The evidence for Jesus: a case study

November 14th, 2012

Books about Jesus

I think this deserves a separate post.

A few weeks back I posted on the historical evidence for Jesus and how some sceptics refuse to accept the conclusions of the best scholars that Jesus existed and the gospels present some reliable historical information about him (Jesus – assessing the evidence). Akhenaten has been discussing the question with me, taking the sceptical view.

I want to wrap up that discussion, summarise it, and invite him (if he wishes) to comment whether I have fairly presented his views.

My original argument

I distinguish between (a) the historical evidence for Jesus’ life and teachings, and (b) the conclusions which I as a christian, or anyone else for that matter, come to on whether we believe Jesus was divine.

I argued that while we are all free to draw our own conclusions on (b), anyone discussing (a) who cares about evidence will need to either be an expert themselves (i.e. familiar through detailed study with the relevant history, culture, literature and ancient languages), or else accept, or at least respect, the verdict of the consensus of scholars.

Akhenaten’s view

Akhenaten has contested this. After some discussion, his stated views on the historical evidence seem to be:

  • His standard for knowing history appears to be absolute certainty (“It is unlikely that we can know with 100% certainty anything from ancient history.”).
  • This seems to make him a “historical sceptic”, for it leads him to be uncertain about the existence of Jesus, Hannibal and Alexander the Great.
  • Nevertheless he admits: “That a man named Jesus lived sometime around 2000 years ago and was an itinerant preacher is eminently possible and Christianity could well have been based on such a figure.”
  • However he mistrusts the conclusions of scholars when I have stated them to my best understanding – I am unsure whether this is because he disbelieves that these statements are the general consensus of scholars, or because he mistrusts the scholars himself (who he sometimes seems to suggest are making faith conclusions)
  • But he trusts two sceptical scholars: “Price & Carrier …. the views of these two eminent gentleman I do take note of.”

My assessment and response

Sometimes I wonder what the argument is about, for Akhenaten says at one point:

based on what evidence we have available, then Yes, Jesus was probably a historical character. Applying the same criteria to the resurrection and his divinity then one would be obliged to return a resounding ‘No’.

This seems to roughly agree with what I have said, that the historical evidence points to the existence of the Jesus described in the gospels (i.e. a messianic prophet and teacher believed to be a miracle-worker), but we are each left to draw our own conclusions about the miracles, the truth of his teachings and his divinity.

So where is the disagreement?

Extreme scepticism?

Based on his answers to some of my questions, Akhenaten appears to be sceptical of our ability to “know” very much at all. He mistrusts our memories, history and some of the science of evolution – anything that isn’t able to be multiply verified.

This seems to me to distort discussion of Jesus and history. If we must be sceptical of almost everything, why single Jesus out for mention of this? If very little can be known about anything, why not just say this, and the discussion can centre on epistemology rather than history?

Choice of scholars

Regardless of how uncertain we are about historical “facts”, we will all draw conclusions about someone as polarising as Jesus. And it still makes sense to me to utilise the views of the consensus of the best scholars. This Akhenaten seems quite unwilling to do. He appears to think sometimes that the scholars I quote are all christians, and therefore biased, when in fact most of them (Grant, Sanders, Casey, Ehrman) are non-believers.

But nevertheless he is willing to take notice of Price and Carrier, two scholars who are on the very fringe of scholarship, or beyond, and (as far as I can judge) not much respected by their peers – for example, Ehrman and Casey have been very critical of both.

At one point he asks: “If 99 out of 100 scholars state that X is fact does it mean that the single scholar who states that it is Y is wrong?” But science and history alike proceed via peer review, and in both disciplines, if the vast majority of experts conclude in the same way, we non-experts have little choice but to accept their conclusions.

The scholarly consensus

Akhenaten sometimes misrepresents the scholarly consensus, for example when he says: “even recognised professional experts disagree among themselves all the time”. This is obviously true about many matters, but on the matters being discussed here (that Jesus existed, was known as a teacher and healer, and the gospels are useful historical sources for his life) there is relatively little disagreement these days. It is certainly not just christians scholars who accept this! (See, for example, Was Jesus a real person? and Jesus in history.)

