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Christ: The Mystery
On Tom Holland on Jesus, part the first
Christmas is upon us! In honor of the season, from now until the end of the year, you can lock in an annual subscription to Further Up for the dramatically reduced price of $30! That’s right, $30! Look, guys, I’m not saying this is a steal, I’m just saying…this is a steal. And it may also help free you to give some love to a couple other worthy Substacks, like my friend Brandon at Poiema, or my friend Holly at Holly Math Nerd. So what are you waiting for? ‘Tis the season! Ho, ho, ho!
As an early Christmas present, historian Tom Holland and his Rest is History co-host Dom Sandbrook have released a two-part podcast on the historical Jesus, much anticipated by fans of the show who chose the topic in a poll last year. You can hear the first episode now, which they’ve called “Jesus Christ: The Mystery,” but only subscribers to the show’s special fan club can immediately hear its companion episode, “Jesus Christ: The History.” Naturally, I chose to be part of the special fan club so I could hear the second episode right away and start collecting thoughts on it. Depending on how fast I write, those thoughts may or may not be up before that episode is up. I’ll be splitting them up and making some of the material subscriber-exclusive, which, as aforementioned, you will now be temporarily able to access for A MEASLY $30 PER ANNUM! I apologize in advance if these thoughts aren’t quite as precisely organized as usual. My excuse is that I’m in exhausted recovery from a nasty virus, and also I’m cranking this out the night before I drive home for the holidays. However, since I’ve been steeped in this material half my life, hopefully it will still have a modicum of clarity and interest.
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I’ll begin with a little academic background I rarely talk about here at the Stack, because it just hasn’t seemed relevant. But I thought it might be apt to bring out here, because among many other things, the discussion of the historical Jesus is an academic discussion. It is most certainly not just an academic discussion. But it’s a discussion on which academic tools have historically been brought to bear, legitimately so. The story of Jesus isn’t some delicate flower that must be handled with elaborate care lest it shrivel and die. It was always meant to be poked, prodded, and tested, like wounds in a nail-scarred hand.
That’s how I’m going to approach the discussion in these impressions, because it’s been an important part of my training since I was very young. Because my parents are, in fact, academics. For the curious, their combined areas of specialty include the history and philosophy of science, Renaissance literature, the history and philosophy of religion, epistemology, probability theory, and New Testament studies. Within the field of epistemology—the theory of knowledge—they have done particularly important work on the rigorous assessment of evidence and testimony. Perhaps you can see both how this might bear on questions surrounding the historical Jesus and how this might annoy historians who are unfamiliar with what epistemologists do. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of being an academy brat, it’s that scholarship without cross-pollination is doomed.
One of my parents’ great gifts to me was their insistence on the necessity of having an integrated mind as a Christian. What this means, for them, is that there has never been a division in their work between “the Christian McGrews” and “the philosopher McGrews,” or “the historian McGrews.” There has never been a conscious switch they make in their minds as they take the one “hat” off and put the other “hat” on. In all things, including their journeys into the field of biblical studies, their approach has always been relentlessly, dare I say savagely consistent. So when people compliment me on this quality, I tell them I get it honest on both sides.
I stress all this upfront here because it’s a stock notion, even in Tom Holland’s peer circles, that only the desperately committed “apologist” could reach conclusions in these matters that break with a consensus of appropriately moderate liberal scholars. Naturally, they think, that is where the desperate apologist would fall. He falls where he wants to fall, believing what he wants to believe, because it’s so much easier and more comfortable to believe—isn’t it?
To this challenge, I offer the counter-challenge that while Christianity undeniably has its attractions, so too does atheism, or even a comfortable agnosticism. Indeed, I submit that the very ability to count oneself among the consensus of appropriately moderate liberal scholars is, in itself, quite a powerful attraction. From my little Ivory Tower vantage post, I’ve watched it work on more than one scholar, in more than one discipline.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that Tom or Dom or any other skeptical historian must be coming to the table insincerely (though I think some do, like Bart Ehrman). I would only remind them, gently, that when God calls a man, He bids him come and die.
On that note, here are some notes on Tom and Dom’s first episode, “Jesus Christ: The Mystery.”
Tom and Dom open appropriately with the gospel of Luke’s version of the Christmas story. Dom then notes aside that Luke was “probably written at the end of the 1st century AD.” Here I just want to make a couple comments about dates, because dates are mentioned a few times throughout. First, just for those who aren’t familiar, Luke’s gospel together with the gospels of Matthew and Mark are called “the Synoptic gospels.” They are frequently discussed together because they share a fair bit of DNA, where the gospel of John has its own distinct character. All four tend to be conventionally dated in the latter half of the 1st century, with John dated latest. However, the debate is really wide open, and there’s no knock-down reason to assume that Luke couldn’t have been written some time earlier. One reasonable argument often given for an earlier dating is that Luke also appears to be the author of Acts, a kind of “sequel” text that records the doings of Paul and the first apostles. But Acts ends abruptly with Paul in prison, before his Roman execution in 67 AD. This suggests that Acts dates pre-67, which in turn implies that Luke dates even earlier.
