2015-05-23

Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’d like to comment on one section of the inaugural lecture of Prof Chris Keith, Chair of the New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. Its title is ‘Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: Assessing the First Decade.’

Keith is a co-blogger of The Jesus Blog. Both Tim and I have previously addressed facets of Keith’s views and co-publications.

Keith’s postmodernist perspective on the gospels offers a valuable critique of traditional “historical Jesus” scholarship but it also leaves untouched and builds upon a fundamental blind spot in that scholarship.

Jens Schröter
Jens Schröter

Around the 47th minute into the address Keith expresses regret that other scholars who have criticized the social memory approach have failed to address the pioneering work of Jens Schröter. No doubt Chris Keith will be gratified to see that in the interests of public religious literacy Vridar has outlined and critically engaged with a core feature of Schröter’s arguments: see the Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”.

Following is a transcription of a few minutes of Keith’s talk. I have bolded sections I find of particular interest for good or ill.

It is notable that recent criticisms of social memory applications in gospel studies fail to engage his work altogether.

In very general terms Schröter proposes that every approach to the historical Jesus behind the gospels has to explain how these writings could have come into being as the earliest descriptions of this person.

Insofar as this approach grounds historical Jesus inquiry in the past as portrayed in our extant sources, it is similar to what Assmann labeled mnemohistory which also foregrounds the text in traditions as they stand before historians. Related directly to this fact, Schröter insists that one cannot neatly separate past from present, history and interpretation, due to their intertwined and mutually interdependent natures of commemorative activity.

Keith’s/Schröter’s point is that the past is lost to us and the best that the historian can do with respect to Jesus or the “Jesus tradition/s” is to attempt to understand how/why the Gospels came narrate their respective lives of Jesus.

The comparison with Jan Assmann‘s mnemohistory (history of memories) is not quite apt but Keith does say that Schröter’s approach (and by extension Keith’s, too) is “similar”. Actually a comparison with Assmann’s work raises serious questions about Keith’s approach and I’ll address those toward the end of this post.

Notice in the last sentence above that Keith refers to Schröter’s words about “commemorative activity”. Continue reading “Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?”


2015-02-26

Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong

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by Neil Godfrey

Correction (27 Feb 2015): I should have given priority to Alernet's publication of Valerie Tarico's article. It was published on Alternet a day before it also appeared on her blog. 

***

Valerie Tarico last September ruffled a few feathers with her article on mythicism (see Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar) and then followed up with an article in The Humanist outlining the views of James McGrath, Raphael Lataster and yours truly. (See Savior? Shaman? Myth? Ink Blot? — Views of Lataster, McGrath and Godfrey).

Valerie’s most recent post is

Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong

It’s not about mythicism this time but it does link to four Vridar posts to illustrate some of her points.


2014-09-10

Lost and Bereft: The Quest (not) for the historical Jesus — Crossley style

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor James Crossley on his blog last month justly critiqued various criteria biblical scholars traditionally apply in their efforts to extract some form of historical Jesus from the gospels and finally concluded:

So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation:

  • interpretation of the material . . . ,
  • guesswork about contexts
  • and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight.

But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case.

All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition. (My formatting)

This is not the way one does history. I am even reminded of the popular evangelical line of delivering a message that is hoped to bring audiences to despair, to thinking they have no hope, that they are helpless — all with the aim of motivating them to turn to the messenger for The Answer of hope and salvation. That just comes to mind but I would never suggest Crossley is deploying a similar rhetoric to entice readers to his own view of the way history should be done.

Let’s analyse these words.

“Interpretation of the material”.

That goes without saying no matter what one is studying. Of course historical inquiry is interpretation of the material. One can never avoid interpretation of some kind. Even understanding a claim to be an “uninterpreted plain fact” is an act of interpretation. I would expect most senior high school students of history and beyond to understand that history is about the interpretation of evidence, data, “facts”.

“Guesswork about contexts”. Continue reading “Lost and Bereft: The Quest (not) for the historical Jesus — Crossley style”


2014-09-07

Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.

1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?

The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.

