Tag Archives: Historical Methods

Rules of Historical Reasoning — Still Controversial Among Religion Profs

Professor James McGrath continues to take an interest in my discussions about historical methods in the context of the “quest for the historical Jesus”. I was surprised to read the following words of his earlier today:

Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less. I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet.

I had never heard of anyone on any discussion board or blog attempting to work out methods for historical study “for themselves”. So I had to click on the link to see who could possibly be doing such a thing. Lo and behold, the link is to a post on the Biblical Criticism and History forum more than a year ago that was written by yours truly. So what did McGrath mean by suggesting there was some fatuous lay attempt to “invent methods for historical study for themselves”? My post was in fact a presentation of what professional historians themselves explain about their methods.

Interestingly, McGrath’s post continues by quoting others who express disdain for amateurs who don’t show due deference to certain responses from biblical scholars and then reminding readers of the methods of biblical historians who study questions relating to the historical Jesus. Of course, my point was that nonbiblical historians work by different rules. The title of McGrath’s post included “Reinventing the Wheel” but I don’t believe any historian outside biblical studies uses the criteria or other methods specifically characteristic of biblical scholars to determine historicity. There is no reinvention but stark contrast.

McGrath has asked me not to engage with any of his posts on his blog so I can only trust fair minded readers will click on the “discussion boards” link and see that there has been some no doubt inadvertent confusion. I am not quite sure what the relevance of the second link is to form criticism and other tools used by biblical historians unless it is a reference to a point made before on the Religion Prof’s blog that biblical historians are pioneers leading the way in techniques of historical inquiry.

Here is my discussion board post that was confused with a layperson inventing methods for himself: read more »

Biblical historian McDaft admits to relying on hearsay and uncorroborated reports

Testimony about what someone claims to have heard from an eyewitness would not stand up in a court of law today — it is what is known as “hearsay”. Nevertheless, sometimes hearsay is all a historian has, and the rules of historical investigation are not as strict as those of the American legal system. We can utilize any sources available, and the only consequence will be that our conclusions about what happened will be less certain than if we had first-hand accounts written by the eyewitnesses themselves. (James McGrath in The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 37-38)

This is an astonishing admission from an associate professor who presents himself as an historian. It is the sort of admission that one would never expect to hear anywhere except in the cloisters of BIBLICAL history!

Let’s work backwards through this. In McGrath’s’ last sentence he implies that first-hand accounts in and of themselves bring with them, by definition, a certain degree of credibility. The only question is one of degree.

Well of course that must necessarily be so, IF such a first-hand account testifies to something for which we have independent evidence. To show the nonsense of the fundamental logic of this proposition: If eyewitness A accosts me and informs me in his own words, even backed up by a stamped affidavit, that he has just seen a pixie step out from a mushroom and board a flying saucer that zapped him to Mars, . . . . Or what of someone who reported he was eyewitness to a man talking with the devil, who walked on water, who rose from the dead and changed his life from one of fear to one of courage . . . .

I don’t think I have to go any further to demonstrate the logical fallacy here. Damn humanists! They are the ones who we must hold responsible for shunting logic out and away from being a basic requirement for anyone aspiring to be a scholar nowadays.

Then we come to “sometimes hearsay is all a historian has”.

So. At least we have refreshing honesty at work here. What this biblical professor of history means that we have a Gospel. AND that Gospel is a hearsay report. We are not told who the reporters were. Nor are we even told who those to whom they reported were. And yep, we are not even told who is telling us who told the story that was heard hearsay from the reporters! Assuming there WERE any reporters to begin with. It is just as logical to suspect that our reporter is making it all up, and the antecedent reporters are all in our own imaginations and assumptions.

I once referenced a historian who is very famous but who also happens to have sympathies with those evil Reds, the Commies who still lurk just south of Florida plotting incessantly to undermine all godly righteous values. This historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had the devious trickery to admit to a professional error of method in a book he had written. He had written a history of Latin American bandits, but had been challenged over the naive way he swallowed certain testimonies as real evidence — even eyewitness or firsthand reports!

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Here is how McGrath responds to this sinister communist methodology that is surely manufactured expressly to undermine faith in the Gospels as history:

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

First, note how this honest professor works intellectual sleight of hand by changing the notion of “independent evidence” to “evidence other than texts”. (Hobsbawm and Slatta would have loved to have had primary textual evidence that they could evaluate with a view to testing the historicity of the narratives they heard.)

Second, it is hard not to note the good professor’s linking of Hobsbawm with a presumed “desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism”! Where that came from I do not know. So rather than address the methodology in question, this associate professor opts, rather, to point to his own gratuitous speculations about the political views of the renowned historian.

A leftist historian publicly confesses he was at methodological fault for relying on hearsay, and a biblical historian who needs to rely on hearsay to make his faith-based case responds by questioning the leftist’s politics!

