Tag Archives: Schweitzer: Quest of the Historical Jesus

What Do They Mean by “No Quest”?

Albert Schweitzer, 1952
Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dazed and confused

As you no doubt recall, scholars frequently divide the quest for the historical Jesus into phases or periods. The first period, following Albert Schweitzer‘s analysis, began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus and ended with William Wrede and Schweitzer himself. Conventional wisdom holds that the quest took a breather at that point, with scholars somewhat shell-shocked by the implications of the works by Wrede, Schweitzer, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt.

This same conventional wisdom marks the beginning of the “Second Quest” (or, at the time, “New Quest”) in the early 1950s with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (published in Essays on the New Testament). The supposed hiatus between Schweitzer and Käsemann is sometimes called the period of “No Quest.”

Miffed scholars

Recently, just out of curiosity, I was Googling “no quest”, and I found several references to indignant conservative and not-so-conservative biblical scholars. They just don’t like that term. It’s dishonest, they insist, and if it’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s dishonesty.

Are they right? And if the pause or moratorium in the first half of the 20th century is a myth, then where did the idea come from and why does it persist?

A “No Quest” period?

First of all, here’s the typical description we get from survey courses and books on the Quest. The front matter for the Fortress Press “First Complete Edition” of The Quest of the Historical Jesus contains Marcus Borg’s “An Appreciation of Albert Schweitzer,” which ends with the following paragraph:

[Schweitzer’s] claim that historical Jesus scholarship has no theological significance has been very influential, contributing to a relative lack of scholarly interest in the historical Jesus for a major portion of this [i.e., the 20th] century. His work was thus not only the highwater mark of the “old quest” for the historical Jesus, but brought the quest to a temporary close. Only in the past few decades — with the “new quest” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “third quest” of the 1980s — has substantial interest in the historical Jesus revived. (Quest, p. ix, emphasis mine)

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (The Historical Jesus, A Comprehensive Guide) divide the quest into five phases in which two phases comprise the First Quest. Hence for them “No Quest” is the Third Phase, which they describe as “the collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus.” (Theissen and Merz, p. 9)

“Just not true”

Next, here’s a response from an offended, “anti-no-quest” scholar. In his essay, “The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus” (link downloads the PDF), Dale Allison complains about N.T. Wright’s characterization of the first half of the last century as experiencing a “moratorium” on the quest:

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“It Is Hard to Imagine” — How Scholars Invent History

Why would anybody make it up? (And other dead horses.)

In a recent post over on Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath wrote:

The depiction of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and praying that the cup pass from him, is one that it is hard to imagine being invented by the later church, after they had made sense of the cross as the decisive salvific event in human history. Would they invent Jesus asking for that not to occur? It seems unlikely. But the scene makes no sense if Jesus does not believe that he must under go [sic] something traumatic. (emphasis mine)

Giorgio Vasari: An angel strengthens Jesus pra...
Giorgio Vasari: An angel strengthens Jesus praying in agony in Gethsemane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s quite a bit of “logic” packed into a single paragraph. Somehow we started out with a narrative event in the synoptic gospels and we ended up with a supposed “authentic” historical event simply by applying a thought experiment.

Why does McGrath think it is hard to imagine the “later church” inventing a scene in which Jesus asked for the cup to pass? Because the cross is necessary for salvation. How could the Son of God try to wriggle out of the crucifixion when that’s the whole plan? Why is the Messiah under such distress?

Uncomfortable Christians

And indeed, the later church, even as early as the gospel of John, did seem uncomfortable with Jesus agonizing over his fate in Gethsemane. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus knows his part in the plan and meets the arresting party head-on:

Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4, ESV)

So McGrath could be correct in saying that the later church would be unlikely to create the garden scene with Jesus apparently trying to avoid death. But what about the early church?

The importance of being obedient

We prove our obedience not by doing things we want to do, but by doing things we would prefer not to do.

Two early documents (which predate our narrative gospels) in the New Testament give evidence of a belief in a Savior who demonstrated total obedience. In the Philippian Hymn we find this line:

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

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.

