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Old 04-13-2001, 10:52 PM   #1
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Post How a Historian Views the Historicity of Jesus

Due to my skeptical reaction to Nomad's claim about Michael Grant, I happened to stumble a book about Jesus written by the very same. Not only that, but his avowed purpose was:

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...I shall go ahead and look at the Gospels in the Gospels one would look at other historical sources: endeavoring to reconstruct what really happened.
p.2
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and
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There are three possible approaches to this task. One can write as a believer, or as an unbeliever, or (as I have attempted to do) as a student of history...
p.198
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Given the rather dubious discussions about how to conduct historical research about Jesus, it just so happens that Grant discusses extensively how one needs to go about evaluating the evidence. While some cherished atheistic concepts are going to be questioned here, I think there will be little doubt that the tack taken by Layman and Nomad in evaluating historical evidence is credulous indeed.

First, let's consider Grant's credentials. From the dust jacket:

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Michael Grant has been a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh University, and President and Vice-Chancellor of the Queen's University, Belfast. He holds Doctorates of Cambridge, Dublin, and Belfast. He is the author of many books, among them The Twelve Caesars, The Army of the Caesars, and Saint Paul.
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This is not to say that I agree with everything he says, but I do recognize his authority to speak as a historian.

So how does a historian go about judging the evidence. One of the things I suggested was that we need to be careful about judging the Gospels because they are not independent. Grant fully vindicates my point, and in doing so heaps scorn on Layman's "multiple attestations".

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One criterion sometimes put forward is 'multiple attestion': when the same incident or theme or saying is reported in more than one Gospel, this repetition has be quoted as evidence that it is authentic, and goes back to Jesus. But this argument is valueless since the evangelists demonstrably shared so much material from common sources (emphasis mine), and even when such a common source cannot be proved or identified it may still very often be justifiably suspected. Another suggested principle is 'attestion by multiple forms', the theory that if a motif is presented more than once, it is more likely to be geniune than if it appears in only one such form. But this, too, is not very decisive, because although a story may appear in several different literary forms their multiplicity does not corroborate its genuineness, since they can all be traceable to a single source.
p.201
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Grant even rejects the independence of the Talmud. p.183

While does claim there are things which we can know about the historical Jesus, as we shall see, it greatly restricts what we can call historical.

Next, I claimed that we need to be skeptical about what we can claim to be historical on the grounds that the authors of the gospels were just a tad biased about their subject. Again, I find support in Grant:

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A further criterion requires the rejection from the lifetime of Jesus of all material which seems to be derived from the days of the Christian Church as it existed after his death. This yardstick has to be used very often and, in spite of the acute difficulty of applying it directly, it provides our principal method of research. As A.J.P. Taylor observed 'no man can recall past events without being affected by what has happened in-between'; and there is no reason why the evangelists should be expected to escape this natural tendency. Moreover, two factors made them particularly vulnerable to it: first the partial or predominately oral nature of their sources, which were thus peculiarly susceptible to influence by contemporary colour, and secondly the extraordinarily rapid, radical developments which transformed the infant Church during the decades that separated the Gospels from Jesus's death and made it difficult for their writers to understand how things had been before these changes occur.
p.202
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In short, the Gospels cannot be taken at face value. In fact, he makes it quite clear that he considers much of Jesus's story to be fictional.

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The only things that are relevant are what Jesus did and said: somehow they must be disentangled from later, ungenuine additions and amendments which have become incorporated in the record.
p.2
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So how does Grant go about doing this. Surprisingly, there is some comfort for Layman here as Grant does accept the notion that if something is "embarassing" it is likely to be historical. (p. 202 - 203) He accepts, for example, the empty tomb story as likely to be true on the ground that the fact that the disciples lack of participation in burying Jesus would be "disgraceful". (p. 175)

However, he gives no credence to the idea that the Resurrection was historical. In fact, he goes on to say:

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Who had taken the body? There is no way of knowing. Mary Magdalene thougt at first that the cemetery gardener had removed it -- whereas the Jews, not unplausibly, maintained that it had been taken by Jesus's own disciples...And because it was gone, this made it easier to believe, three days later (a period equated with scriptural predictions) that they were seeing Jesus alive again and returned to Earth.
p.176
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He goes on to say the reports only show that people "were utterly convinced" that he had risen. And at least we know how a professional historian would respond to Nomad's "What Happened?" question.

Personally, the above strikes me as a bit odd. Why does he accept the empty tomb, but not the Resurrection, as historical? Simply put, it has to do with another point I had made in previous threads. Historians simply cannot accept fantastic stories in the bible and reject them in other ancient documents. Grant applies this principle consistently. For example, he totally dismisses the nativity stories as having any historical basis whatsoever, dismissing them by saying we know nothing of Jesus's life before the age of thirty. (p.9) He later even dismisses the Bethlehem story as a fabrication and places his birth in Nazareth. (p.72)

One last thing: Nomad claims that there is a "mountain of evidence" for Nomad's interpretation of Jesus. Grant has a slightly different take.

