24) (Point 3 is about interpreting and making meaning of facts.)

This is all bollocks. It is here where biblical scholars totally jump the rails and part company with nonbiblical historians. McKnight says that facts can cease to be facts when scrutinized by sceptical minds. But nonbiblical historians say that this is true only in the case of “secondary” or inferred “facts” that are derived from other more basic facts. In the case of the basic facts there is no question as to the possibility of their nonexistence. They are there and cannot cease to exist. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is a basic fact that can never cease to exist. But secondary facts derived from that basic fact, such as the precise course of the battle, or the actions of particular individuals in that battle, may only be able to be indirectly inferred. Such secondary “facts” are often disputable and may not always survive. Secondary facts are derived from some “cooking process”, but Elton is clear that these are not the foundation of historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with raw, uncooked, existential facts. (Epistemology, the question of whether these facts are “knowledge” or “belief on the basis of very good reasons” is another question.)

Basic and public Facts versus complex and private “facts”

Here is what historian G.R. Elton wrote about facts, “existential facts”, facts that by definition as facts cannot cease to exist as facts (as McKnight admits HJ “facts” can and do), such as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the occurrence of the war itself:

Without the simple details of accurate chronology, genealogy and historical geography, history would have no existence. And of those simple facts an enormous number are presently known. (p.14)

And here is what he wrote about the other kind of inferred facts (again my emphasis):

read more »

E.P. Sanders’ Test for Authenticity of the Sayings of Jesus

Following Professor James McGrath’s advice to pay particular attention to E. P. Sanders’ discussion of methodology (pp.3-22 in Jesus and Judaism) I am here have a look at one of the main tests for the sayings material.

Sanders does not discuss any methodology for testing authenticity of biographical events in Jesus’ life. The closest he comes to this is an a priori analysis of the plot narrative: “If Jesus did X then he probably also did or meant or tried to do Y”, or “Since B happened to Jesus then it was probably because he did something like A.”

He does discuss a methodology for the sayings material. It is the criterion of double dissimilarity.

The principle test which scholars have recently used for assessing authenticity is the test of double ‘dissimilarity’ . . .

The test is this: material which can be accounted for neither as traditional Jewish material nor as later church material can be safely attributed to Jesus. (p. 16)

Sanders is well aware of difficulties with this.

There are well-known difficulties in applying the test. We know first-century Judaism very imperfectly, and knowledge about the interests of the church between 70 and 100 CE . . . is slender indeed.

Despite these two deficiencies in our knowledge, Sanders refers to the “Let the dead bury their dead” saying as one example where this test can be successfully applied. (But even this saying has been contextualized within pre-Christian Judaism’s and the early church’s beliefs in the sharp divide between the life of the true community of faith and the spiritual death of those outside. Fletcher-Louis, JSNT 26.1 (2003).)   Nonetheless, Sanders continues:

Yet a problem remains. The test rules out too much.

It is this very “problem” of the test that is addressed by Robert Price, and as outlined earlier in 5 (more) commandments for historians:

And if the criterion of dissimilarity is valid, then we must follow unafraid wherever it leads. (Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, p.59)

Price argues that since every saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospels was written by “church” scribes and for church needs, it follows, by the criterion of dissimilarity, that every saying we have of Jesus is a creation for church needs.

Price appears to be directly responding to Sanders when he remarks that this criterion has been watered down by many scholars on the grounds that, applied consistently, it leaves virtually no sayings left to attribute to Jesus. But of course, we cannot justify a complaint about a method solely on the grounds that it does not yield the results we want.

Back to Sanders.

[T]he remaining material does not interpret itself or necessarily answer historical questions. It must still be placed in a meaningful context . . . .

Since historical reconstruction requires that data be fitted into a context, the establishment of a secure context, or framework of interpretation, becomes crucial. There are basically three kinds of information which provide help in this endeavour: such facts about Jesus as those outlined (. . . nos. 1-6); knowledge about the outcome of his life and teaching (cf. nos. 7 and 8); knowledge of first-century Judaism. (pp.16-17)

The numbers here refer to Sanders list of “facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known without doubt. . . . The almost indisputable facts . . . are these” (p.11):

  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of their being twelve
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple
  6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
  7. After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement
  8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement (Gal. 1.13, 22; Phil. 3.6), and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career (II Cor. 11:24; Gal. 5.11; 6.12; cf. Matt. 23.3; 10.17)

There is no evidence for any of the above apart from the Gospel narratives themselves. Some are disputed by some scholars (e.g. points 2, 3 and 5). And if such “facts” can only qualify as being “almost indisputable”, that hardly leaves them in the same class of what normally is taken as historical fact, such as Caesar crossing the Rubicon or the existence of itinerant sophists teaching around Athens from the fifth century b.c.e.

