Why Today’s Theologians Call Themselves Historians

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by Neil Godfrey

symbolicjesusIn The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity, William Arnal gives us a reasonable explanation for why Historical Jesus scholars today are characterized by:

  • a general assumption that the gospel narratives reflect at some level genuine historical events;
  • a minimizing of the criterion of dissimilarity;
  • a preference for a criterion of plausibility;
  • an explicit, even strident, emphasis on Jesus’ “Jewishness”;
  • a preference to present themselves as historians more than theologians.

In other words, whatever happened to Rudolf Bultmann and good-old scholarly scepticism?

Arnal’s discussion is a broad one encompassing scholarly, political, religious and cultural identities. This posts focuses on only the scholarly identity. I give some of the background relevant to this new scholarly identity formation since the 1970s and 1980s since it helps us understand more completely what has been going on that has led theologians to stress their apparent credentials as historians.

Up until the 1970s and 1980s New Testament scholarship was dominated by “Bultmannian, post-Bultmannian, or Bultmann-trained scholars”.

The “New Quest” for the Historical Jesus is traditionally said to have begun in 1953 with a publication by Ernst Käsemann arguing that the only way to be assured a saying of Jesus was authentic was that it stood distinct from both Christianity and Judaism. This was called the criterion of double dissimilarity. It did not mean that Jesus said nothing that overlapped with distinctively Jewish or Christian ideas but that the only ones we could be reasonably confident came from Jesus were those that were dissimilar to both.

Ernst Käsemann was a student of Bultmann.

Other scholars prominent in this “New Quest” (that is, the apparent revival of Historical Jesus studies after Albert Schweitzer is said to have closed the curtain on the “First Quest”) have been

  • James M. Robinson — an American, but whose D. Theol was from Basel;
  • Norman Perrin — an American, not a student of Bultmann but a student of Jeremias.

This “New Quest” throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in both Europe and North America, could be most distinctively described as follows:

  • A focus on the sayings of Jesus as the key to understanding Jesus;
  • Emphasis on the criterion of double dissimilarity as the key to identifying authentic sayings of Jesus;
  • A “considerable skepticism about the historicity of any of the gospel material, especially narrative but also sayings materials’ (The Symbolic Jesus, p. 41).

But Arnal points out that all of that changed “with a vengeance” in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Third Quest”

Continue reading “Why Today’s Theologians Call Themselves Historians”


Pharisees and Judaism, Popular (Gospel) Caricatures versus Modern Scholarly Views

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by Neil Godfrey

Updated 18th January, 2013. 8:40 pm.

I recently confessed that I have too often written with the assumption that my points are surely so well-known that there is no need to explain them. This post attempts to make amends for one such recent gaffe. I explain why I claimed Hoffmann is out of touch with most scholarship with his views of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day.

In my latest post addressing Hoffmann’s argument for an historical Jesus, I dismissed his claim that Paul came from a tradition that knew only a vengeful God incapable of forgiveness. I assumed most readers would know that such a view of the Judaism of the early and mid first century is widely understood to be a misinformed caricature of reality. One commenter pulled me up on that point.

So here I quote views of scholars on the nature of Judaism, and the Pharisees in particular, in the time of Jesus and Paul. First, here are Hoffmann’s words:

[Paul] finessed his disagreements into a cult that turned the vindictive God of his own tradition into a being capable of forgiveness.

I brushed this aside with the following comment:

I am astonished that Hoffmann would write such an unsupportable caricature as if it were fact. His view is surely out of touch with most scholarship that has addressed this question.

So I pulled out books from my shelves that I could quickly identify as having something to say about this question. I avoided any titles that might be associated with scholars of mythicist leanings or left-right-out-radicals, however. I tried to stick to well-known or highly respected names in the field and especially to include relative “conservatives” in the mix.

So here are the sorts of things I have been reading over the years and that have led me to conclude that certainly a good number of scholars no longer accept Hoffmann’s characterization of Judaism or Pharisaism today. Note the number of times they denounce as a modern myth any notion that God was harsh or that Jews did not know divine forgiveness.

Hyam Maccoby: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986)

In recent years, many Christian scholars have come to realize that this Gospel picture of the Pharisees [i.e. severely and cruelly legalistic, hypocritical and self-righteous] is propaganda, not fact. Our main source of authentic information about the Pharisees is their own voluminous literature, including prayers, hymns, books of wisdom, law books, sermons, commentaries on the Bible, mystical treatises, books of history and many other genres. Far from being arid ritualists, they were one of the most creative groups in history.

