Sunday, 8 April 2012

Motivated Reasoning And The Historical Jesus

Since it's Easter and I have four days off, I want to write a post I've been thinking about for a while. When I learned about Christianity, there were two things that my teachers put a strong emphasis on. First was the need for faith, that religious belief would prove itself invaluable as our lives went on. Second was that the biblical narratives were accurate accounts of God on Earth.

The second point is quite an interesting one in that we're compelled to have at least some form of opinion on the matter. My general thinking on the matter was what I later found out Hume was talking about with the problem of miracles - there's really just no way one can take personal accounts as proof of the miraculous. Yet even if one takes this position, the question of how the gospel accounts came about remains.

Somewhere between complete fabrication and accurate historical retelling the truth lies. As to the historical development of the accounts, it's really a question for historians. Most of us are arguing for a particular conclusion, and it's one that's much more theological than historical. And on that, the historical questions in so much as to how much the historical Jesus matches a theological one.

God Incarnate Conclusion
In various discussions with theists, the historical Jesus seems an inevitability. Going back to my days in scripture class, I remember a video telling us that Jesus was the most well-attested historical figure from that era. It was then a surprise later to find out that all this really means was that there were lots of copies of the bible made, and a reference in Josephus that at the very least was embellished by Christian scholars who "preserved" the text.

Yet that is what I'm often told is the clinching evidence that Jesus was who he said he was and did what people say he did. I'm given all sorts of reasoning about the way that the ancients preserved knowledge through oral traditions, claims about eyewitness nature of the gospel accounts, that particular narratives of the gospels couldn't have come about any other way, etc. While the arguments are dependent on the history, they're trying to massage history towards a particular conclusion.

What really stuns me is how tenuous the links are between the facts and the conclusion. There's incredible accounts with very little real evidence supporting them, and making claims about the nature of the evidence that can only lead to that conclusion. There may be a case if it were the other way around, that people followed history to theological conclusions, but who can honestly claim this is how it happened for them?

The best hope is that while it may be today that any sense of addressing the question is tainted by the theology, that the theology is the natural development of historical events. While this could be the case, it still requires many assumptions about the nature of the original authors and events that would be difficult to separate from the motivation to see the theological Jesus as the historical figure.

Jesus Myth Conclusion
One of the more memorable "explanations" of Jesus I've heard is that Jesus was a skilled magician, which I would assume comes from that same vantage point of hearing about the gospel accounts then thinking how they can best be explained. Us as pseudohistorians are meant to be the judge on the biblical accounts as we are presented them, making sense of it with the best understanding we can bring.

Yet it should never be forgotten that we are talking about a proposed time and sequence of events in history. In terms of what heuristics are best to apply, it requires an understanding of more than just the claims themselves. It's understanding the origin of the claims, how they came to be written and in what context the claims are made. It's also having to understand the period itself, what exists there and what ought to exist. This is why it's not really wise to try to theorise on what really happened - not only do most of us not know, we don't have the right tools to change that.

When I hear "Jesus is a myth", it's one of those statements that requires clarification in the same manner as J.L. Mackie's "there is no objective ethics". Even among scholarly proponents, there's several overlapping meanings, so what one means by myth is not apparently obvious. In at least a trivial sense, anyone who denies the biblical accounts as accurate is putting forward a mythic view of Jesus. But obviously there's a big difference between embellishments on a historical figure and the invention of one; in the former then many Christians would be considered proponents of the Jesus myth hypothesis.

But if we are to take the question seriously, blanket statements like "Jesus in a myth" are unhelpful. It's framing the premise wrongly. To illustrate this, consider the statement that Uri Geller is a myth. If one made the statement that it just meant that a Uri Geller who had psychic powers couldn't exist, then it's not really saying much. A Uri Geller does exist, and he did claim to have psychic powers and developed a following on that basis. Even if one takes the accounts as not being possibly true, it doesn't say much at all about how the accounts came about. In Uri Geller's case, Uri Geller did perform the tricks ascribed to him - only that they were tricks.

A Reluctant Search
The history of Jesus matters to a lot of people, even if the historical nature of the question does not. It's important to understand not only what evidence there is (and what evidence there isn't), but what that evidence can show. It's not a question I'm particularly interested in exploring, but it's one that I feel I have little choice but to at least have an awareness of the relevant evidence. Beyond that, any specific conclusion about what the evidence says is going to be more a product of motivated reasoning than an accurate reading than of careful scholarship. For myself, I'm going to push through a Bart Ehrman lecture series on the historical Jesus - so then I can get back to learning about something of actual consequence.


Richard T said...

Just read an article this morning from John Dickson on the topic at hand. He is a Christian historian. I think he frames what we can or can't know about the accounts quite well.

Kel said...

He's engaging in a bit of excessive rhetoric himself. Dawkins, while presenting G.A. Wells view, ends up saying that he does think there was a historical Jesus. Maybe he's trying to make a point at Dawkins for even entertaining the notion, though it does seem somewhat antithetical to his point about rhetoric on the issue.

Kel said...

Anyway, I read the article. It seemed to have a good framing of the issue, similar to what I've read Ehrman talk about.

Also doing some googling, I came across an exchange on ABC that looked interesting:

Richard T said...

I just read through the various articles and replies. I think Loader does a lot better job than Lewis in incorporating all the available material. It seems that Lewis mostly argues from silence. Imagine if I wrote a letter to you and mentioned nothing of what I knew about you until say one year ago. Does this mean I am ignorant of what happened to you from over one year ago or does it mean I had other things to talk about? Lewis seems to run really hard with the former whilst not even thinking of the latter.

I haven't thought too much about the fact that Paul does a bunch of writing before the general accepted writing date of the gospels. The fact that the teaching lines up very well between Paul and the gospels means it probably won't concern me much when I think about it some more.

The problem I see is that the gospels and Pauline letters have different purposes so of course they have no need to discuss the same things. The gospels are essentially trying to retell the life of Jesus. The letters that compose the rest of the New Testament are basically trying to expand on Jesus' teaching and apply it to various situations.

Kel said...

I came across this article today, which I thought was a good philosophical framing of the issue.

"The gospels are essentially trying to retell the life of Jesus."
This is what I don't get. These aren't dispassionate or theologically-void accounts. They aren't even written by people who spoke the same language as Jesus, lived in the same area, or in the same time period. For each of the authors, we don't know how they learned of the events or how they added their own personal beliefs and culture into it. And what purpose were the writings for? Are they meant to simply be historical narratives, or do the narratives serve to make a political point? Do they serve to try to convert pagans? For example, I have heard from scholars that many of the accounts in Matthew are pulled straight out of old testament accounts. Are they there to retell the life of Jesus, or are they there to make a theological point?

This is something personally that I'm sceptical of. We have very little in the way of knowing how the narratives came about, so how can we be confident at all of any particular interpretation?