Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.

Filed under: Historical methodology — Neil Godfrey @ 7:09 am


I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened! (Daniel Boyarin)


Most of us [biblical scholars] are just trying to follow the evidence. (Larry Hurtado)


just-the-factsForget mythicism or the Christ myth debate. That’s irrelevant. Or should be. What matters is the evidence we have, understanding it and explaining it. The evidence we have from the early days of Christianity is a literary and a theological Jesus. No-one I know of in my circle gloats or thinks they are scoring points over whether they can prove or disprove the existence of the historical Jesus. What interests them is understanding the best way to explain both the nature of early Christianity and Christianity’s origins. What matters is making the best sense of the data available. But first we need to have a clear and valid understanding of what constitutes the data to be explained.

In my previous post I noted what should be a simple truism: scholars of Christian origins generally are doing little more than paraphrasing (in scholarly language and with their own qualifying preferences) the Christian myth we have inherited from the Bible.

I have no doubt the bulk of them are very sincere and would sincerely censure me for suggesting that their scholarly pursuits are trapped in the myth itself. This blog has frequently posted observations of the ineptitude of some biblical scholars who seem to fall very short with respect to rigour and understanding of questions of historical methods, awareness of what their peers and foundational predecessors have written, and even the very nature of scholarly bias and the meaning of evidence.

The second of the quotes above struck me at first as a caricature. Surely a professor would know something about the nature of bias in any scholarly pursuit and especially in one as ideological as biblical studies.

Apparently not. I attempted to post a comment addressing the naivety of this view but my comment was rejected. The same professor even remarked that my suggestion of bias in the scholarly field amounted to charge of a “conspiratorial agenda”. Does a professor really believe that the alternative to freedom from bias is deliberate conspiracies? Or is this a defensive response against lay critics who can see the emperors are scantily clad?

So I post here the message that the professor did not appear to want others to read on his blog:

I do not believe biblical studies is unlike any other academic discipline and institution when it comes to questions of institutional (let alone personal) bias. Bias is a necessary part of the human condition and without it we cannot function. Surely everyone knows that the trick is to be aware of our biases and that that is not always a simple matter.

We don’t need to go beyond Albert Schweitzer’s observation that up till his own day scholars had produced an array of historical Jesus figures, each one in the image of his scholarly creator.

The latest historical Jesus figure I’ve encountered was only a few months ago and he, too, is very much the spitting image of his maker, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann (i.e., all his scholarly peers are failures, only he can rescue them, but they don’t listen to him, he is without a place, and he sure as blazes doesn’t love everybody). I think we can conclude little has changed since Schweitzer’s day in this respect.

No one “simply follows the evidence” (more…)


Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:


Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. (more…)


Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Guest Posts — Tim Widowfield @ 2:11 pm
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“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”

Ring Toss

Ring Toss (Photo credit: burakiewicz)

Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?

Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.

Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”

If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table. (more…)


Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

Reproduction of a coloured copperplate engraving of the Czech edition of a book by German theologian and historian Heinrich Bünting

From Czech Parliament: I can forgive a historian cum theologian who makes Prague the centre of the world

Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.

This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.

Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.

Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).

The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.

Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.

Two caveats to the above, though.

  1. An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
  2. Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.

Certain Basic Matters

Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)

What are some of these basic matters? They explain: (more…)


More games played by (some, many?) biblical scholars with “research data”, and personal reflection on why I post this stuff

Linking Open Datasets

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The past few weeks at work have been heavy with getting my head around (1) various requirements for measuring research outputs from universities, and (2) requirements for curating and linking for re-use research datasets. It’s all about measurable data. Citation counts, journal rankings, figures from experiments, surveys, tests. And having an Arts and History background I am always attentive to how the less mathematical disciplines are handled in such processes, too. And when I think of publications by academic historians I know personally I recall the extensive research that they have undertaken to produce stories that are grounded in massive amounts of collected data. It comes from newspapers, police and town council records, diaries, etc. Even ancient histories I read — the development of Athenian democracy, for example — are based on masses of diverse documents and archaeological reports. (One almost gets the impression that topics are chosen, questions are asked, research is undertaken, in accordance with areas for which there is such evidence.)

And then I recall last night I was re-reading a few pages from Paula Fredriksen and Maurice Casey justifying their historical claims about the personal relationship Jesus had with John the Baptist. Neither has any real data about such a relationship on which to ground their discussions. The Gospels in fact don’t speak of such a relationship between them. It is all speculation. Note, for example, how Fredriksen manages to convey a sense of multiple sources for her conclusions, and note the smoke and mirrors at work:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews)

That is a strong statement. But now look at what it is based upon: (more…)


Response to McGrath’s circularity and avoidance of the methodological argument

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 8:41 pm
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Logarithmic spiral

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In a “response” to a recent post of mine about historical method, James McGrath illustrates well the very problem and question begging that my post was intended to highlight.

McGrath’s opening statement affirms that he simply fails to grasp the argument I am presenting.

[Neil Godfrey’s] post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my [McGrath’s] post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”

Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.

That second paragraph that I have highlighted demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of the words of mine he has just quoted. McGrath says the “context” of the Gospels consists of the early epistles of Paul and their reception history, but this “context” is not the same thing at all as providing external corroboration or controls that can testify to the historicity of the narrative of the gospels. They may indeed provide “context”. But that misses the point. (more…)


Respecting the honesty of conservative historical Jesus scholarship

1913 Reinhardt College Bible Study Class
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I have been catching up with two conservative historical Jesus scholars and once again I find their honest perspectives about their historical methods refreshing.

Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels is quite upfront with stating the obvious: the historical Jesus model does not work as an explanation for the start of Christianity unless, at minimum, there really were a series of resurrection appearances to a widespread number of witnesses. (Or you could just read the subtitle if you were in a real hurry to know his views.)

To try to suggest that the religion took off light bolt lightning around the Mediterranean world because one or a few disciples had inner-experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still somehow “alive and with them” in a mysterious way just does not cut it.

