Baker Academic

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

reasoning back from the Gospels to Jesus?

I've recently resumed working on the next installment of my serial review of Bart Ehrman's book, Jesus before the Gospels (HarperCollins, 2016). But before we turn our attention to Chapter 5, I would like to address Larry's very interesting comment that was left on the previous installment. In sum, Larry raises a question about the "direction of reasoning": that is, if we knew the historical Jesus (the actual man from the 20s CE) we could likely understand and explain the Gospels, but can we with any real confidence know the historical Jesus having only the Gospels? Also, Larry mentions the very important factor that the significance of "the essential truth" of the historical event or figure we are trying to discern (the true essence of that event or figure) changes as the social context of the remembering present changes. So, in the example of Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker who repaired Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try," and "Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date . . . thank God we have a government" might have been essential synonyms, but they are not so today.

There is much to commend here. The basic fact is, Yes, we are dealing with a problem of directionality. It is quite difficult—if not actually impossible—to move backward from the traces of the past to the actuality of past events, in part because the actuality of past events no longer exists. Even in the relatively straightforward example of Lincoln’s watch, the historian cannot disprove the claim that, within a week of the watchmaker’s having inscribed Lincoln’s watch, a cat burglar exchanged the watch expressing the hope for slavery’s end with one expressing a hope for the reunification of the Union, and that the Smithsonian actually opened this latter watch rather than the former. Perhaps the watchmaker’s testimony is righter than we might think on the basis of the watch found within the Smithsonian’s custody. This isn’t just a silly example; it rather demonstrates the point that even when we have excellent evidence (as in this case), historians do not have the past itself. Hence the common claim that historians trade in probabilities rather than certainties.

It is also the case that historians of Jesus do not have sufficient evidence of Jesus’ life to warrant the kind of confidence we might have in our knowledge of the historical Lincoln. With Lincoln, we have actual manuscripts of at least some of his speeches. We have public records relating to and stemming from Lincoln’s public life. We have words and other materials from his contemporaries, both his supporters and his opponents. We are awash in data when we study Lincoln; Jesus scholars can only look on with envy. We have no accounts written by Jesus himself of his teachings. We have no public records (demographic data, bureaucratic documentation, etc.) from Jesus’ day. We don’t even have materials from Jesus’ contemporaries, though the Gospels are not terribly far removed from the time of the historical Jesus (being only three to five or seven decades after him; the closest reports we get from Jesus’ opponents other than those recorded in the Gospels come from the second century Roman historians and the even later Talmudic tradition). In terms of the standard investigation of ancient history, historians of Jesus rely on fairly solid data. But that standard is orders of magnitude below the kinds of data that survive for the study of modern history, which is a pity.

Even so, reasoning backwards from the claim of Lincoln’s watchmaker to the inscription inside his pocket watch actually helps clarify the task of historical Jesus scholarship, especially from the so-called memory approach. While we might not be able to reason backward from “I hope the war ends slavery” to “I hope the war reunifies a divided country,” we would be able to recover the watchmaker’s expectation that Lincoln was a significant figure in the troubles of mid-nineteenth-century America, that those troubles were related to tensions between slave and free states, and that the Union in Lincoln’s day was in dire straits. The watchmaker was able to participate in the effort to express the value of the Union—perhaps without the overt reference to slavery he would later recall—in his own, small way (viz., an inscription where no one would see it), and in doing so he identified the hope of the Union with Lincoln and his tenure in office. Historians would be able to have this fairly clear picture even if they mistakenly thought the inside of Lincoln’s watch read, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try," when it actually read, "Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date . . . thank God we have a government."

Larry is right to raise questions about the applicability of the story of John Dean’s testimony against Nixon to our study of Jesus. John Dean’s testimony is only heuristically helpful for Jesus historians. That is, it describes one way that memory sometimes works (and exposes one potential dimension of the truth of historical claims); it does not tell us how memory always works. I would, however, make two final points. First, I did not apply the case of John Dean to the Gospels’ testimony about Jesus; Bart Ehrman did. Second, my point was not that the case of John Dean salvages the historical value of the Gospels. Rather, it was that Ehrman provided a selective portrayal of Neisser’s study and that, to whatever extent we might apply that study to the Gospels, Neisser will lead us to very different conclusions to those drawn by Ehrman.


  1. Rafael, thanks for giving my comment so much attention. I've been working on a longer comment back to you ... but I'm going to do something highly uncharacteristic of me and let our discussion stand as is. Despite my fascination with this topic, I'm not sure I have anything more to add. Except to say how much I appreciate being able to interact with you.

    1. If/as you have anything, I would welcome your insight. Like you, I am fascinated by this topic.

      Be well.

  2. OK then, a few thoughts. (Shows how long I can keep silent!)

    First, I love how the story of Lincoln’s watch provides us with a beautiful example of memory distortion. In all likelihood, the watchmaker originally viewed the Civil War as a war to preserve the national union, and later came to view the War as one to end slavery. In just the way we might expect, the watchmaker superimposed his later view of the war onto his earlier memory of inscribing a message in the watch.

    But the problem I see is that we don’t often have this kind of evidence of both ends of a memory trajectory. (I am ignoring here your speculation that maybe someone switched watches!) Let’s assume for the moment that we didn’t have access to Lincoln’s watch, and all we knew was what the watchmaker said he’d inscribed in the watch. What would we conclude was actually inscribed in the watch? We might create circles of plausibility. It was most plausible that there was an inscription, a bit less plausible that it was about the civil war, even less plausible that the description mentioned slavery, and so forth. We might have come up with alternate plausible inscriptions other than the one reported by the watchmaker, including one like the actual inscription.

    And it might be the case that we could really say nothing about the watch at all. Maybe the watchmaker never even saw Lincoln’s watch. Maybe he was not in Washington, D.C. when the civil war started. Maybe this is the most plausible explanation: the watchmaker’s memory was confused, or he made the story up. From a memory perspective, all this is possible.

    I don’t know how memory theory helps us to evaluate these competing possibilities. I’ve read a few different ideas how this might be done, from Dale Allison to Chris Keith. I can’t go with Allison’s “gist” approach, because there’s never going to be a single “gist.” I’m more comfortable with Chris’ approach, not that I can exactly describe it!

    But I think at some nth degree of analysis, memory theory challenges conventional ideas of what we can know about history, including the common approach of writing history using narratives of certainty (with perhaps a footnote or paragraph in the forward about history being a matter of probability). At minimum, humility is called for. Perhaps we need to learn to write historical narratives in terms of a quantum cloud of possible descriptions of “what really happened.” Something like a cubist word painting? I have a friend who sometimes writes nonfiction from a multiplicity of perspectives at once: maybe it happened like “x”, or maybe like “y” or maybe like “z.” Or, sometimes when the husband came home from work it went like this, sometimes like that, sometimes like this other thing. When written well, this kind of narrative gives the feeling of an object being picked up, examined and turned from side to side, top to bottom, so that it is viewed if not exactly described.

    My disappointment with Ehrman is that he’s using memory theory to reinforce his pre-existing beliefs, and not in a way that challenges (or even seriously reconsiders) how we do history.
    Please keep up your good work here! And thanks so much for listening and sharing.

  3. Rafael & Larry, I love everything about this entire conversation. Thank you both so much for having it publicly.

    I didn't think I had the time to engage with you both in this particular context, but this morning I'm re-reading John Lewis Gaddis (2002), and I would like to recommend chapter three, "Structure and Process".

    It may prove fruitful here. Carry on...

    I'll post an excerpt for you both soon on Facebook...