Tag Archives: Gospels

Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

It is an abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual to write dogmatic apologetics for lay readers. Professor Brant Pitre cobbles together a grab-bag of rationalisations to promote Catholic dogma and presents it to his lay readers as a work based on superior scholarship. The title of this post might have as well have begun with “Betrayal of lay readers” as “Failure of scholarship”.

Take the second chapter of The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ as but one example. After having earlier stressed the importance of understanding the Gospels in their Jewish context, Pitre in this chapter abandons that Jewish context and flips to a non-Jewish Greco-Roman context, resorts to anachronisms, fallacious rhetorical arguments and some misleading statements about the manuscript evidence to pummel the lay reader into “just knowing” that our canonical gospels were composed as we read them today, complete with their author names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, heading each one. The book could be ignored as another Catholic tract if it were not for his academic peers — some of whom have been known to react with indignation if one dares suggest they are not objectively engaged in intellectually honest pursuits — publicly complimenting the work.

In seeking to reassure faithful readers that the Gospels were not originally written anonymously Pitre time-warps out of his “spiritually enlightening” Jewish context of the previous chapter and appeals to modern Western reading preferences:

Imagine for a moment that you’re browsing the shelves of your local bookstore, and you come across two biographies of Pope Francis. One of them is written by a longtime friend and contemporary of the pope. The other biography is anonymous. Which one would you buy? Most people, I would venture to guess, would go for the one written by someone who had actually spent time with him, someone who was a friend of Jorge Bergoglio, the man who later became pope. At the same time, I think most people would also view the anonymous biography with some level of suspicion. Who wrote this? Where did they get their information? Why should I trust that they know what they’re talking about? And if they want to be believed, why didn’t they put their name on the book?

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 12). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Scholars who argue the contrary (which, incidentally, would probably be most critical scholars) do so because of religious prejudice, because they do not want to believe in the Jesus in the Gospels, according to Pitre. The lay believer is led to think of critical scholars as hostile to his or her faith and to be dismissed as some sort of enemy of the truth:

The theory [of the anonymous Gospels] is remarkably widespread among scholars and non-scholars alike. It is especially emphasized by those who wish to cast doubts on the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I’ll dwell upon the anachronistic analogy and the convenient abandonment of the Jewish context of Brant’s argument in this post.

Pitre explains:

[T]he Gospels are a form of ancient Greco-Roman biography. As experts in ancient biography have pointed out, “authors of biographies… normally were named.” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 40. Moreover, one of the standard “opening features” of an ancient Greco-Roman biography was ordinarily some kind of “title.” Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, 156– 57. These titles sometimes identify the author in the third person (see, e.g., Josephus, Life of Josephus; Tacitus’s Agricola; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers). This makes perfect sense, since when it comes to biography, the reader will want to know who is giving the account of the subject’s life, and how they got their information.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 207). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Has Pitre read beyond the works of fellow apologists like Craig Keener and Richard Bauckham in his investigations into this question? Nowhere in his bibliography or index does one find reference to the 2008 article in the reputable journal Novum Testamentum 50:2 120-142 by Armin D. BaumThe Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern LiteratureProfessor Baum’s article actually offers Pitre, Bauckham, Keener and others a way to consistently evaluate the Gospels without sacrificing their Jewish context. But that would also mean stepping away from what modern readers might look for in a biography and accepting that the gospels just might have been originally anonymous after all.

Anonymity: A Stylistic Device

Begin with the abstract of Baum’s article:

The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its ancient Near Eastern and OT background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.

Three New Testament historical works, Luke, Acts and John, contain prologues, the literary place-marker where one would most expect to find a reference to the author’s identity. But no,

Whenever New Testament narrators address their readers, whether in the first person or in some other way they consistently remain anonymous. (p. 122)

It is in the prologues of Greco-Roman history that we normally find the author’s name.