And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.

Here are the words of LTJ (with my emphasis): (more…)


The occult art of constructing the historical Jesus

Filed under: Allison: Constructing Jesus,Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 9:23 pm
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While I was a believer I was fascinated by speculations that someone well-read in the Bible might conjure up by linking verses together in a way that no-one seemed to have thought of before. For example, someone might “prove” that Jesus was a well-to-do middle class businessman by noting that he

  1. seemed to have a particular house in Galilee that he regularly visited — so it was probably (therefore surely) his own house
  2. was a carpenter and son of a carpenter and carpenters then were stone-masons and highly skilled in a range of tasks including stone masonry (and being perfect he would have been very good at whatever he did)
  3. and he had a fine linen cloak of one piece of such quality that Roman soldiers preferred to gamble for it rather than tear it up among themselves

This is all nonsense, of course. It takes ambiguous data out of its original contexts and extrapolates from it to create a fiction. For example,

  1. the gospels do not unambiguously affirm that Jesus owned a house, and there is no indication at all who owned the house, or the arrangement he had by which he came to be found there from time to time; one senses middle-class westerners reading their own life-styles into Jesus here.
  2. The mere fact that he or his father was a “tekton” (translated “carpenter”) does not allow us to make any judgment about how successful he was financially; again one detects a western businessman making the judgement.
  3. The cloak story was expressly said to have been a fulfilment of prophecy, so the odds are stacked against the likelihood that this was historical.

One gets a strange sense that one is merely reading a more sophisticated or well-informed version of this same speculative process when one reads Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison. (more…)


Theologians who mistakenly think they are historians

Morton Smith
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Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:

Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.

(pp. 3-4 of Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? by Morton Smith, my bolding) (more…)

That Curious Criterion Guiding Historical Jesus Scholarship

Sherlock Holmes
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Let’s close 2010 with a wonderful New Yorker article from May this year. It is a cleverly written discussion of the state of Historical Jesus studies by Adam Gopnik, What Did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels. One might even suggest that Gopnik demonstrates the ability of complete outsiders to see how starkly naked is the emperor of historical Jesus studies. I quote the opening paragraph and highlight some key points.

When we meet Jesus of Nazareth at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, almost surely the oldest of the four, he’s a full-grown man. He comes down from Galilee, meets John, an ascetic desert hermit who lives on locusts and wild honey, and is baptized by him in the River Jordan. If one thing seems nearly certain to the people who read and study the Gospels for a living, it’s that this really happened: John the Baptizer—as some like to call him, to give a better sense of the original Greek’s flat-footed active form—baptized Jesus. They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.

The article even proceeds to compare the scholarly search for the historical Jesus with an imaginary search for, — wait for it — the “historical” Sherlock Holmes or Superman! Now where have readers of this blog’s commenters ever heard such comparisons before, I wonder. (more…)


Jesus vs Julius Caesar

Zerowing21 has posted on the evidence for Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon compared with the evidence for Jesus. Specifically . . . .

Christian apologist Douglas Geivett’s claim that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection meets “the highest standards of historical inquiry,” and is as certain as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E.

N. T. Wright might agree with that. But read the blog post for an excellent run down of the sorts of evidence historians work with as opposed to theologians who think they are historians.

The blog post begins with a few links to other sites that will interest some who read this:

I know, some will instinctively respond with some quip that Jesus wasn’t a great political figure so we can’t expect the same evidence for him as for the other JC.  Exactly, but what some such instinctive respondents want to do is change the rules to allow us to use different material as “evidence” so we can write just as much about Jesus with the same assurance. They want to change the rules, that is. But real historians do not change the rules. What they do is change the scope of their inquiries. That is why you will find most books on ancient history covering broad sweeps of civilization or political and social developments. There are fewer exhaustive biographies than can be, and are, written for persons who dot later historical periods.


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Clarity about Circularity from Historical Jesus Scholar Dale Allison

James McGrath has given Dale C. Allison’s latest book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, a bit of a bad press in his recent review of it. He famously wrote that Allison explains how a historian can learn the true sense of what a historical person was about through studying fictional material about that person.(See Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play.)

I have not yet read Dale Allison’s latest book so am unable to comment what McGrath attributed to him, but I have been catching up with his 1998 book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. I had earlier read Dale Allison’s book on the question of Matthew’ “mimesis” of Moses for his portrayal of Jesus, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, and was impressed with his caution and his thoroughness and consistency of methodological application to exploring how much of Matthew’s Gospel can be attributed to a conscious effort to re-write stories of Moses into the life of Jesus.

I can understand why Dale Allison has one of the more honoured reputations among biblical scholars. He does demonstrate a clarity of thought and understanding of what he is doing when he writes about Jesus that is not always evident among historical Jesus scholars, their peers, or their students.

I have often attempted to point out the circularity of arguments of Historical Jesus scholars in their efforts to “discover” or authenticate any of his words or deeds as historically true. (The circularity extends even to the very idea of the existence of Jesus.)

Dale C. Allison recognizes and admits to this circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. He can acknowledge that conclusions are reached because they are inherent in the premise behind the questions asked. (more…)


Grounds for excluding historical Jesus studies from university research

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 5:04 pm
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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? (more…)


Two misunderstandings in biblical studies: the nature of “scepticism” and “evidence”

Mascot of the Australian Skeptics. This is the logo of theAustralian Skeptics which is interested in assessing the claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience — not the “historical Jesus”. But the logo, and the statement of aims of this organization capture the nature of scepticism: to test claims against the evidence.