So let me repeat my challenge to the historical-Jesus historian of faith: read more »

Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study)

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163, my emphasis)

Clines further remarks that sometimes the very process of asking literary questions can itself lead to the raising — and even the answering — of historical questions. His case study is the Book of Nehemiah.

Clines tests the reliability of Nehemiah on four areas:

  1. narrative about Nehemiah’s own mind, intentions, feelings, motivations
  2. narrative about the minds of other characters, their intentions, feelings, motivations
  3. matters of time, sequence, narrative compression, and reticence
  4. evidence of a romantic imagination at work.

This post looks at Cline’s analysis of the first of these. read more »

The relevance of “minimalists'” arguments to historical Jesus studies

The arguments of the “minimalists” questioning the historical core of many of the narratives of the “Old Testament” — and ultimately the historical existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon, and the biblical Kingdom of Israel — apply with as much logical force to questions of the existence of Jesus. The minimalists showed that scholarly beliefs in a historical Biblical Kingdom of Israel were based on circular reasoning. The same circular reasoning and assumptions underlie belief in the historicity of Jesus.

“Minimalist” arguments are not just about the archaeological evidence.

They are more fundamental and generic than that. They have, I believe, a direct relevance to historical Jesus and early Christian studies — any studies, in fact, that rely on reading the narratives in the Gospels and Acts as if they have some historical basis.

Time gaps and archaeological evidence are irrelevant to the fundamental logic underlying the arguments.

Below are statements by “minimalists” themselves that were originally directed at the way scholars once read the Jewish Bible as a historical source for “biblical Israel”. They are relevant for anyone who approaches the Gospels as historical sources. The Gospels are certainly historical sources, but the narratives they tell are not necessarily historical at all, nor even based on any core historical events.

Philip R. Davies on Tail Chasing

Philip Davies discusses only the study of ancient Israel. He does not address Jesus or early Christianity. It is my argument that his discussion applies equally well to these.

Philip Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel (1992) is reputed to have been the publication that triggered the “minimalist”-“maximalist” debate over the historicity of biblical Israel. In the 1994 preface, Davies wrote of this book:

I feel that this book still makes a good case for an approach to the investigation of the Bible, its authors and creators, which is becoming more widely adopted.

The approach has not impacted New Testament studies, however. I think this is a pity and unjustifiable. But then, Jesus has a more solid iconic status in our culture than David or Abraham.

Read the following critique directed at “Old Testament” scholars back in 1992 and see if it is relevant to scholars of the Gospels and Acts: 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)

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):

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Biblical history, literary criticism and logical method

The comments originally sent to my previous post, and my replies to them, were lost. I have retrieved the comments of others but my own are lost (unless someone reading this did catch them in an email — if you can forward them to me that would be great, thanks — my address is in the contact info on the right margin.)

A big thanks and free virtual beer to the subscriber who was able to email me my original comment. It was written early in the morning when I was alert, unlike the ponderous and detailed response of this post that was written late at night at the end of a long day. My original brief response is now returned and reunited with the comments of the previous post.

Anyway, I am replying here more fully to James McGrath’s original comment on the off-chance that there are others also reading this who share his criticisms of my original post. James wrote in his first paragraph:

Two things, neither of which has to do with Crossley’s or Seeley’s arguments but which have to do with methodology. First, you wrote “Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).” I’ve never encountered a literary critic who considered their method as a means to answering historical criticism. Literary criticism treats a text as a piece of literature and sets aside historical questions. Historical criticism asks historical questions. To say that literary criticism counts against historicity sounds to me like utter nonsense, but perhaps you wish to clarify.

Literary criticism and history

Certainly. I was responding to what I understood were James Crossley’s views of the role of literary criticism in history. I my original post I quoted part of a sentence of his in Dating Mark that spoke negatively of those approaching historical questions from a literary critical perspective, and this jells with what he writes in a book Crossley co-edited, Writing History, Constructing Religion:

Some historians have been completely unaccommodating to all things post-modern. One of the most famous critics was G. R. Elton who claimed that historians are, in a way, fighting for their lives in the face of ‘people who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary critics’.

So it looks as though post-modernists and a few others do at least acknowledge an overlap between literary criticism and history. But I had only read that sentence of Crossley’s in its original context in his “Writing History, Constructing Religion” book after I published my blog post. I had originally encountered that quote in a context that led me to think Crossley himself was as opposed to the role of literary criticism in history as was Elton. But that is clearly not so, as I have since learned. Live and learn. Always check sources for oneself even/especially if they’re from your grandmother!

But literary criticism at some level is inevitable in the historical process — even in biblical historical studies.

