Category Archives: Historiography and theory

Ballparking the historical Jesus – The importance of context

In my previous posts on the historical Jesus, I have stressed the difficulties modern historians face in reconstructing this first century peasant or in being precise about what exactly the peasant of Galilee did or said.  The limits of historical method and the scholarly choices that are involved every step of the way help to explain why solid scholars such as E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan come up with quite different results in their attempts to say something about the historical Jesus.  (I hope to return to these guys in another post).

When it comes down to it, one could say that what we know with a relatively high level of probability using historical approaches are two specific things: that there is a very high likelihood that Jesus was executed by crucifixion under Pilate and that Jesus was probably baptized by John the immerser.  There are, of course, important corollaries to these two items that allow us to go further.  Yet, beyond such historically secure statements, it is difficult to be precise about sayings and actions of Jesus from an historical perspective.  Some things may be more securely probable or likely than others, but we are dealing with less secure items the rest of the way in the search for the historical Jesus. What one scholar considers to be a more likely case of an authentic saying or action of Jesus, another will consider probably a product of an early Christian author, and therefore inauthentic.  Modern historical methods are limited in what they can tell us about a specific person living two thousand years ago, and our ancient sources have interests other than historical reporting.

As the title to my post puts it, we are in some sense better off admitting that we can only (carefully) ballpark it when it comes to evaluating many aspects of the historical Jesus.   What I mean by “ballparking it” here is that we can gain a relatively good picture of some aspects of the social, economic, and cultural contexts in which the peasant Jesus was active, and we can know with some degree of likelihood about some of Jesus’ contemporaries in the context of Galilee and Judea.  We can construct a likely picture of the overall ballpark or range of possibilities within which to place the figure of Jesus — a first century Galilean ballpark set within the Roman empire.


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(The Galilean ballpark)

A typical student in a second year course or your average Jane-blog-reader may know very little about ancient history.  They may know even less about the Mediterranean world as a whole in that ancient period.  They may know even less about what was going on in Israel in the first century, and still less about what it was like in the region of Galilee or in some village like Nazareth.  Then there’s the question of whether one’s limited knowledge is focussed on what we moderns distinguish as geography, politics, economics, society, or culture.  The thing to teach here, I would suggest, is the ballpark (itself hard to recreate using historical methods) in which to plot out the various possibilities for a peasant like Jesus.  If we spend considerable time studying the world in which Jesus lived, through both literary and archeological evidence, and focus our attention on studying other near-contemporaries of Jesus who produced writings or who left behind artefacts, then we can get quite a bit closer to the ballpark in which Jesus played.

Non-Christian sources for the study of the historical Jesus: Josephus and Tacitus on the execution of Jesus

One of the frustrating things about studying ancient history is the very limited nature of our sources, both in terms of quantity (only bits and pieces have come down to us) and in terms of quality.  What I mean by quality is reliable and verifiable historical information (in a modern historian’s terms) regarding the figures and incidents literary sources describe.  What the ancients were interested in telling us is seldom what a modern historian wants to know.

This also holds for the study of the historical Jesus, an obscure peasant from Nazareth in Galilee.  Archeology is indispensable in providing insights into the cultural context of that peasant, but does little for solving details about what that figure said or did.   When it comes down to it, the ancient biographies known as the gospels (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) remain our principal source of evidence, along with other more recently discovered writings (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas).  Yet the authors of ancient biographies, or “lives” (bioi),  had very little interest in what a modern historian looks for in studying a figure of the past.  The ancient “lives” of Jesus were instead very interested in explaining what they thought the meaning of Jesus was for those who wished to follow him, and in promoting their own particular takes on that figure’s significance.

What would help in this situation would be some non-Christian sources regarding Jesus which could be carefully compared with these ancient, insider “lives” of Jesus in order to assist the historian in reconstructing with some level of probability a picture of the historical Jesus or of certain aspects of his life.  Such sources are few and far between, so it’s important to note the ones we have.

There are two main sources which I want to mention, one by a Judean author from a priestly family in Jerusalem (Josephus) who wrote in the last decades of the first century, and another by an upper class Roman imperial official (Tacitus) who wrote in the early second.  Neither author cared much about Jesus, but each happens to mention something about Jesus nonetheless.

