That said, I find this post-election weekend to be a good one for random distractions, so let’s have some fun by taking inspiration from the discussion of Historical Jesus raised by Sarah at Geeky Humanist on Saturday.
My first and biggest problem with everything Sarah has said is that we don’t have a good definition of Historical Jesus anywhere in her post. To be Historical Jesus, does one need to have been publicly crucified? Because lots of people were publicly crucified.
To be HJ does one need to have preached some stuff? Because lots of people preached some stuff.
To be HJ does one need to have been born in Bethlehem? Because lots of people were born in Bethlehem.
Et a number of ceteras.
If you have a specific number of criteria, you could merely start with the number of people born in Bethlehem over a period of 5 or 10 or 40 years or whatever, depending on exactly what your standards are for when the life of HJ must have been lived. Then you find out what percentage of the population died by crucifixion, what percentage of the population engaged in preaching, what percentage of the population ever traveled as far as Nazareth. You multiply those together to get some small fraction, then you multiply that small fraction by the total number of people born in Bethlehem over your chosen period. If the number is greater than or equal to 0.5 persons, than it’s likely that HJ lived. If the number is less than 0.03 persons, you should feel free to say that the hypothesis has no serious support. If the number is 7 persons, the reasonable interpretation is that HJ is a well established as almost anyone else in history.
But that’s not what we typically get.
Instead we typically get arguments that say, “Well, we have to explain X thing written in the New Testament without Historical Jesus, and if we don’t, then HJ.”
Now, I’ll be the first to say that IANAH, and I’m told that this is indeed pretty close to, or perhaps exactly, the type of argument which professional PhD historians actually use in published work.
I won’t contest how this is used in the work of peer reviewed historians. Perhaps that is even the best method, certainly it must be among the better methods or professional historians wouldn’t use it. However in the work of professional historians, I think they better understand exactly how limited is the claim that HJ existed.
Outside of arguments in journals, however, I think that this argument ill suits these less professional audiences. In large part this is because we often fail to appreciate how little such arguments get us.
Let’s use Sarah’s argument about HJ being born in Bethlehem & raised in Nazareth as an example:
he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all? … if they were making up the story from scratch all they had to do was change that point as well, leave Nazareth out of it altogether, and just say that he came from Bethlehem as per the prophecy yadda yadda yadda.
If they were making their stories up from scratch, about a totally mythical person, it’s very hard to see why they’d do that instead of just leaving out Nazareth and saying he came from Bethlehem. However, if they were making up stories about an actual founder of their movement who was known to have come from Nazareth, it makes total sense; they had to leave in the bit about him coming from Nazareth and then explain it away, because they couldn’t just ignore something about him that was that widely known.
Now, for a moment let’s accept this argument as convincing. What does this tell us about HJ? It tells us that HJ was publicly believed to have come from Nazareth, but the authors wanted their audience to believe HJ was born in Bethlehem. Note that even Sarah’s argument doesn’t actually assert that he was born in Bethlehem, just that the authors wanted people to believe he was born in Bethlehem.
So now HJ is satisfied by anyone who was
- either from Nazareth or was publicly thought to be from Nazareth (it’s 40 years after his death, so what people think they know isn’t necessarily the truth), and
- who gained a level of notoriety while preaching sufficient for some people to remember him positively, but insufficient for anyone contemporaneous with him to bother writing up what he was doing while he was doing it, and
- was executed by the Romans, but
- had enough details of his life remembered that he was either used as a model for Paul’s new religion in third decade after the death of HJ or was used by people living in the 5th decade after HJ as a retroactive model for Paul’s new religion
Now, we can’t prove what people had in mind when they wrote the books of the New Testament, so #4 is never going to be well evidenced. But there were lots of preachers. There was even a significant number of preachers from Nazareth, I am told, as the profession was not an uncommon one and Nazareth was a population center.
Now this can be better argued by finding out the proportion of people from Nazareth who died by Roman crucifixion, and the proportion who spent significant time preaching. Multiply the two proportions together & multiply that smaller proportion by the population of Nazareth over the appropriate time frame and if you get more than 0.5 persons you can say there’s good reason to believe in the HJ.
I don’t know those numbers, but I’m told neither preaching nor crucifixion were particularly uncommon, which would mean a value of 0.5 or over would be likely for any population over, I don’t know, a couple thousands? A number in the high hundreds? Somewhere in there? I think Nazareth had more than that over the 60 year period from 100 years before Mark was written to 40 years before Mark was written. So I’m happy to believe in such an HJ, but remember what we get: nothing more than at least one preacher from Nazareth was crucified and as a result could maybe possibly have been the person (or one of several persons) the authors of the NT had in mind when they wrote a few of their descriptions of HJ & his actions.
That. Is. Pitiful.
Worse than that, it’s misleading. When people outside of historians’ academic journals speak of believing in Jesus historicity, they aren’t asserting that at least one preacher from Nazareth was executed by the Romans before Paul wrote his epistles in the 50s. They’re putting a hell of a lot more into their HJ than that.
So when we’re not careful in saying exactly what qualities we’re assigning to HJ, and we’re not arguing within the carefully constrained environment of academic journals, we’re inevitably participating in the creation of a public environment where it’s considered reasonable to assert that divine healing and water walking and matter creation have all been rationally demonstrated.
If you have a belief in a pitifully vague HJ, that’s fine. I guess I believe in the pitifully vague HJ described above. But arguing about the existence of HJ without defining exactly what qualities an HJ would have to have to meet is as counterproductive as arguing whether god exists without first answering the question, “Which god?” After all, if we disprove divine violence as the source of lightning, our debate partner can simply assert, “But I wasn’t arguing for Zeus, I was arguing for some other god.”
Inevitably there exists an HJ that is not disproven because it can be defined as whatever is leftover after any quality that might be disproven is removed.
Please note that this gets even worse when we speak – as too many people do – of Gospel Jesus or NT Jesus being a composite of several HJs.
Is there an historical Spider-Man? I mean, we know that nerdy teens who get bullied in high school exist. We know that masculinely gendered people exist. We know that NY exists. We know that people with red hair exists and that some people have teenage crushes on someone with red hair. We know that people with the first name Peter exist. We know that people with the last name Parker exist. We know photographers exist. We know people who have been bitten by spiders exist. We know science labs exist. We know people sometimes visit science labs. We even know that people who aren’t law enforcement but who intervene to stop a mugging exist. Heck, we know people who engage in vigilantism as an avocation exist.
Wow, that’s a fuck of a lot of Spider-Man that’s actually historical, and if we allow ourselves a composite Historical Spider-Man it’s literally impossible that we don’t have a CHSM that fits all those criteria.
If we have all that, shouldn’t we say that an HSM exists?
I suspect that both of my readers would say that’s an unfair use of the concept of Historical Spider-Man. And I think that should tell us something about how unreasonably the HJ concept is used.
So when people (including my FtB colleagues like Sarah) set out to argue for HJ, I think we should all take a lesson from the Historical J. Jonah Jameson: it’s possible to restrict what we say about someone to only those things that haven’t been proven false, or even those things that haven’t been proven false and sound plausible, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving anything like an accurate representation of what happened or who our heroes are.
That in mind, before we go around saying an HJ exists, I think it is incumbent upon us to rigorously define a list of minimum criteria for an HJ that would be sufficiently restrictive and sufficiently clearly articulated that we do not lend Christianity any unearned credibility through publicly supporting a vague HJ.