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Can Historians Be Neutral?

I received a number of responses to my post this past week on whether Jesus would have received a decent burial on the day of his crucifixion.   One of the most interesting responses was not so much about what I said or thought, but about a much broader question: how can one evaluate arguments over such controversial subjects without being entirely biased and subjective at the outset?   It’s worth talking about.  Here’s the question:   QUESTION: Re: the burial of Jesus or not:  Do you have any suggestions for how to be objective regarding issues like this? Maybe it would help to first figure out where the burden of proof should be. Does historicity demand something like clear and convincing evidence that something happened–so that any significant doubts require rejection of the supposed incident? Or just that one thing is more likely to have happened than another?   RESPONSE: I won’t here deal with the particular issue of Jesus’ burial, but with the broader issue of how one remains “neutral” or “disinterested” when trying to [...]

How Biblical Discrepancies Can Be Theologically Liberating for a Christian

I have been trying to show that the portrayal of Jesus going to his death in Mark’s Gospel is radically different from the portrayal in Luke’s Gospel.  I’ve been making this comparison for a purpose, in order to show as clearly as I can that reading the Bible historically – seeing its discrepancies – does not compromise its value.  On the contrary, as I came to see as a committed Christian who was no longer a conservative evangelical, this way of reading the Bible *increases* its value. A person can still revere the Bible while thinking there are contradictions and discrepancies in it, not only in small things but in large things.  But one has to understand it in a non-fundamentalist way to do so.   The point of finding discrepancies is *not* so you can go away saying that the Bible is worthless (“bunch of contradictions”) but, on the contrary, so you can recognize the vast depths of its theological meaning, as seen precisely *in* the (big) differences you find in it. Here is how [...]

A New Way of Reading the Bible

I have been discussing how I experienced a radical change in my Christian faith, from being a conservative evangelical to being a more open-minded and better informed Christian.  I can now begin to talk about how my new way of understanding the faith intersected with the scholarship I was involved with in pursuing the academic study of the Bible. As a budding biblical scholar, I had come to see that the Bible was filled with problems.  As a believer with a new perspective these problems were not detrimental to my faith but actually provided important insights that previously I simply had no access to. To explain that will take a couple of posts.  The overarching point is that the discrepancies, contradictions, and mistakes of the Bible reveal clearly that we are dealing here with different authors with different perspectives, and it is important to let *each* author speak for himself to see what he wants to emphasize.  The viewpoint each one has is important, and it is crucial not to confuse the message of one [...]

2020-04-29T16:05:29-04:00June 14th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Can Myths Be True and Meaningful?

Yesterday I received this interesting comment on my most recent post.  It embodies a view that a lot of other members of the Blog have, and so I thought I should respond to it.  It is about whether there can be meaningful myths in the Bible.  Here is what the reader says. Imaginative stories by definition are false. To say something is myth and by extension imaginative, is asserting that it is false. For us to say something is a myth, we have to be sure that it is entirely false. Or is it not the case? I addressed a similar issue in the conclusion of my most recent book Jesus Before the Gospels.  There I take a different stance on whether non-historical accounts (which would include myths) can be meaningful to us or not, whether they can be “true” in any sense.  Here is what I say there (with respect more to the NT than the OT, but the same reasoning applies. ****************************************************************** Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people [...]

Appreciating the Myths of the Bible

When I came to see that there are mistakes in the Bible, I did not jettison it all as a waste of time.  Not at all.  On the contrary, I continued to value and cherish it, as a book that could reveal truths about God.  Yes it had discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, glaring scientific mistakes, and so on.  Of course it did.  But that for me was not the ultimate point.  The Bible It was a product of its own time, a very human book.   Even so, it was a book through which God continued to speak. I came to think that the Bible was more important for the valuable lessons it conveyed than for the factual (or problematic) information it contained.  This view worked on two levels.  For one thing, I came to see it was important to realize that even for ancient readers what mattered about the Bible was not its factual accuracy in its details, but for the ideas that it was trying to present.  And for me personally, it was important [...]

Teaching the Bible as a Historical Book

Ever since I first put foot in a university classroom as a professor of religious studies, I have been firmly committed to the constitutional separation of church and state.  I have never seen it to be my mission either to convert someone to a new religious point of view or to deconvert them from their old one.  My goals have been to teach about the history and literature of the New Testament from a non-confessional point of view and to make students think hard about whatever their views might be.  The goal is not religious but humanistic -- as is appropriate in a secular research university – namely, to help students learn how to think. There are few subjects that are more perfectly suited to the university's ultimate goal of training thinking human beings than religious studies, especially in the part of the world where I teach, the American South.   Nearly all of my students come into class with a life-long belief involving the material we cover in the syllabus.  Most of my students have [...]

