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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.