If a historian reads a text as a factual historical account she is bringing to that text a certain literary-critical perspective or judgment. Conversely, if she reads it as a totally fictional piece of escapism, she is bringing to her reading a different literary-critical judgment. Neither perspective means that the text is 100% historical fact or 100% fictional. Actual historical data might still be a matter of a second layer of judgment, but the initial literary-critical assumptions brought into play will inevitably steer the way a historian analyzes the text.

And at a more micro level, we can take the Temple Action of Jesus as a case in point. Seeley, Mack and Fredriksen all question the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus. And they do so on the grounds that the narrative details of this pericope are best explained by broader literary-thematic interests of the author when compared with the rationales offered for it as an historical event. Fredriksen (as originally quoted here along with Mack et al) sums up the literary critical basis for denying its historicity:

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly

If one can see an immediate tangible literary explanation for a detail in a narrative and has to balance the odds of its historicity against a number of layers of assumptions (with no visible means of support) of oral transmission, theological interests and genuine historical events, then what does Mr Occam advise?

I side with Seeley, Mack, Fredriksen and a few others I am sure who believe it is literary critics who beat the historicists in the detail of the Temple Action of Jesus.

In my original (previous) post I pointed to Crossley’s use of literary criticism in coming to his estimation that the author of Mark’s gospel was exaggerating with respect to point X rather than narrating a literal exact fact. Crossley, and no doubt most historians, acknowledge that some degree of literary criticism is necessary in order to sensibly determine what an author is really intending to convey.

So literary criticism works at several levels of reading in any text, and each one is to some extent unavoidable in any endeavour to assess the historical value of a text. We may not always be conscious that we are making literary-critical assumptions or judgments when we read a text, but it is always inevitable that we are in fact doing so whether we realize it or not.

Part Two of James’ comment

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Taking the historical Jesus for granted

The following is my own adaption from Philip Davies’ In Search for Ancient Israel, and is not to be taken as representing Philip Davies’ views on the question of the historical Jesus. In 1992 Davies argued that the scholarly search for “ancient Israel” was at the time always based on the unquestioned assumption that there was an “ancient Israel” to be found. It was always taken for granted. The research was only about deciding how much of the biblical literature was historical, and what this ancient Israel must have looked like. Since I began studying the scholarly works about Christian origins and the historical Jesus, it has struck me that the same flawed assumptions and circular reasoning lies at the heart of these studies, too.

Someone responded that the situations are completely different because the Gospels are written within the same time frame as the events they purport to describe. But it can be shown that the logic of this rejoinder is also circular. (Nonetheless, Davies’ argument about the study of “ancient Israel” is based in part on the ability to set the composition of the literature to Persian and Hellenistic times. Since this is a literature about an entire Kingdom and claims to be set within the time of that kingdom, this is necessary. The Gospels are not about a nation, but about a single person who was said by some sources to have been unrecognized in his time, and do not specifically claim any particular date for composition. They have been dated everywhere from the 30’s or 40’s to the 130’s or 140’s. But as with the Old Testament literature, most of the earlier dates are based on an assumption of the historicity of parts of the narrative itself.)

Nor do I see this as a negative or anti-Christian question. My atheism has not led me to question the Bible or God or religion. It was my questioning of these that led, rather, to my atheism. What I find fascinating is the study of Christian origins. My ongoing interest is an intellectual one and has nothing to do with finding supports for faith or reasons to reject faith. If that study uncovers a historical person at the heart of the process, then so be it. But so far I have seen no methodological or evidential reasons for positing such a person as a satisfactory explanation of the nature of the evidence.

In what follows, I have replaced Davies’ references to “Israel” with references to “Jesus” or “Christian origins”. The page references are to In Search of Ancient Israel. The following are not Davies’ views in this book. They are entirely my own adaptation of a few aspects of Davies’ argument to historical Jesus studies.

Opening up the question, not closing it

Now let me be clear: I am not as yet saying that the literary [Jesus] must be assumed a priori to be unhistorical. What I am saying is that it is literary and that it might be historical.” (p.24)

Seems absurd

The very raising of the question might seem absurd, deliberately provocative, programmatically negativistic. Virtually a whole discipline, after all, is predicated on the existence of an [historical Jesus]. But it is not absurd at all to ask the question. . . . It only seems absurd because scholars have never opened the question, so that it seems entirely off the agenda. It is the kind of question that threatens with a new paradigm, like the absurd idea that the earth orbited round the sun or that slavery was not  a divinely-ordained institution. The student of the Bible gets the impression that [the historical Jesus] really did exist because she or he reads about [him] all the time.  One might doubt that the Bible is not history, but one can surely not doubt a battalion of professors!” (p.25)

Compromise has ruined everything

We have not set about arguing that the literary [Jesus] is an historical entity . . . . we have from the outset assumed it. Literary periodization becomes historical time, literary figures are transmuted into historical figures. There are some exceptions, of course: [the slaughtered babes of Bethlehem, Gabriel] and maybe even [Judas Iscariot and Joseph of Arimathea] (for the daring) are eliminated. But taking these figures out makes matters worse rather than better: the result is something that is neither historical nor biblical, but scholarly rationalisation of the literary and the historical. Literary criticism of the Bible became, for generations of students, an historical enterprise.” (p.24)

