This is a post that’s taken a long time coming. I’ve written in several times, and still am not 100% happy with it. Still, here we go…
In the archaeology of ancient Israel there are two famous schools of thought. The minimalists contend that there is no evidence of the kingdom of Israel described in the majority of the Old Testament. Most minimalists claim that the OT only gains some semblance of historicity when at or after the time of the exile. By contrast, maximalists would claim that, for example, the kingdom of David and possibly even the period of the Judges were broadly historical.
So it doesn’t take a scholar to see there’s a continuum there. From believing that the bible is historical from C12 BCE, through to believing it is only feasible from about C5, say (there are obviously far more extreme positions than this, including full biblical inerrancy, but few if any scholars would argue for them). But it sometimes doesn’t get treated as a continuum. Instead you get each side painting caricatures of the other, pushing them back as far as possible to try to make their position untenable. Most OT specialists I know are pretty sensible about the reality being in the middle (more towards the minimalist end, it so happens), but there’s something about the labels that brings out tribalism and unhelpful debate. This, unfortunately is the way of the agon.
The Jesus Continuum
There is a similar continuum in understanding the historicity of Jesus. At one end is the view of some confessional scholars who think the gospels are largely historically accurate. They may want to diminish some miracles, or they may reject certain passages (the dead rising in sympathy with Jesus’s resurrection seems a popular one), but broadly they are historical.
On the other hand there are a growing number of folks who want to insist that the gospels are pure fiction. One might compare them to the legend cycles of King Arthur, for example. This extreme is also rare among scholars, but is the darling of atheists online, it seems.
Most scholars, and in fact most thinking people generally (excluding the people who’s only thoughts on it are what they’ve been told to think), are not at the extremes.
For example, I believe that there are reasonable chunks of the gospel that are likely to be historically accurate. Why? Based purely on the balance of probability.
It could be that there was no historical Jesus, sure, but it is more likely that there was a preacher around whom the mythology coalesced. Stories that seem perfectly reasonable, culturally and psychologically, got reinterpreted, emboldened, and surrounded by flights of fancy.
On the other hand, it could be that there is a God who miraculously took human form to pay an atonement to himself to prevent himself from punishing his creation for the sin that he programmed into them from the start. Sure, it is possible. But it is more likely that the Jesus movement got embroiled in endless theological debates that wrapped ever more far-fetched layers of dogma around the words of a Galilean preacher.
So I’m in the continuum, and much more towards the minimalist side. It seems obvious to me that a large amount of the NT is fantasy based on scientific ignorance and conventions of mythology. But to claim that there is nothing in it that traces back to any historical figure; that it was all invented from nothing? That seems a more extraordinary claim. Faced with the scant evidence we have, it is safest, I think, to take the tentative position I have. But the evidence is so scant, that I would admit to finding quite a broad range of the continuum possible.
But what happens when talking about the Historical Jesus online, is that folks from both sides want to paint you into the opposite corner. So those folks who are on the mythological extreme want to paint me as a credulous, wannabe believer. Those on the other end would claim I don’t believe Jesus even existed. This is internet debate here, remember, not academic debate.
This has an interesting effect on some scholars. They seem to be somewhere else in the continuum than where they really are. Take folks like James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix, or Mark Goodacre at NT Blog. Reading their academic work, I am pretty convinced they are not far from me in the continuum, towards the minimalist end. As, in fact, are almost all critical biblical scholars I know (I don’t, it has to be said, know any biblical theologians well – I get the sense they are further along). But James in particular has expended a lot of energy trying to defend his position from the mythicists, so he is perceived as defending some variety of orthodoxy. Mark has an unswervingly common-sense attitude to questions of historicity, but clearly is one of the ‘establishment’ if you’re of the Mythicist persuasion. On the other hand in “The End of Biblical” Studies, Hector Avalos (who I am almost certain is also pretty close to me on the continuum) sails his rhetorical ship in the other direction, in order to make the starkest distinction between himself and those at the maximal end.
But I’ve also come across folks who call themselves “Mythicists” but basically agree with my position. They want to claim that the Jesus Christ portrayed in orthodox Christian doctrine is a myth (well, duh!). You can believe that and be far more to the maximal side than most biblical scholars. If that is Mythicism then we’re all Mythicists.
The labelling and name calling is a shame because, as for the archaeology of the ancient near east, the desire to seek out and exploit labels hampers people getting a clear sense of your position. And they hide the fact that the vast majority of critical scholars of the NT are really pretty close together.
NB: I couldn’t fit this observation in the main text, but it is worth noting that the phrase “Historical Jesus” has been used for scholarly efforts to reconstruct a complete character of Jesus largely excluding miracles and other anachronism. This places scholars such as John Dominic Crossan (and the Jesus Seminar more generally) much further towards the maximal end than me. They share most of my disbelief in the supernatural elements of the story, but think that they can construct a coherent picture of what Jesus was really like. I think they are mistaken. And I think it is obvious they are when you see that none of them agree what Jesus was really like. That is not to undervalue their scholarship, however, because I think a lot of it (particularly some of the analyses of phrases or stories that should *not* be considered authentic) are very useful.