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Indeed, it has been objected that no authentic life of Jesus can be written at all because our information is insufficient and cannot ever be anything else. That I believe to be an unduly pessimistic conclusion. True, a great deal is missing. Nevertheless, his public career can to a considerable extent be reconstructed. The evidence is hard, very hard to decipher.
p. 1-2
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In other words, yes we can, if we are careful, glean some facts about Jesus from the Bible. But it is not the plethora of evidence Nomad makes it out to be.

As a matter of fact, if this mountain of fact existed, Grant never would have needed to discuss his methods as he did. Read any book about Julius Caesar. You'll never see a discussion of how the historians came to their conclusions about him. The reason being is that there is a mountain of evidence about his life. It is the paucity of information we have about Jesus that requires Grant to discuss his methods.

To sum up, the historical Jesus Grant describes is a man. A likeable man with a powerful personality, yes. He indeed rejects the notion that Jesus never existed, calling that theory "annihilated" (p.198). But neither does he assume that because the Gospels are evidence that the man Jesus lived, that the things attributed to him -- specifically, his divinity and his miraculous works -- are historical. They are not. They can be believed if you so desire. But they can not be presented as being an objective, historical fact. That is greatly overstating the case.
 
Old 04-13-2001, 11:28 PM   #2
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Finally, a skeptic who is willing to read a book on history!

I liked the book too, but I found it a little dated and naive as to source and literary criticism. Afterall, the book was written in 1977, well before the avalanche of scholarship in the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.

That being said, I will respond to a few prelimary points.

Dennis:

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> So how does a historian go about judging the evidence. One of the things I suggested was that we need to be careful about judging the Gospels because they are not independent. Grant fully vindicates my point, and in doing so heaps scorn on Layman's "multiple attestations". </font>
Clever, but a mischaracterization. It is not "Layman's" anything. It is a commonly accepted tool used by most New Testament scholars, including liberals and conservatives. Modern and well-respected scholars such as E.P. Sanders, Graham Stanton, N.T. Wright, the Jesus Seminar, Ben Witherington, J.P. Meier, and Raymond E. Brown.

Moreover, Grant's statements concerning the criteria of multiple attestations reveals a misunderstanding of the criteria. Something is not multiply attested because it "is reportred in more than one Gospel." It is multiply attested if it is found in more than one source. Thus something is not multiply attested if it is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It would be multiply attested if found in Q and Mark. Or John and Mark. Or Paul and John. Source and literary criticism can show where the sources are drawing from the same source.

Dennis:

"Grant even rejects the independence of the Talmud. p.183"

This is a mischaracterization of what Grant states. What he actually says is the quite different:

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> The Jewish evidence, too, notably in the Talmud, comes from a subsequent period, and some of the Talmud passages are based on Christian sources, so that they carry no independent weight. </font>
Notice the SOME qualification. He intentionally avoids saying that ALL of it is dependent.

Dennis: "However, he gives no credence to the idea that the Resurrection was historical. In fact, he goes on to say...."

But does he characterize this as a historical conclusion or a historical presumption? A presumption. Grant explicitly states that he is writing as an "unbeliever." Despite that, on every other point supporting the resurrection, he agrees with Nomad: Jesus' death on the cross, burial by Joseph of Arimethea, the empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdeline, that the disciples experienced resurrection appearances.

Wheeee! I'll take that much from a skeptic anyday. And it greatly undercuts the recently added paper on the empty tomb as well.

Dennis: So how does Grant go about doing this. Surprisingly, there is some comfort for Layman here as Grant does accept the notion that if something is "embarassing" it is likely to be historical. (p. 202 - 203)
He accepts, for example, the empty tomb story as likely to be true on the ground that the fact that the disciples lack of participation in burying Jesus would be "disgraceful". (p. 175)."

I'm not sure why you would be suprised. I did not invent the criteria. The leading New Testament scholars of our time use them. Heck, even the Jesus Seminar uses it.

But thank you for mentioning it. And it should also be told that Grant actually puts great stock in the criteria of dissimilarity as well.

Dennis: "In other words, yes we can, if we are careful, glean some facts about Jesus from the Bible. But it is not the plethora of evidence Nomad makes it out to be."

As I pointed out in another post. Grant actually believes that a "life of Jesus" can be constructed from the evidence we have.

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> The task [of writing a life of Jesus] has often declared impossible on the grounds that our information is too little and too late, and can do no more than create the picture of a picture and can yeild only the whisper of Jesus' voice. But nowadays more and more scholars appreciate that this conclusion is unduly pessimistic. T.W. Manson, for example, has declared: 'I am increasingly convinced that in the Gospels we have the materials-reliable materials-for an
outline account of the ministry as a whole.' J. Knox, too, believed us to be 'left with a very substantial residuum of historically trustworthy facts about Jesus, his teaching and his life.' And now Geza Vermes expresses 'guarded optimism concerning a possible discovery of the genuine features of Jesus.' </font>
Dennis:

"But neither does he assume that because the Gospels are evidence that the man Jesus lived, that the things attributed to him -- specifically, his divinity and his miraculous works -- are historical. They are not."