The absence of a prologue was usually considered as a departure from long established standards. Therefore, Lucian could write disapprovingly:

There are historians who “produce bodies without any heads?works lacking an introduction that begin at once with the narrative.”

Thus, the Jewish historian Josephus prefixed elaborate prologues to his Bellum Judaicum and to his Antiquitates because he did not want his works to appear, in the eyes of his educated Hellenistic audience, like headless bodies. 

The same applied to Greco-Roman biography:

Greco-Roman biographies were published under the names of their authors (Euripides, Isocrates, Lucian, Philo, Plutarch, Suetonius etc.) as well. Only the lives that belong to the genre of popular literature (1st to 4th century A.D.) were an exception: the Vita Aesopi the Vita Alexandri Magni (later ascribed to Callisthenes), the somewhat more sophisticated narrative Lucius seu asinus and the Vita Secundi philosophi. These biographies have not only a rather low and episodic style but also anonymity in common. (pp. 126f.)

After surveying the range of ancient biographies and histories Baum concludes:

On the basis of these observations we may conclude: If a Hellenistic historian did not mention his name in (the prologue of) his work, he deviated from an ancient and widespread literary convention. (p. 127)

Baum then compares Old Testament and other Jewish historiography: read more »

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

61klpcnpoql-_sy344_bo1204203200_Several times I’ve referred to comparisons between the ancient tale of Aesop with the gospel accounts of Jesus, referring readers to Lawrence Wills’ book, The quest of the historical gospel : Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre, and Whitney Shiner’s chapter “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. (See Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions and What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask) where I discuss Wills and Shiner each; other posts make passing references.)

Well for all you readers who really did want to read those books or who were waiting in vain for me to get around posting on them in depth, this is your lucky day. Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has given up waiting for both of us and posted the nitty gritty details on these authors and their studies of Aesop vis à vis the gospels:

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

Thanks, Matthew!


Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels”

A week ago I posted thoughts from a chapter by Ronald Hock, Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels. This post is based on an earlier article by Hock (“The Greek Novel”, a chapter in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament, edited by David E. Aune) and looks at many more ways novels can offer us “real-life” glimpses into the world of the New Testament.

That last post was a slap-dash effort. This post provides more illustrations of the way these novels can throw light on both the Gospels and letters of Paul; it concludes with a special focus on the Philippian Hymn in which Christ was abased in order to be exalted above all creation. Further, this time I’m less rushed and have had time to quote passages from the novels themselves.

Hock first explains the point of comparing popular Greek romances with New Testament literature:

The number and variety of parallels between the Greek novels and early Christian literature are legion. The following sampling of these parallels only hints therefore at what a thorough investigation of this genre might accomplish . . . .

Ronald Hock

But first a word of justification: The evidence for earliest Christianity is too fragmentary and culturally alien to be fully understood without recourse to a clarifying and complementary set of roughly contemporary evidence. Typically, however, scholars have sought this evidence largely in Jewish sources; seldom has any scholar looked at the evidence of the novels. But whatever the Jewish roots of Christianity, the earliest Christians lived in a traditional culture and specifically that of the Hellenized oikoumene of the early Roman Empire. The novels, products of this oikoumene, often set their action precisely where Christianity first took root and flourished: Barnabas’ Antioch, Paul’s Tarsus, John’s Ephesus, Mark’s Alexandria, Polycarp’s Smyrna.

But the point of comparison is not mere propinquity, for the novels provide an extensive, concrete, and coherent account of the traditional culture of the New Testament world. It is the novels’ very comprehensiveness — their documenting the habits of thought and action that regulated life in the cities, agricultural areas, and outlying wilderness areas — that justifies their use for interpreting the parallel, but briefer, accounts in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (p. 139, my emphasis and formatting)

Hock, for space reasons, restricts his parallels to the Gospels and letters of Paul. He compares only novels dated to the first and second centuries.

