Historians on Jesus

Historians on Jesus August 13, 2011

Neil Godfrey posted on this topic over at Vridar, and it seems that the post may go some way towards explaining the puzzling tension between his affirmations of mainstream historical scholarship on the one hand, and his positive view of mythicism on the other.

Godfrey writes:

But what if historians (whose careers are in history faculties that have nothing to do with biblical studies) who write about the Roman empire mention Jesus as the founder of the Christian religion. Do they make such a statement on the basis of their independent or even collective scholarly research into whether Jesus really did exist or not? I think we can be confident in answering, No. I think we can further say that, if really pushed, many would say that for the purposes of what they wrote, they would not care if he existed or not. What they are addressing is not the historicity of Jesus, but the historical fact that Christianity had its beginnings in the first century in the Eastern part of the empire. What they are addressing is the fact of the appeal and reasons for the spread of Christianity.

He then goes on to say that even a historian like Michael Grant, who took a closer look, merely relied on the Gospels and on Biblical scholarship.

I find this most remarkable, and utterly implausible. In essence, Godfrey is either suggesting that those historians who have mentioned Jesus as a historical figure were guilty of dereliction of duty with respect to their role as historians, or they did not really mean what they wrote.

But to suggest that historians who are concerned professionally with reconstructing the past either didn’t care whether Jesus actually existed, or were unable to see that Biblical scholars were not engaging in appropriate historical research, is not just beyond belief. It is an insult to historians, which I hope some may actually respond to, if they happen to notice that this internet crusader has paid them this disrespect.

It also leads to the seemingly self-contradictory stance that it is wrong to rely on authorities and experts, while suggesting that all historians of ancient Rome or ancient Judaism who mention Jesus have done just that.

Godfrey continues to use the term “Biblical historian,” which doesn’t seem to actually mean anything, other than being an expression of his belief that there are such creatures, who supposedly do not do the sort of critical history that other historians do. But obviously his attribution to mainstream historians who mention Jesus of a failure to adequately check on the state of our knowledge calls the consistency of such a view into question.

I don’t know how many historians read this blog, but I will encourage any who do, and anyone who knows a professional historian who can spare to waste a few minutes of their time that could be better spent doing something else, to chime in on this, and tell Neil Godfrey that they are neither so incompetent nor so uncritical that they would be unable to recognize were it true that “Biblical historians” (presumably meaning Biblical scholars working on historical questions?) don’t do history the way they do.

Biblical scholars regularly interact with historians of the Ancient Near East, of the Greco-Roman period, and of ancient Judaism. We present at the same conferences and participate in seminars together. We contribute to multi-author academic books together. We have conversations at our universities. And we read one another’s books out of interest from time to time, to say nothing of when we read them for the purpose of our own research.

Neil Godfrey is wrong on his main claim. But he does have a point when he writes the following:

But it is ONLY in the field of historical Jesus studies, as far as I am aware, that biblical historians cannot agree on a substantive body of historical facts about the person they are studying, and must accordingly resort to criteriology in order to construct “probabilities” of what may be factual — with all such reconstructions open to debate. The only detail on which I believe all HJ scholars agree is that Jesus was crucified. I know of no other undisputed “fact” of his life.

The truth is that, precisely because there are so many people who care so much about what Jesus said and did, there has indeed been an attempt to not merely reconstruct the broad strokes or describe what our sources say, but to atomistically sift through each saying and even every word in a hope of achieving certainty.

This was, nevertheless, part of a broader positivistic approach to history which prevailed in the field of history more generally, believing that history could be objective and scientific, and by developing and refining the right tools, it could achieve certainty.

And so it is certainly true that the combination of mainstream historical trends and the distinctive level and kind of interest that many people bring to the figure of Jesus has produced some anomalies. But accepting him as likely to be historical when he was more likely invented is not one of them.

In concluding this post, let me try once more to see if I can explain what I meant when I said recently that there is room for doubt about the existence of the historical Jesus, even while I believe it is unreasonable to conclude that he was thought of in the way some mythicists claim, as a purely celestial entity or a fabrication from earlier Scripture. Godfrey mentions toward the end of his post the figures of Hillel and Socrates. Both have had their historicity challenged on occasion, and both are treated as likely to be historical figures by modern historians, who would acknowledge that apart from perhaps a few principal ideas, we cannot be certain about the details of what they said. They thus provide relatively close analogies to the figure of Jesus. On the one hand, one has to acknowledge that there is room for doubt, that figures like this are not accompanied by inscriptions and physical evidence of a sort that emperors leave behind. Yet this does not mean that it becomes more probable that they were invented, or were originally thought of as mythical celestial entities and later historicized, simply because the historical evidence available, and the tools of historical study, cannot deliver certainty.

And so it is certainly true that work on the historical Jesus has featured problematic claims and anomalous methods. Those developments have been challenged, not in the first instance by internet crusaders, but from with the field itself, and the conversations about method and conclusions have consistently been part of a broader conversation encompassing the rest of the discipline of history. Historical study itself has changed significantly over the last century, in many different ways.

None of this changes the fact that the most anomalous development in connection with the quest for the historical Jesus is still mythicism. In the realm of the study of ancient Judaism, if someone proceeds under the assumption that Hillel likely existed, he is not insulted by internet critics for being a fool. If a historian tries to develop tools and criteria to try to make the investigation of sources more rigorous, even if the attempt is unsuccessful, the effort is likely to be appreciated rather than mocked, since seeking to refine old tools and develop new ones is a regular scholarly undertaking, and scholarship is all about floating thousands of new suggestions in the knowledge that only a few will prove worth the test of time. And no one in their right mind would claim to be able to know that what really happened is that Hillel was an angelic teacher who was only later historicized and turned into a human rabbi.

If it were not for the level of interest in Jesus, both love and hatred, historians would be able to say quite a bit about him without much difficulty. There would be no real doubt that he thought himself to be the Messiah, and believed that the kingdom of God would dawn in the near future, and would feature his disciples sitting on thrones judging the tribes of Israel. There would be no doubt that he was wrong about this. There would be no doubt that he was crucified by the Romans, the ones normally responsible when someone was crucified in Jerusalem in those days. Much would be uncertain, but the gist would be uncontroversial. But precisely because being dispassionate and objective about Jesus is so challenging, scholars have tried to find ways of bringing more objectivity to the investigation. If they have been unsuccessful, that does not change the fact that there are some things about which historians across the board feel confident. And rightly so.

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