2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.

The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.

3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose? Continue reading “Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge”


2014-04-12

Historical Jesus Scholarship in a “Neoliberal” World

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by Neil Godfrey

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This post and several ensuing ones will be about what we can learn about historical Jesus scholarship from the book Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by Professor James Crossley.

The second half of this post addresses some background that readers should understand as they read my engagement with Crossley’s book. There I address Crossley’s personal animosity towards me and his conviction that my past treatment of his works has been grotesquely unfair.

Crossley’s main thesis is

to show how Jesus is a cultural icon in the sense that he is reconstructed by historians not simply as a figure for Galilee in the 20s and 30s but also, intentionally or not, as a figure for our ‘postmodern’ times. . . . (p. 8)

The thesis extends to arguing that the same Jesus becomes compatible with neoliberalism’s political agendas and very often subtly perpetuates “anti-Jewishness”.

[T]he emphasis could be placed on the greatest historic critic of our age, an obscure article in an evangelical journal or a rant on a blog: they all provide insight into our cultural contexts, irrespective of how good or bad they are. . . .

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (pp. 8-10)

Obviously any cultural artefact provides insight into its cultural context, but when Crossley limits cultural context in his book to “postmodernism” and “neoliberalism” in their primarily political and racial-cultural manifestations I suspect he is presenting a two-dimensional perspective of scholarship. Quite often it appears his argument is another application of “parallelomania” in the sense that any scholarly interpretation that can be matched to a “neoliberal” or “postmodern” concept becomes the basis of his argument. His thesis would have been more deeply grounded had he been able to demonstrate more consistently, not just sporadically, how certain changes in views and presentations resulted from the direct interaction with political and cultural pressures.

Now I happen to agree with much of Crossley’s own political views. So in one major respect he had me onside from the beginning with Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism, just as he did with his earlier companion book, Jesus in the Age of Terror. I found a number of aspects of his book insightful. I do think that in a number of instances he does make a sound case. Others, as I have indicated above, lacked rigour, were only superficially supported, ill-defined or simplistically conceived; and on occasion it seemed Crossley indulges in soap-box political declamations against his colleagues’ views while almost losing any solid relationship with historical Jesus studies. He appears to have assumed too much on the basis of partial evidence. Overall the book tends to read like an extended editorial opinion piece. So his preface overstates what follows when it says:

It is hoped that this book will establish the general case for the importance of the context of neoliberalism for understanding contemporary scholarship and for others to provide new case studies. This book is merely about certain examples of the impact of neoliberalism in understanding Jesus and contemporary scholarship. (pp. ix-x)

The “case studies” or “certain examples” in the book are of variable authenticity. Several names appear to have been dumped in the neoliberalism matrix with only superficial justifications that overlook evidence for alternative perspectives. Worst of all, one is left wondering if Crossley’s book is a thinly veiled swipe at scholarship that disagrees with his own (and his PhD supervisor Maurice Casey’s) problematic assumptions, methods and (even to some extent) conclusions about the historical Jesus and Christian origins. Unfortunately Crossley appears to have prepared in this book a rationale for dismissing anyone who disagrees with him on these points as “politically incorrect”.

But Crossley would protest:

I do not think that all historical Jesus scholarship is simply ‘reducible’ to an outworking of neoliberalism or simply historically wrong even if it does seem that way. I still have some sympathies with some fairly traditional modes of historical criticism and I am aware that there are strands of Jesus scholarship, and biblical scholarship, which can at least be felt threatening to power.(p. 14)

Examples of the latter are liberation theology in Latin America and works by Keith Whitelam and Nadia Abu El-Haj.

I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

In these posts (I expect they will be strung out over some weeks) I hope to point out where I think Crossley has got things spot on and where he could have got things a bit more spot on. More generally, I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

And I do invite James Crossley to notify me if at any point I misrepresent anything he has written and to explain clearly (civilly would be a bonus) exactly how I have done so.

So here we go.

Continue reading “Historical Jesus Scholarship in a “Neoliberal” World”


2014-04-07

Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

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by Tim Widowfield

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...
“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.'”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:
Continue reading “Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?”