2020-04-03T02:25:15-04:00April 28th, 2017|Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

How Do We Know When the Gospels Were Written: A Mailbag Blast from the Past

I occasionally get asked how we know when the Gospels were written.  Why do scholars date them when they do?  I answered that question here on the blog over four years ago now.  Most of you weren't on the blog then.  And if you were, and you're like me, you'll have no recollection at all about what was said four years ago!  So here is the post I made back in May 2012. **************************************************************************** QUESTION: How are the dates that the Gospels were composed determined? I've read that Mark is usually dated to 70 or later because of the reference to the destruction of the temple. Is this the only factor that leads scholars to conclude that it was composed in 70 CE or later or are there other factors? I've heard that Luke and Matthew are likewise dated aroun 80-85 CE to give time for Mark to have been in circulation enough to be a source for them. Is this accurate? How is John usually dated to around 95 CE (or whatever the correct [...]

2020-04-03T02:34:57-04:00February 19th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

How Do We Know What “Most Scholars” Think?

I have received a particularly interesting question that has led to a bit of back and forth between me and a person on the blog.  This person pointed out that in my writings I often indicate that a view that I have (e.g., that the Gospel of John was not written by John the son of Zebedee; that the book of Ephesians was not really written by Paul even though the author claims to be Paul; or that the Gospels are all 40-65 years after the death of Jesus, etc.) is held by the majority of scholars.  But fundamentalist and conservative evangelical scholars say just the opposite, that their views (e.g., that John the son of Zebedee did write the Gospel of John, or that the Gospels date to before the destruction of the Jerusalem in the year 70) are the views of the majority of scholars.  So who is right?  And how can a person know? In my initial response to this person, I told him that what I always try to say (maybe [...]

Being Consistently Critical (in the good sense)

I know that by now I’m supposed to  be citing Craig Evans’s best arguments that Jesus was probably given a decent  burial on the day of his crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea, rather than being left hanging on the cross for a few days in accordance with standard Roman practice.  But I’ve realized that before I get to the first of these arguments, I have to say something about how historians need to use their ancient sources.  The short answer to that question is that they need to use them … gingerly.  And consistently gingerly. This perspective will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read this blog for a long while and seen how I think we need, consistently, to use the books of the New Testament itself as sources for what actually happened in the past – whether we are considering the Gospels for knowing about what Jesus really said and did, or considering the book of Acts for knowing about the life and teachings of Paul, or considering the letters [...]

2020-04-03T16:43:39-04:00July 22nd, 2014|Bart's Critics, Historical Jesus, Teaching Christianity|

More Literary-Historical Perspectives on John

Here I continue showing how a literary-historical method can be applied to the Gospel of John, before (in later posts) showing how it can be studied following the other methods as well. ************************************************** Since ancient biographies typically established the character traits of the protagonist at the outset of the narrative, it is perhaps best to assume that an ancient reader, once he or she realized that this book is a biography of Jesus, would be inclined to read the rest of the story in light of what is stated about him here in the mystical reflection at the outset. This is no biography of a mere mortal. Its subject is one who was with God in eternity past, who was himself divine, who created the universe, who was God's self-revelation to the world, who came to earth to bring light out of darkness and truth out of error, a divine being who became human to dwell here and reveal the truth about God. This Gospel will present a view of Jesus that is far and [...]

2020-04-03T17:17:33-04:00March 9th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

The Gospel of John from a Literary-Historical Perspective

I have talked so far about several of the methods scholars use in order to study the Gospels of the NT: the literary-historical,redactional, and comparative methods. As I’ve stressed, each of these can be used for any one Gospel (or for any other piece of writing, in theory). In my textbook, when I come to the Gospel of John, I show how they all can be applied to the *same* book, before introducing an altogether different method known as the socio-historical approach. I will explain all this in a series of posts, starting with this one. ********************************************************** As I have argued, historians are responsible not only for interpreting their ancient sources but also for justifying these interpretations. This is why I have self-consciously introduced and utilized different methods for each of the books we have studied: a literary-historical method for Mark, a redactional method for Matthew, a comparative method for Luke, and a thematic method for Acts. As I have indicated, there is no reason for a historian to restrict him or herself to any [...]

