Jesus and the Historian’s Craft

Jesus and the Historian’s Craft June 9, 2014

Tim O’Neill has posted part 1 and part 2 of an online article which is getting a lot of discussion: “An Atheist Historian Examines the Evidence for Jesus.” He does a really good job not just of explaining what the positive evidence is for there having been a historical Jesus, but why mythicist counterarguments are unpersuasive, especially when examined closely and in detail.

 Mark Allen Powell offered an updated survey of scholarship on the historical Jesus. Mythicists and Christian apologists get a mention towards the end. David Bailey also gave them a shout-out.

RBL had two reviews of Beth Sheppard’s book The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament, which is about how New Testament scholars apply the same methods used in the wider discipline of history.

For those interested in what Richard Carrier has to say on this topic, he will be offering some free classes this summer. See also his attempts to spin his debate with Zeba Crook in the worst possible light for his opponent and the best possible light for himself. I shared the video of the debate here on the blog previously. See also Bruce Gerencser’s ongoing search for the real Jesus.

And finally, it was pointed out to me that it is not just Jesus who gets fake quotes attributed to him. There is an entire blog dedicated to Fake Buddha Quotes.


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  • I quit reading O’Niell’s article when I hit this: “And [Paul] says [Jesus] had an earthly, physical brother called James who Paul himself had met.” I’m always disappointed by historicists who claim that Paul said he met “Jesus’ brother” as opposed to the “Lord’s brother,” as I think the distinction might have some significance. However, it is another thing altogether to claim that Paul says he met Jesus’ “earthly, physical brother.” For a purported atheist, O’Neill has the fundamentalist’s propensity for claiming that the Bible says whatever it is that he thinks it means.

    • You are being silly. Paul calls Jesus “lord” very frequently. Do you think that he meant that James was the brother of some other lord? If so, who was he referring to? If not, then why stop reading the article?

      No one seems to make a nonsensical fuss over this text in the way that you are, other than mythicists, and the rare stubborn Jesus-agnosticist whom we have seen time and time again that no evidence can sway.

      • I’m not talking about what Paul meant. I’m talking about what he says. As you note, mythicists make a fuss about this text. Therefore, when someone who purports to be addressing their arguments deliberately overstates what the text actually says, I don’t think that is someone who is worth reading (particularly when I have previously found such overstatement characteristic of the person’s arguments).

        BTW, I don’t like it when mythicists misrepresent the evidence either. I don’t like it when anyone does it. I would think that it is the kind of concern that a credentialed scholar wouldn’t describe as “silly.”

        • That is not the impression you have given me. You stopped reading an article because he accurately depicted what Paul meant, but did not use Paul’s precise wording. How does it show a concern to avoid misrepresentation, when what O’Neill wrote involves no misrepresentation, and you object as though it did? How is accepting that the lord Paul talks about in this passage is the same one he talks about elsewhere “overstatement” as opposed to stating the obvious? If it isn’t stating the obvious, then why won’t you tell me who you think a serious alternative candidate to be the “lord” in that text is?

          • Maybe you are getting an incorrect impression because you are ignoring what I say and focusing instead on what you think I mean. What I have said is that I stopped reading O’Neill’s article because it misrepresented what Paul says. You keep responding as if I said that I had stopped reading it because it misrepresented what Paul meant.

            I suspect that you would recognize the difference between someone claiming that the New Testament says that God exists eternally as three persons and someone claiming that the New Testament means that God exists eternally as three persons. The latter is a matter of interpretation while the former is simply incorrect as a matter of fact.

          • It must be a lot of effort for you to work this hard to avoid acknowledging that the text means what Tim O’Neill indicated, and thus provides evidence that Paul was poised to know whether there was a historical figure of Jesus.

            The example you gave is a poor one since it merely begs the question. I would say that it is more like me saying that Matthew says Jesus was born in the town that David was from, and you splitting hairs because, although that is what the text means, it isn’t precisely what it says in the exact words used.

          • It must be a lot of effort for you to avoid acknowledging that the text doesn’t say what O’Neill indicates it says.

            Since no one I know disputes your interpretation of the text in Matthew, I would not have the slightest objection if you did not use the exact words that Matthew used. On the other hand, if someone argued that Matthew meant something else and you purported to be responding to that argument, then I would expect you to be precise about what Matthew actually said regardless of how certain you were of your interpretation.