This absence of any way to determine the historical origin of the many of the Bible’s narratives has not gone unnoticed among some scholars: read more »

Cracked argument, rhetorical questions and women witnesses at the tomb

A wisdom-pearl in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reminded me of a host of gossamer arguments regularly touted by fundamenatists (not only Christian or religious fundamentalists, either).

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)

Rhetorical questions used to paper over cracked arguments – yes, so often.

A popular argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus goes like this:

A . . . problem for a made-up resurrection account is that the allegedly made up story relies on the presence of women witnesses at its start. In this culture females could not be witnesses. If one were making up this story, why would one create it with women as witnesses? The key role of women in the account suggests the women are there because the women were there at the start, not that the resurrection was made up. (Bock, 2006: p. 150)

N.T. Wright is a little more subtle (?) by embedding his rhetorical question in a barrage of rhetorical assertions.

Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material . . . it will not do to have him, or anyone else . . . making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it. The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses. . . . The debate between Origen and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction? If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being the first a the tomb, they would have done it. That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both. Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy? (Wright, 2003: p. 607)

One might construe Wright’s reference in this context to the debate between Origen and Celsus as a little bit mischievous. Wright is discussing the empty tomb so his citation of Celsus reads as if this ancient sceptic attempted to refute the empty tomb story on the basis of its reliance on women witnesses. But Celsus nowhere critiques the empty tomb story on this basis at all. His critique in relation to the women as witnesses has to do with their claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus:

Speaking next of the statements in the Gospels, that after His resurrection He showed the marks of His punishment, and how His hands had been pierced, he asks, “Who beheld this?” And discrediting the narrative of Mary Magdalene, who is related to have seen Him, he replies, “A half-frantic woman, as you state.” (Contra Celsus, Book II, ch. 59)

Celsus’ critique of the empty tomb story was based on a comparison with pagan claims for the tomb of Jupiter on the isle of Crete (Contra Celsus, Book III, chapter 43).

It is worth comparing the billowing rhetoric of these “arguments” with the facts of the text they claim to be supporting.

Darrell Bock writes (and N.T. Wright strongly implies) that the resurrection account “relies on the presence of women at its start”. If by “resurrection account” he means the canonical narratives, then it is true that each of these speaks of women being the first at the tomb. But if he means the evidence for the resurrection itself, the women play no direct role at all. The women witnesses are – as per the rhetorical assertions – not believed by the men.

In Mark’s gospel, which rightly ends at 16:8, they do not even tell anyone what they had seen.

In Matthew’s gospel there is no account of the women reporting anything to the disciples – a strange oversight if the proof of the resurrection “relied” on their witness. Rather, this gospel informs the reader that the tomb guards reported what had happened to the chief priests, and implies that the chief priests believed the account of the resurrection. Next, the disciples themselves witness the resurrected Jesus. By inference the reader understands that Christianity began as a direct result of this appearance of Jesus to the disciples. The story of the women being the first to witness Jesus serves as little more than a nice message to assure the world that the new religion has a special place for women as well as the men.

Again according to Luke’s gospel, the women are far from necessary for belief in the resurrection. No-one believes the women (Luke 24:11, 25, 37-38). Jesus has to appear in person to convince the disciples and start the church.

Finally in John’s gospel, only one (unnamed) male disciple believes, and he does so only after he sees the empty tomb for himself (John 20:8).

In all gospels the apostolic founders of Christianity believed in the ressurrection because they had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. In all gospels the women were disbelieved or there is no narrative about their informing the male disciples at all.

When I was in Sunday school I learned that the reason Jesus appeared first to women after his resurrection was to offer them some sort of affirmative action or positive discrimination to undo their hitherto subservient place in society.

If the women witnesses were not even believed in the story there can be little basis to the assertion that their witness is central to belief in the resurrection as a fact of history.

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Honest to Jesus: Robert Funk’s mix of good, contradictory and overlooked “rules of evidence”

Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert Funk has a lot interesting insights into the gospel texts. But he (along with probably a vast majority of his biblical studies colleagues) also carries a few assumptions that set his historical studies a world apart from the methods of historians of nonbiblical themes.

