Exploring the Historicity of the Bible and Jesus

I think I met Nicholas Bruzzese on Facebook, but now I can't remember. Not that it matters as much as the fact that I now call him a friend. Awhile ago he and his friends down in Melbourne Australia started a podcast called The Skeptic's Testament. As you know, I have a thing for podcasts because I can do mundane tasks while learning about new things from interesting people.

And Nicholas and his friends are very interesting. They tackle the bible from a scholarly perspective and I always learn something from every episode.

One thing that seems to be a big controversy is the historicity of Jesus. Did he exist? Before I heard the Skeptic's Testament, I had met another biblical scholar who told me that the consensus among the people who study biblical history is that he did. But he never really explained.

I used to believe that Jesus didn't exist. I know a lot of atheists hold to this belief, and while I don't have the tools to prove them wrong, when it comes to issues that I am not an expert in (most things, actually) I look to see what the consensus is, as that's a pretty good starting point. What do most experts say? We all have to do this in different areas of our lives. That's the nature of being interdependent as social creatures. I defer to my husband when it comes to cars and mechanical things, I listen to my doctor (and maybe get a second opinion) because she knows more than me about the human body, etc. We get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

So after listening to all of the episodes of The Skeptic's Testament, I asked Nicholas if he would mind answering some questions about this issue that is so contentious among atheists, yet pretty much agreed upon by scholars. The following are my initial questions and Nicholas' answers. This is part 1 of 2.

Q: Please introduce yourself. What are your credentials in talking about the bible?
Even though I grew up a Christian attending Church with my grandma as a youngster, it wasn’t until my teens that I began to take religion seriously, which began my fundamental literal approach to the Bible. If nothing else all that Bible reading and apologetic research built endurance. I am half way through a formal degree in Divinity, so in other words I haven’t any credentials worth talking about. Some may find it strange, an atheist taking ministry courses which are a part of MDiv, the only two points I will make about this are many of these subjects are interesting in their own right and many would be utterly surprised at just how skeptical such a course can be. It is so rigid in its skepticism, the disconnect we see between pastor and parishioner on biblical fundamentals, such as ‘who are the authors of the four canonical Gospels’ becomes bewilderingly odd. So I hope to bridge the gap among atheists and Christians alike.

Q: In conversations and in listening to your podcast, I've learned that you agree with the critical scholarly consensus that Jesus existed. Can you explain?
The critical scholarly consensus, as you put it, is derived from what is called the ‘Historical Critical Approach (more commonly Method)’ to the books contained in the Bible. It should be appositely termed ‘approach’ due to the numerous methods (too numerous to mention) used to critically examine the books which make up our compendium. Rudolf Bultmann, commonly referred to as the arch skeptic, began in the early 1900’s to create a well-defined split between history and faith, or, a devotional versus critical approach to Bible study. Bultmann was no doubt a Christian and a controversial critic of the Gospel tradition who argues against the historicity of much of the Gospel tradition. He realized how different the outcomes can be when the Bible is no longer viewed through devotional glasses, when Form, Textual, Literary, Source, Canonical and Narrative criticisms are applied, our biases (atheist and Christian alike) can be whittled away. These techniques require a well learned expert who can apply a literary science to our ancient authors whilst incorporating what we know about the ancient world from archaeology and various other forms of historical theory. These are the very same tools used to study the lives of our least and greatest known ancestors who crop up in all forms of ancient human artefact from Homer to the life of Alexander the Great.

It matters not to who I agree, and more to do with the methodology employed and how well people employ it. I enjoy the textual criticism of the great Bruce M. Metzger, no doubt a genius, whose work on the Greek Manuscript tradition has shown us that stories like the woman taken in adultery and none of the four different endings to the Gospel of Mark ch. 16 are not original to the manuscript tradition and are likely much later scribal additions. Above I mentioned Bultmann, a great critic of the Gospels, F. C. Baur’s work on early Church history, Dever and Israel Finkelstein’s work on ancient Israel. Who can go past R. E. Friedman for his work on the Documentary Hypothesis and the Dead Sea Scrolls? Albert Schweitzer, Michael Grant, Mark Goodacre, Bart Ehrman, D. L. Bock, J. P. Meier all whose work on the historical Jesus (much of which would shock many atheists let alone Christians!) leave many of us standing on the shoulders of giants. The list goes on but if we briefly draw our attention to what all these scholars have in common we notice something that may seem peculiar to some; it isn’t their belief systems, it is a methodology. Even with vastly different theologies, many even atheist/agnostics, they are all able to reach an overwhelming consensus (>90% with the remaining being more of a spectrum rather than against the entire consensus on any particular issue) on issues like what Jesus was likely to have said, scribal additions, interpolations, authorship of the Biblical cannon, the history of the early Church and early Christianity. This attests to the methodology being sound in logic and mechanics.

