Historical Arguments and Skepticism

I’ve been having quite the interaction on this blog recently about the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. More recently, Stephen Law has joined in and responded to me on his own blog. I know there are a lot of readers of this blog with some background in historical study including several who work on Biblical history. What do you make of the interaction thus far? When I’ve failed to persuade some of my dialogue partners, is it because of my inept presentation, or their inordinate skepticism, or the simple fact that a historical judgment isn’t based on only one piece of evidence, or something else?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06134426966588179904 Tom Verenna

    I find it interesting that you pin the blame on your dialogue partners. “When I’ve failed to persuade some of my dialogue partners, is it because of my inept presentation, or their inordinate skepticism, or the simple fact that a historical judgment isn’t based on only one piece of evidence, or something else?”Is it so hard to accept the fact that you may actually be making assertion after assertion while claiming, quite conversely, that it is they (your dialogue partners) who are making these assertions (when in fact, as with the case of Hamby, he has only asked questions which you are ignoring)? If you doubt this, I’m sure Hamby would be more than happy to list to you all of the questions he has asked that you have ignored, while making a list of all of your assertions you have not backed up.What is that phrase again? “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Tom, I don’t think that’s fair. I asked whether the problem was on my end or my dialogue partner’s. Perhaps you can help clear up where the communication has failed. He showed up in a discussion of the problems with those who view Jesus as a purely mythical figure, and in response to every explanation I offered as to why historians are persuaded Jesus existed, he responded with something akin to “Well, they could’ve just made it up”. He seemed to think that Mark’s Gospel is our earliest source of knowledge about Christianity, and that it was written by someone who worshipped the Greek gods and was written for an audience of people who did the same. I’m happy to go back and explain from the beginning what Jews believed, and the fact that Christianity arose in a Jewish context, but those things are such common knowledge that I don’t normally explain them, lest I insult the intelligence of my interlocutor.Where have I gone wrong? I genuinely want to improve the communication between us!

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,I feel a lot of sympathy for you. I don´t think the fault lies on your side. But you just have to realize that it is mostly a waste of time arguing with Jesus mythers. I think Steph and me took the right decision when we declined the invitation from Tom Verenna on bishop Wrongs blog.Best wishes

  • Antonio Jerez

    PS,I forgot to mention that I debated in public with another Jesus myther, professor Alvar Ellegård, on the international book fair here in Göteborg, Sweden, years ago. Also a total waste of time. Ellegård has written one of the most ludicrous Jesus books ever, arguing that the historical Jesus was actually the Righteous Teacher of Qumran. And just like Verenna Ellegard argues that the early christians FIRST looked at the Servant verses in Isaiah and then made up a fiction about their crucified Messiah. An upsidedown world of course. You and me know of course know that the early christians FIRST had the problem of a crucified “sect” leader and then searched trough the scriptures and found the verses in Isaiah in order to make some sense of the unexplainable. Despite all his learning and ingenuity Tom Verenna appears to have little grasp of what Mark, Matthew and the others were up to when they wrote the gospels. No grasp about what the Messianic secret in Mark is all about and no grasp about what the reception of the Spirit after the Resurrection is all about…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06134426966588179904 Tom Verenna

    I hope you do not mind if I ignore Antonio’s ad hominem attack and generalization. But to answer your questions, James, I have no problems with.Perhaps you can help clear up where the communication has failed.I will do what I can to give you my interpretation as an observer and as a dialogue partner.He showed up in a discussion of the problems with those who view Jesus as a purely mythical figure, and in response to every explanation I offered as to why historians are persuaded Jesus existed, he responded with something akin to “Well, they could’ve just made it up”.Let’s start here. First, Hamby was clear about his stance on the historical Jesus from the start. He stated several times that he was apathetic about it. It was clear he just wanted to ask you to clarify several of your assertions, because as far as I can tell, he wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. To be honest, James, I do not find you answering any of the questions he had posed to you. Perhaps you can clear this up by quoting yourself answering his very specific questions. If you would like me or him to repost all of his questions, I would be more than willing, and I’m sure if you asked Hamby he would also be happy to.He seemed to think that Mark’s Gospel is our earliest source of knowledge about Christianity,Could you please quote him where he said that? I cannot find that statement anywhere in his replies. What I did see was him making a statement concerning Mark being written in 60 CE taken from your notes, and a question following that statement (again, taken from your notes). I do not see Hamby making any assertion about Mark being the earliest source. and that it was written by someone who worshipped the Greek godsJames, did you really read a thing he posted? I’m finding myself rather in a state of shock. How can you ask where your conversation has gone wrong when clearly you are just not reading what he is posting, either in its entirety or otherwise. I do not think you’ll be able to quote him stating that the Jews who wrote the Gospels worshiped Greek myths. What I see if Hamby making it very clear that the Jews who wrote the Gospels were *familiar* with them. There is a fundamental difference between believing them and being familiar with them. If you’d like, I can explain the difference to you. and was written for an audience of people who did the same.Please do not take this the wrong way, James, but are you inept at reading? I do not see Hamby ever once suggesting that the audience was for Greek-believers. I see Hamby ASKING you if it would be true that Mark’s audience was acquainted with these myths. I never see him make a claim that they *believed* them. Once more this comes down to you either not reading what Hamby is saying or you’re confusing *familiarity* with *belief*.I’m happy to go back and explain from the beginning what Jews believed, and the fact that Christianity arose in a Jewish context, but those things are such common knowledge that I don’t normally explain them, lest I insult the intelligence of my interlocutor.From what I can tell, Hamby agrees with that statement. His concern was not with belief, but rather with familiarity. I suggest you go back and re-read Hamby’s questions more carefully. Or perhaps get somebody else to read them for you, and I say that with the utmost respect. It is evident just from an observer’s perspective that you are not very interested in reading things all the way through, as I found myself repeating arguments you missed in my second response to you. Perhaps if somebody reads the comments out loud to you, it will be better. Sometimes listening is easier to do than reading, particularly when one side of the conversation ignores the other, as is the case here.Where have I gone wrong? I genuinely want to improve the communication between us! You can start by reading everything Hamby wrote. You’ll be surprised at how many questions he asked and hopefully you’ll be humbled by it, and how embarrassing your responses to him were. This is said in constructive criticism, not as an attack. Please consider this carefully before responding. I just want you to avoid any more embarrassment out of my profound respect for you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08014885672703727636 Ken Brown