This leads him to make much more sceptical statements than the scholars do, about Jesus’ existence and and what can be confidently said about him.

Historical sources

It seems like Akhenaten has a very unrealistic view of historical sources. He says of the gospel accounts: “Either it is accurate or it is not.” But historians do not take such a view. They recognise that apparently historical writings can contain eyewitness reporting, interpretation of events, nonliteral language, mistakes and misrepresentations, etc. Some parts may be “accurate” (as we see things), others not, and the writers may have had different intentions than to write simple history. Separating these elements is an essential part of historical analysis.

Bias?

Akhenaten has several times accused me of bias. I am after all a christian, and my blog presents information from that viewpoint. But:

  • On this matter, I try to separate my opinions from the historical “facts” as determined by the scholars. My views are based on those conclusions, but go beyond them, and I explicitly recognise that others draw different conclusions from the same historical “facts”.
  • Akhenaten appears to fall into the error he accuses me of – he bases his views on Price, Carrier and Godfrey, who all share his disbelief and presents them as if they were unbiased, when the latter two at least clearly are not, and disparages scholars who are unbelievers and striving to be unbiased – and recognised by their peers as having done this successfully.

The futility of discussion

In these circumstances, discussion becomes futile. There is no basis for discussion of our conclusions, because we cannot agree on the evidence. I have avoided using scholars who agree with my views, to use the scholars who should be acceptable to both “sides”, but Akhenaten has not done this. There is no common ground.

In the end, the discussion unfortunately bears out the thesis of the original post.

To Akhenaten

Akhenaten, I invite you to comment whether I have presented your views fairly, correct me if I haven’t, and comment on whatever else you wish. This may then finalise our discussion, unless you can suggest a useful way forward. Thanks.

27 Comments

  1. I feel you are being pedantic so I wont respond to everything.
    But I will respond to this:
    This is the full quote from your last post which you elected to redact to serve your purpose. Naughty, unkleE, as you accuse that Ontario site of a similar omission.
    So far I have believed you to be intelligent enough to understand this quote without having to explain each word. However, if you do still don’t get it, just ask.
    “That a man named Jesus lived sometime around 2000 years ago and was an itinerant preacher is eminently possible and Christianity could well have been based on such a figure. And this is as far as one can speculate based on available evidence.
    That the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible and specifically the synoptic gospels was an actual person is not possible.”

  2. Excuse me, unkleE, it is past midnight here in South Africa. I have to get up early tomorrow and need my beauty sleep. G’night!

  3. “This is the full quote from your last post which you elected to redact to serve your purpose. Naughty, unkleE”

    I’m sorry, how was that misrepresenting you? I only quoted part of your comments because that was all I thought was relevant to what I was saying. (I can’t sensibly quote the entire comment!) But I understand it, and I think I have addressed what you say.

    Sleep tight! I didn’t know you lived in South Africa.

  4. great article. of the four non-christian scholars, I know of Ehrman, and I’ve seen you mention casey before on other comments. What are the full names of the scholars? I would like to read up a little on them.

    o

  5. The issue of bias is very relevant with respect to the above-mentioned Richard Carrier, who has shown that his bias is paramount in his “replies” to Ehrman. Then he also holds other fringe views that overlap with an anti-Christian bias.

  6. I believe it is almost impossible that anyone from a westernized Christian background, whether Christian, agnostic, or atheist is capable of being completely free of bias in this regard.
    However, I am willing to retract this view if evidence is forthcoming.
    Please illustrate, if you can, how one can have an unbiased scholarly point of view regarding the Jesus issue?

  7. “great article. of the four non-christian scholars, I know of Ehrman, and I’ve seen you mention casey before on other comments. What are the full names of the scholars? I would like to read up a little on them.”

    Thanks Marcus. More details are:

    Bart Ehrman – you can find “Jesus Interrupted” in PDF on the web for free if you search for it.
    Maurice Casey – Jesus of Nazareth
    EP Sanders – The historical figure of Jesus and Jesus and Judaism
    Michael Grant – Jesus: an historians review of the gospels

    Grant’s book is a little old now, Casey’s is the newest but his views are not entirely representative of the mainstream of scholarship, Sanders is still probably the most respected of them all, and Ehrman is more limited in his scope to textual matters, and he tends to over-sensationalise his conclusions. I’d most recommend Sanders & Casey.