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Deane Galbraith has listed on the Religion Bulletin blog a the early Sheffield Biblical Studies blog posts discussing Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth, and he adds a note about mine, too. But the presentation goes to the heart of why mainstream biblical studies on the historical Jesus are very often not comparable with genuine historical studies. Here is how Deane refers to my posts:

Sheffield Biblical Studies commences a select chapter-by-chapter review of what is probably the major historical Jesus work of the decade, Maurice Casey’s magnum opus, Jesus of Nazareth (T&T Clark, Oct 2010 UK; Dec 2010 U.S.). Michael Kok reviews Chapter One, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” where Casey critiques the historical (or as is more typical, theological) contributions of earlier Jesus scholars. Christopher Markou reviews Chapter Two, “Historically reliable sources,” where Casey defends the key importance of Mark and the Q materials as historical materials for understanding Jesus, and the relative uselessness of John. But Neil Godfrey (who I have never met, and may not really exist) thinks Jesus is a myth, and so he adopts a level of skepticism towards the evidence that would make even Sextus Empiricus appear gullible (Vridar: here, here, here, here, here, and here). (with my emphasis)

Now that’s putting me in my place! Three sentences including full titles for links to describe two posts on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog, and a single sentence with a parenthetical notice of “here” “here” “here” . . . to point to my series of posts. ;..(

The nature of scepticism (and the impossibility of having different “levels” of it)

I have long believed that scepticism is a healthy thing, the beginning of verifiable knowledge and the assurance of learning more verifiable things over time. It enables one to consider all knowledge tentative pending the discovery of new information. It keeps one alert to the need to test information before going too far with it.

But Deane reflects here a common approach, a sceptical approach, to scepticism itself. The phrase “level of scepticism” suggests there is a scale of degrees from gullibility to scepticism, and that a student or scholar of things biblical is advised to find an appropriate position somewhere fairly well away from either end of that scale . (more…)


Nothing the Early Church Would Want to Make Up?

Imagination poster image 2007
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In his newly published Jesus of Nazareth, one of Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey’s criteria for deciding if a Gospel detail is truly historical is that the passage “contains nothing that the early church would want to make up”.

Though I have read very many works of history, I never heard of this as a rationale for establishing anything as a historical fact till I picked up books by biblical scholars writing about Jesus.

Casey does not exclusively rely on this criterion to declare something in the gospels as historically factual. Another test must also be passed. The event must also have a “perfect setting in the life of Jesus.” I leave aside the obvious circularity of this latter point in this post, and discuss a just one particular critical shortcoming in his use of the first criterion — what is essentially a “can’t see why not” argument from credulity.

Avoiding the literary fact 1: Luke 13:31-33

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Casey writes of this passage that it contains two or three reasons we should accept it as a genuinely historical exchange between Herod and Jesus.

Once again, a Gospel passage has clear signs of translation from an Aramaic source [he is referring here to the use of the words for “jackal” and “reach my goal” (which is sometimes more literally translated as “be perfected”)] just at the point where the traditions in it must be authentic because they have a perfect setting in the life of Jesus, and contain nothing that the early church would want to make up. (p. 324, my emphasis)

But this latter rationale is invalid for a number of reasons. (more…)


Biblical studies: surely the softest of options!

Filed under: Casey: Jesus of Nazareth — Neil Godfrey @ 9:15 pm

Jesus was born in Israel, into an observant Jewish family. . . . His father was Joseph, called after a major patriarch who ruled over Egypt under the Pharaoh. Jesus’ mother was Miriam, whom we call Mary, so she was called after Moses’ sister. Jesus’ own name, Iesous in our Greek Gospels, is the Greek equivalent of Yeshua’, which we usually render into English as Joshua. Thus Joseph and Miriam called Jesus after the major figure of Jewish history who succeeded Moses and led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land. At the time his name was understood to mean ‘YHWH saves’ or the like, with the name of God at the beginning, so effectively ‘God saves’. Joseph, Miriam and Jesus must have been aware of this understanding of his name, and it is reflected at Mt. 1.21, where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary will bear a son ‘and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.

Jesus had four brothers. The most famous was Jacob, whom we usually call James, who later led the Jerusalem church and became famous for his piety. He was called after the eponymous patriarch of the whole nation, Jacob who was also known as Israel. The other brothers were Judah, who was probably the author of what we call the epistle Jude, Joseph and Simeon. . . . All known names are patriarchal names. Thus the names of the men in Jesus’ family are straightforward evidence that he was born into a traditional Jewish family, who were expecting the salvation of Israel. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 143)

There you go. What evidence do we have that Jesus’ parents were an “observant Jewish family”? Why, the father was named Joseph and the mother Mary. That alone tells us — obviously Joseph was named after the patriarch and Mary after Moses’ sister! What other explanation could there possibly be for anyone being given these names? (Anyone curious about the frequency of biblical names in Palestine around this time can thank Richard Bauckham for providing lists for us. These can be accessed via my Bauckham’s Names Tables post.) (more…)


Maurice Casey on the Christ Myth–Historical Jesus divide

The stated purpose of Maurice Casey’s book Jesus of Nazareth is “to engage with the historical Jesus from the perspective of an independent historian.” Casey explains what he means by his independence:  “I do not belong to any religious group or anti-religious group. I try to . . . establish historically valid conclusions. I depend on the best work done by many other scholars, regardless of their ideological affiliation.” (p. 2)

For Casey, the only correct interpretation of Jesus is one which explains Jesus within a thoroughly Jewish matrix. This means he in fact begins with the assumption that there is an historical Jesus to place within that matrix. He would disagree with that and argue that his book proves the existence of such a figure. On page 43 he writes of “people who deny Jesus’ existence” that

the whole of this book is required to refute them.

This brings to mind the frequent claims of one of another independent scholar who once quite regularly left a similar comment on this blog, saying that a whole book would be required to refute mythicism. Unfortunately, when a scholar says that his book is a refutation of mythicism, one is likely to find that the arguments of mythicists are avoided rather than refuted. I will return to this point.

