Daily Archives: July 6, 2010

Why Historical Jesus Studies are like Creationism

I’ve been following the “debate” between Neil Godfrey and James McGrath on their respective blogs, and I’ve been pretty disappointed at the level of debate. Namely, that Prof. McGrath likens “Jesus Mythicism” (MJ) with Creationism. I’ve read and participated in plenty of debates with Creationists and while McGrath has some valid points of comparison, the analogy overall is faulty.

McGrath points out how Creationists will quote-mine a debate between two biologists about a particular sub-set of evolutionary theory (like say between Punctuated Equilibria and Gradualism) and then conclude that the theory of evolution as a whole is in doubt. While this is something that I’ve seen MJs do, it’s not the focal point of their ire.

Where the analogy is more consistent is when Creationists critique the methodology of biologists, saying that their reasoning doesn’t infer common descent. So for example, say a person wants to find out whether one of ten men is his grandchild. We would do an analysis of DNA evidence to see how similar the alleged grandchildren’s DNA is to the person. At a certain similarity threshold, you can tell that the child is biologically related in some way to the person. Either as a grand-nephew, third cousin, etc. At higher levels of similarity, they would be able to tell if the child is directly related to the grandparent.
This same methodology of analyzing DNA is used by evolutionary biologist to conclude that humans and chimps have a common ancestor. Creationists will agree with the grandparent/grandchild analogy, but then claim that this same methodology can’t be used with humans and chimps.

In other cases, Creationists will claim that methodological naturalism doesn’t apply to biology. If they applied this consistently to all other sciences, we would still live in the dark ages. The problem with Creationism is special pleading – as in the grandfather example – or simply attacking the philosophy of science altogether which has a greater ripple effect in all of science and not just biology.

From what I’ve read on Godfrey’s blog, he is attacking the methodology of NT historians, not simply pointing out discrepancies between two different NT historians and concluding that Jesus was a myth – as Creationists would do in the biology example. If biologists had their own criteria for doing biology that didn’t apply to other sciences, then Creationists would have a valid point in their debate. That biologists had their own type of “science” that they do that if it were applied in other fields of science would make science itself unreliable.

Quite ironically, Godfrey’s point (though he hasn’t made it) is that HJ studies shares a major premise with Creationism. That the Bible contains history in some form. Both camps’ (Creationist and HJ) arguments follow from that major premise. Creationists assume that Genesis – 2 Kings is 100% history, or has some grain of history to it, and then all of their other arguments rest on that premise. NT historians do the same – they assume that [Mark, Matt, Luke, and John] is 100% history, or has some grain of history to it, and then all of their other arguments rest on that premise. From that premise NT historians follow some form of criteriology to determine which parts are history and which parts aren’t. Creationist also do the same. For those that don’t think that Genesis is 100% history, they follow ad hoc criteriology to determine what’s literal and what’s allegory.

To point out what’s faulty about this, why don’t NT historians use their criteriology on, say, the Acts of John, or the Acts of Peter? Because they already assume that AoJ/AoP aren’t historical.

The problem with Creationism is that it undermines the entire scientific method, not just biology. Their critiques of biology overlap into other realms of science even though they don’t realize it. MJs (at least in their critiques of HJs) are simply following the same methodology that all other non-biblical or secular historians do. Not assuming that anonymous written documents contain history. MJs are actually doing the opposite of what Creationists do! They seem to be trying to get NT historians to follow the same historiography that non-biblical historians follow. It would be like Creationists who are trying to get biologists to do the same scientific methodology that cosmologists and chemists do (I have yet to encounter a Creationist who does this).

The analogous situation in NT historiography would be about another character called “Jesus”, but in the Tanakh. For a long time it was assumed that the “Jesus” narrative in the Tanakh was historical, written by eyewitnesses, and archaeologists and historians in the 18th and 19th centuries used this anonymous narrative as their “primary” historical source and guide in unlocking the history of Israel and Judah. It turns out that this anonymous narrative with a “Jesus” as the main character was simply fictional. That Jesus did not mount a successful military campaign invading Canaan and led the wandering Israelites to their new home in the Levant. Old Testament historians realized that you couldn’t depend on anonymous narratives to guide history. That you need primary evidence to reconstruct history and only depend on anonymous works (like the book of Joshua/Jesus) if they are externally and independently corroborated with primary evidence or other unbiased narratives/written works.