    I think the problem here is a combination of excessive skepticism on the one side and inadequate explanation on the other. For what it’s worth, here’s my own attempt to clarify the issue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08679219000850929665 Hugh

    Hi James …Unforunately , like so many attempts to have a reasoned discussion on an important topic on the internet . This one has descended into a virtual version of a bar room brawl . Whole worldviews have been cast into the ring and vast swathes of academic studies have been trampled upon .All you can do James ,is to present the consensus of opinion of those who work in this area , and explain the reasons why you think this consensus is valid . After that people will make they’re own judgements determined mostly by they’re own preferences and prejudices .By in large no one is going to change anybody’s mind if opinion is so entrenched to have reached this stage .You’ve presented you’re case and you’re reasons ,the rest have to assess it as they will .I am however disappointed that Stephen Law ( a man that I respect ) can so blithely sweep aside a whole area of academic study that many people have dligently laboured for many years . It’s just too easy a dismissal .’to wonder whether this whole branch of academia [post script - I mean, history] – dominated by Christians – isn’t mostly bullshit’After all.. his conclusion is really all that you were trying to state in the first place .. ( correct me if I’m wrong in this )’Remember, I don’t say the crucifixion of an historical Jesus is a made up story.’…(thats what you are saying. that its not a made up story )…’I say it’s not unreasonable for me, given the evidence I have seen thus far, to suppose it might be ‘… (you agree with that too )Cheers …Hugh

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13128282430404746717 N T Wrong

    I think a large part of the problem lies in the fact that (1) the Jesus-myther standard of proof is too high for any ancient text (and thus, it would knock out much more than the canonical Gospels), and (2) the Jesus-mythers make parallelomaniacal comparisons between legends and Gospels (eg T.L. Thompson), despite the fact that the Gospels are far far closer in genre to the Greek philosophical didactic biographies (a sub-genre or related genre to historiography) and are also temporally much closer to their subject than any legend is to its legendary subject of misty ancient times.These are fundamental errors, rendering the whole Jesus myth idea highly improbable and methodologically facile. And then there is the pragmatic fact that if you try to discuss the issue with them, more often than not you’ll simply get misrepresented and brushed off with high-handed dismissals – as you were immediately (as evidenced by Tom Verenna’s first post). It doesn’t help that – within the more level-headed and overall methodologically correct approach – most of the ‘scholarly research’ into the historical Jesus is corrupted by theological presuppositions. But the Jesus mythers don’t logically get anywhere with their constant repetition of ‘et tu’. Two wrongs don’t make a right; I of all people should know that ;-) .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13128282430404746717 N T Wrong

    “the consensus of opinion of those who work in this area”consensus schmensusGive me reasons and reasons only – especially in Biblical Studies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I do believe, where one begins is everything. If one begins with faith, that is, a belief that the supernatural is possible or probable, then, one can be convinced by reasonable explainations about faith. But, because there are no iron-tight explainations for faith views, a skeptic is not easily convinced. Many evangelicals defned apologetics on the basis of Paul’s argumentation at Mars Hill, but, the people he reasoned with were religiously oriented.Scientific understandings are part and parcel of the real observable world, so, one that is basing his views on science is not as likely to be convinced by argumentation. And even, when the evidence is probable (at least for religious people) there are different ways of viewing the same evidence. And the skeptic will always resist “faith” views because of that lack of certainty…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13128282430404746717 N T Wrong