Schweitzer’s comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate

Albert Schweitzer argued against those who denied the historicity of Jesus, but he also had a few things to say about the way in which the debate between mythicists and historicists was conducted in his day. This post lists some of those thoughts that I believe are still relevant. His advice about what mythicists need to do also resonates well with my own reflections that I have attempted to express at times in this blog and on other discussion boards.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

Schweitzer squarely laid the blame on the “mythicists” of his day: they gratuitously provoked “mainstream biblical scholars”, and the latter in return “generally answered in an unfortunately similar manner.” Today the situation is reversed. It is mainstream scholars who have initiated the bloodletting today. I witnessed this around ten years ago on the Crosswalk discussion list when Earl Doherty made an appearance, and then some time later, René Salm.

But even then on that first Crosswalk discussion list there were academics who did their profession more credit. As in Schweitzer’s day, it is true to say

However, there was no lack of attempts to establish a peaceful and worthy discussion. (p.395)

Dilettantes and Fathers

It is not surprising that the dilettantism of the [mythicists’] presentation received full, indeed sometimes immoderate, coverage in the debate . . . .

Refutations were almost too prompt and numerous.

For impartial observers it was all most instructive. The proceedings gave them some notion of the Gnostic battles of the middle of the second century AD. The mentality of many free-thinking theologians began to reveal a strange and bitter resemblance to that of the fathers who battled against heresy at that time. Like them, they felt themselves called upon to protect the spiritual welfare of the defenceless masses who were in danger of being craftily deluded.(p.395)

One might see the same happening today also in relation to agnostic and atheistic bible scholars who feel a need to protect the “intellectual integrity” of their audiences.

Thus H. Weinel added a ‘practical appendix’ . . . to his book Is the Liberal Picture of Jesus refuted?, which was intended to instruct clergymen on the logic and facts with which they could best confound Drews and his companions at public meetings. (p.395)

This has its modern counterpart with the abundance of web pages professing to give their readers lists of counter-arguments against Doherty’s web and print publications.

Superficial responses

As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low.

We again see this so often today. So often a “mainstream scholar” will dismiss an argument from a “mythicist” with a reply that he would surely never dare expect to share with his peers. Arguments and presumptions that are widely treated as working hypotheses are presented as absolute facts. As a layman I came to learn that when I read a scholarly article apologizing that a particular point had not been extensively researched, it as often as not seemed to mean that it had not been researched at all. I also came to see how certain interpretations changed in line with more general social and cultural developments through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not hard to see that some assumptions and interpretations reflect wider political developments rather than any new evidence or methodologies. Many scholars know all this, of course. But some among the field of biblical studies seem to overlook it all when it comes to exchanges with “mythicists”.

When I was studying in depth the Jesus passages in Josephus, I sought out scholarly articles in the literature, both new and old, and read all I could that offered any sort of depth to the discussions. When on Crosstalk I pointed to a fallacy or weakness in a common argument for “a Josephan core” reference to Jesus, I was advised by one good doctor of biblical studies to seek out and read Bruce’s single page dot-point summary of the “core” argument. This, I was assured, would bring my knowledge of the discussion up to the required standard to participate in a discussion with the learned ones. In other words, one had to have the correct conclusions to participate.

One also reads arguments that declare without qualification that there was a widespread and single form of popular Jewish expectation of a messiah at the turn of the century in connection with these discussions. Yet such scholars surely know that such a concept is nowhere to be found or repeated in their literature that deals specifically with this question. (Fitzmyer included, aspects of whose work I have discussed here and on other sites.)

These and other similar personal experiences eventually led me to wonder if some academics themselves rely merely on such summary tracts or undergraduate introductions when referencing supporting assumptions to their main works.