To depart from Hock for a moment and intrude with my own comments: The examples here are only a smattering of what one recognizes when reading the novels for oneself. The novels are also an especially potent cure for anyone who has the notion that peoples in days before Christianity were somehow especially morally depraved. They are a great invitation to meet our ancestors and to see how like us they were, how humans are not only the same the world over, but the same through the ages. read more »

Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels

The best way to understand just how ‘non-religious’ or ‘non-biblical’ are the books of the New Testament — that is, to understand just how much a product of their own wider Greco-Roman literary culture are those books — is to read the popular novels of that era.

I enjoy both literature and ancient history so I loved reading the Collected Ancient Greek Novels edited by B. P. Reardon. They are called novels here, but they are otherwise labelled ‘novellas’, ‘erotic novels’ (from their theme of love at the behest of the god Eros), or ‘romances’.

So I was pleased to find that New Testament scholars have indeed been studying these and publishing on what they can teach us about the New Testament. (This was some years ago, but I am trying to catch up on years of reading on this blog.) One of these academics is Ronald F. Hock (I referred to him in my previous post) and it is my take on his chapter, “Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” appearing in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative that I share in this post.

The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe
The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The novels most cited here are

Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton

An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon

Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

On the value of these novels for New Testament studies, Hock writes the following — and I have rearranged his paragraph-mass into an easy to skim column format:

they . . . provide the reader with a remarkably detailed, comprehensive, and coherent account of the social, economic, and religious institutions of the people and regions that witnessed the spread of Christianity into the Greek East of the early Roman Empire. (123)

The romances are set in Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Miletus, Alexandria, Paphos, Xanthus, and Tarentum, to name just a few of the cities mentioned in the New Testament, and in these cities we observe first-hand all sorts of people in ordinary and extraordinary situations — from the activities of the leading aristocratic families in the πόλις to those of the most marginalized shepherds and brigands in the χώρα and ἤρεμος. (124)

We see householders

  • hosting symposia
  • offering sacrifice
  • visiting rural properties
  • speaking in the theatre
  • taking on public duties
  • arranging marriages
  • and making wills;

we see their wives read more »

What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors?

English: Herodotus_from_Bodrum Български: Стат...
Herodotus_from_Bodrum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would the Gospels be any more credible if their authors clearly left their names in them, along with a little biographical information clearly linking them to known historical persons, and if they at every point in their narrative informed readers of their sources for each set of sayings by Jesus and for each incident? Some sources they would explain were oral witnesses, some were official documents, maybe even some inscriptions that could be verified by any person in the region in their day.

Supposed a critic still dismissed them as fabricated tales. Would we be outraged that such a critic was completely biased against the Gospels and that she would never be so sceptical of secular writings with such an abundance of confirming testimony?

The answer ought to be that “it all depends”. It all depends on a critical analysis of all of that information. That would not be being biased against the Gospels. It would be treating the Gospels in exactly the same way scholars worth their salt treat their secular sources.

Take studies of Histories by Herodotus for instance. Herodotus has long been considered an essential source for our knowledge of the ancient world. By his own testimony he traveled widely, examining cultures first hand and gathering information from a wide range of sources, oral and written. Sure some of his tales are clearly fabulous, but why should we doubt that even those have some historical core in many cases?

1989 saw the English translation of Detlev Fehling‘s Herodotus and His ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art, originally published in German in 1971. I will post from time to time on aspects of this book but for now let me outline his main arguments as summarized by Katherine Stott in Why Did They Write This Way? Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature (2008): read more »

Why Gospel Contradictions Really Do Matter

Once more from “my author of the week” secular rationalist historical Jesus scholar Charles Guignebert (1933), this time addressing the logic of those who tolerate the contradictions among the Gospels in their empty tomb and resurrection accounts by claiming they are irrelevant to the question of historicity – – –

First, a recap of some of the contradictions:

  • In Mark the women discover a young man sitting in the tomb;
  • In Matthew as the women arrive at the tomb an earthquake hits and an angel descends, rolls away the stone then sits on it, and Jesus appears to them as they leave;
  • In Luke the women find the tomb empty but while they are trying to make sense of this two, angels appear to them;
  • In John Mary arrives before sunrise, sees the open tomb, runs to Peter, Peter and John run to the tomb and see clothes lying there, Mary sees two angels in the tomb then sees Jesus behind her.

