Monday, December 14, 2009

Historical Jesus: No Clear Picture

I think it’s absolutely critical to have religions and religious belief put into a proper perspective. When we do this it becomes quite clear that religion establishes itself not on historicity and data, but on narration and authority. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it’s important to bear in mind because we have little rational basis for asserting the truth of a religion. Yet, many people accept that their adopted religion is true.

Let’s consider Christianity for an example of how attempts to assert historicity fail. It is December, after all, and Christian groups and believers are working overtime to repeat their message, "Our religion is true! Jesus was born, lived, died, and lived again!" I also want to state a hypothesis that I do not have enough evidence to verify (yet): Belief in Christianity being true does not depend on either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament being historically/factually true. I know, I know, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament are supposed to be the same thing. But they are not. I have a quote later by Gerd Lüdemann that indicates some of the difference. The point of my hypothesis, however, is that Christianity considers its own claims as unimpeachable and only secondarily concerns itself with defending texts outside of the New Testament. Beyond the hypothesis, my point is that Christianity's own historical and factual claims become highly problematic under scrutiny, and this is a fact that ought to be emphasized more.

For this consideration, we can do much worse than listening to someone like R. Joseph Hoffmann, who is Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College and head of the Goddard Program in Human Values. He is also Former Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) and Co-chair of The Jesus Project (2007-2009).

Hoffmann explains that our sources of information – including the New Testament itself – do not give a clear answer to whether a discernibly historical Jesus existed. The methodologies we use to evaluate sources also do not yield this clear answer.
[N]either the sources we possess nor approaches to them developed over the last two centuries yield any resolution of the question of his [i.e., Jesus’s] actual existence and that the Church’s description of his reality has never depended primarily on the status of such a question.
In other words, there simply is not enough evidence to establish the historical existence of the New Testament’s Jesus. We have reports by people invested in the stories they tell, but we don’t have the historical records we need to say “Yes, this person existed.”
Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown. The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events. For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Yeshu, a Galilean, would be very helpful. But we do not possess such a record. Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and self-interested reasons for retelling his story. And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century CE that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the Gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.
Religion and religious belief only complicate matters. In the case of Christianity, the Christ figure that emerges by the 4th century bears little resemblance to anything of historical or physical reality.
To accept the “reality” of Jesus after the fourth century is to accept the rather bizarre figure immortalized in the icons, the Jesus of the fertile Christian imagination. This Jesus is a myth cobbled together from other myths—imperial, soteriological, apocalyptic and messianic, priestly, gnostic, stoic with a healthy dash of byzantine splendor tossed into the mix. To the extent that every Jesus is a composite of culture and theology, the Jesus of Nicaeo-Chalcedonian orthodoxy would have been quite impossible in a first or second century context, and for the same reasons–though his image is emblazoned on cathedral walls from London to St Louis in tribute to the famous “original” in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—impossibly exotic to later generations. The rate of change in reframing the reality of Jesus between the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and since the Reformation is enough to suggest that theological definitions of reality relate more to love than to chairs; that is to say, they are impressions of interpretation rather than interpretations of fact.
Let me depart from Hoffman now and go to Gerd Lüdemann, Professor of History and Literature of Early Christian at Georg-August-University, Director of the Institute of Early Christian Studies, and Director of the Archive "Religionsgeschichtliche Schule." In the quote below, Lüdemann observes that the New Testament and the orthodox understandings of it not only affect our view of Jesus but also re-frame our view of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, the New Testament actually conjures and creates an “Old Testament,” a fictional/ized version of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Historical criticism has effectively undermined the validity of the great majority of Old Testament citations by the authors of the New Testament; indeed, it is seldom possible even to imagine that Old Testament writers can have had in mind the persons and events that New Testament writers claimed they did. The oft-proposed thesis that this issue cannot be resolved either negatively or positively does not hold. The long and short of it is that New Testament authors have systematically mistaken or distorted the meaning of Old Testament texts in the service of polemical and doctrinal agendas. Matthew’s five citations of prophecy in his nativity account are among the best-known examples of the practice, and perhaps the most comically inapposite. In the interest of honesty and better communication with the public, academic theology needs to demonstrate the same kind and degree of intellectual honesty that long ago led natural science to disavow the Ptolemaic world picture.
These are points that all relate to arguments I have made before on interpretation and religion-as-interpretation. As I see it, modern religions are interpretations promoting themselves and always referring back to themselves. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it’s important to bear in mind because the personal wonders we often ascribe to religion are often the product of practicing a religious interpretation and not the result of the religion’s status as truth or falsehood.


  1. Hello Lary Tanner!

    It is important to distinguish the historical Pharisee named Ribi Yehoshua, and the counterfeit Jesus.
    To quote our website: “No one can follow two polar-opposite masters — the authentic, historical, PRO-Torah 1st-century Ribi from Nazareth and the 4th-century (post-135 C.E.), arch-antithesis ANTI-Torah apostasy developed by the Hellenists (namely the Sadducees and Roman pagans who conspired to kill Ribi Yәhoshua, displaced his original followers and redacted the NT).”

    The tomb of the historical Ribi Yehoshua is found (the Talpiot Tomb) – you will find a section about that in the “History museum” in the website Netzarim.