In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

One bible scholar has repeatedly pointed me and others to chapter 2 of Weaver’s book, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950, to read when and where the “mythicist” case has been repeatedly rebutted and is no longer worth discussing. It seems that such a scholar is satisfied that so long as someone has published a counter argument, and so long as the question has been effectively ignored by the mainstream, then the case has been “rebutted”, and that long ago and ‘many times’. When I respond with actual citations from Weaver and some of those so-called rebutters themselves, and some of the responses their arguments have elicited, and with these citations open his assertions to question, the discussion invariably comes to an end and he withdraws for a time. A reply and a bypass do not equate with a rebuttal. (I know there have been several “replies”, but I also see that they are in the main echoes of one another, and are substantially the one reply that for most part addresses twigs, straw men and red herrings.)

Addressing the complexity of the problem

The complexity of the problem is such that there are four main questions to be considered: these concern the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, the history of doctrine and the history of literature. (p. 396)

1. Philosophy of religion question

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The legitimacy of questioning the historicity of Jesus

To argue for a nonhistorical Jesus has been ignorantly compared with arguing “Creation Science” (“Intelligent Design”).

So it is interesting to read the following from one of the foremost public critics of Creation Science:

Of course, there are scholars who are more openly secular humanist, and are willing to depart from the religionism that permeates historical Jesus studies. One example is Robert M. Price, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who provides a devastating critique of historical Jesus studies in Deconstructing Jesus — and we share many of his conclusions. Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. Burton Mack and Gerd Ludemann also have done much to erode our confidence in the more religionist versions of historical Jesus research. Our purpose is not to slight them, but rather to show that the predominant schools of historical Jesus research in academia have still not superseded Reimarus, who had a perfectly reasonable hypothesis centered on empirico-rationalism.

p. 197, The End of Biblical Studies (2007) by Hector Avalos.

And who is this Avalos?

From Wikipedia, Avalos “is also one of the most prominent secular humanist biblical scholars today.”

As for his credentials in detecting genuine studies from fraudulent ones like Creation Science, again from Wikipedia:

“Avalos has become an internationally-recognized critic of Intelligent Design, and he is often linked with Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, the advocate of Intelligent Design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007. Avalos co-authored a statement against Intelligent Design in 2005, which was eventually signed by over 130 faculty members at Iowa State University. That faculty statement became a model for other statements at the University of Northern Iowa and at the University of Iowa. Gonzalez and Avalos are both featured in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008).”

And from another:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.

p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson

So who is this Thompson?

Also from Wikipedia, Thomas L. Thompson was a theology professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1993 to 2009.

[He] has held positions at the University of Dayton (Instructor in theology, 1964 – 65), University of Detroit (Assistant Professor: Old Testament, 1967 – 69), Tübingen Atlas of the Near East (research associate, 1969 – 76), École Biblique (visiting professor, 1985 – 86), Lawrence University (visiting associate professor, 1988 – 89), and Marquette University (associate professor, 1989 – 93), and was professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993-2009. He was named a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 1988. He is general editor for the Equinox Press monograph series Copenhagen International Seminar and associate editor of the Scandinavian Journal for the Old Testament, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Holy Land Studies and Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift.

He has written 14 books, one of which, The Bible in History, is widely used as a set-text in undergraduate courses in biblical studies.

And one more for luck:

Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus.

p.402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

Who’s Schweitzer?


Added 14 Feb, 2010:

I had thought that the heading of this post was sufficient to contextualize the quotations above. (I certainly thought it was enough not to give the biographical detail on him as I gave on the others — I assumed my concluding quip was enough to set the tone and context.) But I have recently learned that one person (here) has interpreted my reference to Schweitzer as an attempt by me to get others to think that Schweitzer is a mythicist sympathizer. That is, of course, ridiculous. I took for granted that readers who know anything about Schweitzer would know his position on this. This was, of course, my point — that even one who argued comprehensively against mythicist arguments should concede certain facts about the argument that enable it to endure.

To repeat part of my response on that blog here:

Michael Shermer is able to quite comfortably pull apart Creationist arguments in a civil, courteous and professional manner and tone. I have demonstrated it is quite possible to pull apart in an informative and clear way something as “fringe” as Atlantis theories.

It is perhaps sadly instructive that quite a number of biblical scholars appear to find such processes beyond them when confronted with mythicist arguments, and they feel a need to resort to ridicule and misrepresentation and insult.