SOURCE 1: Josephus wrote several works, the most important of which were the Judean War (written in the decade following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) and Judean Antiquities (written in the 90s CE).  Josephus’ works (as well as some scholarly studies) are available online at the Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement (PACE) site.  Figures related in some way to Jesus incidentally get mentioned three times in Judean Antiquities, including John the Baptist (Ant. 18.116-119), James (Ant. 20.200-201), and Jesus himself, who gets mentioned in one of the most important and controversial passages in all of Josephus’ writings (Ant. 18.63-64).

This passage is controversial because virtually all scholars agree that the text as it now stands (see below, including the strike-throughs) does not make sense as something Josephus would write: namely, there are no other signs anywhere in Josephus that suggest that he believed Jesus was an anointed one sent by God (“messiah”).  Josephus is actually averse to any claims that average peasants or anyone other than a member of the elite was a messiah or king or worthy of some leadership position.

A very few scholars suggest that the whole passage was later inserted into a copy of Josephus which then got re-copied and ended up in copies that have survived into the modern period.  Many other scholars would suggest that the passage was originally in Josephus’ book, but that someone (a Christian scribe) tampered with the passage and tweaked it significantly to make it sound like Josephus thought Jesus was absolutely wonderful, as though Josephus were actually a follower of Jesus.  John P. Meier has done a good job of assessing the passage and in offering what seems a likely scenario of what was added in and what, therefore, should be struck-out in using the passage to study the historical Jesus :

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Ant. 18.63-64; translation by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus [New York: Doubleday, 1991], vol. 1, p. 60; bold and strike-throughs mine).

This scenario is also supported by an Arabic version of this same passage in Josephus, which does not have the struck-through material and instead has similar material grouped at the end of the passage, suggesting that the Christian-sounding material is not original.

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross (1620; Louvre)

SOURCE 2: Much more could of course be said about this passage in Josephus, but for now let’s move on to the second important non-Christian source pertaining to Jesus.  Tacitus was a member of the imperial elite and senator, active in Rome, whose official positions included Roman governor of the province of Asia at one point (in 112-113 CE).   In the early second century, Tacitus wrote a history of the Roman emperors of the first century, known as Annals (written in the early second century).  There he deals with Nero’s time as emperor (54-68 CE).  Tacitus, by the way, does not like Nero at all, but he’s safe since Nero died several decades earlier, and few of the imperial elite of Tacitus’ time looked back fondly on Nero.  Tacitus’ works are available online on the Project Gutenberg site.  There’s a short biography here.

Tacitus mentions that a fire engulfed a particular neighbourhood of the city of Rome, a neighbourhood that was slotted for heavy rebuilding by Nero.  So, rumours began to spread that Nero himself had his men set the fire to clear the area and speed up the renovations.  Nero’s response?  Find someone to blame and quickly.  He chose followers of Jesus since, he heard through some source, they were sometimes disliked and viewed as anti-social.  Here is the passage from Annals 15.38 and 44:

(15.38) A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. . . (15.44) But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44; trans. by A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Annals by Tacitus [London, New York: Macmillan, 1877]; public domain; bold mine).

SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: There are many historical issues that could be explored both in Josephus and in Tacitus.  (On Tacitus and persecution, see my earlier post on the atheistic Christians).  But what is the primary significance of these passages for study of the historical Jesus?  These sources coincide with a claim made in the gospels, the claim that Jesus was executed in Judea with the most severe form of punishment available for criminals, crucifixion, and that this took place in connection with the Roman imperial official Pontius Pilate.  So we have multiple sources, some non-Christian, that confirm this aspect of what happened to the peasant named Jesus.  Multiple attestation is always a key criterion in historical reconstructions (and in gospel studies, by the way).  This is the most reliable thing we know — using limited, modern historical methods — regarding that figure, Jesus.

I will soon return to a second key item that scores high on the scale of probability for modern historians: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which has other significant corollaries regarding the peasant Jesus.

UPDATE:  For those interested in reading further on some debates regarding the Josephus passage (the so called Testimonium Flavianum) on other blogs, see Stephen Carlson’s Testimonium Flavianum Series.