So that’s just one simple, clean argument against a late date for Luke. However, a late date by itself doesn’t necessarily count against verisimilitude, as in fact I think it doesn’t for John’s gospel. Later, Tom seems to conflate the argument over John’s dating with the argument over its reliability, which are two separate debates. Plenty of quite conservative biblical scholars are content to place John at the end of the century, vividly recalling his life to mind the way some of us have seen very old war veterans recall their past with uncanny clarity.
Tom makes some interesting opening remarks on the “faith responses” that Jesus’ story provokes both in believers and unbelievers. He very much sees himself as the captain of the good ship Reasonable Agnostic, carefully steering his way between the Scylla and Charybdis of irrationalities on either side. To be sure, irrationality does exist on either side. But while Tom would probably like to distance himself from Sam Harris and friends, I’m afraid in some ways they share a family resemblance, in that all of them make the same category error of making “faith” definitionally opposed to “reason.”
In establishing Jesus’ place in the pantheon of religious figures, Tom makes the very interesting choice to compare him not with Mohammed, but with the Koran. (Tom, of course, brings years of experience studying Islam before he turned to Christianity.) Just as the Koran was the miraculously delivered word of God for Muslims, indeed the one and only miracle that Muslims were told to seek, so Jesus is the miraculously delivered Word of God for Christians. Historians, Tom says, must in both cases reckon with this ancient strain of “weirdness” that runs right back to the beginning of both religious traditions, to a time when “there was no real division between the natural and the supernatural.” This last line is something I hear repeated quite a bit, but I’ve always wanted to pick and poke at it a little more. Did Joseph lack a conception of the difference between natural and supernatural when he first began wondering how he was going to “put Mary away quietly”? Were 1st-century Jews generally ignorant of the natural process by which babies come into the world, or men leave it?
Anyway, what’s interesting about where Tom takes all this is that he also seems to want to set himself apart from the Renans, Strausses and Schweitzers of the world, by saying these schnitzel-snarfing moderns weren’t sufficiently appreciative of all this ancient “weirdness.” In that way, he somewhat echoes the contemporary scholar Dale Allison, whom he seems to admire, and who is famously open to all manner of paranormal claims—though, paradoxically, this makes Allison disinclined to give Jesus’ bodily resurrection any distinctive credence.
On the other hand, Tom suggests that Jesus might not have been so weird a figure as all that when he’s considered in the context of the whole Roman Empire. Here he pauses for a short reading from Tacitus about a strange, unfortunate fellow called Mericcus, who fancied himself a “minister of Heaven,” tried to lead a revolt of the Gauls as their “divine champion,” and launched an attack on some neighboring villages. He was summarily captured and executed for his pains. This is an interesting little footnote, but I’m honestly not sure why Tom thought it terribly relevant to bring up in a conversation about the historical Jesus. It doesn’t even seem clear in the original wording of Tacitus that Mericcus was claiming to be “a god,” as Tom glosses it, let alone the one true God. Further, as we all know, Jesus never “endeavoured to thrust himself into greatness” (as Tacitus so savagely puts it) by putting himself at the head of an army. That’s what makes Jesus actually weird, where Mericcus seems like a fairly conventional egotistical idiot, as such things go. Joseph Smith comes to mind, for a more modern example. But there may have been other ancient figures who thought they were, in some sense, channeling a divine energy. Yet this is importantly distinct from what Jesus claimed about himself, and why the Jews took up stones to stone him.
A long-ish section here where Tom and Dom go through the standard external source attestations to Jesus’ existence, which no credible historian disputes, but which for thoroughness they address anyway. This includes the much-discussed bit in Josephus which seems to have an authentic core, but was later embellished in overtly Christian ways that quite clearly wouldn’t trace back to Josephus. I would never have pegged Tom for a Richard Carrier fan, but it’s still nice to hear that nonsense summarily dismissed.
Just after this, though, is something I do want to highlight, because this has relevance to a move I’ve seen some Christian apologists make to classify the gospels as “Greco-Roman bioi.” This line will sometimes be circulated in more conservative circles as if it makes the gospels sound stronger or more reliable. In fact, this classification appears to be a clear category error, which is a good thing, because as Tom and Dom discuss, Greco-Roman bioi are hardly exemplars of holistic reliability. For figures like Alexander or Nero, they talk about biographies “written long after” which may “have fragments of detail” but “are shot through with all kinds of fantastical elements.” Naturally, Tom and Dom think the New Testament fits this description too. Point is, Christian apologists should really stop using the “Greco-Roman bioi” line. It doesn’t mean what they think it means.