And Matthew’s bribing of the guard story (to have them spread the rumour that the disciples stole the body) is clearly added to address a later allegation that this is exactly what Jews were saying had happened.

And of the resurrection contradictions G writes: read more »

Essential Guide to the Historical Jesus: Introduction (James H. Charlesworth)

This book is an essential guide to the life and thought of Jesus . . .

That’s James H. Charlesworth’s opening line in the preface to The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, one title in Abingdon Press’s Essential Guide series.

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Editor and Director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project, an internationally recognized expert in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Jesus Research, and the Gospel of John.

In the twenties of the first century C.E., this man walked out of the hills of Nazareth and into world culture. (p. xiii)

Scholars say Jesus avoided large and cosmopolitan cities (until the last week of his life) so I look forward to learning what Charlesworth means by Jesus stepping out into “world culture”. At the same time Charlesworth describes Jesus as one who happened to “stand out as one of the most Jewish Jews of the first century”.

Jesus was driven by one desire: to obey God at all times and in all ways. For him, not a word of Torah may be ignored or compromised.

I’m not quite sure how one “stands out” for being “most Jewish” among other Jews. But the message Charlesworth wants to convey is clear.

More accurate historical knowledge

Charlesworth explains that today it is possible to “more accurately retell the story of Jesus” than it was 2000 years ago. read more »

Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere

(Added a paragraph commentary in the “proves historicity” section about half an hour after original posting.)

New Testament scholars do not speak with one voice when it comes to applying the word “midrash” to the Gospels. Some have resolutely opposed the idea; others take its justification in their stride. In this post I would like to demonstrate something of the fact of this diversity of opinion as I encountered it on a yahoo! group for informal scholarly discussion  about the historical Jesus, Crosstalk (1998/9) and its successor, Crosstalk2 (current).

The last exemplar I include is one that is argued not only Jack Kilmon (and John Spong), but also by Earl Doherty — though Jack himself may not like the association. But the argument almost necessarily follows in some manner from any proposition that any of the Gospel narratives are midrash.

That the Gospels contain/consist of Midrash

Jack Kilmon: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/1490

I think the virgin birth thingy got started with the Matthean scribe in his zeal for OT attestation. Not being Semitic competent, the Matthean scribe used the LXX for Isaiah which translates the ALMAH as PARTHENOS. From that point, I believe the Matthean scribe was engaging in midrash. read more »

Finding a home (provenance) for the Gospels

Aachen Gospels
Image via Wikipedia

What sort of society, social or church groups would have had an interest in producing the narratives we read today in the canonical gospels, and where and when do we find evidence of such peoples in the historical record?

If we do find such a group, would we not have a reasonable case that the gospels were first composed among them?

I list here a few areas where one might consider whether there is a reasonable match between the gospels and corresponding evidence external to the gospels.

Obviously the immediate objection some will raise is that such questions are overlooking the “fact” that the earliest external evidence has long since gone missing. Of course that is always a possibility to be kept in mind and I do not reject it. The point of this exercise is to see what happens when we do work with the evidence that is available. The next step would be to see if the results of this little experiment are more satisfactory than explanations that rely on the assumption of historicity at the heart of the Gospel narrative.

read more »

Is it necessary for “mythicists” to date the gospels late?

No, not at all.

