I watched this video on the historical Jesus at the suggestion of an atheist commenter on Strange Notions. It is very good. He explains well how scholars think when they approach the question of what in the gospels is historical. He says they use the same method with other historical writing. He is sort of right. I think the basic method is the same but the level it is being used at is different.
The MethodThe two main methods he lists are:
- Multiple Attestation. This just means other sources give the same information and there is reason to believe they were not all copied from the same source. Essentially it lines up with other documents we trust.
- Dissimilarity. This asks whether the document is agenda driven. Will the author accurately relate facts that don't fit his agenda? Often historical documents sing the praises of a political or military leader and overstate his greatness. Claiming his good deeds were better than they actually were and ignoring or even denying his less noble deeds. Documents like that have little historical value. What historians look for is authors who are honest about the facts. If the author was not honest would this be the sort of fiction he would write?
These same tests are applied to the New Testament but it seems they are applied at a much lower level. He gives the example of the sign above Jesus when He was crucified. It said "King of the Jews." He sees multiple attestations because John mentions it as well as the synoptic gospels. He sees dissimilarity because King of the Jews was not a title Christians typically applied to Jesus. So it passes his tests.
|Plato and Socrates|
The effect that this method has on historians is that they can't conclude anything about the New Testament that is favorable to Christianity. One of their tests is dissimilarity. When applied at a very detailed level we can see that if the fact under consideration is not in contradiction with Christian tradition in some way it will fail this test. So their method boils down to accepting as fact anything that is embarrassing or hard to explain for Christians and rejecting as fiction anything that affirms or supports Christianity.
So when someone says, "No serious historian believes this actually happened" you need to understand that they can't believe it. It is a meaningless statement. Their method does not allow them to believe anything that puts Christianity in a good light. So their conclusion is predetermined. They are begging the question.
The method of dissimilarity is a good one when used properly. Christians use it. They point out that the gospel authors included facts about Jesus that don't seem to fit their story. There are many hard sayings of Jesus that the gospel writers could have left out. The only reason to include them is because He actually said it. Yet they go beyond that and argue that if the gospel writers can be trusted on the hard sayings they can be trusted on everything. If you don't take this step then dissimilarity can only arrive at a negative answer.
Trusting The Gospels As A WholeOne response I expect scholars would make is that the gospels can't be trusted as a whole. They disagree with each other. He give a couple of examples of this disagreement in the video. He talks about the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and he talks about the trial of Jesus in Mark and John. In both cases he does not really demonstrate a contradiction. What he shows is that one account includes many details that another account does not. That is not the same thing. Different gospels include or exclude different details for many reasons. One writer might have access to information another did not.
He dismisses attempts to harmonize the infancy narratives but it is just not that hard. It could be that Matthew went to Bethlehem to get information about the birth of Jesus. Luke interviewed Mary and went to the home town of Elizabeth and Zachariah. Joseph was obviously from Bethlehem because he was sent back there to be counted. Luke tells us Mary was from Nazareth. Joseph was there to and might have had plans to stay if it was not for the census. People tend to remember why someone left their town but not so much why they came back. That is natural. Of course they came back, we are such nice folks who would not come back here!
It all reads quite naturally. Bethlehem remembers the angel visitation of Joseph because he lived there. They obviously remembered the killing of the children and the arrival of the Magi. Mary remembered her angel visitation and the birth of John the Baptist. She would remember the shepherds and the presentation at the temple. It is hard to see any great contradictions.
The trial of Jesus is even easier. He asks how anyone would know what was said. John wrote later. More data might have been available later. It is interesting that he does not think of the most obvious eye witness. That is Jesus Himself. If He did rise from the dead He could have told John the story. That possibility seems so far removed from his mind that it is not even brought up to be dismissed. The presupposition that the gospels are false is just so deeply ingrained in his subconscious that his mind cannot go there.
The Real ProblemIt is interesting in that bringing up a couple of the allegedly most obvious contradictions he fails to show an actual contradiction. Is this really the reason he can't take the gospels seriously? I doubt it. The elephant in the room is the supernatural. Is it really that implausible that one writer misses a few details the other includes? If there were no supernatural claims in the gospels then there would be a lot less skepticism. There is a lot for a historian to like. Lots of names of people and places. Documents that were highly respected by the Christian community very early.
The miracle stories are the real show-stopper. If you don't want to accept that they might be true then you have to twist your whole analysis around to explain how they got in there. There is not just one or two. There are many. Including the climax of the gospels, the resurrection. How did they get there? How did the gospels get so widely accepted by early Christians if they contained so many false stories? We have writings from these church leaders vigorously fighting heresies like Gnosticism. Yet they accepted such a wide collection of incredible stories without controversy? Not just one Christian community but many in different parts of the empire. They could fight about what was the right day to celebrate Easter yet they were fed one bogus miracle story after another and nobody said a word.
The point is the historical analysis gets radically off track if you exclude the supernatural based on your own personal philosophy. That is what modern scholarship does. They immediately assume none of the source documents are even close to trustworthy. They all contain miracles. Yet you want to say something. So you trust one verse and ignore the next one.
The honest historians will say they have no idea about Jesus. They have no idea how the New Testament came to be written. They have no idea where the early church got its faith from. There simply is no natural explanation that makes sense and we are unwilling to consider supernatural explanations. That would be honest. They don't want to go there. So they chop up the documents and say we can believe a verse here or there.