2014-04-02

The One-Liner Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Horsley has produced a couple of books I have found far more enlightening than his earlier work on bandits and prophets in first-century Judea. One of these is Scribes, Visionaries and the Politics of Second Temple Judea from 2007; the other, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel, 2012. One of several points that has hit me already from these two works is a deeper appreciation of the literary way the Gospels convey the sayings of Jesus.

Take the Sermon on the Mount. I think we all know that Jesus could not really have stood up and pronounced a long list of aphorisms the way Matthew depicts. So we hear the more learned ones explaining to us that Matthew was recording a summary of the sorts of things Jesus often said.

But stop and think for a minute. Aren’t the evangelists (authors of the gospels) supposed to be writing something akin to a history or biography? And weren’t ancient historians known for the way they would construct speeches they believed were “true to life” or “appropriate” or “realistic” in the mouth of certain historical characters? But that’s not what we read in the gospels when it comes to the speeches of Jesus. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are anything but reconstructed “speeches”.

Rather, they read like a chapter or so from the Book of Proverbs. Not like speeches. Jesus is not “preaching” about forgiveness and an appropriate speech is not constructed for any such message. Jesus simply delivers a proverb or saying or edict, brief enough to be remembered and recorded in a list of one-liners. It’s not unlike the way he is portrayed as speaking in the Gospel of Thomas when he drops line after line of mystery saying.

The evangelists — at least the Synoptic ones (Matthew, Mark and Luke) — are not even trying to reconstruct speeches of Jesus.

They are writing a set of one-liner sayings.

Okay, but what is the problem with this? Horsley puts his finger on it exactly:

Continue reading “The One-Liner Jesus”


2013-12-07

The Historical Jesus Quest Is Theology in Disguise

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by Neil Godfrey

Updated 8:30 am UTC

As a follow up to my last post I am sharing here another valuable snippet I read in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels.

Owens’ first chapter, “Literary Criticism and the Historical Jesus”, is brilliant and deserves to be read and addressed by everyone who has an interest in how scholars work on the “quest” for the historical Jesus. My reasons for that evaluation:

  • the chapter gives the most articulate and cogent explanation I have yet read for why anyone would have “made up” the Jesus story;
  • the chapter exposes the fundamental flaws in the methodology of HJ scholars;
  • it exposes how the quasi-historical methods of HJ scholars serve theological ends (in part the topic of this post);
  • it demonstrates the failure of HJ scholars to understand modern literary criticism and its relevance for historical enquiry;
  • it demonstrates in the simplest way imaginable how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like Jesus. (— This was meant to be the topic of this post but I got sidetracked. Next time . . . . )

And for those rabid anti-mythicists who assume that anyone who questions the historicity of Jesus is a raving lunatic with a hostile vendetta against God and Christianity, well, they’ll be disappointed to learn that Clarke Owens writes with sensitivity towards those whose cherished beliefs are challenged in his book.

‘Quest’ is an interesting word

Knights of the Round Table Departing on the Qu...
Knights of the Round Table Departing on the Quest for the Holy Grail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Owens point out,

to go on a quest for something means that we seek it; we hope to find it; it is our most cherished goal, like the quest for the Holy Grail.

A quest is an entirely different kind of undertaking from

one in which we seek to ascertain whether or not materials exist which would support a finding that Jesus had an historical existence . . .

That is, a quest assumes that there is an historical Jesus to be found, and the reason for this is, ultimately, theological belief. A truly historical inquiry would, on the other hand,

require that we first examine the materials before we determine the nature of the quest [i.e. whether the materials indicate there is an historical Jesus or some other Jesus or agent to be sought]

Purpose of the Quest is to advance the credibility of theology

Prominent HJ scholar John P. Meier himself said so. In his chapter 7 of volume one of A Marginal Jew, “Why Bother? The Relevance of the Quest for the Historical Jesus”, Meier answered this question this way: Continue reading “The Historical Jesus Quest Is Theology in Disguise”


2013-08-22

Introducing Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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by Neil Godfrey

aslanReza Aslan’s book about Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, opens its prologue like an historical novel:

The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak. (p. 3)

Addressing the reader in the second person Aslan draws her into the colourful world Jewish worship at the Jerusalem temple and shocks her after half a dozen pages by having her witness the assassination of the high priest there in 56 C.E. One knows one is in for a dramatic read.