Moreover, the Pharisees, far from being rigid and inflexible in applying religious laws, were noted (as the first-century historian Josephus points out, and as is amply confirmed in the Pharisee law books) for the lenience of their legal rulings, and for the humanity and flexibility with which they sought to adapt the law of the Bible to changing conditions and improved moral conceptions. . . . (p. 19) Continue reading “Pharisees and Judaism, Popular (Gospel) Caricatures versus Modern Scholarly Views”


Grounds for excluding historical Jesus studies from university research

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by Neil Godfrey

Today while catching up with what materials qualify as research for funding purposes in Australian universities (my new job requires me to refresh my memory on all this stuff) I came across an exclusion clause that should mean that no Historical Jesus book like Crossan’s or Casey’s should qualify as a research output of a publicly funded university.

It is in the guidelines under the section to do with authored books.

This category also refers to books written solely by the author(s). The publication must be a substantial work of scholarship . . .

The following are excluded:

  • creative works such as novels, which depend mainly upon the imagination of the author rather than upon a publicly accessible body of agreed fact (possibly J1); . . .

Now J1 refers to the section titled “Major Original Creative Works”. So if such a book is to be registered as an output of a public university it must be categorized as an “original creative work”.

Can non-biblical history qualify? Continue reading “Grounds for excluding historical Jesus studies from university research”


Assumptions of historicity (in part a response to James McGrath)

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by Neil Godfrey

This is partly in response to “mythicist quote of the day

Allow me to explain why I think so many arguments for the historical Jesus are based on an assumption of historicity.

Firstly, when I quote Sanders in this respect, it is not because I am faulting Sanders’ arguments for starting with this assumption. I still am a little bemused that my remarks were even seen as controversial. I thought the assumption was obvious, and that what Sanders was doing was arguing for motives and character of Jesus, and even for what we might think were some things he is more likely to have done, given the constraints of the Gospel narrative and what we know of historical realities of the time. All of this assumes an historical Jesus to begin with, and through which to interpret the Gospels. It does not even claim to be an argument for the historicity of Jesus per se.

Why my posts on E. P. Sanders

The reason I have been addressing Sanders is because his work, Jesus and Judaism, was recommended by James McGrath as a challenge to those who argue for a mythical Jesus. He challenged anyone to engage a work like this and come up with different conclusions. The context implied that he was meaning it would be unlikely for anyone to deem as unhistorical what Sanders argued was indeed historical. And the reason for this was, as I understood the original challenge, the methodology of Sanders, including his criteria for authenticity.

So I have been discussing Sanders’ work in particular in the context of those who use it as a basis for the claim that we have clear and strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus. As far as I can see Sanders nowhere addresses any methodology for establishing the historicity of Jesus. He does address methodology for assessing what is the likely character or motive or saying or action of the historical Jesus. So his methodology is built upon the assumption of an historical Jesus.

Responses to the challenge

In response to James’ challenge I first addressed Sanders’ own first point, the Temple Action of Jesus. I engaged Sanders’ arguments here, and demonstrated, I think, that an alternative to historical authenticity certainly is most plausible. (I address more detailed arguments of Sanders for the authenticity of this incident at the end of this post.)

Next, I responded to some very strong claims by Sanders about certain details of John the Baptist. Sanders claimed that even John’s dress (along with other details) was a detail that “correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship”. I attempted to show, again in response to James’ challenge, that such a claim by a scholar like Sanders can be addressed and a different conclusion reached.

James’ responses to my efforts

James has since responded that I did not disprove the historical existence of John the Baptist. But that was not my argument, and is not central to any case for the “mythical Jesus” that I know. I had taken up the challenge to address a scholar like Sanders and demonstrate that it is possible to disagree with what Sanders himself argues is historical.

James has also since said that he does not see the points of my posts on Sanders. So it appears my taking up his challenge has been in vain at least from his perspective.

The assumption of historicity implicit in Sanders

But back to the specifics on Sanders and assumptions of historicity. Here is what convinces me that Sanders is not attempting to address the historicity of Jesus as such, but rather assumes his historicity:

We start by determining the evidence which is most secure. There are several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt. Any interpretation of Jesus should be able to account for these. (Jesus and Judaism, p. 11)

Here Sanders is stating that he is attempting to do no more than start with “facts about Jesus’ career . . .”. His intention is to use these facts as the basis for his “interpretation of Jesus”. His intent is to “account for” the “facts of Jesus’ career” in order to interpret Jesus.