    Just for balance, here are 4 christian scholars I also reference:

    NT Wright – Simply Jesus
    R Bauckham – Jesus and the Eyewitnesses
    John Dickson – Life of Jesus
    Craig Evans – Fabricating Jesus

    Here I’d recommend Dickson (this and several other books) as an easy-to-read introduction to Jesus scholarship.

    Happy reading or investigating!

  8. “I believe it is almost impossible that anyone from a westernized Christian background, whether Christian, agnostic, or atheist is capable of being completely free of bias in this regard.”

    Yes, I agree. But we all need to be as open-minded as we can be, and historical scholars even more so. They achieve this, to a degree, by applying objective methods of historical analysis, by peer review and wide reading. We can achieve it in our reading by reading scholars from various viewpoints and getting a balance.

    “Please illustrate, if you can, how one can have an unbiased scholarly point of view regarding the Jesus issue?”

    I think the clearest way is to do what I’ve been suggesting here – separate the historical questions from the faith questions, at least for a time. This becomes something like this ….

    1. Consider the historical evidence for Jesus exactly as we would for any other historical figure. Don’t assume the Bible is the word of God, don’t assume Jesus was the son of God, just look at Jesus like we would look at Hannibal. This is what scholars like Grant & Casey set out to do (and mostly achieve, I think). Look at the evidence, the possible explanations of that evidence, don’t rule anything out or anything in.

    Address supernatural matters such as miracles by examining first what the people of the day believed was the case, then secondly what we would conclude if we had no assumption that miracles couldn’t occur – i.e. determine what the historical evidence points to if we don’t make any philosophical assumptions.

    2. Then consider the philosophical issues and personal response based on this evidence.

    Following an approach like this, non-christians scholars Casey and Grant conclude Jesus existed and did miracles by power of persuasion or suggestion, Sanders believes he was known as a miracle worker but is agnostic about what actually happened. All believe either Jesus’ tomb was empty and/or the disciples had some post Easter visions of Jesus, but Casey & Grant don’t believe Jesus was really resurrected, while Sanders is again agnostic on the question. None of them believe in Jesus as christians do.

    The christians scholars I have mentioned believe the same evidence points to Jesus being divine, that he was indeed resurrected and they personally believe in him.

    Of course there are still biases there, but all of these scholars would agree about a lot (for example, non-christian Casey refers to christians Wright, Bauckham and Evans in positive terms, even while disagreeing with them on some matters). And the range of their conclusions gives a reasonable range of conclusions for each of us to consider. Outside that range, we are starting to get on shaky ground.

    Hope that helps. Thanks.

  9. “By the way, nice photo! Is it your collection?”

    They are mostly my own books, but the photo includes 4 from the local public library.

    I get my information from 3 sources:

    1. I read what is available in our local library – some good books there, though a little old and biased a little to the more sensational “fringe” writers.

    2. What I can read on the web – some free downloads, web articles and blogs by scholars, and reading important sections of books on Amazon “Look inside” and Google Books.

    3. What I think is important enough to buy for myself (I generally order from Amazon because they are more expensive and often impossible to get in Australia).

  10. “Yes, I agree. But we all need to be as open-minded as we can be, and historical scholars even more so. They achieve this, to a degree, by applying objective methods of historical analysis, by peer review and wide reading. We can achieve it in our reading by reading scholars from various viewpoints and getting a balance.”

    This is a fair response.Unfortunately it is quickly diminished in credibility by this paragraph:
    “Address supernatural matters such as miracles by examining first what the people of the day believed was the case, then secondly what we would conclude if we had no assumption that miracles couldn’t occur – i.e. determine what the historical evidence points to if we don’t make any philosophical assumptions.”