For the more academically minded reader there are over fifty pages of endnotes detailing sources and additional explanations for what appears in the main text. To Aslan’s credit, he makes abundantly clear in his introductory “Author’s note” that

For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. (p. xx)

That’s a refreshing change from the way some scholars introduce their own work or criticize the works of others. Aslan explains that his footnotes attempt to present some of the arguments of those who oppose his views in the body of the book.

Why this book about Jesus?

By way of preliminaries, however, Reza Aslan recounts how, after migrating from Iran, he became a Christian at fifteen years of age and how this new identity happily served to strengthen his identify as an American.

In the America of the 1980s, being a Muslim was like being from Mars. My [Muslim] faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. (p. xviii)

Not that his conversion was a matter of convenience,

On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith. I was presented with a Jesus . . . with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship.

Not “convenience” perhaps, but Reza might as well have added that he converted to the American way of devotion to the American religion.

And again like (most?) well educated Americans Aslan lost his naive fundamentalist beliefs as he learned more about the Bible, while at the same time becoming

aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. (p. xix)

Not being an American I was unaware of Reza Aslan’s prominent public profile as a Muslim scholar. If I had never seen the Fox interview with Aslan about this book but relied upon the book alone I would have assumed Aslan had left the Muslim religion and was writing as a liberal Christian (American and still evangelizing) scholar. He writes: Continue reading “Introducing Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth


2013-06-20

Why Gospels Are Not “Reportage”

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by Neil Godfrey

Some of the most sensible words I have read about the Gospels are in a 1954 lecture by Ernst Käsemann. Käsemann makes no strained attempt to “explain” how similar the Gospels are to “history” or “biography”. Rather, he works with what we all can see as plain as day: the Gospels are what some scholars have called “faith documents”: they are written to support faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of “the world”. They are written like, well, books of the Bible. Believe or die.

History is only comprehensible to us through interpretation. Mere facts are not enough.

Rationalists, for example, have sought to show that Jesus was an ordinary man like us. That’s all the facts allow us to acknowledge.

Supernaturalists, on the other hand, have sought to show that Jesus is a “divine man” who performed real miracles. The facts allow us to believe nothing less.

But what is the point of either view? If Jesus were an ordinary man like us, so what? Did not Schweitzer show that each scholar saw in that mere man a life just like his own? This observation is said to have effectively put a hold on historical Jesus research in many quarters.

And if the facts told us Jesus really did perform miracles and even rose from the dead, then in what way would he be any different from other lives embedded in other religions that also wielded supernatural powers?

No one has ever been compelled (in the true sense) to make his decision between faith and unbelief, simply because someone else has succeeded in representing Jesus convincingly as a worker of miracles. And nothing is settled about the significance of the Resurrection tidings for me personally, simply because the evidence for the empty tomb has been shown to be reliable.

The handing own of relatively probable facts does not as such provide any basis for genuinely historical communication and continuity. (Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” in Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 19)

And it is here where Käsemann’s insight into the nature of the Gospels makes several modern studies look embarrassingly myopic. Continue reading “Why Gospels Are Not “Reportage””


2013-06-10

About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory

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by Tim Widowfield

Catching up

I’m still catching up with all things Vridar after having been on the road for awhile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer a certain “dbg” who seemed quite unhappy with my post on scholarly consensus. I’m happy to see that Neil engaged with him and for the most part said the same things I would have said.

We still have no confirmation that Mr. dbg was in fact David B. Gowler himself. Indeed it is possible, given his habit of referring to Gowler in the third person, that the commenter is merely a fan who happens to have the same initials, and who happened to commandeer Dr. Gowler’s email address for a brief period. Neil tried to get dbg to “confess” his identity without success. So the mystery remains unsolved.