Casey’s assertion that only a thoroughly Jewish Jesus is a correct Jesus means that for him many publications about the historical Jesus have missed the mark:

The vast majority of scholars have belonged to the Christian faith, and their portrayals of Jesus have consequently not been Jewish enough. Most other writers on Jesus have been concerned to rebel against the Christian faith, rather than to recover the Jewish figure who was central to Christianity in its earliest period. (p. 3, my emphasis) (more…)


The Role of Faith in Historical Research

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 4:51 pm
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St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...
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In a 2005 review article of Jens Bruun Kofoed’s Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text Thomas L. Thompson observes (my emphasis):

The conclusions themselves of an historian’s research and their accord with belief, rather than argument or method, are perceived as indicative of legitimacy. Adjectives, on the other hand, judging them as “extreme” or “radical” have been thought sufficient for dismissal . . . . Such faith-supported scholarship typically expresses itself in the form of protests to what is perceived as “excessive” scepticism or unspecified, “ideologically motivated distortion” engaged by any who might be thought to distinguish too sharply between arguments of faith and history.

One reads the same criticisms made by New Testament scholars against those who argue against the historicity of Jesus. To question the reliability of a narrative as a historical source is to find one being viewed as “hyper-skeptical” and even driven by an “anti-Christian vendetta”.

The faith of New Testament scholars in their sources is justified on the grounds that it is “not impossible” that any particular narrative in the Gospels, say, was taken from oral tradition going back to a real event.

The slippery slope justification (more…)


The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 9:42 am
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Diversionary tactics
Image by tompagenet via Flickr

In 2003 Niels-Peter Lemche posted a blunt article addressing the unscholarly tactics of conservative scholars. He noted how even historical-critical scholars had come to resort to the same polemics as conservatives in their efforts to “crush so-called ‘radical’ critical scholarship.”

There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one’s own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

The above is cited from Neils-Peter Lemche’s 2003 post, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion on Bible and Interpretation.

Surely we find the same motives for these same tactics among those biblical scholars who are most vociferous in their polemics against the very idea of questioning the existence of Jesus Christ, also.

I quote sections from Lemche’s article here that look very like the same sized shoe that fits the reactions of biblical scholars against Christ-mythicism. (more…)


Publications against the Christ Myth: Scholarly links and reviews

Filed under: Case: The Historicity of Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 6:32 pm
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Two publications critical of the Christ Myth idea have recently been brought to the general public’s attention by two mainstream biblical scholars. This post and the next compare the two books, and what each indicates about the nature of the mainstream scholarship’s responses to arguments that Jesus had no historical existence.

First is the newly linked book by Shirley Jackson Case, The Historicity of Jesus, published in 1912.

It is encouraging to see an associate professor whose area of expertise is Johannine Christology and not any form of history, and who has regularly expressed a serious personal concern about what he regards as the fallacious and creationist-like attitudes, ignorance and arguments by Christ-Myth proponents, catching up with some of the extant publications addressing this controversial issue.

The second book I address is Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, first published in 1926. This has been republished recently with a lengthy introduction by a historian of religion, R. Joseph Hoffmann.

These two posts are an attempt to illustrate the existence of a wide gulf in understanding of the Christ Myth idea and the divergent levels of serious academic acumen that is brought to bear upon the question.



Scholarly attempts to “explain” historical methods for Jesus studies (1)

Scot McKnight of recent controversial article fame, devotes an entire chapter in his book Jesus and His Death to a discussion of the historiography of New Testament scholars, and writes:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)

Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence

This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. (more…)


History as Science, not only Art. (History for dummies, 2)

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 11:00 am
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In my previous post I cited Leopold von Ranke’s famous explanation for history being an art. (I turned to von Ranke because a biblical scholar quoted von Ranke to me without knowing the source of his quotation, nor its meaning.) Now von Ranke’s philosophy of history and views on the nature of historical facts have been superseded throughout the twentieth century. But he gave expression to the meaning of history as an “art” (explained in my previous post), and to the importance of reliance first and foremost on empirically verifiable primary sources (sources physically located in the time and place of the subject of historical inquiry), and these concepts have stood the test of time for most historians.

But in my citation of von Ranke’s explanation of the nature of history as an art, one also reads that this same grandfather of modern history said history is a “science”.

If one reads that citation of von Ranke’s in the previous post, and the discussion of other milestone figures in the development of historiography as I presented them in my earlier post on how historical Jesus studies differs from normative nonbiblical historical inquiry, one will see that history has been compared to a “science” for the following reason. (more…)


History for Dummies (and Biblical Scholars)

First aid training dummies.
Image via Wikipedia

A biblical scholar earlier this year publicly asked:

Any recommendations on reading about the philosophy and methods of historical research, written by someone with no connection to Biblical studies?

I did provide that professor with a number of suggestions (the post included major figures in the field of twentieth century historiography and readings that would lead to others not discussed in detail in that post), and no doubt he will read them as soon as opportunity permits.

The same biblical scholar in the same public comment demonstrated his eagerness to learn how “history” as practiced by historical Jesus scholars is viewed by historians in nonbiblical areas when he wrote:

I don’t know – I asked a colleague in the history department about methods and the “criteria” used in historical Jesus research, and he basically said that history, once you get beyond the groundwork of trying to date sources, is “an art.”



Proving McGrath Wrong (again) By His Own Standards and Challenges

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath — Neil Godfrey @ 12:32 pm

Apols in advance for another tedious post, but I am here posting a defence of mine since it has not appeared on the blog where accusations were made against me.

After McGrath happened to swallow something that appeared on the internet and that he thought supported his arguments against mine, he wrote:

I said in the post that I’d much rather discuss the books cited and summarized in the article, rather than the article itself. But I didn’t think I could assume that any proponents of mythicism would actually have read even one of them. I’d be happy to be proven wrong about this. (Source is here)

Well, as anyone reading recent posts of mine will know, I did prove him wrong by the standard he set in this statement. He has not apologized or acknowledged this, however. Nor has he expressed the happiness he said he would enjoy if I could prove him wrong.

