April 24, 2010

Gospel Narratives Lack Basic Historical Facts

Posted in history, literature, mythology, non-fiction, scripture at 5:52 am by Jerry

Here’s a few pieces from a response to a chapter in Scott McKnight’s book and an article of his in Christianity Today:

HJ scholars have NO basic facts to start with

To repeat: Nonbiblical historians begin with basic and public facts (that are certain and nondebatable) and move on from those to discover more complex and private facts that are less certain and more debatable than the original primary facts. Historical Jesus historians begin with no basic and public facts. They begin with an unprovenanced narrative that contains much myth and literary artifice, and from which they attempt to create their own basic and public facts by means of exegesis. But the basic and public facts so created are as uncertain and debatable as the secondary facts of nonbiblical historians.

In other words, historical Jesus scholars have no objective, existential raw materials with which even to begin to attempt a legitimate historical enquiry.

Historians have corroborated sources and primary evidence for Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. They have nothing but assumption in the case of Jesus. The Gospel narratives cannot be corroborated as history. Conclusions of exegesis are entirely dependent on the skills and interests of the historian. Exegesis of such documents can never produce an existential or basic real Fact…

Christian “historians” preach a hermeneutics of Love for the Gospel to find facts

Some HJ scholars attempt to substitute a “hermeneutics of love” or “trust” in the absence of external corroboration for their Gospel narrative. Whereas other historians (and everyone else) seek external corroboration to verify reports or narratives, McKnight, Bauckham, and others know they cannot match this basic common-sense approach, so complain that this standard is too “sceptical” and call it a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. This means that the HJ historian must take the Gospel narrative on trust at some level as a genuine attempt, again at some level, to convey real history. McKnight explains the Christian morality behind this:

I contend that a hermeneutics of suspicion is fundamentally at odds with the Christian gospel, which is what a theological discipline is most concerned with. In other words, what a  Christian needs is not a hermeneutics of suspicion but, as Alan Jacobs brilliantly presents, a “hermeneutics of love” or a “hermeneutics of trust”. (p.36)

Would they use the same trust or love for sources other than the canonical Gospels? Would they ask Christian judges in courtrooms to apply the same hermeneutic to any uncorroborated testimony? …

So where does this leave the “facts” used by the historians of Jesus?

McKnight believes that most historical Jesus scholars go along with the essence of this view of what they are doing (p. 15, Jesus and His Death). They see themselves as discovering facts and what those facts mean, and thus adding to an ever widening single knowledge base about Jesus incrementally.

But in historical Jesus studies facts are not incremental, and explanatory theories multiply, not decrease. Newly discovered facts do not augment established data. New “facts” are created to compete against other “facts”. If Jesus cleansed the temple, here are some “facts” to show that it was to declare that its days were numbered (Sanders). No it wasn’t. It was to speak up for the poor (Crossley). Hang on, I don’t think we can say it is a fact that Jesus cleansed the Temple at all (Fredrikson, Mack). This situation testifies loudly that the very preliminary “facts” in historical Jesus studies are nothing like the “facts” that other historians speak of — e.g. that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, that the first atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. McKnight, as we have seen above, exposes exactly where such biblical “facts” come from — exegesis of the Gospels…

What of the sources we use?

Elton writes a warning for amateur historians:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p. 60)

Many historical Jesus historians do, at times, apply this principle. But when confronted with alternative paradigms, such as that of Price, Thompson, or Doherty, they do not address the questions raised accordingly, but respond like amateurs by casting around to find a rebuttal with scattered pieces of particular evidence which they think will answer the particular question.

Elton also addresses the critical importance of the provenance of sources, and uses documents from the Tudor period as an example. How our sources came to be produced is of critical importance for knowing how to interpret them and understand what evidence, if any, they yield. It is essential to know how they came into being. They must be subjected to this sort of critical enquiry before we can know what sort of evidence they will yield (pp. 62-63).

Of the sources the historian uses, Elton wrote:

There is no perfect substitute for total acquaintance with the relevant material. . . . If the independent reality of history is ever to be apprehended, the real meaning of the surviving material must be elicited from the surface appearance. . . . Criticizing the evidence means two things: establishing its genuineness, and assessing its proper significance. (pp. 66-7)

I submit that there is no reason to think that the Gospels were written with a view to containing real history at some level, or were written from testimonies of oral sources that went back to eyewitnesses of real events. This view of the Gospels as authoritative sources is entirely an untested assumption inherited from centuries of inherited conventional wisdom. They have never been tested as the documents purporting to be the Donation of Constantine or the Ems Telegram have been. Certainly historians have attempted to argue for their origins in this or that geographical area, but precious few have attempted to test the conventional wisdom that claims they are indeed records ultimately derived from “traditions” traceable back to real historical characters and events.

Going this far, I suggest, risks questioning the very rationale for whole discipline of biblical studies.

But none of this, of itself, means that the Gospels might not contain real history. As Philip R. Davies might say, such a question has yet to be established. But Thomas L. Thompson can write (The Messiah Myth) that the idea that the gospel narratives and sayings are derived from real history is falsifiable. He argues that pointing to how the Gospel sayings and actions echo widely known literary sayings and deeds from other periods points to their dependence on their wider literary heritage. My own view is that we can only roll with the evidence we have, and that means comparing the Gospels with the similar literature, or literature that contains similar motifs (e.g. the Jewish scriptures, Book of Enoch and other Second Temple and other Mid East literature, Philo, Euripides, Homer), and seeing where that leads. There are no independent external controls to inform us that the contents of the Gospel narrative are historical. We only have literature to compare with literature. Thompson may not have written the most persuasive book when he composed The Messiah Myth, but he is certainly headed in the right direction with a methodology that pulls on the fewest strings to make it work.

What is required of the Gospels before their narratives can be assumed to be evidence for historical facts is a study of their origins, their audiences, their authors at a minimum. These are all matters of speculation, however educated the speculation may be. Their narratives demand external corroboration before they can be taken as serious evidence of historical events. Every historian from Christian Albert Schweitzer to Marxist Eric Hobsbawm knows that truism. Till then, the best any historian can do is to compare their literature with other literature. If that means seeking to explain the origins and nature of the Gospels themselves, and Christian origins more generally, instead of questing for the Historical Jesus “known” to exist by virtue of conventional wisdom and cultural heritage, then we will be making real intellectual and historical progress.

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