Appreciating Jesus’ message

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

Mr. dbg first complained that his comments in the preface to What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? in no way indicate a personal faith in Jesus Christ. He commented:

I’m sorry, but expressing appreciation for Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” is not the same as “personal faith in Christ” (including the pre/post East[er] Jesus distinction). The same thing could be said about Gandhi, or Dr. King, or a host of other people. I think the book (Gowler’s) clearly was written from a historian’s perspective, not a faith perspective.

Yes, Gowler’s book was not written from a confessional perspective. I normally shy away from such books, since they’re entirely useless to me. However, if Mr. dbg had read more closely he would have known that I was talking about people who believe in Christ as their savior and who simultaneously endeavor to write scholarly works from an academic, historical, nonpartisan perspective.

I could just as easily have quoted from an earlier paragraph in WATSA the Historical Jesus:

If we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can still hear the prophetic message of this first-century peasant artisan who proclaimed not only a message of hope for the oppressed but also one of judgment upon an exploitative, dominant class. That prophetic voice should haunt Christians like me who live in a nation that dominates the world politically, economically, and militarily. (p. viii, emphasis mine)

Continue reading “About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory”


2013-02-28

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3b: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Historiographical Perdition (Part 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

This continues the previous post on Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant. Why two posts on this? Since some New Testament scholars point to Michael Grant as evidence that academics outside biblical studies employ the same methods and reach the same conclusions about the historicity of Jesus as they do, won’t hurt to address his work in some detail.

For Michael Grant, Jesus was better and greater than any other person in the history of the world. If the Gospels say he did or said something that reminds us of what other persons have said or done, Grant is always quick to expostulate that Jesus said or did it with such greater force or power that he made it sound or look unprecedented. Usually he just makes this declamation of Jesus’ superiority as if it must be a self-evident truth. At the same time he generally informs readers exactly what was in the mind and feelings of Jesus, too. Recall from my earlier post:

He felt an immovable certainty that he was the figure through whom God’s purposes were to be fulfilled. This absolute conviction of an entirely peculiar relationship with God was not unknown among Jewish religious leaders, but in Jesus it became a great deal more vigorous and violent than theirs. (Jesus, p. 77)

and

Jesus’ extreme obsessional conviction of a unique relationship with God makes any attempt to fit him into the social, institutional pattern of his time, or into its habitual concepts of thought, a dubious and daunting proposition. (Jesus, p. 78)

When in the Gospel of Luke we read of Jesus making an observation well known from rabbinical literature, that a poor woman giving her few pennies was making a greater sacrifice than any of the rich donors, Grant explains:

This story is exactly paralleled in rabbinical literature. And yet Jesus applied it more aggressively, for according to Luke, he accompanied his utterance by an attack on the Jewish scribes or doctors of the Law who ‘eat up the property of widows.’ Jesus carried his championship of the underdog beyond the bounds set by other Jews of the age. (p. 57)

Even the most banal teachings attributed to Jesus are said to be given a sharpened edge by Jesus:

Nor were Jesus’ ethical precepts for the most part original or novel, since ninety per cent of them were based upon injunctions that had already been offered by other Jewish teachers.

However, Jesus sharpened certain of these themes. (p. 25)

This is all Grant’s own imaginative fantasies being projected into the literary Jesus, of course. Gospel sayings of Jesus are quite trite so Grant attempts to rescue them by saying Jesus said or felt them “more vigorously”, “more powerfully” or “more sharply” than anyone else.

By now I think some readers will begin to understand why Grant’s biographies of ancient persons are generally for popular, more than scholarly or graduate student, consumption.

.

A New Testament scholar’s evaluation of Michael Grant’s “historical Jesus”

One New Testament scholar points out exactly what Michael Grant is doing and it is not history. It is outdated New Testament hermeneutics.