My own interest in dating the gospels late has nothing to do with arguing for a mythical Jesus. I am not interested in arguing for a mythical Jesus as I have said many times in the past. My interest is in explaining the literature and evidence for Christian origins using the same basic methods I learned as a student of ancient, medieval and modern history some years ago now, and as I still see in vogue in history books currently being published. They even apply the same fundamental rules of evidence and inquiry that I imagine crime detectives or court-room judges understand. Generally self-testimony means little unless you can back it up with supporting independent evidence. If the external supporting evidence all points to a late date for the gospels, then why knock it? (External evidence may not always mean an explicit identification or testimonial, and it can take a range of forms, including prevailing ideologies, debates, literary styles and language, etc.)

The results of my approaches to investigating the origins and nature of the gospels, and the evidence for dating the literature, lead me to believe that the best explanation for the narratives of the gospels is that they originated as creative theology. I don’t know when, but suspect from the time of the early second century.

But it would not make any difference if the gospels were all dated conclusively between 70 and 100, or even between 35 and 65. That would not change certain facts about the gospels themselves, such as their literary and theological borrowings from earlier Jewish (and non-Jewish) literature, and their genre when analyzed from the perspective of ideological messages and communications rather than externals such as style or topics and language used.

Such an early date would raise questions in other ways, such as how to explain their stress on persecution at such an early date. But the historicity of their narrative contents stands independent of when they are dated.



Jesus was not a healer (1)

Jesus heals the paralytic of Bethesda
Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr

Jesus no more healed people than he was born of a virgin or walked on water or rose from the dead.

The Gospels do not portray Jesus as a physician or literal healer of some sort. They portray him as the Christ, or Messiah, and they introduce stories of healings only in order to portray him as that Christ and spiritual Saviour, not as a greater Asclepius. The Gospel authors did not use raw material from oral tradition or eye-witnesses to any healings. They relied on the Old Testament prophecy that in the messianic age the sick would be healed, the blind see, the cripples walk. And even that Old Testament prophecy was figurative. The healings in the Gospels are just as symbolic as the so-called “nature miracles” of Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water.

(I like the author of Jesus the Healer so I feel a bit awkward about the title of this post, by the way.)

Here is one of the healing prophecies that obliged the Gospel authors to introduce healing narratives into their Gospels: Isaiah 35:3-6 read more »

Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge

What Are the Gospels? — Burridge (2004)

In this post I outline the points of Burridge’s influential argument that the gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography.

Richard A. Burridge has been central to the development of wide scholarly agreement that the Gospels are biographies (or technically βιος) with the publication of his doctoral thesis, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. To analyze their genre he compares the generic features of the gospels with Graeco-Roman biographies.

My own disagreement with Burridge

Before posting the details of Burridge’s case, I sum up my own reasons for disagreement. But you’re allowed to skip this section if you want.

I have thought that despite the extent of Burridge’s analysis, the βιος genre simply does not describe the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mark which is my primary interest. What we recognize as ancient Greek and Roman biographies are clearly and directly “about” their subject persons.

The Gospel of Mark, unlike Greek and Roman biographies, is not “about” the person or character of its central figure. And I think this applies to the Gospels generally. read more »

Why would the Gospel authors have made it up?

One of the most common arguments I read and hear for the historicity of any part of the Gospel narratives is: The church would have had no reason to make it up.

When I first encountered this remark I assumed it was just a passing phrase and that the real argument would soon follow. But it never did. It took me some time to grasp that even leading scholars (I could understand apologists) regularly relied on this mantra to completely close the question on any point of historicity.

I had never heard the argument used as a proof of anything in my university studies. I only encountered for the first time in a serious context when I began to study mainstream biblical (in particular New Testament and Jesus) scholarship.

Not surprising, I suppose. Most of those in the field of biblical studies have probably relied on this fallacious reasoning in other contexts through much of their lives — like their belief in God in the first place. As for the atheists in the field, maybe they are just being intellectually lazy.

Compare the following from The Skeptic’s Dictionary

divine fallacy (argument from incredulity)

The divine fallacy, or the argument from incredulity, is a species of non sequitur reasoning which goes something like this: I can’t figure this out, so God must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, God did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, God did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, God is behind it.