Q: I found a site that compares the gospels side by side. Is this a good translation and do you recommend looking at the gospels in this way? Do you have a better resource for this kind of study?
Here is a tip which will more often than not tell you whether or not you’re dealing with a good translation of the Christian Greek NT, do they continue from Mark 16:8 with only one ending and no mention of the lack of evidence for its authenticity? For the Hebrew Bible I often turn to Isaiah 7:14 to see how the Hebrew ‘amlah’ is translated, ‘young woman’ as opposed to ‘virgin’ indicates a good translation. Now that you’re armed with this information, I will reserve my judgement of the above site and allow you to scope it out. :)

Alas, the best resource often comes in the form of expensive programmes which allow one to purchase most (if not all) of the work published by researchers past and present but these are no doubt for professionals in the field. The next best resource is university textbooks which, much like scientific textbooks, contain the consensus views developed by researchers in the field. The above type of study is what we call ‘parallel reading’ which is often employed in what is called the Synoptic Problem (Syn = Together, Optic = View). When viewing the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), for lack of a better term, synoptically, we are looking for how the Gospel stories differ but more than that, we are looking for what that might mean and here is where the various forms, some already mentioned, most not, of literary criticisms are employed. It really is a daunting task in which a lot of background assumptions are not mentioned but absolutely necessary in order to draw sound conclusions that are not flawed with illogic. It is not enough to say ‘but the Gospels differ on the day Jesus was crucified’, or, ‘they don’t even agree on how many times Peter denies Jesus’, this type of lacklustre ‘criticism’ gets us nowhere and unveils an enormous ignorance about the Bible and how we ought to study it. One of my favourite authors puts it better than I ever could,

‘Amateurs often disregard the crucial importance of field-familiarity, i.e. that one must have a long and deep acquaintance with a particular time and culture in order to make reliable judgments about the probable and improbable, the expected and unexpected, and all the other background assumptions necessary to understanding the significance of any particular fact or claim--in short, one must be cognizant not merely of the literary context of a statement, but its entire socio-historical context as well. And that is no easy thing to achieve.’

Q: Are there any tools, resources or books you can recommend for people to use to approach the bible more critically and skeptically?
As easy and enjoyable popularized books can be on Biblical criticism, I do not recommend them. I mostly refer people to study Bibles or text books, journals, university level and advanced, since these are the only places one can rely on to contain consensus critical views. On the rare occasion a popularized book. This is mostly based on a problem I perceive among the popularized book audience, i.e. the lay audience, which can best be described by the adage, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. As with most topics the internet is hardly refined enough to be trustworthy and when it comes to the Bible there is an overwhelming amount of views tainted by a devotional or ignorant study of the Bible.

Thanks, Nicholas! I'm looking forward to Part 2.


  1. "For example, there is little to no work done on even the Qur’an using this “approach”, much less any nonreligious sources."

    I might just add that this is utterly ridiculous mostly because i am good friends with one of the world's leaders in the very new Historical-Critical Approach to the Qur'an! To prove this claim by GM false is easy, simply read Midrash Numbers Rabbah & Haman In The Qur'an written by Saifullah and David (2005).

    GM i am so sorry but you are playing so far out your league, please save yourself and just stop talking about topics you clearly know nothing about.

  2. ??? Please reread this sentence:

    “For example, there is little to no work done on even the Qur’an using this “approach”, much less any nonreligious sources.”

    Did I say here, that no work has been done on the Qur'an? The phrase "little to no work" in my above sentence applies to both the Qur'an and nonreligious sources... Pay very close attention also to the world "little".

    The funny thing is, you backed up my statement in an attempt to refute it with the qualifier "new". Please apply your textual criticism abilities to things other than the bible in the future.

