Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Unexplained Book Release Poster
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James McGrath, biblical scholar, historian and Christian, has written that historical studies of Jesus cannot explain what happened that gave rise among early Christians to the belief in the resurrection. Whatever they experienced — and clearly he believes the evidence confirms that they certainly experienced something unusual — is beyond the ability of history to explain. The reason is, simply, that history deals with “the ordinary” (to use McGrath’s words), and the resurrection is not an ordinary event.

Result: Historians must simply not touch this topic of the resurrection. They cannot. It is left to be a mystery. One of the unexplained or unanswered questions historians so often have to face. McGrath in blog comments has literally insisted that this “inexplicable” is no different from a host of other questions historians in any field cannot answer! I suggest that historians in other fields do not construct models that can only be explained by a miracle.

One might say that his is a bit like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. One tries to sound like a “man of the world” for whatever reasons, and to prove to others that one is a “man of the world”, but at the same time one secretly believes that one is really a part of another world.

But John Dominic Crossan has written that this approach (and McGrath is representative in this of very many of his peers, I am sure) is unethical. Before citing Crossan, here are McGrath’s words from The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith Continue reading “Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?”


Reviewing The Burial of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Sabio Lantz is reviewing in detail The Burial of Jesus, by James McGrath. Because it sets out James’ approach to his historical method I have referred to it a few times (I also addressed its section on Joseph of Arimathea). See The Burial of Jesus: a review.

(I had overlooked that it is self-published. I wonder if McGrath has copped the same flack as Doherty has for “vanity publishing” one of his books.)


The mythicist seeks the historical explanation; many historicists are content with the mythical

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by Neil Godfrey

A standard formula-problem found in historical Jesus works is that the question that needs to be explained is how or why Jesus’ disciples were able to persuade so many Jews that a crucified criminal was indeed the Christ. And of course, to explain why the disciples became convinced of this themselves.

These are indeed extremely improbable scenarios.

One “biblical scholar and historian” who is also a Christian writes:

As we have already seen, what precisely motivated [the disciples] to believe that Jesus had been raised . . . is difficult if not impossible to say from a historian’s perspective. (The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, p. 121)

And again,

There seems to be little hope of gaining access by means of the later written sources to the actual experiences that early Christians had, the ones that convinced them Jesus was alive. Even Paul only alludes to his own direction-changing experience, and never describes it. Perhaps this is appropriate: religious experiences are regularly characterized by those who have them as ineffable, as “beyond words.” The Gospel of Mark suggested that Jesus would be seen, but doesn’t describe the experience, at least not in our earliest manuscripts. . . .

But this much can be said: the act of completely surrendering has transformed many lives. Such unconditional surrender to God seems to have been central to Jesus’ own spirituality. There would be something fundamentally appropriate if it turned out to be central to the rise in the earliest disciples of the conviction that Jesus had been raised, as it has been for Christians all through the ages since then. (pp. 115-116)

This historian is writing for his fellow-faithful. In doing so he has given away his bias that would seem to preclude him from any ability to continue his historical enquiries until he finds a truly historical explanation for the rise of the Christian faith. He is content with an explanation that opens up room to find his faith — the inexplicable, even the ineffable — in history. (And given that this particular faith is dependent upon historical events, Schweitzer’s pleas notwithstanding [- see below], this is surely an inevitable conclusion for a committed Christian.)

This is not good enough for truly post-Enlightenment historiography. History is often enough defined as an investigation into what is human, what can be naturally explained.

If our questions and models bring us up against a brick wall of “ineffability” then it is time for historians to ask new questions and try new models until they do find the natural and explicable answers.

The Gospel narratives, particularly that of the earliest Gospel of Mark, make no sense as history. Read naively they prompt silly questions like: Why did Jews come to believe a crucified criminal was their messiah? Such silly questions are embraced with utmost sober seriousness presumably for the same reasons they were a subject of boast by Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”

They are questions grounded in faith and therefore also supportive of faith. Even non-Christian scholars embrace them because the faith narrative has become part of our very cultural identity.

The historian who is prepared to set aside assumptions and hypotheses that have been found wanting, or that are self-authenticating being found exclusively within the Christian narrative itself, will necessarily be operating from the cultural fringes. But that is the only historian who is likely to stumble upon an answer to the real historical question (how did Christianity begin?) that is completely natural, human and explicable of all the evidence. There will be no need to be content with “the ineffable” or “difficult if not impossible to say” in place of an explanation.