    You also write that you’re an atheist. I would like to recommend the formal logical proof found in my blog (bloganders, which proves the existence of a Creator and His purpose of humankind.

    Anders Branderud

  2. Anders,

    It is important to distinguish, but as I say, I have seen no tangible evidence that a historical person (you name him Ribi Yehoshua but don't say why) ever existed.

    on the Talpiot Tomb: see this interesting article on the odds that the tomb is the family tomb of Jesus,

    In short, though, it's impossible to to say whether Talpiot is or is not what you claim.

    I read your logical "proof" of a Creator. Sorry, but it's naive and inconsistent, a bad version of the Kalaam argument.

    Besides, why would you value logic, the sometimes ingenious thoughts of people, over physical evidence, which is supposed to be a source of signs to people?

  3. Johan8:03 AM

    "Belief in Christianity being true does not depend on either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament being historically/factually true. "

    Since there are plenty of Christians who do not think that the Old Testament is factually correct history you are right. As a general rule liberal Protestants tends to heavily deemphasize the Old Testament. The Church of Sweden tends to see it as important only because it is referenced in the New Testament for example. (Of course they probably do not see the New Testament as factually correct history either. The idea that there are contradictions in the New Testament is commonplace among liberal Christians.)

    The New Testament is definitely more important to Christians of all sorts. But for more fundamentalist Christians the Old Testament is important. For a traditional Christian the idea that Christianity is the completion of the Jewish religion is very important and without the "prophecies" in the Old Testament supporting this a crucial part of their faith would be weakened.

    I understand your point about the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament being different texts. Certainly many quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament are misquotations.

    However the part of the Bible found in most modern Bibles that is called the Old Testament is simply a translation of the Hebrew scriptures and thus I would regard it as the same text.

    Mr Branderud, your view of history is interesting. Especially your view regarding the Sadducees. Of course, most conventional historians think that the Sadducees disappeared after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Furthermore many of the beliefs of the Sadducees were different from Christians beliefs. (Ie no resurrection of the dead.) Finally the New Testament makes it quite clear that that the Sadducees were enemies to Jesus.

  4. "However the part of the Bible found in most modern Bibles that is called the Old Testament is simply a translation of the Hebrew scriptures and thus I would regard it as the same text."

    Johan, well I'll question you on the "same text" statement because a Christian applies a special frame to the "Old Testament." To the Christian, the governing idea is that Jesus' life and deeds (and all of Christian doctrine) are pre-figured in the Old Testament. The "Old Testament" names both the identity of the text and the way it's read.

    Someone who is Jewish or otherwise ignorant of Jesus and the New Testament read a different Hebrew Scriptures and in a diffferent way. It may be the same words, but the same text I am not sure about.

  5. Johan9:59 AM

    Well, in that case atheists would have our own version of the Hebrew scriptures as well. For if we read it in a historical-critical way we interpret differently than would a Jew, Christian or Muslim.

    Of course the text can mean different things to different people and they can interpret differently but I still call it the same text.

    The Origin of the Species is still the same text, whether it is I who read or Dembski even though we may have different reactions to it.

  6. Have you seen the Skeptics' Bible over at Sam Harris' site - the Reason project?

    And the folks at Conservapedia are working on a "Conservative Bible." Check it out, it's no joke.

    The very question is to what extent we can call it "the same text."

    Origin of Species was published in six different versions. Version 1 and version 6 are not identical. Which one, if any, is authoritative?

    But is you look at my "Againt Interpretation" post you'll see a great demonstration of how "the same text" is not the same text to two different audiences. One group's text is a list of names; the other group's text is a religious poem.

  7. Johan7:39 AM

    Yes, I read it. It was a cute example.

    I guess we are debating semantics but I prefer to separate the fact that people have different texts from the fact that they have different interpretation of the same text.

  8. Let's go up a level, then. This 'debate' began over whether the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament are the same text.

    My main point has been that the Christian frame that sees everything - absolutely everything - as prefiguring Jesus makes the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament different texts.

    Now, the OT does have a different order to its books, right? OT translators tend to prefer readings that support prefiguration. To me, this all works to support difference.

    But if you want to leave this discussion on different texts/different interpretations - where were you going with your points?

  9. Yes the order of the books is different in the OT and the Hebrew Bible. I disagree partially about your point on translation however, this depends crucially on how liberal the denomination is. Here in Sweden the Jewish congregation is planning to use the same translation as the Church of Sweden. (And many of the people who worked on the translation, including their main academic expert on Hebrew, were not religious at all.)

    Modern historical-critical scholarship is remarkably little affected by formal religious boundaries. Jewish, Lutheran, Catholic and agnostic scholars can cooperate quite successfully.

    But their conclusions tend to be rejected by fundamentalists. That is why I say that if you want to say that the OT and the Hebrew Bible are different texts you should recognize many more texts than just a Christian and a Jewish one. You ought to recognize a liberal Christian one, where God does not really mean all the nasty stuff; a historical-critical one, where one tries to understand how people read it when it was written; a angry atheist one, where everything is interpreted as badly for the author as possible; a liberal Jewish one and so on.

    I do not understand which points you are referring to at the end.

  10. Johan,

    I tried to explain more fully in a separate post,

    I'm interested to get your thoughts.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.