    Angie wrote:where one begins is everythingFaith decides everything about a historical issue? I think James, amongst others, might differ.But does faith even decide this particular issue of the existence of Jesus? Nope. Tom and I start from this same rather faithless position, and end up with different answers. So your argument is defeated.Angie also wrote:Scientific understandings are part and parcel of the real observable world, so, one that is basing his views on science is not as likely to be convinced by argumentation. And even, when the evidence is probable (at least for religious people) there are different ways of viewing the same evidence. And the skeptic will always resist “faith” views because of that lack of certainty…I found what you wrote a bit unclear, so please let me know if this doesn’t answer what you meant: Historical investigation, like any logical-empirical investigation, is always ‘uncertain’. Historians are not afraid of uncertainty, but accept it as part-and-parcel of their trade. So there is no ‘resistance’ to uncertainty but, to the contrary, a necessary acceptance of it. Historiography just aims for the better explanation from the available facts, not the theoretically best possible explanation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Tom, I will try to go back and reread through what Hamby asked. It may be that, in the context of the discussion, I took his questions to be insinuating a particular answer when that was not his intention. Glancing at them again, it certainly sounds like it, but perhaps I’m making assumptions about motives – perhaps even of the sort Hamby seems inclined to make about the Gospel authors! :)I was being facetious about the “worshipping the Greek gods” comment. I should have remembered that sarcasm is hard to convey in writing to someone that doesn’t know you well. My point (made poorly, I admit it) was that Hamby’s questions assume that this author and his readers were “Hellenized” not in the sense in which we know all Jews in the Greco-Roman world were hellenized in this period of history, but in the sense of being familiar with Greek myths and having a desire to emulate them. Educated Greek-speaking Jewish authors in this period (such as Philo of Alexandria or Josephus) wrote much better Greek than Mark and were presumably better educated (at least as far as Greek was concerned), and yet show no signs of this compulsion to invent Jewish equivalents of the deities of their non-Jewish contemporaries.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Whether Jesus existed or not is not the real issue, is it? Isn’t the real issue what “became” of the historical Jesus and how that came about? and Why? It is the meaning of the event that matters to the individuals who do believe. For those who do not believe or have no defense to make one way or another, science can be useful to ascertain a little more understanding of how faith was understood and used to promote a more reasonable faith. You point out that historical science is comfortable with uncertainty. This is true, and that only “proves” that one has to be biased in a certain direction and that direction is a “faith direction”…faith that the world can be observed and that our obsevations are reflective of reality is how science has traditionally been understood. Modern physics, however, challenges most minds about the understanding of the real world or “reality” in the traditional sense. Modern physics seems to affirm paradox and “both/and” claims and parallel universes where different realities exist. How does one defend “one reality” as correspondence or the “real world” of “fact”, when there is another world existing? So, choice is what “causes” a “world” to exist (Schrodinger’s Cat). The causal factor of reality seems to be choice.Another question seems to be whether the Scriptures contain facts, myth or a mixture and how to tell the difference. How can anyone understand all that is in the mind of the eyewitnesses or the scribes who wrote Scriptures, especially in light of the different understandings/ viewpoints of the Church Fathers? How were the Sources used to make a defense of “reality” for those impacted by Christ’s life? If one asks questions that are predisposed toward a “faith” direction, then there is bias in understanding and interpretaion, which is not scientific in discerning “fact”. Science should not be used to support or abused by “faith-oriented” or biased individuals for science is not a defense of “truth claims” because science has no claims to make. Science only “reveals” knowledge, that Jesus existed. His existence had meaning to some who encountered him. Meaning ceases to have significance when faith is dissolved.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04088870675715850624 Sam Norton

    James – I agree that rejecting the principle of embarrassment would tend to undermine conclusions from other areas of historical enquiry, but do you have examples?

  • http://www.midnightreflection.net theObserver

    Would it be helpful if you were to write and explain the basic ‘steps’ a historian would follow when evaluating primary/secondary sources, then showing how the histroical arguments of Jesus is consistent with these principles? For example explain the difference between witting and unwitting testimony, how to evaluate a primary/secondary source etc. Sorry if you already covered this in your video but You Tube is disabled in my office.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sam, the only example I can think of is in Jan Vansina’s book on Oral Tradition, where he formulates what is essentially the same criterion independently of NT studies. But since I deal almost exclusively with Biblical studies I’ll wait and see if others have some good examples.There are a couple of useful sources online about the baptism of Jesus and the criterion of embarrassment, one of which is a dialogue of well-known New Testament scholars. I think I may begin a series on things that historians judge it likely that Jesus said and/or did. And (just to upset Jim West) I’ll mention that there is some useful stuff on Wikipedia about historical method, too. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    On historians’ methods, historians prefer first-hand eyewitness sources where they are available, although they do not simply suspend judgment automatically in the absense of first-hand accounts. Other things that are sought are as early sources as possible, multiple independent sources, ones that are not biased (although that is a tough criterion to meet, since authors tend to write about things they have some interest in one way or the other), ones that do not show signs of carelessness and other features that might make them less credible.Information in the sources is then evaluated using criteria comparable to those in a court of law. Does the person have a motive for fabricating false testimony? Do others independently confirm the testimony? And so on.There are some useful pages online that deal with at least some of the methods, approaches and tools that historians tend to use. There are also some notes from one of my classes here.


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