But first the good rule that just about any historian of nonbiblical topics would support. It should be so obvious that it should not even need to be spelled out.

. . . storytellers may take their listeners to the time and place of the event and allow them to see and hear what went on — all by means of words, of course. . . . Because [this description seems] realistic — the words of participants in the story are quoted and their actions are described, sometimes in graphic detail — it is often assumed to be more historically reliable. That assumption is misleading: writers of fiction know how to narrate realistically . . . , and when they do a good job of it, readers willingly accept as true what they are being told. To be convincing, writers of fiction must of course achieve a high level of plausibility. (p. 3 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus — also somewhere in Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium)

Actually Funk does not list that as a “rule” but more as a base awareness before studies begin.

Before discussing the Passion Narrative Funk does indeed list “rules of evidence”. Here are the first two — and I will show how they actually contradict each other if applied consistently. (And if not applied consistently, they are Lenin pie crust rules made to be broken.)

Rule number one

This is the good old “criterion of embarrassment”: read more »

The misuse of multiple independent sources

Here are two quotations explaining how the criteria of multiple attestation supposedly gives us a sound reason for believing in the historicity of a gospel account, the first by conservative Craig Evans and the second by liberal Bart Ehrman:

What about those who would like to have sound, compelling reasons for accepting the Gospel narratives as reliable? . . . Thoughtful people rightly apply criteria for evaluating claims. So also historians for assessing the historical worth of documents. . . . Sayings and actions of Jesus that appear in two or more independent sources suggest that they were circulated widely and early and were not invented by a single writer. . . . [This criteria enables] historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. (Fabricating Jesus, pp.49-51)

But what if a story is found independently in more than one source? That story cannot have been made up by either source, since they are independent; it must predate them both. Stories found in multiple, independent sources therefore have a better likelihood of being older, and possibly authentic. . . . For example, both Matthew and Luke independently indicate that Jesus was raised in Nazareth, but their stories about how he got there differ, so one came from M and the other from L. Mark indicates the same thing. So does John, which did not use any of the Synoptics or their sources. Conclusion? It is independently attested: Jesus probably came from Nazareth. (Jesus, Interrupted, p, 155)

And here’s a third from a quasi-legal religious text:

by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established (Deuteronomy 19:5)

I like the third one, but the first two illustrate the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy or false dilemma. Granted the authors qualify their remarks with “suggest” and “probably”, but both consider only one set of alternative explanations for multiple attestation — unlikely coincidental fabrication or more likely genuine historicity.

Neither considers the possibility that independent sources could just as likely be independently addressing another theological debate or widely known unhistorical narrative.

Without attestation external to our gospel sources we have no way of knowing whether they were addressing historical events or other stories.

The only reason I can see for assuming the former and apparently giving no time for any other possibility is the desire to comply with popular religious and cultural belief systems.

The thousands of independent sitings of UFO’s do not establish that we really are being visited by aliens.

Criteria for authenticity – final post (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continued from More criteria . . . . Again, this post is part of a series of posts in response to Evans’s accusation that “no one trained in history” would ever think the evidence for the “historical Jesus” to be as thin as some of the radical critics assert.

Evans (Fabricating Jesus) lists two more criteria for establishing authenticity of Gospel sayings and deeds: Semitisms and Palestinian background, and Coherence (or consistency),

Semitisms and Palestinian background

This criterion . . . suggests that sayings and deeds that reflect the Hebrew or Aramaic language (Semitisms), of reflect first-century Palestine (geography, topography, customs, commerce) are what we should expect of authentic material. (pp. 50-51)

This explanation hardly lends justice to claiming that “semitisms and Palestinian background” ought to be regarded as a “criterion” for authenticity. I am quite sure Evans does not mean to suggest that if a saying does not reflect a “semitism” or a deed does not point to a specific “Palestinian background” that they must be ruled out as inauthentic!

Evans himself is clearly aware of the weakness of this “as a criterion of authenticity” on other grounds, too. He admits that semitisms detected behind the Greek translation do not mean that a saying was spoken by Jesus.

By all means it is certainly true that if Jesus did speak Aramaic (though in cosmopolitan Galilee is it not also possible he spoke Greek?), and if some of these sayings were handed down and translated into Greek and appeared in that form in our Gospels, then yes, we might expect some of them to retain traces of semitic constructions behind the Greek translation. But it does not follow that such a train of events preceded any particular case of a Greek saying that shows some evidence of a semitic original.