2020-04-03T17:17:40-04:00March 8th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Why Historians Can Talk “About” the Resurrection

In this final post (for now) on the historian and miracles, I want to emphasize one point that I raise of my own volition, and answer one question that has been asked by a reader. First, a point to emphasize (I borrow this from my forthcoming book on How Jesus Became God), on whether my stand on miracles just means that I’m a crazy secularist…. The reason that historians cannot prove or disprove whether God has performed a miracle in the past – such as by raising Jesus from the dead – is not because historians are required to be secular humanists with an anti-supernaturalist bias.   I want to stress this point because conservative Christian apologists, in order to score debating points, often claim that this is the case.  In their view, if historians did not have anti-supernaturalist biases or assumptions, they would be able to affirm the historical “evidence” that Jesus was raised from the dead.   I should point out that these Christian apologists almost never consider the “evidence” for other miracles from the [...]

2020-04-03T17:43:52-04:00November 15th, 2013|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Historians and the Problem of Miracle

Yesterday I started to talk about why historians cannot demonstrate that a miracle such as the resurrection happened because doing so requires a set of presuppositions that are not generally shared by historians doing their work. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about this question, and have tried to explain on several occasions why a “miracle” can never be shown, on historical grounds, to have happened -- even if it did. Here is a slightly different way of approaching the matter, as I expressed it in an earlier publication on the historical Jesus: ******************************************************** People today typically think of miracles as supernatural violations of natural law, divine interventions into the natural course of events. I should emphasize that this popular understanding does not fit particularly well into modern scientific understandings of "nature," in that scientists today are less confident in the entire category of natural "law" than they were, say, in the nineteenth century. For this reason, it is probably better not to speak of supernatural violations of "laws," but to think of miracles [...]

2020-04-03T17:44:00-04:00November 15th, 2013|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

History is Not the Past

Yesterday I started to answer a question from a reader who pointed out that just as the existence of Jesus is multiply attested, so too is Jesus’ resurrection. And so if *one* is established as historical, doesn’t the other one *also* have to be seen as historical? And if one is considered non-historical, doesn’t that show that the other is probably also non-historical? These are great questions, but I think the answer to both of them is “no.” Yesterday I showed why multiple attestation strongly supports the existence of Jesus. Some readers objected to that, but I should reiterate – this is simply a common sense principle that all of us use every day to decide if something happened (say, what happened at lunch yesterday). Today I want to show why multiple attestation can *not* be used to support the resurrection of Jesus. I begin by pointing out something that hasn’t occurred to a lot of people, but is nonetheless a fundamental point. History is not the past. This may come as a surprise, but [...]

2020-04-03T17:44:10-04:00November 13th, 2013|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Multiple Attestation for Jesus

I had an interesting email from a reader the other day, in which he pointed out that the “multiple attestation” for the existence of Jesus is virtually matched by the “multiple attestation” for the resurrection of Jesus. At first I thought his point was the Christian apologetic one, that therefore since the resurrection is just as well (not quite, but still pretty well) attested as the very existence of Jesus, doesn’t that show that Jesus was probably raised from the dead? When I responded to that question, it turned out that he was actually saying the opposite: since we (meaning he and I) don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but *that’s* well attested, doesn’t that call into question the very existence of Jesus, which has comparable attestation. Multiple attestation can’t “show” it, in this view. As I think about it now, my response to *both* points (the Christian apologetic and the non-christian mythicist) is probably the same, that when dealing with the two phenomena – 1. the existence of Jesus and 2. [...]

2020-04-03T17:44:18-04:00November 12th, 2013|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Dates of the Gospels

EMAIL QUESTION How are the dates that the Gospels were composed determined? I've read that Mark is usually dated to 70 or later because of the reference to the destruction of the temple. Is this the only factor that leads scholars to conclude that it was composed in 70 CE or later or are there other factors? I've heard that Luke and Matthew are likewise dated aroun 80-85 CE to give time for Mark to have been in circulation enough to be a source for them. Is this accurate? How is John usually dated to around 95 CE (or whatever the correct period is) since it is usually described as independent of the other Gospels? RESPONSE This is a great question, and one that I get asked a lot.  How do we actually know when the Gospels were written?   It is actually a difficult question to answer, but the things you’ve already read and heard cover some of the important territory. So let’s start on some basics that I think everyone can agree on.   (Well, [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:50-04:00May 7th, 2012|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|
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