After the break, there’s more discussion of the immensely complicated political and regional dynamics into which Jesus was born. And what a mess it was, owing to the fact that Palestine was never “conquered” in the conventional sense. During the period covered by the New Testament, it passed through no fewer than five (5) distinct stages of government: 1) A united kingdom under a single native ruler (Herod the Great), 2) After his death, a broken-up collection of separate ethnarchies and tetrarchies, 3) Some falling under procuratorial rule, while others remained quasi-independent, 4) A briefly reunited kingdom under a well-liked native ruler, 5) Territory completely under the governor of Syria, although the son of the last native monarch retained some jurisdiction over religious ceremonies. Not only were the laws constantly changing, there was a double system of taxation, a double system of coinage, a double administration of justice, and even in some respects a double military command.
The really interesting thing about reading Luke’s gospel in particular, in light of all this, is that Luke navigates through this whole minefield with uncannily granular accuracy. And really, it should be said that all the gospel authors impress in this regard, but Luke stands out with his particular fondness for sticking his neck out with very specific dates, place names, administrative titles, etc. In short—this bears emphasizing—Luke is a proven historical source in himself. This prompts Dom to say Luke is actually his favorite gospel. Good choice, Dom.
All this should be kept in mind when we come to the Great Census Debate, which is treated more fully in the second episode but hinted at here. To hang the frame for people, Herod the Great died in 4 B. C., but we have a record that Quirinius was governor of Syria and took a census some years after this, when Herod’s son Archelaus had been deposed and Judaea came under direct Roman rule. This is presented as a problem for Luke: Right Quirinius, wrong Herod? As one scholar airily puts it, Luke was either “too theologically enmeshed to notice” his error, or he was “simply ill-informed.” Holland agrees.
Much could be said here, and I want to avoid the trap of diving down a rabbit hole in either this post or the next. But I’ll just make one point, because Tom in this first episode speaks as if Luke’s opening chapter must be intending to refer to the AD census—that is, placing Jesus’ birth in 8 AD. But this runs into a number of problems on inspection. First, there’s Luke’s clear assertion that John the Baptist was conceived during the time of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5). Second, there’s Luke’s clear knowledge of the 8 A.D. census at its own time period (Acts 5:37). Third, there are Luke’s many explicit time indicators for when John the Baptist, and by extension, Jesus, began their ministries (Luke 3:1, 3:23), which would make Jesus too young if Luke was writing under the impression that he was born in 8 A.D. So even as a fair reading of Luke’s own material, this just doesn’t wash. Something else is going on, even if you want to make the case that something mistaken is going on. More on this later.
Skipping on, Dom eventually informs Tom that they’ve talked a lot about the gospels without really digging into what they are, which they finally begin to do a bit towards the end of the episode. Tom neatly brushes away all the conspiracizing around canonization, saying the canonical gospels were chosen because they were judged the earliest and most reliable, simple as. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear him mention the work of Richard Bauckham (though he slips and calls him Robert), whose book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses has carved a place for itself in the corpus of biblical scholarship by arguing that “Mark was really written by a bloke called Mark,” taking notes from the eyewitness Peter, and some bloke named John really did write John (though not the bloke named John that you think, but we’re not going to go there). I must say, I was slightly amused by the way Dom asked, “But they’re in the minority…right?” when Tom said there are scholars who think John was written by an eyewitness. Well Dom, that depends on your reference class! Shall we include the democracy of the dead?
Tom ultimately wraps up by saying he sees a problem with arriving at too many “hard and fast conclusions” either way about the gospels’ nature and provenance, so long as there is “an accepted range of scholarly opinion.” As good historians, Tom believes he and Dom have to be content with a healthy degree of agnosticism “and say that ultimately, we can’t know.”
Again, I’ve no doubt Tom is presenting this conclusion in good faith. But epistemologically speaking, the proposition “We can’t know” is obviously not null. It’s contentful. It is, among other things, asserting that the body of positive evidence for the gospels as a holistically reliable record of supernatural events is insufficient. It’s true Tom might lean farther right than some individual skeptics—giving any credence at all to scholars like Richard Bauckham, for instance, to the extent that he’s willing to acknowledge a “range of opinions” on John’s provenance rather than asserting “no credible historian” thinks John is the work of an eyewitness. But, as comes out even clearer in part two, he’s still quite firmly located within the range of skeptical historians who have made the “hard and fast” conclusion that whatever the gospels are, they’re “not gospel.” So it would seem that in the end, hard and fast conclusions are inevitable after all.
That was long, and a departure from my usual fare here at the Substack, but I hope someone has read it and enjoyed it, or hopefully a few someones. Please forgive me for the typos you have almost certainly found. Remember, all you have to do is buy AN ANNUAL SUBSCRIPTION FOR A MEASLY $30, and you’ll be able to access part two of this analysis when I’ve put that together. Meantime, thanks so much for reading!
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