It turns out that I had read the books in question some years ago. And I demonstrated that he himself had not read them but had uncritically swallowed them  from the internet on the naive assumption that what appeared in an internet article like wikipedia supported his views, when in fact they did not. And this is the doctor who accuses mythicits of naively swallowing things on the internet! (more…)


Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play

Penguin 14 002768 8

Image by scatterkeir via Flickr

A review of Dale Allison’s forthcoming book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, illustrates both in its post details and subsequent comments how far removed Historical Jesus studies are from the way history is practiced in other (nonbiblical) fields.

These comments of mine on this review address

  1. starting assumptions of the reviewer
  2. problems left hanging by the reviewer’s discussion of Allison’s book
  3. the games played by HJ (Historical Jesus) historians when they claim they are doing what other (nonbiblical) historians do
  4. the game of avoidance used by HJ historians in response to radical critiques of their assumptions and methods.



The Refreshing Honesty of Jim West

Filed under: Historiography,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 12:56 pm
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Well this is bizarre. I find myself in agreement with a very substantial bulk of a recent article by Jim West in “The Bible and Interpretation”, A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From The Chronicler to the Present. Jim West argues that biblical studies of the history of early Christianity are largely circular, following the same flawed methodology that lay at the heart of the Albrightian approach to the history of Israel.

Jim West sums up so much of what I have been attempting to argue for some time now:

Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel” or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus” to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available)- but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.

What can I say? Will Crossley, McGrath and others tell Jim this is “bloody weird” stuff and arguing “like a creationist”? It’s what Thomas L. Thompson has said, and Robert M. Price, and I have quoted the same understanding in publications dating back a century to E. Schwartz and Albert Schweitzer. It is where biblical historians differ from nonbiblical historians.

So what’s the catch? (more…)


The Clueless Search for the Historical Jesus

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 12:30 am
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Who Is Jesus Christ?
Image by ideacreamanuelaPps via Flickr

It is impossible not to smile a little at the quaint, anonymous post Does no one love Jesus anymore? on the new Sheffield Biblical Studies blog.

The poster laments that “less (sic) people are interested in historical Jesus studies than in previous years” and asks what cultural factors might be at play to explain this. It links, by way of some assistant discussion starter, to Scot McKnight post in Christianity Today, originally posted April 2010. (My little discussion of this article for what it’s worth is kept here.)

2 points:

  1. That article addresses the truism that HJ studies have tended to produce a Jesus modeled after the personal interests and predilections of each scholar making the inquiry.
  2. The very idea of a quest for “the historical Jesus” is founded on a wish to find some evidence for something such a person supposedly ever did or said, even for what such a person indeed even was! How often do police start a search for someone when they don’t even know if they’re to look for a rabbi or a rebel, and have only anonymous and uncorroborated reports that the person even exists? (more…)

Why Evolution Is True: And Reflections on Historical Jesus Scholars

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 12:03 am
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Someone posted a link to a post on my blog on Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution Is True” (See his post: I get Christian email: more irreducible complexity)  — and wonderful, wonderful! I like reading books like his (I have referenced Coyne’s book twice here but never knew he also had a blog) — and I loved reading his summary explanation for the evolution of sex. He was giving a clearly reasoned, evidence-based response to a Creationist. I have read more detailed accounts of this topic, but what was refreshing was to see how real science, real argument, real logic, real evidence, really works. You don’t find arguments like that — or you certainly very rarely find them — when historical Jesus scholars respond to Jesus mythicist arguments. Actually that is misleading. Historical Jesus scholars very rarely in my experience ever respond to Christ myth arguments. They mostly pretend to, usually with a snicker or sneer, and demonstrate their ignorance or incomprehension of

  1. basic historical methodological ideals in nonbiblical studies,
  2. the arguments they think they are addressing,
  3. and the difference between logical fallacies and logical rigour. (more…)


Scholarly trench warfare to defend the Bible by means of rationalistic paraphrase

This post is based on a discussion by Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. It begins with a quotation from Assyriologist Mario Liverani:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events, they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.— Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.  (Cited p. 149 in The Israelites in History and Tradition)

Liverani is addressing historians of Hittite history here. Historians of the Hittites felt they had all they needed to know to get started by the discovery of a decree by King Telipinus. This presents an outline of Hittite dynastic history that has been used by many Hittite historians. But Liverani showed that the “history” had little to do with actual reality. It was a highly ideological text designed to establish a (fictional) rationale for King Telipinus’s usurpation.

Lemche adds:

In few places is Liverani’s warning against naively accepting an ancient text as a historical source as relevant as in biblical studies, where the amount of rationalistic paraphrase has in fact been overwhelming. (p. 149)

Lemche is speaking specifically of Old Testament studies. But my observation is that it applies at least equally strongly among New Testament studies.

Some reasons for this that Lemche offers: (more…)


Gospels and Kings

Reading James Linville’s Israel in the Book of Kings (introduced in my previous post) I can’t help but notice resonances with the methodologies and assumptions largely taken for granted by New Testament scholars. The same issues of assumptions of historicity and lack of evidence bedevil (or at least did much more so in 1998 when the book was published) the questions of the historical nature of the narratives. (more…)


Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

Filed under: Historiography,New Testament — Neil Godfrey @ 2:55 pm
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Missed it by that much

Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes. (more…)


Charity, suspicion and categorization — exchange with Rick Sumner contd

Rick has posted another constructive response, “Charity,” “Suspicion” and the Dangers of Categorization. Or, What I Learned from John Hughes, to my posts on historical method in the context of NT historical studies. Another is expected to follow discussing the nature of facts. (Previous post addressing Rick is here.)

I suspect we are drawing closer together in understanding of our respective positions, and perhaps even not far from a point where we might be able more comfortably accept our mutual disagreements. Or maybe I’m presuming too much here.

Rick has pointed out that I at least give the appearance of “rhetorical excesses and false dichotomies” and that I “grossly overstate the case”. He sums up the message that apparently comes across in my posts:

Biblical Historian/Bad Historian/Hermeneutic of Charity
Other Historians/Good Histtorian/Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have not re-read my posts to check whether or not I did attempt to qualify my statements well enough, but obviously this is the impression they have conveyed to Rick and no doubt someone else who might have read them, too.

