Checklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 2

This is an excerpt from Part 17 of my Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:
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Doubting the Doubting Thomas Story


Why doubt the Doubting Thomas story? There are three different kinds of considerations that support a skeptical view of the Doubting Thomas story.

1. General Problems with the Gospels – including the Fourth Gospel
a.
 It was written by a Christian believer with the purpose of promoting Christian beliefs.
b. It was probably not written by an eyewitness.
c. It was composed decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.
d. It provides no attribution of specific stories or details to named and known eyewitnesses or sources.
e. It was written in Greek rather than Aramaic (the language Jesus and his disciples used).
f. It appears that the words and sayings of Jesus were preserved in oral traditions that failed to reliably preserve the original situations or contexts of those words and sayings, thus opening the door to misunderstanding, distortion, and corruption of the original meaning of Jesus’ words and teachings.

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Point (1a) actually suggests a couple of specific applicable questions/criteria:


(SAC1) Was the author a Christian believer?
(SAC2) Was one of the main purposes of the author to promote Christian beliefs?


Why are these questions relevant to assessing the historical reliability of an historical document/source about Jesus?  The concern here is about objectivity and bias.  The point of view of an author can and usually does introduce bias into an account of events, and the purpose of the author in creating the document also relates to the possibility and likelihood of bias in the account.  


If a primary purpose of an author of an account of the life of Jesus is to promote Christian beliefs, such as the belief that Jesus was the divine Son of God, and the Savior of humankind, then that purpose introduces certain biases into the account.  Such an account will tend to select events that support this point of view and tend to exclude or downplay events that undermine or dis-confirm that point of view.  An author with such biases will tend to accept without question stories and details that support these beliefs, while tending to reject without good reason other stories and details that dis-confirm or cast doubt on those beliefs. 


Two general questions related to the above two questions would be:


(GQ1) What assumptions and beliefs does the author have about Jesus, and how might those beliefs introduce bias into the historical document or account of events?


(GQ2) Is one of the main purposes of the historical document or account of events to promote certain beliefs about Jesus or beliefs concerning some of the (alleged) teachings of Jesus?


Very general questions related to the general questions would be:


(VGQ1) What sort of ideological or philosophical or theological beliefs does the author have, and how might those beliefs introduce bias into the historical document or account of events?


(VGQ2) Is one of the main purposes of the historical document or account of events to promote certain ideological or philosophical or theological beliefs?


These fairly general questions relate to the categories of objectivity and bias.


CONCLUSION:
In evaluating the objectivity or bias of an account of events, one should consider (among other things) questions about the beliefs and assumptions of the author related to the subject matter of the account, as well as the purposes of the author in writing the account.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05275899305949454964 hardindr

    I hate to ask this out loud, but is Bradley Bowen aware that historians are aware of these issues surrounding the historical jesus are not new, and have written reams of stuff about them? You can listen to a leading new testament scholar discuss them in the link below:

    http://archive.org/details/HistoricalJesus

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    hardindr said…

    I hate to ask this out loud, but is Bradley Bowen aware that historians are aware of these issues surrounding the historical jesus are not new, and have written reams of stuff about them?
    ===============
    Yes, I'm aware that this is well-covered territory. The question of the reliability of the Gospels has been around since the writing of the Gospels.

    Part of what I'm doing here is taking a look at a variety of both skeptical and apologetic arguments and pulling out criteria used in the arguments, with an eye towards creating a comprehensive set of such criteria.

    NT scholars do discuss historical criteria and attempt to create comprehensive sets of such criteria, but I'm not sure if they base this effort on a survey of skeptical and apologetic arguments.

    If you know of an NT scholar that has taken this approach, I would be interested to see what he/she came up with.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I have a bookshelf full of books by NT scholars and Jesus scholars, and there is lots of useful and helpful info in those books on historical criteria and criteria of authenticity and on the historical reliability of the Gospels.

    However, I'm not aware of a book or article that handles these issues in the way that I find fully satisfactory, so although I might not be able to do any better than various leading NT scholars and Jesus scholars, I think it is worth a try. At any rate, anybody who wants to think seriously about historical claims about Jesus ought to invest some time and effort in thinking about historical criteria and developing his/her own set of criteria–in view of the thinking and historical criteria that have been suggested and used by various skeptics, NT scholars, and apologists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    To be specific, I have a six foot shelf of books on historical Jesus, a six foot shelf of books on New Testament & Christian Theology, a six foot shelf of biblical commentaries (mostly NT), and two six-foot shelves of books on general Christian apologetics, and one six-foot shelf of books on the question of the resurrection of Jesus, and two six-foot shelves of books on philosophy of religion.

    But I have not yet seen a book that does a fully satisfactory job of laying out historical criteria for evaluating historical claims about Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05275899305949454964 hardindr

    Might I recommend Bart Ehrman's college textbook? It discusses various criteria for assessing historical claims about Jesus, and has an extensive bibliography.

    As an aside, what do you think of Richard Carrier? Also, are you a mythicist, or a historical jesus "agnostic?" Do you have a degree in history?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05275899305949454964 hardindr

    The textbook can be purchased here:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0199757534/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    hardindr said…

    Might I recommend Bart Ehrman's college textbook? It discusses various criteria for assessing historical claims about Jesus, and has an extensive bibliography.
    ==================
    Yes. A good recommendation.

    That is one of the books on my six foot shelf of NT background books.

    I read and enjoy Ehrman's books on Jesus and the NT. I have his recorded lectures on the historical Jesus and on the NT. Before I conclude this series of posts, I will definitely look over what Ehrman has to say on this topic and will shamelessly borrow any helpful points from him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    As an aside, what do you think of Richard Carrier? Also, are you a mythicist, or a historical jesus "agnostic?" Do you have a degree in history?
    =============
    Richard Carrier is a gem.

    I'm not a mythicist. But I agree with Bart Ehrman that there are a few mythicists that deserve serious consideration, such as Richard Carrier.

    My background is in philosophy, not in NT, and not in history. So, reading and thinking about criteria for evaluation of historical claims is especially important for people like me who don't have a background in historical research but who want to rationally evaluate historical claims, such as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and the related claim that Jesus was crucified on Friday of Passover week and died on the cross in the afternoon of the same day he was crucified.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05275899305949454964 hardindr

    Well, Richard Carrier is an interesting guy. It's been entertaining watching him and Bart Ehrman go back and forth. He's only had two papers published since getting his Ph.D four years ago, and hasn't tried to get an tenure-track academic position (he's billing himself as an "independent scholar.)" I guess we'll see if his two volume work on bayes theorem and the historical jesus published by Prometheus Books makes an impact on other scholars (color me skeptical).

    A worthwhile critique of Carrier's work can be found here http://religionatthemargins.com/2012/04/the-death-of-richard-carriers-dying-messiah/ .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06983324684371796490 Excelentrik

    It's always a hard thing to admit for a christian believer, but gospels are proselytizing texts and appart from comments by historian Flavius Johsephus (Chapter III of his book Antiquities)…"during those years, there lived a wise man called Jesus…", no neutral data on the historical Jesus is available so far. Faith is the only way, as it probably has to be in religion.
    http://areasubliminal.com/the-origins-of-christian-eschatology-28/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    The Josephus passage most likely contains, at minimum, some Christian interpolations, and there are still disputes over the authenticity of the entire passage, so Josephus can't be automatically assumed to be a neutral source.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authenticity_of_the_Testimonium_Flavianum


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