I take it absolutely for granted Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Security about the fact of the crucifixion derives not only from the unlikelihood that Christians would have invented it but also from the existence of two early and independent non-Christian witnesses to it, a Jewish one from 93-94 C.E. and a Roman one from the 110s or 120s C.E. (p. 372 of The Historical Jesus)
That last “but also” part of Crossan’s sentence addresses the only way we can have any certainty about the past: independent evidence, external controls.
Here Crossan goes beyond the usual subjective assertion that Christians would not have made up the story. Here he acknowledges the primary importance of independent corroboration.
This is good. It is exactly what nonbiblical historians do. They work with verifiable facts. Their task is to interpret verifiable facts and explain the known “facts” of history. (Historical Jesus scholars usually busy themselves trying to find what some facts are. Was Jesus a revolutionary or a rabbi? Did he or did he not “cleanse” the Temple? If there are no verifiable facts then they don’t do the history.)
Everything we need to know we learned as children
I have discussed this in some depth in my Historical Facts and Contrasting Methods posts. It’s a simple truism that most of us learned from our parents, read in the Bible, and that carries right through to normative history and modern day journalism — Don’t believe every word you are told. Check the facts. Test what you hear.
Bauckham has used Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting to justify a “hermeneutic of charity” that short circuits this truism. He has misapplied a rule that works just fine if you’re a stranger to a town and you ask for directions, or if you have every reason to believe someone really has experienced an event they are telling you about. But historians have learned that one cannot routinely take documentary evidence at face value.
I have cited a 1904 publication by E. Schwartz a number of times in partial support of this basic fact. I have also cited modern historians who have observed that even purportedly eye-witness testimony needs to be corroborated independently (see the Contrasting Methods link above). One should also add Rosenmeyer’s discussion of the epistolary genre and Grafton’s Forgers and Critics (scroll through the Categories drop down list of Book Reviews and Notes for the links).
It should be obvious that if we opt to believe a narrative has in the absence of any external corroborating evidence then our justification for our belief is going to be circular. I know the Gospel is true because it really happened (or no one would make it up). I know it really happened because the Gospel tells me so.
The Circularity of the Method is No Secret
Biblical scholars have admitted this. To point out that much that passes for biblical scholarship (or Historical Jesus studies) is based on circular reasoning is to point out the very thing that scholars such as Jim West and Dale C. Allison have made completely clear. (Check the word-search — their name and the word ‘circular’ — for posts where I cite them pointing this out.) Thomas L. Thompson has also observed that Historical Jesus scholars begin with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to describe.
Contrary to some fatuous responses I have encountered when making this point, this does not mean that most people in ancient history should be erased from our histories. Most people known to us from ancient history are known though multiple independent corroboration and/or first hand primary evidence. (We have no ‘primary evidence’ — that which is physically located in the time and place of the study — for Jesus.)
There is also a well-known biblical scholar who made exactly the same point. Albert Schweitzer wrote:
[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] 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. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)
Crossan comes to bury Schweitzer
So let’s return to Crossan. He knows with absolute certainty the historical fact of “Christ crucified” from the existence of two early and independent non-Christian witnesses to it.
And these two “independent witnesses” are the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus.
But hang on. Didn’t Schweitzer say there are “no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls”?
So what’s going on here? Why does Crossan say that Josephus and Tacitus are indeed such controls?
Control 1: Tacitus
Crossan does not attempt to argue or justify why Tacitus should be a corroborating control. He simply is. But Schweitzer observes that there is nothing in the Annals of Tacitus that could not have been learned from contemporary Christians. It is, after all, hardly contemporary with the supposed events. So historians can hardly bet their houses on Tacitus being a genuinely independent control. (There is also that niggling question why no Christian explicitly referred to the Neronian persecution of Christians as we learn from the Annals for a very long time after it supposedly happened.)
Control 2: Josephus
As for Josephus, my how intellectual fashions change. Schweitzer was able to say that there was enough doubt about the authenticity of the passage in Josephus for it to have no value as an independent witness. Crossan himself in the Youtube video Does God Exist? Dr. Borg & Dr. Crossan Respond describes the way scholarly attitude towards things Jewish changed in the 1950s. I find it interesting that it was from the same time that scholarly trust in Josephus as a sympathetic or neutral witness of Christianity emerged.
The modern arguments for the authenticity of the Jesus reference in Josephus have been discussed here several times (see the Categories again). In brief, to turn on its head the common “argument” that “no-one would make it up”, it is surely inconceivable that a conservative Jew like Josephus would ever speak even neutrally of prophet who charged in to the Temple to disrupt its worship. The passage in which the Jesus mention appears is also a litany of events that were said to be bringing disaster upon the Jews, and the Jesus passage breaks that thematic train of thought. There is evidence, also, that no-one knew of this passage in Josephus until the fourth century when Eusebius mentioned it.
But Crossan declares that the Josephus’ reference to Jesus enables him to take the crucifixion of Jesus absolutely for granted.
No-one would make it up?
As for Crossan’s claim that no-one would have invented a crucified messiah, this is demonstrably not true. The cult of martyrdom that emerged in the Second Temple period, the way some Jews developed an interpretation of Isaac’s sacrifice as having an atoning and salvific effect (See Levenson in the Categories for details), the biblical messiahs who die or who write psalms crying out for deliverance from death, are some of the indications that a crucified messiah was not such a bizarre idea at all. Paul finds the very notion gives him a personal spiritual thrill.
Faith or Fact?
So where does that leave Crossan’s absolute certainty that Christ crucified is both a theological and historical “fact”?
The Threat of Mythicism Creates Crossan’s Need for Absolute Certainty
It is not hard to see why Crossan must stress his certainty in the historical factness of the crucifixion.
My point, then, is not that there is the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. The point is the provenance of those specific details, quoted dialogues, narrative connections, and almost journalistic hour-by-hour accounts of the passion of Jesus. (p. 375)
Crossan argues at length and in detail that “the provence of those speciific details, quoted dialogues, narrative connections, almost journalistic hour-by-hour account” is the literature of the Jewish Scriptures — the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets.
Mythicists have argued the same. But Crossan cannot afford to be mistaken for allowing room for mythicism.
Schweitzer was certainly no mythicist, but a part response to the mythicist arguments was to argue that Christianity needed to build its faith on a “metaphysic” and avoid placing a view of earthly history at the centre and foundation of one’s faith. Crossan appears not to have agreed.