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory“, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory“, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

Before approaching the study of the diversity of Christianity reflected in writings such as the early Christian Apocrypha, it is important to be familiar with some of the main historical theories that have been put forward regarding the nature and varieties of early Christianity (especially with respect to notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”). Historiography (the study of how history is written and what “spin” historians put on their materials) is very important. Here I have chosen to simplify the discussion by briefly outlining three historians’ viewpoints in terms of unity (Eusebius), duality (F.C. Baur), and diversity (Walter Bauer, with an “e”). For a proper understanding you will need to study these and other works for yourself, as well as the ancient documents that these historians use to build their theories.

  1. Eusebius and Unity (Ecclesiatical History, c. 311-323 CE): The traditional view of early Christianity emphasized the unity of early Christians and downplayed any tensions or struggles among them. Truth, unity and orthodoxy (right belief) came first and were strong; error or heresy came later and was always in the minority. The emphasis on unity can already be seen in the Acts of the Apostles’ history of the early church, but this came to expression in a more comprehensive historical theory with the first major church historian, Eusebius (who built upon what many anti-heresy writers had been saying for a while). This theory posits that from the beginning all Christians agreed and got along: the church was a “pure and uncorrupted virgin” (3.32.7-8; some relevant passages from Eusebius are now available here on this website). But, subsequently, through the work of the devil, errors or heresies were introduced (usually pictured as beginning in the second century). These errors were readily recognized as such and successfully battled by representatives of “the universal and only true church” (such as Hegesippus), who “held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all. . . the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching. . . [O]ur doctrine remained as the only one which had power among all” (see 4.7.1-14). Orthodoxy came first and was in the majority, heresies later and in the minority. Many, though not all, of the writings we call the New Testament Apocrypha would be considered heretical by Eusebius.
  2. F.C. Baur and Duality (mid-late-1800s): The theory of F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school is quite thorough-going, but its main contours can be simplified thus: Early Christianity was characterized by a fundamental conflict between a particularistic Jewish form (Peter) and a universalistic Gentile form (Paul). The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very important here. This thesis (Jewish-Petrine Christianity) and antithesis (Gentile-Pauline Christianity) finally settled into a synthesis (catholic Christianity) in the second and subsequent centuries (F.C. was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel). Most early Christian writings and Christian groups, including writings in the Apocrypha, can be understood and categorized based on this struggle. On the one hand, the Acts of the Apostles reflects an attempt to hide and smooth over the battle. On the other, a writing such as the Pseudo-Clementines (in the Apocrypha), which has Peter battling Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul), shows that the battle really continued beyond the time of the canonical Acts (which F.C. dated to the second century). Baur would tend to trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines over the canonical Acts of the Apostles (in terms of its reflection of historical reality). Although there is certainly truth in observing a tension between Pauline and other Jewish forms of Christianity (read Galatians!), most scholars now see a problem with this oversimplified picture of just two main camps in early Christianity, with just about everything fit into this dual framework.
  3. Walter Bauer and Diversity (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1932, translated into English in the 1970s): Walter Bauer wrote what can be considered among the most influential works in the study of early Christianity. Turning the traditional theory of Eusebius on its head, Walter argued that heresy came first, orthodoxy later. Not only that, but the various forms of Christianity often called “heresies” were, in fact, in the majority. When orthodoxy began to emerge in the second and subsequent centuries, it continued as the minority for some time until the church at Rome increased its hold on Christianity elsewhere. Walter continued to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” despite the fact that his own theory began to deconstruct these very notions. Most who study early Christianity now recognize that, although Walter’s theory clearly has its problems, Walter was at least correct in emphasizing that various forms of Christianity existed from early on, and that “orthodoxy” only developed later in an attempt to get the diversity under some control. He was also correct in deconstructing the Eusebian view of the orthodox, united church threatened by later heresies, which does not accurately reflect what actually went on in the first centuries of Christianity.

As I said, this is certainly a simplification of the matter, but a basic acknowledgement of the diversity of early Christianity will be essential as we discuss the Apocrypha further and as we attempt to see what specific Christians in particular places were thinking, doing, and writing about. Certainly we will observe some common denominators among followers of Jesus (at least they followed Jesus [as each understood that]!), but there were also important differences that we need to attend to in mapping out early Christianity.