Actually, he accepts some of the miracle stories, but attributes them to causes other than Jesus' divinity. Specifically,

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> But the sceptical note must not be overdone, for the reports of some of his cures have especially authentic-sounding touches. </font>
Since you like this one Dennis, I also suggest E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus and J.P. Meier's, A Marginal Jew. Their works are much more detailed than Grant's and they are widely recognized as two of the leaders in the field of New Testament studies.
 
Old 04-14-2001, 12:38 AM   #3
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How exactly would you say that this "dated" book undercuts the recently published paper on the empty tomb? That paper seems to go to great lengths to cover the implications of every different assumption about the whole burial/empty tomb scenario.

For reference: http://www.infidels.org/library/mode...der/empty.html

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Old 04-14-2001, 02:49 AM   #4
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Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Layman:
Finally, a skeptic who is willing to read a book on history!</font>
Asshole.

 
Old 04-14-2001, 04:15 AM   #5
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[QUOTE]Originally posted by Layman:
Finally, a skeptic who is willing to read a book on history!

Your statement implies the unwarranted assumption that skeptics do not read history. Where did you get that idea, Layman?

Layman: I liked the book too, but I found it a little dated and naive as to source and literary criticism. Afterall, the book was written in 1977, well before the avalanche of scholarship in the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.

You failed to mention how Grant's conclusions differ from those who have participated in the "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus."

rodahi
 
Old 04-14-2001, 05:39 AM   #6
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[quote]<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Zoroaster:
Quote:
Originally posted by Layman:
Finally, a skeptic who is willing to read a book on history!
Quote:
Asshole.
Quote:
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</font>
More like an ignoramus.

The ability of Christians to miss the overall picture of something is a condemnation of Christianity in and of itself. Layman attempts to argue that there is sufficient proof to establish the supernatural claims about Jesus as being authentic. From what I've seen in looking over his posts, he mostly just argues from the Gospels or rants about some dubious passage written by Josephus. Think about what Layman is arguing for: he apparently believes that the Gospels i.e. three documents copied from each other, a fourth which is drastically different from the other three, and all of which contain historical flaws, are riddled with large self-contradictions, were written decades after the event they describe, almost surely going on mostly second-hand information written by some obscure fanatical cult leaders 2,000 years ago in some (at that time) superstitious backwater corner of the world and who's closest thing to a reliable, independent, unbiased confirmatory source is some dubious passage written by a heavily superstitious guy going on third hand information half a century or more after the event (Josephus), are somehow sufficient proof to establish the most amazing discovery in all of history i.e. all the supernatural claims about Jesus.

From a purely unbiased perspective, such a person would be grasping at straws in attempting to even label themselves as not posessing some mental dissorder, let alone having a legitimate claim to proof of something that would revolutionize the entire world.

Just remember that about him, though, whenever he argues with you. Your dealing with a person who has a rather warped version of reality, so don't expect him to be head over heels thrilled about embracing facts and reason.

[This message has been edited by Cute Little Baby (edited April 14, 2001).]
 
Old 04-14-2001, 06:18 AM   #7
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[b]
Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Layman:
Finally, a skeptic who is willing to read a book on history!</font>

Asshole.


Speaking as a moderator, comments like this one by Zoroaster are way out of line.

Speaking as a discussant in several of the recent threads on history, where it was demonstrated repeatedly that apologists' knowledge of history was a tad shallow, Layman's comment is exactly backward.

Michael

[This message has been edited by turtonm (edited April 14, 2001).]
 
Old 04-14-2001, 06:55 AM   #8
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Layman: Finally, a skeptic who is willing to read a book on history!

Zoroaster: Asshole.

I think both comments are inappropriate.

Let's ALL, theists and non-theists, strive to avoid using derogatory/sarcastic remarks when dealing with each other. I will do my best to follow my own suggestion.

Furthermore, the BC&A Forum is for the serious discussion/debate of issues relating to the Bible. Regardless of position, those individuals who support their respective arguments with FACTS and solid, verifiable EVIDENCE are going to CONVINCE more reasonable readers than those who do not. Irrelevant remarks/commentary do nothing to buttress an argument.

rodahi

 
Old 04-14-2001, 09:24 AM   #9
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Oh, I don't mind sarcastic comments from Layman. Considering the naive approach he takes towards the sources, I consider anything derogatory he says towards me a compliment.

His bias is pretty clear in his response, and I'm certain any fair-minded person now knows, as if there was any doubt before, that Layman and Nomad are twisting historical methods to make claims that aren't substantiated. I see no reason to waste anymore time here.
 
Old 04-14-2001, 09:28 AM   #10
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But one more thing: as an ex-English teacher, I can tell you Layman that your qualifier is in the wrong clause.

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The Jewish evidence, too, notably in the Talmud, comes from a subsequent period, and some of the Talmud passages are based on Christian sources, so that they carry no independent weight. </font>
That some of the sources were Christian is enough to disqualify it as an independent source.
 
 

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