To start with what one thinks are facts about one’s career is to assume historicity before one starts. To use a simplified analogy, I can apply the same analysis to Hamlet to interpret Hamlet. In that case my assumption is that he is a fictional character. But the point is that my ensuing “exegesis” of Hamlet does not itself verify that assumption of fictionality. It builds on it. Ditto for any exegesis of any text.

Sanders further acknowledges that his “facts about Jesus career” are not “facts” in the normal sense of what we mean by “facts”. Facts are normally defined as data on which everyone can agree. They exist quite independently from respective interpretations of them. (Okay, now you know I am not a postmodernist.) But Sanders says of his list of “facts” that can be known “beyond doubt”:

I do not regard any items in the following list as dubious, but some may. (p.357, note 19)

The almost indisputable facts, listed . . . are these: (p. 11 — and I listed these in my previous post).

This tells me that what are said to be facts about Jesus are open to challenge as facts. They are not facts in the sense that “Caesar crossed the Rubicon” or “Sophists appeared teaching in Athens around the fifth century bce” are facts. (Hence my first post to challenge the first of the “facts” Sanders discusses — the Temple Action.)

So we have two levels of “facts” to deal with here. Sanders begins by assuming that there is a historical Jesus. On this assumption he can assert that there are certain facts about what this Jesus did. The next level of “fact” is an exegetical argument based on this assumption. It is at this level that challenges begin to appear. My question is, why only at this level?

Historical methods

James has asked for historical methods that are used by nonbiblical scholars. The principle set of methodologies applied and questions asked by (nonbiblical) historians began with Leopold von Ranke. Others like E. H. Carr have moved things along a bit since von Ranke, but many of the basics still apply. This is where the ‘minimalists’ come in. Lemche discusses methodology at some length with reference to von Ranke. “Minimalist” methods have been castigated by some as overly sceptical, but those making the criticism seem not to realize that this is the standard approach to documentary and other evidence in nonbiblical history. Rather than repeat von Ranke’s relevant points, with Lemche’s application of them, in another context, I have discussed them previously here. The point, and related discussions of historical method and circular arguments, has already been addressed in a previous reply to James.

The key point is the need for external controls in order to establish the historicity of a narrative. They do not exist for the Gospel narratives, as even Albert Schweitzer stated, and as I’ve quoted often enough here but here it is again:

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 be raised so high as positive probability. (Quest, p.402)

James has also said that New Testament scholars are obliged to use exegesis of texts as their methods for deciding what is historical fact and what not for the simple reason that other evidence is too scarce.

But is it valid to water down the methodologies if the required evidence on which they rely does not exist?

We lack the evidence required to establish the historicity of the Gospel narrative. It does not follow that it is therefore okay to assume historicity and just begin analyzing the texts as if there is some historical core to begin with. I read Josephus’s writings as history because I have reasons external to their text to have some confidence in their value as history. There is truly both independent (external controls) and multiple attestation of the events he writes about.

And problem of assuming historicity of the narrative is highlighted in another context (re the evidence of Papias) but I believe it also applies here:

The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had  no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand. Not once was he able to say anything about the external history of the works of Origen, in which he was genuinely interested, apart from what he found in or among them.

And if in the case of authors who as individuals and sometimes as well-known personalities stood in the glare of publicity there is so little information about their production, how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity?

There is not even a shadow of a hope that their ever existed any trustworthy information about the way in which the Gospels came into being: the Christians of antiquity had other cares than to search out and preserve the history of the inscripturation of the Gospels, and when Gnosticism forced this concern upon them they filled the vacuum with inventions of their own as Gnosticism did before them.

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.

Further statements by Sanders demonstrating the assumption of the historicity of Jesus

Continue reading “Assumptions of historicity (in part a response to James McGrath)”


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

Sanders is well aware of difficulties with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Sanders.

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

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

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

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

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

This absence of any way to determine the historical origin of the many of the Bible’s narratives has not gone unnoticed among some scholars: Continue reading “E.P. Sanders’ Test for Authenticity of the Sayings of Jesus”


Engaging E. P. Sanders point by point: John the Baptist

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by Neil Godfrey

Detail of John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the Jordan River, with the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove.

Of John the Baptist Professor E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) writes:

That John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account. Further, the depiction of John and his message in the Gospels agrees with Josephus’s view: the preaching in the desert; the dress, which recalled Elijah; the message of repentance in preparation for the coming judgment. These features correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship. (p. 92)

Associate Professor James McGrath called on anyone sceptical of the historical Jesus to engage a scholar like Sanders point by point (and cited Jesus and Judaism specifically) and see if they can arrive at different conclusions for historicity.