  3. "Did I say here, that no work has been done on the Qur’an?"


    Did i say you said there was no work done on the topic? No. The claim i proved wrong is your 'little to no work' because in fact there is a tonne of it. Take your own a advice and re-read what i wrote.

    Responding to anything you say is a waste of time, you're so wrong i am not even going to bother but i will defend myself when you accuse me of an ad hominem so stop throwing around Latin words like you think you know what they mean. Ad hominem means 'at the man' and only applies if i try to link the validity of a premise you have to your personality as a characteristic which i never do. Just another thing you get so blatantly wrong.

  4. Re: the "historical critical method", in other scholarly disciplines we have terms that refer to a broad method that includes a whole lot of specific strategies. In psychology, for example, we might talk about the "experimental method", but that encompases a range of specific techniques depending on the specific research problem. Nevertheless, the term "experimental method" does mean something: it refers to testing a hypothesis by manipulating a variable and looking for an effect, however that is best acheived in a specific case. How you do the "historical critical method" is obviously going to depend on the specific question about the bible you have, but it's likely, from my understanding, to involve examining the historical context surrounding the writing of a given piece of text, rather than reading the text in isolation. Some people may use different terms to refer to such an approach, but it seems pretty self-evident that it's a good thing to interpret any text in light of the historical context it was written in if you're trying to understand what the writer was trying to acheive.

  5. I agree. My main point was that you don't do such things for nonreligious texts. And there is nothing wrong with that, they are different types of sources and should not be looked upon the same way. For example, we don't go looking to solve specific questions with nonreligious sources, as this creates an agenda and confirmation bias. It is a very critical, but also very subtle difference. They tell us a story, not give us answers.

    The problem also lies with it's nearly pure objectiveness. Sure, I would assume myself as well that it would include the historical context, but even that is interpretable. It's not uniform. Unlike other methods and sources, the "techniques" aren't applied uniformly but to the pure subjectivity of the user. And if you are trying to find any kind of truthfulness in a religious or mythical source, this would have to be done, but it's in no way a un-debatable method.

  6. All of this seems very difficult for you to grasp so let me start with your "main point"

    "My main point was that you don’t do such things [HCM] for nonreligious texts."

    Shakespeare is a non-religious text and here is a reference, one of many i can provide, which use the HCM in critically analyzing the texts and work Cohen, W., 'The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism' ', ELH, 49:4 (1982), 767. Here is the evidence, if you refuse to believe it then there is little i can do to help you understand.

    You seem to think the HCM is all about proving the existence of Jesus, is this right? It is simply not he case.

    Next you write:

    "You are belittling me in order to invalidate my argument."

    That is NOT the definition of an ad hominem, that is your definition. What about " Ad hominem means ‘at the man’ and only applies if i try to link the validity of a premise you have to your personality as a characteristic" do you not understand?

    Calling what you wrote stupid, calling it nonsense or calling it poor attempt at animadversion are not ad hominem attacks. They are the reality of the situation, you literally lack knowledge (ignorance), what you're saying, that the HCM is not applied outside of religious texts, is completely laughable. I say i am not going to bother just as physicists say they are not going to bother with people who think the world is flat.

    Are you a historian? Do you hold an academic position at a university in any of the relating fields of historical criticism? If not then i am pushed to see what you've written is from pure ignorance and not waste my time responding to someone who when presented with the evidence dismisses it completely and then says "I don’t dismiss anybody". To attack the HCM as an approach only used on religious texts is utter nonsense, which again is not an ad hominem because it actually doesn't make any sense.

    So stick to one point at a time GM, i have provided you with a scholarly reference to someone using an historical critical approach to a non-religious text. Check and mate, now king me.

  7. "My main point was that you don’t do such things for nonreligious texts."

    Sure you do. People analyse all sorts of text. Lawyers analyse the meaning of legal documents or testimony in light of their historical context and make arguments for or against different interpretations.

    Re: the application of the HCM, in psychology, economics, and other social sciences, and even in hard sciences, researchers make judgement calls about which type of statistical analysis to use. The KEY point is that other researchers can come along and try a different sort of analysis and show how and why the first analysis was misleading. In the same way, biblical scholars can argue and debate until a consensus is reached. Scholarship, of any kind, is a group effort.