To begin with, the terms “hermeneutic of suspicion” and “hermeneutic of charity” are not mine. (more…)


Historicist Hocus Pocus (Or, What on earth would happen if a course on logic were introduced into biblical studies!)

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 6:46 pm
Rage Against the Machine

Ned Ludd: Image via Wikipedia

Since I now have time to go over older posts critiquing the mythicist view of Jesus, I have decided to address head on some of the arguments against mythicism that appear to have been left dangling. Such an exercise, of course, does not argue “for” mythicism. But it is important that bogus arguments, especially from professional scholars, are exposed for what they are.

I select first of all Mythicist Mythunderstanding simply because it happens to be near the top of my zotero list.

McGrath’s argument is, in fact, a classroom classic in circular reasoning.

James McGrath begins:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly.

I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?”

Yes, a few introductory remarks in an introduction would be helpful. One does sometimes see exactly that sort of information in books about Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, for example.

It is not hard to find scholarly explanations for how it is known that Julius Caesar existed. The primary evidence is fairly conclusive.

This, in turn, raises the probability that certain names and events associated with Julius Caesar and related in certain types of secondary evidence are also historical.

As for Socrates, we have no primary evidence [evidence physically located at the time of the person or event], so the probability of his existence cannot be as high as that for Julius Caesar, but nonetheless, there are strong arguments in favour of his existence that are derived from multiple yet truly independent secondary sources.

Further, not too long after McGrath posted the above, I did demonstrate in detail how a scholar such as E. P. Sanders really does attempt to decide what Jesus said and did entirely on the assumption that he did indeed exist. All the arguments for a particular deed, e.g. the “cleansing of the temple”, being authentic were predicated on the assumption that Jesus existed. One can argue with more justification (fewer a priori assumptions such as the historicity of Jesus) that such a deed in the narrative is entirely the work of fiction. James McGrath never replied to my demonstration of this, or similar posts in which I again demonstrated the same point.He did eventually, when pushed, merely say that he “disagreed” with me. But he at no time demonstrated my argument or case to be false.

It is indeed true that HJ historians do begin with the presumption of the existence of Jesus, and I have demonstrated that, particularly in the case of E.P. Sanders.

The circularity kicks in (more…)


Why I am Not a “Mythicist”, and why I challenge mainstream methodology

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 1:53 pm
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This cartoon has nothing to do with the post, but I like to add a bit of colour, and blue is my favourite colour, and I like mermaids, and I can't find anything else appropriately mythical.

I suspect [ETA: strongly suspect] Jesus originated as a theological and allegorical creation, that he was “a myth” if you like. I do not know it. I cannot prove it. But I can see some very good arguments in favour of this proposition. I can also see some very good reasons to question the standard methodology of mainstream scholars based on the assumption that Jesus was a historical figure. And the same questions I raise about this methodology also open up questions about the standard mainstream arguments for the historicity of Jesus.

But I have never thought of myself as “a mythicist” because that sounds to me like I am entrenching myself in a position that I will defend at all costs.

I have posted this sort of remark before, but given that James McGrath and others continually label me “a mythicist”, I will repeat it once more. I do not see the point of “defending” a “mythical Jesus” position.

That is not what historical inquiry is about.

Would any scholar bother to spend a career arguing for or against a historical or mythical Socrates? Some mainstream scholars really do question the historical existence of Socrates, but no-one calls them “Socrates mythicists”. It is a ludicrous proposition when we see it in the context of nonbiblical studies. The existence of Socrates has been occasionally raised as a minor side-point that is really quite irrelevant to the real historical questions about the origins and nature of early Greek philosophy.

My interest is, to repeat, in exploring the origins and nature of early Christianity.

I think that this historical inquiry has been held captive by mainstream NT historical methods that begin with the presumption that the narrative of Gospels-Acts is in some sense related to real events. What I have questioned is the rationale for this assumption. (more…)


Detectives make biblical historians look like Sherlock Holmes

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 2:00 am
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Sherlock Holmes

Image via Wikipedia

A couple of months ago I tried to spotlight the fallacious circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies by describing what it would mean if detectives were to use the same starting assumptions in relation to their evidence as biblical scholars use when studying the historical Jesus. (Biblical Historians Make Detectives Look Silly.) One biblical doctoral scholar regularly complained that my analogy was not valid because I “made it up”.  Well, of course I made up the analogy. I had no choice. Detectives are not really so silly as to approach evidence the same way HJ scholars do. They would only be that silly if they approached criminal evidence the way historical Jesus scholars approach biblical evidence.

Now on my iphone some months back I downloaded the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and I have since read quite a number of them commuting to and from work. After reading a dozen or more of them I am getting a feel for how to predict where and among which characters Sherlock Holmes is going to find his culprits.

The stories all start with either a mysterious set of facts or a narrative that seems on the face of it to point to but one conclusion but that Holmes realizes is not the solution at all.

It’s all clever stuff. Holmes pieces this little clue here with that little clue there. Generally he will go out of his way to do extra research that takes him away from the immediate scene of the crime, and return with fresh insights that astound the mystified.

What he is attempting to do is re-create what happened.

Sherlock Holmes is attempting to solve fictional narratives. And I’m not the only reader, no doubt, who attempts to enter the game and attempt to solve things before they are all revealed at the end.

Historians, on the hand, can generally see what has happened, and seek to explain why or how it happened. (more…)


Why might a study of the Bible benefit someone “not of the faith”?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 9:17 pm

I think I am expected to write some sort of angry atheist or fundamentalist atheist type response to Jim West’s recent post (or should that be linked here?):

Well, so not to disappoint, here it is.