I have already covered the point in Sanders’ own chapter 1, the Temple Action of Jesus. Here I look at just a small detail, but one about which Sanders makes some remarkably strong assertions about historicity and even external controlling evidence for historicity.

Compare what Sanders writes above with the actual account of Josephus that Sanders says supports everything he says. From Josephus.org:

Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.

How much of what Sanders’ says is “correctly unquestioned” really “agrees with Josephus”, as he clearly infers.

The evidence for John being an eschatological prophet?

Read the Antiquities passage again and you will see it is simply not there. There is not a breath of a hint that John was an eschatological prophet. But Sanders knows this, so why does he say “that John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account”?

That John was an eschatological prophet is less clear in Josephus, who here as elsewhere probably downplays eschatalogical features. (p.371)

Sanders seems to miss the axial point here. The reason Josephus downplays eschatological features, if he does indeed do that here, is because he makes it clear elsewhere he is personally viscerally opposed to such rebellious notions. If he suspected as much of John the Baptist how could he possibly have spoken about him favourably, without a hint of censure at any point at all?

But what evidence is there here in Josephus that such expectations are played down at all? There is no hint of any such expectations in John’s teaching according to Josephus. In the Gospels scholars often claim that Matthew and Luke and John downplay the scene of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel by (a) having Jesus either apologize for it (Matthew) or (b) not linking Jesus’ baptism with John (Luke) or (c) not mentioning the baptism of Jesus (John). But in Josephus we have no evidence to suggest to us that Josephus had any notion of John being an eschatological prophet.

So why does Sanders claim that Josephus implies that he did preach an eschatological message? Answer:

[Josephus] writes that Herod had him executed because he feared that trouble would result. Baptism and piety do not account for that reaction, and a message of national redemption is thus made probable. (p.371)

Look at Sanders’ reasoning here. He rejects the narrative of Josephus as we have it because it is implausible. It reads, just like the gospels, as a fairy tale. The gospel narrative of John’s death is just as plausible as the reason we read in Josephus, and both reasons are quite similar to each other. Herod fears the very popular John denouncing him for his sins, so has him arrested.

Thus in Herod’s motive for arresting John, Josephus and the gospels closely agree. But Sanders does not find this reason plausible in either tale.

Rather than ask the question, then, about the veracity of Josephus’s portrait of John, Sanders seeks to save his historicity by conjuring up an element from the gospels: that John was preaching the end of the present age and a new age of judgment to come.

Sanders then claims, with dizzying circularity, that the Josephus account supports the Gospel narrative!

Continue reading “Engaging E. P. Sanders point by point: John the Baptist”


Ten myths about mythicist arguments, as advanced by James McGrath

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by Neil Godfrey

Myth Busters
MYTHBUSTERS. Image by Studio H (Chris) via Flickr

Myth #1

Mythicist arguments do not reflect an understanding of the historical enterprise

James has said he believes mythicists are wanting absolute certainty before they will accept the existence of Jesus, but that the historical enterprise by its nature only deals with probabilities, not certainties. (See Mythicist Misunderstanding)

It is clear that James has not read any of the works of mythicist authors such as Doherty. I personally lean tentatively towards the mythicist case on the probabilities suggested by the evidence. In discussions with Doherty and other mythicists the questions are always couched in terms of probabilities.

I found this particular accusation of McGrath’s most surprising. I would be very interested if he (or anyone) could find any supporting evidence for his claim in any mythicist arguments such as Doherty’s or Wells’ — or in scholarly publications of Thompson and Price that are at the very least agnostic on the question. It has certainly not been my experience with mythicist arguments. (And James has admitted he only gets his knowledge about mythicism from his take on people who email him or write comments on his blog about it.)

More recently James has attempted to defend what passes as biblical scholarship’s “tools for sifting through the evidence” in Mythunderstanding The Criteria of Authenticity. He is referring to “criteria of authenticity”, such as “the criterion of embarrassment”. What he fails to understand is that such so-called “tools” are themselves based on the assumption of historicity itself. They merely bring to the text the presumption of historicity, and preclude any other sort of question. The use of these “tools” in order to establish the historicity of Jesus is a circular process.

There are mainstream biblical scholars who have themselves questioned and rejected the value of these tools. If James wishes to address mythicist arguments seriously he needs to acknowledge this fact.