    As Nicholas has explained on the podcast a few times, just because the bible doesn't give a perfect window into the past, it does provide some useful clues about which among different possibilities are more likely.

  8. "in light of their historical context"

    This wasn't what I was referring to when I said you don't do such things for nonreligious texts, I mean taking a hypothesis and trying to answer a question using it. Certainly you can, but this creates an agenda and confirmation basis, which almost always invalidates whatever concluded... not to mention, that such methods don't actually specifically prove anything, and provide at most a frame of reference for interpretation. And this doesn't just apply to HCM, this applies to every literary theory that exists, when dealing with past works you cannot make claims of absolutism, only at most high chance or probability.

    Historical context... no, that's done all the time. Contemporarily, most nonreligious work criticism that deals with historical context are under the banner of new historicism or cultural materialism, or at least as far as I'm aware.

    "consensus is reached. Scholarship, of any kind, is a group effort."

    I disagree, profusely, with this attitude. This is one of the main reasons why I have a problem with how this method as been explained to me. I bring back my conclusion from my first post here, "In conclusion, in the “historical-critical approach”, there is a very unhealthy reliance upon a “consensus” without as much rigorous interpretation and judging the primary sources themselves…" A consensus can mean very, very little. Most claims of there being a consensus are false, due to being almost entirely based upon confirmation bias. A consensus means absolutely nothing as well, in consideration for the validity of an argument, it doesn't matter how many people believe something. Remarkably, it is not a rarity to find two different people stating that there is a consensus about two competing thoughts. A consensus always boils done to saying nothing other than "other people who agree with me agree with me". It's a crux, claiming a consensus is a fallacy, the argumentum ad populum. An idea must stand on its own.

    "As Nicholas has explained on the podcast a few times, just because the bible doesn’t give a perfect window into the past, it does provide some useful clues about which among different possibilities are more likely."

    I would certainly agree with something like this, and I've given such a notion towards Nicholas as well. In specific example, I have no problem entertaining the notion that there might have existed a historical Jesus. I do have a problem with people trying to forcefully claim that such a being absolutely did exist (and not understand the difference between the mythical Jesus vs what we would consider a historical Jesus). But the bigger issue I have, is the dismissal attitude against everybody who doesn't use the same method or think the same... as tying back into the article above, as Nicholas refers to those people as amateurs and ignorant (let's ignore the other things he has personally called me).

    "biblical scholars can argue and debate"

    Scratch out biblical scholars, anybody can argue and debate it. There is nothing barring anybody from doing it themselves, and nothing forcibly makes them wrong just because they aren't scholars.

    I agree with such remarks that it is all open to debate. Unfortunately, the view of HCM that Nicholas has personally brought me is one opposite of that... where things aren't debatable (especially by lowly people that aren't "experts"), that everything is already concluded and that HCM is infallible. But I'm open to views other than this.

  9. GM

    I think i have kept up with far longer than most people would. Back to a claim that you made:

    "First, the “historical-critical approach / method” that he speaks of… doesn’t exist outside of the biblical world. It’s not an actual “scholarly” method, it was invented to analyze the bible"

    To refute that i have supplied an example. So listen carefully as i will demonstrate why this is wrong yet again. The HCA is aimed at understanding the historical context of any ancient writing and authorship. So when you say the HCA "doesn’t exist outside of the biblical world" all i have to do is provide an instance where a historian has used the HCA on something other than the Bible so please read:

    Graziosi, B., Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic, Cambridge University Press

    Outlined there some of the methodology employed in understanding why the Homeric poems, although attributed to Homer, were not written by him and guess what heading that methodology falls under? The HCM.

    So does this point,

    "First, the “historical-critical approach / method” that he speaks of… doesn’t exist outside of the biblical world. It’s not an actual “scholarly” method, it was invented to analyze the bible"

    still stand?

    PS i own all of my resources in either hard or .pdf format.

    PPS An MDiv includes subjects in history and allows the room for electives to be chosen of which my mains were the relevant historiography.