Never a hypothesis, never a reason to doubt

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Contrasting methods: “nonbiblical” historians vs “Jesus” historians

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

I have argued (repeatedly) — and demonstrated — that mainstream historians of “the historical Jesus” do not follow the basic procedures in evaluating evidence practiced by regular “nonbiblical” historians. Here is another specific case that illustrates this fact, and demonstrates once again the validity of Thomas L. Thompson’s claim that “historical Jesus” scholars have “always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.” I came across this particular case when doing some background reading on a nonbiblical historian, Eric Hobsbawm, whom James Crossley draws upon in his study of Christian origins.

The point of the following quotations is to demonstrate that “mainstream historians of nonbiblical topics” understand the basic premise that a narrative cannot be assumed to be based on historical persons or events. In all cases there is a need for external attestation or “controls” to establish this.

Yet “Jesus” historians have ignored this basic principle and assumed there is a historical Jesus to describe. They then proceed to assess what parts of the Gospel narrative are more plausible given plot analysis and reference to ancient customs, etc. This is called “digging beneath the text” to find its “historical core”. This is NOT how renowned historians like Eric Hobsbawm have worked when handling both the literary evidence and first hand reports in their attempts to understand the historical nature of bandits, or any particular bandit, in South America.

In all cases we need independent evidence

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Exactly like “the minimalists” (& Schweitzer & Schwartz) said

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The circularity of historicist arguments

Yet another parallel between creationism and mythicism is written up in another of James McGrath’s posts attempting to liken Jesus mythicism to Creationism: Accusations and Assumptions: Another Mythicist-Creationist Parallel.

MYTHICISM
E. P. Sanders (or insert other New Testament scholar or historian here) writes a book explaining why he believes the temple incident reflects an actual historical event.
Mythicists continue to say “The historicity of Jesus is merely an assumption historians and scholars make, none of their work actually addresses whether Jesus existed.

I have promised James McGrath a post detailing a response to what E.P. Sanders writes in Jesus in Judaism about the “Temple Action” of Jesus, and the criteria or methodology Sanders addresses. In the meantime, let me point out the fundamental flaw in this complaint by James. If James fails to see it, presumably others fail to see it, too.

Yes, certainly Sanders does explain why he believes the temple incident reflects an actual historical event. He explains most cogently that some such event is the only thing that makes sense of the overall plot of the gospel narrative, as well as subsequent references (those made at his trial and crucifixion) to “something” he did or said in relation to the temple. (I will cover all this in more detail in a post I plan/hope to write up in the next few days.)

Such a process is NOT addressing the question of the historicity of Jesus. Such a process is ASSUMING the historicity of Jesus, and attempting to understand or make sense of the narratives that are told about him. Perhaps without fully realizing it himself, or maybe he does, E. P. Sanders writes of his methodology on page 4 that it is an attempt “to understand Jesus“. Sanders raises a number of features about the gospel narratives that don’t make much sense as they are told, and writes:

What is needed is more secure evidence . . . which at least points towards an explanation of these historical puzzles. (p.5)

When Sanders does list the “indisputable facts” (p.11) of Jesus’ historical existence, he at no point argues for, or cites any reasons for how we can know they are indeed “indisputable facts”. He only cites the opinions of other authorities, such as Morton Smith, Anthony Harvey and Ernst Käsemann. Sanders’ purpose in his book, as he himself explains repeatedly in his introduction, is to explain the problems that such “indisputable facts” present us. (e.g. why he was crucified — there appears to be no clear historically plausible reason for his in the gospel narratives.)

And when he does present his arguments for this or that detail having some historical foundation, his arguments rest on the assumption that the gospels are “reports” of “traditions” that go back in some sense to (the historical) Jesus. In other words, if one takes Sanders’ arguments for the historicity of this or that incident in the gospels as arguments for the “historicity of Jesus”, one is riding on a circular argument.

A reputable bible scholar such as Burton Mack can argue that certain incidents in the gospels (e.g. the “temple cleansing”) are not historical because (1) their presence can be demonstrated to have been motivated by the need to fulfil a particular plot or theological function in the narrative, and/or (2) they can be demonstrated to be inspired by a desire to flesh out and “fulfil” Old Testament passages, and (3) there is no evidence for their occurrence outside the stories of the gospels.

But for some reason if Jesus mythicists argue along the same lines they are accused by James McGrath as arguing against the mainstream and therefore to be compared with “creationists”!

Odd detail of a painting of Jesus driving mone...
Image by hugovk via Flickr

odd detail of a painting of jesus driving money changers out . . . .

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