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#367 Discounting Historical Jesus Scholarship

April 28, 2014

Dear Dr. Craig,

first and foremost I want to thank for your work in name of christianity. I really enjoy watching your debates and reading your books.

Now to my question - it is about NT scholarship.

In your argument about the resurrection of Jesus you say, that the vast majority of NT historians accept:
1) Jesus death
2) The empty tomb
3) Resurection apearences
4) His disciples coming to believe

I know Gary Habermas has compiled a list of work on this topic, which comfirms your assertion.

I often hear as a counter argument, that even if there are sceptics in this field of work. The probability that most of NT historians are leaning to christianity, because nobody would study a topic which he think is absurd, or just isn't interested in. But NT scholars actually do this for a living.

Therefore the result, that most NT scholars accept these four facts isn't really an argument, because their work/oppinion will be heavily biased.

I would like you to comment on that.

Thank you


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Dr. craig’s response


Those who attempt to discount the majority views of New Testament scholars on certain issues on the basis of Christian bias only show how naïve they are about historical Jesus studies. While it is doubtless true that Christians will be disproportionately represented in NT scholarship in contrast to various secular disciplines, it is far too simplistic to dismiss the conclusions of NT scholarship as heavily biased and thus easily discounted.

The fact is that NT scholars have been on the whole an incredibly sceptical lot. There is not a single passage in the gospels which has not been subjected to the severest criticism. R. T. France, a British NT scholar, has written,

At the level of their literary and historical character we have good reason to treat the gospels seriously as a source of information on the life and teaching of Jesus, and thus on the historical origins of Christianity. Ancient historians have sometimes commented that the degree of scepticism with which New Testament scholars approach their sources is far greater than would be thought justified in any other branch of ancient history. Indeed many ancient historians would count themselves fortunate to have four such responsible accounts, written within a generation or two of the events, and preserved in such a wealth of early manuscript evidence. . . . Beyond that point, the decision as to how far a scholar is willing to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by his openness to a ‘supernaturalist’ world-view than by strictly historical considerations.[1]

As a German, Jasper, you of all people ought to be aware of this. German scholarship, which has for two hundred years driven critical biblical studies, has been enormously sceptical of the NT records of the life of Jesus. Studies of the historical Jesus were shaped by the overwhelming influence of David Friedrich Strauss, whose Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835), motivated by Hume’s argument against miracles, set the tone for modern historical Jesus research. Why, by the end of the 19th century, some scholars like Bruno Baur went so far as to deny that Jesus of Nazareth even existed! This scepticism extended through the mid-twentieth century with the influential work of Rudolf Bultmann, who held that the traditions about Jesus have been so re-shaped by mythology that all we know about the historical Jesus could be written on a 4X6 index card! It goes without saying that such scepticism reigned with respect to the events of Jesus’ resurrection such as his proper burial and empty tomb.

It was during the 1950s that the old sceptical paradigm began to collapse. One of the most important developments in historical Jesus studies is what has been called “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.” It was realized that the proper interpretive context for understanding Jesus and the gospels is not pagan mythology but first-century Palestinian Judaism. Hence, there is today considerable interest among Jewish historical scholars in Jesus, as one of their own. This reclamation of the Jewishness of Jesus has led to a new appreciation of the historical credibility of the gospels and to the eclipse of mythology as a relevant category in historical Jesus studies.

This reappreciation of the historical credibility of the gospels as sources for the life of Jesus encompasses what German scholars call “das Geschick Jesu,” that is to say, what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. In contrast to NT scholars of the Bultmann generation and earlier, contemporary NT scholars, including Jewish scholars, take seriously the historicity of Jesus’ entombment by a Jewish Sanhedrist (whose name we even know!) and the discovery of his empty tomb by a group of Jesus’ women followers. It is, moreover, virtually universally agreed that the earliest disciples had experiences of seeing Jesus alive after his death and that they came suddenly and sincerely to believe that he was risen from the dead.

Such a reversal of scholarship and unanimity cannot be plausibly dismissed as due to Christian bias. Keep in mind that being personally a Christian does not imply or require that a scholar will conclude that the evidence is sufficient to establish some putative fact related in the gospels. Even if I believe, for example, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that in no way implies that I think that his birth in Bethlehem—not to speak of the virgin birth of Jesus!—can be historically proven! Similarly, one might believe that Jesus rose from the dead and yet think that the facts of his burial and empty tomb cannot be proven historically on the basis of the evidence. The fact that the wide majority of NT scholars think that these facts can, in contrast with the birth stories, be established with reasonable confidence says something about the force of the evidence. If bias were to blame, then these events at the beginning and end of Jesus’ life ought to be regarded as established with equal confidence.

In fact, as France’s statement above intimates, it is actually a bias toward naturalism that has skewed the historical judgement of many NT scholars against the historicity of various gospels events. (See, for example, my article “Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar” or last week’s question concerning John Dominic Crossan’s evaluation of the burial and empty tomb traditions.) If this is right, then the freedom of Christian scholars (we may hope) from such a prejudice will actually serve to make them more objective with respect to assessing the evidence. This is just as it should be, for the fact of Jesus’ burial and even the discovery of his empty tomb are not themselves supernatural or miraculous events but natural events. It is only when we come to explaining them that the specter of supernaturalism raises its head. And I’ve never suggested the most NT scholars defend a supernatural explanation of these facts—merely that they recognize the historicity of Jesus’ burial, empty tomb, postmortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. It may well be the case that the majority of new NT historians, be they Christian or non-Christian, think that such an inference lies beyond the scope of their competence.

Finally, what needs to be kept in mind in all this is that what matters in the end is the evidence which has convinced most scholars. This is not about counting noses but about weighing the historical evidence given in support of the four facts at issue. The appeal to the majority view is useful primarily, not as an argument, but as a way of saying, “It’s not just I who find these arguments convincing. The majority of specialist historians do, too.” The facile attempt to dismiss their assessment as biased ultimately doesn’t matter because it is the evidence, not the prejudices of the historian[2] that determines whether something is to be regarded as historical or not.

  • [1]

     R. T. France, “The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity,” Truth 1 (1985): 86.

  • [2]

     See my chapter on the objectivity of history in Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Whaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008). The problem of lack of neutrality is a common issue in philosophy of history, hardly unique to NT studies.

- William Lane Craig