  10. I think we're arguing in circles, so I'll just make a couple of quick points.

    1) I think you, Nicholas, and myself might actually be in agreement on the main point. No one can be 100% certain about what happened in history. (I'm not even 100% certain that i'm not dreaming right now). I don't actually think Nicholas or anyone else on the podcast claimed 100% certainty about whether a historical Jesus existed. So that might be a straw man.

    2) Definetly wasn't saying the popularity of a claim is proof of its validity. I was just trying to explain why it doesn't matter if analysing a text involves choices about what technique to use, i.e., because other scholars a free to use a different technique and then argue about which one is more valid. Whether a consensus proves something is true is a completely different topic. I think you might be misinterpreting what Nicholas and I are trying to argue.

    3)"Scratch out biblical scholars, anybody can argue and debate it. " Obviously. I wasn't saying otherwise. But it obviously helps to know a lot about history, languages, etc.

    4) I think that that the best way to show up the limitations of a "method" is with specific examples of where it has clearly misled rather than how popular it is across disciplines.

    THAT IS ALL :-)

  11. Firstly Mark's actual quote is:

    "biblical scholars can argue and debate until a consensus is reached"

    And your non-sequitur retort is:

    "claiming a consensus is a fallacy, the argumentum ad populum. An idea must stand on its own."

    Again using big Latin words without having the first clue as to what they mean. Argumentum ad populum only applies when one side concludes a proposition is true based on a large number of people believing the proposition to be so. Mark did no such thing so in your ill-throughout convoluted response you've create a straw-man.

    "Scratch out biblical scholars, anybody can argue and debate it."

    Yet only the Biblical scholars will be taken seriously, and based on how amateur you've come across in this thread, i am tempted to thank God for that! You consider it being elitist, most reasonable people consider it being formerly educated on a topic so I can only leave you with this:

    "Amateurs often disregard the crucial importance of field-familiarity, i.e. that one must have a long and deep acquaintance with a particular time and culture in order to make reliable judgments about the probable and improbable, the expected and unexpected, and all the other background assumptions necessary to understanding the significance of any particular fact or claim--in short, one must be cognizant not merely of the literary context of a statement, but its entire socio-historical context as well. And that is no easy thing to achieve."

    Atheist historian, Richard Carrier

  12. Sorry, I made a false absolutism. Unfortunately, when you take sentences outside of their contexts, it's easy to make such arguments. This is the first time you actually referred to that specific part, so please don't try and act like it's been your target this whole time (as evident by you quoting other parts instead). My concluding sentence at the end of that paragraph is more my point, which is what you were originally trying to refute (in fact, my concluding sentence is enough to show my intent wasn't phrased correctly there). I believe you knew this, contextually at first, but have finally resorted to such a technicality and erroneous misstep of mine there.

    I didn't make claims as to what the HCA is in that statement. I flat out said that it originated as something to study religious materials with, specifically the bible. And I'm not wrong in this, nor have you given evidence against specifically that (you won't). It wasn't even till the 1900s that it was even considered for other materials (still mainly for religious) really. Furthermore, it's usage is mainly for religious materials. It is rarely used outside of such, where more predominate literature theories of new historicism, cultural materialism, and others eclipse it. And sorry, again, it did originate as something to criticize the bible. Giving me a source of it being used against something else doesn't change this.

    But in any case, I yield to your point here. In fact, if you had originally pointed that out, I won't have revoked it immediately, alas you didn't. However, as you've seemingly ignored every other single issue here, let's review the things you've yet to cover, starting first with:

    Mark is intended as a eye witness account of Jesus, as well as Luke and John (did you really not know this?)
    It is a fallacy to continually rely upon a consensus instead of any actual evidence.
    It is a fallacy to infer that evidence for the existence of authors is equal to a character (Jesus) of a book.
    It is a fallacy to infer that evidence for characters of other books means a different character (Jesus) must also exist.
    Works are celebrated, not the authors.
    Just because the plausibility of a historical Jesus exists, doesn't mean that the biblical Jesus does, and when I say the biblical Jesus doesn't exist, doesn't mean I'm saying there wasn't ever a person who such a character was based upon.
    Trying to say that HCM has concluded the existence of Jesus even, instead of plausibility.
    The HCM is falling out of favor.
    That deciding what parts of the bible are mythical and false and which aren't is ultimately subjective.
    Your lack of applying the same logic to any other mythical character in history.
    You're continual ad hominem attacks (thank you though, for not having any in this last post).
    Treating the opinions of what you would consider non-"experts" as defaultly invalid is fallacious.
    Different forms of criticisms do not make the users "amateurs".
    Buttman is a terrible example of your method due to his intentions and use of it.
    There is not a ton of work using the HCM on the Qur'an.
    Greek mythology is religious material (this includes Homer's works).

