Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Scholars And The Historical Jesus

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 Method

The two main methods he lists are:
  1.  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. 
  2. 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 Often historical documents sing the praises of a political or military leader and overstate his greatness.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?
He gives the example of Socrates. We don't have any direct evidence he existed. We know what we know about him because his followers wrote about him. The most famous of those followers is Plato. Plato is an author they trust. What he says often lines up with other sources when it can be checked. You don't expect 100% agreement but large agreement. Then you look at how Plato handles things about Socrates he does not agree with. Does he play it straight or does he sugar coat things?

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.

The Problem 

Plato and Socrates
The interesting thing he does not comment on is the smallness of the detail. This is one verse. When analyzing Plato they decide on a much higher level whether to trust him. They apply the same tests but to a much larger block of writing. Not every single line of Plato's writing has multiple attestations. Not every single line contains dissimilarity. The ones that do lend credibility to the ones that don't. If Plato is honest and accurate then we tend to trust him even when he is the only source of some information. Why can't we do that for John?

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 Whole

One 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 Problem

It 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.


  1. Sorry I had to repost. I made a single mistake that reversed what I made.
    I think one thing many people miss is that the Bible were never meant to be historical or scientific. How could they be? Modern science and modern historiography are modern constructions and these too will be dismissed as "non-historical" or "non-scientific" by scholars 2000 years from now who will use different constructions for organizing their knowledge.

    This does not however mean that the Bible is inaccurate or against empiricism or reason. It simply means that the way historical accounts were made was different than how modern historians do history. Look at secular histories of Julius Ceasar, Alexander the Great, etc. We don't write modern histories that way. The emphasis is all "wrong" and the order of events is less important than coherence and emphasizing the virtues or vices of the person. Look at the historical books of the Old Testament. All events are described in terms of God's Judgments and Faithfulness. The enemies of Israel didn't triumph over it or vice versus. It was all God's doing. Compare these accounts with accounts of WWII. They're starkly different. Look at the Gospels. The entire childhood of Jesus is glossed over, his three year ministry is raced through, and painstaking details are given for Holy Week of Jesus. Look at St. Augustine's Confessions. They're the closest thing we have to an ancient modern-like biography, and yet even here the "emphasis is all wrong". It reads more like an extended prayer than an actual modern biography.

    1. You are right. I do think historians are familiar with secular histories of Julius Ceasar, Alexander the Great, etc. The trouble is the gospels are different. They are telling a story that has 3 basic points:
      1. Jesus is God
      2. Jesus sacrificed His life out of love for us.
      3. Jesus rose from the dead

      Historians simple start with the assumption that #1 and #3 are just rubbish. They think He was probably crucified but not that He predicted that or chose that. So the vast majority of the gospels is being dismissed. They compare them to other histories of great men. Yet that is precisely what the gospels are not. They are intentionally and emphatically saying Jesus is not just another great man. He is more than that.

  2. Are you *currently* being sent into Hell forever ... automatically excommunicated (outside) of God’s Catholic Church ?

    Answer: Yes you are ... you can reverse it ... please continue.

    Council of Florence, Session 8, 22 Nov 1439 -- infallible Source of Dogma >
    "Whoever wills to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he holds the Catholic faith. Unless a person keeps this faith whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish eternally."

    You must believe the Catholic Dogma to be in the Church ... Dogma you have *never* seen.

    Site > ... infallible Dogma throughout.

    The Catholic Faith *is not* Bible interpretation ... it is the Catholic infallible Sources of Dogma. The Catholic Church didn’t even define the Bible’s New Testament Canon until 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage.

    - - - -

    Can a group which enforces the opposite, the opposite, and the opposite of the Catholic unchangeable Dogma be the Catholic Church?

    No, it cannot possibly be the Catholic Church ... and promotion of the opposite of the Catholic Dogma is exactly what the vatican-2 heretic cult does ... and has been doing since it’s founding on 8 December 1965 at the Vatican.

    The vatican-2 heresy does not have the Office of the Papacy ... only the Catholic Church has the Papacy.

    The Dogma cannot “change” or be “reversed” ... God does not “change”.

    The founding documents of the vatican-2 heretic cult … the “vatican-2 council” documents … have well over 200 heresies *against* prior defined unchangeable Dogma. Every (apparent) bishop at the “council” approved the mountain of heresy, which caused their automatic excommunication, see Section 13.2 of the below site.

    - - - -

    Section 12 > Anti-Christ vatican-2 heresies (50 listed) ... followed by many Catholic corrections.

    Sections 13 and 13.1 > Photographic *proof* of heresy at the Vatican.

    Because of … the Catholic Dogma on automatic excommunication for heresy or for physical participation in a heretic cult (such as the v-2 cult) …

    … we were all placed, body and soul, *outside* of Christianity (the Catholic Church) on 8 December 1965 … the close date of the “council”.

    Section 13.2 > Catholic Dogma on automatic excommunication for heresy or participating in a heretic cult such as ... vatican-2, lutheran, methodist, evangelical, etc.

    Section 107 > St. Athanasius (died 373 A.D.) ... “Even if the Church were reduced to a handful ...” - - during the “arian” heresy ... we are there again, but worse.

    Section 13.3 > Matt 16:18, Gates of Hell scripture ... is *not* about the Office of the Papacy ... four Dogmatic Councils defined it ... that heresy will not cause the Dogma to disappear.

    Section 13.4 > The vatican-2 heretic cult does not have the Office of the Papacy only the Catholic Church has the Papacy.

    Section 13.6 > The Catholic Dogma on Jurisdiction and Automatic Excommunication for heresy define that ... God has allowed Catholic Jurisdiction ... for Mass and Confession to disappear from the world. There is no such thing as Catholic Mass outside of the Catholic Church.

    Non-Catholic heresies such as “vatican-2”, “sspx”, “sspv”, “cmri”, etc. ... do not have Catholic Mass.

    Section 19.1 > Dogma on Abjuration for *re-entering* Christianity (the Catholic Church) … after being automatically excommunicated. A Formal Abjuration is provided here also.

    Section 10.2 > Returning to a state of grace, in places and times when Confession is not available, like now.

    - - - -

    Second Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D. -- infallible Source of Dogma >
    "The heretic, even though he has not been condemned formally by any individual, in reality brings anathema on himself, having cut himself off from the way of truth by his heresy."

    Blessed John Eudes, died 1680 >
    “The greatest evil existing today is heresy, an infernal rage which hurls countless souls into eternal damnation.”

    Everything you must know, believe, and do to get to Heaven is on > >

    Our Lady of Conquest
    Pray for us

    1. Interesting. How do you know Vatican 2 taught heresy? I can see that it is plausible to argue that it did. It also seem plausible to argue it did not. Many people have done so quite convincingly. So how do you know? It it not at least possible that the Holy Spirit has guided His church down this path?

      What about Jesus' promise of the gates of hell not prevailing against the church. If what you say is true have not the gates of hell prevailed in some important way?