            You know perfectly well that mythicists argue that Paul is using “brother” in a spiritual sense rather than a biological sense. No matter how weak you think that argument is, it would be weaker still if Paul actually specified that James was Jesus’ “earthly, physical” brother. Therefore it overstates the evidence to claim that Paul did say that.

          • The only people who suggest that it is a reference to a “spiritual brother” are people who are happy to ignore what Paul actually says and how he uses the phrase, which scholars as a rule do not.

            I have asked mythicists time and time again, if “brother(s) of the Lord” could simply mean “Christian” in the context in which Paul uses the phrase, then how was this phrase supposed to distinguish this James from others in the Christian movement, and from Peter and other apostles mentioned in the same context. Perhaps you would care to address this? I am willing to change my mind on this, but thus far mythicists have consistently shown that they hold their view in spite of what the texts say, not because of what the texts say.

            I’ve discussed this before, for instance here:

          • I did address it as you can see in one of the links that you posted, but you found my arguments unpersuasive. I have no problem with that, but I cannot see any point in going into it again with someone who doesn’t acknowledge the distinction between what Paul actually says and his interpretation of what Paul means.

          • Oh, I absolutely accept the distinction. What I don’t accept is the legitimacy of getting in a huff about someone stating the meaning rather than the exact words, when proposals for alternative meanings are thoroughly unpersuasive.

          • Therein lies the reason that I do not accord the consensus of New Testament scholars the respect that I might accord the consensus in other fields. I observe much too much sloppiness when it comes to distinguishing between evidence and the conclusions drawn from evidence.

            In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman talked about the sources “we have” for the historical Jesus and he included things like Q. But of course we don’t have Q; it’s hypothetical, It’s a conclusion that scholars draw from the evidence, but Ehrman finds that conclusion so persuasive that he thinks of Q as something we have.

            O’Neill talks about what he thinks Paul means as being what Paul “says” even though it is contested by the mythicists that he purports to be refuting. You are alright with that because you find that meaning so much more persuasive than any of the alternatives. But what Paul means is a conclusion that is drawn from what Paul says.
            The problem with treating conclusions as if they are evidence is that you are going to wind up overestimating the strength of your case. You are going to use those conclusions as premises in subsequent arguments and you are going to treat the conclusions you draw from those arguments as evidence, too. You wind up assigning high probabilities to things about which you cannot possibly be certain like Jesus being the one who introduced “Abba” into the church’s vocabulary to describe the believers relationship with God as opposed to someone else.

          • So the reason you ignore the scholarly consensus is because scholars refuse to treat implausible proposals which don’t fit the evidence as though they were nonetheless live options?

          • No. That’s not what I said. However, since you have concluded that is what I meant, it doesn’t surprise that you would treat is as if it is what I said.

            The reason I do not accord the consensus of New Testament the respect that I might accord the consensus in another field is because the New Testament scholars with whom I interact don’t seem to recognize that even less probable alternatives reduce the degree of certainty that they can have about their conclusions. They think they can ignore that uncertainty and treat their conclusions as undisputed facts when they make them premises in subsequent arguments. Doing this, they will inevitably overestimate the certainty the can have about the conclusions of those arguments. As they string more conclusions together, their certainty estimates will inexorably lose more and more touch with reality.

          • Sure we do. What we do not accept is the stance you adopt, namely that, just because there is an alternative proposal, no matter how fringe and how implausible, somehow that justifies pretending that we should all be agnostics about history. Because you’ll find their are fringe views on pretty much any subject you can think of.

          • Then explain to me how Ehrman gets to certainty “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” using Galatians 1:19 when he admits that we cannot be certain about its transmission?

          • If Ehrman had said “as certain as anything can be in historical study” it might have been preferable, but Ehrman’s hyperbole does not justify your obscurantism.

          • That wouldn’t really address the issue I am raising, because I don’t think Ehrman would say that the text of Galatians is as certain as anything can be in historical study. Whatever degree of certainty he expresses needs to be less than the certainty he expresses about the authenticity of Galatians 1:19. Even as a matter of textual criticism, we might easily imagine having earlier manuscripts that would make us more certain about the text of Galatians. The likelihood of interpolation would also be reduced if there were other passages in which Paul referred to James as Jesus’ brother.

            But “as certain as anything can be in historical study” strikes me as a wildly optimistic assertion in any case since there are obviously lots of things more secure historically than anything that happened in first century Palestine. Perhaps we might venture that it is as certain as anything in the ancient world can be in historical study, but even that is going too far. We can clearly be more certain about someone who is multiply attested by his contemporaries as well as his own writings.