Continue reading “The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3b: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Historiographical Perdition (Part 2)”


2013-02-25

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

Michael Grant

Sometimes when attempting to demolish the arguments of the Christ myth theory historical Jesus scholars point to a popular biography of Jesus, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by a scholar situated well outside the faculties of theology or biblical studies, the classicist Michael Grant. The reason they point to Michael Grant’s book is to be able to say, “See, even a non-theologian, a secular historian, knows Jesus really existed.” The implication is that the normal methods of everyday historical inquiry (quite apart from anything theologians might bring to bear on the topic) are sufficient to “prove” that the person Jesus is a fact of history.

So this post looks at what Michael Grant himself said about the evidence, his methods and why he believed Jesus to be an historical person.

I wonder how many of these Jesus scholars have taken the time to read Grant’s book since none, as far as I am aware, has ever pointed to Grant’s own argument in that book against the Christ Myth view and his own justification for believing Jesus to have been historical. Or maybe it is because they have read it that they choose to remain quiet about Grant’s arguments.

Who was Michael Grant?

Michael Grant was a classicist specializing in the study of Roman coins who was responsible for over 70 books on historical topics.

Immensely prolific, he wrote and edited more than 70 books of nonfiction and translation, covering topics from Roman coinage and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the Gospels. He produced general surveys of ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite history as well as biographies of giants such as Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Nero, Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul. (Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

His reputation as an historian of ancient history was mixed:

As early as the 1950s, Grant’s publishing success was somewhat controversial within the classicist community. According to The Times:

Grant’s approach to classical history was beginning to divide critics. Numismatists felt that his academic work was beyond reproach, but some academics balked at his attempt to condense a survey of Roman literature into 300 pages, and felt (in the words of one reviewer) that “even the most learned and gifted of historians should observe a speed-limit”. The academics would keep cavilling, but the public kept buying.

(Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

The work of his that I remember most clearly as an undergraduate was a collection of translated readings of Roman literature. This was supplemented by many other more comprehensive readings.

The “notoriously hard and challenging task”

 

At the end of Grant’s book on the life of Jesus he asks how we know if anything he has written is truly historical. Continue reading “The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)”


2013-02-06

Passing thoughts on historical Jesus studies as sorcery

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by Neil Godfrey

Stanislav Andreski
Stanislav Andreski
Updated — a new final two sentences were added 7th Feb. 6:30 pm Central Australian time.

If you happen to be a student, you can apply the same test to your teachers who claim that what they are teaching you rests upon incontrovertible scientific foundations [/historical methods]. See what they know about the natural sciences and mathematics [/historical methods] and their philosophical foundations. Naturally, you cannot expect them to have a specialist knowledge of these fields; but if they are completely ignorant of these things, do not take seriously grandiloquent claims of the ultra-scientific [/historical] character of their teachings.

Furthermore, do not be impressed unduly by titles or positions. Top universities can usually get the best people in the fields where there are firm criteria of achievement; but at the present stage of development of the social sciences [/biblical studies?] the process of selection resembles, as often as not, a singing competition before a deaf jury who can judge the competitors only by how wide they open their mouths. (Social Sciences as Sorcery, p. 86, my formatting)

That is from Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery, 1972. I have added to Andreski’s words the alternative text in square brackets.

This quotation reminds me of the times I have challenged New Testament scholars (in particular McGrath, but also a few others) on their knowledge of historical methods after they insist that historical Jesus scholars are doing history in the same way other historians work. Yet the McGraths have proven completely ignorant of the landmark names and key methodological and philosophical developments, even the fundamentals of document and source analysis, in the field of history, whether oral or written, as it is practiced outside biblical studies. Names like von Ranke, Carr, Elton, White, (even Hobsbawm!), leave them staring like the proverbial rabbits in the spotlight. Quote from any of the many standard works on how postgraduate history students need to analyse documents or oral reports and they can only turn to sarcasm and insult to defend themselves. In my next post on the historical Jesus and demise of history I will be exploring one case study that illustrates well the very real gulf between historical Jesus studies and what history really means for nonbiblical scholars.

There is another quote from a much older source in the same book that reminded me of some of Hoffmann‘s posts Continue reading “Passing thoughts on historical Jesus studies as sorcery”