The tools themselves can be used to argue for both authenticity and inauthenticity of a text. For example, one can say that by the criterion of embarrassment that early Christians would not have made up a story about the disciples deserting Jesus in Gethsemane. But then the criterion that says if a story is said to have “fulfilled a prophecy”, then it is likely to be fiction. And the same narrative of the disciples fleeing is also said to be a fulfilment of prophecy. So one can use tools to argue that this episode is either historical or unhistorical.

Another is the criterion of dissimilarity. If a saying is dissimilar from what might be expected from contemporaries of Jesus, then it is judged probably authentic. Of course this means that Jesus could not have said anything similar to what his contemporaries said! Mainstream scholars, and James too, I am sure, know this. So for James to present such “tools” as if they are a reliable means for establishing historicity is disingenuous.

These tools in fact are “criteria” for supposedly “establishing” if an episode within a narrative is likely to be historical — given the prior starting assumption that there is a historical event or saying or person to be discovered. (I have discussed these “tools” a number of times, most recently in relation to Funk’s use of them, but more fully in relation to a publication by Craig Evans.)

Added about an hour after original posting:
James likes to claim that the historical methods used by biblical scholars are comparable to the methods of historical studies generally. They are not. I know of no other historical discipline that seeks to “create” or decide what will be “the evidence” on the basis of such tools. The evidence is there to begin with, and tools are developed to help analyze the evidence, but not to decide what is evidence or not! In this respect, biblical studies appear to me to be claiming an exemption from normal historical methods. They need exemptions. Otherwise, I suspect, they are left with no evidence for their historical model.

Myth #2

Mythicists do not address the arguments of mainstream biblical scholarship

Continue reading “Ten myths about mythicist arguments, as advanced by James McGrath”


Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical

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by Neil Godfrey

I intend to demonstrate in a series of posts that there is legitimate room for informed, rational, scholarly debate over the historicity of certain events in the so-called life of Jesus. To disagree with E. P. Sanders and “mainstream scholarly opinion” is by no means to be equated with failing to engage the views and arguments of E. P. Sanders and other scholars sharing a majority viewpoint.

Yet public intellectuals from the field of biblical studies have disgraced themselves by declaring that if so-called “mythicists” disagree with the conclusions of the likes of E.P. Sanders and “the mainstream” they are comparable to “Young Earth Creationists”. (It is Intelligent Design advocates who misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and fail to engage directly with the substantial thrust of the literature they oppose, while “mythicists” do indeed engage seriously and with “mainstream literature”, while “historicists” have tended to remain apparently lazily ignorant and willing to distort and misrepresent mythicist arguments. So if the insulting comparison is to be made at all, it would seem to apply more to the “historicists” than to “mythicists”.) Associate Professor James McGrath inferred that the arguments of E.P. Sanders in chapter 1 of his book, Jesus and Judaism, are of sufficient strength and repute to justify ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with the historicity they supposedly affirm. Hence this post as the first of a series.

Before beginning, for what it’s worth, I do not see myself as a “mythicist”. I cannot see the point of taking such a stand — either mythicist or historicist — in any debate. (I don’t like adversarial debates anyway. I’m more an exploration and testing type of guy.) What surely matters is the examination of the evidence in attempting to understand Christian origins. The point is to be as intellectually honest as we can wherever the evidence and out testing of our hypotheses lead.

E. P. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus

Image by djking via Flickr

I will not at this point address all the arguments of E. P. Sanders over what is more widely known as the “cleansing of the temple” scene. Most of his argument is, in effect, an analysis of various proposed reasons or motives for the temple act of Jesus. As such, it assumes the historicity of Jesus. To the extent that his argument does address historicity, Sanders is arguing that Jesus must have done something in relation to the temple, otherwise we are left with no explanation for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. I see this sort of analysis as an exercise in the exposition of a literary narrative. It is misguided to assume without external supporting evidence that such an exercise necessarily yields up “evidence” of an “historical fact” external to that text. But for now, I will focus on the assumption of historicity per se, and not address each and every one of Sander’s “extremely common” ‘aprioristic’ points (i.e. ‘if Jesus did X, he must have done Y’) (p.9). I will reserve these for a future post when addressing Sander’s discussion of his method and the nature of a “good hypothesis”.

Sanders “establishes” the historicity of the Temple Act before commencing his attempt to explain its specific nature and motive. Indeed, it is its “indisputable” historicity that he claims is his justification for his chapter 1 discussion.