The book of Joshua – our main narrative about Joshua’s actions on earth – was written anonymously and in third person. The book of Mark – our main narrative about Joshua’s (Jesus’) actions on earth – was also written anonymously and in third person. We have only large date ranges for when these two books were written. What’s going for Joshua is that it seems to be a fairly straightforward origins story. Mark on the other hand has elements of entertainment or literature in it – themes like irony and allegory. Joshua seems to have been written in the native language of its central character. Mark, on the other hand, was written in Greek and its main character(s) was supposed to speak Aramaic.

Without external support for either narrative, we have no reason for thinking that these two Jesus stories are history in any way. A more accurate assumption for written works would be that the writer is writing what s/he wants us to believe, not that they are writing history. So they are primary evidence for the author and their thoughts, but not primary evidence for their content.

Creationists start from the premise that both anonymous narratives contain history. Secular historians of I&J used to assume that the book of Joshua was historical, but no longer since they don’t treat it as primary evidence. The primary evidence that they do have shows that this Jesus narrative in the Tanakh actually can’t be historical – which pushes things towards that particular Old Testament Jesus being mythological. NT historians are still assuming that their Jesus narrative contains history – assuming their conclusion. MJ proponents don’t work under the assumption that either anonymous Jesus narrative contains history. And from what I read, Godfrey is trying to get NT historians to acknowledge this fundamental assumption.

Now, just to counterpoint everything I’ve written above, showing that the entire NT is about a mythical character in no way means that “a” Jesus character related in some way to Christianity positively didn’t exist. The guy’s name doesn’t even have to be “Jesus”. The nature of the HJ/MJ debate isn’t an exclusive either-or situation. If MJ’s prove that the entire NT is historically unreliable, or about a mythical character, this does NOT mean that a Jesus-like character didn’t exist in some peripheral way. It just means that we should be agnostic about the issue. We don’t have enough positive evidence on the other side of the fence to point things in that direction. I personally think that the entire NT is historically unreliable, but this doesn’t mean I promote a “mythical” Jesus (I don’t even know what that means in this context). My position is summed up by a comment on Godfrey’s blog by “timvonhobbyhorsen”:

If an historian had four anonymous, hearsay accounts of the battle, all written several decades after the event and they all contradicted one other, what do you think he’d do? Imagine that they not only contradict one another, but we have no external evidence — no written inscriptions, no military records, no physical evidence — nothing that can corroborate the anonymous hearsay accounts. What then?

Now, suppose these four anonymous, third-hand, uncorroborated, contradictory accounts of the battle also contain various descriptions of Athena appearing on the battlefield, killing mortals and shielding others? What would a real historian do then?

Now, what if these four anonymous, third-hand, uncorroborated, contradictory accounts of the battle that had Athena appearing on the battlefield also had a history of redaction, rewriting, and interpolations inserted into them by various different communities at different time periods (that were antagonistic towards each other) to promulgate a particular [political] view about Athena’s actions on the battlefield? Should we still assume without good cause that these four anonymous documents are historical?

Just to recap some basics about the gospels:

The four canonical gospels were written in third person (hence, not by eyewitnesses which would be in first person) by anonymous omniscient narrators in Greek (this, by the way, is the reason why we call Jesus the Latinized Greek “Jesus” instead of the Hebrew/Aramaic “Joshua”). The first time that a Christian asserted that people named Mark, Matt, Luke, and John wrote gospel narratives was around 180 CE, and he did this for anti-heretical purposes. Before that, Christians just cited “the gospel” when quoting from Mark, Matt, et. al.

Since these gospels were originally anonymous, we have no reason for believing anything that is written in them. We don’t know who the authors were. We don’t know who they were writing to. We don’t know where they wrote. We don’t know when they wrote. Nothing. What if the first gospel written was written as a play, or a satire, or theological allegory, or to make fun of Christians? What if it was written to explain why Biblical Joshua-style Jewish Messianism was in error? We have no idea since we don’t know anything about the author. In all of the NT epistles, there are no references to “disciples” of Jesus.

We have references to “servants” and “slaves” of Jesus, references to “those who are sent out” (i.e. apostles) of Jesus, but no disciples. There are no references to any teachings of Jesus in the NT epistles. If all we were left with were the letters in the NT, we would have no reason for thinking that the Jesus they’re talking about was a wandering preacher who was crucified because “the Jews” were jealous about his popularity.

Curiously, as soon as the first gospel is written asserting a teaching Jesus, we start getting the “heresy” of Gnosticism. Which was all about the “secret teachings” of Jesus. I don’t think this is a coincidence at all.


Posted by on July 6, 2010 in historiography, jesus myth

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