Monday, August 5, 2013

Historiography, evidence, and the Bible

Yesterday, I found and shared this post from a blogger on the Skeptic Ink network (whose site is much less buggy these days, FSM be praised!) talking about the epistemological status of the historical existence of Jesus. One of my friends objected that
historians who deny that Jesus existed are about as prevalent as biologists who believe in Young Earth Creationism
I said that YEC is a poor comparison, since we have mountains of evidence to contradict it. (Literal mountains, even, now that I think about it.) My friend responded that we also have mountains of evidence for the existence of Jesus:
four different accounts that bear many elements of Greco-Roman bioi, plus extrabiblical attestations from reliable historians like Tacitus and Josephus? That's an incredible amount of evidence, considering we only have enough written works from the first century to fill a large bookshelf.

Attention conservation notice: this post is going here on the blog because it's gonna be too long to comfortably post on facebook.

Let me begin by noting that the evidence we do have includes more than the texts which were included in the New Testament canon; however, most quote-unquote apocrypha have few if any surviving copies, making difficult the kind of source/version criticism that scholars perform on the canonical texts. On the other hand, if we're going to privilege sources from the first century (or let's say, from the period before the death of the last apostle), we're going to have to throw out a portion of the canonical texts themselves, notably the gospel of John.

However, I'm going to pass by those questions, since the non-canonical texts don't, I think, add anything which will affect the arguments I want to make.

My friend ends his most recent comment with
I'll note that this article was posted in a Philosophy journal, and not a Biblical Studies or History journal.
The blogger, Stephen Law, does indeed seem to think of his thoughts as most properly belonging to epistemology rather than history or religious studies, and his professional specialties are in the former rather than the latter. But I want to dust off my training in history to dig into this a little more.

"Evidence" is a tricky notion in studying history. Basically, the methodology of a historian involves first finding evidence related to her question, and then assessing the reliability of that evidence. The second part is inherently subjective -- there's no algorithm that tells you whether a source is completely trustworthy, or honest but based on incorrect information, or perhaps a deliberate fabrication.

I don't see any real disagreement about what we should regard as evidence for the historical existence of Jesus (the "finding" part in the previous paragraph). It's the texts of the New Testament, plus other surviving "apocryphal" texts, plus fleeting mentions in non-Christian texts, notably Josephus and Tacitus.
The disagreement lies in the second part: assessing how much reliability to accord those pieces of evidence.

In a sense, I want to say that Law's article is as much historiography then as it is philosophy; saying that
where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims
says more about human psychology and human language than it does about truth or knowledge in any absolute sense. There is nothing preventing a statement that combines mundane claims with miraculous-sounding ones from being completely truthful -- the claim is, instead, that it would be unwise to take it as so (without some independent confirmation). This is something of an empirical claim, namely that accounts with these characteristics are unreliable more often than not, or I suppose more often than a historian is willing to be.

I don't have any data on how often such accounts are wrong, naturally.

I don't have any real arguments against Law's principles, but they aren't the core of why I find the evidence for Jesus' historical existence weak. As my friend pointed out, this is a strongly minority position among scholars. I'm comfortable with this because, in this case, all the scholars are working from the same collection of evidence, and differ as to the credibility they assign to it -- as mentioned above, a highly subjective process. I'll say more about this in a bit.

OK, so I've got my historian hat dusted off and perched on my ears. And since I, like everybody, have prejudices, let me make (some of) them explicit. I am not a Christian, indeed am not religious in any way, and do think the world would be far better off if religious conviction could be replaced in people's minds with skepticism as mental habit and humanism as basis for action. My irreligion (in particular, my disbelief in any of the claims peculiar to Christianity) is completely independent of the historical existence of Jesus. I am convinced of the historical existence of that vile and evil figure, Paul of Tarsus, and attribute to him most of the actual founding of the Christian religion, complete with the germs of so much of the preventable human misery caused or countenanced by it.

One last bias: as long as Christianity has had a sacred text, its believers have mostly believed that that text is reliable on pretty much all claims. For many centuries, that belief was treated as sure and scholarly -- the fall of the Bible's notions of astronomy in the 16th century did not call into question, even for most scholars of the text itself, the reliability of the Bible's account of history. It was not until the 20th century that the scholarly consensus has agreed on the non-historicity of the Egyptian captivity, for instance; and there is still resistance to a similar ditching of David and Solomon. I tend, in this context, to view any undermining of the historical accuracy of biblical texts as a victory for scholarship over obscurantism (or maybe just another instance of the wisdom of Diax's Rake). However, I should state clearly that, while we can put together a fairly good proof of absence of King David, the same cannot be said for Jesus -- there's basically no conceivable argument, given the kinds of evidence that have survived from the first century C.E., which could convincingly argue affirmatively for Jesus' non-existence.

So with all that on the table, how would I, with my historical training, assess the quality of the evidence we all agree we have about Jesus?

Assessment 1: the evidence is rock-solid that there was a Christian religion by the middle of the first century C.E., which was spreading fast enough to get noticed by important Romans (like Tacitus and Josephus).