Sanders begins by noting the problems with gospel passages that narrate the temple incident (p. 9, my formatting):

  1. there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
  2. nor is there absolute certainty of the authenticity of either or both of the sayings about the destruction of the temple.

Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. (p.9)

To justify his assertion that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that a real historical event lies behind the narratives, Sanders explains:

The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable. (p.9)

This is called in the literature an example of “multiple, independent attestation”. We have three sources (the synoptic gospels, Acts and John), all presumably independent of one another, saying something like the same thing. This, it is argued, strongly suggests that we have three independent witnesses to a tradition that must be traced back to something Jesus really did do or say.

Later, Sanders again writes (p. 73):

. . . the tradition contained in [John 2.19], Mark 14.58, Matt. 26.61, Mark 15.29, Matt. 27.40, and Acts 6.14: Jesus threatened the destruction of the temple (and perhaps predicted its rebuilding after three days).

We seem here to be in touch with a very firm historical tradition, but there is still uncertainty about precisely what it is.

I will unpack the assumption of the “tradition” as the common source below. For now, I will note only that it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.

So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we let the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.

Paula Fredriksen’s on the “scholarly consensus” in relation to the Temple Act

Paula Fredriksen certainly accepts some form of temple act as historical, but also has the honesty to write:

In research on the historical Jesus, however, no single consensus interpretation ever commands 100 percent of the scholarly opinion. . . . Other critics, rightly observing the crucial role played by the Temple incident in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ story — without it, Mark would have difficulty bringing Jesus to the attention of the priests — question whether it ever happened at all. Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – my emphasis)

Fredriksen is not ignorant of E. P. Sanders’ views. She cites Jesus and Judaism in her biography and makes frequent use of his ideas throughout her work. I suspect she is thinking in particular of Burton Mack when she writes: “Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.” Mack’s A Myth of Innocence is also listed in her biography.

Burton Mack’s’ argument for the Temple Act being fiction

The act itself is contrived. Some gesture was required that could symbolize both casting out and taking charge with some level of legitimacy.

Demons would be too much, since Jesus is about to be taken. It would, in any case, have been implausible. But filthy lucre would do just fine. Taxes and the temple treasury had been hot political issues underlying much of the history of conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. The citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah could put Jesus on the safe side of the conflict, motivated by righteous indignation. Jewish authorities (scripture) could be used against Jewish practice. The subtheme of temple robbery, moreover, given with the citation from Jeremiah, was also most convenient. Temple robbery was a stock image of temple degredation in the popular imagination, combining criminal activity with impiety.

The first use of the theme in Mark is Jesus’ application of Jeremiah’s charge to those who brought and sold in the temple (that is, animals for offerings and money at foreign rates of exchange). This subtheme occurs at the arrest where Jesus chides the arresters coming after him as though he, not the money changers, were the temple robber (Mark 14:48). This develops the theme somewhat, playing on the symbolic significance of the temple act and putting the countercharge in his opponent’s mouth. At the trial the question of Jesus’ authority is the more important theme, but the temple act has not been forgotten. Jesus’ authority is related to the kingdom, the substitute for the temple,  thus builds (sic) upon the temple act as symbolically having taken charge. The hearsay about destroying the temple pushes the symbolism of the act in the direction of an exorcism (casting out as destroying). And underlying the charge of blasphemy is desecration, also related allusively to the temple act. When Jesus is crucified then, he is positioned between two robbers, that is, as one who desecrated the temple (Mark 15:27). Thus the subtheme is carried through to the end. It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.

The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his “instruction” and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (pp. 291-292, my emphasis. I have also broken up the first paragraph into three parts for easier web-reading.)

(Mack’s statement, “If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence”, addresses a point too rarely absent from “historicist” discussions about Jesus. Remove the scriptural embellishments and other plot devices and there is no ‘person’ left for history to see. This is why it is fallacious to claim that, since mythical associations do not discredit the historicity of ancient characters like Alexander or the Caesars, so therefore they should not discredit the historicity of Jesus. This argument misses the point: remove the mythical associations from Alexander and the Caesars and there is still plenty of ‘historical person’ left over to see. This is not the case with Jesus. But I am addressing here the correct logic of Mack’s argument. Mack himself accepts that there was an historical Jesus. One wonders, however, how Fredriksen or other “mainstream scholars” might have reacted if it had been a “mythicist” who expressed the above argument.)

The Origin of the story: Historical Tradition or Textual Tradition?

Continue reading “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical”


The circularity of historicist arguments

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

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”!

Image by hugovk via Flickr

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