    Which, is already leaning /hinting towards yet another Christian outcome.
    This is understandable as you are a Christian and will naturally look for arguments to confirm or at least strengthen this belief. But it begins to hint at bias because you DO accept miracles and divinity otherwise you could not be a Christian as per the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed.
    Furthermore, you accepted Jesus before you began an investigation to justify this faith, surely? (I stand under correction, of course)
    So while you may laud a scholar such as Ehrman for championing the historicity of Jesus you will likely disregard him over his handling of textual issues in his earlier work and dismiss him out of hand over his stance regarding divinity and miracles.
    This is not really balanced, but merely picking your ‘team’ to bolster’ particular aspects of your own view.

  11. I will add, that referencing any or all non-Christian scholars does not really reflect an honest balance as you do not accept their POV concerning the divinity of Jesus, merely their acknowlegment of his historicity, which because of an obligation of every Christian to dismiss the opinion of ANYONE (expert scholar or layman) who refutes the divinty, you win on all fronts.

  12. Why would respecting their historical conclusions necessarily result in accepting their worldviews? Apologetical arguments on the interpretation of the historical facts are not necessarily weaker than the historians’ arguments.

  13. @IgnorantiaNescia

    “Apologetical arguments on the interpretation of the historical facts are not necessarily weaker than the historians’ arguments”
    This may well be true, but a non christian historian is unlikely to use an apologetics POV to strenghten his case and an apologetics historical interpretation is bound to be influenced by his belief in the supernatural aspects of Christianity.

  14. That is true, but if the apologetics are based on the views of secular historians, wouldn’t that be a restriction on their biases?

    Not that such an argument would be “neutral” or unbiased, of course, I think we an agree on that.

  15. An important question to consider is how much of the non-supernatural biblical events are apologetics prepared to disregard as non historical?
    Relatively easy with HJ scholars. But apologetics? Can of worms.

    It is here, in particular, that there is likely to be less consensus among apologetics. And once we begin down this slippery slope the argument against innerrancy begins. And if we are going to question the historical accuracy of one part of the bible why must we believe in any of it?

  16. “Which, is already leaning /hinting towards yet another Christian outcome.”

    Akhenaten, I find this a little unreal.

    I have discussed how I take notice of some of the most respected scholars, both christians and non-believers, in forming my understanding of history. You, on the other hand, have criticised these scholars, called them biased, then stated that you take notice of two writers on the extreme fringe of scholarship.

    I have outlined how I separate history and faith in forming my views – considering history first and then faith only after I have established history. You have offered no such explanation of your views beyond saying you are sceptical of all history.

    Yet somehow you are able to accuse me at every turn of bias, and present yourself as apparently unbiased.

    How does that work? What justification do you offer for your criticism of the scholars I quote? What justification do you offer for the fairness of your own views?

    I am keen to answer your other comments, but I think we need to get these matters clear.

    Thanks.

  17. “I have outlined how I separate history and faith in forming my views – considering history first and then faith only after I have established history. You have offered no such explanation of your views beyond saying you are sceptical of all history.”

    Are you suggestiong you studied history, and then on the strength of yours and scholarly interpretation became a Christian? Are you serious?

    Let me bring a third party in here, without his permission. Nate.
    His deconversion had nothing to do with history and it mattered not to him. He questioned his faith and examined the Bible for something to help him in his crisis. He couldn’t find it. Becasuse it ISN’T there.
    This is why HJ scholars will not entertain aspects of divinity and in many cases certain non-supernatural aspects of the bible. Like the birth legend of Jesus Luke/Matthew.
    You cannot divorce your faith from your POV of this topic, and if you are a genuine Christian, your faith comes first.
    If you doubt this why are there so many, many, questionable and in some cases, irreconcilable, points of the bible?
    And if you are looking for truth in history then why not start with Moses?
    Jesus mentions him. Surely, if there was no doubt to Moses’ hisoricity then Jesus wpould have known this?
    You side with expert opinion. Why not side with Albright the archaeologist?

    If you doubt this why are there so many, many, questionable points of the bible?
    And if you are looking for truth in history then why not start with Moses?
    Jesus mentions him.
    You side with expert opinion. Why not side with Albright the archaeologist?
    Or maybe Prof. Zev Herzog?