Albert Schweitzer — and this is a key point of my references to him — would not be impressed.

You are public intellectuals and I would consider that you have a responsibility to your publics to give them more than examples of prejudice and uncivil responses when faced with a radical difference of view.


Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity (1)

edited and added TLT quote Jan 26, 2010 @ 20:05 

I think of myself as neither a “Jesus mythicist” nor a “Jesus historicist”, but as someone interested in exploring the origins of Christianity. Whether the evidence establishes a historical Jesus at its core, or an entity less tangible, then so be it. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the importance and implications of the question.

Two things that bug me about much of the historicist position are:

  1. many of its interpretations of the evidence are grounded in circular reasoning
  2. many of its arguments are rhetorical and/or built on the fallacy of incredulity (aka “the divine fallacy“)

There are things that bug me about some mythicist arguments, too. But here I want to share the first of a series of responses I am making against the historicist position as summed up by a contributor on a Richard Dawkins website discussion forum.

In summary:

(i) [Jesus] existed

The idea that the stories about him are based on a historical figure is the most parsimonious explanation of how they arose, since the alternatives require repeated suppositions to explain away key elements in the evidence (eg all those “maybes” required to make references to his brother etc disappear).

This would be true IF the earliest evidence is for a more human Jesus, with the later evidence demonstrating an emerging divinization of this person until he eventually reaches co-creator and sustainer of the universe god status.

But the evidence we do have is actually the reverse of the above. The earliest evidence — such as an early hymn quoted by Paul (Phil. 2) — describes Jesus as equal with God, who had a brief temporary transformation to look like a human in order to be killed to effect a theological saving destiny for humankind, and was restored to the highest God-status and given the new name of Jesus, and worshiped by all as a reward.

. . . . Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul’s Jesus as referenced in the rest of his letters hews to the same identity. Jesus for Paul is the Spirit and Wisdom of God, a God-head figure of worship, whose exalted heavenly status is the honour bestowed on him for his descent into at least some form of flesh for the purpose of crucifixion.

It is the later evidence (among the gospels) that seeks to humanize Jesus. In Mark, he is said to become possessed by the Son of God spirit, lose his temper and need a couple of shots at healing a blind man. In Luke and Acts, his death is described as that of a merely righteous human martyr. A later copyist even added a scene with him sweating blood.

The most parsimonious way to describe this trajectory of the actual evidence is to see Jesus as beginning his history as a heavenly figure whose temporary appearance in the form of a man became the subject of later elaborations.

He is mentioned by Josephus twice and by Tacitus once and the arguments required to make these clear references in two independent sources disappear require, once again, a small hill of suppositions and contrived arguments.

On the contrary, the contrived arguments are those that have emerged since the Second World War when many things changed. Prior to that time the scholarly consensus — a consensus that included names like Albert Schweitzer and Walter Bauer — was that these texts are worthless as testimony for the historicity of Jesus. So to accuse anyone who dismisses the value of the Josephus evidence of resorting to “contrived arguments” is to insult some of the greatest names in the history of biblical scholarship.

Sometimes intellectual changes reflect broader cultural developments, and this seems to be one case in point. It appears to coincide with the shift in scholarly consensus to exonerate or excuse Judas, and other scholarly research designed to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. Western guilt over past anti-semitism has been proposed as one explanation for some of these scholarly shifts. I suspect something similar at work in finding ways to bring the Jewish historian Josephus and Jesus together.

The stories about him contain elements which are clearly awkward for the gospel writers (his origin in Nazareth, his baptism, his execution) and which they try, largely unsuccessfully, to explain away or which they downplay or remove. These elements are awkward because they don’t fit the expectations of who and what the Messiah was, yet they remain in the story.

Apart from the subjectivity of deciding if a narrative detail is “clearly awkward”, this argument rests on a false premise.

The fact is that there is no evidence for some general expectation among Jews for any particular type of Messiah at all in the period discussed.