Jim’s post came to my attention through a pingback from Joel Watts’ blog with a link to my previous post titled Frederiksen’s Fallacy. (Joel calls me a “fundamentalist atheist” — I have no idea why or what that means even. So perhaps Joel or someone might like to explain to me what I am supposed to be. Which reminds me, Why did Joel retreat from all his recent posturing when it was pointed out to him that the evidence for historicity of other persons is tangible and real while Jesus really is the anomaly?)

Well, my first response on reading Jim’s post was “So what?”. What’s the fuss about? I have no problem with faithful Bible believers studying the Bible according to their agenda. I think seminaries or privately funded bible colleges are just the right place for it, too. As for Jim’s argument, it wasn’t so much an argument as a soapbox cry for attention. No evidence or justifications were supplied to buttress his many assertions. So why the serious responses?

One or two spoke of some who study the Bible with some sort of hostile intent. I don’t know who is guilty of that, and I can’t quite imagine how anyone could seriously “study” the Bible with “hostility”. That doesn’t make any sense to me. So I am confused about the responses to Jim’s post for a number of reasons.

But what astonished me was the number of responses from some of the most learned of scholars to this pastor’s complaint. I am still wondering what he said in his post that should elicit such apparently serious responses.

But to one of the points I think I am expected to respond —

To suggest that only “the faithful” might be the only one’s to benefit from a study of the Bible, or even to suggest that the Bible is uniquely the possession of “the faithful”, sounds like a bit of headline grabbing overstatement. Does anyone really think Jim truly believes this? Or maybe he does and I don’t know him well enough.

But for the sake of a response, that’s a bit like saying that no-one today can meaningfully study Homer’s epics because we don’t believe in the Olympian gods anymore.

Or if you don’t believe in the Ideas of Plato you shouldn’t study Plato.

Only Nazis can meaningfully study Hitler.

But I get the impression Jim is just writing to shit-stir.

But if he really is serious, and I have to concede the possibility, then I might go to the trouble of further spelling out that the reason the Bible is a worthwhile study is that it has such a central place in our culture. It is our history and has had a significant role in shaping our larger identities.

I certainly have no hostile interest in Bible study. Why would I bother? I gave my reasons for this blog and my interest a little while back. I love exploring clues as to how the Bible came to be put together, how its parts originated, and what it may have meant to its original audiences.

I find the study of the Bible rewarding for what I learn about the origins and makings of a significant part of our cultural heritage.

It is also good to understand it to help assess it’s rightful place in contemporary society and individual lives.

And if along the way I discover that a good deal of mainstream biblical studies should really be dismissed as pseudoscholarship, then yes, I do feel that is something that ought to be exposed. If I am mistaken, then I am sure the good scholars I address this way will be able to pinpoint concisely why I am in error and correct me. I am sure genuine scholars do not need to resort to insult and straw-man arguments.

And what’s wrong or meaningless with any of this?

And  where on earth does any “hostility against the Bible” appear even for a nanosecond?


Oh yes — one most remarkable comment I did see in one of the sites with Jim’s post: someone said that if all out thought processes can be explained naturally then we have no basis for morality or meaning of existence! Hoo boy! Is these people really products of the most advanced technological and scientific society in the history of the world? Such thinking must surely be more akin to something we would expect to find in the remote caves of northern Pakistan. The seminaries and private bible colleges are for this sort of thinking. Not public universities — how can even intelligentsia in public universities bother with this sort of thinking?


Why even nonbeliever historians may still need a historical Jesus

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 8:34 pm
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Iconoclasm: Image by ambery via Flickr

I have not been able to fully grasp why some nonbeliever historians are so strident in their insistence that there is strong evidence for a historical Jesus and refuse to even contemplate for a moment, along with their believing peers, that they might be violating the simple foundational basics of practical historical enquiry. These basics, and the failure of historical Jesus historians to use them or even be aware of them are discussed in my earlier post:

  1. the nature of historical facts and the contrast between nonbiblical and historical Jesus historical methods
  2. and in a follow-up post discussing Scot McKnight’s discussion of biblical historiography.

But the reason has hit me. It came from reading follow-up works cited by Warsaw University lecturer, Dr Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spano (Primeval History in the Persian Period? 2007). These were Intellectuals and Tradition by S. N. Eisenstadt (Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 2, Spring 1972, pp.1-19) and Intellectuals, Tradition, and the Traditions of Intellectuals: Some Preliminary Considerations by Edward Shils (Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 2, Spring 1972, pp.21-34).

And the reason is now so obvious I am kicking myself for not seeing it earlier. If I did see it earlier it was only murkily.

History is always necessarily created by a society’s intellectuals. They shape the images that a society sees about itself and its past — its identity.

The sociological study of tradition has argued . . . that the formation of traditions is the activity of an intellectual elite, not the work of the community as a whole. This runs counter to a position often expressed or presumed in biblical studies. Yet S. N. Eisenstadt specifically identifies society’s intellectuals as the “creators and carriers of traditions.” This is true for many different kinds of tradition, including that of the historical traditions. The historian, as an intellectual, is the creator and maintainer of historical tradition. E. Shils makes the statement:

Images about the past of one’s own society, of other societies, and of mankind as a whole are also traditions. At this point, tradition and historiography come very close to each other. The establishment and improvement of images of the past are the tasks of historiography. Thus historiography creates images for transmission as tradition.

Of course, there may be a great many inherited images of the past — traditions of almost infinite variety. But their selective collection and organization according to chronological and thematic or “causal” relationships is the intellectual activity of historiography. (pp. 34-35 of Primeval History)

What has modern historical Jesus research been about if not an attempt by different scholars to establish and improve our culture’s most central iconic image? (more…)


Chomsky, Crossley and the betrayal of an independent approach to historical Jesus studies

Cropped version of Noam chomsky.jpg.
Image via Wikipedia

It is easy for theologians and biblical scholars to wear prophet mantles and appear to be courageously attacking the sins of the established powers. There can be an easy smugness in identifying one’s position with “the conscience” of the guild, the church, the public or nation. “Speaking Truth to Power” loses some of its awe when one finds the Power in turn rewarding its “gainsayers” with various honours and security of status. The game was played out without embarrassment from either side in Australia when one of its most socially and environmentally regressive Prime Ministers, John Howard, recommended a prominent social justice advocate cleric, Peter Hollingworth, to the Governor-Generalship, and awarded a leading environmentalist, Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year.