Granted, not all biblical historians do accept the unknown or “impossible to say” in place of a genuinely historical explanation. But they do still work within the culturally rooted paradigm and are up against  a model that has more to do with faith and myth than with human reality. This explains why there is so little in common, and much that is mutually exclusive, among the many Jesus reconstructions by  biblical historians working within the constraints of the model that remains an inheritance of faith. The wildly opposing results generated through their paradigm ought to suggest a new paradigm and new questions are timely. But how to begin with something that is so much a part of our collective identity?

And once again, as quoted here before:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

From pages 401-402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.


Is This a Freudian Slip from a Professor of Religion?

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by Neil Godfrey

Has James McGrath given the game away — that the historical study of Jesus is as much a servant of a Faith as the arts and sciences have been (and in some countries still are) in the service of State ideologies? Only the party faithful are allowed to truly sway the directions of both the questions and the answers.

In his introductory chapter of The Burial of Jesus, James McGrath addresses a conservative Christian readership. He attempts to reassure them that critical studies of the Bible are not a threat to the real fundamentals of their faith.

First he denies “the impression many Christian believers end up with is that historians are a bunch of atheists and unbelievers, out to discredit and undermine their faith at all costs”:

This impression is inevitably true of some who work in the field of history, just as it is true of some biologists and some musicians and even some preachers, but there is no reason to think that it is true of the majority of scholars working in any of these fields.

After assuring his readers what most biblical historians are not, McGrath then gives the positive side to explain what they are:

Indeed, there is much evidence to refute it, much evidence that there are many people working in the fields of history and Biblical studies as an expression of their faith rather than because of opposition to it. (p.8)

Are these words from James McGrath really how he sees historical studies of Bible narratives, or are these thoughts strictly occasioned by the particular audience he is addressing — “conservative Christians” in the United States?

As his words stand McGrath appears to be admitting of no middle ground for a majority of scholars. There are a few who are opposed to the faith and use their historical enquiries to discredit Christianity. But on the other hand — am I misreading James here? — he says the “majority of scholars” involved in historical studies of Jesus and early Christianity do so “as an expression of their faith“.

Is the idea that there might actually be a middle approach whereby historians sought to study the evidence for the sake of historical enquiry in its own right? Is McGrath’s statement here a true indication of a majority bias of historians of biblical studies?

So most historians of biblical studies are not interested in their subject as a dispassionate enquiry into Christian origins, but rather as “an expression of their faith”?

Perhaps so, because McGrath a little later writes:

Particularly for Christians, for whom past events are central to their religious beliefs and doctrines, history is important and cannot be ignored. (p.10)

Here is the reason one sometimes hears calls from within the guild itself for studies in biblical history to be removed from the isolation of religion departments and incorporated within mainstream historical studies. In recent exchanges it became clear that McGrath — and he is presumably representative of at least a significant number of biblical historians — has very scant knowledge of how classical and other nonbiblical historians evaluate the value of documents as sources of historical information. I once wrote notes from my reading of a book by Lemche to address the nonsense that passes for “historical methodology” among the likes of Craig Evans and Richard Bauckham. Perhaps I was too harsh personally, but I see public intellectuals like these (and now James McGrath) as being personally responsible for contributing to large pools of ignorance still bedevilling some Western societies.

Ignoring Albert Schweitzer’s call (see quotation below) for Christianity to be founded on a metaphysic and not on any historical event, not even on an historical Jesus, James McGrath, a Christian himself, stresses the importance of core historical events as the foundation of the Christian faith.

(I wonder also what mainstream biblical scholars really thinks of Schweitzer’s argument in the same passage about the “probability” of evidence in Gospel studies.)

Why should any historian even think to write that his professional interest will not pose a threat to any faith that relies on certain events and explanations of those events in history? To make such a statement is to betray a bias that will guide one’s studies. I would have thought that a true professional would be willing to be moved to alternative and as yet unknown conclusions the further one researched.

Is not James McGrath here admitting that historians of biblical topics, in particular of Jesus and early Christianity, are as much in the service of The Faith as the arts and sciences have been, in other times and places, in the service of State ideologies?

Continue reading “Is This a Freudian Slip from a Professor of Religion?”