Ditto for the Palestinian background. The mere fact that the story of the gospels is set in Galilee and Jerusalem makes it virtually inevitable that there will be some “Palestinian background” reflected in some deeds and sayings. It does not follow that the narrator is faithfully recording the sayings and deeds of an historical Jesus.

Coherence (or consistency)

Finally, the criterion of coherence (or consistency) is also useful and functions in some ways as a catch-all. According to this criterion, material that is consistent with material judged authentic on the basis of other criteria may also be regarded as authentic. (p.51)

Nothing to say on this that has not already been said, in particular with the discussion of the criterion of Historical Coherence.

Summing up the criteria

Not one of the criteria can be used logically as a basis for judging the authenticity of a deed or saying. At best they can indicate plausibility. All historical events are at face value plausible — simply because they have actually happened. (Some events have appeared to be out of character for the actors involved, and some have happened unexpectedly, but that only means there are degrees of plausibility in hindsight.)

Much historical fiction, propaganda, false rumours and widespread beliefs only ever gain a foothold to begin with simply because they are plausible to the hearers or readers.

Criteria for authenticity that claim to be able to help us second guess what actually was said or done are not a substitute for genuine historical evidence. They are a lounge-chair substitute for primary evidence, if they are indeed expected to tell us as much. But no one “trained in history” can have any justification for placing on them any logical burden greater than they can bear.

The fundamentalist subterfuge

At this point Craig Evans writes:

All of these criteria have their place and can make (and have made) useful contributions to the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. They enable historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. The problem is in assuming that everything that is attributed to Jesus that does not enjoy support from one or more of the criteria should be regarded as inauthentic. (p.51)

In other words, I believe I am safe in interpreting this to mean that Evans wants just about everything in the Gospels to be believed as authentic even if none of the scholarly criteria for authenticity can support it. “Just about everything” because elsewhere Evans concedes that a few passages like that about the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John do not belong in any of the early manuscripts.

I also believe I am on solid ground in detecting dog-whistle language in the above paragraph by Evans. Read carefully, he says no more than that the criteria are “have their place”, “can make useful contributions”, “enable . . . good reasons”. But of course faith does not depend on “good reasons” that are better constructed to assist the tasks of a scholar. And Evans implies the obvious, that the criteria do not “have their place” and can make no “useful contributions” in those cases where a Gospel saying or deed are not supported by any of the criteria.

If I am seeing intellectual subterfuge where it does not really exist then I will be happy to be better informed. But having spent many years of my life within the ranks of fundamentalist believing Christians of various ilks, I think I am safe in saying I know enough of how they think and relate to the (unbelieving) public to make this accusation here with some confidence.

More criteria for authenticity: Historical Coherence (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continuing from 3 criteria for authenticity . . . . (this little series was prompted by Evans accusation that no historian “trained in history” would ever come to the sorts of conclusions about Jesus that some radical critics have arrived at.)

Historical Coherence

When the Gospels tell us things that cohere with what we know of Jesus’ historical circumstances and principal features of his life and ministry, it is reasonable to believe that we are on solid ground. (Fabricating Jesus, p.48 )


I do not follow the logic here. Either something happened or it didn’t. A novelist can create scenes that “cohere” with what is known of the historical period and personalities that are consist the background of their work of fiction. A theologian or preacher may create a moral tale that “coheres” with the historical characters and settings the audience knows. People will often believe false propaganda about an enemy if it “coheres” with what they believe to be known historical facts.

Coherence and/or Historical Fact

A “coherent” story is not any more true by virtue of its coherence. Stalin was known to have distrusted just about everyone. So if I read a historical tale that he trusted Hitler not to invade Russia I can dismiss it, according to the logic underpinning the “criterion of historical coherence”. That the most distrustful of people (as evidenced by the executions and purges of those closest to him) should trust the least trustworthy of men not to commit the thing he feared the most is not “historically coherent”, but of course, it is historical fact. So it is a matter of fact and logic that “historically/biographically incoherent” things can and do happen, and that fictitious events can be and are created that are “historically coherent”.

The criterion of “historical coherence”, it seems to me, suffers the same logical difficulty of circular reasoning as the criterion of Dissimilarity (discussed in previous post).

Is a well constructed plot all that is needed for plausibility? What of authenticity?

Evans continues:

Jesus drew a following, attracted the attention of the authorities, was executed and yet was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son. Deeds and sayings attributed to him in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us understand these major elements should be judged authentic.