            Maybe we can be as certain about the existence of Jesus as we can be about the existence of any obscure first century rabbi who was unnoticed during his life by anyone outside a small group of illiterate peasants. If that was the consensus of New Testament scholars that you were defending, you would never hear another peep out of me. Of course, it would be hard to justify the degree of scorn you heap upon mythicists and agnostics if that was all you were claiming.

          • Yes, well I assumed it was obvious that I was talking in comparison with the ancient world. Last Tuesday is history and the evidence for its people and events is much better, in most cases, for reasons that seemed to me too obvious to mention.

            I suspect that you aren’t aware of just how lucky we are in having very early manuscripts of texts that are in the New Testament, compared to other ancient texts. I really think you would benefit from looking into that, before assessing probabilities and statements about them.

          • Since you were suggesting it as a modification for Ehrman’s unqualified “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt,” it wasn’t obvious to me exactly what qualifications you would place “on as certain as anything can be in historical study.” Clearly “as certain as anything in the ancient world can be in historical study” is still problematic as you acknowledge in your review of Carrier’s radio interview that we have more or better evidence for others in the ancient world.

            So I’m still wondering what degree of certainty is it that you have that warrants the scorn that is heaped on mythicism and/or agnosticism. I don’t think that simply citing the consensus of scholars is enough because even if 100% of the scholars agree that there is 75% chance that a historical Jesus existed, that’s still a one-in-four chance that he didn’t which to my mind would be more than enough to take alternatives seriously. If we thought the chances were one-in-four that evolution didn’t happen, we might have to treat creationism with more respect.

          • Why are you of the opinion that views like mythicism which simply do not fit the evidence make scholarly views which do less probable? If that were the case, then you should indeed treat creationism with more respect.

          • It’s not mythicism that makes the consensus scholarly view less probable. It’s the problematic nature of the sources that subjects any view to significant uncertainty. The view that Paul thought James was the biological brother of Jesus might fit the evidence we have just fine, but we don’t really have very much evidence on the question, do we? It seems to me that an obvious principle of historical interpretation has to be that degree of certainty is a function of the quality and quantity of available evidence. If the quality and quantity are low, then even a theory that perfectly fits the evidence may not warrant much certainty because it is impossible to eliminate possible alternatives.

            I suspect that there are lots of views that might fit the available evidence for the historical Mohammed or the historical Gautama quite well, but we would still have to say that they are subject to considerable uncertainty just because the evidence isn’t that good. My uncertainties about James being Jesus’ biological brother don’t arise from the fact that I find some other interpretation of Galatians 1:19 especially compelling (although some seem at least plausible to me). It’s because it’s a single data point lacking adequate corroboration.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “It’s because it’s a single data point lacking adequate corroboration.”

            Your strict criteria for historical events thousands of years old would equate to us never having “proof” of much of what we regard as the accepted history of civilization.

          • No it wouldn’t. It would simply cause us to express levels of certainty that are appropriate to the quality of the evidence. The fact that we cannot have much certainty about a first century itinerant preacher who had little impact on literate and prominent people during his life doesn’t mean we can’t have a reasonable degree of certainty about emperors and generals and politicians who were widely enough known during their lives that their activities were chronicled by their contemporaries.

  • Jeremiah J. Preisser

    This is a good read, though it looks like a re-posting from his blog.

    As an atheist who is constantly defending Jesus’s historicity, I can connect with Mr. O’Neill. It is distressing to see so many alleged free thinkers resort to creationist-esque tactics. O’Neill deals with these arguments better however. He is better read and more experienced. I’m a hobbyist.

    Hey Dr. McGrath, did that wikia which dealt with mythicist arguments ever come to fruition or did it become a good idea which didn’t get enough traction?

    • I set it up, but no one seemed interested in doing anything with it, and since I have this blog it was never my intention that the wiki simply be a place where I myself post things to duplicate my posts here.

  • I can only say that Tim O’Neill’s piece is filled with assumptions (“earthly rulers”), assumptions (“earthly ministry”), and more assumptions (“he” had an earthly, physical brother). They will persuade no one who doesn’t hold them.

    • His piece won’t persuade anyone who is so poorly informed about the relevant texts that they think those are unjustified assumptions. That’s true.