So it was with a little hope, but not too much, that I approached biblical scholar James Crossley’s book, Jesus in an Age of Terror, that opens with the following quotation from Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals:

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.

Unfortunately, Crossley himself falls into the trap of joining other religion scholars who boast of critiquing imperialist, racial and class-warfare themes while in reality missing the heart and soul of Chomsky’s message. As a consequence Crossley becomes yet another brick in the wall of the establishment power he critiques only superficially.

Here is Crossley’s ironically correct explanation of the Chomsky model of how mainstream media works:

The propaganda model shows that the press is not really an important tool of democracy and it is not really disagreeable, argumentative or subversive of political power, at least not in any significant sense. The function of the mass media is to provide support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity. This is reflected in their choices, emphases, and omissions. It is the powerful who fix the assumptions of media discourse and decide what is allowed to be seen and heard, often with the support of academics. Disagreements reflect disagreements among the elites. Although individuals may hold very different views from the agenda of mass media, these views will not be seriously reflected in the overall agenda or agendas. (pp.3-4, Jesus in an Age of Terror)

Yet this is exactly the place where Crossley’s own supposedly “independent” studies of Christian origins find themselves. He shares with his more religiously interested colleagues the logically flawed historiographical and epistemological assumptions that sustain that guild’s reason for existence.

Everyone knows — it is a simple truism — that one needs independent verification of any narrative before making assumptions about whether it is factual or not. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the [many a biblical scholar], it is not at all obvious.



“Partisanship” in New Testament scholarship

Utrecht 11 Feb 09 (25)

Image by jimforest via Flickr

In 2006 James Crossley‘s Why Christianity Happened was published. (James G. Crossley belongs to the University of Sheffield, the same whose Biblical Studies program was the subject of international controversy late last year, and with which a recent commenter on this blog was heatedly involved.) As “a sociohistorical account of Christian origins (26-50 CE)” (the book’s subtitle) I found it left much unanswered, but I did find some of his remarks in his introductory chapter on the history of New Testament historiography and its application of social sciences of interest. Here are a few excerpts:

Will always get largely Christian results

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

A dubious academic field

Crossley cites Maurice Casey as noting that, although major British universities do indeed genuinely hire on merit, “when some 90 percent of more of the applicants are Protestant Christians, a vase majority of Christian academics is the natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles . . .  The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one.

Crossley remarks with regret that the September 2000 annual British New Testament Conference “opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer. . .”

should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening . . . ? . . . Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things?

Turning back the Enlightenment

Crossley points to “a particularly significant example”, a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”. Such groups “often require defenses against accusations of reductionism and secularism.” (p. 23)  He remarks on Philip Esler addressing fellow delegates at a 1994 conference with:

Then we too may reach Emmaus, having had the experience described in the words from the Scots version of Luke’s Gospel as read at the liturgy . . . . (p.24)

Despite the diverse views of the delegates at this St Andrews Conference on New Testament Interpretation and the Social Sciences,

crucially, all the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith.

Stephen Barton of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has warned “that the epistemological roots of much social-scientific methodology lie in Enlightenment atheism and so,

awareness of this genealogy should also act as a safeguard against unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God. (p. 16)

I had thought the Enlightenment was a good thing, and secularism in academia the way forward to further enlightenment. Even as a staunch Christian I used to thank both God and the Devil for allowing secularism to bring tolerance for all and the possibility of unfettered enquiry. (Well, maybe I am now thinking I wished I had thanked the Devil too.)

Resurrection and Virgin Birth

Crossley continues:

It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made and most frequently in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth. It is only in the world of NT scholarship and theology that when Jesus’ resurrection is studied, the major historical debates focus around whether or not these supposed events are beyond historical enquiry or if the “spiritual meaning” is more important than the literal understanding. In this context, major proponents (e.g. Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder) of the bodily resurrection not happening are often regarded (rightly or wrongly (sic)) as mavericks.

We recently saw this illustrated almost verbatim by Associate Professor of Butler University James McGrath. (In my Did Jesus Exist on Youtube post I discuss how James made that statement — that “a historian” cannot study the resurrection so he must study “the crucifixion” and explain Christianity with reference to that.)

Historically naïve (twice over)

Crossley comments on a work titled An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus. The “interdisciplinary” should not be confused with contributors coming from fields as diverse as ancient history, history, sociology or anthropology. No, the term covers, rather, the comparatively inbred fields of Christian theology, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies.

Crossley remarks on the historical naivety of one of the contributors of this volume (Gerald O’Collins) when he asks:

What are we to make of the moral probity of Mark in creating such a fictional narrative (and one that touches on an utterly central theme in the original Christian proclamation) and of the gullibility of the early Christians (including Matthew and Luke) in believing and repeating his fiction as if it were basically factual narrative?

Crossley comments on O’Collins’ question:

This is far too rooted in modern concepts of truth and ignores the well-known fact that people in the ancient world created fictional stories of past events, including ones that are utterly central for their beliefs: for example, Joseph and Aseneth on table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles or b. B. Mesi’a 59b on rejecting the legal authority of the wonder-working and divine-voice-supported R.  Eliezar. These are serious issues for the Jews involved, but no historian thinks the stories really happened, no historian should criticize ancient authors of immorality simply on the general point of inventing historical scenarios. (p.25)

So near and yet so far. James Crossley himself fails to see how cocooned his own thinking is in the assumed historical grounding of the Gospel narratives. Gerald O’Collins is addressing a point that needs honest examination at far more than the ethical issue of supposed “ancient concepts of honesty”. But that’s for another post another time.

The N.T. Wright phenomenon



Is this a Freudian slip from a professor of religion?

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?


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