    As for this prickly ‘consensus’ business. Let’s try to clarify this, shall we?
    I am not aware of exactly how many opinions must be recorded so as to constitute a consensus but the word suggests majority. Are we agreed?
    Yet, I would ask, how many scholars in this field have come forward to share their views openly?
    How many might well risk tenure and even normal employment by stating their POV?
    So, if you are merely reciting the phrase ‘consensus’ from somewhere like Wiki then let’s be open about it, shall we?

  18. I continue to read your essays over in an effort to genuinely find errors in my judgment, yet time and again I find a sentence that ranckles and confirms my assessment that your presentation of material is misleading.
    This in reference to historical biblical scholars (as this is what the whole conflab is about – especially between you and I)

    “They recognise that apparently historical writings can contain eyewitness reporting, ”

    Obviously there must be eyewitnesess to historical events otherwise we would know nothing.
    However, in context…….

    What consensus concernng contemporary any eyewitness account is there anywhere regarding the issue of the historicity of Jesus!!!

    Or were you referring to historical writings in general?

  19. “They recognise that apparently historical writings can contain eyewitness reporting, ”

    let me rephrase….

    What consensus concerning any contemporary eyewitness account regarding the historicity of Jesus do you refer?

  20. Akhenaten, I asked you a clear question, and you didn’t answer it. You of course are under no compulsion to do so, but I wanted to make it clear again:

    I have provided a bunch of scholars of various philosophical and religious viewpoints that I regard as among the most respected, and which I draw on for my historical understanding, and you have only provided the names of two very fringe and not necessarily respected scholars to support your views. And I have outlined how I use those views to come to my beliefs, you have not.

    So I have done what you haven’t done, and yet you accuse me. I am getting a little tired of this.

    “Are you suggestiong you studied history, and then on the strength of yours and scholarly interpretation became a Christian? Are you serious?”

    Akhenaten, why do you keep making the nasty accusations and comments when you could simply find out what I think first, just by asking. No, I have never suggested that all this is the way I came to believe. Rather, it is the reason why I believe today.

    “How many might well risk tenure and even normal employment by stating their POV?”

    Do you have any evidence of this? If you don’t, this is a despicable suggestion. You are libelling thousands of scholars at scores of highly respectable universities. And you don’t explain how it is that atheists and outspoken critics of christian belief work quite happily within the system. There are colleges and universities that require their staff to sign statements of faith, but I am not aware that any of the scholars I quote have to do that, and certainly the non-christioan scholars I quote do not.

    I think when someone plays the “conspiracy theory” card they have reached the end of any rational argument.

    I don’t wish to be pedantic, but in light of all this, I will not be responding to anything else you write on this discussion unless you are willing to address the above. Until there is some reasonable basis, further discussion is pointless.

  21. You are missing the point and allowing emotion to cloud your judgment.

    You state, there are thousands of scholars working in this field.
    You use the word consensus about scholarly views in this regard, yet a quick scan of Wiki, eg, might reveal a hundred or so. And maybe twenty or thirty well known.
    I have asked how many of these thousands of scholars have been polled for their views for you to arrive at the term consensus?
    Is your use of the term based of NUMBERS polled or clicking on Wiki and such like?

    Conspiracy?
    Would you concede, then , that if there was a single scholar that had been intimidated for speaking his mind, was forced to resign, was unable to obtain a tenured position, worked as a teacher, forced to leave, then as a school janitor until evenually he left the country(States) and ended up in …say…Denmark, there would be basis for me suggesting some scholars may well feel uncomfortable stating their POV ? ) Just a suggestion of course.
    And before you answer, consider carefully what Nate (and many more) deconvertees went through.

  22. Sorry re: the direct question. I couldn’t work our what you were getting at as we seem to jumping around all over the place at times.
    Let me try….and me if I am missing the mark.
    You are saying, because you quote tons of scholars and I only mention two, Price and Carrier,-yes?-that your lot are more credible than mine unless I can demonstrate otherwise?
    Is this the question you are asking?

  23. It is not just tons of scholars, but the fact that they are the leading scholars – as I discuss in Is there really a consensus of scholars on historical facts about Jesus?

    So I am asking (1) On what basis you reject all these scholars and instead trust a fringe scholar and a non-scholar, (2) How you can show that you have tried not to be biased, and (3) On what basis you claim there is a conspiracy to stop the leading scholars say what they really think.

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