This fallacy is also a variation of the alien fallacy: I can’t figure this out, so aliens must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, aliens did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, aliens did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, aliens are behind it.

Another variation of the fallacy goes something like this: I can’t figure this out, so paranormal forces must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, paranormal forces did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, paranormal forces did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, paranormal forces are behind it.

This is merely a circular assertion of one’s starting assumption. Is it used as the reason to establish “a fact” in any scholarly discipline apart from biblical studies?

Of course when alternative explanations are presented, those who had rested on this fallacy are able to do little more than scoff in disbelief at any alternative, just the way staunch believers in the paranormal will despise the “ignorance” of genuine rational explanations. Well, it is also called the fallacy of incredulity.

The Gospels: Histories or Stories?

Historical Jesus scholars in the main seem to write their history or life of Jesus as if this can be done simply by cherry picking bits and pieces from the gospels that they feel make the most sense.

They assume that there is an historical Jesus to begin with. And then they ask questions about this and that episode in the gospels in an effort to come to some conclusion about why the author would have written about Jesus in that particular way. The result is claimed to be evidence for the “historical Jesus”. The process is entirely circular, however.

Associate Professor James McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E. P. Sanders for the historical Jesus, and I have begun to do so with my discussion on the Why the Temple Action by Jesus is Almost Certainly Not Historical.

How historical Jesus research works

E. P. Sanders indeed offers a classic case study for the circular method of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a list of “facts” about Jesus that he believes are bedrock, although he does not demonstrate or argue why his list should be considered bedrock. One of these is the “cleansing of the temple incident”. He then proceeds to discuss various plot-related questions about how this incident is handled in the gospels, and what the authors may have been thinking as they wrote. He finally concludes that there was a real “temple action” but that it was not quite carried out for the reasons the gospels narrate. He can imagine a more plausible “historical” motive for Jesus’ action than that presented in the gospel stories. This is how he constructs his “historical Jesus”.

In other words, the historicity of Jesus is assumed from the outset, and then that assumption is made to justify itself by a process of what is in effect Sanders’ attempts to make better “historical” sense of the narrative.

This is not “proving” the historicity of Jesus. It is assuming that there was a Jesus to begin with, and then finding a more historically plausible narrative for him than the one we read in the gospels.

I am reminded of the critique of that branch of biblical studies that dealt with the history of Saul, David and Solomon and the kingdom of Israel that appeared around 1992 in Philip Davies’ publication, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have discussed this before and in other places, but it is timely to start to revisit a few basics of historical methodology given a series of recent posts by James McGrath:

More mythicist creationist parallels

Is there evidence for mythicism?

Mythicism and John the Baptist

Assuming the gospels are (or contain) history

Most Bible scholars have traditionally assumed that the Bible is basically a true record of the history of Israel. But Davies observes that their reasons for believing this are in fact only circular arguments:

#1 The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up. (Historical Jesus scholars will insist that the story is not one that anyone would have made up. But this is another logical fallacy (argument from incredulity) that I have discussed elsewhere in detail and will do so again.)

#2 Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past — or in the case of the gospels, customs and theological debates in the apparently more recent past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.

#3  Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”

#4 Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed across generations and new audiences.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

Arguments for historicity of the gospel narratives are circular

All of these reasons for believing that the Bible contains real history are circular arguments. They say, in effect: “We know the Bible is true because its authors were careful to tell the truth, and we know they were careful to tell the truth because what they wrote was true ….” and so on.

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It also means comparing the Bible with other literature of the era that shows some similarities with its narratives and rhetoric.

It is naive to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know:

  1. WHEN it was WRITTEN
  2. IF its stories are TRUE.

To settle for anything less is to imply that when it comes to the Bible we do not need to follow the standards of historical enquiry and handling of source documents that are generally found among historical disciplines. We cannot excuse historical Jesus studies from sound historical methodologies.