    But really, that you've ignored most of my main points (including all of those) in order to try to find some flaw on a technicality. You do know that finding say, one flaw, doesn't just make everything else just vanish right?

    But again, I'll make sure to say that I was mistaken when I originally stated that "doesn’t exist outside of the biblical world". And I'm sorry for making that mistake.

    P.S. Nearly every major in the US includes subjects in history and allows room for electives in it as well. But like usual, that really didn't have much to do with what the point I was trying to make was... and that is, that expertise has nothing to do with the validity of a statement.

  13. 1) Agreed. The thing with Nicholas exists elsewhere, sorry for that.
    2) I understand, thank you for clarifying.
    3) Concurred and seconded.
    4) This sounds interesting. I'd like to explore such another time.

    Thank you for your clarity and time.

  14. Its a real shame that this article had to be used by GM as a contrarians rubbing post. It simply removes the chances for other readers to chime in with their opinions on what Nicholas has to say on the topic. This kind of badgering is not only boring to read it also stifles others desire to contribute which leads to us learning nothing.

    I really hope anyone else reading this can send a comment in worth reading and it would be great if GM would just find somewhere else to lurk. Its just tedious to read.

  15. I agree Dan. This argument is really detracting from the article. I'm all for free discourse here at HDC, but this has degenerated and accomplished nothing. Agree to disagree, guys!
    GMN, you seem diametrically opposed to the idea of a historical Jesus. Ok. We get it. But you're just bickering more than anything on this issue.
    Nicholas, I understand where you're coming from. I don't think you will ever find common ground on this issue. You can't prove that Jesus existed if the person won't accept the HCM. So I think you're wasting your time.
    I'd prefer you both to let this go, no one is going to change anyone's mind.

  16. Oops, I meant Mathew instead of Luke, except he's basically the same situation as Paul. But this is besides the point, I don't disagree with you that they are all unauthentic and unreliable, and here's where our main disagreement: I deal with all varieties of people. I don't just argue pure technicalities, I argue against the reasoning behind the argument.

    At this, even if it was only one of the things, you have garnered respect from me. It is a fine specimen of an argument, backed up, concise, without the tone. In any case, TSTMark has already sufficiently wrapped this up for me, so I'm saving further discussions for other times.

  17. Sorry, however, I got a lot out of it. I'm afraid I'm sometimes a bit selfish in my own pursuits at times.

  18. Well, that's good at least. I will say one thing for you, GMN, you're tenacious. :P

  19. Gm

    You and i are just getting started. There is surely one thing you have proved me to be wrong on, that you were unable to concede that you might be wrong. It is a credit to concede that you have made mistakes throughout these posts.

    You listed above a few things which i am going to address one by one starting with:

    "It is a fallacy to continually rely upon a consensus instead of any actual evidence."

    This pertains to logic, something that logicians have long known to be illogical is the idea that 'many people believe therefore it must be true' and that is the only stage where argumentum ad populum comes into play. So in order for you to show that Mark or i have made this fallacious step in our thinking all you have to do is show where either of us wrote anything along the lines of 'it is the scholarly consensus, therefore it is true'. Simply stating what the consensus is or mentioning that there is a consensus, does not make that statement an argumentum as populum.

    So please show me where we made this egregious error.

  20. Btw, can you explain how MAtthew is in a similar boat to pAul? I am not sure what you mean by that.

  21. Im waiting at the moment for delivery of my study bible. Im wondering how many of your readers have one?

  22. By the way, what do you mean by "he’s [Matthew] basically the same situation as Paul."?

    Even though you didn't mention Matthew in your claim “Mark is intended as a eye witness account of Jesus, as well as Luke and John (did you really not know this?)” which i showed and you conceded is wrong for these three Gospels, i went ahead and addressed why Matthew's Gospel is not intended to be an eye-witness account anyway. So what does any of this have to do with Paul?