This of course is completely circular. It does not help establish historicity. It assumes historicity. It assumes that at least some parts of the Gospels are true, and argues that therefore anything that explains those bits of the Gospels must also be true. We know the widow in this crime novel murdered her husband, so we know it was true that she stood to collect a nice insurance payout if her husband died, because that explains why she murdered him.

Historical coherence can inform us of the plausibility of an event or saying within a given context, but it cannot of itself establish its historical status.

If it were that simple, then it one could say that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus ordered a fish to be caught so it could be opened up to yield a coin to pay his taxes, that he walked on water and rose from the dead simply because these are coherent with other statements in the Bible about him. In other words, even the most implausible claims can be raised to a status of credibility simply on the grounds that they are told within a coherent story narrative.

Logically this means that even the miracle stories of Jesus found outside the canonical gospels — e.g. his miraculously extending the length of a piece of timber that his carpenter father had cut too short — are also “authentic” too. Will Christian fundamentalists allow this criterion to be applied consistently across all surviving gospels?

Historical coherence used to disprove the biblical narrative?

Evans is not alone in using this criterion to assert the authenticity of any event in the Gospels that can be interpreted as giving Pilate a rationale for crucifying Jesus.

I find it odd that many fundamentalist Christians will likewise claim that Jesus was crucified by Rome because “it was believed” he was a political subversive. The way this statement is expressed is necessarily a a bit vague because the Bible itself flatly contradicts the claim. The claim is made because it fits a natural historical explanation for a crucifixion, but it is made in defiance of the Biblical narratives. The one thing all the Gospels are clear about is that Pilate did NOT believe Jesus was a political subversive. They are unanimous in asserting that Pilate found Jesus innocent of any such charge. Pilate crucified him, it is unanimously agreed, to please the blood-lust of the mob. This is doubly emphasized in the Gospel of John where the author points out that the title was over Jesus head on the cross was not a statement of his crime (that “He said, I am King of the Jews”) but an ironic image with theological import for the readers of the gospels, or perhaps a statement that Pilate believed he really was the king, albeit innocent of subversion.

So those sayings and events in the Bible that Evans says are “historically coherent” with Jesus being crucified as a political subversive were judged by Pilate — according to all four Gospel authors — to be not at all necessarily coherent with subversive activity.

Or are such apologists claiming that certain deeds and sayings of Jesus are historically coherent with a secular hypothesis that proposes a nonbiblical reason for Jesus’ death?

It’s a little amusing to think that many fundamentalists who use this criterion to “authenticate” certain deeds and sayings of Jesus because they “explain his crucifixion”, do so in contradiction to the Bible they are seeking to defend. And could there ever have arisen a Gospel narrative about the death of Jesus unless the authors told what some moderns seem to think must have been their “holy white lie” about the reasons for it?


As I concluded my previous post, these sorts of criteria cannot establish historicity, only plausibility — within certain contexts. I by no means say that all biblical scholars think otherwise. This post is meant primarily for those who do place more value on them than they are truly worth.

3 ‘criteria for authenticity’ (“Fabricating Jesus” / Craig Evans contd)

In Fabricating Jesus Craig Evans writes:

Some of the criteria used for supporting the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings apply in the case of his mighty deeds. (p.140)

The criteria for authenticity that he cites in this context are: Multiple Attestation, Dissimilarity and Embarrassment. Elsewhere he lists additional criteria that he says are also useful for assessing the authenticity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus (e.g. Historical Coherence), but will look at those separately in another post.

Multiple attestation

By this is meant “two or more independent sources” for a particular event, suggesting that the event was “not invented by a single writer”, so the event is deemed to have a more reliable documentation for its historicity. (p.48 )

Comment 1: What can reports themselves logically tell us?

All multiple attestation can really tell anyone is what beliefs or stories were circulated widely via a number of sources. The question of the historical authenticity of the content of those stories is another matter entirely. Surely this is simple logic. How many independent sources have there been for the miracles of Aesclepius or the miracles at Lourdes or for the experiences of alien abductions? We have several ancient “reports” testifying to the existence of the Phoenix, but only one first hand report of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

No historian worth their salt will make use of reports, however numerous they be, uncritically. The interests and purposes of the authors of the reports need to be assessed; as also their sources of information. This means making judgments about reports that take into account their provenance, their social and cultural or political (or religious) matrix, their authors. This is all part of “the training of a historian” that Craig Evans speaks dismissively of in relation to those who are sceptical of fundamentalist claims about the Bible. read more »