The Impertinent Historical Jesus

Joel Watts has an article in the Huffington Post about the historical Jesus.

The more the mythicist / historicist thing crops up in general readership the more silly it seems. And you can see from the comments on that post.

There are two questions here.

1. The narrow scholarly one about what historical events lead to the texts of the early Jesus movement being written (a question that shouldn’t be about the existence of Jesus, per se).

2. And there’s the one that everyone is interested in, about the validity of Christian truth claims.

Addressing the former in a context where clearly most people are interested in the latter is problematic.

It is rare for scholars to get any public interest in their areas (God knows, Huffpo wouldn’t have printed an article on my research area, even in general terms!), it is tempting to dangle the former question in venues where the latter question is overwhelmingly more important.

At the expense of going Godwin, here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say the nation is being gripped by a rise of politically active fascists. They are aiming to take control of the government and enact laws motivated by their ideology. There is a widespread discussion happening about the suitability of fascist ideology for national politics, with one side pointing out how badly that ended in 1930s Europe, and the other pointing out that Germany was an aberration because it did it wrong, and that Italy wouldn’t have been that bad without Germany and that the evils of Spain were really a reaction against internal unrest, and that ‘true’ fascism is the only way forwards.

In that context, it is hardly surprising that a group of European Social Historians suddenly find that their research on the affectionate courtship of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun has a ready audience. So one (staunch anti-fascist) historian takes to HuffPo to make the point that, while Hitler clearly did some bad things, he wasn’t all bad, and was actually quite nice to his girlfriend.

Is the scholar correct? Yes* Was Hitler an unmitigated demon? No. Did Mussolini make the trains run on time? Who cares? Well scholars do, and they should, the questions are interesting and important in a certain way.

But just because the prevailing social conditions mean there is a popular audience for their research, doesn’t mean the scholarly question is either comprehensible or able to be usefully applied.

What matters is “is fascism evil?”. “But historians can’t answer those questions!”, they might say. I disagree, but even if I didn’t, that objection only reinforces the point: in what way is it sensible to promote Hitler’s affectionate side in the context of our cultural discussion, then?

Back to Jesus. The point simply hasn’t got out that traditional Christian truth claims about Jesus are false. And I think that is often because scholars tend to tread very carefully there. Perhaps because they fear disaffecting their students, perhaps because they lack a certain kind of integrity (in the sense of integrating their scholarly truth seeking with their ‘spiritual’ truth seeking – I don’t mean in the sense of honesty).

I’ve listened to every Historical Jesus course I can find online, and all of them are peppered with these little caveats: “this is what we can tell historically, you’re free to have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, this won’t tell you if Jesus was really God, history can’t tell whether supernatural things occurred” and so on. And not in a “you’re free to believe any crap you like, as long as give the right answer” way, but said with seemingly genuine concern to give permission for students to retain their ahistorical views in the light of the history they will engage with.

Yet I’ve never heard a biology lecture series say “this is evolution from a scientific perspective, of course science can’t tell us what happened supernaturally, you’re free to have faith that it only looks this way, this won’t tell you if God actually created distinct kinds.”

Jesus Christ did not exist. This has been known for 200 years. That some of his legends are based on an obscure wandering exorcist is as unimportant beyond scholarship as the biographical details of Nicholas of Myra are to the question of whether Santa Claus brings presents down your chimney on Christmas eve.

The scholarly question is interesting. But pretending that the scholarly question is the important one in our political context is unhelpful. A sizeable organised polity wants to curtail our freedoms and impose laws on the basis of things that did not happen – is putting down mythicism really the important public battle?

*Yes, for the sake of this analogy. I’ve no idea whether this is actually the case, but that’s not the point.



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3 responses to “The Impertinent Historical Jesus

  1. Well done, I must say. You’ve convinced me that the moral case for mythicism should take precedence over whether or not there really was an actual, historical Jesus. I owe Neil Godfrey an apology.

  2. Did Mussolini make the trains run on time? No. Does it matter? Yes.

    The trains on time myth still lingers as part of a narrative that says (a) democracy leads to indulging the poor and what we need is the smack of firm government, and (b) Mussolini’s brutalities are somehow balanced by the fact that he created an efficient government. Much the same kind of thing was used to justify the murderous regime of Pinochet in Chile: ‘It’s all regrettable of course, but on the one hand, on the other hand …’

    In fact, as Denis Mack Smith’s biography in the 80s showed, Mussolini was a supreme bullshitter who was no more efficient than he was democratic. The facts are important, as far as they can be established.

    Does it matter whether Jesus was a real person or not? Yes, maybe not as much as Hitler. But bear in mind that one driving factor in the revival of Historical Jesus research in the postwar period was the realisation that when New Testament scholars largely abandoned that kind of scholarship in the first half of the century, they left the field open for the kind of half-baked pseudoscholarship that allowed the Nazis to claim that the real historical Jesus was not in fact Jewish. How do religious ideas come about? Through the conscious invention of myth? Through an improvisational process of turning a disaster – the execution of the leader – into a triumph? Some other way? It matters. I don’t see how you can answer questions about the validity of the truth claims without understanding these questions.

  3. Ian

    Thanks Rodney, and welcome to the blog.

    The post relied too much rhetorically on the idea that the scholarly conclusions might seem to provide a little support for the ‘wrong’ side in the larger scale debate. Your responses are a perfect rebuttal of that, thanks.

    But while your points diminish my argument, they doesn’t quite remove it, I don’t think. A partial rescue would go a bit like this, I think.

    You must really want your trains to run on time if that is an important question in assessing Mussolini’s record. The very question betrays the wrong priorities, regardless of the answer. You’re right, in this case Mussolini doesn’t even score for making the trains run on time. But it shouldn’t matter if he did. If you raise that point, you’ve conceded the moral point already. Just as, the imaginary historians might conclude either way about Hitler’s personality while dating. And if they came to the conclusion he was a psychotic evil bastard to Eva, well that may help the anti-fascist cause, but it doesn’t make the question any more worthy to be featured.

    Similarly for Jesus. If you engage with the Nazi claim (which i hadn’t come across before – thanks for that). You’ve already conceded the important ground, and accepted that the historical Jesus’s life is significant for thought and dead. I am calling for a clearer message from scholars that challenges the whole edifice, rather than arguing which color it should be.

    Where my argument is doubly weak, I think, is whether the larger question is tractable. In the hypothetical semi-fascist context in my post, perhaps you just wouldn’t get anywhere trying to discuss Mussolini’s greater moral failings, and all you can manage is to chip away at his administrative mythology. But, I still think there’s a moral compulsion to try.

    But I’m probably just rationalizing my desire to see scholars engage publicly with the ahistoricity of the popular Jesus, I realise.

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