From there, things get murkier. As everyone should know, none of the books of the New Testament can be confidently sourced to authors who knew Jesus personally. Indeed, with the exception of (some of) the texts bearing Paul's name, we have no idea who the actual authors were, and hence no idea what things those authors could give testimony about which would be worth more than hearsay.

Indeed, the internal textual data from the books of the New Testament typically indicate that they were written by individuals (or, in the case of anything with John's name on it, mystical communities) who were not even familiar with the geography of Israel or the languages spoken there.

Specifically with regard to the three first-century gospels, the current best theory is that they were compilations of anecdotes and sayings, relying heavily on a hypothesized document or collection called "Q" (from the German "Quelle", i.e. "source"). To emphasize: the most important textual source for the gospel texts has not survived (as far as we know), and we have no data on who might have written it -- if indeed it was written down rather than being an oral repository. Hence it makes no sense to ask how reliable this source is.

Now, I don't want to go off spinning hypotheticals about what the past would have looked like if the Jesus story was a pure fabrication; however, it is not at all clear to me that we would expect collections of stories about such a purely fabricated savior figure, collections assembled and unified decades after this person is supposed to have lived from either the primary fabrication documents or from derivatives of them, to look any different than similar collections assembled from primary or secondary eyewitness accounts of a real person.

Assessment 2: The New Testament texts carry very little credibility on questions of Jesus' historical existence (and perforce on questions of what Jesus, assumed for the sake of argument to have been historical, actually said or did). They are at best second-, and more likely third- or greater, hand accounts.

Lastly, there come the independent Roman mentions. With the exception of the highly problematic (= known to contain significant forgeries) passage in Josephus, it is important to note that all these passages are actually about persons other than Jesus, who lived at or closer to the time of the writing. For example, there is a passage in Josephus which mentions a Christian leader named James and refers to him as brother to Christ. This passage is regarded as "authentic", meaning not an interpolation or fabrication by later copyists. However, from a historiographical perspective, it is not the same thing to say that Josephus really wrote this passage, as it is to say that it amounts to credible evidence for the existence of Jesus.

We can comfortably regard this passage as good evidence that there was a Christian leader in Jerusalem in the early 60s C.E. named James (Josephus was living there at or around that time) and that this leader claimed blood relation to Jesus. But again (without spinning detailed hypotheticals about the exact details of a fabrication backstory), how would we expect the story to be any different? If Jesus were a fabrication, would we expect Josephus to know that? Or would he assume that Christians were reliable when it came to their own religion's origins?

Similarly, Tacitus' primary subject in the relevant paragraph was not Jesus himself, but the Christian community in Rome. Writing 60 years after the events in question, Tacitus would surely take Christians' word on the origins of the religion -- his subject was their treatment (and possible scapegoating) after the Fire under Nero.

(I was in an exchange last week with an anonymous commenter at Fark who tried to claim that Tacitus should be treated as having consulted the Roman colonial records and verified that Pilate had in fact executed a prisoner named Jesus. This is ludicrous, not least because any such records would have been destroyed in the very fire that Tacitus was writing about, but more importantly, because this is a very modern conception of the practice of history, one totally alien to how works such as this were written in the ancient Mediterranean world. At best, the work would have been written in consultation with the chronicles of the emperor and Senate; details such as the execution of a leader of a persecuted religion out in the provinces somewhere would under no circumstances be tracked down for fact-checking.)

Assessment 3: The Roman mentions of Christ are solid evidence that Christianity existed in wide extension by the middle of the first century C.E.; however, they provide no enlightenment as to the question of the historicity of Jesus.

A final note: it continues to be true that a broad majority of the scholarly community disagrees with my conclusions -- or more properly, a broad majority of the scholarly community treats the historical existence of Jesus as settled fact. However, this obscures a few traps. First, there is not a singular scholarly community, and the vast majority of scholars with [scholarly, informed] opinions here are from disciplines which do not typically include historiographical training in their graduate programs. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here, with links to the requirements for graduate students in religious studies or classical languages to do the kind of intensive work in source analysis that I had to do as a student of history.)

More importantly, these scholars may, and fields of study like theology definitely do, have vested interests in the outcome of this question. The vast majority of the scholars who would be consulted to assemble the statistic counting how many of them believe the existence of Jesus to be settled by the evidence are employed at sectarian institutions and/or in sectarian ministry; they chose their fields of study because they believe it to be important and to have widespread implications for human life and happiness; they have strong presuppositions from which their scholarly work derives. (So do we all, I want to be sure to say.) Very often, religious scholars err on the side of deference to texts which they find important to their own religious beliefs, instead of subjecting them to appropriate scrutiny. The truth is that the texts of the Bible are riddled with historical inaccuracies, some trivial and some monumental. (See above re: David.)

One of the most important intellectual tasks undertaken by atheists, including the Gnus, is the constant challenging of the special pleading by which religion gets an undeserved pass when it overshoots its epistemic or moral grounding. Religion, we must keep pointing out, is an idea subject to criticism like any other; religious texts are subject to disconfirmation like any other; religious history should just be history, with the same standards of evidence enjoyed everywhere else. And if that religion decided to use its power in the past to preserve evidence that might otherwise have been lost, historians will gladly take that evidence. The religion, of course, doesn't get to complain when the findings aren't always what they had told the faithful.

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