In a review of the most detailed discussions of the idea of the Messiah among Jews of the Second Temple period, The One Who Is to Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Jeffrey L. Staley writes:

There is no serious attempt to place messianism within the broader matrix of social history. There is no interaction with, say, Richard Horsley or John Dominic Crossan’s work on social banditry and peasant movements (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus; The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). One might then ask of Fitzmyer what communities he thinks are reflected in his textual study. If, as many have suggested, only 5 percent of the ancient Mediterranean population could read and write, then what segment of the population is reflected in Fitzmyer’s analysis? Is his “history of an idea” representative of Jewish belief at large, or does it represent only a small segment of the population? Does Fitzmyer’s study of the “history of an idea” reflect only the elites’ mental peregrinations, which are largely unrelated to the general masses? And what difference, if any, would his answer to this question make to this “history of an idea”?

Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, has discussed in detail the literary nature of this messianic ideal (a literary construct that extends beyond a Jewish literate class, and stretches across cultural and ethnic groupings from Egypt to Mesopotamia), and finds no correlation of it among popular Jewish culture before the second century c.e.:

Nevertheless, to make an argument that a specific theme belongs to the earliest sources of the gospels is not sufficient to associate it with history. The interrelated themes that have brought Weiss and Schweitzer — and the scholarship following them — to speak of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet do not reflect religious movements of the first century BCE. The thematic elements of a divinely destined era of salvation, a messianic fullness of time and a day of judgment bringing about a transformation of the world from a time of suffering to the joys of the kingdom are all primary elements of a coherent, identifiable literary tradition, centuries earlier than the gospels, well-known to us from the Bible and texts throughout the entire Near East. (p. 28)

There may also be some relevance here in Jon D. Levenson’s case that at least some not insignificant number of Jews in the Second Temple period coming to embrace a theology involving salvation through an atoning sacrifice of Isaac, as I have discussed in posts archived here.

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to make a historical figure fit the Messianic expectations and some elements in his story simply don’t fit well. But it makes no sense at all if they are making him up or his story simply arose out of the expectations. If that were the case his story would fit the expectations very neatly and these awkward elements wouldn’t exist.

This is a repeat of the standard argument among the biblical studies faculties to establish the historicity of everything from the baptism of Jesus to his resurrection. The logical structure of the argument is elsewhere described as “the divine fallacy”. More formally it is listed among other fallacies as the fallacy of (personal) incredulity.”

N.T. Wright and other mainstream academics join with apologists in using this logic to prove the historicity of the resurrection on the basis that the “embarrassing” and “uncomfortable” and “awkward” fact is that mere untrustworthy women were the first witnesses.

To paraphrase the way it goes:

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to speak honestly about the historical resurrection of Jesus and some elements in their story simply don’t fit well.

It makes no sense at all if the gospel writers are trying to make up a story about the resurrection.

If that were the case, they would never have said women were the first witnesses.

Everyone knew that women’s testimony was worthless in those days.

So it makes perfect sense if the gospel writers were writing about a historical event.

Others use the same logical fallacy to prove God, or creation science, or psychic powers:

How else can you explain this of that fact?

God/creationism/the tooth fairy are the only explanations that make sense of the evidence!

No other explanation makes any sense!

That such fallacious reasoning underpins so much of historical Jesus studies seems to escape notice surely can only be explained in the context of its cultural familiarity. (Trying to avoid slipping into the same fallacy here.  :-/  )

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

 

“F” is for “False Dilemma”
Image by BinJabreel (Is on Hiatus) via Flickr

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus

Whenever someone says Josephus is evidence for Jesus, a misperception of the facts is at work. The fact is that people express opinions about the evidence we read in Josephus. It is someone’s opinion that what is found in Josephus can or should be interpreted as a reference to the historical Jesus. There is no clear evidence at all in Josephus — only passages that have recently been interpreted that way.

The claim that Josephus said anything at all about Jesus is a relatively new one to the field of “modern” (post enlightenment) historical enquiry. The “rational claim” used to be that, since the key passage (the “Testimonium Flavianum” in book 18 of Antiquities) was clearly doctored or contaminated with some obvious interpolation, it was worthless as evidence. read more »